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And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience - among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 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 - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:1-10)
Part of the beauty of Paul's letter to the Ephesians is the way in which it demonstrates God's sovereignty over the affairs of the world generally, and over the affairs of his Church specifically. What God accomplishes in the world and in history is all "according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth." (Eph. 1:9-10) Everything that happens around us, whatever it may be - all of it is leading toward the eventual consummation of God's purpose for this world. Yet this is something we seem to remain largely ignorant of. Preaching this text today, Pastor Roeda observed that we so often remain ignorant of the greater realities of life; in this way we are like a fish who doesn't know what water is. Our minds are very self-contained, and we live our lives aware, perhaps, of what is going on in them, but not at all aware of what our lives are or where they are ultimately going. This is as true of Christians, it seems, as it is of anyone else - we do not live in a constant awareness of the grandeur of God's plans for us, nor of the depths of his love for us, nor of the heights of his power over our lives. Paul spills much ink in this letter to wake us up into our true reality, and chapter 2:1-10 centers in on our individual situation, which (it turns out) used to actually be quite dire:
Paul tells us something very startling about our former lives before we came to faith: he says that we were dead in our trespasses and sins, and because of this we were following the course of this world. Like a stream, Pastor Jack observed, we by nature move with the currents of the world we live in - of our culture, our society, of everything that surrounds us. In America today, the course of this world seems to be, simply, unbelief. Belief in something, perhaps, but mostly in general and little in particular. There is a laziness about our culture, a throwing up of the hands in defeat and a settling for simple, indifferent agnosticism. This is the pattern into which we are so strongly compelled to fit by our society, and the mold to which we are expected to conform.
And in this conformity there is a kind of deadness, Paul explains. In our modern context, there is a kind of deadened lack of responsiveness to God, because as agnostics we sit as static objects, thinking whatever we may want about God but not really knowing him (for that, we say, is impossible). It is not a physical deadness that Paul discusses here, but a spiritual one. A spiritual lost-ness that renders God beyond our reach. Here is a verse that few people really spend time with, to consider its implications. What does Paul mean when he says that we "were dead in our trespasses"? (Eph. 2:5) He depicts our natural relationship to God in terms that seem quite frightening: we are like a corpse, laid out before God on an operating table. There is no life in us; we are utterly unresponsive to God in this state and are incapable of hearing, seeing, feeling, and thinking about him. This is the state of every human being (not physically, but spiritually) because of sin. Do not mistake me - it is not that we hate God, or that we are as bad as we possibly can be, as some preachers give the impression of our being. No - we are dead to him. We are unresponsive. This is the state of every human being who lives in ignorance of God - there is no vital relationship occurring, no interaction or exchange. It is like Ezekiel says: we by nature possess a heart of stone, and we can know nothing of God's will or his ways until he gives us a heart of flesh. Or to use the operating table metaphor, we cannot have a saving relationship with the Lord God until the Lord God first shocks our hearts back to life, and gives us the ability to know him.
That is the fundamental reality in which we Christians are to live. Paul says, "You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air [the Devil], the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobeidence - among whom we all once lived... 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." (v.1-3a, 4-5) That is salvation. And if you are reading this and are not a Christian, keep this in mind if a Christian ever tries to explain to you what salvation is - if he or she tells you that salvation means going to heaven when you die, you are being given only a bare fraction of what the picture really is, because salvation is not simply about destination. It is a state of being, which is enjoyed right now! It means being alive to God, being in a living relationship with him and knowing him through Jesus Christ as a loving Father who has adopted us as his children. This, more than having eternal life as something in itself (which can be described without reference to God), is what it means to be saved.
And saved is a fitting term, because it is not something we do ourselves - this is also what Paul makes very clear in this passage. We are saved, rescued from something; that is, from death, both physically and spiritually. The spiritual salvation is enjoyed right now in our lives of faith and knowledge and love of God, and physical salvation is enjoyed in the future in our eventual resurrection from the dead when the kingdom of God arrives on earth (with Christ's return). Yet all of this is something God does in us, and is not what we do in ourselves. "Even when we were dead," Paul says, God "made us alive together with Christ." He "raised us up with him," (vv.5-6) demonstrating a critical idea in Paul's thinking, that when Christ rose from the dead, we were raised along with him - both in soul (by the giving of faith and a relationship with God), and eventually in body (by the raising of the body from the dead; see 1 Corinthians 15). Our salvation is inseparable from Christ's resurrection. And like Christ's resurrection, it is something God causes to happen in us, not something that we cause. We are saved (passive) we do not save (active) ourselves. It is as though God the great and omnipotent spiritual surgeon has shocked the heart of his patient back to life, and so we are the recipients of salvation, not the initiators of it. To use a biblical illustration that fits in perfectly with this passage, we are like Lazarus in the tomb. Christ calls our name, and we respond (see John 11:1-44). But the response cannot come - Lazarus cannot walk out of the tomb - until Christ's words have first raised us (in the story, Lazarus) from the dead.
So we do not do it, but we do respond to it willingly as Lazarus did. Therefore Paul says, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Eph. 2:8-9) We are not saved by faith (that is, by virtue of our faith, as though having faith is what earns salvation). We are saved by grace... through faith. Faith is the means and the method by which God's grace is applied to our lives. To distill all these critical thoughts into a single sentence: We are not saved because we have faith, but instead we have faith because we are saved.
Faith is not what saves us. Grace is what saves us, and it does so through faith, by creating faith as a part of our lives, and in doing so, raising us up from spiritual death into spiritual life. This is why Paul emphasizes, "And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (v.9) If salvation is something we have gained or, you could say, earned, simply because we "have faith," we would have grounds for boasting before God. We would have grounds for saying, "Well, at some point in my life I'm glad I had the good sense to give my life to Jesus. Too bad not everyone else is as smart as I am..." No. If you are doing that, you have not understood your own salvation properly. It is the gift of God, and it is not because of you. God made you alive; God raised you up with Christ; and God did this because of his grace, and he did it through your faith. This is not your own doing - that is, salvation by grace through faith is not your own doing, but is the gift of God. All of it, down to the finest detail, is God's work within you to create life and joy and peace in him.
And this is not simply an arbitrary decision on God's part. He is saving you for a purpose. For his purpose specifically, "his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth." (Eph. 1:9-10) So after he tells us that we are saved by grace through faith, Paul goes on to say, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (2:10) God saves us not so that we can simply have comfort in life and in death (though we do), but so that we would live renewed lives, different lives, lives that glorify God by loving him and by loving our neighbor. Just as I said earlier that salvation is a state of being more than a destination, so salvation is still more than just a state of being - it is a state of doing. And the doing comes from the being. What I mean is, God gives us this relationship with him that we call salvation not just to have an impact on us, but to also have an impact on the world through us. We are his "workmanship," to use Paul's word, and we were, in a sense, "created" in Christ Jesus as new people who would do "good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (v.10) God saves us by filling our lives with faith and knowledge of him, and then proceeds to use us in the world to show what the kingdom of God looks like. We are saved for a purpose; one that lies outside ourselves. What a magnificent joy to be a part of God's plan for the fullness of time, a plan that he has had from eternity!
If you are reading this and have never believed in Jesus, I encourage you to spend some time thinking about what Paul is saying here, both about God and about us. Read Ephesians 2:1-10 thoroughly and look carefully at your life. When you look at yourself, do you see living as the best word to characterize your relationship to God? Do you live in an awareness of his constant love for us, shown in his coming to be with us in Jesus Christ? Is there a vital relationship there that you depend upon, in which you relate well to a God you know, as you would know a friend or a parent? Paul tells us that this God is available to us, and we know him by faith. And by faith we eventually come to realize that we know him by faith because he has revealed himself to us by grace. As the old poem says,
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew,
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me.
It was not I who found, O savior true,
But I was found of thee.
Thou didst reach forth thine hand and mine enfold,
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea.
'Twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
As thou, dear Lord, on me.
I find, I walk, I love, but O the whole
of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee,
For thou wert long beforehand with my soul.
Always thou lovest me.
Take hold of Christ, I invite you, and find in him a God who has, in fact, first taken hold of you. And may that knowledge preserve you in faith, and comfort you in salvation - not a salvation that is far removed to only the distant future, but which is present at this very moment, in your love and trust in God. May God give you grace to come.