If you’ll turn with me to the book of Ephesians, let’s take a look at chapter 2, verses 1 through 10:
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.
Those are some pretty extreme words, and if you’ve read much of Paul, isn’t exactly surprising. But if Paul’s words here are extreme, they’re also extremely hopeful. If you are a believer in Christ, this passage is the story of your life. And it’s a story with a happy ending that far outweighs the terror of its unhappy beginnings. And if you’re not a believer in Christ here, I want it to become the story of your life, and I promise to annoy you, hopefully, into becoming one.
Verse 1 starts out every bit as dark as chapter one was gloriously upbeat. Up to this point, Paul has been warmly reminding his readers of the great mercy God had shown them in election. Everyone who is a believer in Christ is incalculably blessed. Not with earthly riches, or fame, or power, or wealth, but with something better. We are blessed with all the riches in the Heavenly places, Paul said earlier. We are wealthy with a wealth that we didn’t earn.
But it wasn’t always that way. There was a time when God and I weren’t friends. There was a point when you had no business in God’s living room. Earlier, Paul said that we were beloved in Christ, but there was a time before that election was worked out in us, and in those days we weren’t coming to God’s Christmas parties.
Verse 1 says that “we were dead in our trespasses and sins.” And corpses don’t get up out of their graves carry on with their business. They don’t have business, because they’re corpses. But we were a special kind of dead. Paul writes in verse 2 that we were dead in the trespasses and sins “that we used to walk in.” Generally, the dead don’t walk, either. So we were a special kind of dead that doesn’t mean quite the same thing as being normal dead. If you consult a Bible dictionary or a word study, you’ll see that Paul means that we were so buried beneath our sins and trespasses that we could not act any differently.
So there wasn’t going to come a day when we up and quit sinning. It was our nature. Those were the days when we’d sin and we weren’t sorry. We might have been haunted by some low-rent guilt that just hung out in the background, but it was always a vague guilt. We weren’t sorry for our sin, and we weren’t sorry for much of anything in particular. We were just kind of guilty, but feeling guilty isn’t the same as being repentant. Because we were “dead in your trespasses and sins,” so we kept walking in it.
And maybe it wasn’t gross. Not everybody had over the top, nauseating habits. Not everybody, like, killed JFK, or whatever. Maybe your sin was quiet. Maybe it was subtle. Maybe it was socially acceptable, like a disrespecting your wife, or turning a blind eye to people in need. But it was sin, and you were a sinner, and you were numb to the voice that might have warned you to flee from it. And part of that was that we wanted to be numb, right?
If we’re honest, we didn’t want to hear our conscience, so we buried it. We put our heads down, and we did what Paul says in verse 2, we “followed the course of this world,” and it made our sin so much easier. Because it’s unbelievably easy to keep walking in the sins that you gravitate towards when you’re just “following the course of the world.”
But we weren’t just following the course of the world when we sinned. Paul writes in verse 2 that we were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked “following the prince of the power of the air.” If you read up a bit on that phrase, you’ll find that it’s a reference to the devil. But notice the Paul does not say that we walked in sin because we were “controlled by the devil.” Paul writes that you were “following the prince of the power of the air.”
And that’s an important distinction, because Paul goes on to say that we walked in trespasses and sins “following the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience, among whom we all once lived in the passions of the flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.” So there’s Paul stacking phrases on top of phrases again, but his point is actually very simple: You do the things that you do because they’re the sort of things that you would do.
That’s why in verse 3 he writes that we “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” There’s a popular quote that goes something like: “Religion says ‘you broke God’s rules,’ but the gospel says ‘You broke God’s heart.’” And that’s not wrong. But it’s not right enough.
Our sin may break God’s heart, but it will also break us. God’s response to sin is not just heartbreak – it’s wrath. If you persist in sin – and I’m talking about commonplace sin, disrespect-your-wife type sin – if you persist unrepentantly in sin your whole life, utterly numb to the voice of your conscience, God will break you apart like you broke His law, and He’ll be right to do so. Our sin is always worse than we think it is. It always drives us further, and further into more, and more, and more sin.
So, one of my favorite movies is a French zombie film from the 1980s called Living Dead Girl. It’s about a young woman named Catherine Valmont who is accidentally brought back to life when a barrel of toxic waste is spilled on her grave. But she doesn’t come back the same as she used to be.
She comes back as a zombie, and we all know what zombies do. What makes matters worse, though, is that she doesn’t lose her personality. She’s not mindless, like the ones from The Walking Dead, stumbling around and groaning for brains. She is still Catherine Valmont, but she’s gotta eat, and she can only eat what zombies eat. She was brought back from the grave, not to a new life, but a living death. There is no cure for her “living death.” Her best efforts cannot make her “alive” again. She is a monster, and that is who she is now. And it’s all she can be.
And I don’t know if Paul saw that movie, or what, because he doesn’t say that we were “disappointing in our trespasses and sins,” – he says that we were dead! Right? It doesn’t say that we were “children who would never reach our full potential,” – it says that we were “by nature children of wrath!”
And that’s pretty extreme, as always, but doesn’t it ring true? I don’t know about you, but I can remember being six and skilled at finding new ways to cause trouble for my parents. I could break their rules in ways they’d never anticipate, and then break rules they’d never thought to make. Or, maybe you don’t remember, but you don’t need to, because you’ve got kids of your own now and you’re just waiting till they turn eighteen and you can sue them for emotional distress. There’s something in us that drives us to want awful things.
And we follow that drive, that appetite, into one degree of sin, and then another. And we’ll keep at it, like Catherine Valmonts in our home, and our villages, until we die for good and face the wrath of God. Or, until something else happens:
Verse 4 says that “God, being rich in mercy, and “because of the great love that He had for us, made us alive together with Christ.” That’s good news that my favorite French zombie movie won’t tell you about. You can’t just make yourself “not dead.” You can’t solve your sin problem if you are your sin problem. But God can, and that’s good news for those of us who suffer from “Living Death Syndrome,” because Paul says He is rich in mercy.
So God “made us alive together with Jesus.” This is an interesting sentence. Sunday school 101 is that Jesus is God. Remember the Gospels? The religious leaders were so upset that Jesus claimed to be God that they crucified Him. And they thought they were doing their own will. But they were actually doing God’s will. God saw that “we were dead in our trespasses and sins.” He saw that there was nothing we could do to save ourselves. That we were bringing His wrath on ourselves. So Jesus decided to give Himself up to be crucified by people like us, so that He could die, not for His own sins, but for the “trespasses and sins that we once walked in.”
But that’s not all Paul is talking about. Jesus didn’t die on the cross and then float up to heaven. He died on the cross for our “trespasses and sins,” and three days later He rose up again. And Paul says that “while we were dead in [the] trespasses and sins” that Jesus died on the cross for, God “made us alive together with [Jesus].” He went into the grave, buried our sin, and brought us back with Him.
To put it another way, Paul writes, “By grace you have been saved!”
And this tells us quite a bit about what the God of the Bible is like. Verse 4 says that God “raised us with Christ” because of “His great love that He had for us.” Writing in the first century, Paul wasn’t talking to a group of people who could simply assume that they were loved – by God or anyone. In the Roman Empire, there was no such thing as a human person. There was no sense that people were valuable simply because they existed. You were useful, or you weren’t. And if you weren’t useful, you didn’t matter – especially not to the gods. You could satiate the gods with sacrifices, but you couldn’t be their friend. You could impress them by dominating others, but you couldn’t be intimate with them. You could enjoy their aid or blessings by invoking them with the right rituals, but you couldn’t hang out with them.
But in verse 6, Paul says that “because of [this] God’s great love for us,” He has “seated us in the heavens together with Christ.” You couldn’t befriend the old gods, you couldn’t be loved by them, and you couldn’t hang out with them. But since this God already loved us, He “raised us up with Christ” into the “Heavenly places” where He is. We can have friendship with God through Jesus. And verse 7 says that he did this so that “the immeasurable Riches of His grace” are “displayed through his kindness to us” in Christ.
So, I don’t want to assume that everyone in here is Christian. I spent 17 years going to a Bible-believing Church, convinced that there was probably no God. Or, if there was one, that He probably rigged the universe as a kind of cruel joke against the folks He created. What changed, for me, was that a guy named Brad was deeply troubled by my profanity-laden Facebook posts. When he confronted me, I agreed, for some reason, start meeting with him before and after Youth Group to talk about the Lord Jesus. I would calmly tell him why Christianity was stupid, and he would listen and tell me why I was stupid. And over time my emotional hang-ups sounded less and less convincing as they came out of my mouth. So that eventually I just gave up trying to not believe.
So I want to be your Brad, and I want to be absolutely sure that if you are like the teenage version of me, your disbelief in the gospel does not come from not having heard it. If you don’t believe in God, I want you to know exactly what the God you don’t believe in is like. The God you don’t believe in is like Jesus, who saw that we were dead in our trespasses and sins and let us crucify Him so that He could take our sins into the grave and raise us back up with Him.
This is a God you can’t earn friendship with. Right? You can’t earn this God’s love. You can only throw yourself on His grace. So you can abandon the idea that you can’t be brought back from the death you’re living in, and you can abandon the idea that you don’t need to. You can throw yourself on the grace of God, and the God that Paul believed in, that I believe in, and that you don’t believe in, will bury your sins in a grave where Jesus was laid, and Jesus will raise you up with Him into friendship with God.
I’ll yell at you about it some more at the end of this sermon.
But even if that’s not you – and you don’t have any hang-ups about the God of the Bible – there are at least two traps that are dangerously easy to fall in. In verse 8, Paul says that we are saved by grace “through faith,” and that this is not from ourselves. Maybe you do believe in this God that Paul is talking about, but you’re like me and you spend most of your Christian walk trying to find ways to make sure God keeps liking you. Right? That same drive in us that moves us to sin also constantly pushes us to find ways to deny the gospel with our lives, even after we’ve received it by grace through faith. So that’s the first trap.
But Paul says, in verse 9, that we are saved “not by works,” so that “no one can boast.” Because lot of us have a tendency to say: “Yes, salvation is by faith, not by works. Yes, you can’t do enough good deeds to save yourself. No, I don’t think that my good works will get me into heaven.” And on paper, all of that is biblical. But if you aren’t careful, that can turn into “I did Faith the right way. I succeeded in believing the correct thing, and God rewarded me with salvation.”
Right? That’s the second trap: It’s entirely possible to believe the right thing on paper while secretly trusting in yourself to earn salvation. It’s totally possible to believe that you earn salvation by having the correct belief system and go your whole life not realizing it. But Paul says that we are “saved by grace, through faith – not from works.”
So faith is not a work that you perform in exchange for a place in heaven. Faith is a gift from God that you surrender to. Grace is a gift from God that you throw yourself on. Our salvation begins with God, is carried out by God, and is finished by God.
That is why Paul says in verse 10 that we are “God’s workmanship.” It’s easy to read over this verse without giving it a moment’s thought. Paul writes that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which he prepared beforehand for us to walk in.” It is one thing to be created, to be born. Everyone is created. Everyone is born. But not everyone is born again. Not everyone is a “new creation” in Christ Jesus. Everyone is born into the living death that comes from sin. But only those who are “raised up with Christ” are set free from it.
If you’ve read Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, you’ll remember Hazel Motes is a 20 year-old man who was raised a fundamentalist in the Bible Belt. When he goes off to the military, the other soldiers manage to entice him into joining their sinful lifestyle, and he gets hooked. When he gets out of the service, he becomes an atheistic street preacher.
He sets up shop on street corners and delivers revivalistic sermons about how, in his own words, “There is no salvation because there was no cross because there is no sin because there was no Jesus because there is no God, so nobody’s got much of anything to worry ‘cept for how they’re going to make next month’s rent.” He manages to scrape together some money, and tries to buy a car. He gets to the used car lot and finds the sketchiest station wagon on the whole lot. Hazel asks the car salesman what the vehicle costs, and the salesman replies “Jesus Christ crucified,” which upsets Hazel.
Throughout the book, Hazel uses this station wagon to escape the looming sense of guilt that has haunted him his entire life. But abandoning Jesus doesn’t make his guilt evaporate like he hopes. And it can’t. Because Christianity didn’t invent guilt, and it’s not the thing keeping guilt on life support. But Hazel tried his best to outrun it, so he bought a car in the hopes that station wagons might drive faster than guilt can run.
At the end of the novel, Hazel gets pulled over. The officer asks him to step out of the car but leave the keys in the ignition. Once he gets out, the officer pushes the vehicle off a cliff. And this turns out to be the beginning of Hazel’s redemption. Because without the car as a crutch that he can use to solve his guilt problem, he is left to face the fact that only Jesus can rescue him.
The car salesman said that the vehicle would cost “Jesus Christ crucified.” He was more right than he knew. Jesus Christ crucified is the only thing that can save us. Anything we try to use instead of Jesus is like the station wagon Hazel Motes bought. Anything we do to try to make God like us more is like buying a station wagon to drive away from our sinfulness. Hazel Motes’ station wagon can’t drive you out of the grave. Only Jesus Christ crucified can.
So this passage from Ephesians ought to be incredibly liberating. Because Jesus does what Hazel Motes’ station wagon can’t – He sets us free from the impossible task of saving ourselves from this living death that our sin creates. We can’t outrun it and we can’t work our way out of it. But we can throw ourselves on the grace of God, and in a glorious twist of fate, that’s enough. Jesus is enough. The gospel is good news for Catherine Valmont, it’s good news for Hazel Motes, and it’s good news for you and me.
And it should good news for everyone else. Paul writes in verse 10 that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand for us to walk in.” Our good works can’t save us, but we were saved for good works. God rescued us from whatever we used to be and gave us a mission. Whatever our old life was like, our new life should be characterized by good works, and it should make us weird.
Right? People who knew us before should be deeply confused about the way our lives have changed. We might have been alcoholics, or we might have been serial scumbags, but if you’ve thrown yourself on the mercy of God, you have been forgiven for everything you’ve done, and you’ve been given an absolute commission to right the wrongs that used to define your life. And if you’re still walking in those sins, repent immediately, if not sooner. Like, you can leave, right now, if there’s some grievous wrong you need to go reconcile with someone over, and I won’t be offended. I’ll probably just assume it’s because I’ve been talking so long. You were raised with Christ and newly created for “good works that were prepared [for you] beforehand.” Throw yourself into them. Look for ways you can be useful for God’s kingdom. Or, just look for ways you be good. Knowing that you can never earn God’s love, work harder out of gratitude than you could ever have worked out of terror.
I said earlier that if you are a believer in Christ, this passage is the story of your life, and I wasn’t kidding. You and I were dead in our trespasses and sin. We did not have a relationship with God. We were not his children, we were children of wrath. We were all Catherine Valmont. We were all Hazel Motes, buying broke down station wagons to drive away from our iniquity. But God is richer in mercy than we could ever have hoped for.
And for those who are not believers in Christ, I promised earlier that I would do my best to annoy you into becoming one. This passage is not the story of your life unless you have thrown yourself on the grace of God. But I want it to be. And I’m not above begging. Like Paul, I want to plead with you be reconciled to God. If you’re like I was as a teenager, you probably won’t. You’re probably half hearing this. But I hope that you will.
As we get ready to sing, I would like you to come down and talk to me. I’m incredibly unfriendly, so you don’t have to worry that I will invade your space, or try to force my way into your life. I would simply like to invite you to come down the aisle, wherever you are in your journey, and let me be your Brad. If you would like to give your life to Jesus this morning, I would like to walk you through that. If you’d simply like to talk, I’d love to do that too.
Father, You have rescued us from our deadness in sin by grace alone, through faith alone. And I pray that You would rescue some more. You have saved us into good works that You prepared beforehand. Let us be vehicles by which You pull people from the fire, and transform the world. In Jesus name, amen.