Is faith the gift of God in Ephesians 2:8-9?

A sermon on Ephesians 2:8-10 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 16 August 2020

While swimming at the beach, a woman was swept out of her depth by a powerful rip. She would have surely drowned, except for the vigilance of the lifesaver, who spotted her struggling in the water. He reached the woman and helped her onto his board. But on the way back to the shore the sea was so rough that she would have surely drowned if it weren’t for her tight grip on the board.

So my question is: what saved the woman? Was it her tight grip on the surfboard? Or was it the surfboard? Or was it the lifesaver? The answer is yes to all three.

In the same way, the message from Ephesians chapter 2 is that we are saved by God by grace and by faith, but not, of course, in exactly the same way. The apostle Paul wrote in verse 8

It is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.

We are saved by God. God saves us. God rescues us from our sins and their deadly consequences. We are drowning in darkness  when he brings us into his kingdom of light. God saves us. This was the message in Ephesians chapter 1. God the Father chose us before the creation of the world. He loved us before we loved him. God the Son redeemed us through his blood on the cross. He took our sin and took our place. Our death became his and his life became ours. God the Holy Spirit saved us from the power and presence of evil in our lives. He is the deposit of our inheritance, the foretaste of eternal life. As surely as the man in the surf would have drowned if it were not for the lifesaver’s vigilance and strength and courage and training, so we have been saved by God. Like the shepherd went out and found the lost sheep, like the father welcomed home the prodigal son, like the Good Samaritan bound the beaten man’s wounds and carried him to help and safety, so God is the agent of our salvation. He is our saviour. He is the giver of life and hope and joy. And we are the saved, helpless and lost without him. He saw our need and filled it. Every blessing we enjoy is because of him. Every good things we have is a gift from him.

We are saved by God by grace. God’s mercy, his compassion saves us. Life is not a contract, a business deal in which the benefits that we enjoy are proportional to our efforts. Life is not an exam in which we pass if we get 50% or more, in which we are rewarded if the balance of our good deeds outweighs our bad. God does not love us for our loveliness, but for our wretchedness in spite of our rebelliousness, overlooking our faults, in order to help us in our weakness.

If God is the agent of our salvation, then his grace is the motive of our salvation, the cause of his action. We choose to do certain things because of pride or love or fear or duty. We act in order to achieve certain ends or goals: for adventure, for a sense of achievement, to leave our mark on the world. But God acts for our salvation because of grace, his free unmerited love and favour, for our sake and for our good. And his grace is made flesh in Jesus Christ who shared our poverty and weakness so that the wealth and power of the kingdom of heaven might be ours.

We are saved by God by grace. It is God’s gift. It is not earned by our good works. Salvation is the very opposite of what we commonly understand of religion, in which we try to reach up to God and his blessing through ceremonies or ethical qualities or moral actions. But by his grace in Jesus Christ God and his blessing reaches us.

We are saved by God by grace by faith. Or as Paul clarifies in verse 8 by grace through faith. While God is the agent of our salvation and his grace is the motive of our salvation, faith is one of the means through which God’s salvation comes into our lives. We may say that Roger Federer hit the ball, but what we mean is that his racquet hit the ball. Federer is the agent. He is the one doing the hitting. But his racquet is the means by which this happens. To hit the ball means to cause the racquet to hit the ball. In the same way, we are saved by God by grace through faith. Faith is the means of our salvation. Or at least one of them. For example, we could say that the cross of Christ is the means of our salvation, that his sacrificial death is the instrument through which sinners pass from death to life. We could say that repentance is the means of our salvation. But Paul’s point here in Ephesians chapter 2 is to put into perspective our own contribution to our salvation. We receive it through faith. To have faith is to trust in Christ, to rely on what he has done and not on what we do. To have faith is to admit our need, our lack. If grace is unmerited kindness, then faith admits our lack of merits, our demerits.

Faith is an act. It is a choice. We choose Christ and receive him as lord and put him before all other lords. We follow him and no other way. We surrender to his authority and to his love. But it is like choosing to go to the doctor to get inoculated against a potentially fatal disease. I mean, look at us. We are living through a pandemic, just hoping not to catch it until they make a vaccine. And if and when they do, we will get the chance to line up at Corowa Medical Centre for a dose of it.

Now, if you queue up for the future COVID 19 vaccine, no one is going to give you a medal. No one is going to congratulate you for the great effort you have made to save your life. In fact, lining up for a vaccine is just another way of admitting that you need help. No one is going to give you a clap or shake your hand. If you get a pill or a shot in the arm that saves your life it will be because of the ingenuity of some scientists in the world somewhere and because of the money the Australian government has spent to subsidise it. But, if you don’t go, if you don’t line up patiently for the vaccine, if you say, “I’ll do it tomorrow,” and tomorrow never comes, if you think, “It’s all a hoax, I’m not going to let them inject poison into me”, if you just stay home and never go,  you are putting your life at risk.

Faith is the same kind of choice. It is believing and agreeing that you need the help that God is offering you in Christ. Like the woman in the dangerous surf holds on to the lifesaver’s board and would surely drown if she let go, so faith holds on to Christ. And so we may say that we are saved through faith, even by faith that faith saves us. But we dare not say, we cannot say, we must never ever say that we save ourselves. Salvation is not an encouragement award or a most improved award that acknowledges that we are trying our hardest. God does not see our faith and think to himself, “Well, they may not be doing very well, but at least they are doing their best.” Salvation is beyond any idea of awards. For faith is simply agreeing with God that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great saviour.

We are saved by God by grace through faith. But not by works. Not by our regular Bible reading. Not by our attendance at church. Not by our sacrificial giving. Not by taking communion. Not by teaching Sunday School or fund raising for church or playing the organ or preaching. We are not saved by good works so that no one can boast, so that no one can look God in the eye and say, “I did it my way.” We are not saved by good works but for good works. As Paul said,

We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

We are God’s workmanship, made by God, not by ourselves. We are created in Christ Jesus, made new, born again with as much effort on our part as we were born the first time. Created in Christ to do good works. I mean, do you remember that time when by your own effort you decided to leave your mother’s womb and you fought your way through the birth canal to come out into the real world for the first time? No you don’t. For one thing, you were too young. And for another thing, your mother did all the work. We contribute just as much to being born again.

But hang on, you might say, if I don’t have to do anything good to be saved, then I don’t have to do anything good. Exactly, you don’t have to. In fact, you can’t do anything good until you realise that you don’t have to do it. If you think you have to do good, then what you do will always be done resentfully or reluctantly. It will not come from love and so what you do won’t be good. Instead, we have been saved by God’s free love. Faith simply receives that love. And it is that faith that is the beginning of our own love, the foundation and source of all our doing good. It is the faith that stops trying to earn God and to control God and accepts God’s love on no ground in myself except my misery and wretchedness, the faith that knows that God’s love is free which is able then to freely love. To forgive as I’ve been forgiven. To bless those who curse me because I’ve been blessed by God. To love as I’ve been loved with no thought of reward. For no work is good until it is offered in that spirit of freedom.

We are saved by God by grace through faith. And we are saved by love for love. Trust in Christ for your salvation. Receive God’s love in him. And begin to love.