Star Chart Salvation (Ephesians 2:9)
Saved by Grace
Star Chart Salvation
April 19th, 2009
Way of Grace Church
I. Living for a Gold Star
I don't know if you had one of these in your elementary school classroom, but several of my teachers growing up had these beautiful, hand-made charts that were pinned up in some prominent place in the classroom.
This was not a chart describing how to tie your shoe or showing a multiplication table. No, this chart had listed on the left side, all of the kids' names who were in the class. Running across the top it had the days for each month or the weeks for each semester. And as the lines from the names and the lines from the top came across the page, a beautiful grid formed; lots of little boxes after all of our names.
What went inside each of these boxes, you ask? Well, stars of course. You know what I'm talking about. If you were well-behaved, or completed your assignment, or helped out in some way, you would get a star next to your name on the star chart. Sometimes the teacher would use different color stars, bright colors, or maybe just metallic colors. But the crown jewel of these beautiful little foil stickers was always the gold star.
If you got a gold star next to your name, you knew you were on your way.
I remember how some kids lived for a gold star. They would always speak and act and obey with one eye on the teacher's desk, just hoping she would open her drawer and take out a sheet of star stickers. They would often glance over at the chart and smile as they counted and savored all of their stars.
You see, the star chart was a tangible expression of your goodness. It was proof that you were right with the teacher and the school's code of conduct. If anyone questioned your righteousness, they only needed to be directed to the classroom wall.
The star chart was a source of pride, comfort, and in some sense, hope.
Turn with me this morning to Ephesians 2.
II. The Passage: "Not a Result of Works" (2:9)
This morning, we are continuing to think about what it means to be ‘saved by grace'. That phrase comes right out of Ephesians 2:8 (as well as 2:5). It's a phrase based on Paul's words here. So as we think about this idea, let me do this: let me go back and read through Ephesians 2:8, the verse we focused on last week, but this time, let me also include verse 9. Paul writes this....
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
You can see that verse 9 is a very short verse, isn't it? Only 11 words in English, and only 7 words in the original Greek version. So we have to ask this morning, not only, "what does it mean to be saved by grace?", but also, "why is verse 9 important in helping us understand what it means to be 'saved by grace'?"
You may recall last week that Paul established for us that if we truly belong to Jesus Christ, if we are his disciples, if you are a Christian, then you have been saved by grace through faith. And this is how we defined grace last week:
Grace is the favor that God freely gives in order that we might get the exact opposite of what we deserve and God might get all the credit. (x2)
As we talked about last time, the grace of God is what makes the message of Christ, the gospel, unique among all the religions, philosophies, and programs of the world. When it comes to salvation through Christ, grace means that God did it all everything.
But if that was clear from verse 8, why does Paul add verse 9, this short verse about works and boasting? To answer that question, as we attempt to answer the other questions we've already posed, we need to think more carefully about this verse and its context.
The key word in 2:9 is the word "works". If we can understand this word better, then I think we might be better able to understand why Paul adds this verse on to verse 8.
So what does Paul mean by the word "works", when he writes, "not a result of works"?
A. Works are anything we accomplish that we believe might result in salvation (2:9a)
Well, first of all, notice this: notice how the word "result" points us back to verse 8. What exactly is not a result of works? Well verse 8 makes that clear: salvation, being saved is not a result of works. But what is salvation?
Looking at verses 1-3 and verses 4-7 last week, we discovered that just like a man, woman, or child might be rescued from a burning building or a hostage standoff, someone might ‘save' their lives, we too can be rescued from spiritual death; we can be rescued from the consequence of trying to play God over our own lives, instead of loving God as our greatest good.
But not only are we saved from sin, death, and divine punishment, we are also saved for God and new life with Him. And this all happens because of Jesus Christ, and what He accomplished on Good Friday and Easter on our behalf.
Last week, we summed up salvation in this way: salvation, being saved is forgiveness from God and forever with God.
Therefore in verse 9, Paul tells us that forgiveness and forever are not a result of our works. So, at the very least, we can say that works are anything we accomplish that we believe might result in salvation.
Last week we talked a little bit about the "works" that other religions and other so-called Christian groups prescribe. Meditation. Giving to the poor. Baptism. Pilgrimage. Offerings. And the list goes on and on.
B. Works are anything we accomplish that we believe gives us a reason to boast (2:9b)
But there's something else this verse tells us about what Paul has in mind when he uses the word "works". Listen to the verse again:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
We see from that final phrase that the "works" Paul has in mind are not only those deeds, accomplishments, rituals, acts, practices, etc. that we believe will result in salvation, in forgiveness from and forever with God; but they are also those things that gives us a basis for boasting.
Do you experience much boasting in your everyday life? In my house, if one of the kids mentions something they accomplished at home or school, very quickly, another one has to chime in about something they did that equals or tops that first report. "Oh yeah, well we read three books in my class!"
In most cases, our boasting as adults is a bit more subtle. But like children, we still feel the need to let others know about our accomplishments and successes in the hopes of receiving approval and acceptance.
And we do this in regard to spiritual matters as well; in regard to matters of goodness, morality, ethics, and righteousness. What Paul ultimately has in mind is boasting that culminates in boasting before God himself; our list of those things we accomplished that demonstrate our worth, our merit before God.
The French pastor John Calvin said, "Some room must always remain for man's boasting, so long as, independently of grace, merits are any avail."
Therefore we could say that works are anything that we accomplish that we believe gives us a reason to boast.
C. Works are anything we accomplish that we believe is in keeping with what God requires (2:11, 15)
But if we move past verse 9 to the next section of verses, we discover some clues about what Paul has in mind when he uses the word "works".
If you look down at verses 11 and 15, you'll notice that Paul mentions a couple things:
In verse 11 he mentions "circumcision", and in verse 15 he mentions the "the law of commandments expressed in ordinances"? These are the very things that helped define the Israelites as God's people.
As a man of Jewish descent and a former Pharisee, Paul most these kinds of practices and precepts when he used the term "works".
You see, in the Old Testament, it was clear that if one obeyed the laws of God, God promised blessing. If one disobeyed, God promised curses. And it was this principle that led many Israelites, and later on, many Jews to believe that salvation was a matter of works.
If they did everything God told them to do and not to do, they would be able to earn God's favor; they would be found worthy and rewarded. In Jesus' and Paul's time, the Pharisees and Sadducees were classic examples of this kind of thinking. These groups came out of schools of thought that even developed laws that would keep them from breaking God's laws. But eventually these traditions of men gained equal footing with God's commandments, and often they began to push out or twist God's commandments.
All of this simply to say that when Paul talked about "works" he certainly had in mind the specific laws and practices that were given to Moses by God.
I point that out because I don't want us to think that these "works" are only human schemes and inventions, spiritual practices that some person cooked up long ago. The "works" Paul probably has in mind, at least partially, are those laws given by God himself.
Therefore, we could say then that these works are anything we accomplish that we believe is in keeping with what God requires.
III. The Freedom of Boasting in Grace
So what have we seen here in our attempt to answer the questions, "What does it mean to be saved by grace?", and "Why does Paul add this short phrase in verse 9 onto the end of verse 8?"
Well, we've seen that in talking about works, Paul is trying to confront that human thinking that connects our actions and accomplishments with earning God's acceptance, even earning his forgiveness through our attempts to follow God's own laws.
I like the way one commentator expressed it as he talked about the why of Ephesians 2:9...
"But such is the human heart, and so great is the temptation of people in every age and race to deceive themselves into thinking that their lives are good enough for God, that the reminder of this verse is still needed."
You see, Paul can state that salvation is by grace, through faith alone, as he does in verse 8; he can explicitly declare this is not from us, but instead is God's gift to us, as he does in verse 8. But he knows...he knows that he must deliberately and specifically spell it out for us that none of it comes as a result of our religious attempts to be good. And he knows that he has to do this because this idea is so entrenched in our corrupted nature.
In Paul's letters to the church in Rome and the churches in Galatia, he spent much more time dealing with this very issue. He says very plainly in Romans 3:
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his [in God's] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20)
But we often believe in star chart salvation, don't we? It's all around us, every day. Not only is it evident from those religious systems that require human adherence to specific rituals and practices and laws and deeds; not only is it evident from those supposedly Christian groups that want to add to the idea of salvation by grace alone, but it's evident within every church that in fact does believe what Paul has written about grace.
It's evident in so many ways. Years ago I sat with a sweet middle age woman, in her home, interviewing her for membership in the church. To be a member, every person not only attended classes to learn about what the church believed, but at the end of that series of classes, each prospective member was visited in their homes. This allowed the leadership of the church to have a personal conversation with and learn more about each of these individuals.
Well, as I sat with this woman, I began to ask a series of questions, questions designed to give me a better understanding of what she believed about her relationship with God. I asked her, "Tell me what you believe it means to be a Christian? Share with me when you first heard the good news of Christ? What was it about that message that grabbed your heart?"
After many question like this, being a bit troubled, I had to ask her, "Do you believe that when you die, that you will be in the presence of God forever?" She confidently responded, "Yes". I asked her "On what basis will you be with God forever? Why will he welcome you into eternal life?" And to that question she said this: "Because I've always tried to do what's right, to the best of my ability."
Friends, that's ‘star chart salvation', but it is not salvation by grace through faith. Star chart salvation is a result of works; it is a result of you always trying to do what is right, to the best of your ability. And because of that, it is really no salvation at all; because we cannot do what is truly right. Even the right we believe we do is not done completely and consistently, according to God's perfect standard.
That's why Paul said what he said in Romans 3: For by works of the law no human being will be justified [will be declared good and right] in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20)
Yes, through the law comes knowledge of what is right, what God desires of us. But through the law we also gain a knowledge of sin, that is, we discover how far short all of us fall in light of God's perfect and holy and righteous requirements.
God did not ultimately give the Law to Moses so that it could be a ladder to show us how to climb up to heaven. He gave the Law so that is could be a thermometer to show us how desperately sick all of us really are.
No one will be able to stand before God and say, "Well, God, I'm basically a good person, and have basically lived a good life. I think the good things outweigh the bad, so...". It doesn't work that way. And yet, there are many, even in the church, who believe this. Of course, there are many more outside the church who believe this is the basic message we teach. Come to church, do good things, be a religious person, and you get to go to heaven.
But even within the church, there are those who accept and believe the truth that they will only stand in God's presence then, and receive His forgiveness now, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; because of the great love with which He loved us; there are those who believe that, and yet, who find themselves constructing star charts; who find themselves looking, not at Jesus, but at how many gold stars are next to their name.
They give themselves these stars when they go to a Bible study, or help a neighbor, or give money, or read their Bible in the morning, or pray, or serve at church, or think good thoughts, or flee sexual immorality, or understand more theology, or introduce someone to Jesus, or abstain from gossip, or develop a ministry, or write a book, or take a ministry trip, or open up their home, or attend church consistently, submit to their husbands or love their wives, or refrain from cussing, or...or....do anything that makes them believe that they are a being a good Christian that God will pat on the back and say, "Good job, keep it up!"
And yet, if they are not doing these things (all of which are good things, things God calls us to do...if they not doing these things), or not doing some of these things, or not doing them correctly or consistently according to their standards, then, in their minds, God will not give them a star. He is simply shaking his head, saying. "Not good enough, not nearly good enough." Or he is angry, or he has given up on us.
You see, such Christians have slipped into a belief that their acceptance by God is based on what they do, instead of what Christ has already done. Their eyes are on the star chart, not on the cross. And this mindset leads to a form of slavery.
When your eyes on your works you become a slave to performance and pride. You take comfort in what you are able to do, and if you fail, your hope comes from the belief that tomorrow, that next time, you will get it right.
You see the gospel, the message of Jesus, is not simply for the irreligious, for the immoral and wild and rebellious. It is also a message for the religious; for those who place their confidence in their own devotion and obedience and piety. It consoles the unrighteous with God's forgiveness and convicts the so-called righteous with God's truth and grace.
I know this thinking is real and a real temptation because, not only do I often find myself slipping into that mindset, but I know this tendency has been present in the church from the very beginning. Listen to what Paul writes in Galatians 3:3...
Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
If we use the language of Ephesians 2, Paul is saying there, "Having been saved by grace, are you now being perfected through your works?"
But this is what Paul goes on to tell the Galatians, and all of us who would be tempted to drift toward ‘star chart' salvation:
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law [i.e. declared righteous before God because of your own performance]; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. (Galatians 5:1-5)
Are you walking in the freedom of grace? You can see when someone is. There is joy in their life, and not judgmentalism. There is satisfaction and not shame. There is peace and not anxiety. There is encouragement, not constant critiques. There is love, and not mistrust or self-obsession. Are you walking in the freedom of grace? For freedom Christ has set us free...
In light of what we've seen this morning, I think we can say this: when we are saved by grace, we rest in the reality that we are always and only accepted by God, not on the basis of our inadequate and inconsistent works, but on the basis of Jesus' perfect work on the cross.
And when we rest in that reality, when we rest in Jesus Christ, we don't need a star chart. When we rest in Jesus Christ, and Him alone, our boast changes. Paul put it this way in yet another letter:
God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom [what God has said to us] and our righteousness [what God has said about us] and sanctification [what God is doing in us] and redemption [what God will do in us]. 31 Therefore, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord." (I Corinthians 1:28-31)