September 11, 2020
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you used to walk when you conformed to the ways of this world and of the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit who is now at work in the sons of disobedience. All of us also lived among them at one time, fulfilling the cravings of our flesh and indulging its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature children of wrath.
But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our trespasses. It is by grace you have been saved! (Ephesians 2:1-5)
Salvation is a uniquely Christian word. It is a uniquely Christian word because salvation is the preoccupation of Christianity. The Bible tells us that there are two categories of people: the saved and the unsaved. There is nothing in between.
To be saved is to know the biblical Jesus Christ and to love him. To be saved is to be spiritually alive to God. It’s to be cleansed from all sin in the blood of the Calvary’s cross, and to join the ranks of the most blessed. Salvation means deliverance from hell; peace with God; fellowship with the saints; and everlasting life of unspeakable joy. Paul the Apostle puts it this way, (1 Corinthians 2:9) “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart has imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him”.
In contrast, to be unsaved is to be at war with God. It means to live in sin and rebellion and ingratitude. Unsaved people accept God’s natural blessings but at the same time they collaborate with God’s arch-enemy the devil in rebellion. All who are unsaved have nothing to look forward to but a place that Jesus describes as (Matthew 25:30) “outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”. Sooner or later, God will send every unsaved person to hell for a future of endless regret; a constant state of horror; a prison where people are shut away to be evil forever.
Salvation therefore is the supreme need of mankind. A great day of judgement is coming, we are told, when all men will be judged. Luke says: (Acts 17:31) “he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world”. This day of judgement will come suddenly. Jesus warned it will come so suddenly people will not expect it. As a result, many will not seek salvation until it is too late.
So serious is the need for salvation that Jesus says: (Matthew 10:28) “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell”. If you want to be afraid of someone, Jesus says, be afraid of the Judge who can pass a guilty sentence on your soul forever. Hell is so horrific, Jesus tells us a man should go to any lengths to avoid it: (Matthew 5:29) “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”
Given how often Jesus spoke about salvation, it’s not really surprising that someone should approach him one day and ask the question, (Luke 13:23) “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”
Jesus’ answer is shocking – and it’s meant to be. There are many, said Jesus, who will want to enter the door of salvation. But they will not be able to. They will stand outside and knock, “Lord, open for us!” And he will say to them, “I don’t know you or where you come from.”
I’ve had discussions with hundreds of people over the last twenty years. Muslims,Mormons, Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, atheists, and sectarians of every kind and I’ve never met anyone who thinks they are on the road to hell. Not a one. This is extraordinary given what Jesus says in (Matthew 7:13-14): “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and few there be that find it”.
There are more people, Jesus says, who think they are saved yet walk the road to hell, than there are people who are really saved and walk the road to life. The sad truth is that the road to heaven is lightly trafficked. Few there be that find it.
Why is it that only a few find the road to heaven? Why are only a few saved? It’s not because God hides the way, or because God would deny access to sincere people. The road to heaven is difficult to find because sinners don’t like the gate and they don’t like the road.
The road to heaven means people must accept hard, offensive truth about themselves, rather than the flattery that we are somehow good people. It’s a pathway of confrontation that bursts our bubbles of self-conceit. It’s a pathway that puts truth over feelings; puts God above man; and leaves no room for half-commitment. It’s a pathway that is excludes all other religious claims, in an age when people have grown hostile to the idea of one absolute truth. Above all, people don’t like the road to heaven because it’s a pathway of humbling grace, in an age of pride and self-exaltation.
Therefore it’s only the truly desperate who find the way to heaven. It’s only those who thirst for a holy God and a great salvation. Jesus calls a very specific type of person, (Matthew 11:28) “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”. This is salvation for the spiritually weary; for the spiritually grieved; for the poor in spirit who know their need of God.
Anyone who’s spent any time doing evangelism will know that the biggest obstacle in Western countries is that most people no longer feel the need of a Saviour. As in Jesus’ time, many people today think that prosperity, health, security, and abundance are signs of God’s favour. Since we live so well, it must mean that God is pleased with us! Look at how he has blessed us! The Bible says no. Prosperity is not a sign of God’s favour.
The sad reality is that sin no longer trouble’s men’s consciences, because by-and-large men no longer fear God. The fear of God has to be taught. It’s not natural. We’re not born with it. Pride is natural. But the fear of God is learned. And in our generation, men have learned no fear of God that would drive them from sin to repentance.
This is true even within the shallows of so much contemporary Christianity where the Father is presented as an indulgent parent who never raises the hand in discipline, and Jesus is presented as a laidback spiritual therapist who gives us a booster only when we want him to. Rarely is Christ exalted as the great Saviour; who is mankind’s only hope to escape unimaginable catastrophe.
Even when people claim his name, they often don’t have a biblical Jesus. There’s a certain political Jesus that’s very popular; and there’s a sixties Jesus who’s always chuckling at a private joke and isn’t very concerned about sin. I’ve been talking with a person who has a feminist Jesus. There’s a Jesus of good feelings; there’s plenty of weak, psychologised, sanitised, tamed versions of Jesus. But the real Jesus, the majestic Saviour who comes to us in scripture, stands as rejected today as he was two-thousand years ago.
I had a discussion with a lady recently. She took great offence at the idea that God’s judgement is right and proper. This was “evil”, she said, and those who preach such things have a moral problem. A loving God would never do that. I pointed out some texts to her. She didn’t want to know. In fact, she became angry. For all of this lady’s words; for all her talk about Jesus, like so many people she just wanted a Jesus trip, but she didn’t really like the biblical Saviour. She didn’t really like the idea that we’re sinners who are desperately needy of being saved.
The text that is before us this morning addresses both our need and the remedy. It sets out with such simplicity and clarity the desirability of true salvation. Paul demonstrates not only why we urgently need a Saviour, but also why we urgently need grace. A sovereign grace; a grace where God chooses; God is in control; and God is glorified!
Paul begins: And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you used to walk when you conformed to the ways of this world and of the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit who is now at work in the sons of disobedience.
There are so many people today who would take offence at this passage. The apostle diagnoses; he exposes; the apostle never flatters, never smooths the edges of his words.
“There was a time,” Paul says to the Ephesians, “when you were spiritually dead.” “You were dead to God,” says Paul, “and God was dead to you.” In their former life, God meant zero to the Ephesians. They had been content to live without a Saviour;they had been content to live without God.
Sin was exciting; God was dull. Sin was pleasurable; God was boring. Sin was the spice of life; God was the savour of death. They didn’t see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; they didn’t yearn for God’s presence.
Instead, like plasticine the Ephesians conformed to the shape of the world. They had no resistance. This was because the devil had worked in them. In fact, Paul says, Satan works in every heart and mind of disobedient people. The devil numbs the conscience and convinces men that they are okay so that hell-bound sinners think they’re good without Christ.
I knew a lady once who hated her sister. She hadn’t spoken to her sister for twenty years. And my, she could rattle off a long list of her sister’s failures. “I’ll never forgive and I’ll never forget,” she said. Years of hatred had given her an acidic personality. Oh, but she thought she was a good person though. There are people locked in supermax prisons who can never be released who think they are good people. There is a stubborn little voice in the human heart that rises within us, “I am a good person and God owes me”.
Paul says no. The human condition is easy to understand. Mankind is dead in trespasses and sins. By birth and nature we aren’t good people. We’re wretched. We don’t need spiritual aspirin. We don’t need a moral makeover. We need resurrection; resurrection power.
The surest proof that grace is at work in a person’s life is when that voice “I am a good person” fades away. And it’s replaced with a humble acceptance of God’s verdict. A vision of our need. “I am not a good person; God owes me nothing; and I owe him everything.”
Paul goes on to say: “All of us also lived among them at one time, fulfilling the cravings of our flesh and indulging its desires and thoughts.”
Paul, the zealous Pharisee once thought of himself as far superior to the gentiles, but now puts himself in the same class as the Ephesians. “We”, he says, “we once indulged our flesh. We once indulged evil thoughts. We were all the same.” Paul’s admitting that Judaism never changed his heart. All his religious energy never raised his heart from the dead. In fact, Paul had been as disobedient as the gentiles, only he wore the costume of religion.
In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed several clerical scandals that left people stunned. They saw these men, Sunday after Sunday dressed in white robes, walking in clouds of incense, and on the surface they look ever so holy. But underneath that thin glaze of religiosity was a wicked heart. And that wicked heart produced evil fruit. People had expected the religiosity to change the man. But no amount of dead religion, can restrain an evil heart. None.
If you want a moral looking group you can’t go past the average Jehovah’s Witness. As a group they have that air of 1950’s respectability. But how many insiders and ex-members have reported the sheer scale of sexual sin and corruption within that movement. No matter how polished people look on the outside, dead religion cannot offer a resurrection.
If a man’s religion doesn’t change his appetites and cravings, and cause him to say “no” to sin, then it’s dead religion and doesn’t save. James puts it this way,“Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless”. This would describe most religion today. It produces no resurrection; it blossoms no change. It offers no resurrection power. It’s not vital and living and powerful!
All of us were dead, says Paul, Jew and Gentile alike. Regardless of where we came from and what we did before we knew Christ, we all lived according to the flesh. If we had religion before we knew Jesus, it meant nothing, and it did nothing.
Paul goes on: “Like the rest, we were by nature children of wrath”.
Wrath is an unpopular word. It’s one attribute of God that rebellious people – even many Christians –refuse to glorify, refuse to honour, refuse to learn about, and refuse to respect. It shows how deeply lawlessness penetrates the human mind when talk of God’s justice and judgement does not make men worship, but makes men want to water God down so that he is wrathless, indulgent; sentimental.
The great truth is this: judgement is coming. The wrath of God is coming, says Paul. In 1962, the Cuban missile crisis. The world came to the brink of nuclear war. People were terrified. They thought the end had come. But when the great day of the Lord comes it will put nuclear war in the shade. The terror men will experience if they are unsaved on that day is beyond description. We get a glimpse of it in Revelation, (Revelation 6:16) “They called to the mountains and the rocks,"Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!”
We don’t know the day or the hour Christ will come, but the scriptures tell us that when he comes he will ride out of heaven on a great white horse, and his robe is dipped in the blood of his enemies, and a sword proceeds from his mouth, and the door of salvation is slammed shut. On that day mercy is gone forever, and John says, “He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty”.
“This is who you once were”, says Paul. All true Christians once were part of the great mass of people destined for wrath. Just like all the others. Before we believed, we were also under the same sentence of judgement. We once did what they did; we were once headed for the same hell.
Paul goes on:
But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our trespasses.
Because of God’s great love. John exclaims, (1 John 3:1) “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!”.
I grew up in a religious household but I wasn’t really troubled by my sins. Sometimes I felt bad, but the guilt faded quickly. I thought of myself as a moral person. I had a certain emotional reaction in church and I thought that was salvation. I had the right feelings about God and about Jesus.
Then I went through a long period of spiritual distress. I searched desperately for God for years. Eventually I was driven to God’s word. I can’t even describe how my eyes were opened and light filled my whole life. After my conversion, I was so aware how ugly my heart was. It was full of lust; pride; blasphemy; evil thoughts toward others. Before I had no trouble believing God loved me. After conversion I wondered: “How could God love such an unlovable person like me?” For many years I believed that God loved other people. I just couldn’t believe that God loved me.
I’ve learned that it’s quite common for Christians to question God’s love for them. Because Christians know how their hearts stray and they feel such grief over their sins.
The truth, says Paul, is that God’s love for those he saves is beyond measure. God loves his people with a sincere, true, real, burning love. God’s love is an actual love. Despite all that we have been, and what we continue to be, God loves us. And we need to believe it.
It’s not an uncommon story: a beautiful young woman and a handsome young man are engaged to be married. But something horrible happens. A vengeful neighbour splashes acid in the woman’s face, or the man is burned in a terrible car accident. Now those attractive features are gone and what’s left are scar tissue, bloated flesh, melted skin. They’ve become a monster.
So they urge their fiancé to leave them. “Go and find someone else,” they say. “Look at me. I’m a monster. I’m grotesque”. But their fiancé won’t leave. “I love you,” they say, “and my love goes deeper than your skin. I love you; I love your inner being. I’m not going away. You will be my spouse”.
This is the love that God has for those he saves. Our moral beauty is gone. We fall into sin every day. Even our bodies decay and we lose the glow of youth. But God who is rich in mercy and love takes hold upon us and when we were dead in sin, he made us his bride. He washes us from sin in the blood of Calvary’s cross. And one day, he’ll make us more beautiful and lovely then we have ever been in our entire life. He will array us in glory brighter than the sun.
Notice the language Paul uses in the text. God made us alive, he says. Who is the active agent in salvation? Who makes us come alive? Do we do it to ourselves?
Paul says no. “You were dead in your trespasses. Dead as a door nail. And then God made you alive with Christ. God made you alive. You had a spiritual resurrection. But you didn’t do it to yourself. God breathed the breath of life into your soul and you lived again.”
What does it look like to be alive to God? To be made alive with Christ? Listen to these words. These are the words of a man who is alive to God. (Psalm 42:1-2) "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul longs after You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God." Only the living are hungry; only the living thirst, and what living souls thirst for is a living God. That craving is spiritual life.
When a man loves the word of God; when we find the holy exercise of prayer addictive –that’s spiritual life. When we hear the gospel proclaimed and we’re lifted into the heavenly realms and enraptured in the horizons of God’s glory – that’s spiritual life. When a man can honestly say with the psalmist, (Psalm 72:25) “There is nothing on earth that I desire besides you”. That’s spiritual life.
You can drag the spiritually dead to church. A spiritually dead man can learn how click rosary beads, he can speak Christian lingo; he can even drag his eyeballs over the pages of scripture. A spiritually dead person can fake the external stuff if he’s a good showman. But one thing that can’t be faked is the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit. No man can fake spiritual life.
You never have to pressure a living soul to run toward God. A few years ago I heard about a church that offered its people the opportunity to win a sports car – a hummer – if they came to church. There are churches that offer the equivalent of a rock concert every Sunday. There are other churches that try to draw people in with drama: silk robes, bizarre headgear; incense, gold junk hanging on everything. A living soul won’t ever be satisfied with external religion. Living souls thirst for God because they are alive, and God draws those men to himself. Jesus puts it this way, (John 6:44) “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day”.
Paul goes on to say:
It is by grace you have been saved!
A lot of people think grace is the freedom to sin without guilt. The freedom to be idle; the freedom to be worldly; the freedom to be prideful. That’s not grace.
Grace is a beautiful thing, but it humbles. It smashes pride. Grace reminds every one of us that we are poor, empty, broken. We’re no better than unbelievers. We’re here as monuments of God’s mercy. Grace reminds us that when God sends sinners to hell, he does what is right and good and proper. It reminds us that if we are to be saved we must be saved by someone who is not like us. The Son of God who hung on Calvary’s tree is not like us. He really is good; he really is worthy.
If you ask a Mormon the next time they knock on the door what grace is, they often tell the story of a little girl who sees something in a shop window – a bicycle or something – and she wants to get it. But the bike costs ten dollars and she only has two dollars. So she goes to her father and he takes her two dollars and tops it up to ten, so she can get what she wants. Mormons don’t have a biblical doctrine of grace because they don’t have a biblical doctrine of sin.
But Paul tells us we can’t come to God with even a single soiled penny of our own ability or goodness held in our little fist. If our fingers are clenched around some idea of our own goodness we cannot grasp the hand of grace. Only the empty hand of faith can fit the outstretched hand of God.
We don’t need to make our own goodness. God has provided a better robe of covering. Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity died for our sins. He took the cup in the Garden of Gethsemane and he drank God’s wrath down to the last drop. Any person, no matter what they’ve done, who comes to Jesus as a beggar; not seeking to offer more of this or that to God; but simply looking to Jesus with empty handed faith, God promises forgiveness, renewal and eternal life.
God’s great gift of common grace to all people is time: time to repent and time to believe the gospel, time to enter through the narrow door by grace into the kingdom. We’re living in the years of God’s patience, but God’s patience won’t last forever.
We don’t know when we’re going to die. James says, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that”. It may be God’s will that we live. But it might not be. It might be God’s will that we don’t live. It might be God’s will that we’re not here next Sunday. We’re not owed time.
But in his great mercy and love the Saviour still pleads with. Jesus still urges men to enter through the narrow door while it’s open. Jesus still calls, even this day,“Come unto me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest”.