Grace, How Amazing!

~ Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:1-8 ~

by Kin Lam (

The following sermon was first delivered on 22 June 1997 at Amazing Grace Presbyterian Church, 408B Upper East Coast Road, Singapore. It aims to answer the all-important question of what it means to be "Saved by grace through faith."



It is the year 2010, Amazing Grace Presbyterian Church is holding its 15th Annual DLTP. Sam and Valerie Yang are now the co-teachers of the class, and among the students we find Ge-Ning Tham, Sarah Teh, and Samuel Lim. They have just finished the lesson on Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, titled "Saved by Grace," but some of the students look very puzzled. Ge-Ning is murmuring to Sarah. She says, "Sarah, if we are truly saved by grace and not by work, how come pastor always says that one will be saved if he believes? Isn't 'believing' a kind of work?" Now Samuel overheard their conversation. Seeing that it is an excellent opportunity to show off his biblical knowledge, Samuel quickly adds, "Yes, remember Jesus says in John 6:29, 'The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent.' So obviously, 'believing' is a work!"

Now let me ask you, "Are we saved by grace? Or are we saved by 'believing'?" If we are saved because we believed, then we are saved by work indeed! How do we resolve this seemingly contradiction? Since we call ourselves Amazing Grace Presbyterian Church, we better know what grace truly is!


The Problem of Sin

Christians believe that since Adam, no man is born well and healthy. Men are all sick, and the sickness is sin. And we believe that the only cure to this sickness is salvation in Jesus Christ. Now in order to know what salvation truly is, we need to examine the nature and seriousness of this sickness, i.e. sin.

First, we know that men are lost. We are all familiar with the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin (Luke 15:3-10). Even Jesus Himself declares in Luke 19:10, "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save which was lost." But let me suggest that "lostness" is not the best term to describe men's condition, for "lostness" gives a sense of innocence, as if men are lost in a maze, like a little girl is lost in the jungle, and are waiting for Jesus to show us the way. The sense of sinfulness in the Bible is certainly stronger than that.

Another verse we are all very familiar with is Romans 3:23, where Paul says, "... for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..." But again, the translation "falling short" is a bit misleading, as if men are capable of goodness, though not good enough to meet God's perfect standards. It sounds as if God demands 100%, but we can only accomplish say 20%, and we need grace to cover the other 80%. In such case, salvation becomes partially work and partially grace. This, may I suggest, is not the right conception at all.

Take a look at 1John 3:4, here is the definition of sin: "Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness." (1John 3:4) According to this verse, sin is the "breaking of the law." On the surface, this sounds very consistent with the notion of "falling short." Most of us have the impression that the law of God is a set of Dos & Don'ts; so naturally we think about passages like the Ten Commandments. While few of us dare to say that we have kept those commandments perfectly, neither will we say that we are adulterers and murderers every day, and every moment of our lives.

But let us ponder deeper. What is the law all about? What is the core of the law? We find the answer in the famous passage in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, as quoted by Jesus in Mark 12:29-31, the first and greatest commandment, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." Therefore, the whole law can be summarized in two words, "Loving God." The Bible says, "the Lord is one"; there is only one God, and there should be no other. This should remind us of what Jesus says in Matthew 6:24, "No one can serve two masters... You cannot serve both God and Money." So the problem with sin is not so much about man breaking rules or regulations, but rather the incapability of man to serve God as Lord and love Him with all his heart, and mind, and soul, and strength. So if any man is to become Christian, the problem of "Loving God" has to be answered.

Now come with me to Romans 1:18-19. The Bible says, "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them." Here, Paul asserts that no man is innocent. The natural man is without excuse because he consciously suppresses his knowledge of God in his wickedness. In other words, he is in active rebellion against God.

Romans 3 makes it even more vivid. Romans 3:9-12, "... Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin... There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one." If we take Paul's words seriously, then we have to conclude that men are by nature under a helpless situation. He has no cure by himself, and he is incapable of even turning to that cure.


Dead in Sin

This leads us to Ephesians 2:1, "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins..." Paul makes it clear that men are "dead" in sin; they are not just dying, but they are already dead. This "dead in sin" is manifested in his active rebellion against the Eternal God. He is by his very nature incapable of goodness, for he neither seeks God nor can he. He "followed the ways of this world"; he is under "the ruler of the kingdom of the air" (Ephesians 2:2), "gratifying the cravings of his sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts" (Ephesians 2:3). He is "by nature objects of wrath" (Ephesians 2:3).

Now let me ask you, "Is it possible for such man to turn and believe in God?" Let me make the question clearer, "Is it possible for a dead person to turn and believe in God?" No, of course not, and this is what Paul is driving at. Let me tell you a story. There was a rich man in a country far away. He was dying of a strange disease. Before he died, he threw in all his wealth into researching for the cure. Sadly, when the scientists returned with the cure, he just passed away. His wife lamented, "If only you guys have come an hour earlier..." The chief scientist responded with a smile, "Don't worry, this cure is magical, as long as his body has not decayed, we can still bring him back to life." However, just when he was about to give the dead man an injection, the lawyer came and interrupted, "Doctor, I am sorry, but we have law in this country that unless the patient personally signs an agreement, the doctors cannot try any new medicine on him." So the man died, and he died forever.

Do you see the point? If the man was simply dying, he could still respond and be cured, but he was already dead. In the same way, a natural man cannot be saved by his faith, because he is already "dead in his sin" and is incapable of believing.


The Problem of Free Will

Now some of you may object at this point, "But don't we all have 'free will'? Does not the Bible teach us that we are free to choose? Moreover, our experience also suggests that we are free!" How do we resolve this?

I have a friend. He liked to run a lot and was an excellent runner. Then one day, he was hurt in an accident. His spinal cord was damaged and he was paralyzed since then. Now he can no longer run like he used to. You see, our human "free-will" is also like that. Before the Fall of Adam and Eve, man was capable of seeking and trusting God, just like my friend was capable of running. However, after the Fall of Adam and Eve, man was damaged, and damaged permanently. He became spiritually dead, just like what Paul says. Though he maintains his physical free-will, he has lost his spiritual free-will. And like my friend, though he retains his vision, hearing, and speaking abilities, he is no longer able to run.

The Fall of Adam and Eve hurts us and it hurts us permanently. Man became "dead in sin," and is totally incapable of seeking, knowing, and trusting God. There is no way to salvation for him. Even if he encounters Christ, the natural man cannot by his own natural ability receive and believe in Him, for he has been damaged, he is now "dead in sin."


Saved by Grace through Faith

If all we have said is true, "Who then can be saved?" (Luke 18:26) Well, be hopeful, for "What is impossible with men is possible with God?" (Luke 18:27) Paul's answer to this seemingly impossibility is found in Ephesians 2:8, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God..." Salvation is a gift of God. While faith is a human response to the call of God, even this faith is a gift of God. Let me repeat, even the faith itself is a gift of God.

Now this response of faith is a "whole-souled movement of loving subjection and trust in God... turning to God with the whole heart, soul and strength and mind" (John Murray). Going back to the very fundamental question: "How can a person who is dead in trespasses and sins, whose mind is enmity against God, and who cannot do that which is well-pleasing to God answer such a call to the fellowship of Christ?" (John Murray). The answer is that grace has to be a grace of new birth, a new creation. God says through prophet Ezekiel, "A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you." (Ezekiel 36:26) It is God who gives us a new heart, and a new life, and only with this new nature, are we able to believe and trust in Christ. That's what Paul means in Ephesians 2:4, He "made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions..."


The New Birth

Turn with me to John 3:1-8. Here we see a man called Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee, and a member of the Jewish ruling council. The modern equivalent of such man will be a professor in theology, or a very renowned pastor. He came and he said, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God..." Notice two things here. First, Nicodemus was telling Jesus that "he knows"; and second, that "he knows about God." But look at Jesus' response to him, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."

Let me suggest that this is not a very polite answer at all. Literally, Jesus was telling him, "Heh, you joker, you think you know, but you know nuts. You are not qualified to talk about God, because you do not know Him. You are of the flesh and God is of the spirit." I don't mean that Jesus was purposefully rude, but that He was very blunt in his confrontation. He was pointing to Nicodemus the all-important truth that "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit." (John 3:6) Jesus' saying echoes what John writes in John 1:13 about those who are children of God. John asserts that they are "... children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God." (John 1:13) This is what we call "spiritual birth," "a new creation" (2Corinthians 5:17).

Some years ago, some Christians in the U.S. started a "Born Again Movement." It is a reaction to the watered-down Christianity in the U.S. The situation is that while many called themselves Christians, very few were actually practicing their beliefs. So this group of Christians wanted to go further than plain confession. They called themselves the "born again" Christians and challenged nominal Christians to be "born again." While their intention is admirable, the movement nevertheless leads to one mistaken conception about "spiritual birth." It gives the impression that one can decide whether to be born again or not. But this is exactly what Jesus and John are speaking against.

There are at least three reasons why we cannot choose to be born again. First, who among you, when you were still in your mother's womb, asked your mom to give birth to you? None of us did. One is totally passive in "being born." You don't choose to be born, but you were simply born. Second, Jesus declares in John 3:6, "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit." Given that we are by nature of the flesh, it is impossible for us to give birth or be born of the spirit. Third, John 1:13 makes it beyond any doubt that this new birth is never "of human decision... but... of God."

Thus the new birth, the spiritual birth, is wholly a sovereign act of God. God alone works, we are but the passive recipient of this new life. And with the new nature, we are then able to believe Him and love Him with all our hearts, and souls, and minds, and strength. So no one is saved because he believes, but rather he believes because he was first saved. Let me repeat: we are not saved because we believe, rather we believe because we were saved and were given the new nature.


The New Nature

Now I cannot overemphasize the radicality of this new birth. The change that God effects in us is radical and all-pervasive, "a change which is nothing less than a new creation." (John Murray) In its original language, the word "born again" can also be translated as "born from above." In other words, we are like "aliens" coming in from an outer world. Have you seen those alien movies? And do you notice how different the aliens are from people on earth? Born again people exhibit many drastic changes in their lives. Of course, in the long run, the difference between the flesh and spirit boils down to that of heaven and hell.

Notice that in Ephesians 2, Paul keeps on emphasizing the realization of this new life in the true believers. He repeatedly uses the past tense "you were..." in contrast to the existing new life. Thus the new birth enables us to get away from "the ways of the world," and makes us "obedient" children of God (Ephesians 2:2). Those who were born again have food that others do not know, i.e. to do the will of God (John 4:32,34); they walk by faith and not by sight (2Corinthians 5:7); they are aliens and strangers on earth (Hebrews 11:13); and they long for a different country, a heavenly city (Hebrews 11:16).


The Great Scandal

Very often, we encourage one another to imitate Christ. This is what Paul writes in Ephesians 5:1. But notice what he says, "Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children..." (Ephesians 5:1) Paul is speaking to those who are born anew. He is commanding those who are of God, and who has received the new nature from God. Paul is not a moralist, neither is Jesus. They did not come to encourage us to do good, but rather they have come to point us to the holiness of God and the helplessness of man.

This is where Christianity so differs from other religions. Christianity does not advocate good deeds, at least not primarily. In other religions, it is men who seek God and find Him. As for the Christian religion, no man seeks God, not even one; it is the grace of God that draws man unto Him. Christianity is considered a supernatural religion not so much because Christians believe in miracles, but that Christians possess a new nature that comes from above. Men are by nature God's enemies, but out of His great mercy and love, He saves us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, giving us a new birth, a new nature, and a new life. And with this, we cry out from our hearts, "Abba, Father." (Romans 8:15) Grace is grace because we have no part in it. We didn't choose Him, but He chose us out of His great love for us (John 15:16).



You may ask, "What then are the applications of all these?" I think our understanding of grace is applicational in at least 3 levels: 1) to those of us who are children of God, 2) to those who have yet been born again, and 3) to our whole attitude in doing evangelism. Let me elaborate.

First, to those who have been given new life. I want to emphasize first and foremost that this new life is only possible because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If Christ did not die for us, we have absolutely no hope. Even the life that we are living, it is a life in Christ. And since this new life is inputted to us by grace, not because we are better in any way, but simply because of His great mercy and love, there ought to be no boasting among us (Ephesians 2:9). Rather, we should be at awe as to how such amazing grace can ever come to sinners like us, who were by nature enemies of God.

I want to lead you back to the cross, where God's love for us is most powerfully manifested. Whenever you have any doubt of His love for you, turn to the Cross. I want you to think about the cost that God has to pay, the blood of Christ, in order that we may have this new life. And I want you to ask yourself, in view of such great love, what kind of response should you have towards Him? To me, the only legitimate response is to give ourselves to Him. If you have the heart of a heavenly child, you will know what I mean. The Bible says, "For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for Him who died for them and was raised again." (2Corinthians 5:14-15)

Second, there may be some of you who have called yourselves Christians for many years, yet now when confronted with the biblical teachings on the new birth, you begin to realize that this new nature is exactly what you lack. Remember, Nicodemus was as good a "Christian" as anyone can be, yet he was not born again. One of my professors told us a true story, that some years ago, we had a student studying theology among us. Then one morning, suddenly, after the chapel message, he came to the professor and said, "I think I have not been saved." Another true story was told of a pastor who was preaching an evangelistic message one day, and surprisingly he was converted by his own message. The congregation rejoiced, "Hurray, our pastor was born again today!"

Do these sound too foreign to you? Want to hear something closer to us? Last week, I was talking to a man who has been coming to church for over 20 years. He has been baptized and is very diligent in reading the Bible and other devotion books, and he knows much about what I am talking today. Yet in the end, he confessed, "I have been coming to church and reading the Bible for over 20 years. Yet the more I know, the more I am convinced that I have not been saved. I know what the Bible speaks about the new life, and I know I don't have it. I want so much to believe, but I am not able to put my full trust in Him." I admire this man for his honesty, and I urge you to be honest with yourself and God too.

There is nothing we can do about salvation, we are totally at the mercy of God. You just have to throw yourself at Him. You have to confess that you are absolutely helpless about your situation. Only God can give you the new birth. Throw yourself at the Cross of Jesus Christ, and plead for His mercy. That day, I told that man that I would pray for him, that God will have mercy on him and grant him grace. I pray the same for those among us too, that you too may experience this new life. It is useless to try to imitate Christ while you do not have the new nature; it is useless to try to become a Christian. You don't become a Christian; you are either one or you are not! Stop trying to beautify your outward acts, confess and plead for His mercy.

Lastly, the understanding of grace motivates us to pray for the unsaved. Since it is only by God's grace that any man can be saved, we must pray for His mercy to come to those not saved. On the other hand, we can be sure that our efforts in Christ are not in vain, because it is God who saves. It is not by the eloquence of man that people are converted. You want to harvest the field? Then, preach the Gospel, and preach the Gospel in its purity. You don't have to be afraid of preaching the cost of discipleship, for it is God who saves, not your words or mine. Just be faithful to the Gospel and pray for His grace.

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Created: 19 August 1997 ______ Last updated: 19 August 1997