Most of us who are Christians have at least at one time in our lives believed that God’s whole purpose for sending Jesus and saving us was because he loved us and didn’t want us to be lost. Please understand, there is no doubt God loves us and does not want us to be lost (John 3:16). However, to characterize our salvation as wholly or even primarily about us is to miss one of the key messages of scripture and cause us to become self-centered. When we believe God saved us just because we were lost, we easily become satisfied with our saved state and live in such a way that our main goal is only to do enough to “stay saved.”
In Isaiah 43:25, God told Israel, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake.” In this context, God accused Israel of becoming weary of serving him. God said, “I have not burdened you with offerings or wearied you with frankincense. You have not brought me sweet cane with money, or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities.” There is nothing we have ever done for God, including our worship, that would cause him to forgive us. In fact, the only thing we have done “for God” is “burden him with our sins!”
Ezekiel related the same message to the captives: “Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned…” (36:22). Again, “It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel” (36:32). What makes God amazing is that he did not cast us off because we were unworthy, undeserving, and worse, had profaned his holy name. Instead, God proclaimed, “And the nations will know that I am the Lord when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.” Incredibly, God vindicated his name by actually changing us so that we reflect his glory instead of destroying us as we deserved. Changing us would seem to be an impossible task!
Yet Ezekiel continues: “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (36:25-27). This text is obviously messianic and referring to us, not just Israel. Notice that God does not only forgive us, he changes us from the inside. He takes away our stubborn heart and even causes us to be careful to obey his rules.
God’s great name is not vindicated just because of forgiveness, it is vindicated because he changes us to become like him, live like him, and love like him. Note this well: anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus and does not have a new heart and a new spirit, who still has a heart of stone instead of a heart of flesh, and who is not careful to obey his rules, is certainly not God’s disciple!
But remember! Why did God do this? Why did God cleanse us and change us? In order to “vindicate the holiness of his great name.” Again, “It is not for your sake that I will act, but for the sake of my holy name.” Why is this so important? Because we can easily be like Israel and become lifted up as if God chose us because we are somehow better than others. We can pride ourselves on our knowledge of God and act as if we are not like those people out there. No, we were nothing. We were those who profaned his holy name, and without him we would still be nothing. Every day we plead for grace. Every day, “we loathe ourselves for our iniquities” (Ezek. 36:31).
Now we can appreciate Paul’s message in Ephesians. Often commentators miss the point of 1:3-14. At first glance it appears Paul is simply saying, “Look what God has done for us!” But no, the message is, look what God has done for his holy name. In 1:6, he chose us in him, “to the praise of his glorious grace.” In 1:11, he saved Jews so that they “might be to the praise of his glory.” And in 1:14, he promised Gentiles salvation, “to the praise of his glory.” In 3:10-11, grace was given to “bring to light to everyone what was the plan of the mystery…so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Finally, in 3:21, Paul concludes, “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
God did not just save us; he changed us so that we would be to the praise of his glory both on earth and even before the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. Therefore Peter said, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). Now, why did he save you?