Christmas is only one week away. You’re probably getting exciting now. We’ve been wrapping a few presents each night for the past couple weeks. My kids have noticed the growing pile under the tree. The younger ones make it a point to get up early to see who gained a gift.
Why don’t people get excited about God’s grace? Why do we take God’s love and mercy for granted? Why do we sometimes trample on his grace by living apart from him or boasting in ourselves? The main reason is because we don’t realize how bad off we really are without God’s grace. If we want grace to transform us into good people zealous for good works, then we have to appreciate the depth of the bad news about ourselves before we can fully rejoice in the height of the good news about God and what he has done for us. Ephesians 2:1-10 can help us to get excited about God’s grace. It teaches that all Christians were once spiritually dead and ruled by evil like the rest of humanity, but God magnifies his grace when he creates believers—saving them from wrath, exalting them in Christ, and fashioning them for spiritual life. Feed on his loving grace by living in the good works for which you were made.
Throughout this exposition I’m going to employ an overarching metaphor to help explain the excitement that should attend our reading this particular Bible text. This passage is a roller coaster tour of the Christian’s former, present, and future life as related to Christ. It is not a leisurely drive through the country, but a heart-pounding ride of steep drops into darkness and soaring heights into glory. How ought we to live after such a ride?
Grace: What Life Is Like Without It
The roller coast has reached the top of the first hill and is now screaming down the track toward the ground. Some are smiling, some are screaming, none are really afraid for their lives because, after all, it’s just a ride, right?
Dead in sin (v. 1)
What does it mean that “you were dead”? It cannot mean physically dead because sinners are alive in so many obvious ways. It can only mean spiritually dead (1 Tim 5:6). However, it helps to consider how a person who is physically dead is unable to respond to or appreciate stimuli. This spiritually dead person has spiritual faculties that don’t function until God gives him life (1 Cor 2:14). Before God initiates our salvation, everyone is born with a nature alienated from the source and giver of life. It is impossible for a spiritually dead person to respond to the gospel with repentance and faith. Unregenerate sinners have no inclination or responsiveness toward God and no ability to please him. All sinners are dead, so the only difference is the state of spiritual decay. Being spiritually dead in our transgressions and sins is the cause of our miserable condition (cf. Gen 2-3; Rom 6:23). What is the difference between transgressions and sins? Not much. Transgressions are willful and deliberate disobedience to the law of God. They are false steps either crossing a boundary or deviating from the right path on purpose. Sins are essentially those ways we miss the mark God designed us to hit—missing God’s standard by omission or commission in thought, word, or deed. Pastor-theologian John Stott summarizes: “Before God we are both rebels and failures.”
Enslaved to Satan (v. 2)
The idiom “walk” means live. Unbelievers are oriented to live in this present age which is evil. Satan is the ruler of this age (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Here he is portrayed as dominating his enslaved human subjects. The spirit of Satan (contrasted with the Holy Spirit) is presently at work in the “sons of disobedience”. In other words, we were born of disobedience, born of sin. Satan is at work in his subjects by the power of suggestion, temptation, threat, condemnation, and even indwelling (Jn 8:44; Acts 26:18; 2 Cor 4:4). This means the devil influences unbelievers who are in rebellion against God. He “rules” over that part of the world that follows him.
Condemned by God (v. 3)
Notice the first person plural pronouns (our, we) that emphasize the unity of both Jews (including Paul) and Gentiles in this pre-Christian sinful predicament. Paul is not describing just pagans, or a notoriously decadent tribe, but all of humanity. Both the Gentile, steeped in lawlessness, and the Jew, steeped in the law, are living in the lusts of the flesh according to our corrupt human nature. The expression “by nature children of wrath” is a summary of Paul’s doctrine in Romans 5:12-14, which refers to all humanity “in Adam” when he sinned and thereby all incur sin’s guilt. We all inherit this nature of sin and guilt from our first father Adam under the covenant of works at creation. The sinful nature (the flesh) corrupts the divine image making us guilty before God and thus deserving his wrath and judgment (Ps 51:5; Rom 5:12-21). Paul’s “in the flesh” theology includes all forms of self-confidence: racial, ethnic, and family pride; religious and moral righteousness. Wherever self demands to be at the center, whether in subtle respectable ways or flagrant disreputable ways, there is the flesh. God’s wrath is not capricious, unjust, or disproportional. Wrath is the appropriate response to people who reject God, trample his mercy and patience, and flaunt his law by doing evil (Jn 3:36). To escape this prison in which we are spiritually still-born slaves to Satan and our own evil desires, God must pour out on sinners his superabundant grace.
Some of you are surely thinking, “Come on! Is our situation really that bad? You’re exaggerating. I know good people who are not Christians. Some of them are more moral and kind than many Christians I know. Maybe criminals and psychopaths can be called “sons of disobedience” but not your average person.” I think the best way to answer this difficult question is “No, but Yes.” One night during my freshman year of college a bunch of my Christian friends (one of whom was a brand new believer) were having a dinner table discussion. Somehow the question came up whether the new believer’s mother, who was not a believer, was going to hell. That question is sensitive enough, but then it quickly morphed into “Does she worship Satan?” How would you answer? So many young Christians at the table tried with great uneasiness to give a biblical answer. Some of us spoke with fear and trembling, intuitively sensing the answer is “No, but Yes.” A sharp division arose at the table and the new believer was adamant her good mother was not a Satan worshiper. I’m convinced that discussion was the beginning of my friend questioning her recently-placed trust in Christ. She began to abandon Jesus the next year.
Talking about how bad we are by nature—that we are dead in sins, condemned by God, and enslaved to Satan—can be very delicate depending on who we’re talking to. So be careful who you share this with and how you share it. Notice that Paul doesn’t mince words in this passage because his church audience used to live without grace. He’s talking about their former state of sin and misery that they have now been delivered from. In Acts 17 where Paul addresses pagan unbelieving intellectuals with no knowledge of the gospel, he doesn’t bring any of this up. Why? Because he is wise. Paul never wanted to put an unnecessary stumbling block in front of anyone considering the simple gospel message that God saves sinners through Christ alone. So if anyone ever asks you if good, moral non-Christians worship Satan, remember the answer “No, but Yes.” And keep Ephesians 2:1-10 close by to explain.
Grace: What Life Is Like With It
The roller coaster has reached the bottom of its fearful descent and is now ascending to the heights with exhilarating twists and turns. This is the upturn of grace. If the roller coaster kept descending you’d get dashed to the ground in a horrible wreck. That’s what happens in life without grace. You may enjoy the thrill of the drop for a time, but eventually the ground opens up and the roller coaster descends at break-neck speed only to crash and burn in hell. But with grace, the terrifying part of the ride is over.
Conformed to Christ’s exaltation (vv. 4-6)
The words “but God” are wonderful when directed at our terrible condition. Only God is able and does bring this change of condition about. Such a portrayal of our situation apart from God contrasts starkly with his magnificent and merciful response to our condition. We have been miraculously freed by the work of Christ from the tyranny of Satan’s power. The powers of sin and Satan have been destroyed in us and for us. Now we are alive in Christ (Gal 2:20). Notice that God’s wrath does not contradict his love. God’s love and wrath come together in harmony at the cross where the wrath and love of God were fully on display for all humanity to see and understand. God is rich (liberal, even prodigal!) in mercy, not because of anything we have done to earn his mercy, but only because of his great love for us (Dt 7:7-8). When God’s love is related to sinners, it translates to mercy and grace (Jn 3:16; Jude 21). In his mercy, God doesn’t give us what we do deserve. In his grace, God gives us what we do not deserve.
Verses 5 and 6 emphasize the present reality of our salvation. We get to feed on his grace now! God’s grace has three effects on us. Grace (1) makes us alive; (2) raises us up; and (3) seats us in heaven. These correspond to the resurrection, ascension, and coronation of Christ. These truths of the gospel are confessed in the Apostles’ Creed: “The third day he rose again from the dead, he ascended into heaven, and he sits at the right hand of God the Father.” But now Paul is writing about Christians, thus all these benefits and effects of salvation are ours “in Christ”! Through our union with Christ, all these things can rightly be said about Christians. How can Paul say this? Because believers are connected to Christ in a mystical, spiritual way. Thus we experience these three things right now with and in Christ. Although this truth is mysterious, it is plainly rooted in our everyday experience. We have a new life (knowing and loving God) and a new victory (evil increasingly trampled under our feet). Before we were captives in spiritual dungeons, but now we reign on heavenly thrones. This experience entails a renewal of your mind (Rom 12:1-2; Col 3:10), a new identity as God’s child (Rom 8:14-17), and a new ability to live a holy life (Rom 8:1-4; 2 Cor 5:17). And don’t forget you will experience these in fullness as Christ does now when he comes at the end of the age (Rom 8:11; 1 Cor 15).
Enriched forever in Christ (v. 7)
Once all things are considered, it becomes clear that God’s plan and accomplishment of salvation has been to the praise of his glorious grace for all eternity (Eph 1:6). This grace is incomparably rich. There is nothing narrow or stingy in God’s grace. His grace is so rich that every heart it touches will overflow with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (the fruit of the Spirit). That is why we know him as the God of grace. Whereas the ground of our salvation is God’s love and mercy, the goal of our salvation is magnifying his grace and kindness. Kindness is love expressed as mercy given at the point of most dire need (Tit 3:4-7).
John and Charles Wesley, when they were young, lived in a house that burned down. Their parents lost every material possession but none of their children. While repeatedly returning inside their burning house, they only rescued their most precious treasures—the kids. The Wesley boys were secure in their parents’ love, and they knew God’s hand of grace to save them from that fire. Now here’s the point: it is because John and Charles knew they were God’s treasure that they loved God even more. His grace became not just a theological concept, but a living reality. God loved them so much he saved their lives when they were helpless. In the same way Jesus enters into the burning house of the world to save his most precious belongings—his children, his chosen ones who belong to him. They are the treasure he loves enough to die for. And that is what Jesus did. The Son of God died to save us from destruction because he loved us. We are his treasure. When you begin to understand this, you’ll know the riches of his grace are his love for you.
Grace: How To Get It
You’re off the ride now and walking through the exit line that dumps you in the gift shop where you can see your picture on the screen. In real life you have to pay for the photo, but in God’s economy it’s free.
Through faith (v. 8a)
Faith in Jesus Christ (WSC 86). Faith is a confident trust in God’s declaration that we are righteous in Christ, and not righteous for any of our own achievements or contributions. Faith in Christ is the only thing that rightly relates us to God (Jn 3:16, 36; Gal 2:16). This is a good way to think of faith: as the instrument or method through which you receive God’s grace.
Receive it as a gift (v. 8b)
What does “this” refer to—God’s grace or our faith? If grace is God’s gift, then is faith our contribution? Not if you look closely at the language in this verse. Grammatically, grace and faith are feminine nouns. But “this” is in the neuter form, so “this” must refer to the entire phrase “it is by grace you have been saved through faith”. In other words, “this” refers to the entire process of salvation wrought by God for us. The NT makes clear that God is the ultimate source of saving faith (Jn 6:37, 44, 65; Acts 13:48; 18:27; Phil 1:29). Salvation is all of grace. It is all gift—even our faith, which is our response as newly redeemed, spiritually alive people.
The sixteenth century reformer John Calvin says, “Faith brings a man empty to God, that he may be filled with the blessings of Christ.” Think about it this way. When someone gives you a Christmas present, what is the best way to respond? To boast? “You didn’t have to…well maybe you did because, hey, I’m been really really good this year. No way I’m on the naughty list!” Ha! Or how about to pay for it? “How much do I owe you?” Or to refuse it? “I don’t need this, but if I want it I’d rather get it for myself.” These sound absurd, but people do respond these ways when the offer of salvation is extended. How much better to say “Thank you”? Salvation is a gift. That is why the proper response is not to boast, or to earn, or to refuse, but to thank with praise and joy.
Grace: What To Do With It
Now you’re home the next day recovering from the roller coaster ride. You’ve got a story to tell and a life to live. How you respond to the roller coaster ride reveals how the experience changed you.
Give God all the credit (v. 9)
God’s grace humble us. If you’re not completely humbled by God’s grace then it’s a good bet you’re not feeding on it. Why? Because there is absolutely no room for boasting in the heart of one who has been saved by grace alone. If you leave just a little room to pat yourself on the back for believing, or being the kind of person who deserved to be saved, then you’ve forgotten all that salvation entails. Salvation is more than forgiveness. Resurrection is out of death and creation is out of nothing—these together picture the true meaning of salvation. Grace is not just unmerited but de-merited favor toward those who are dead in transgressions and sins, thus deserving his wrath. Remember that no one can help themselves to God’s grace because everyone is by nature spiritually dead apart from God’s grace. Someone will say, “Yes, but it was I who believed—no one believed for me.” True enough, but don’t you see? That is a subtle boast against others who do not believe and obey God. You’re feeding on a tiny morsel of self-righteousness rather than on the banquet of God’s amazing grace. All boasting is out (vv. 8-9). To the degree you believe that you are dead, enslaved, and condemned without God’s grace in your life, to that same degree you’ll give God the credit for his grace—even the grace to believe in him.
Live in good works (v. 10)
Repentance unto life (WSC 87). It should go without saying that faith is not a free pass to go back to your sin. That is counterfeit faith. Faith is always linked to repentance. If you don’t want to turn away from what life is like without grace, then you don’t yet have a saving faith. But once you repent and believe in Jesus, now what should you do? Live as one designed by God and who belongs to him. Whereas unbelievers “walked” in transgressions and sins (v. 2), now believers “walk” in good works. God has re-created and ordained us for a better walk of life. Before you walked in evil works, now you must walk in good works that adorn your salvation (Tit 3:8; Jas 2:14-26). Regarding good works, Christ is our Enabler (Acts 2:22) and our Example (Jn 13:14-15; 1 Pet 2:21). Jesus expects and requires us to bear not just a little fruit but much fruit (Jn 15:2, 5, 8). The one who abides in Jesus will live in many good works.
Everything hangs on grace. Without grace, you’d have no hope because you wouldn’t have God. Grace is exciting when you understand its roller coaster message. Never forget how dreadful life is like without it. Think often about what your life is like with grace. When you’re unmoved, feed on his grace for zeal to live in good works. When you’re afraid, feed on his grace for courage and confidence. When you’re boastful, feed on his grace for humility. When you’re unsure of salvation, feed on his grace for assurance. When you’re feeling unloved, feed on his grace for a heart warmed by Jesus’ sacrificial love. Feed on his grace by putting your faith in Christ, receive his grace as God’s precious gift, give him all the credit for grace, and live in the good works that God has made for you in his grace. Everything hangs on grace.
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