Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 05/24/1998
" . . . not of works, lest any man should boast."
The passage we are studying right now is probably one of the three greatest summaries of the Gospel in all of Scripture. Each presents it from a different perspective. Jn. 3:16 gives the Motive for salvation from the standpoint of God himself: love. Rom. 10:9-10 gives the Method of conversion from the standpoint of the convert: confess, believe. Eph. 2:8-10 gives us the Means of salvation from both standpoints. We have broken in down into three parts: How to be Saved (v. 8, by grace through faith); How Not to be Saved (v. 9, by works); and So What if You're Saved (v. 10, for good works). Today we examine the short but pivotal verse in the middle, v. 9. Even faith is not of ourselves, being itself a gift of God, and therefore salvation is definitely not by works, so that no one can boast.
The greater the importance of reaching your destination, the greater the distance that must be traveled, the greater the consequences of not arriving, and the greater the danger of going astray, the greater the importance is of getting the directions right. When you consider that in salvation the destination is Heaven, eternal life, the approval of God and the experience of his love (i.e., "every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ); the distance to be traveled is the infinite distance between Time and Eternity, Death and Life, Condemnation and Forgiveness, Sin and Holiness; the consequence of not arriving is eternal death, lostness, blackness, despair, never-ending punishment, futility, exclusion from life, love, meaning, and purpose; and the danger of going astray is as great as can be imagined, then the importance of getting the directions right is truly incapable of being overemphasized.
The danger of going astray is threefold. First, the world is full of by-paths, false trails, and attractive short cuts that lead to nowhere. "There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof is destruction" (Prvb. 14:12). The philosophy of Man is that all paths lead to the same place, and so we can take any of them and arrive as long as we are sincere. It amazes me that people will trust their eternal destination to a philosophy that could not even suffice to get them from Toccoa to Atlanta. It is a lie. Jesus said, "Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. But the gate is small and the way narrow that leads to life, and few there be that find it" (Mat. 7:13-14). But there is more. Not only is the world full of deceptive short cuts and false trails, but our own nature predisposes us to prefer these rabbit-trails to the true path. The natural man does not receive, and therefore cannot understand, the things of the spirit (1 Cor. 2:14). P. T. Barnum estimated that a sucker was born every minute, and his estimate was probably quite conservative. Apart from Christ, we are all born suckers for sin and for the quick and easy-looking path. And third, we have a strong and subtle Enemy who desires to lead us astray. He particularly wants you to trust in anything but the Grace of God.
So you see why Paul is so careful to lay out the true path of salvation. He hedges us away from false trails on either side by emphasizing both the positive and the negative. We are saved positively by Grace through Faith, as we saw last week. And in case you did not understand that salvation is by grace alone, he repeats it unmistakably in negative terms: you cannot be saved by works.
We cannot overstress the importance of this principle. Salvation by works is not possible. Paul stresses it over and over again throughout his letters: Rom. 3:20, 3:28, 4:1-5, 9:30-32a, 11:6, Gal. 2:16, Titus 3:5--and Eph. 2:9. And these are only the verses in which works are mentioned by name. There is a host of others in which the same denial is implied. Why? Because the natural man has an almost indestructible predisposition to believe that we can, indeed must, be saved by our own works. This then is a litmus test of understanding the Gospel. Ask the average nominal Christian, "On what do you base your hope of Heaven?" and you will get church attendance, church membership, attempts to follow the Golden Rule, trying to be a good Christian. There is simply no grasp of the Gospel whatever in such answers, but they persist in spite even of verses like this one. We cannot hammer this point home too often or too forcefully.
Why can't we be saved by works? There are at least three reasons. First, good works, however many or meritorious, would not erase the guilt of previous sin. And the wages of sin is death. The fact that we may also have done certain good deeds is really irrelevant to the question whether we are guilty of sin. Second, good works done for the purpose of meriting salvation, good works done with the idea that by them we can earn God's favor, would not even be good works. They are subtly oriented toward bringing glory, not to God, but to us. They are tainted by sin themselves therefore, and hence get us nowhere. When you try to dig yourself out of the hole of sin with the shovel of good works, you are only digging yourself in deeper. And third, salvation is much to glorious a gift ever to be earned. Think about what you are implying when you say that salvation can in any sense be by works. "God, I tell you what. I will go to church every Sunday--twice--and Wednesday night too. I will even tithe, teach Sunday School, and refrain from gross immorality. I will be nice to people, and even go the extra mile once in a while. In return, I want you to share with me your own inherent eternal glory at the price of your beloved Son's blood." Well, that sounds ridiculous. Of course it is not enough. So what do we add? Pilgrimage? Fasting? Poverty? Hair shirts? Self flagellation? Climbing the steps of St. Peter's Cathedral on our knees? NO! You can never get there. You cannot even begin. It is nothing short of blasphemous to think we can. The kind of great salvation God offers us can only be received by grace through faith as a free gift apart from works. Grace--unmerited favor. Grace alone. Grace supremely. Grace, period.
There is a specific reason given for this denial of any place to works in salvation: it is to prevent people from boasting. This also is a typical Pauline emphasis: Rom. 3:27, 1 Cor. 1:26-31, 4:7, Gal. 6:14. Where did this come from? Ultimately, I think it came from the Damascus Road. Paul saw clearly in his own conversion a paradigm that is true of all sinners: that we are saved by grace, or not at all--that if it were left up to us, if God had done 99% of the work and left us only 1% we would all be doomed. Paul knew in his very bones and could not deny that if salvation were one whit less than 100% God's work by God's grace, he would still be persecuting Christians. Therefore he gave us the clearest and most powerful expositions of that theology that would lead Isaac Watts to say, "Forbid it Lord that I should boast / Save in the death of Christ my God!"
The purpose of salvation is the glory of God. Salvation by works is incompatible with that purpose. For the goal is to restore creatures to a personal relationship with their Creator and Redeemer. And the essence of any creature relating to its Creator is worship. Clearly, worship and boasting are totally incompatible, so utterly at odds and contrary one to the other that they cannot coexist in the same heart: one must drive the other out. Therefore there are only two alternatives. What makes you think you will be saved? It is either something you have done or are doing or it is something God has done. It is either works or grace. And these lead either to boasting or worship. Therefore, the best test I know of as to whether you are really with St. Paul and Isaac Watts in the company of the redeemed is whether your theology of salvation compels you to say with them, "Forbid it Lord that I should boast." That is the testimony of a person who is saved and who may be secure in that salvation.
Are you sure of your salvation? Let me ask that question another way. Are you still looking for some ground of boasting? If so, you can never be assured of salvation. There is no ground that is adequate. But if the cry of your heart is "Forbid it Lord that I should boast"--if it is "Soli Deo Gloria," "Glory to God alone!"--then you may receive the promise of God and be a partaker of the salvation that is by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves, not of works lest any man should boast.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams