No Ordinary Mercy
India’s caste system is huge and complicated. It has many divisions and subdivisions. The caste system divides the people into unbreakable groups divided by occupation, money, and position. In the 1930s, the British discovered a previously unknown caste. This new caste was the lowest of the low. These poor people were assigned the job of washing clothes for the Untouchables. The Untouchables had been thought to be the lowest caste. They could not touch or be touched or they would contaminate those above them. However, the pitiful people of this even lower caste believed they would contaminate the higher castes just by looking at them. So they came out only at night when they would not see people of the higher castes.
Imagine that you were of that miserably loathsome caste and suddenly found yourself seated in a place of honor next to the wealthiest and most powerful leader in India as a friend, son, or daughter. You had been transported from the slums to the palace. That distance would be small compared to the transposition that Paul describes in Ephesians 2.
The chapter begins with the Christians of Ephesus being reminded of their past lives (Paul includes himself and all other Christians with them). He says they had been a people who in their love of sin were souls dead to God, passionate allies with the debauched of the world, and followers of Satan himself (Eph. 2:1–3). However, three verses later we find these same reprobates changed and seated with God in the very court of heaven (2:5–6). The apostle then explains this repositioning with one word: grace (v.8).
Grace is defined as an unmerited favor, an undeserved gift. Consider the following: A woman guilty of a crime stood before Queen Elizabeth I. The crime had been committed against the queen herself. Elizabeth asked her, “Would you be my loyal subject if I should exercise grace instead of justice and forgive your crime?” The woman surprised the queen with her answer: “That, Madam, would be no grace at all. To found your grace on the condition of my merit — that is not grace.” The queen responded, “Then I pardon you unconditionally.” Likewise, the salvation we have received from God is totally unmerited and unearned — it comes from His grace.
The gift of salvation is no ordinary mercy. In Ephesians 2, God is described as being rich in this mercy (v. 4) and as manifesting the “immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us” (v. 7). No one is surprised when we give gifts of love to our family and friends. However, it is an extraordinary love that moves one to bestow treasures on one’s enemies. One must be rich in love to do that. A fabulously wealthy person can give luxurious gifts because of the immensity of his treasure. We are such wickedly onerous people that only the One with a treasure house of mercy could love us.
Those of us who were raised in Christian homes and came to Christ at an early age will sometimes be heard to say, when we hear the testimony of a man converted from a debauched life, “What a trophy of God’s grace he is!” We say that as if we ourselves are not such trophies. Our comment suggests that we were somehow more deserving and not as sinful. The person who says that about another Christian and not about himself has understood neither the depth of his own corruption nor the extreme extent of the grace of God. We would be arrogant to stand before God in glory and say, “Your love to that wicked person was amazing, and I know that I must have been easier to love and more appealing to You.” Such self-exalting, pretentious thinking is demeaning to the richness of God’s gift to you.
The cost of this grace to God is unfathomable. Queen Elizabeth forgave her offender and it cost her nothing. However, the justice of the realm had not been satisfied. God’s grace cannot ignore His justice. The rabbis of the Old Testament wondered how a just God could allow transgressors to go free. That is why Paul’s mind and heart were captured by the cross. He understood that Christ dying for our sins was, indeed, a demonstration of the immensity of God’s love for us (Rom. 5:8). However, he also grasped that the cross manifested the justice of God (3:24–26). When Jesus took our sin upon Himself, the Father did not say, “That is My Son, I cannot exact My justice upon Him.” Dr. James Henley Thornwell, a nineteenth-century Presbyterian theologian, described what happened in words that I read frequently: “None but Jehovah’s fellow could have received the stroke of Jehovah’s justice in His bosom and survived the blow. The penalty of the law was no vulgar ill, to be appeased by a few groans and tears, by agony, sweat, and blood. It was the wrath of the infinite God which, when it falls upon a creature, crushes him under the burden of eternal death. It is a blackness of darkness through which no ray of light or hope can ever penetrate; to the soul of a finite being it must be the blackness of darkness forever. But Jesus endured it. Jesus satisfied it. Jesus bowed beneath that death which the law demanded, and which sinks angels and men to everlasting ruin, and came victorious from the conflict. If He had been a creature, He would have been crushed, sunk, lost — if He had been less than God, the bitterness of death could not have been passed; never, never could He have emerged from that thick darkness into which He entered when He made His soul an offering for sin.”
So what is our response to such a sacrifice? Charity is repugnant to us. We don’t want to be welfare recipients. We want to do our part. We want to pay some of the bill. “Father, let me pay for something. Let me bear part of the expense.” He answers, “What is left to pay? Was the execution of My judgment at Calvary and the sacrifice of My Son insufficient? Is that what you are suggesting?” That is why the hymn writer wrote, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” We insult and demean His great salvation when we walk up Calvary’s hill proudly bringing our petty acts. Paul cried, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” (Rom. 8:33). Then he pointed to the cross, to the completed, finished, and sufficient work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The justice that once called for my condemnation now insures my salvation.
There is more to this great work of grace for our salvation. I am born with a heart that will not go to Jesus on that cross (3:11). My inner being is dead, unable to love God. Who will change my heart? Who will raise me from this deadness? Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again (John 3:3). No work of man could accomplish this inner change. Nicodemus’ religion demanded that he work strenuously to reform himself outwardly. But his religious regimen did nothing to change his soul. Jesus said this rebirth could happen only through the power of the Holy Spirit. Again, we foolishly claim omnipotence. We think we have the power to make this happen if we pray enough, read our Bibles, go to church, and try very hard.
Jesus stood at the grave of Lazarus and called his name, commanding him to live and walk out of the tomb. Did Lazarus do anything to bring life to himself? Lazarus was dead. His heart had been motionless and his brain dead for four days. His body could neither move nor will to move. The supernatural power that raised him from the grave is the same omnipotent power that raises us from our spiritual deadness. If you are a Christian, you have been raised from the dead. You have been supernaturally quickened. This regeneration is an act of grace (Titus 3:5).
“For by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:8) refers to every aspect of our salvation. We are not saved because we have chased after God and proven ourselves worthy. We are saved because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit pursued us at great cost. We do not understand the reason for His particular love now, nor will we when we are in glory. We will only be more convinced than ever that the presence of former debauched reprobates living in the new heavens and new earth is a wonder that shall fill the stories of heaven for eternity.
This is why the prostitute, thief, drug dealer, materialist, and their friends should be drawn to the gospel and to the church that lives that gospel. The church is like the mafia in one way — you must be a confessed cosmic criminal to join. To eat at His table you must be unworthy in order to be worthy. I love the baptism of covenant children. But the child of the covenant is no more worthy than the foul rebel, for both have been raised from the dead only by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit and both have been washed clean only in the blood of Jesus: by grace we have been saved!