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Until about fifty years ago, military boarding high schools dotted the American landscape. Today, only a handful remain. I attended and graduated from one of those schools and benefited greatly from the experience. From “Reveille” to “Taps,” practically every moment of the day was scheduled with military, academic, and athletic activities. The economy of discipline was based on a system of merits and demerits. Cadets were awarded merits for good behavior and demerits for offenses such as being late for morning formation, failure to clean one’s room, or my favorite, “trifling in ranks.” If one’s demerits outnumbered his merits, he was required to march, or, as it was not-so-affectionately called, “walk the beat,” while his fellow cadets enjoyed going into town for dinner or a movie. The system was effective, however, in maintaining discipline and preparing us for life in the “real world.”
We live in a society that is so much based on merit that it’s easy to assume that this principle applies to our standing before God. We hear people say, “I believe that if my good outweighs the bad, God will let me into heaven.” That idea is confirmed in the findings of Ligonier Ministries’ comprehensive study called the State of Theology. In the 2016 survey, 78 percent agreed with the statement, “An individual must contribute his or her own effort for personal salvation.” Equally troubling, a majority of evangelical Christians agreed with that statement.
Leave it to the Apostle Paul to eliminate any notion that we have something to do with our salvation. In Ephesians 2, just after detailing the spiritual blessings we enjoy in Christ, Paul makes this rather jarring declaration: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world” (vv. 1–2). Why does he say that? The answer perhaps is twofold. First, just as the ancient Israelites needed to be reminded that it was God who brought them out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt, we need to be reminded of how God brought us out of the bondage of our sin. But, second, there is a strong temptation, even for Christians, to think that our good works (i.e., merits) must count for something.
Our problem, however, is not that our demerits outnumber our merits. Scripture informs us, “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa. 64:6). Any merits we think we have accumulated are useless because the fall has left our nature radically corrupt. King David recognized this when he declared, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). As for any notion that we can work our way into heaven, George Whitefield replied, “I would as soon think of climbing to the moon on a rope of sand!”
Additionally, Paul reminds us that we were “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). Wrath is a topic many in the church would rather ignore. But, Dr. R.C. Sproul believed we do so at our peril. In his book Saved from What?, Dr. Sproul responded to the popular evangelistic slogan, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” He wrote: “The reality is that God does not have a wonderful plan for the impenitent. To such people, God’s plan won’t look good at all on the day of judgment. God will speak then in His fury.” In other words, God saves us from Himself.
It’s after he gives this staggering diagnosis of our condition that Paul speaks two of the most encouraging, life-giving words we find in Scripture: “But God” (v. 4). The God who hates sin and one day will judge it righteously is also the same God who is “rich in mercy.” He was willing to pour out His wrath on His own Son to pay the price for our rebellion and, in return, give us the perfect record His Son earned during His earthly life. In other words, our demerits were given to Christ and His merits awarded to us (2 Cor. 5:21). And all of this was motivated by the amazing love God has for His people. As Dr. David Strain wrote in an earlier issue of Tabletalk: “Jesus did not persuade the Father to save. He does not apply the leverage of the cross to pry salvation from the Father’s miserly fist. No, the cross was the Father’s idea, conceived by His love for unlovely rebels.”
How should we live in light of these great truths? First, we should be humble. Paul tells us that since we have nothing to do with our salvation (Eph. 2:8–9), there is no reason to boast. Our attitude should mirror that of the tax collector, who, “standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ ” (Luke 18:13).
Second, we should be grateful. Gratitude is the essence of the Christian life. After all, our salvation, including the faith by which it’s applied to us, is a gift (Eph. 2:8–9). How do we demonstrate this gratitude? One of the great hymns of the church opens with these words: “Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices.” That means gratitude should permeate every aspect of our lives in thought, word, and deed.
Third, we no longer live for ourselves but for the One who rescued us from death and gave us new life. Paul concludes this passage by telling us, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (v. 10). That means we submit our wills to His and allow Him to mold us more and more into His image. With a new heart comes the desire to love God and, yes, to work for Him.
Fourth, as we interact with the broader culture, let us remember what Jesus says about who we are and where we reside: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt. 5:14). Therefore, He exhorts us, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (v. 16).