The God Who Has Saved Us by His Grace Alone
2 Timothy 1:9, 10. God ‘has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.’
What mighty words! What a vision that sweeps from the beginning of time to immortality! Now we know with absolute certainty the identity of the ‘us’ that Paul refers to three times in our text. The text itself tells us that they are the people whom God has saved, and whom God has called, and who also were given grace in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time. We know that the ‘us’ must certainly refer to Paul and Timothy. God had saved them, and God called them to live a holy life, in fact God’s grace was given to them before the foundation of the world. So the ‘us’ here is a very definitive and particular constituency. It certainly does not refer to Satan and the rebel angels, and it does not refer to those who perished in Noah’s flood, and it does not refer to the emperor Nero. Today we could also add that these pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’ do not refer to Hitler and they do not embrace the unsaved and the unholy – those who reject the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. But we’d all agree that it certainly refers to the apostle Paul and to Timothy, but surely we must then add that it also embraces those others who believe as Paul and Timothy believed and live as they lived. Such believers are all saved and called to a holy life.
1. What a Christian is
We are given a number of clues to what is a Christian from our text.
i] A Christian is someone whom God has saved. It is very simply expressed in four words of one syllable. God has saved us. We have been pointing out recently how there are men and women also who are engaged in saving vocations, firemen, and lifeboatmen, and mountain rescue teams, and lifeguards, and helicopter rescue pilots. They all save people from suffering and death. God saves people. What does he save us from? God saved Paul and Timothy from sin, from the consequences of breaking the law of God. He saves men and women from the guilt of being law-breakers, and from the power that sin exercises over us that makes some temptations quite overwhelming and almost irresistible. God saves us from that impotence, and also he saves us from the consequences of our sinning in that there is the judgment that sin will certainly and inevitably bring upon us. The wages of sin is death. God will send in the bill for a life of rebellion and indifference to him. God saves us from all of that, and he does so through his Son Jesus Christ by his living the blameless life of keeping and loving the law that we have failed to live, and by his taking the judgment that our sin deserves in his body and soul on the cross of Golgotha. So a Christian is not someone whom God will save some day, but he is someone whom God has saved.
ii] A Christian is someone whom God has called to live a holy life. That is what our text says, that God has saved us and called us to a holy life (v.9). These two actions of God are indivisible. They are not an either-or; this is a both-and, both saving us and calling us to live a holy life. You cannot choose the second as an option to add to the first – if you are so inclined. The first is indispensable – we must be saved. But the second is indispensable too. If we are saved by God we are also summoned by God to live a blameless and godlike life. Holy living is not a suggestion from God, it is a call, an effectual call. If you go on living just as you always lived before you professed to become a Christian then you are mistaken in claiming to have been saved. The forger who says he has been saved by God but continues his forgery is unsaved. The drunkard who claims to have been saved but goes on regularly getting drunk is unsaved. The thief who claims to have been saved but who does not stop stealing is unsaved. The man who once ignored the Holy Bible and then professes to have been saved, but soon indicates he has no desire for Holy Scripture read and Holy Scripture preached is an unsaved man. Because the God who has saved us has also called every one of the saved to live a holy life.
Paul might have heard a professing saved man suggesting that it was O.K. for him to go on sinning because then there would be more grace and more forgiveness and more mercy shown to him by God – ‘I am simply giving God’s grace plenty of scope!’ That is the devil’s logic to argue like this, ‘If you are justified by faith alone you may live as you please. You have a place reserved for you in heaven, so sin without compunction!’ Paul’s response is a resounding, ‘God forbid! By no means! No way Jose.’ It is utterly unthinkable to Paul that a professing Christian saved from the condemnation of sin through the kindness of the love of God in sending his Son and not sparing him from the accursed death of the cross should subsequently live for self! Such sinning is to be making merchandise of Golgotha.
Paul tells us that those who are saved are also called to a holy life. If a Christian is indeed justified by faith in the finished work of Christ alone than he will inevitably demonstrate that faith by a life which is not merely moral but positively holy. We are certainly justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies a sinner is never alone. It is always accompanied by a holy life and good works. They are not instrumental in his justification but they are evidential and necessary. This is the buzz phrase, that justification always leads to sanctification. Robert Murray M’Cheyne spoke on behalf of every Christian when he said, ‘If Christ justifies you he will sanctify you. He will not save you only then abandon you to your sinning.’ As Ryle said, ‘No holiness, no heaven!’ So a Christian is someone who is saved and who has been called to live a holy life.
2. Why God Should Have Saved Us and Called Us to Live a Holy Life
Paul gives Timothy two answers to that question, the first is negative and the second is positive.
i] It was not that we did something to deserve it (v.9). Let us clear away that heresy and destroy it. Was it the fact that we were a particularly good people that constrained God to save us? Did the Father rub his hands with glee as he saw you and turn to the Son and say to him, ‘Now there’s a fine man that we must save! He is worth saving!’ No. Was it the righteous, and noble, and rich, and influential, and beautiful, and really smart, that Father, Son and Holy Spirit decided to choose, ‘We’re going to have those! They would be real assets to the kingdom of God.’ Never in a month of Sundays! That was not at all how God has worked! God never bases his choice on what man thinks, or says, or does, or is. We don’t know what God has based his choices upon, but we do know that it is not on anything that’s in man. And isn’t that wonderful? Suppose God had said that he would save a person because that person had attained a certain standard of morality, or theology, or religious experience, or had attained some glorious concept of the living God. Who then could ever be saved? What man here today could stand before God and claim that he had done one thing that for a single moment could bear the total, holy scrutiny of God, whom God himself would evaluate and conclude, ‘When he did that it was 100% perfect’? If God’s salvation were dependent on one single perfect thing that’s found in us, something that is as holy as God himself, then no one would be saved. No one would get to heaven. All would go to the place of woe. For no one is righteous, no not one.
When God evaluates us he really scrutinizes our hearts and our motives and our imaginations – the God who knows everything – and God’s final judgment on everyone is this, that even our righteousnesses are in his sight as discredited as used toilet paper. When we fallen, dirty specks of dust are set down in his presence then you see the vastness of the existential contrast, an utterly sinless holy God on the one hand – light, with no darkness at all – and then ourselves, people who drink iniquity like water on the other. We deserve nothing from God because of the sin of our father Adam and our own personal rebellions against God. What could we possibly do to deserve the glories of heaven, to inherit the love of God eternally, to know complete forgiveness of all our sins, past, present and future, to become heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, to look forward to becoming like the Son of God and to be loved now and then with the same love as Jesus Christ is loved. What would be the price of deserving that? Would a man give the whole world and then get all that glory in return? But we don’t have a world to give. We have nothing to give in exchange for that salvation. It was not because of anything that we’ve done that he saved us. It was not because of something in our youth or childhood that we did something good and so God has rewarded us with glorification. This is an undeserved salvation, one that could not be earned or bought or merited in any way. So, positively, why did God save us and summon us to live a holy life? What does Paul say?
ii] It was because of his own purpose and grace. Some of you remember the catechism question (Westminster Shorter Catechism no. 7) ‘What are the decrees of God?’ And the answer is, ‘The decrees of God are His eternal purposes, whereby for His own glory he has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.’ God has made up his mind that certain things should be done, and thus they will most certainly be done. ‘I will declare the decree’ says God (Psa. 2:7). If the Almighty has purposed then he will never fail to achieve his purposes. His purposes are the first things; his purposes are the ultimate things. In other words we can go back behind our own choice of God to God choosing us, and we can go back behind God choosing us to God’s purpose in choosing us. But you can’t go behind God’s loving purpose to anything more rational or more basic. God’s loving purpose is the ultimate; it is the highest you can go. It is the alpha, the wellspring, the source of all that follows; it is what turns the switch on the whole humming machinery of redemption. ‘According to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus’ (Eph. 3:11). There is nothing that has more priority above the purposes of God; there is no angel or archangel giving him advice so that then he changed his mind. In the beginning there was the purpose of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and that alone. There is nothing more foundational than the loving purpose of God. It’s there that we find everything God has decreed. He purposed to create the world and so he decreed it; ‘Let there be light!’ He spoke and it was done. We owe our existence, the very breaths we take day by day, our existence on this planet, in this solar system, in this galaxy and in this cosmos to God’s purpose. In the beginning, when there was nothing else but God, then God created all things and without him was not anything made that was made. It was then that God purposed to permit the fall of man and to send the Messiah to redeem the world and to save all his people. He did it like that because that was the greatest display of his glory. Everything before us and after us, above us and beneath us, in us and outside of us – all of it goes back to the loving purposes of God.
But when God determined to save us then more was needed than his words, ‘Let them be saved!’. Saving and glorifying grace through his Son Jesus Christ was required – in order for God’s purpose to be fulfilled. God’s grace was essential in order to give us what we didn’t deserve and what we could do nothing to obtain. Sin and grace are like the two carriages on the cliff-top railway in Aberystwyth. You know how they work. One mighty strong cable joins them. When one is up, then the other is down. What is upmost in your life? Is it you and your sin, or is it the grace of God in Jesus Christ? When one is up then the other is down. God’s grace is his purpose and power of God in redeeming us. He would not leave mankind in the estate into which their fall had plunged them. God would send his Son and spare him not. He would become the Lamb of God who would take away our sin. He would become incarnate and live in a dark fallen world; he would grow old prematurely by the enormous pressures of constantly living under scrutiny and constant testing by ignorant followers and hateful enemies; he would suffer physically, psychologically, socially and spiritually. He would bear the judgments of men upon him in false accusation and interrogation and beatings and lashings and crucifixion and mockery and death; he would bear the judgment of God for our guilt which was imputed to him. He did all this quietly and willingly because he loved us and had purposed to enter this world and enter the anathema of God in our place to save us in his grace.
3. At What Time God Did Purpose to Focus His Saving Grace Upon Us
Paul says, ‘This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.’ It was not when we made a decision, that then God gave us grace. In fact it was before the beginning of time, before the first tick of the first clock, when there were no clocks and nothing whatsoever only God and his glory. It was then, we are told here in Scripture,that God had a purpose, and his purpose was to save favoured people, and that each of them would live a holy life. That is what Paul is saying here. Now, let me ask this question, at that time, before the earth’s foundations were laid, did God have foreknowledge? In other words did the God who is from eternity to eternity know everything that was going to happen? Was he in the dark about the future wondering how things would pan out? No he was not ignorant. God knows everything past, present and future. So when God looked at the future, when he looked at this 21st century and the people who would live here today what did he see? We are told in the letter to the Romans chapter 3 and verses 10, 11 and 12 exactly what God saw; ‘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.’ Did God see certain people of their own free wills choosing Christ and living a holy life? No he did not. There was not one. There was no one seeking God, but long, long ago, before the beginning of time, at that moment, pre-creation, God focused his saving grace on a multitude of people more than any man could number, all of them without God, and against God, and yet he chose them and determined to forgive all their sins.
There were two women who talked to their pastor one Sunday night after he had been preaching on a passage like the one that is before us. The first Christian woman had a problem with the teaching she had heard that God had purposed to save her before the foundation of the world. She talked about it to her pastor, and he gently asked her if she were saved. She told him that she believed she was. ‘Who saved you?’ he asked, ‘did you save yourself or did God save you?’ ‘Oh, God saved me,’ she affirmed. ‘Did he do it on purpose or was it an accident?’ ‘I reckon he must have done it on purpose,’ she said. ‘Then that is what Paul is writing about here in our passage. “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.” That is the doctrine of the sovereignty of God in election.’ The woman saw it and was content. The second Christian woman was quite different. She had no problem with God purposing to save her before the beginning of time. She smiled at her pastor and thanked him for the message and said to him that if God had not chosen her from before the foundation of the world he would never have saved her during her life because she had been such a bad woman. God knew the much married woman of Samaria before the beginning of time and he purposed to save her. He knew Mary Magdalene who was possessed with seven demons before the beginning of time and purposed to save her. And isn’t every Christian mighty glad that God knew all about them even before God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and yet he in grace still purposed to save them? How could he do that? Because before the worlds were made, then in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. In other words, Jesus Christ was there at God’s right hand in the beginning. He was the great reality in heaven, as much God as God the Father, possessing every attribute and function of God, and his Father had given him in the beginning all those people for him to save them through his coming and living and dying and rising and praying. We were a donation of grace from the Father to the Son, and he had lovingly taken us then. We were on his heart then and would be for ever and ever worlds without end. We were joined to him for ever from then on. It was all because of Jesus we were saved and lived different lives, It was because of all he was and continues to be as the God-man, and all he would do as our Saviour that then God would act to save and sanctify all these people as innumerable as the grains of sand on Aberystwyth beach. God was then saying, ‘I will give this grace of salvation to the woman of Samaria, and to Mary Magdalene, and to Saul of Tarsus and to the chief of sinners, because I am giving them into the mighty safe keeping of my omnipotent and beloved Son Christ Jesus through all the years of time and for eternity.’
In 1969 at the famous Keswick Convention the late John Stott gave the four morning Bible readings on this epistle, 2 Timothy. I would love to have been there, but I have a book of all his Bible readings, and this is what he said then and there about this particular text:
It is plain therefore that our salvation is not due to any merit or good works of our own, because God gave us his purpose of grace in Christ before we did any good works; before we were born or could do any good works; indeed before history, before time and in eternity.
What do we have in this passage so far? The divine answer to five common questions.
i] Did we save ourselves or did God save us? God saved us.
ii] Was it we who first made the decision to live a holy life or did God first make that decision? It was God.
iii] Was any of this because of something that we had done? It was not because of anything that we had done but because of God’s own purpose and grace.
iv] When did this saving grace fall upon us? It was given us before the beginning of time.
v] On what basis did God purpose to save and change us? Was it based on our deserving and our lives? No it was based on us being united to Christ Jesus by the purpose of God in the beginning. Chosen in him before the foundation of the world.
But let me move on because there are just one or two other things in this text.
4. When the World Saw this Salvation of Grace
When God revealed to the world the incarnation of salvation in the Saviour, Jesus Christ. To the young virgin Mary and to her betrothed husband Joseph was revealed the coming of the Son of God the Saviour. To shepherds the angels proclaimed that it was unto them in the city of David a Saviour had been born who was Christ the Lord. To the magi a sign was set in the heavens in a star so that they knew that the King of kings had come. The Lord Christ was born of a woman, born under the law. He was announced by his herald, John the Baptist, that he was the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. He has appeared, what before his birth no eye had seen, nor ear heard nor had entered into the heart of man such glory as this that in one person there would be two natures, one that was totally human and one that was absolutely divine, both joined together without division for eternity. This is what Paul says about this grace that, ‘it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus,’ (v.10). The promised one came! God said that the seed of the women would come and bruise the serpent’s head. He came! The son of David came! The one born of the woman whose name is wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father and the Prince of peace came. The suffering servant of Isaiah 53 on whom the Lord laid the iniquity of us all – he came. What can we say of him? What more moving than these memorable words about him preached by a man called James Allen Francis a century ago.
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He worked in a carpenter’s shop until he was thirty. Then for three years he was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never owned a house. He never went to college. He never travelled more than 200 miles from the place where he was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself. He was only 33 when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. He was nailed to a cross between two criminals. When he was dead he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today he stands as the central figure of the human race. I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that have ever marched, all the navies that have ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man on earth as has this one solitary life.
Four men wrote careful gospels in which they tell us about his life and teaching, his mighty works, his debates with his opponents, he attitude to children and his family, to women, to soldiers and his own disciples. They tell us of his claims, that he is the way, and the truth, and the life, that before Abraham was he existed, he is the resurrection and the life, he and his Father are one. A man like Peter was an eye-witness of his life from his baptism to his resurrection. More than 500 people were present at one of his resurrection appearance when he walked and talked with them for a good time and encouraged them to trust in him. Many lived for decades after the event and loved any opportunity to tell other that they had seen him risen from the dead. What is ultimate reality? Is it death or is it the preacher of the sermon on the mount? It is the Lord Jesus Christ. He came, he tells us, not to be served but to serve us and to give his life as a ransom for many. He knew that his mission was to be the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world and he was aware that he was walking with destiny until Calvary. He set his face on that goal. Though his best friends sought to persuade him to think again – wasn’t his ministry of teaching and healing far more important than provoking the authorities and making no attempt to escape then Jesus rejected those words, on some occasions most vehemently – “Get thee behind me Satan” he said to Peter. He must go to Jerusalem. He must be betrayed. He must suffer and be nailed to a cross. He must taste death and then on the third day rise again. That is the only way we could be redeemed. No salvation and no holy living without it. He died to deal with out guilt and blame, but he also died to make us good. As Paul says to the Ephesians, ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless’ (Eph. 5:25-27).
That is the grace that has been revealed to the world in the appearing of the Lord Jesus Christ. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail the incarnate deity! He is the one who is the double cure of sin. He cleanses us from its guilt but also from its power, and this good news is now revealed to the world in Christ’s life and death and resurrection. Consider him! Look to this Jesus! We preach not ourselves. We are not a particularly fascinating or beautiful group of people and all we have to offer you is this revelation from God of his Son Jesus Christ to tell you that in him salvation is to be found. He was named Jesus because he came to save his people from their sin, and that is what he is able to do for you. The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin. One final statement.
5. Jesus Christ Has Destroyed Death and Brought to Light Life and Immortality
God has saved us and called us to a holy life – what good news, but Paul has not finished. God has destroyed death and brought to light life and immortality. Who is writing these words about death being destroyed? It is a man who is himself facing the imminent prospect of death. Any day now three soldiers could come into his cell, two of them could hold an arm and the third take a short sword in his hand and thrust it through Paul’s solar plexus and up into his heart. That was a humane Roman death. And so death was in Paul’s mind and yet in the very face of that deadly immanence Paul could cry defiantly, “The Lord Jesus Christ my Saviour and my friend, has abolished death!” The Christian gospel is magnificent! The world will make nervous jokes about death but will not think about it let alone talk about it seriously. We talk about it. We sing about our hope, ‘For ever with the Lord. Amen, so let it be!’ What a sweep of history is in our text. Before the beginning of time God had purposed to save us and now we face a future destiny when we are going to be with him and like him in eternity. Paul was incarcerated in a cold cell with probably a small hole in the ceiling for light and then hours of darkness with the stench, and the cockroaches and vermin. His body was confined there, but his mind and heart could soar into eternity, and that is what the gospel does in us and for us.
All mankind are facing death, physical death, the separation of the soul from the body, spiritual death, the separation of the soul from God, and eternal death or the second death, the separation of soul and body from the kindness of mercy of God for ever. All this is due to our sin; all this is sin’s just reward. But God has sent his Son to be abolish death. What does that mean? It does not mean the elimination of death. It can’t, because we know that all men and women without Christ today are spiritually dead in their trespasses and sins, and all of us are facing physical death, and some who continue to defy God are going to die the second death in hell. So that death is still a reality; it has not be eliminated. But its power to snuff us out, and keep us under its control for ever has been defeated. Christ is more powerful than death. He has met it on Golgotha. It has done its worst against him. He breathed his last, and he tasted death for three days, but on the third day he rose from the dead. Death could not keep its prey, Jesus my Saviour; he broke the bars away, Jesus my Lord, and up from the grave he arose.
What Paul is saying is that Christ has destroyed the invincible power that it had. We may now taunt death – ‘Oh death where is your power? Oh death, where is your sting? My Lord and Saviour is mightier than you. Because he lives we shall live also.’ Christ is the first-fruits of all them that sleep in him. In I Corinthians 15 death is compared to a scorpion whose sting has been drawn; the insect tries to stab and sting but it is blunt and weaponless and impotent. So the bragging tyranny of death is ended. Death is toothless! In Christ we discover the death of death. Life and immortality have been brought to light in the gospel. To die is actually enormous gain. It is better. It is falling asleep in Jesus. It is to live for evermore and never die. Spiritual death has been overcome; we walk with our Lord here on earth and we continue to walk with him for ever. Even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death we’re not alone. He is with us comforting us. No Christian ever died alone. People without Christ are facing darkness; their life is in the words of a 20th century drama, A Long Day’s Journey into Night. What despair! But for the Christian it is the very opposite, our pilgrimage is a short day’s journey into light!
The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. That gift is now being offered to you. Over the Christmas period were you offered gifts from your family and friends? Did you refuse any of them? Did you shake your head when someone presented you with a nicely wrapped gift? Wouldn’t they have been hurt? God has brought you here today to hear that he so loved the world that he gave a wonderful gift, his only begotten Son. Have you received that gift? Have you thanked God for it? Do you know what receiving that gift means? You will not perish but have everlasting life. Take the gift. Receive the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and so serve him as your Lord and Saviour – the living one!
Geoff Thomas is the Former Pastor of Alfred Place Baptist Church, Aberystwyth, Wales. He will be speaking on the topics of The True State of Man, The Super Supremacy of Scripture and The Mere Believer’s Certainty Facing Eternity at this year’s US Ministers’ Conference (May 30 – June 01).
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