Among the innumerable displays of the infinite wisdom of God which the gospel of his grace has revealed and brought to light, must be named the special provision which he has made—that good works should hold therein a fitting and appropriate place. One of the strongest objections which cavilers and opponents have in all ages brought against the doctrine of salvation wholly and solely by grace is, that it supersedes the necessity of good works, and thus by virtually, if not nullifying, yet reducing them to insignificance, opens a door directly or indirectly for licentiousness. Could this charge be substantiated, it would be almost fatal to the claims of free grace as a divine revelation, for a holy God could not sanction, much less devise and reveal, a scheme of salvation which, by encouraging sin, should break down the very barriers of moral rectitude. Even our natural conscience—even our dim and misty notions of right and wrong, virtue and vice, good and evil—would be shocked at, and revolt from any conclusion which would impair the holiness of God, or represent him as sanctioning or licensing sin.
In order, therefore, to secure the gospel from so fatal a charge, God has made a special provision that good works shall occupy in it a high and honorable place. That good works should save is one thing, that they should be wholly set aside is another. Not only, then, shall they, according to God's appointment, not be set aside, but they shall be raised in worth and value. They shall be made a means of glorifying God—which sets on them a higher and nobler stamp than if they merely effected or concurred in the salvation of man. They shall be done from higher, better, and purer motives—they shall be wrought by the blessed Spirit—they shall be accepted by and approved of God as fruits of righteousness, which grow upon and manifest the living branches of the only true Vine.
But let us, taking up the thread of our exposition, observe more particularly the place in which they are set by the Apostle in the chapter before us—"For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them." (Eph. 2:10.) Several points, thus placed before us, demand our attentive observation.
1. Observe, first, what is here declared of those who are saved by grace through faith—that they are God's "workmanship." The word here translated "workmanship," means in the original not so much the act or skill of the workman as the effect and product of that act and skill, and may therefore be more simply rendered "work." "We are his work"—the fruit and product of his creative hand. All, then, that we are and all that we have that is spiritual, and as such acceptable to God, we owe to the special operation of his power. There is not a thought of our heart, word of our lips, or work of our hands, which is truly holy and heavenly, innocent and sincere, glorifying to God or profitable to man, of which he is not by his Spirit and grace the divine and immediate Author.
Now beautifully is this expressed by the Church of old, and what an echo do her accents find in every gracious heart—"But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you our potter; and we all are the work of your hand." (Isa. 64:8.) How suitable, how expressive is the figure of the clay and the potter. Look at the moist clay under the potter's hand. How soft, how tender, how passive is the clay; how strong, how skillful are the hands which mold it into shape. As the wheel revolves, how every motion of the potter's fingers shapes the yielding clay, and with what exquisite skill does every gentle pressure, every imperceptible movement impress upon it the exact form which it was in his mind to make it assume. How sovereign was the hand which first took the clay, as the Apostle declares—"Has not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?" (Rom. 9:21.) And as divine sovereignty first took the clay, so divine sovereignty shapes it when taken into form.
Good works, therefore, properly so called, spring out of the inward operation of God's grace. By making the tree good he makes the fruit good. (Matt. 12:33.) He works in us first the will to do that which is good, and then he gives us the power. He thus works in us both to will and to do according to his good pleasure. (Phil. 2:13.) Under the operations of his grace we are transformed by the renewing of our mind to prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God; (Rom. 12:2;) and as this will is sought after to be known and done, good works follow as the necessary fruit.
All those acts of love and affection, of kindness, sympathy, and liberality towards the Lord's people; all those instances of self-denial and willingness rather to suffer than to do wrong; all those proofs of unselfish desire to do all the good we can according to our means, position, and circumstances of life; all that striving after and maintaining integrity and uprightness of conduct in all matters of business and trust; all that strict and scrupulous adherence to our word, even to our own injury; all that Christian fulfillment of our relative duties, and the social relationships of husband and father, wife and mother, which the scripture has enjoined—in a word, all those works which by almost unanimous consent are called "good" by men, are only really and truly good as wrought in the heart, lips, and life by the power of God.
But we must not linger too long on this one feature of good works, but pass on to show how they are the fruit of special ordination. Thus we are said to be "created in Christ Jesus unto good works which God has before ordained, that we should walk in them."
The performance of good works by his people, God, according to this testimony of the Apostle, is secured by three things—1. Sovereign ordination; 2. Actual creation; 3. Effectual operation. The last point we considered first, because the Apostle first names it by declaring that we are God's "workmanship." The two other points we shall now briefly consider:
2. Observe, then, that God has before ordained that we should walk in good works; that is, in the performance of them. Good works, therefore, are subjects of divine decree. This secures their performance, and they are thus as much a matter of predestination as the persons of the elect. Peter therefore declares that we are "elect unto obedience." (1 Peter 1:2.) Election unto eternal life, unto salvation, unto the blood of sprinkling many gladly hear of, receive, and profess. This, they say, is sweet and precious doctrine. And so indeed it is. But do they find or feel any similar sweetness and preciousness in being chosen and ordained to know and do the will of God? Do they see and feel the blessedness of the precept being secured by divine decree, as well as the promise—and that there is a constraining power in the love of Christ, under which they experience a holy and sacred pleasure in no longer living unto themselves, but unto him who died for them and rose again—similar in kind, if not in degree—to the pleasure which they experience in knowing they were ordained unto eternal life?
We hear much of election unto salvation. Many preach it, more profess it. But how many of these preachers, how many of these professors of the doctrine of election gladly preach or gladly hear of being elect unto obedience, or being ordained unto the performance of good works? And why, but because, even by the verdict of their own consciences, their lack of obedience would disprove their election, and their non-performance of good works would show they had neither part nor lot in this divine ordination? But until this obedience be rendered, until these good works be brought forth, half of the sweetness and blessedness of real religion and of salvation by grace is not felt or known, nor the liberty of the gospel thoroughly realized or enjoyed—for the gospel must be obeyed and lived, as well as received and believed, that its full liberating, sanctifying influences may be experienced, as sweetening the narrow and rugged path of doing and suffering the whole will of God.
3. But observe further, that believers are "created in Christ Jesus unto good works." The word "unto" means "for the purpose of." Among other ends, therefore, for which believers are made new creatures in Christ, one is that they may be fruitful in every good word and work.
This creation in Christ Jesus unto good works carries out their ordination unto them. As because they were ordained to eternal life, they were called by grace, and thus effectual calling follows upon and proves their predestination, so because they were ordained unto good works, they are created unto the performance of them. This creation is that new creation of which the Apostle elsewhere speaks—"Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature," or, more literally, "creation." (2 Cor. 5:17.) So also in this epistle—"And that you put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness." (Eph. 4:24.) And again—"And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him." (Col. 3:10.) All these texts speak the same clear, uniform language, that good works are the fruits of that new nature, that heavenly and divine principle which, as born of the Spirit, is spirit. This, therefore, sets good works in a very high, holy, and honorable place, and effectually distinguishes them from the good works of amiable, benevolent, active, and zealous men, which, however useful and beneficial to suffering humanity, are not wrought in them by the power of God, nor fruits of a new creation in Christ Jesus.
By thus keeping close to the inspired language of the Apostle, we avoid two great mistakes as regards good works—1. We do not ignore them, neglect them, slight them, and by never mentioning, dwelling, or insisting upon them, virtually set them aside. 2. We do not legalize them, and thus make out of them a yoke of bondage. They are not the tree, nor the sap of the tree—but the FRUITS of the tree, by which the nature and goodness of the tree are made manifest, and openly seen and known. As the goodness of the vine is seen and known by the goodness of the grapes; as their number, color, size, and flavor manifest to all who see and taste them the exact sort, cultivation, and character of the vine itself, so it is with the good works of the saints of God. They are outward marks and proofs of the inward grace of God, and by them the true saints of God are manifested to be trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified. And similarly by the lack of them are distinguished those dead professors, who so abound in our day, of whom Jude speaks, as "trees whose fruit withers, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots."
But as we are not preaching on the subject of good works, but attempting to open the chapter before us in a way of simple, experimental exposition, we shall now proceed with the Apostle—"Therefore remember, that you being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world." (Eph. 2:11, 12.) There is a break in the subject here. Up to this point, from the very commencement of the epistle, the Apostle had been dwelling upon the rich and wondrous blessings which God in his grace had bestowed upon the saints in Ephesus and the faithful in Christ Jesus. Commencing with their election in Christ, he had traced out blessing after blessing in him, until he had brought them out as trees of righteousness, bearing abundant fruit, and thus glorifying God. But now, lest they should be lifted up with pride, and think that there was something in them more than in others which drew down upon them those special distinguishing favors, he reminds them of their base original, and especially of this circumstance, that they were Gentiles, and as such had no interest in the promises made to the literal Israel. "The Circumcision in the flesh made by hands," that is, the literal Israel, Israel after the flesh, the lineal descendants of Abraham, the Jews, had an interest in the promises, and especially in the great promise of the Messiah, who was to come from Israel and to Israel. As physical Israel has been for a time cast off from the favor of God, we are very apt to overlook the privileges possessed by it, and much study of the Scriptures, both Old and New, and simple adherence to the testimony of God therein, in spite of our own powerful prejudices and current opinions, are necessary to understand the mind of the Spirit concerning the ancient family of God.
Paul enumerates the privileges of ancient Israel very clearly and concisely—"Who are Israelites; to whom pertains the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen." (Rom. 9:4, 5.) It would take us too far from our subject to explain the privileges thus enumerated, and to show the position of physical Israel at the time when the gospel was first preached as well as now. That position is well and clearly opened in Peter's address to them (Acts 3:22-26); and by Paul and Barnabas. (Acts 13:46) 47.) In Christ, as chosen and blessed in him, there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, as Paul speaks—"Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise." (Gal. 4:28.) And again—"There is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free; but Christ is all, and in all." (Col. 3:11.)
But there is a 'distinction in privilege', and this distinction is clearly opened in the words—"Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers; and that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to you among the Gentiles, and sing unto your name." (Rom. 15:8, 9.) Thus what the Jew received at the first promulgation of the gospel, he received by promise—but what the Gentile received he received by pure mercy. The distinction between them may be thus illustrated.
Here are two men, equally needy. To the one I have promised help, to the other not. When, then, I give a present to the former, I give it according to promise; when I give a present to the latter, I give it of pure favor. As Gentiles, therefore, these Ephesian saints had no claim upon God. They were not children of any covenant which God had made with their fathers. Intimations, indeed, of intended mercy for the Gentiles were scattered up and down the Scriptures, some of which the Apostle quotes, Rom. 15:10-12; and the grand promise made to Abraham, that "in his seed all the nations of the earth should be blessed," folded in its all-embracing arms Gentile as well as Jew. But as Gentiles they were far off from God, and their wicked lives, their foul idolatries, their gross superstitions, their dense ignorance, their natural atheism and infidelity set them farther still. The Apostle, therefore, sets before them their state as Gentiles, that he may impress more clearly and powerfully upon them their obligations to free, sovereign, and superabounding grace.
Thus he goes on to tell them—"That at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world." (Eph. 2:12.) They were, in their natural state, before divinely quickened and made alive unto God, "without Christ," that is, without manifest union and communion with him. The word translated "without" is the same as occurs in the expression, "Without me you can do nothing;" where we read in the margin, "severed from me." Though in the purposes of God, and by their eternal election in Christ, they were members of his mystical body, they had not been baptized into Christ by the Spirit so as to be made living members of his spiritual body, the Church (1 Cor. 12:13), and therefore had not "put on Christ." (Gal. 3:27.)
And as they were, such were we. We were "without Christ" in our Gentile days. He had no place in our thoughts. We knew nothing of his Person and work, blood and righteousness, beauty and blessedness, grace and glory. He was to us a root out of a dry ground, and in our eyes he had no form nor loveliness. His name might have been on our lips, but his Spirit and grace were not in our hearts. And if matters be in any way different now with us, if there be any faith on him, hope in him, or love to him, grace has wrought it all. Let us never forget what we were before we were called by grace. Let the remembrance of our sins and of the whole bent and current of our lives be bitter to us, that we may all the more prize and admire the riches of that sovereign grace which stooped to us in our low and lost estate. The paschal lamb was to be eaten with bitter herbs. The remembrance of Egyptian bondage should ever accompany the enjoyment of gospel liberty, and godly sorrow for sin the feeding on the flesh of Christ.
They were also "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel." It is hard for us to realize now the peculiar position which Israel occupied as the outward people of God. The word "commonwealth" means rather "polity"—its literal translation; and by the polity of Israel we are to understand the whole of their civil, religious, and national fabric. God himself had built them up into a nation different from all other nations. He had assigned them a peculiar land, of which he put them into possession. He gave them a code of laws—moral, civil, and religious. He appointed rites and sacrifices, by which he was to be approached and worshiped. He set apart a peculiar tribe, that of Levi, to minister in his service, and a peculiar family of that tribe, the house of Aaron, to minister at his altar and in his tabernacle. He thus made of Israel a peculiar commonwealth, or rather a polity, and as such it had privileges peculiar to itself, and such as no other nation on earth ever possessed.
Now, the Ephesian saints, and all other Gentile believers in common with them, were "aliens from this commonwealth of Israel," and therefore had no part or lot, share or interest in the laws, privileges, sacrifices, and ceremonies of that peculiar people. When, then, the blessings of the gospel were extended to them, God went, so to speak, out of his way—not, indeed, out of the way of his secret will and the firm decrees of the everlasting covenant, but out of the way marked in the lines of his word; and when Israel, as a people, by the voice of their leaders rejected the Son of God and crucified the Lord of glory, the stream of blessing was diverted from its natural and prescribed course, and turned into the Gentile wilderness, to make the desert rejoice and to blossom as the rose.
Similarly they were "strangers from the covenants of promise." There is a little apparent difficulty in the word "covenant," as being in the plural, not the singular number; for God's covenant with Israel after the flesh was really but one, and is so spoken of by the Apostle, Gal. 3:15-17; 4:24; Heb. 8:9, 13; 9:1. But he speaks also, Rom. 9:4, of the "covenants" as Israel's peculiar privilege. We explain the difficulty thus—The covenant made with Israel was really and truly but one, but as given and renewed on more than one occasion, it may be viewed as several. There were two special occasions on which this covenant with Israel was made. 1. It was made first with Abraham (Gen. 15:18; 17:2-8.) 2. It was made secondly with the children of Israel at Mount Sinai. (Exod. 34:10, 27; Deut. 5:2.) Thus though the covenant with Israel was really but one, yet as thus repeated and enlarged, and stored with fuller and clearer promises, it may be spoken of as more than one. In a similar manner we speak of "the charters" of our early English kings, though really and truly Magna Charta is the great and only charter, of which all subsequent charters were but the renewing, enlarging, and re-establishing.
These covenants contained promises, some absolute and others conditional, and therefore are called "the covenants of promise." The original promises made to Abraham were absolute and unconditional. These were mainly three. 1. That the Lord would be a God to him and to his seed after him. 2. That in his seed Christ (Gal. 3:16) all the nations of the earth should be blessed. 3. That he would give the land of Canaan to him and his posterity for an everlasting possession. These promises were absolute and unconditional, and have never been revoked, though the first and third are in abeyance.
But the promises made at Mount Sinai were conditional. See, for instance, Deut. 28, and observe how conditional the promises contained in it are. Every blessing was promised them if obedient; every curse threatened if they were disobedient. The conditional character of those blessings is well summed up, Deut. 30:15-20. Now the Gentiles were strangers to those covenants of promise. They were not altogether without promises, for they had an interest in the one great promise, besides scattered promises of intended mercy; but they had no promises made to them in and by a specially revealed covenant. Mercy, therefore, comes to them out of the overflowings of God's grace, and this makes it doubly precious.