Here is one of the best known evangelical texts in the Bible, the Apostle Paul’s classic statement of how Christ’s salvation is experienced by individuals:
“By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8=9)
By grace, through faith, not of works — that’s the formula for salvation.
During the election season in America, we hear a lot of talk about “entitlements” vs. “welfare.” This passage of Scripture tells us in no uncertain terms that our salvation is a welfare program, not an entitlement. None of us wants to admit we’re “on the dole,” and this desire to be proudly self-sufficient keeps many people from receiving God’s free gift. There’s no way to buy it; there’s no way to earn it; there’s no way to deserve it. It’s all flowing from God’s grace:
“God who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us . . . made us alive together with Christ.” (verse 4)
It’s a historical fact that many of America’s most extensive programs for providing aid to middle and lower income families arose as a result of the Great Depression, including Social Security, Aid to Families of Dependent Children, the Veterans Administration, Unemployment Compensation, Food Stamps and Agricultural Price Supports. It’s only when times are really bleak that a proud society admits it needs help on every level.
In our spiritual parallel, Paul makes it clear that people accept God’s grace welfare plan only when they admit they are in a Great Moral Depression, which he describes graphically:
“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.” (verses 1-3)
It’s against this background of hopelessness that his gospel announcement shines so brightly:
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-by grace you have been saved.” (verses 4-5)
Salvation by grace is not the result of good works, but it does result in good works. Reading the original text a little farther, we find Paul affirming confidently:
“By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (verses 8-9)
California and some other states have tried hard to develop meaningful Welfare-to-Work programs, so that financial aid is seen as temporary, while new job skills and opportunities are developed. The ultimate goal is self-sufficiency. These programs have been only moderately successful, especially in a distressed economy.
God’s philosophy is quite different. He expects a believer to remain on welfare forever; she/he will always be dependent on grace. However, this spiritual welfare is guaranteed to lead to good works, because the saved person is empowered and enabled, not by his/her own efforts, but by Christ (“created in Christ Jesus”) and will, therefore, lead to a “way of life prepared beforehand” by God. This is a kind of no lose position for a believer.
What keeps modern Americans from considering God’s offer of salvation by grace is eloquently expressed in the current ad campaign for Hershey’s Caramels. The ad features tempting images of the sinfully delicious candies with a musical background of Kid Ink with the group “Fifth Harmony,” singing
“Gimme Gimme I’m worth it.”
— Pastor George Van Alstine