From Death to Life
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: Ephesians 2:1–2:10
1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience-- 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved-- 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Despite the fact that it is the one common denominator that links us all, death is never a pleasant subject to talk about. More often than not, we go to great lengths to avoid any discussion of it. We put off writing wills, making burial plans, and even purchasing life insurance until we are struck with the absolute necessity of doing so. Subconsciously, we seem to imagine that if we are successful in ignoring its looming presence we may just escape it. Of course, we inherently know that is not the case. Statistics assure us that the death rate remains a constant one-hundred percent.
Jokes about death are often met with nervous laughter, as if a silent alarm goes off within us reminding us once again of death’s inevitability. And the older we get, the more vivid are the reminders. God Himself has made it plain in His Word, declaring, “It is appointed for man to die” (Hebrews 9:27). Each of us has an appointment to keep, and there will be no postponements or cancellations.
But the facts are even grimmer than that. Beginning with the sin of our first parents, death has been passed along to us all. In fact, from the day of our birth we begin to die. And as if that were not depressing enough, our state if death is not just a physical one. In Psalm 51:5 David wrote, “I was brought forth in iniquity.” And by virtue of that sinful nature that we all inherit, we commit repeated acts of sin that drive us further and further away from a peaceful relationship with the God who made us for Himself and for His glory.
It is with that understanding that Paul begins the second chapter of his letter to the Ephesians. Having soared to lofty heights in explaining the rich “spiritual blessings” that belong to the elect of God—those chosen “in Christ” from “before the foundation of the world” (cf. Ephesians 1:3-4)—the apostle now takes a step back from that grand scene in order to show an even clearer perspective of God’s “amazing grace” toward those who are His. The brilliance of God’s provision must be viewed against the backdrop of universal human depravity if we are to have a correct understanding. As the psalmist confessed long ago, so you and I must realize that “He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog” (Psalm 40:2).
The first ten verses of Ephesians 2 explain for us how God brings life out of death. They explain His process of spiritual transformation. This passage can be divided into two parts, which we will call “the human condition” and “the divine compassion.” Verse 1 begins with the phrase, “And you were dead,” and verse 4 introduces us to a contrasting statement which says, “But God...made us alive.” Those two phrases serve as our structural guides for the text before us.
As we walk through these verses this morning, you will note a number of similar and comparative words and phrases. Clearly two ways of life are being described. In verse 1, there is a course of life described as the one “in which you once walked.” And then in verse 10, we see a pattern of life in which “we should walk.” How we get from verse 1—what we “once were”—to verse 10—where we “now are”—is the core of this message.
So, we’ll begin in verses 1 through 3, where we find the writer’s description of...
The human condition (verses 1-3)
Generally speaking, there are three things that are true of us all before responding to God’s offer of salvation in Christ. The first of these is that we were dead. Those without Christ are not just sick...they are “dead.” Dead people do not need resuscitation...they need resurrection. As cold and stark as it sounds, that is the true human condition. When we are without the Savior, we are without life.
It is hard for us to imagine, but there was a time when there was no sin in the world. But when sin—in the form of disobedience—occurred, its inevitable companion “death” followed. The Lord had said, “In the day that you eat (from the tree that I command you not to eat)...you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). The first man and woman ate, and immediately the process of death began. Its initial and most obvious indication was the alienation they experienced with their Creator. What once was uninterrupted fellowship with God was damaged beyond repair. For all practical purposes, they were “dead”...“dead to God,” “dead to one another”...and “dead to their environment.” And the “curse” that fell upon them has been passed along to every generation that has come after them.
That is why Paul can say that “You were dead in trespasses and sins.” Those two terms are nearly synonymous...“trespasses” refers to “false steps,” and “sins” speaks of “missing the mark.” Both represent “deliberate acts against God,” and the fact they are in the plural suggests that they happen repeatedly.
In addition to being “dead,” in the second place Paul says that we were enslaved. Verse 2 explains that there was a pattern of life that held us captive. It was a course that we “once walked” in. Perhaps at that time we thought that we were the ones in control of our fate, when in reality we were bound by an unseen power that may be accurately described as “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Not only does Paul speak of that pattern of life in this way, but it is also echoed in the writings of James (3:15) and (1) John (2:15-17 and 3:7-10).
In the first place, it is referred to as “the course of this world”...or we might call it the “value system of this world,” the same one Paul tells us in Romans 12:2) to “not be conformed to.” It is a system that is under the control of “the prince of the power of the air”...an obvious reference to Satan, who is further described as “the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” Just as genuine followers of Christ possess and are possessed by the Holy Spirit (cf. Romans 8:9), so unbelievers—more often than not, unknowingly—live under the influence of the “unholy spirit”...the devil himself.
And what’s more, this world system is the “playground” in which those without Christ live in “the passions of (the) flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.” Those so-called “choices” that you make in fulfilling your every craving and lust are not actually under your own control. Remember, as a “dead” person you have no control. You are carrying out those “desires” because that’s the only thing you can do. You have no power to do otherwise, because it is your very “nature” to live for self in opposition to God.
This takes us to Paul’s third description of the human condition apart from Christ. He has told us that we once were dead and, as such, we were enslaved. The logical outcome is that we were condemned. Look again at that last phrase in verse 3: “And were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” This condemnation is universal. Without Christ we are all “children of wrath,” or as he put it a verses earlier, “sons of disobedience.” The natural man is at the mercy of the tyrant of the self and all of its rash impulses. Because we are “by nature” sinners, we sin. It is who we are by nature, and our every impulse and inclination reveals it.
The “wrath” in view here speaks of God’s “holy war” against sin and the judgment that results. Paul will repeat this thought again in chapter 5:6 when he writes that “the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” It is important that we understand God’s wrath not vindictiveness, unbridled revenge, or a sudden outburst of passion. It is rather a natural response on the part of an altogether holy and righteous God whenever His character is offended. As counter-intuitive as it may initially sound, rather than being identified with His hatred for sin, God’s wrath is more closely linked with His love for righteousness. Or to put it another way, God loves His holiness more than He hates our sin.
Verses 1 through 3 paint a dismal picture of the human condition. Apart from Jesus Christ, we were “dead in...trespasses and sins.” We were enslaved to a world system under the sway of “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” And we were condemned as “sons of disobedience” and “children of wrath.” It is the universal condition of every man and woman and every boy and girl...and if you have not turned from your sins and trusted Christ as your Savior, then at this very moment this is a description of you! In sum, you are “dead,” you are “depraved,” and you are “doomed.”
Thankfully, Paul does not leave us to languish in such a hopeless state. Verse 4 begins with the words, “But God,” which introduce us to...
The divine compassion (verses 4-10)
We come now to the heart of this passage. While verses 8 and 9 are especially precious to every true believer, it is important that we see how the writer arrives at them. It isn’t just a “whim” on the part of Deity that brings about our deliverance from His impending “wrath.” Twice we are told, “By grace you have been saved.” But “how,” “what,” and “why” did God act on our behalf?
The “how” is answered in verse 4, where we read, “But God, being rich in mercy and because of the great love with which he loved us.” Underscore those two attributes...God’s “rich...mercy” and His “great love.” The “love” being referred to here has been defined as “that which seeks the highest good for another.” The old King James Version at times translated this word (αγαπη ) as “charity” (cf. 1 Corinthians 13), and that is a better description than we might want to admit. After all, “charity” is giving to those “in need,” and isn’t that what God is said to have done here...acting on behalf of sinners who were unable to help themselves? Such an expression of “love” for sinners is called “great.”
“Mercy” is similar, inasmuch as it refers to “a compassionate response to one in need.” And just as God’s “love” is said to be “great,” so His “mercy” is said to be “rich.” The degree of God’s compassion is amplified in verse 5 when Paul again reminds us that “we were dead in our trespasses.” And keep in mind, being “dead,” we were totally unable to lift a finger to remedy our desperate situation.
Verses 5 and 6 spell out for us in a triad of phrases specifically “what” God has done for us. They add to the discussion of the “spiritual blessings” which began in chapter 1. What we find here are three parallel expressions that help to define our new position “in Christ...in the heavenly places” (cf. Ephesians 1:3). Let’s briefly consider them, one at a time.
First of all, God is said to have “made us alive together with Christ.” What a “dead” person needs more than anything else is life. And that is what God has given to those who are His. You will notice that immediately after telling us that the Lord has given us life, Paul adds parenthetically, “by grace you have been saved by faith.” We will see this phrase again in verse 8, and he will discuss it more fully there. The point of introducing it here is not only to preview what is to come, but in order to get us to see that there was nothing meritorious on the part of the sinner that prompted God to act on his behalf. And something else that we see here is the manner in which the writer links the two phrases, “made alive” with being “saved.” Salvation is about receiving life, implying once again that apart from having received God’s saving “grace,” we are nothing more than “dead men walking” and moving each and every day toward our ultimate destination.
The second demonstration of God’s “mercy” and “love” is that He “raised us up with him.” The resurrection of Jesus was first alluded to in verse 20 of chapter 1. When our Savior left behind an empty tomb, those who were to be His were raised as well. Thanks to the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ, “death” for the believer—both physically and spiritually—is no longer was an enemy to be feared. It has been vanquished by Christ through His resurrection, and “in him” we too have been raised (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:54-57 and Hebrews 2:14-15). Our assurance is found in the fact that because He lives, those who know Him live as well.
The third act of God on our behalf is that He has “seated us with him in the heavenly places.” Near the end of chapter 1 we saw that after being raised from the dead, Jesus was “seated (at the) right hand (of the Father) in the heavenly places.” It was pointed out at the time that the “right hand” was the position of “privilege” and “authority.” And now amazingly, here in verse 6 of chapter 2, we are said to have been “seated...with him.” Think of it, my fellow saints, this is our present—“right now!”—position in Christ.
Why should any Christian live life from a position of weakness when divine compassion has granted us so much? We have been “made alive together with Christ.” We have been “raised up with him.” And we have been “seated...with him in the heavenly places.” But don’t rush past those “with him” (“συν-“) phrases too quickly. They are there for a reason...to remind us that all of these demonstrations of God’s “mercy” and “love” come to us by virtue of our position in Jesus Christ...and for no other reason. We must not forget that.
So we have been told the “how” and the “what” of God’s acting on our behalf, but we are still left to understand “why.” Why would an all-sufficient God even bother with sinners who, “by nature,” are rebellious and disobedient toward Him? The rest of this passage gives us the reason. It is summed up in verse 7 which begins with a purpose-clause (“‘ινα”): “So that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
In short, the entire work of God in purchasing our salvation through the death of His Son was in order to accomplish one over-riding goal. And what was that purpose? It was so that His chosen company of believers would be an eternal display of His immense grace. That God would be pleased to redeem sinners who are deserving only of His “wrath” and who have absolutely nothing to offer Him is nothing short of “scandalous.”
So, did we hear that right? Well, let’s give Paul another opportunity to explain. Verse 8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing.” Before moving forward, let’s pause long enough to define the three important concepts mentioned in this verse:
- The first is “salvation.” When Paul speaks of being “saved,” he means that literally. Out of a “death and dying” situation, God is said to “rescue” us “by grace...through faith.”
- So, what is “grace”? It is God’s undeserved favor bestowed upon those who have transgressed His law and sinned against Him. We deserve only His wrath, but He shows us “grace” instead.
- And what about “faith”? Simply put, it is confident trust and reliance upon Christ Jesus as the only means by which one is able to receive salvation.
So when Paul writes, “And this is not your own doing,” he is referring to the entire process of salvation. Not a single aspect of it can be attributed to us. From start to finish it is the work of God. And as if that still were not sufficiently clear, he adds at the end of verse 8 and into verse 9, “It is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
It’s hard for us to accept the fact that we didn’t contribute anything at all to the process of salvation. After all, wasn’t it through my own will that that I humbled myself before Him? Surely the “faith” that I exercised was “my contribution”...wasn’t it? But Paul will have none of that. If, as he contends, that salvation is all—and I emphasize “all” of grace—then he further insists that we play no active part in it. None of it is our “own doing.” Our role is but to receive it...to lay claim to it. Salvation—from its inception to its reception—is “the gift of God.” And that includes the very “faith” that we are given to be able to receive it. Indeed, the only way that “faith” is not a work is when it is a “gift.” Question number 30 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism reads, “The Spirit applies to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.”
Think of it this way, sinful man had to “made...alive” before he could exercise faith. “Dead” men cannot believe. Regeneration must first occur and life be given before one is capable of exercising faith. I believe that this is what Paul had in mind when he began this epistle by informing us that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:3-4).
If you are a follower of Jesus Christ today, it is because God ordained it to be so before you were ever conceived. I realize that rubs against both our theological and practical sensibilities, and yet I cannot find Scripture teaching otherwise. That being the case, it should then be the cause of great rejoicing for those who are “in Christ.” But if you are without Christ—and please hear me carefully—then it should be for you a cause of great and urgent concern.
Paul has said that we “have been saved” in order to be an eternal display of God’s immense sovereign grace. Sometimes we overlook the fact that “eternity” does not relate solely to the future...it encompasses the “here and now.” This statement is not intended to put us into a “holding pattern” until we are at last in the presence of the Lord. He wants to put us on display us even now. That is what we learn from verse 10, in which Paul concludes this section by writing, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
The word “workmanship” (“ποιημα”) comes from a term that yields our English word for “poem.” It refers to “a creative work,” and was used particularly of “works of art.” Just think of that...believers are referred to as God’s “works of art” who bear the signature of the great Artist, God Himself. So, are you manifesting His “creative work” in your life? Can others see His “fingerprints” or His “signature” upon you? Do you bear the stamp of His character so that others can see who you belong to? How is His “workmanship” being displayed in and through you?
Let me challenge you to pick up your church directory this week and notice—perhaps for the first time—the names and faces of those with whom you are least familiar. It may just be that person is in need of a word of a word of encouragement or an act of kindness to be shown to them. Praying for the opportunity to get to know them, initiating contact through a phone call or a brief message, inviting them to get together with you for lunch or coffee, discovering their needs and helping to meet them...all of these acts testify to our Lord’s “creative work” in you. And they give visible testimony to an observing world that our God is truly alive and well and at work within those who are His.
When Paul says that Christians have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works,” the preposition “for” (“epi”) has been interpreted in more than one way. While few would argue that we have been “saved to serve” and, therefore “created...for (the purpose of producing) good works,” that preposition is more often than not translated “upon the basis of.” It has been suggested that what Paul has in mind here is that believers are God’s “creative work” because of (or “on the basis of”) the finished work of Jesus Christ. Grammatically, that is indeed possible. But regardless of whether Paul is speaking of the work of Christ or the “works” that believers produce after being saved, we are informed that they were “prepared beforehand” by God “that we should walk in them.” So the application is the same. Genuine “faith” will inevitably produce the kind of “works” that demonstrate its validity.
I once saw a sign on the door of a gym that read, “Athletes wanted. Spectators need not apply.” Paul seems to be waving a similar sign at the conclusion of this text. James’ haunting statement that “faith apart from works is dead” (cf. James 2:15) serves to remind us that we are not saved by good works, but good works verify the genuineness of a faith that truly saves. Or, as John Calvin expressed it, “It is faith alone that justifies, but faith that justifies is never alone.”
Theologically speaking, the process of salvation is quite involved. That is because it was conceived in the mind of God from “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), and enacted in the course of human history. But practically speaking, it is not that difficult to understand. How do the dead receive life? The Reformers got it right when they declared, “Sola gratia...sola fide.” “By grace (alone)...through faith (alone).”
Ovid (43 BC-AD 17/18) was a Roman poet whose life overlapped in time with the life of our Lord Jesus. The literary work for which he is most remembered is a narrative entitled Pygmalion, named after a fictitious sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory. When the statute was completed, the chiseled image was more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen in his lifetime; in fact, so much so that he fell in love with it.
Time passed and Pygmalion grew older. Although he never told others of his desire, he wished for a bride who would be the living likeness of his “ivory girl.” As was his habit upon returning home in the evening, he would kiss his ivory statue. But on this one occasion he found that its lips felt warm. He kissed it again and found that the ivory had lost its hardness. Before his very eyes, the lifeless statue had come to life!
Over the past two thousand years, Ovid’s Pygmalion has inspired numerous works of art and literature. In fact, every generation seems to come up with a new version of the story based upon the common theme of bringing life to that which was once dead and lifeless.
As followers of Jesus Christ, you and I know where that theme first originated, don’t we? It dates all the way back to Genesis 3 where, in response to man’s sin and the sentence of death imposed upon our first parents and all who would follow them, our Lord promised a Redeemer who would one day strip sin of its “death-power” and give life to those who would believe His Word and entrust themselves to Him.
God’s “wrath” and His “grace” met at the cross. There, when Jesus died for men’s sins, “righteousness and peace kiss(ed) each other” (Psalm 85:10).
And because they did, dead men—people like you and me—can receive life.
Thank you, gracious God, for giving life to the dead. We who were once separated from you by our sin and heirs only to your wrath, you made quickened and set on a course of holiness and righteousness through which we are now commissioned to make your name known in all the earth. We are your workmanship, your creative and re-creative work. Oh, that Christ would be formed in us so that others would see His beauty and His worth through us. Humble us, Father, as we consider these grace-blessings that have come to us by faith through the finished work of our Savior. Open the eyes of those still unable to see, and unstop the ears of those who remain too deaf to here. Be pleased to bring salvation to someone today, and increase the faith of those who are already yours. We ask this in submission to the One who name is above every name—even our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.