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Saved by a good physician

Everyone loves a good medical mystery—and I’ve got a wild one for you. Jim Malloy role played all kinds of maladies for years as a volunteer for the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

Then the day came when he was assigned to role play having an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Known as a silent killer, this is a condition in which the main blood vessel carrying blood to the abdomen, pelvis, and legs weakens like a balloon being overinflated. If an abdominal aortic aneurysm bursts, it’s often too late to intervene.

When medical student Ryan Jones walked into the room, Jim followed the script assigned him, complaining of lightheadedness and stomach pain. But when Ryan pushed down on Jim’s abdomen, he was shocked to feel a pulsing mass—a telltale sign of an actual abdominal aortic aneurysm.

The doctor in training stepped quickly back, confused. He tried to get Jim to break character and admit that he knew he had an aneurysm. But Jim wouldn’t. He felt totally fine, and had gotten a clean bill of health from his primary care doctor just two weeks earlier.

Jim was rushed to surgery, and it saved his life. He did nothing to save himself; the saving was all from outside of himself. And that’s what I want to speak with you about today—that those who trust in Jesus Christ are saved by God’s grace alone, not by anything we have done or deserved. We are saved by God’s grace alone.

Saved by God’s grace alone

Welcome to week two of our new year’s series Unshakable, in which we’re taking a deep dive into the handful of core beliefs that are unique to the Christian faith. We began last week with the assertion that the Bible is uniquely God’s Word to humanity. The Old and New Testaments have the hand of God upon them such that unlike any other book, its Author is always present when you read or hear it. The Bible is uniquely the Word of God.

We continue this week with grace alone—the miracle that we are saved, forgiven, and put in right relationship with God by His grace only, not anything we do. The easiest way to grasp the immensity of this is to see grace as an acronym—that the grace that saves us is God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.

G.R.A.C.E. = God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense

One of the deepest dives into grace in the Bible is Ephesians chapter two, so please open your Bible or Bible app there, Ephesians chapter two, the opening ten verses. You need to know before we read that this Scripture opens like Ryan Jones informing Jim Malloy that without intervention, he was as good as dead. Yes, Jim was walking and talking and breathing and seemingly in fine health, but the doctor’s job was to reveal to him that in fact, internally, Mr. Malloy was in serious trouble.

Three times, we’re going to hear of God’s grace, God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. But before we hear of God’s grace, we first have to understand our condition before Christ came. I strongly recommend you take notes today, to follow the progression from how we were, to who we now are, to why we are now here—and all because of God’s grace, God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. Here’s the first point to jot down. It’s very much like the surprise revealed to Jim Malloy:

  • Before God’s G.R.A.C.E., we were as good as dead.

Here’s how Paul explains it, Ephesians 2:1-3:

“Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.”

Ephesians 2:1-3 NLT

Before Jesus came, Paul writes, all of us spiritually were like the walking dead: physically alive, but separated from life with God. This is a hard teaching, but it’s what the New Testament declares in many ways. The way Paul explains it here is that before Christ came, we were all under sin’s power, and we were all facing sin’s penalty. I would jot that down. Before Jesus came…

  • We were under sin’s power. 
  • We were facing sin’s penalty. 

He describes humanity being under the devil’s influence, a real spirit at work within people—and that comes out in the story of human history, from fractured families all the way up to world wars. Many of us in the West find it hard to believe in a real devil; Christians in many other parts of the world have no difficulty in believing that there are spiritual forces at play every day.

Paul’s emphasis here is that sin has a foothold in everyone, without exception. As he writes in Romans 3:23, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The Old Testament book of Judges describes it as everyone doing what’s right in their own eyes; everyone doing what’s right in their own eyes. What appears to be freedom in that case is in fact to be under sin’s power.

We all, Paul says, had a spiritual condition that was as serious as Jim Malloy’s physical undoing.

Few put it as clearly as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn was a writer and political prisoner who exposed the Soviet Union’s gulag system of forced labor camps. He personally witnessed some of the worst manifestations of sin’s power, people created in God’s image brutally dehumanizing others made in God’s image. 

Westerners were glad to read his expose. But then he shocked us with this observation, writing, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” 

The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?  

Before God poured out his GRACE—God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense—we were under sin’s power, and we were facing sin’s penalty. We were, as Ephesians 2:3 says, subject to God’s anger, deserving of wrath. 

Steve Farrar puts it well, that “Sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you’re willing to pay.” 

Steve Farrar, Finishing Strong (Multnomah, 2000), p. 90

I recognize this is a tough start to a message. It’s like the diagnosis that Jim Malloy didn’t realize he needed. But once test results came in and he underwent that lifesaving surgery, you know he was forever grateful for both the diagnosis and the intervention. And that’s where Paul turns next. If you’re taking notes, the second main point is that…

  • Because of God’s G.R.A.C.E., we’ve been raised and repositioned.

Before God’s G.R.A.C.E., we were as good as dead.  We were under sin’s power and facing sin’s penalty, forever separation from God. But, verses 4-7 declare…

“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

Ephesians 2:4-7

Paul is writing to those who trust in Jesus for right relationship with God. To us he declares, “by grace you have been saved.” Past tense, done. When Jesus cried out from the cross, “It is finished,” this is what was finished, accomplished: your salvation. And at what cost? God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.

What surgeons did to restore Jim Malloy physically, God’s grace has done for us spiritually. Paul showcases twin awesome effects of God’s grace poured out on us:

  • God in his mercy has saved us.
  • God in his kindness will forever bless us.

What Christ already did in the past dramatically changes our present, and assures us of an amazing future. Our forever future will be God continuing to show the incomparable riches of his grace toward us.

There are so many word pictures the New Testament uses to try to help us grasp the stunning effects of God’s GRACE shown to us, God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. 

  • We’re told we’ve been spiritually adopted—that God has become our Father in heaven. 
  • Jesus in John chapter 3 portrays it as being born again or born from above—a whole new start, it’s all a gift from God, not something we can achieve or accomplish.
  • Here, Paul says we’ve been spiritually raised from the dead and seated with Christ—that is, our status and our standing have forever changed. 

When South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu was asked to name his favorite Bible verse, it was Romans 5:8: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” “That,” Tutu remarked, sums up the good news of Jesus wonderfully. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. While we were as good as dead—under sin’s power and facing sin’s penalty—Jesus did for us spiritually what those physicians did for Jim Malloy surgically: he restored us to a far better future than the one we had been facing. And again, it’s all grace, pure grace, all from God. It is by grace you have been saved.

Tim Keller says it this way: “Here’s the gospel: you’re more sinful than you ever dared believe; you’re more loved than you ever dared hope.” It’s both/and, not either/or: Here’s the message of Jesus: you’re more sinful than you ever dared believe; you’re more loved than you ever dared hope.

Tim Keller, in the sermon Treasure Versus Money

Anne Lamott adds, “Grace means you’re in a different universe from where you had been stuck, when you had absolutely no way to get there on your own.” And it’s all by grace, God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.”

Anne Lamott, Plan B (Riverhead, 2006), pp. 54-55

And why did God do all this? Listen to the whys that Paul cites: “Because of [God’s] great love for us…because He’s rich in mercy…in order that for all eternity to come he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

It’s all grace, God’s grace alone that saves us. God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense is the greatest gift anyone ever receives. And it is just that—God’s gift to all who believe. And that’s what Paul gets to next. If you’re taking notes, the third point is that…

  • By God’s G.R.A.C.E., we get to join in the good that Christ is doing.

Here’s how Paul explains it, verses 8-10:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Ephesians 2:8-10

Here it is again: by grace you have been saved. But we’re saved not to sit, but to serve, to do good works that God planned for us long ago. We don’t do good works to be saved; those who are saved want to do good works. The love of God compels us. And in doing the good works that God has always had in mind for us, we show ourselves to be his handiwork, his masterpiece. The beauty of what it means to be created in God’s image is restored, and we begin displaying that through good works that look and sound a lot like Jesus. This is the plan God put in place long before you and I were born. And again, it is all grace, God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.

From atheism to the grip of God’s grace

Dr. Rosalind Picard knows what Paul is talking about here. Dr. Picard is a world-renowned professor at MIT who was raised in an atheistic family. She dismissed Christians as uneducated. But a physician whose children she babysat while in high school challenged her to at least read the Bible, starting with the Old Testament’s Proverbs. She says, “When I first opened the Bible, I expected to find phony miracles … and assorted gobbledygook. To my surprise, the Book of Proverbs was full of wisdom. I had to pause while reading and think.”

She ended up reading through the entire Bible twice. She says, “While I never heard actual voices or anything to justify summoning a neurologist, I felt this strange sense of being spoken to. I studied Buddhism, Hinduism, and several other faiths. I visited temples, synagogues, mosques, and other holy places. Part of me was increasingly eager to spend time with the God of the Bible, but an irritated voice inside me insisted I would be happy again once I moved on.” You know what that is? That’s sin’s power described in the opening verses of Ephesians 2.

Later on, a friend invited her to church. When the pastor asked during the sermon, “Who is Lord of your life?” She says, “I was intrigued: I was the captain of my ship, but was it possible that God would actually be willing to lead me? After praying, ‘Jesus Christ, I ask you to be Lord of my life,’” Dr. Picard says, “my world changed dramatically, as if a flat, black-and-white existence suddenly turned full-color and three-dimensional….I used to think religious people were ignoramuses. Then I got smart and took a chance on God…the greatest Mind in the cosmos—the Author of all science, mathematics, art, and everything else there is to know. Today I walk…with joy, alongside the most amazing Companion anyone could ask for, filled with desire to keep learning and exploring.”

Today, Rosalind Picard asks, “Have you ever tried to assemble something mechanical, and it only kind of works? Maybe the wheels spin, but not smoothly. Then you realize you were missing a piece. When you finally put it together correctly, it works beautifully. This is how it felt when I handed my life over to God… That’s not to say nothing bad ever happened to me—far from it. But in all things, good and bad, I could count on God’s guidance, comfort, and protection.

Rosalind Picard, “An MIT Professor Meets the Author of All Knowledge,” ChristianityToday.Com (3-15-19)

God’s grace and you

Dr. Picard is discovering what Paul concludes with—the new sense of purpose that comes when you trust in Jesus. When you grasp the grace that’s been extended to you—God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense—you want to take your place in the good that Christ is doing today, the good works that God has already prepared for you, and for us, to do.

  • Long before you were born, God already set His eternal plan in motion, a plan that would include you. 
  • Long before you felt your need for God’s grace, Jesus had already done everything required to restore you to God.
  • Long before you said yes to the grace of God displayed in Jesus Christ, God already had good works intended for you to walk out, displaying the grace of God toward the people around you. 

So this year, this new year, let’s recommit to walking out the good works that God has waiting for us, always fueled by grace—God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.

Let’s pray. Almighty God, we see now how dire our condition was before You extended your grace to us.

Receive our deepest thanks and praise that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. What a cost to bring us back to You! In response to your grace, we offer you ourselves. This year, we ask, show us the good works that you have prepared in advance for us to do. Grant us discernment as a church for the year ahead. Open doors for us to do good to those you have placed us among. And with the eyes of faith, we look forward to seeing the incomparable riches of your grace for ages and ages to come. Receive our heartfelt praise, we pray, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen!