Last week as we began to look at the book of Ephesians we tackled a theological issue of debate. This isn’t my preferred way to start out a book of the Bible and it certainly wasn’t Paul’s intention in writing to start out with deep theology. Instead, it was simply some of the words that Paul used in writing to the Ephesians that has caused a lot of confusion and debate.
What I tried to emphasize last week is that regardless of the theological debate, the most important issue is that we are all in Christ. As we continue on in the book of Ephesians we’ll see the words “in Christ” repeated several more times. The phrase is so important in this book that I was tempted to title all of my sermons with “in Christ” as part of the title but it took too much forcing to make them all work perfectly.
This morning we’ll see that we have been made alive in Christ and are one in Christ. To start though we were first dead.
2 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature[a] and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.
Paul’s message to the Ephesians isn’t entirely new. Paul wrote to the Romans a few years before Ephesians that the wages of sin is death. So it is not news that those who walk in sin are dead in their sins.
It is interesting that Paul says transgressions and sins here. For the most part we use the words interchangeably and are correct in doing so. The truth is that the two words are different. They are like those word puzzles that you might have done in high school. If zips are zorks and zorks are zerries, are all zips zerries? And some of you probably followed that and some of you hate those types of questions.
My point though is that transgressions are sins; they are a type of sin. The reverse is not true though. Not all sins are transgressions. A transgression is a sin that we commit and we know better than to do it. We something that we’ve been taught not to do but we do it anyway.
There are other sins however. There are sins that we commit and we don’t even realize that we are committing them because we are ignorant of the rules. Now, you might think that this is completely unfair to be guilty of sins that you don’t even know about. That’s our normal human response. Let me help to shed some light on this however.
In my years of driving I have been caught speeding only once. And this one time was quite infuriating. I was driving in a location that I had never driven before, I never saw any sign to indicate that the speed had dropped, and I was just keeping up with traffic. And to make matters about a hundred times worse, the only reason I was even on this road was because I had just blown a tire on the highway and couldn’t safely drive highway speeds with my spare tire. If there was ever a time to be let off with just a warning, this was it. No such luck. I was out $80 plus the whole needing to replace a tire issue.
Why is any of this fair? In short, even though I acted in ignorance I could have been endangering myself and others by exceeding the rate of speed that someone had determined was safe for that area. There could have been many children in the area. There might have been an intersection hidden by a hill.
Of course my example doesn’t correspond perfectly with God’s laws but the idea is similar. God’s rules are meant for our safety and even our happiness. When we break them, even by ignorance, we endanger ourselves or others. We risk sacrificing the best that God has for us for something not as good. By being ignorant of the rules we have an excuse for breaking them but it doesn’t lessen the impact of the problem. A car accident that occurs because a person didn’t know they were exceeding the speed limit is no better than one by someone who was willfully speeding.
That was a bit of a tangent from the point that I was originally going to make about these verses but it just kind of jumped out at me. The main point here is that sin is bad because it keeps us from reaching the potential that God has for us. Dead people don’t have much potential in them. Fortunately there is a solution.
4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions —it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Verse 4 starts off with the word but. Any time you have a connecting word like but, and, therefore, etc. you should pay close attention to what proceeded it. Paul says that we were dead in our sins BUT God has made us alive.
But, (there’s that word again) these verses are full of connecting words. We are made alive in Christ AND we are awaiting incomparable riches because God raised us up with Christ. The passage doesn’t end there however. It continues on with some of the most important words of the Bible.
FOR it is by grace you have been saved. Sometimes we have a problem in Christianity that we forget our salvation. I don’t mean that we forget that we have been saved although certainly some Christians act like they aren’t Christians. I mean that we forget what it took for us to be saved.
A lot of church going folks have been saved for so long that they don’t really remember any other life. When I going through my ordination exam, the question they grilled me the hardest about was my salvation. It wasn’t that they questioned if I was saved, just that I never had a “conversion experience” as we like to call them. To the best of my ability to determine, I have been saved since the age of 5. There was no dramatic transformation from my life of sin as a 5 year old into a newly converted Christian. I can’t talk about my horrible past and how it was only by the grace of God that I was saved from it because I didn’t have that past.
And that’s my point. Some people have dramatic conversion experiences and praise God for every one of them. But many more people just gradually became a Christian. They didn’t come forward at an altar one evening. They don’t remember the date that they were saved. At some point that just started to consider themselves a Christian when before they didn’t.
If you didn’t have a dramatic conversion experience, it’s a lot harder to remember that you have been saved by grace. If you came from a life of drugs and alcohol and gave that up the moment that you were saved it is easy to remember what you were like and the difference that Christ made in your life.
Jesus told a parable of a prodigal son. It’s too long to read it here but the short synopsis is that a man has two sons. One son decides that he wants his inheritance immediately and the father sadly agrees to give to him. That son goes and blows his fortune living the high life. When all of his money is gone he returns to his father to offer himself as a servant because his father’s servants had things better than he did on his own. Instead of accepting him as a servant, the father welcomes him back with open arms as a son even though he wasted his money and treated his father poorly in leaving the way he did.
That son is the one who will never forget how his father loved him even when he wasn’t worthy of love. That son is like the Christian who will never forget that he has been saved by grace. But there is a second son in the story. Unfortunately I, and probably many of you, relate better to the second son.
The second son dutifully remained home the entire time. He didn’t waste his father’s money. And when his brother returns he’s a bit upset because all of the attention is paid to him. We’re often like the second son because we forget that we are saved by grace. Sure, we know it theologically. But we still think things like “I’ve been coming to church for 30 years and nobody does anything like that for me.” We’ll give $500 to help someone off the street who says they need money to pay their rent and the person who has dutifully gone to church for years and has made sacrifices to make sure the rent is always paid can’t help but feel slighted. But it’s because we still have a works mindset even if we believe we’ve been saved by grace.
No matter how much we believe that our salvation is by grace, we can’t help but sometimes think that we have earned something or that we deserve something because of our faithfulness. I grew up with someone in my home church whose a year older than I am. He has faithfully gone to the church as long as he’s been alive. Out of our entire generation of youth that went to that church throughout the past 30 years – dozens of kids that I encountered in youth group at one time or another – I believe that I can say that he and I are the only ones who never stopped coming to church at some time at least.
He’s now acting as a lay minister of my home church and did a lot of preaching when the last pastor left. He isn’t paid like I am. He does this on top of his job as a farmer. And despite all of this, all of the evidence that he should deserve whatever he wants, he and his wife don’t have any children. And I know that they have discussed having kids for years.
And this happens while simultaneously there are 14 year old girls having children who don’t want them and who won’t take care of them. It feels like if there was any fairness in the world, 14 year olds who don’t want kids should be the ones who can’t have kids. And married couples who went about things the right way and who want kids should be able to have them. And please don’t take this to be me voicing my personal frustrations here. I can’t say that these thoughts haven’t crossed my mind but I’m speaking for the way that we are Christians think in general.
But all of this comes back to the idea of being saved by grace. There is nothing to earn with God. We don’t earn our salvation but we also don’t earn prize tickets from God for our good deeds. We don’t get to walk up to the prize counter of heaven and say “here’s the tickets I’ve earned for my good deeds, I’d like to exchange them for this reward.” But this is the way that we think. We think that we deserve more from God because we have done good deeds and the shlub who wastes their money on alcohol and cigarettes doesn’t deserve squat.
And that’s where the phrase saved by grace should smack you in the forehead. God says that everybody is on the same level because it’s all about His grace. It’s not about what we have done or haven’t done. The man who hung on the cross next to Jesus asked for forgiveness and Jesus granted it. He had no good deeds, not a single one. And he is every bit as saved as the heroes of our faith who gave their lives and sacrificed everything they had for the sake of Jesus.
Paul does have something to say about works however. They are not worthless even though we earn favor with God through them. Instead, they are the responsibility of every Christian. Now, a lot of people look at this as, ok, you’re a Christian now, you better get to work. It’s your job as a Christian to do good deeds. And of course people are left wondering why they would want to be a Christian if it means more work. And others question the value of work at all if it has nothing to do with our salvation.
But Paul answers that question. We are created in Christ Jesus to do good works. Most people read that as we are created to be servants. But that’s not the case at all. Paul has just given us the meaning of life. He has given us the secret of happiness. We are only going to be fulfilled in life when what we do has purpose. If everything you do in life is pointless, you’re not going to be very happy.
Two guys have the same menial job. One guy despises every minute that he’s there because it is beneath him. The other guy comes with the attitude that this is what he must do to support his family and he’s lucky to have the ability to do so. Who is going to be happier with their job?
We’re created to do good works. It’s not a job that we are forced to do because we’re Christians. It is our meaning of life. We are going to be the most happy and the most fulfilled in life when we are doing the good works that God has prepared us to do.
We started today by seeing how we were dead in our sins and transgressions. We are brought to life by the death and resurrection of Jesus. We can say that is what it means to be alive in Christ, to no longer be dead. But Paul makes a greater distinction here between being alive and ALIVE. If you want to be ALIVE in Christ you need to do good works. It has nothing to do with your salvation and you don’t earn favors from God because of it. Instead, work is its own reward because we will find happiness our fulfilling our purpose in life.