Sunday 22 January 2012

Only by grace (Ephesians 2:1-10)

Understanding grace

The hardest thing for a Chinese person to read in this passage is not the bit about sin. It’s not even the part where it talks about the devil leading us into sin. And while I do think that many of the aunties and uncles in church today might be shocked at the mention of death in verse 1 – where it says, “You were dead in your transgressions” – and they will go, “Choi! Choi! How can you talk about death during Chinese New Year?!” Still, that may not be the hardest thing for us to hear today.

No, I think the hardest thing for an Asian person to hear and understand is Chapter 2, verse 8.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.
Ephesians 2:8

It’s saying this: Salvation is free. The word Paul uses is “grace”. He calls it “the gift of God.”

A Chinaman hears that something is free and he goes, “Free? Is there something wrong with this ‘free’ gift?” In a culture which puts a premium on hard work, receiving something for nothing – or for free – just sounds lazy. There must be a catch. There must be something wrong with it (Like the expired food section in the supermarket).

Or the other extreme might be that we hear that something is given away for free and we tell our kids, “Take! Take! Ask for some more!” Like the big banquet of Chinese food we are going to have right after this. We see the roast duck and go, “Wah! Take as much as you can!”

As Asians, we have a hard time understanding the value and the purpose of something that is free. Because nothing in life is free. That’s what our tradition, our elders and everything in our own experience teaches us. Either we work hard to earn that good life and we work hard to earn that money. Or we take advantage of every opportunity – get as many red packets while you still can, fill up the plate with as much roast duck and char siu before it all goes – so as not to waste that opportunity. Why? Because our culture teaches us: Nothing is free. If it is free, either there’s a catch or it’s not going to last forever.

But when the bible talks about God’s free gift of salvation, it is describing the most valuable thing we could ever receive from God. This is the most expensive, the most costly and the most precious gift that God offers us in Jesus Christ. And it comes to us for free.

Or to be more exact, the bible says, it comes to us by grace.

Grace means undeserved love. It is giving the best that you have to the worst person you know. That’s what God did for us in Jesus Christ. He gave the best gift to the most undeserving people. And that is how verse 1 begins.

You were dead

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
Ephesians 2:1-2

Who is Paul talking about? You. “You were dead,” he says. Not that guy over there. Not the embarrassing uncle who turns up once a year at reunion dinner. You. You were dead in your transgressions and your sins.

But you might say, “I’m not dead. I came to church. I had cornflakes for breakfast. I updated my Facebook status.” That is, we think that death means lying in a coffin buried in the ground six feet under (and therefore being unable to update your Facebook status). But verse 2 says you used to live (or, literally “walk”) in death. That is you can be physically alive and yet be spiritually dead to God. One of the biggest insults in our Chinese culture is to say, “That person is dead to me.” (In Cantonese we say, “Lei hoi seii ah” – Go and die!) What does that mean? It means that I’m not going to acknowledge you. I’m not going to greet you. When you come to reunion dinner tonight I am not even going to look at you. You are dead to me.

That’s what the bible means by death. We are unresponsive to God. We live this life given to us by God, but we live it as it there is no God. The way we eat our food, the way we go to school, the way we talk to our friends reflects a life that says: God is dead to me.

Now I do apologise for the language. It’s not nice to wish that someone were dead. But isn’t the bible describing something true? Don’t we see this every year at Chinese New Year? Everyone should get along. Everyone should be loving. And yet, everyone gets stressed during Chinese New Year. When the family is gathered, when everyone is together – that’s when the most hurtful words come out; that’s when selfish actions do the most damage. We can’t help ourselves. This condition of spiritual deadness hits home not simply when we are alone at the end of the day and we feel dead tired – that’s not what it’s talking about. It’s when we are most alive and joyful when our hate-filled thoughts and unloving actions are the most obvious. We can’t run away from it. We might put on an act to hide the truth. But all the bible is doing is being honest about who we are and what we do – to one another and to God.

Paul says there are three reasons for this. Three reasons for our spiritual deadness: (1) the world, (2) the devil and (3) the flesh.

“When you followed the ways of this world,” verse 2 reads. You look around you and you say, “That guy’s doing it, why can’t I?” Other people are acting this way, so it’s OK for me to act this way as well.

“When you followed… the ruler of the kingdom of the air.” The devil deceives us into rebellion. That’s why verse 2 goes on to describe him as “the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” The devil has one single purpose: to get men and women to say, “No!” to God. “I will not obey.” He makes us question God’s goodness. He makes us doubt God’s motives. That’s what he did with the first man and woman in the garden of Eden. “Did God really say that?” Hmm, God can’t be serious, right? “God knows that if you eat this fruit you will be like him, knowing good and evil,” meaning God is just being selfish; he doesn’t want to share this knowledge with you. The devil says the exact same thing to us today – he is now at work, it says at the end of verse 2 – in those who are disobedient.

And finally, verse 3: “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.” We follow the world. We follow the devil. But here it says, we follow the “cravings of our sinful nature.” It’s saying, even if you locked yourself away from every bad influence in the world – which is what a lot of Chinese parents try to do out of sincerity and out of fear as they try to protect their kids from Justin Bieber and rude Channel 4 TV shows like the “Inbetweeners” – It’s saying that even if you did all that, there is still an enemy inside of you. We follow the cravings of our sinful nature. Our natural instincts will always, always lead us in a direction away from God. Sin and death is encoded into our spiritual DNA. It’s who we are.

That’s why verse 3 ends: “Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.” It’s just a fancy way of saying: God is angry with us. He has every right to be angry. Now, I guess I could put that in a nicer way and say something like: We have natural destructive tendencies that lead us down the wrong track – but that would be a lie. God is angry when he sees me sin, when he sees you sin. And God has set a day when he will personally punish all who have sinned. “All of us” lived this way. “All of us” were objects of God’s wrath.

This is news for some of you. Maybe no one has ever told you that God is angry with the way you live you life. You think that as long as you try your best God will do the rest. You think that if no one can see God will leave you be. You think that everything is OK now so it will all be OK in the end. The bible says you are dead. Dead in your sins. Dead towards God. Following the world, following the devil, following your sinful nature – following everything and anything except God. God is angry with you and that’s news for some of you.

But the good news of the bible is this: God is also loving.

But God

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.
Ephesians 2:4-5

Everything changes. Before, we were dead but now God made us alive. Before, we were objects of his wrath but now we are objects of his love. And the turning point of this change is grace. “It is by grace you have been saved.”

And if you remember, I said at the beginning that grace means undeserved love. Grace means giving the very best to the very worst. When God saves, he is showing his love to the worst people on the planet. “Even when we were dead in transgressions.” God is like a dad who adopts the worst kid in the orphanage – the one who always gets into trouble, the one who doesn’t want to be adopted, the one who looks at his new dad and says, “Huh, I don’t need you. I wish you were dead!” – and God says to him you will be my son and I will be your Father and I will love you.

God does this out of his great love. Not because of who we are but in spite of who we are and because of who he is. God is love, the bible tells us in 1 John 4:8. It even tells us, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” God sacrificed his own Son so that we might be adopted as his sons and daughters in his family. That is what it means when the bible says the God loves us.

Another thing I said in the beginning was that this is hard to accept. Change? What change? We Chinese are very practical people. If there’s a change that works, we’ll change. No problem. Whether it’s upgrading to a new phone or changing our favourite brand of soy sauce. If you can show me a better product; if you can show me that it works; I’ll change!

But the hard thing is this, and I wonder if you’ve ever felt this way, you look at the Christians around you and say, “There is no change. I am Chinese, they are Chinese. I rush for the food. They also rush for the food. In fact, I think in some ways I am better than these so-called Christians. I work harder. I am nicer to my mum and dad. Yah, sure they have a nice party once a year and it’s fun to join them for Chinese New Year. But change? Come on. What change is there to see?”

Should Christians change? Yes, they should. Should they be different, more loving, more compassionate, more patient? Absolutely. But you see, that’s not grace. That’s effort. Grace means these Christians here were just as sinful as you – if not more sinful than all of you – when God called them. Grace means that no one deserves to be saved.

And most of all, grace does not mean a changed life. Grace results in new life. It is a life that is lived with Christ. Look at verse 6:

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.
Ephesus 2:6

Verse 6 is saying “Look! Look at the change!” But look where? Not here on earth. Not at the Christians. Verse 6 is saying: Look to Jesus. God raised Jesus up from the dead. God appointed Jesus Lord over all things. The bible is saying: If you see Jesus, that’s where you see the real change in happening the Christian – we are made alive with him, we are raised with him, we are seated with him in the heavenly realms.
Look to the Christian and all you should see is a big sign that says “Work in progress”. Some people need whole lot of work! But God is working in the life of the Christian to change him to be more like Jesus. But look to Jesus – that’s perfection. He is the destination. He is the end point.

And the amazing thing is, because Jesus is already died on the cross, because Jesus already rose from death and because Jesus is already seated in heaven at God’s right hand right now, the bible says that’s where the Christian is. We are already in heaven, we are already raised, we are already perfect. If you are in Christ, that’s what God sees when he looks at you – perfection! Why? Because if you are in Christ, God looks at you and he sees Jesus.

Oh, you might still sin. In fact the truth is you will definitely sin. But Jesus paid for that sin. You will make mistakes – big, huge, embarrassing mistakes. But Jesus paid for every single one of those mistakes – past, present and future – when he died on the cross, so that as far as your salvation is concerned, everything is paid for. It’s like turning up at the restaurant and before you order a single thing off the menu the waiter comes to you and says, “It’s all been paid in full.”

And get this: this displays God’s grace even more clearly than if you were perfect right now. If you are a non-Christian here today, you are not meant to look at the Chinese Church and go, “Wow, everyone here is perfect. Perfect people, perfect food, perfect sermon (yeah right!)” But I hope you will look at the Christians here and be amazed, “How on earth did that guy become a Christian? Who let that person into the church? What is that idiot doing preaching up in front?” And then I hope that you hear God’s word speaking clearly to you, saying, “It is by my grace that these men and women have been saved,” and your heart goes, “Whoa!” Not at us, but “Whoa!” at God. You go, “Whoa! Jesus died on the cross to save these guys? Why would he do that?”

To display the glory of God’s grace. You see sinful people, you see Jesus’ perfection and God’s spirit opens your eyes so that you see clearly the grace of God.

Grace as the means, and especially, the end of salvation

In order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
Ephesians 2:7

Verse 7 says that the purpose of salvation is to display “the incomparable riches of God’s grace” in Jesus Christ. Grace is not simply the means of salvation, it is the endpoint of salvation. I’m guessing that might be something new to many of us today.

We will often hear that Christians are saved by grace. But what the bible is teaching us here is an even greater truth: We were saved for grace. God saved us so that he could clearly display a very awesome thing; a very amazing thing that captures all who God is – his power, his glory, his transcendence, his righteousness – that one thing which God wants to display and God wants us to behold at the end of time is… his grace!

Meaning: this is not an evangelistic sermon – at least not primarily. This is a worship sermon. How do you praise God fully for who he is? How do you worship God such that he will accept your praise? You focus on the grace of God displayed on the cross. “To the praise of his glorious grace” – Chapter 1, verse 6 reads, then adding these words – “which he has freely given us (or literally, ‘graced us’) in the One he loves”. We praise God for his grace in sending Jesus to the cross. Grace is not simply the means of salvation; it is the endpoint of salvation.

Paul is writing these verses to believers. He is not speaking to non-Christians asking: Do you know how to be saved? Rather he is addressing Christians: Do you know what you are saved for? You were saved for the praise of God’s grace. That’s your purpose in life - that others might look at you and give all the credit and all the glory to God. The focus is not on you – on your salvation –the focus is on God – his glory and his grace!

And it’s when we don’t know this that we end up focussing on ourselves. We lose sight of grace, and we boast about our works.

Not by works, only by grace

For 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.
Ephesians 2:8-9

This then, is the opposite of grace. It is the opposite of God’s free gift of salvation, which is works. It is the opposite of worship, which is boasting. And if we’re honest, it sounds completely opposite to our Chinese culture. Why? Because as Chinese we take pride in our hard work. As Chinese, we boast that we are not afraid to put in the hours to get the job done. Salvation is by God’s grace, not by works.

And yet, look to the very next verse, and there we see that work is good! What’s going on?

For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared for us in advance to do.
Ephesians 2:10

So, the bible isn’t saying that Christians should run away from work. If anything, it gives us a new motivation to work – and to work hard – because God’s the heavenly boss man. It even says there that God has prepared works for us “in advance” – meaning, there’s always something for us to do! But the bigger picture is that God invests a new meaning into work. For us as Christians, it’s worship. It’s a response to God’s grace shown to us on the cross. It is a fruit of our salvation.

What work isn’t – as verse 9 clarifies – is the means to our salvation. We could never earn our salvation. The one and only basis of our salvation is God’s grace. God did all the work through Jesus’ death on the cross. He conquered death and sin and the devil.

This is important because God hates boasting. Boasting steals the glory away from God. Boasting implies that we earned our way into heaven, that we were worthy to be saved; and that’s completely false. That is completely offensive to God.

It all comes back to our understanding of God’s salvation through God’s grace alone. And as I said right from the beginning, this is hard. For us as Chinese, that’s hard. For us as the Chinese Church, that can be especially hard; because it can be all too easy to start out wanting to serve God in ministry, to start out wanting to help by cooking for today’s Chinese New Year feast, in practising for the performances, in teaching at Sunday School – but to end up boasting of our own works by saying, “Come to my church. The people here are so nice. The food is fantastic. The children in Sunday School are so well-behaved.” These are not bad things, of course, and I am personally looking forward to the siu yok (roast pork) afterwards! I do want our Sunday School kids to grow in obedience and in love. Yet in all this, we may unintentionally be drawing the focus back to ourselves. We end up boasting about our achievements. We end up singing our praises.

Paul brings the focus back to God. He reminds us: We were objects of wrath, we were sinful, we were helpless – but God was merciful, God was loving and God saved us by sending Jesus to die for us on the cross. When the focus is back to God’s grace, only then will we see our sin. When focus is back to God’s grace, only then will we find our assurance in Christ. When the focus is back to God’s grace, only then will God receive all the glory, all the power, and all the praise.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.
Ephesians 2:8

Only by grace can we enter
Only by grace can we stand
Not by our human endeavour
But by the blood of the Lamb
Into your presence you call us
You call us to come
Into your presence you draw us
And now by your grace we come.

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