A biblically-grounded understanding of disability sees a disability as a display of God’s glory. Accordingly, by the sovereign work of God, that which has come to pass, must of theological necessity be the best of all possible worlds. Therefore, even disability necessarily displays the perfection of God’s purposes. Further, God through his Word shows a particular delight in displaying his eternal power and goodness through those things considered weak and of little account by this world’s standards. Disability then, in a peculiar fashion shines forth the radiance of his glory.
God’s Work of Salvation and the Display of His Glory – Ephesians 2:4-10
When it comes to God’s work of salvation, allusion is made to passages like Exodus 34:6: “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” Verses like this one clearly state the gracious nature of God’s salvation. It is in his very character and nature to be gracious and faithful. Deuteronomy 7:7-9 says,
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you . . . know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.
God’s salvation is founded on the free love of God, not on anything the Israelites were or had in possession. He loved them because he loved them. This salvation is based on the covenant faithfulness of God who keeps his love for a thousand generations. Titus 3:4-5 reads, “But when the goodness and lovingkindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.” God’s lovingkindness in salvation is again not based on any works, even works done in righteousness, but is solely founded upon God’s grace and mercy. There is nothing required in the way of capabilities that a person with intellectual disabilities might lack, that would keep them from salvation by God’s grace.
Ephesians 2:4 says, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us.” “Mercy” (eleos) is the LXX and New Testament translation of the Old Testament term hesed. Markus Barth explains, “The RSV rendering of this noun is ‘steadfast love’ and suggests that ‘hesed’ is the stable and loyal way in which God keeps the covenant. The KJV version ‘loving-kindness’ may still be preferable because it conveys the meaning of ‘undeserved mercy’ or ‘prevenient grace” (Markus Barth, Ephesians, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1974), 218.). Paul’s redundant use of the noun and verb of love emphasizes the love of God even more. This love forms the basis of everything that follows. Barth continues, “At any rate, Ephesians 2:4 treats the love of God as motivated by neither the attractiveness of his (dead) human partners nor a weakness in his own nature. For his own sake God showers love upon man” (Barth, Ephesians, 219.).
Ephesians 2:5 says, “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” That love by which he loved us reached all the way back to when we were dead in our sins. This is significant, for we were not merely sick and may potentially recover, or poor and have the right to charity and the giving of alms, but our spiritual condition was dead. And the dead, of course, cannot do anything to improve their condition or add any one thing to their betterment. Therefore, those with an intellectual disability are in no worse condition than anyone else; they are all in need of the same thing, resurrection life, which is what God provides—a share in the same resurrection power that raised Jesus from the dead. This reality of being in a dead condition is why Paul says, “By grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:5). There is nothing inherent in an individual to bring about this salvation—all are equally dead and therefore all in need of the same grace.
Ephesians 2:6 reads, “And raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” Resurrected from our spiritually dead condition, God raises us up to be seated with Christ on the throne of God. The only requirement for this exalted position is Christ’s resurrected life in us, nothing that we bring ourselves. Clinton Arnold affirms, “Believers are made alive through a dynamic union with Christ, which has enabled them to participate in the benefits of Christ’s resurrection and exaltation” (Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 136.). How wondrous to be found at the throne of Christ Jesus.
Ephesians 2:7 says, “So that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” In the many ages yet to come, the saints will be taken up with the theme of God’s grace; the overwhelming, glorious grace of God evidenced in God’s kindness toward them in Christ Jesus. Here again we find nothing that would hinder those with intellectual disabilities from being agents of this grace. In fact, one could argue that their disability would show forth even greater the riches of God’s grace.
Ephesians 2:8 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” The repetition of the phrase “for by grace you have been saved” further emphasizes the work of grace here being displayed, but it has added to it, “through faith.” Faith is the means by which this grace is applied in particular. Yet even faith is not of the believer’s own doing. It is not grace plus faith which the believer adds that brings about so great a salvation. Faith is itself a gift of God. A gift that not even disability can withhold. Barth explains,
Yet in Eph.2:5, 8 a completed deed of God and its result are described by “saved.” The use of the same verb for a past and future event corresponds fully to the diction of the LXX where salvation means either future redemption, for which an Israelite yearns with prayer and hope, or a completed past action of God in favor of either his people or an individual (Deut. 33:29; Isa. 10:20) (Barth, Ephesians, 221.).
Paul continues his discussion on grace and faith in Ephesians 2:9: “Not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Boasting is excluded. This faith not only is a gift of God, but it is achieved apart from any works added to it. No one will be able to say in heaven that they added anything to their salvation. From first to last it is all by grace. Barth shares, “But he who boasts of God and accepts his own weakness gives God the glory he is due, and will be praised by God” (Barth, Ephesians, 226.).
Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Just as God created the heavens and the earth apart from any human intervention, so Paul tells believers that they are Christ’s workmanship apart from any of their activity, in order to do good works. Not only so, but the works that we have to do were prepared specifically by God for us to accomplish. Arnold writes,
These “works” should be understood broadly and not in the narrow sense of “works of the law” (e.g. circumcision, Sabbath observance, maintaining Jewish purity regulations et al.) The works he is commending here are those that would be equivalent to “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5 and include tangible manifestations of Christian virtues such as love, patience, kindness, goodness and self-control (Arnold, Ephesians, 141.).
These are the general calling of works that believers have been called to perform. Arnold explains, “In eternity past, God not only chose a people to be in relationship with himself, but marked out a path for them to walk. This path of good works, which would characterize their lives throughout their Christian journey and would bring glory to God” (Arnold, Ephesians, 141).
From first to last, from the beginning of God’s mercy and love to the works that have been laid out, Paul presents a theological framework of the sovereignty of God in all of salvation. This theological framework is not based upon natural gifts and abilities but fully upon the love of God as evidenced by the grace of God. A person’s intellectual capabilities are not at issue but grace through faith, and this is the gift of God. Once again, it could be argued in fact that an intellectual disability would show forth with greater clarity the preeminence of the grace of God.
Rev. Eric Nelson, SHN President & Founder