Grace, alongside the other two solas of the Reformation, Scripture and faith, is one of the fundamental, foundational concepts in Christian vocabulary and life. If asked what grace is, I’m confident all of us could answer without hesitation: “grace is God’s undeserved love.” We love to hear about grace, to talk about grace, to sing about grace. But grace might be one of those things that is almost too familiar to us. We may take it for granted. We may be able to define it, but can we explain it? Could we explain what it means to be saved by grace alone? Could we explain how grace works? The sad truth is that many Christians do not really understand grace. Many believe that when it comes to salvation – we must play an active role in achieving it. In Luther’s day, it consisted of performing acts of penance or buying indulgences; today, it’s making a decision for Christ or feeling God in your heart. In many places, grace has taken a backseat to your own feelings, your own determination, your own decision, your own good works. Restoring the proper, Biblical understanding of grace was one of the main reasons Luther nailed 95 theses to the Castle Church door 500 years ago. As part of the heritage we have received, then, we should know how grace works. And there is no better place to go for an explanation of grace than Ephesians chapter 2, where Paul explains grace with this outline: we were…but God…you have been…and now you are.
One reason many Christians may begin to take God’s grace for granted is that it’s so easy to forget what we were apart from it. That forgetfulness apparently applied to the Christians living in Ephesus. So Paul reminded them – and, he reminds us of the unpleasant truth: you were dead. What we were apart from God’s grace is not a pretty picture. These days we keep death at a distance; death lives in sterile hospitals and nursing homes and funeral homes. We try to pretend like death doesn’t really exist. But what Paul is picturing here is a stinking, rotting corpse. Powerless. Lifeless. Worthless. Dead. That’s how we were born – how all humanity has entered this world since the Fall into sin. Oh, sure, we were talking and walking; eating and drinking; working and sleeping. But through it all we were spiritual zombies, powerless to do anything good, helpless to save ourselves, dead to God.
Paul goes on to describe how this spiritual deadness manifested itself in our lives: You were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked when you followed the ways of this present world. This present world is society as it is aligned against God. There are four currents or philosophies in society that are distinctly ungodly and anti-Christian. The first is secularism – the delusion that anything in life can be separated from God and his will; second is amoralism – the indifference to or denial of the existence of moral absolutes; third is materialism – a strong focus on the things of this world, to the exclusion of spiritual, heavenly things; and the fourth is an ahistorical approach to life – a lack of interest or even downright hostility toward history and tradition. These ungodly influences pervade every aspect of the unbelieving world. If you need proof just turn on the television or jump onto social media and see what comes out. When you do, remember that that’s what you were: dead like this world; dead to God.
It gets worse: you were following the ruler of the domain of the air, the spirit now at work in the people who disobey. Who sets the agenda for the unbelieving world? The prince of darkness himself, Satan. Twice during his ministry Jesus identified the devil as the prince of this world. (John 12:31; 14:30) The devil, whose sole objective is to ensure that as many souls as possible spend eternity with him in hell will stop at nothing to distort God’s Word, obstruct God’s will and deceive God’s people – is pulling the strings on this unbelieving world. And we were under his authority and influence. Slaves of Satan, we were dead to God.
And those external influences found an ally right in our own hearts. Formerly, we all lived among them in the passions of our sinful flesh, as we carried out the desires of the sinful flesh and its thoughts. As if our situation wasn’t bad enough, Paul reminds us that we were utterly depraved. We were not only slaves of Satan, we were slaves to our own godless passions and desires. Instead of living for God and loving our neighbor we lived for and loved only ourselves. Even the good desires God gave us became twisted and perverted. Hunger became gluttony. The desire for rest became laziness. Sexual desires twisted into lust. The desire for social connections turned us into self-important, self-seeking narcissists. Martin Luther described the dual nature of the total depravity we were born into: it is not only a lack of a certain quality in the will, nor even only a lack of light in the mind or of power in the memory, but particularly it is a total lack of uprightness and of the power of all the faculties both of body and soul and of the whole inner and outer man. On top of all this, it is a propensity toward evil. It is a nausea toward the good, a loathing of light and wisdom, and a delight in error and darkness.  The result of this – of following the ways of this world, of serving Satan as lord, of hating good and loving evil is that like all the others, we were by nature objects of God’s wrath. The world likes to believe that newborn babies are good and pure and innocent – and that it’s only society that makes people evil. Paul sets the record straight. We were not good. Not innocent. Not even neutral. Wicked, enslaved, dead, objects of wrath – that’s what we were. And left to ourselves we had nothing to look forward to but a miserable life on earth and an eternity of punishment in hell.
Thank God for verse 4. Thank God for one of the shortest yet most important words in the whole Bible. The word “but.” But God, because he is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in trespasses. The one thing – the only thing – that changed our status before God is God; his grace; his undeserved love. God saw how hopeless we were, he had pity on us in our lost condition, and he resolved to do something about it. God decided to give salvation away to a world of sinners for free, but that decision came at the cost of his most precious possession. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16) God loved. God gave. God saved. That’s grace. Grace dripped from everything Jesus said and did during his lifetime. He didn’t seek out the proud and powerful, he went to the lost and sick and suffering. He didn’t tell stories about sinners who did their best and tried their hardest to win God’s love. He told stories like the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) which demonstrates that citizenship in God’s kingdom is not a matter of working or earning, but a matter of God’s grace, freely given. It was grace and grace alone that led Jesus to stretch out his hands on a cruel cross, forgive those who put him there, spill his blood and become the sole object, the sole target of God’s wrath in the place of wretched, depraved, spiritually useless sinners like us. We were dead. But God made us alive with Christ even when we were dead. That’s how grace works.
“I get that” many people say, “and I – unlike so many people – believe it. Don’t I get some credit for that?” Let’s test that against Scripture: Indeed, it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. According to Paul, who gets the credit for the faith in your heart? That’s right, God. The Biblical practice of infant baptism is a visible demonstration of this invisible truth. No infant begs his parents to be baptized. No infant strolls up here and commits himself or herself to Christ. Infants are totally, utterly passive recipients of God’s life-giving grace. What if you weren’t baptized as an infant? What if you were old enough to decide to be born again or can still remember when you made the decision to commit your life to God? It doesn’t matter. Dead, depraved sinners cannot create faith. Paul told the Corinthians: no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:3) Expecting depraved, dead sinners to make a decision for Christ is about as foolish as walking down the street to the cemetery to find help for your yardwork. It’s impossible. It’s only yours by God’s grace. Because you were dead…but God made you alive…and even the faith that pulses in your heart is a gift of God’s grace.
But making us alive and creating faith in our hearts were not the end in themselves, they are the means through which God accomplishes something far greater: He also raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. He did this so that, in the coming ages, he might demonstrate the surpassing riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. Do you ever struggle with the concept that you have been saved? Doesn’t it seem better to say that we will be saved? How can Paul say that we are already saved, already residents of heaven, already seated with Christ? It certainly doesn’t feel that way, does it? This evil world, our own words and actions, the certainty of death – those are clear and present realities. But being raised with Christ and seated with him in heaven? Those feel like something distant, something that we may get some day when we die. How can Paul say that we are already seated with Christ? Here our reason must keep silent and faith must take over. God is timeless, and sometimes he speaks of things which will happen as if they had already happened. In God’s eyes, you are alive – forever. In God’s eyes, Christ’s sacrifice washed away every sin you have ever committed and every sin you ever will commit. In God’s eyes, you are already seated with Christ in heaven’s glory. How can Paul be so sure? Grace alone! Just as Christ’s work and your conversion were only the result of God’s grace, so your salvation is only the product of God’s grace. That makes it sure and certain. That means that nothing, nothing in this world, no power of hell, not even your own sin can stop God from carrying out what he resolved to do: save your soul! That’s grace. You were dead…but God made you alive…you have been saved!
But what about now? Grace alone may explain my past and my future. But what about my present. Can’t we take a little credit for the good things we do now? I mean, God didn’t wake up, get the kids ready, and drive to church this morning. God didn’t write the check and lick the envelope and put it in the offering plate. I did that, right? Paul concludes: For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. Many Christians – and I would argue, many Lutherans cling to a mistaken idea that they deserve some credit for the good things they do here and now. What’s wrong with that? Why can’t we boast about the good things we do here and now? Because we are God’s workmanship. We are God’s creation, his masterpiece. His grace not only made us, it flows through us. Just like a work of art brings credit to the artist and a highway bridge gives glory to its designing engineer, so our good works bring glory to the God who made us. We are nothing more and nothing less than demonstrations of God’s skill, trophies of his grace. And should we have any doubt, Paul says that God prepared these good works in advance so that we would walk in them. I think of you mothers – God put you in that place and blessed you with that child just so you could give him glory by changing diaper after diaper. Or you employees – God planned and prepared that job for you and gave you the education and talents and abilities necessary so that tomorrow you could give him glory by doing whatever it is you do. All of you who contributed and will contribute to Building Our Great Heritage – all of it, your income, your saving, your desire, your generosity, this opportunity – they’re all the result of God creating you, saving you, and equipping you to be and do what he created you to do. So if we’re going to say anything about our good works, what should we say? I was dead…but God made me alive…so that I could and would do the good works he prepared in advance for me to do!
Grace. We know that word. We sing that word. We love that word. But do we know how grace really works? Now we do. You were dead…but God made you alive with Christ…you have been saved…which means you are God’s workmanship, created in Christ to do good works. How does grace work? Martin Luther put it best: Grace works alone! Grace works in spite of us, to remake us, to save us, to make us into God’s masterpieces, designed and equipped to do the good works he has prepared for us to do. We are saved by grace alone! And that means that our salvation is certain. To God alone be the glory! Amen.
 LW 25:299