By: Deji Yesufu
It is not too often that I am inspired to translate a sermon to an article but the more I thought on the theme of this Sunday’s preaching, the more I think I should write a note on it. The blessing of writing is that years from now one can look on this article and appreciate it some more. At our gathering here in Ibadan, we have focused on teaching Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians in an expositional manner. It requires almost a word for word, sentence by sentence, or phrase by phrase discussion on the words of Paul the Apostle. The overall theme of this first chapter in this book, particularly from verse 3 to 14, is a discussion on the great salvation that God has wrought for sinners. Paul chose to explore this theme on salvation in a Trinitarian manner: God the Father elects some from the foundation of the earth (verses 3-6, 8-12); God the Son, Jesus Christ, died for the sins of these men and obtained redemption for them through the shedding of his blood (verse 7); and God the Holy Spirit secures this salvation in real time (verses 13-14).
Like a stingy child is inclined to do, we have been taking our time to examine the claim in each text and been consuming the spiritual meat that is hidden behind them. Like many of Paul’s writings in the New Testament, there are such glorious truths embedded within these words. Indeed expositional preaching brings out a mine in the body of the text of scriptures. Today, we arrived at those words in verse 6: “… to the praise of his glorious grace…” and I thought that one way to bring these truths to bear on my listeners was to help them appreciate the matter of indebtedness. By the way my sermon was titled: “gratitude”. The rest of the essay would be a paraphrase of the sermon.
One of the great blessings of life is enjoying the favor of other men. These favors do not come too often but God is gracious enough to allow it happen and most men would testify that they have enjoyed the favor of others; just as we have all also given favor to someone in need. But there comes those times when someone has done us a favor and while we are making some effort to express our gratitude to them, the person responds: “…never mind; let us thank God…” Truth is that while on one hand we are indeed grateful for the favor done to us, this response by the individual further compounds our problem: we are left with a deep feeling of indebtedness. While many may not see it in this light, our effort to show gratitude originally was actually a means to balance out the favor. We say to ourselves: “this person has done me a favor. I would now go and thank him”; our gratitude being a somewhat inadequate “payback”. Then the person then compounds our troubles by saying in effect: “don’t even thank me.” We are then left in something of a sweet dilemma: in one hand we are enjoying this person’s favor and on the other hand we cannot thank him enough. We are thus left with a sense of indebtedness.
Christianity distinguishes itself from all other religions in the world by the concept of grace that it professes. All religions in the world propose that the way to earn God’s favor is by the things you do. Most religions teach that by keeping God’s commandments and living an upright life, we would enter into God’s grace and enjoy his favor. The more distressing thought is that many Christian denominations also proffer this concept of earning God’s grace through works as the biblical teaching. While indeed the Old Testament taught that the Jews earned God’s grace through their works, all of these changed when we entered the New Testament. In fact the whole gist of Paul’s writing in Ephesians is that Christ has earned grace for graceless people through his death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave. But verses 3-5 of Ephesians 1 tells us another thing entirely about how this grace is bestowed on sinful humanity. Paul writes:
“…even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world… he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ…”
Earlier I had shown that in the scheme of salvation, God the Father predestined a few to salvation from the foundation of the world. The above verses describe this action as God “choosing” some or God “adopting” us as sons. The doctrine of grace is premised entirely on the electing love of God the Father from the foundation of the world. The implication of this doctrine is this: long before any Christian did anything good or bad; long before the world was made; God took the decision to choose a number of people and declared that these ones will be his sons. Long before we “gave our lives to Christ”; long before we answered an altar call; long before we did any good or bad, God had chosen us via adoption to be his sons. The Bible calls this the doctrine Predestination and it is the fulcrum on which the doctrine of grace lies.
When the 16th century reformers dared to bring this doctrine to bear on Europe in their day, they were greatly resisted. They were called all kinds of names by the Roman Catholic Church including the infamous “heretic”. Of course a lot of back and forth went over the concept and a lot of lives were lost in the process of propagating the doctrine of grace but the reformers, particularly John Calvin, often taught that the doctrine of election was not meant to produce contentions. Rather, this doctrine was supposed to pastoral. It was designed by God to offer comfort to God’s people. It is interesting that when Paul would begin his epistle to the Ephesians, nowhere, like he did in Romans 9, did he try to offer a rebuttal to often made objections to the doctrine of predestination. Rather, he taught this concept in Ephesians as a means of comfort to God’s people.
Here is where I am going to: it is a great blessing to know God’s grace that saves us through the death and resurrection of Christ. But there is more. God wants us to know that this grace was not secured in time but long before time was; God called us to himself and made us his own long before the universe was made. If Christians would understand this truth, they may be able to come to grasp with the grace of God that pours out favor on undeserving sinners. It is a good thing to thank God for the blessings of life; for the blessings of food, family and work; but Paul would have us in Ephesians 1:6a to thank God for his glorious grace which he has bestowed on us in Christ Jesus. A hearty comprehension of these truths will leave us in a state of wonder, love and gratitude. There is a blessedness that comes with knowing that God is ours and we are his. The Bible teaches the concept of God’s elect and there are indeed elects of God today.
So while human favor may be measured in material things, the favor that God shows to sinners is a spiritual reality. And God is able to make us understand these truths and help us to imbibe them in our hearts. Those of us in the reformed tradition call these truths the doctrine of Sovereign Grace. Chris Arzen, the anchor of Iron Sharpens Iron Radio, would often ask his guests how they became Christians and they would tell him their conversion story. Then he would sometimes follow up those questions by asking how they came to understand the doctrine of sovereign grace and they would explain this also. Comprehending the doctrine of sovereign grace is not what earns anyone his salvation; salvation is by grace alone. Amen. However, comprehending the doctrine of sovereign grace is like putting icing on the cake of our salvation. What it does for the Christian is to leave him in a state of indebtedness. We are genuinely thankful to God for what he has done for us in Christ and we are unable to thank him enough. It then introduces us to true religion: Christianity, where all we do is not to earn God’s favor but rather in response to God’s favor.
God has been good to us as God’s people not because we have health and wealth. Not because we are rid of all the troubles in the world but because long before we were born, God called us to be his own through his Son Jesus Christ. Our salvation is not premised on what we do right or what we do wrong; our salvation is premised on God who pronounced it to be long before the world was made. And we know that when we close our eyes in death, we shall open our eyes to Christ in eternity. This is grace and we shall be spending eternity to offer up gratitude to God for it.