Grace... faith... works... such common words, but what do they mean? What is grace, and how does it work? What is faith, and where does it come from? Where does it lead? What are the works that cannot save us, and the works we are saved to do? And for that matter, what is salvation, anyway? In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul was not preaching the gospel, but rather giving the disciples understanding about what had happened to them and what lay ahead of them — the process and the purpose of salvation. The gospel is found in the Gospels. The letters of Paul and the other apostles consist of instruction and correction for those who are already in salvation.1 That is why we must look to the Gospels to find the foundation of these familiar terms Paul uses in his letters.
There is a process or a progression involved in salvation, and in the Gospels and the book of Acts there are many examples of people going through that process, or in some cases stopping short of salvation.
First comes grace, the unmerited favor of God. As it relates to salvation, grace is the working of God in a person's life to protect him, prepare him, and bring him to the time and place where he can hear the gospel from someone who has been sent with the authority to proclaim it.2
It was grace to Peter that he had fished all night without catching anything, and that he happened to be cleaning his nets in that particular place where the Master wanted to teach that day, and that the Master chose his boat to speak from.3 It was grace that caused the Master to pass by the sycamore tree where Zacchaeus was waiting, and to notice and call to him.4 It was grace that caused the Ethiopian eunuch to happen to be passing near Philip and to be reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and it was grace that caused Philip to hear from the Spirit the urging to approach the chariot and ask the eunuch whether he understood what he was reading.5 And it was even grace to the "rich young ruler" that the Master came to teach in his town.6
So grace brings a person near in order to hear the good news. But what happens next depends on the one who speaks and the one who hears.
Faith is persuasion. That is true both in the natural and the spiritual realm. A natural man can be persuaded in his mind to do many things, and it is a sort of faith, but the faith that saves is the persuasion of the Holy Spirit which comes to a person as he hears the gospel. As Paul said, "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God."7 But as Paul also labored to explain, the word of God must be spoken by a flesh-and-blood person who is "sent" 8 — that is, someone who has the spiritual authority to proclaim the gospel. The only thing that gives a person that spiritual authority is that he has obeyed the gospel himself and is living the life that it demands.9
So grace draws a person near to hear, and then through hearing the gospel from a true disciple, faith comes — but not automatically. It requires something very important, and very rare, on the part of the hearer: he must be willing to do the Father's will.10 He must have ears to hear, which means a heart to obey.11 Otherwise he will not submit to the spiritual authority of the one speaking; he will not receive him as coming from God.12 He will not be persuaded, for he is in the grip of a stronger persuasion — the fear of losing his own life.13
That is what happened in the case of the "rich young ruler" who came asking what he must do to inherit eternal life:
Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, "One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me." But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:21-22)
Although there was abundant grace at work, bringing him into the very presence of the Master, he did not receive faith from hearing the gospel, but rather dread and gloom, for he was not willing to give up his own life, in order to receive the eternal life that Yahshua offered him. He loved his life in this world.
But in the case of the 3,000 on the day of Pentecost, we see a very different story. The many other words14 they heard that day from Peter evidently imparted faith to them, for it says they "gladly received his word15." Gloom did not descend on them at the thought of giving up their lives, for they were fully persuaded that this Messiah was worth dying for. Thus they were baptized into His death and received the same Spirit that had filled the ones who spoke the good news to them.16
The faith that came to those 3,000 caused them to believe in their hearts in this Messiah whom they had crucified,17 that He had paid for their sins through His death, and that He had risen from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father. And what happened next? Did they all go their separate ways, having added a new dimension to their lives? No. The message they heard called them to be saved from the perverse generation they were living in.18 The Bible doesn't record the "many other words" Peter spoke to them that day, but we do know what the Master had commanded the apostles to do in the preaching of the gospel, which surely they were careful to obey:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20)
And what was the first thing the Master had commanded them when He called them to follow Him? It was to forsake everything.19 And lest we think that requirement applied only to the apostles, remember that after the woman broke her alabaster jar, her most precious possession, and poured out every drop of the fragrant oil upon Him, He instructed His disciples:
I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her. (Matthew 26:13)
It is doubtful that Peter would have forgotten to include this story in his many other words, considering how deeply it had affected the disciples the day it happened.20 But regardless of the exact words Peter may have spoken, the outcome speaks for itself:
All the believers were together and had all things in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:44-47)
It was neither a coincidence nor a misunderstanding that those 3,000 new disciples all gave up everything, including their independent lives, and shared a common life together.21 Their belief impelled22 obedience to what they heard. It was not merely a mental assent to the fact of Yahshua's death and resurrection. It was a total identification with Him and His people that cut them off from all past loyalties and occupations.
There is a belief that doesn't impel obedience. The Master encountered this kind of belief on several occasions, such as:23
Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man. (John 2:23-25)
The words "believed" and "entrust" in this passage are actually the same word in the Greek manuscript. You could well say that they believed in Him but He didn't believe in them, for He knew it was only a belief in their minds and not in their hearts. They admired Him, but He knew they would not obey Him at all costs, therefore He could not entrust His Holy Spirit to them.24
So the faith that saves produces a belief that obeys; otherwise it is not saving faith. That is exactly what the writer of James was laboring to express:
Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, "You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works." You believe that God is one? You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? (James 2:17-20)
Sadly, many are so foolish as to be unwilling to recognize the futility of a faith that does not result in the works that followed the first preaching of the gospel in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37. But the Master said that those who have ears to hear will bear abundant fruit — thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold — and so prove to be His disciples.25
Certainly, there are no works that a person can do to earn his salvation in Messiah. All of his good deeds have no more value than filthy rags in the currency of redemption.26 It is only Messiah's worth that counts — the infinite value of His blood which He shed on our behalf.
In fact, anyone who really understands the futility of his own unredeemed life, with all the material manifestations of his own selfish works,27 will be eager to abandon it all as soon as he discovers the pearl of great price.28 It would not even enter the mind of someone who truly hates his own life in this world29 that giving up his possessions in order to gain eternal life30 could be considered "works salvation." He would be like Paul, who wrote,
Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish,31 in order that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:8)
Paul understood in the very core of his being what he was saved from and what he was saved for. The "loss of all things" was part of the reality of his old life being buried with Messiah in baptism,32 not a "good work" that he did to earn his salvation.33 Paul was glad to be free of his old life, career, and possessions so that he could lay hold of that for which Messiah had laid hold of him.34 That is the revelation he had that caused him to write to the Ephesians,
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
The word translated as works here (and in verse 9, for that matter) actually means employment or occupation. It is not speaking of isolated good deeds that one does from time to time, but rather the direction of one's will35 — what he does with his time, energy, skills, and strength. Everyone who is saved is saved for the purpose of spending the rest of his life employing his gifts36 to build up the Body of Messiah:
From whom the whole body, joined and knit together by that which every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their minds. (Ephesians 4:16-17)
Paul and the other apostles did not conceive of the Body of Messiah as a mystical union of isolated believers who live their own independent lives all week ("walk as the Gentiles walk"), and get together for an hour or two on Sunday. It was to be a full-time, visible demonstration of disciples living together in unity,37 loving one another just as their Master had loved His first disciples38 — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week — serving one another according to their gifts and abilities. Such people do not need to be concerned about what they will eat or what they will wear,39 but can actually seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, knowing that all their needs will be met through the "effective working of every part" for the benefit of the whole. Such is the miracle of self-sacrificing love.40
If you love Me, keep My commandments. (John 14:15)
He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. (John 14:21)
He who says, "I know Him," and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. (1 John 2:4-5)
It is impossible to obey His commandments on your own. It takes a community. That is where the love of God is perfected in us — where we can truly love one another. That is where God has commanded the blessing of eternal life.41
The amazing thing about grace is that it brings about the purpose of God on the earth through willing human beings who receive faith when they hear the word of God, which causes them to believe to the point that they actually obey His commandments.42 Together they bear the fruit of the kingdom43 — the life that bears witness to the fact that the Father actually sent His Son,44 because as He is, so also are they in this world.45