Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 10, 2024

Ephesians 2:1-10 Commentary

Perhaps few texts, particularly among the New Testament’s epistles, are more familiar or frequently preached than this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s. As a result, preachers may wonder what the Spirit would have them “do” with Ephesians 2:1-10. In our questioning we may even hunt for a novel approach to this gospel proclamation.

Such a “safari” may, however, without careful attentiveness to the Spirit’s guidance, veer dangerously close to heresy. As I previously noted here, Christians have always been tempted to turn the “grace” [chariti]* about which Paul sings so lustily and lyrically in verses 5 and 8 into a license for any kind of lifestyle that they choose. Some of Jesus’ friends have adopted Heinrich Heine’s famous “I like to sin, God likes to forgive. Really, the world is admirably arranged.”

But as I was recently reminded in a conversation with church members about this text, Christians also easily assume that God saves us by God’s grace + our good works. We naturally assume that our faithful obedience is an essential part of the salvation equation. To some people, it’s almost as if God’s grace just isn’t quite enough; it needs the extra boost our faithful good works provide.

That’s a reason why gospel proclaimers might consider preaching about the relationship between grace and “good works” [ergois agathois] (10). In Ephesians 2, after all, Paul refers to “works” (twice) as nearly often as he does to “grace” (three times). In his mind, grace and good works go together as well as peanut butter and jelly. In fact, Christians might even say we can’t have one without the other – as long as we remember that God’s grace alone saves us.

This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson insists that both grace and good works begin in a kind of grave. “You were,” writes Paul in verse 1, “dead [nekrous] in your transgressions [paraptomasin] and sins [hamartiais].” Most Christians recognize the spiritual death to which this refers. In our rebellion against God, we are spiritual walking corpses.

But preachers might also note that our love for God and our neighbor is naturally no more alive than our status before God. Our obedience to God is naturally fully as dead as our relationship with God. We are naturally incapable of turning away from our hostility and toward God and people toward something that even vaguely resembles love for them.

Paul reminds his readers that instead of walking in love, even Christians naturally “walk” [periepatesate] (2) in our “transgressions [paraptomasin] and sins [hamartiais]” (1). Instead of following Jesus, we naturally follow the ways of this world [kata ton aiona] and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air [archonta tes exousias tou aeros]” (1).

Instead of submitting to the Spirit of God, even God’s adopted sons and daughters naturally submit to “the spirit [pneumatos] who is now at work [energountos] in those who are disobedient [apeitheias]” (2). Instead of following Jesus, we naturally follow “the cravings [epithymiais]” of our sinful nature’s “desires [thelemata] and thoughts [dianoion]” (3).

Paul’s picture of human spiritual and obedience death is so grim that people may not just shrink back from it. Jesus’ followers may also fail to see its connection between ourselves and it. After all, the Spirit has been doing such a good work in so many of us for such a long time that we may assume that Ephesians 2:1-3 refers to other people rather than ourselves. God’s dearly beloved people may, as a result, fail to recognize our desperate need for the grace by which God rescues us from death.

Preachers might respond to the perceived disconnect between our natural state and that which God has graciously redeemed. We can acknowledge how relatively little many of Jesus’ followers reflect the first part of this lesson’s grim picture of death. But we should then also add that what Paul is describing here is our natural way of life.

Paul even says at the end of verses 3, “Like the rest [hoi loipoi], we were by nature [physei] objects of wrath [orges].” God so hates sin and the havoc that it wreaks that our deliberate embrace of our rebellion against God and God’s ways makes us targets of God’s righteous anger.

Ephesians 2 and Lent’s grim picture of living death isn’t just of “those other people” whom Christians deem to be particularly disobedient, faithless or spiritually misguided. It is also a picture of even Jesus’ closest friends – before and outside of God’s amazing grace. Any lively and living faith and obedience that we have is a product of God graciously raising us to life.

But, of course, just as Jesus’ story doesn’t end at the cross, his adopted siblings’ stories don’t end in death. “But,” we can almost hear the apostle shout in verse 4 and 5, “because of [dia] his great love [pollen agapen] for us, God, who is rich in mercy [plousios en eleei] made us alive with Christ [synezoopoiesen Christo] – it is by grace [chariti] you have been saved [sesomenoi].”

This is the most compact expression of the gospel in history. We were dead. But God loved us so much that God mercifully raised us from the dead with Christ. God did this, not because we deserved it, but out of God’s sheer unmerited favor. God did all this, as The Message paraphrases Paul, “on his own, with no help from us!”

But even once God graciously rescues us, God isn’t yet finished with God’s dearly beloved people. “God,” adds Paul in verse 6, “raised us up with [synegeiren] Christ and seated us with [synakathisen] him in the heavenly realm [epouraniois] in Christ Jesus.”

This is mysterious language. The New Testament’s infrequent use of the verbs synegeiren and synakathisen does little to clarify it. No living Christian, after all, yet literally sits with Christ in the heavenly realm. Certainly God has graciously raised us with Christ to the status of heavenly royalty. What’s more, someday soon God promises to raise us to places of honor in the new earth and heaven.

But what if in verse 6 Paul is, in fact, alluding to the priorities of Christians’ daily lives when he speaks of us as seated us with Christ in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus? What if his mysterious call in verse 6 is a call to his brothers and sisters in Christ to deliberately align our goals with our ascended adopted big brother Christ’s goals?

The biblical scholar Emerson Powery suggests that Christians’ identification with the heavenly realm is a “necessary activity for Christ-followers as one way to shape their earthly perspective.” Because of God’s work in Christ “in the heavenly places,” Powery goes on to write, God empowers Christian to “act with courage and hope.”

That interpretation of verse 6 is certainly consistent with Paul’s message in verses 9b-10. There he writes that God doesn’t save anyone “by works [ex ergon] so that no one can boast [kauchesetai]. For we are God’s workmanship [poiema], created [ktisthentes] in Christ Jesus for good works [ergois agathois] which God prepared in advance [proetoimasen] for us to do.”

God saves God’s adopted sons and daughters by God’s grace alone. But God, in a real sense, saves God’s people for good works. Christians can do nothing to earn God’s salvation of us. We can only receive that salvation with the open hands of faith.

Yet just as God equips us with the faith that receives God’s grace, God also empowers us to respond to that grace with our good works. God saves God’s adopted sons and daughters in order to empower us to love God above all and our neighbors as ourselves. God graces us so that we may respond to that grace with grace-filled lives that deliberately and persistently show grace to our neighbor. Even to the neighbor who has made him or herself our enemy.

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


In his sermon, “I Was Just Wondering … How Do I Understand Predestination?” at the LaGrave Christian Reformed Church on October 22, 2023, the Rev. Peter Jonker tells a story about Harry Jellema. Dr. Jellema was a beloved professor at Calvin University who devoted decades of his life to studying reason and logic. He was among the world’s foremost philosophers who spent much of his life trying to “answer life’s great questions.”

But in 1982 Jellema was dying. So his pastor Jake Eppinga went to visit him. Jake prayed with and read Scripture to him. They talked about both life and death. Eppinga later reported that while Jellema had spent a lifetime reading, thinking and speculating about life, his last words to Eppinga were: “It’s all grace, Jake. It’s all grace. My whole life long I’ve been carried along by God’s grace.”


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