Ephesians 2:4-5, “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.”
These two verses are a treasure trove of theological phrasing that contain words and concepts we use often but may not always understand. A word like “love” is very common to us, and we likely could define its meaning in both the common every day and theological usages. So, when the text tells us that God has “great love for us,” we likely know exactly what that means. We have been loved, and we have loved. We have sacrificed for love and benefited from the loving sacrifices of others on our behalf. We have an internal concept of love and a lived reality to point to when God says he has great love for us.
But the same isn’t necessarily true when it comes to the ideas of “mercy” and “grace,” especially when paired with the idea of “being dead in our transgressions.” Mercy is an ethereal legal idea usually connected to transgressors in need of leniency toward a just sentence.” Thus, the criminal throws themselves on the mercy of the court. But are we criminals in the eyes of God? And if so, why does God love us?
Grace is even less specific. In Roman Catholicism, it is a thing––a substance even––controlled by the Church by means of the sacramental system. For us, it’s a word we hear a lot that seems to convey the exact same thing as mercy. God has mercy on us; thus, he is gracious. But is this the correct definition of grace? And if so, again, why do we need God’s grace? And again, if I need God’s grace, what is there within me for God to love?
So, what is mercy and what is grace, and how do these ideas relate to our transgressional death and God’s inconceivable love? Consider thinking of it this way. God, because of your Holy Spirit-given and sustained, faith in Christ, sees you not as you are but as Christ is. He no longer holds your sin and wickedness against you but instead looks at you and, for the sake of Christ, says well done, my good and faithful servant. His grace is an attitude on his part where he showers his love on you and calls you his child.
What is mercy and what is grace, and how do these ideas relate to our transgressional death and God’s inconceivable love?
Now, this is an act of mercy on his part. He did not have to forgive your sins. Nothing required him to apply Christ’s atoning sacrifice to you. No “law of the universe,” or some such thing, demanded he set aside your wickedness, sin, and corruption for the sake of Christ. He was under no obligation to forgive you for the sin of Adam that remains in you, or your own heartfelt sin, nor the sins you daily commit against him. But he does. The mercy we speak of here, then is not legal; it is out of love. We do not throw ourselves on God’s mercy, for our sin would prevent even this act. He is merciful to us because he loves us, even when we so often do not want that love. He is a merciful God, and we are but recipients of his loving mercy.
So why does God have mercy on you and shower his grace over you? Two reasons, really. One, because he promised he would. He promised the serpent in the garden, way back in Genesis, that Eve’s offspring would crush the power of sin, death, and the devil; “he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). The last part of that verse prophecies that the cost for this act of mercy on God’s part would be great. And as we head into Lent, we will remember for several weeks what it cost. But the end would be the atoning death of Christ for we sinners, and his resurrection as the first fruits of our life everlasting.
The second reason God showers his grace upon you and shows you mercy is found in the first part of our verse for today. “But because of his great love for us…” God loves you. He created you. He sustains you in this daily life. He wants peace, happiness, and everlasting life for you. Martin Luther says this about him in his explanation to the First Article of the Creed in his Small Catechism:
I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that he has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that he provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey him.
His love for you is so deep that in his mercy, while you were yet a sinner, God sent his only begotten Son to die for you. And now, because of that death and resurrection for you, God shows you grace. He sends a preacher into your life to proclaim his Gospel into your ears. That Gospel comes with the power of the Holy Spirit, who creates and sustains faith in your heart. That God-given faith then makes you “alive with Christ.”
So, then we can understand, believe, and confess this verse with all confidence. In God’s rich mercy, he loves us, and it is solely on account of his grace that we are saved. This is the love of God for you, a sinner-saint bound for glory because of Christ.
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