A Commentary by John Stott
Paul goes beyond a description of God’s saving action; he gives us some understanding of his motivation. Indeed the major emphasis of this whole paragraph is that what prompted God to act on our behalf was not something in us (some supposed merit) but something in himself (his own unmerited favour). Paul assembles four words to express the origins of God’s saving initiative. He writes of God’s ‘mercy’ (*God who is rich in mercy*, verse 4a), of God’s ‘love‘ (*out of the great love with which he loved us*, verse 4b), of God’s ‘grace’ (*by grace you have been saved*, verses 5 and 8) and of God’s ‘kindness’ (*his…kindness toward us in Christ Jesus*, verse 7). We were dead, and so helpless to save ourselves: only ‘mercy’ could reach the helpless, for ‘mercy’ is love for the down and out. We were under God’s wrath: only ‘love’ could triumph over wrath. We deserved nothing at God’s hand but judgment, on account of our trespasses and sins: only ‘grace’ could rescue us from our deserts, for grace is undeserved favour. Why then did God act? Out of sheer mercy, love, grace and kindness.More than that. He saved us in order *that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace* (verse 7). In raising and exalting Christ he demonstrated ‘the immeasurable greatness of his power’ (verses 19-20); but in raising and exalting us he displayed also ‘the immeasurable riches of his grace’, and will continue to do so throughout eternity. For as living evidences of his kindness we shall point people away and beyond ourselves to him to whom we owe our salvation.
Towards the end of my time as a theological student at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, the Rev. Paul Gibson retired as Principal, and a portrait of him was unveiled. In expressing his thanks, he paid a well-deserved compliment to the artist. He said that in future he believed people looking at the picture would ask not “Who is that man?’ but rather ‘Who painted that portrait?’ Now in our case God has displayed more than skill. A patient after a major operation is a living testimony to the surgeon’s skill, and a condemned man after a reprieve to his sovereign’s mercy. We are both – exhibits of God’s skill and trophies of his grace.
Verses 8-10 elaborate on God’s grace, and explain why in the coming ages God will show his grace and kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. It is because of our salvation. God will show his grace towards us because he has saved us by his grace: *For by grace you have been saved through faith*. Here are three foundation words of the Christian good news – salvation, grace and faith. ‘Salvation’ is more than forgiveness. It is deliverance from the death, slavery and wrath described in verses 1-3. Indeed, it includes the totality of our new life in Christ, together with whom we have been made alive, exalted and seated in the heavenly realm. ‘Grace’ is God’s free and undeserved mercy towards us, and ‘faith’ is the humble trust with which we receive it for ourselves.
In order to enforce this positive statement that we have been saved only by God’s grace through trust in Christ, Paul adds two balancing negatives: first *and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God* (verse 8b) and secondly *not because of works, lest any man should boast*. Some commentators have taken the word ‘this’ in the former of the two negatives to refer to faith (i.e. ‘you were saved…through faith, and even this faith by which you were saved is God’s gift’). Theologically, this is true. We must never think of salvation as a kind of transaction between God and us in which he contributes grace and we contribute faith. For we were dead, and had to be quickened before we could believe. No, Christ’s apostles clearly teach elsewhere that saving faith too is God’s gracious gift (E.g. Acts 18:27; Phil.1:29). Nevertheless Paul is not directly affirming this here because ‘this’ (*touto*) is neuter, whereas ‘faith’ is a feminine noun. We must therefore take ‘this’ as referring to the whole previous sentence: ‘By God’s grace you are people who have been saved through faith, and this whole event and experience is…God’s free gift to you.’ It is neither your achievement (*not your own doing*) nor a reward for any of your deeds of religion or philanthropy (*not because of works*). Since, therefore, there is no room for human merit, there is no room for human boasting either. Salvation is God’s gift, *lest any man should boast*. Christians are always uncomfortable in the presence of pride, for they sense its incongruity. We shall not be able to strut round heaven like peacocks. Heaven will be filled with the exploits of Christ and the praises of God. There will indeed be display in heaven. Not self-display, however, but rather a display of the incomparable wealth of God’s grace, mercy and kindness through Jesus Christ.