Comments and Observations
The first three verses of this text reminded me of my two favorite criticisms of Calvinism, which has historically taken these verses as a proof text for its doctrine of total depravity. A car critic described the famously boxy Volvo as something that might have been designed by “a Calvinist with a straight edge.” And Garrison Keillor on his radio show advertised a fictional breakfast cereal called Mournful Oatmeal. “It’s like Calvinism in a box.” Calvinists (of whom I am one) are often stereotyped as straight-laced and gloomy, just like Paul in Ephesians 2:1-3.
Except that Paul is not gloomy in this text, not by the end, and not overall. Indeed, this text is the locus classicus for the great doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, surely the most liberating and joyful teaching in the world. But to get to the pinnacle of grace, to help us sing “Amazing Grace” from the mountaintops, Paul slogs through the lowlands of humanity’s sinful condition. He is like a doctor confronted with a difficult decision about treating a patient who has fallen. In order to prescribe the right treatment, the doctor must come up with an accurate diagnosis of the patient’s condition. A faulty diagnosis can lead to incorrect, even deadly, treatment. Most Christians agree that the human race has fallen into sin, but there’s significant disagreement about the effects of the fall. How bad are the damages from the fall?
So, let’s ask Paul, “How bad is it, Doc?” Here’s a graphic way to think about three very different answers to that questions: picture a corpse lying on the ground, a cripple using a set of crutches, and a healthy person climbing a step ladder. First, focus on the corpse. You might say that the fall was so severe that it left us dead. We’re alive physically, but dead spiritually, sort of like zombies, the living dead. Left to ourselves, every human being is a corpse, unable to move spiritually, incapable of doing the very things we must do to be saved. That’s the infamous Calvinist doctrine of total depravity.
Or picture a person hobbling along with a pair of crutches. You might say that the fall was bad, but it didn’t kill us. It left us crippled. We’re like a person with a badly broken leg who needs crutches or at worst like a quadriplegic who needs a wheelchair to get around. With some help, we are able to do what we must do to be saved. That’s the position of Christians who have historically been called Arminians.
Or you might say that we haven’t really fallen at all, so we don’t need to be saved. We are simply climbing the ladder to goodness in our own strength, getting better and better as the human race evolves into a higher order of being. All we need is more knowledge, a more rigorous exercise regimen, or a better step ladder. This is the view of some liberal Christians and all secular humanists, going all the way back to the Enlightenment.
What does the Word of God say about the condition of the human race apart from the grace of God: corpses, cripples, or climbers? How does Paul answer our question? “As for you, you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of the world and the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit now at work in those who are disobedient.” You weren’t just a little sick and in need of a couple of aspirin, plenty of rest, and a visit to your doctor if you don’t feel better in a few days. You weren’t just a little off course in your life and in need of a minor, mid-course, educational correction. You weren’t seeking God in your own way, getting better and better each step of the way, though you were a little lost in your sincere effort.
No, you were dead in your sin, and thus unable to do what you had to do. Indeed, says Paul, you lived in sin. It was the dominating factor in your life; it was the sphere or realm or kingdom in which you used to live. Picture a modern day biosphere. You lived like everyone else who lives in the biosphere of sin; you were completely trapped in the sinful ways of a disobedient world. In fact, you were followers of Satan, unwittingly perhaps, but nevertheless you followed the ways of the ruler of the kingdom of the air. And, says, Paul, I was no better. “All of us, even those of who were raised in church, in the confines of the covenant community, lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature, and following its desires and thoughts.” We (and I include myself) were not basically good people who occasionally did the wrong thing. We were by nature slaves to our sinful cravings.
When we ask Doctor Paul how bad it is, he says, “We were dead in sin, completely conditioned by sin, so that all we do is affected by sin, and totally in bondage to sin, so that we can’t do what we must do to be saved.” Jesus said it powerfully years before in John 6:44. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” But the good (?) doctor isn’t done yet. His diagnosis ends with this statement. “Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.” Well, of course, we were. How could we be anything else when God is as holy as God is? If we willingly follow the Unholy Trinity of the world, the flesh and the Devil, how could the Holy Trinity by anything other than angry with us?
That’s what you would think, but God had other thoughts. Those unfathomable thoughts of God are summarized in Ephesians 2 with that great two word summary of the gospel—“but God.” We were dead in sin, but God made us alive. We were sunk in the pit of depravity, but God raised us up. We were headed for hell, but God seated us in the heavenly realms. We were being ruined by Satan, but God turned us into a masterpiece of goodness. We are still inclined toward all evil if left to our selves, but God won’t leave us to ourselves. He sent his Son to save us and his Spirit to finish the work. We were dead; note the past tense. But now God has made us alive; we are not what we once were, corpses, cripples, not even climbers. We are new creatures. How bad is it? It’s so bad that it will take a miracle for us to be saved. Which is exactly what Ephesians 2 says has happened.
Why in the world would God do that? To explain it, Paul heaps up words like cordwood. “But, because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive…. It is by grace you have been saved… so that he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” What a rich and wonderful picture of God. Salvation began in God’s love. His love took the form of mercy, which took pity on poor sinners, and that mercy came to full expression in grace, which pardoned sinners. What a kind God!
I love the old story about C.S. Lewis wandering into an august gathering of theologians in Britain in the last century. They were debating how Christianity differed from other religions. Was it the doctrine of the Incarnation? No, some argued, they found stories of gods appearing in human form in other religions, though not in the precise form as the Gospel. So was it the Resurrection? No, argued others, there are stories of people rising from the dead in other religions, though not in the precise form as the Gospel. Eventually, Lewis, the great Oxford scholar, wandered into the room and asked what the rumpus was about. When told that they were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution to the world’s religions, he said, “That’s easy. It’s grace.”
That’s right. It is only because of God’s grace, his undeserved, unearned love and mercy and kindness for sinners, that we are saved. That is the very heart of Christianity. Well, not quite. As the Reformers put it, it’s not just sola gratia. It’s also solus Christus. God’s grace comes to us only in Christ. There is no grace for sinners apart from the person and work of Christ. Listen to the way Doctor Paul puts it. “God made us alive with Christ… raised us up with Christ… seated us in the heavenly realms in Christ…. His kindness expressed to us in Christ…. We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus….” God’s grace saves sinners only in connection with Christ.
But Paul isn’t done with his prescription for our cure, because he knows that there is only one thing in this world that can connect us to Christ—not a good life, because apart from grace we are dead in sin; not an honest effort, because apart from grace we follow sinful desires; not our sincere seeking for God, because apart from grace we follow Satan; not God’s love for everyone, because apart from God’s grace we are by nature objects of wrath. There is only one thing that can connect sinners to Christ, and that is faith. “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith….” Faith is the channel, the funnel, the conduit through which the grace of God in Christ reaches us. Faith doesn’t earn God’s grace, because then we could boast of our faith, and our text explicitly says that no one can boast. No, faith receives God’s grace like the trembling hand of a street corner beggar received the handful of dollars thrust through the open window of my car.
But then, says Paul, the beggar becomes a doer, no longer a panhandler begging for a buck, but a prince(ss) striding through the world doing the good works that God in his grace has prepared for us to do. Now the gloom is gone. No more Mournful Oatmeal for breakfast. This is full gospel joy, because the grace of God given through Christ and received by faith makes us fully human. By grace, we become the creatures God had intended from the beginning, God’s magnificent workmanship, God’s masterpiece.
We can’t get to this great good news without first understanding the awful bad news. Thanks God that we don’t have to end with the bad news or live in its darkness. That’s a temptation for straight edged Calvinists. It is our duty as preachers to take people through the depths so that they can sing on the heights. Don’t ever leave them down there. Make sure they can sing, “Amazing Grace,” by the time you say “Amen.”
To help people understand that even faith is a work of grace (“you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God….”), take them to the beach. Imagine taking a ride to Grand Haven (a beautiful local beach here in Michigan) to watch the big waves roll in. Some foolish adolescent jumps in the water by the pier where the undercurrents are treacherous and powerful. He struggles for a moment and then goes under. Because you are a loving and merciful and gracious person, you jump in to save him. But by the time you find him, he is lying on the bottom, apparently dead. You try talking him into swimming to shore, but you know he’s going nowhere on his own. So you pull him to the beach and stretch him out. You stand over him yelling at him to breathe, but having swallowed half of Lake Michigan, he simply can’t do it. The only way to get him to breath is for you to breathe for him. You give him mouth to mouth resuscitation, and your breath enables him to breathe. In ways we can’t fathom, God in his grace makes us alive so that we can breathe, and believe.
Here’s another take on what God in his grace has done for us sinners. Back in the days of the Reformation, Martin Luther was debating the great humanist Erasmus. Erasmus pictured God’s rescue like this. It was like a mother helping a baby learn to walk. She holds the baby’s hand, steadies the baby’s little body, let’s the baby take a few unsteady steps, and then catches the baby when she falls. No, said Luther, with characteristic bluntness, it was like a caterpillar surrounded by a ring of fire. God reached down and plucked the helpless creature from certain death.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 15, 2015
Ephesians 2:1-10 Commentary