This summer, I had the wonderful privilege of being a Sky Ranch summer camp counselor. I worked with high school sophomores who all came from Christian backgrounds. Throughout the week, we walked through six different passages in Scripture, including Ephesians 2:1-10. When we got to verses 4-5, I asked the question, “What is grace?” I asked that question because I knew I shouldn’t assume that just because they came from a Christian background they already knew what grace was. Week after week, I received the same answer from multiple different campers, “Grace is a second chance.” This answer seems like it’s correct. Second chances are great, right? A popular worship band has a song titled “Second Chance” and it has these lyrics:
Your blood offers the chance
To rewind to innocence
Reborn, perfect as a child…
Oh Your cross, it’s where my hope restarts
A second chance is Heaven’s heart
While these lyrics sound wonderful, it is unwittingly leading us back to bondage.
In Socratic fashion, I would then ask my campers, “So it would seem that God forgives our first failed attempt at gaining eternal life because of our sin, but now gives us another attempt to gain eternal life by obedience, correct? God is like a school teacher who takes pity on a student who failed his math test, but now gives him another chance at passing the test.” This is what logically follows from calling grace merely a second chance. This view of grace puts us back in the same position as Adam in the Garden of Eden. Adam was created in a state of innocence and perfect like the lyrics above state. Adam had the hope of eternal life and glory in the presence of God on the basis of his perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience (Luke 10:25-28, Genesis 2:9).
My campers would counter, knowing that we continually fall into sin, “Grace is actually an infinite amount of second chances.” The problem with this view is that you have to attempt to attain eternal life an infinite amount of times (or at least until you die). Salvation, in this sense, can never be applied individually to the believer in the past, but only something that can be applied in the future after death. Moreover, this means that God must pardon (in a legal sense, not the familial sense as in the Lord’s Prayer) us every time we sin. We fall from the state of being justified before God every time we sin and need to be re-justified by God. This is fascinatingly similar to the medieval Christian view of salvation. Church historian Carl Trueman explains this view by writing,
God can demand perfection from human beings prior to giving them grace but, in fact, has condescended via means of a pactum (or covenant) to give grace to ‘the one who does what is in oneself.’ In answer to Luther’s question, ‘How can I be righteous [or justified] before God?’ one might respond, ‘Do what is in you,’ that is, do your best.
Understanding What the Law Demands
However, Scripture teaches that the Law does not demand that we merely try our best. It demands that we be perfect. Romans 2:13 says, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be justified.” Scripture offers two categories of humans: doers of the Law or breakers of the Law (James 2:10). Doers of the Law receive glory, honor, peace, and eternal life (Romans 2:7, 10); breakers of the Law receive wrath and fury, tribulation and distress (Romans 2:8-9). There is no third category of humans who try their best to obey the Law. The Law demands that we love the Lord our God with all of our heart, with all our soul, with all of our mind, and all of our strength and our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:26-27).
The Law demands everything from us. Our entire being must be dedicated to serving God and neighbor in order to have eternal life (Luke 10:28). If not, then we are under the curse of God as Galatians 3:10 says, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” For all of us who live right now, post-Fall, are born in the bondage to sin. We do not have the ability to obey the Law that we can attain eternal life by our own strength. We do not even have the ability to not sin. No one, by nature, can please God (Romans 8:8). Therefore, the pactum of medieval theology has no validity since there is nothing good in us that we can try our best to obey the Law. We are all born “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), in both a legal (Colossians 2:13-14) and moral sense (Ephesians 2:2). We all by nature exiled from the presence of God as the penalty for sin demands, as all those who touched a dead body were ceremonially unclean and could not participate in the worship of God in the community of God under the Mosaic Law (Numbers 19:11). Our whole person is defiled with sin, as touching a dead body defiled the whole person.
But a glorious light shines through our spiritual darkness: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…” The grace of God in Christ alone initiates and accomplishes our salvation. God alone frees the sinner from the penalty and power of sin. According to this text, this salvation is something that has occurred in the past, not to be gained in the future. Later on in this passage, Paul will argue that we are saved apart from our works (vv. 8-9). This salvation is bestowed upon a sinner apart from anything she does and is something she possesses now and forever more.
Another question I enjoyed asking campers each week was, “How is God just in saving sinners when He demands perfection for eternal life and must punish sin with eternal death?” Does God compromise His just Law to save sinners? He does not. But how can God remain just while being merciful to sinners? The answer is within the text of Ephesians 2: we were raised and made alive in Christ. When Christ was raised from the dead, we were raised from the dead.
The Active Obedience of Christ and Federal Headship
How is it that when Christ was raised from the dead we were raised from the dead? The answer lies in the concepts of the active obedience of Christ and his federal headship. While these are academic terms, they communicate a simple truth: when God sees us, He sees Jesus. When God sees us, He sees us as ones who have perfectly satisfied all of the demands of the Law, both its commands and condemnation.
The active obedience of Christ refers to His keeping of the Law of God throughout His entire life. He loved God and his neighbor perfectly. Because He loved God and neighbor perfectly, He received the reward of the Law: eternal life (Luke 10:25-27). The resurrection of Christ was God’s justification of the perfect life of Christ (Romans 1:4, 1 Timothy 3:16). Jesus was justified by works!
The federal headship of Christ refers to His legal representation of the people He saves. As the Second London Confession puts, “God was pleased, in His eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, His only begotten Son, according to the covenant made between them, to be the mediator between God and humanity.” The federal headship of Christ means that whatever the Son does, those who believe are counted as ones who did the same. When Jesus obeyed, the believer obeyed, just as when Adam sinned, humanity sinned. God regards the whole world as if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil like Adam did. Likewise, God regards all those believe as if they rendered perfect obedience the Law of God as it is written, “For as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19).
The federal headship of Christ also means that we are raised, in a legal sense, with Christ. This means that God’s legal verdict upon Christ becomes our verdict through faith for it is written that Jesus was “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). Since the resurrection of Christ was God’s legal declaration of righteousness upon the life of Christ, this legal declaration of righteousness becomes ours through the federal headship of Christ. Since God has counted the obedience of Christ as our own, we receive the reward of that righteousness which is eternal life. Jesus was justified by works so that we may be justified by faith.
Grace is much greater than a second chance. God not only forgives our first attempt at eternal life, but sent Jesus to attempt and succeed as our great champion. Jesus not only died for our sins but lived to be our righteousness. On the cross of Christ, God saw us instead of one who perfectly obeyed the Law. Through faith in Christ, God sees Jesus instead of the sinner. “And to the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). For the ungodly who believe, as far as God is concerned, you are Jesus. That is heaven’s heart towards the ungodly.