Sovereign Grace - Part 1
Theme: Grace in Ephesians
This week’s lessons explain the importance of God’s sovereignty for a biblical
understanding of the doctrine of grace.
Scripture: Ephesians 1:3-8
In 1974, six years after I became pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church, a number of seminarians, pastors, and myself launched a conference to promote Calvinistic doctrines which we felt were being widely neglected by most Christians. We did not know what to call our conference, but since it began in Philadelphia, we decided to call it the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology. It became quite popular, and in the years since it has been held in such widely scattered cities as San Francisco, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Chicago, Toronto, Memphis, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta, as well as its home city of Philadelphia.
At the beginning, we thought our conference must be unique, that there was nothing like it anywhere else. I have learned since that there have been other such conferences, a number of them sponsored by Calvinistic Baptist churches. I have spoken at some of them. Characteristically, these Baptist gatherings are called “Sovereign Grace” conferences.
Sovereign grace! That is the theme of this chapter. But I begin by saying that the words are almost redundant, though necessary. It is because of the meaning of the terms. “Sovereign” means “according to the will of the sovereign [that is, God].” It means according to his will and nothing else. “Grace” means unmerited favor. But think what happens as soon as you begin to tinker with those terms. If you take “sovereign” away from grace so that grace is no longer dependent upon the pure will of God, then grace becomes dependent upon something else, either merit in the subject receiving it, or else in circumstances, and in that case, grace ceases to be grace. It becomes something deserved or necessary. In order to have true grace, grace must be sovereign.
Yet, as I said, both words are necessary simply because we do not often think of spiritual things clearly, and it is natural for us to imagine that the cause of grace is something found in human beings, or that God is somehow obliged to be gracious.
Sovereign grace is strongly emphasized in Paul's great letter to the Ephesians. In the last study I pointed out that “grace” occurs 128 times in the New Testament (NIV) as opposed to only eight occurrences in the Old Testament. But the use of the word is not equally spread throughout the New Testament. There are some books in which it does not occur at all, such as Matthew and Mark, for instance. In Luke it is only found once. Sometimes “grace” appears in a doxology or benediction, where it is not explained. At other times it occurs repeatedly in a single passage.
Ephesians is a book in which grace has great importance. In Ephesians, the word occurs eleven times, including three times in chapter one and three times in chapter two. These chapters contain very important teaching. Like Romans, Ephesians deals with the most basic Christian doctrines. I call it “a mini-course in theology, centered on the church.” But even more than Romans, Ephesians stresses the sovereignty of God in salvation and the eternal sweep of God's plan, by which believers are lifted from the depth of sin's depravity and curse to the heights of eternal joy and communion with God—by God's grace.
That is what we have in chapters one and two. Like 1 and 2 Corinthians and the pastoral letters, Ephesians deals with the church. But even more than those very practical letters, Ephesians shows how the church came into being, explains how it is to function, and gives guidelines for those important relationships in which the nature of the new humanity can be seen and by which it must grow.
Most Christians are aware of Paul's teaching about grace in chapter two. In fact, many have probably memorized Ephesians 2:8, 9: “For 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.” We will be looking at those verses later on in these studies. It is interesting, however, though not so widely recognized, that the word “grace” is used the same number of times and has an equally important place in chapter one.
What is the difference between Ephesians one and two, since both are about salvation? The difference is that in chapter one Paul is looking at the matter from God's point of view, showing that we are saved because of what God has willed, and in chapter two he is looking at the same things from our perspective, showing how these prior decrees of God impact the believer. But Paul begins with God!
- In what way is God's grace dependent upon his sovereignty?
- Describe the difference between chapters one and two of Ephesians.