Series: My favourite texts. Eph 2:8-10.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
If I’m honest, every day there’s either a Pharisee buzzing the intercom of my heart, aching to take me hostage to legalism and pride. Or there’s a Hedonist on my stoep, luring me to self-indulgence and laziness! Sometimes I find myself trying to earn God’s free gift of grace, and at other times I take it for granted. But Paul is emphatic that neither will do for God’s redeemed people. Both grace and goodness are the marks of a Christian. If grace is the tree of salvation, then good works are the natural fruit for which the tree was intended. It is never either grace or goodness for a Christian, but both. The Lord’s grace re-moulds us into His workmanship (poema) to reflect His goodness to the world. We are His poetry in motion.
By grace, for good
As Jen Michel writes in Surprised by Paradox, “by grace we die to self-deception and moral self-assuredness; we die to self-reliance and bootstrap religion; we die to self-trust and to the pocked, unreliable hope that we can save ourselves. All our old ways of earning our keep with God have gone. We don’t get grace because we change our lives—but our lives are indelibly changed because we get grace.” Paul says we are new creatures in Christ, re-purposed for good (2 Cor 5:17).
Today’s text describes us as God’s living works of art (poema), created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared beforehand for us to walk in (Eph 2:10).
Just as the heavens are God’s physical handiwork to declare His glory, so God intends for His people to shine like stars in the dark skies of our own culture. We are God’s spiritual handiwork, designed to express God’s glory and goodness in our everyday lives.
So Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi,
“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life” (Phil 2:12-16).
Both God’s grace at work in our lives and our persistence in Christ (the word of life) enable us to shine like stars in our crooked generation.
God’s poetry in motion
Paul lays out who and whose we are, in contrast to who we once were before God’s grace transformed our sin-dead lives (Eph 2:1-3; 2:4-10).
In the literal Greek of verse 10, we are God’s living poetry (poiema)! A poem doesn’t write itself or take credit for its beauty! Likewise, we belong to God, not ourselves. We are just His voice. The only other time the word ‘poiema’ is used is Romans 1:20 to describe the things God made in creation. Nature is not the result of random mutations or mindless evolutionary processes. It is the ordered creative expression of the great Artist of the universe! That is why the Psalmist says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge” (Ps 19:1-4).
Just as the heavens are God’s physical poetry, you and I are His spiritual creation, “born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God (1 Peter 1:23).
Just as God’s material creation is never aimless, slovenly, ugly, rushed or mass-produced, God doesn’t do a make-over or rehab job on His children either. He gives us a new nature and replaces our stony heart with a responsive one. We become an entirely new creature, re-born, re-created in Christ Jesus (2 Cor 5:17).
The Artist’s intention
The Bible is down-to-earth about God’s intention for our lives as Christians. Paul tells Timothy, “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and generous and willing to share.” We’re warned against living idle, unproductive lives (1 Timothy 6:18; Titus 3:14 and Heb 10:24).
If we read on in Ephesians, we see that God intends to show off His great wisdom, grace and character through His church down the ages (Eph 3:10; 2:7). He intends for infant Christians to grow up into Jesus, and do our part in the work of Christ’s church (Eph 4:11-16). We are not just individual works of art created to sit in a gallery and look pretty! The Great Artist’s plan is that we get involved in a body of believers, united in purpose and love for one another and for the Lord (Eph 5:29-30). We are not saved merely for our own benefit and to please ourselves, but to serve Christ and build up God’s people (Eph 4:12). That is how we are pleasing to God.
Is it not an insult to God’s creative work to think of our lives as boring, useless or worthless? If we are God’s poetry, we dare not treat ourselves or others with disrespect or as inferior. God doesn’t produce shoddy works of art.
Just do the next good thing!
It’s wonderful to know that God has a plan for each of his children. It’s also great to be able to trust God’s good purposes to re-shape us into the likeness of Jesus (Rom 8:28-29). This gives us meaning, identity and hope in life.
But when I first read Eph 2:10 as a younger Christian, my over-active imagination swung like a trapeze artist over the impossible scenarios God may have prepared in advance for me! I imagined God composing a long bucket list of good works for me to do during my lifetime. It made me worry how on earth I would know what was on His list and whether it included being sent to a place with frogs and without Woolies (my greatest fears!) Seeing the many ‘good works’ I was neglecting or doing very badly, verse 10 became a burden rather than a blessing to me.
Then I stumbled upon a little book by Elisabeth Elliot titled “The Shaping of a Christian family” in which she described the overwhelming period shortly after her husband Jim was martyred in Ecuador. Elisabeth was left alone, with a small baby, to manage the jungle mission station. She was faced with a million things to do each day for which she was not trained or prepared. The Lord taught her that she didn’t need to know God’s whole plan, but just needed to stay connected to Christ and do the next good thing. She could trust Him with the big picture. Sometimes the next good thing was just to get the laundry done, call a friend, read her Bible, prepare the next lesson, be friendly to a stranger, or go to bed when she was tired.
I’m grateful for Elisabeth’s common sense wisdom which lifted an unnecessary burden I’d placed on myself. I now see Eph 2:10 as a great blessing. Fuelled by God’s round-the-clock grace, we are called to walk (perpateo) in a life of good works, not to fly! Being a pedestrian is an ordinary, natural part of life, and we too were created to do good in our modest lives, one step at a time. We do not have to seek out a grand calling or find some spectacular, visible form of ministry. We might only see our ‘calling’ in retrospect. As God’s poetry, we can leave Him to write the words.
Since we’ve been talking about God’s poetry, I will end with Elizabeth Elliot’s poem, Do the Next thing. May her ‘good work’ encourage you too:
From an old English parsonage down by the sea
There came in the twilight a message to me;
Its quaint Saxon legend, deeply engraven,
Hath, it seems to me, teaching from Heaven.
And on through the doors the quiet words ring
Like a low inspiration: “DO THE NEXT THING.”
Many a questioning, many a fear,
Many a doubt, hath its quieting here.
Moment by moment, let down from Heaven,
Time, opportunity, and guidance are given.
Fear not tomorrows, child of the King,
Trust them with Jesus, do the next thing
Do it immediately, do it with prayer;
Do it reliantly, casting all care;
Do it with reverence, tracing His hand
Who placed it before thee with earnest command.
Stayed on Omnipotence, safe ‘neath His wing,
Leave all results, do the next thing.
Looking for Jesus, ever serener,
Working or suffering, be thy demeanor;
In His dear presence, the rest of His calm,
The light of His countenance be thy psalm,
Strong in His faithfulness, praise and sing.
Then, as He beckons thee, do the next thing.
Timothy Keller’s prayer: Before work
Lord, all day may you give me an awareness of your presence, fruitfulness yet patience with your appointments, wisdom and compassion in my dealings, and Fatherly protection against dangers and adversities. Let me accept whatever degree of success or difficulty in my work you give me this day, and especially make me compassionate and ready to be interrupted in order to do good to others. In Jesus’s name.
Listen to Psalm 19, a song by Jess Ray.