To the Praise of His Glorious Grace
Ephesians 1.3-6: Reformation Sunday 2017
We’re taking a break in our series in the book of Luke this Sunday—simply because this opportunity was too good to pass up. Five hundred years ago this Tuesday, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, thus sparking the Protestant Reformation. My family has actually been invited to Germany tomorrow, to a small town just outside of Wittenberg, to celebrate this amazing turn of events together.
But why do we celebrate this? Why is it a big deal? And how should the church respond?
The central question of the Reformation was of how we are saved, and who has authority to declare us saved.
The Catholic Church had a strangle-hold on the idea of salvation in the 16th century. For reasons both political and financial, they had veered from the way the Bible says we are saved, and established the Church as the final authority—basically saying that since God made the Church his active body on the earth, they could amend things as they like.
Here’s where things stood in the early 16th century: the Church said that everyone was born bad—that we are all born into sin (so far so good). Then, as a baby, you are baptized, and your baptism takes away that original sin (already gone off the rails!). Once you sin again, after your baptism, you are condemned: if you die, you will go to hell. So what do you do? You go to the priest to confess your sins, and the priest can pronounce absolution—he can basically say, “Because I absolve you of your sins, God must forgive you.” But there’s a catch: you still have to make up for what you did. So the priest orders you to pay penance—for small sins, you get a small penance (i.e. “Say five ‘Hail Marys’”), for big sins, you get a big penance (you have to take a pilgrimage, or be punished). But even so, this penance is probably not enough; everyone, when they die, will probably still have some sins hanging over their heads.
And so, when you die, rather than going to heaven, you go to purgatory! Purgatory is a place of limbo, where you are punished for those sins left hanging over you, in order to purge that sin out of you, that you might be clean and go to heaven afterward.
This was the generally accepted way of salvation that Catholicism taught in the 16th century. But even though it is entirely unbiblical, even that is not what got the ball rolling on the Reformation. What got the ball rolling was the selling of indulgences. Basically, the church started offering to sell certificates to people which would effectively allow them to reduce their time in purgatory.
In other words, the Church set themselves up in a very blatant and obvious way as saying, “We have the right to decide who gets to go to heaven, and how you get there.”
Martin Luther’s 95 theses were a protest against the selling of indulgences. His theses did not address everything that was wrong with Catholic doctrine, but they were the spark that lit the fire—the Church’s reaction to his theses accelerated Luther’s thought process, and began to open his eyes to everything that had gone wrong. And as Luther realized little by little what the gospel actually said, others did too: a couple of decades later, a man named John Calvin began to wage his own struggle against the practices of the Church, along with others.
The main point of all of this was that the Catholic Church, in order to maintain their power over the masses, had distorted the gospel message by setting themselves up as an authority equal to the Bible. And when you have that kind of authority—the authority of the very Word of God—well then, you can tell people, in essence, “If you don’t do things our way, then you’re not saved, and you’ll go to hell!”
And this is problematic, obviously—not only because no one else should be able to decide something like that, but more fundamentally, if it is the Church who decides who is saved, and if their decision depends on the good works I do or don’t do, or the money I pay or don’t pay, then how can I have any kind of assurance that I actually am saved?
The Protestant Reformation was a fight to return that assurance to Christians. They Reformers to Scripture, in order to ask themselves not “What does the Church say about salvation?” but rather, “What does God say about salvation in his own Word? How are we saved, and who is responsible?”
There are a million places we could go to see this truth laid out for us in Scripture. In the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul gives a rather exhaustive answer to the question of how our salvation works, and he begins at the very beginning—before repentance, before obedience to God’s commandments, to tell precisely why we have faith.
We won’t even have time to see all of it today; so I’d like to just look at something we actually saw together before, a couple years ago—I’d like to look at the beginning of the process, in verses 3 through 6.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…
1) we are chosen.
These verses contain two words that make people very uncomfortable: chosen and predestined. I remember the first time I heard someone clearly teach on this subject. I was listening on the computer while I did some ironing in my room. And as I listened, I became more and more uncomfortable. At one point I put down the iron and sat on the bed—and I had a really rough week after that.
What bothered me was that the preacher said that despite what I had been told before, in the original Greek, the word for chosen means…chosen, and the word for predestined means…predestined. What bothered me was that the preacher said that God was really saying what he meant; that those words were there on purpose. And he was right.
V. 4: he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ… Before God even created the world, he decided (predestined = destined or decided ahead of time) who would belong to him, who would turn to him in faith. The theological term for this choice that God made before he created the world is election—the Bible itself often speaks of God electing those who would belong to him, and refers to Christians as the elect. In other words, the Church doesn’t get to decide who has the right to go to heaven or not—that decision belongs to God, and God alone.
And this isn’t the only place in the Bible where this is taught. The people of Israel were called a chosen people, a people God chosen from all the other nations to belong to him. In 1 Peter 2.9, Peter says the same thing about the church, calling the church a chosen people. In John 10.25-27, Jesus himself responds to people who don’t believe in him, saying, The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. And in Acts 13.48, we see this happen: Paul and Barnabas share the gospel with the Gentiles of Antioch, and Luke tells us, And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And there are many more examples.
Now a natural question we have after hearing something like this is, Why did he save me and not my grandfather? It’s certainly not because I’m any better than he is. So if God really does choose his elect, on what does he base his choice? Does he choose us based on the good things he foresees we will do (sort of a pro-active reward)?
In Romans 9, Paul reminds us that God said why he elects us as early as the book of Exodus. V. 15: 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. In other words, God has mercy on whom he has mercy precisely so that it might not depend on what we do.
If God’s choice were based on anything we were going to do, no matter how small, then we would still be deserving of some of the congratulations there—because at some point or another, we made the right decision. But that’s not what the Bible tells us: it tells us that God chose us freely, unconditionally, regardless of whatever it is he knew we would do. And he did it so that in all things, he would get the glory.
But no matter how clearly this truth is taught in the Bible, it’s a bit difficult for us to swallow. We don’t want God to have that kind of control; we want to imagine we’re the ones in control of our lives, that in the end who we are depends on us. Even the great theologian Jonathan Edwards had a hard time accepting it. But he wrote later in his life, “But I have often, since that first conviction, had quite another kind of sense of God’s sovereignty than I had then. I have often since had not only a conviction, but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has very often appeared exceedingly pleasant, bright, and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God.” So the question we need to ask is, why is the absolute sovereignty of God over the salvation of mankind good news?
My dad was always very sentimental about holidays, especially about Christmas. He would plan out our Christmas day meticulously—we would wake up, read the Christmas story (while I and my brothers sit by like little angels listening in wonder to the story of Jesus’s birth), then we would have a big American breakfast my mother would lovingly cook, we would open presents, get dressed, and go to a movie in the afternoon, before coming home for dinner that evening. He had this perfect idea of how it would all go. And it almost never looked the way he hoped it would. My brothers and I would wake up edgy, wanting to open presents; we’d whine and complain all through the Christmas story; my mother would spend an hour and a half getting dressed before accepting to come out for breakfast, which meant we were all impatient and hungry by the time she got out; we would open the presents like piranhas fighting over a frog; it would take an extra hour than usual to get us ready, so we’d have to go to a later movie; it was pure chaos. Now I’m exaggerating myself here; it wasn’t really as chaotic as all that. Those days were a lot of fun (at least for us; in retrospect, now that I’m a dad, I can see they were probably a little less fun for my parents). But they never went as planned.
Now, here is the beauty of God’s sovereignty over salvation. My dad did everything he needed to do to make our Christmases perfect…but there were a million variables he couldn’t control. We can have a plan and pay the price for that plan, but then lack the power to make it happen. But this never happens with God. When God makes a plan, and when he pays the price for that plan, he never lacks the power to make it happen.
As I said before, the main question here is one of assurance—the Bible doesn’t teach us these doctrines in order for us to be bothered by philosophical questions of moral freedom and destiny. God chose to tell us how we are saved in order that those who are saved might know that they are saved—for our salvation does not ultimately depend on ourselves, but on God alone.
So we are blessed in Christ—and the first way we are blessed in Christ is that we are predestined in him since before the foundation of the world…but not just to go to heaven. Now, it’s true that when God chose to save us, and sent his Son to pay the price for that to be possible, he obtained eternal salvation for us—he obtained heaven for us. But Paul says that the purpose of our election is much deeper than merely going to heaven. He mentions three things here we are specifically predestined for, and the first is holiness.
2) We are chosen for holiness.
Look at what Paul says: 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. Now, we need to take what I said before about predestination and apply it to holiness. When God makes a plan, and when he pays the price for that plan, he never lacks the power to make it happen. God’s plan for us is to save us, and he saves us to make us holy, so he will make us holy.
Believers often suffer from a kind of fatalism which says, “I’ll never be able to be what God wants me to be.” There are a lot of commandments in the Bible—and the reason why they’re so devastating is because they’re not merely a list of things to do and not to do. Every other religion gives behaviors that are on the “Do-not-do” list: they tell you what to eat and what not to eat, what to do and what not to do. But the commandments of the Bible, as Christ explained them, target the heart. They target our loves. They don’t say, “Husbands, don’t cheat on your wives.” They say, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church.” They don’t just say, “Don’t kill people.” They say, “Love your enemies.” Now, those heart-commandments will change our behavior. If you love your wife as Christ loves the church, you won’t cheat on her. If you love your enemies, you won’t kill them. But often we put the cart before the horse and imagine that if we change our behavior, our hearts will be changed, when in fact it’s the complete other way around. If we want our change of behavior to mean anything, we need a change of heart.
And the problem is that no one can change their own heart. We can change our behavior; we can’t change our heart. So you see, it’s the same problem as with our salvation. We can’t save ourselves, we need God to save us. And God chose to save us before the foundation of the world. In the same way, we can’t make ourselves holy, we need God to make us holy. And God chose to make us holy before the foundation of the world. He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.
One of the best texts in the Bible that talks about this is Ezekiel 36.25-27. God says through the prophet Ezekiel, 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Now, why is this so foundational to the Reformation? It is foundational because the Church was saying that holiness is required for salvation—in order to be saved, you need to be holy. But the Bible puts it the other way around: salvation is required for holiness. In order to become holy, you must be saved.
Before the foundation of the world, God planned to save us, and he planned to make us holy. And his plan will not fail. If we truly belong to him, if we have truly been transformed by his Spirit, we will progressively walk more and more in line with his nature and character; we will progressively become more and more like him; and when we finally arrive before God in heaven, he will complete the work his began: he will make us definitively, perfectly holy. His plan will not fail.
3) We are chosen for adoption.
The second thing God’s choice brings about is beautiful, but in order to feel the full extent of its beauty, we need to remember the context. Every one of us is naturally separated from God, dead in our sins. We are all God’s creatures, but we are not all his sons and daughters. Jesus put it the most bluntly. In John 8, he’s talking to people who are reviling him and rejecting him, and he says (v. 42): “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” And this is the natural state of all of us. In ourselves, we are sons and daughters of the devil. And the devil is a horrible, evil, abusive father. So the only rescue for us, the only solution to our desperate situation, is to be adopted by another.
This is exactly what Paul says God did for us. Though we were separated from him, though we were naturally in complete rebellion against God, he sovereignly chose to adopt us. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…
We may have had earthly parents and an earthly home, but that home and those parents will last only as long as we’re alive on this earth. We had no permanent home, no home that would last throughout all of eternity. And God provided this for us—he gave us an eternal home with him, adopted us as his sons and daughters, became our Father: a perfect Father who promised to love us and care for us like no earthly parent ever could. And he did all this through the sacrifice of his Son on the cross. We were forsaken, alienated from God; and on the cross, Jesus took our place. He became alienated from God, so we wouldn’t have to be. He became forsaken by God, so we wouldn’t have to be. And this alienation was sufficient to pay the penalty for our rebellion—after all, alienation and separation from God is the very definition of hell. He lived hell so that we wouldn’t have to. He paid the price for our adoption, and he did it because he had planned to before the world was created.
You must know this: If you are a Christian, that is not an accident, and God does not regret saving you. God planned to save you before he created the world. You are not a Christian because you managed to find Christ, or even that on the cross Jesus made it possible for you to be saved. No—if you are a Christian, God planned your salvation from start to finish—if you are a Christian, it’s because God looked at you from eternity past and said, “That one belongs to me.”
3) We are chosen to glorify God.
We need to ask ourselves, What’s the point of all this? Why is God doing this? Why does he predestine us for adoption and holiness? This very idea is difficult for us to wrap our brains around, much less accept. So why bother? Why not simply pass over this and pretend that God doesn’t say any of it, or read quickly and assume that Paul must mean something else than what he seems to say? We dare not pass over this, or try to ignore it, or reinterpret it, because the stakes are too high: they are as high as they could possibly be.
What is at stake in our choice to accept or reject what Paul teaches is the glory of God itself.
Let’s reread v. 5, and continue to v. 6: In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
The reason God predestines us for adoption is so that no one may say, “God adopted me because I pleased him.” God predestined us for adoption and for holiness so that we might praise his glorious grace—that is, so that we might look back over our salvation and say that we added nothing to it; that we had nothing to contribute. God predestined us to salvation in order to be glorified by our salvation. Because what is more glorious than the truth that before the world ever existed, God decided to save those whom he will, and that he accomplished the salvation of those people? This shows us that God’s purposes always stand; that he always accomplishes everything he chooses to do. He did it so that we could look at our salvation and say, “It is all of grace.”
It is no accident that one of the five tenants of the Protestant Reformation is Soli Deo Gloria—“to the glory of God alone.” One thing I love about this text (and the verses which follow) is that in the first 14 verses of Ephesians 1, we do nothing. Paul never once mentions anything that we have to do. Everything is God’s doing: he blesses us, he adopts us, he makes us holy, he redeems us, he forgives our sins, he reveals to us the mystery of his will, he makes us heirs with Christ, he seals us with the Holy Spirit. He is the reason we are saved, so he alone gets the glory.
So to conclude today, I want to look at the implications of these truths—there are many, but we need to look at two in particular today.
1) God’s plans will come to pass. My father was a youth pastor for much of my life—he was my youth pastor—and he was a good one. He told me the story of a teenager in his first youth group, a kid named Greg. Greg had met Jesus a little while after my dad met him—wasn’t a perfect kid, but he loved the Lord and tried to follow him in all he did. After we had moved out of state, Greg was on his scooter one day and a truck driving by hit him in the head with his rear-view mirror. He had massive brain damage that caused him to lose all of his conscious functions. He couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk, had no memory of anything that had come before. So he had to learn it all over again. Now, here’s a tricky question: What happens to a Christian in that kind of situation? When he forgets the faith he had before the accident? When he has no memory of ever meeting Jesus? Is he still a Christian? We can talk hypotheticals all we want, but here’s what happened to Greg. Many years later, my dad went back to Michigan for a visit, and while he was there he stopped to see Greg. And it turns out that as he was learning to be human again, someone shared the gospel with him. Again. And he was overwhelmed by the grace of God. Again. He met Jesus. Again—as if it was the first time. Though of course, at least as far as God was concerned, that accident hadn’t changed a thing. He had planned to save Greg before creating the world, and he did. A brain injury and memory loss could do nothing to change that.
If you love Jesus, you must know that you love him because God planned to save you. And God’s plans never go wrong. We can therefore live without fear, knowing that we are forever loved and protected and cherished by our Lord, and nothing can stop his plan from coming true. He will make us holy. He will make us persevere in our faith until the end. He will finish what he started. So no matter how you’ve screwed up, no matter how badly you imagine you have lived the life he has given you, don’t lose heart. None of this happened outside his sovereign control, and none of your sin can stop his plan from coming to pass. His plans will be accomplished for his glory.
2) No one is beyond the reach of God’s power to save. The second implication is for those who don’t yet know Christ. Perhaps you’re listening to all of this, and you’re thinking, All this sounds great—but what about me? Here’s what’s wonderful. Paul is writing this letter under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit knew what he would do with this; he knew that this letter would be part of the Bible, which would become the best-selling book of all time, translated into more languages than any known document in existence. So he knew this letter would eventually be read by unbelievers too. If you are an unbeliever, if you are not following Christ today, this letter was not written to you…but it was written for you, that you might desire to know the God and receive these promises for yourself. Because here’s the thing: How can you possibly know that you haven’t been chosen for adoption by God as well? You can’t. Every person who has ever been saved by God was in exactly your position at one point in their lives. And God saved them—not because of anything good they were able to do, but because of his own perfect goodness and grace. Jesus said in John 6.37, All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. The wonderful news of the gospel is that if God chooses to adopt someone, he puts in them the desire to be adopted, and the faith that God is able to do it; and it is that faith that makes it so. So if you want to know him, if you want to come to him to be saved and adopted…then come to him. If you ask him to meet you, if you ask him to save you, he will not turn you away. These glorious promises can be for you too.
We thank God for what he began in Wittenberg, Germany, 500 years ago. And we pray that he will continue to work in us by allowing us to see the truth of his Word, and to love the truth of his Word, and to proclaim the truth of his Word, so that he alone gets the glory.