We continue in our two week series through Ephesians 1–3, with guest writer Dr. David Starling.
Your story—from death to life | Eph. 2:1-11
How do we learn who we are? A big part of the process is the stories that we’re told and retell to each other. As the people of God, in the Old Testament and the New, telling and retelling the story of salvation is fundamental to how we learn our identity and help each other to keep a strong sense of who we are alive in our memory and imagination. For Paul writing to the Ephesians with the purpose of building them up in their sense of identity as God’s people, telling the story of salvation becomes the core business of the first half of the letter. Already in the doxology of 1:3–14, Paul has strung together a story of sorts in the catalogue of blessings for which he offers up praises to God. Now, in the central paragraphs of the letter’s first half (2:1–10, 11 –22; 3:1 –14), he strings together three once-now stories, all of which focus on reminding his Gentile Christian readers about the story of how they came to be who they are.
The first of these three salvation stories, in 2:1–10, is a story about being brought from death to life. It’s the Ephesians’ story, and it’s ours as well.
You were dead (vv. 1-3)
Take a look at verses 1-3, and notice how black Paul’s description is of how we were before we were saved…2:1-3 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 flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.”
As Paul says in the opening verse, it’s a picture of spiritual death. Sure, there may have been a lot of good things going for us on the surface—a nice family, good friends, a promising career—but Paul invites us to look beneath the skin with a kind of X-ray vision, and see the spiritual condition that we were in on the inside.
There are several dimensions of what that involved, which Paul spells out in the following verses.
* (v. 2) following…
In the first place, verse 2, it was a matter of who we were following. Paul writes: “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..”
The myth of sin is that it is all about freedom; that it’s all about you being in the driving seat of your life and being the captain of your own destiny. The reality of sin is that it’s a kind of slavery. It’s a slavery, Paul says, to the ways of this world, and it’s a slavery to the Spirit who is at work in this world—the Spirit of the evil one.
In some ways, I think, sin is a bit like cigarette advertising. I remember the cigarette ads of my childhood, full of glamorous, healthy, sophisticated people – people who were free spirits, just a little bit rebellious, who said to each other things like: “Anyhow, have a Winfield…” There was even a brand of cigarettes called “Freedom”. The reality of course was not about freedom and independence at all—it was about being captive to social pressure and addicted to Nicotine. But the ads didn’t say that.
And Paul reminds us here in these opening verses, when you say no to God you’re not actually saying yes to freedom; you’re living as a captive to the pressures of the world around you, and dancing like a puppet on the strings of the evil one.
* (v. 3) gratifying…
Secondly, verse 3, Paul says that before we knew Christ we lived to gratify the cravings of our flesh. There is a sense in which a life without God is a life where you live for yourself; but that doesn’t make it a life of freedom. It’s a slavery to the cravings that come from within you.
If you’ve ever been an addict you’ll know a very powerful example of what that feels like, but it’s not limited to those sorts of things. It’s easy to hear that verse, where Paul talks about “gratifying the cravings of the flesh” and immediately think of things like illegal drugs and sexual promiscuity and gluttony and drunkenness and pornography. It is all of those things, and many of us among the readers of this blog will have struggled with some or all of those. But it’s not just things like that which Paul has in mind, I suspect. It’s also the less obviously evil cravings of the sinful nature that Paul is referring to as well: things like the craving for success; the craving for recognition; the craving for popularity; the craving for possessions; because sin is often about letting the good desires that God has created us with turn into cravings that rule over us, and matter more to us than God himself.
And Paul says, before we knew Christ, our lives were ruled not by his love, but by the cravings of our flesh.
* (v. 3) objects of…
There’s a third dimension to the backdrop Paul paints, and it’s there at the end of verse 3. Paul writes: “Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.”
It’s the darkest description of all of them. Paul reminds us that before we came to Christ we were enemies of God and objects of his anger. We were under condemnation, and facing an eternity under God’s judgment. It’s an ugly picture, and it’s not a pleasant one to dwell on, but it’s the reality of where we were without Christ.
Made alive (vv. 4–10)
But Paul’s story doesn’t leave us there. Verse 4 is a kind of pivot that the whole passage turns on. In verse 4 we shift our focus from what we were to what we are; from sin to salvation; from the wrath of God to the mercy of God; from the blackness of the night sky to the brightness of the stars.2:4-9 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 is 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 handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
* with Christ…
It’s a picture of a kind of resurrection, of being made alive. And there’s three main things that Paul has to say about it. In the first place, verse 5, it’s about being made alive “with Christ”.
You might remember from yesterday’s passage how Paul prayed at the end of chapter one that the Ephesians would know the power of God that he demonstrated in raising Jesus from the dead; now, here in chapter 2, Paul speaks about another resurrection, but this time it’s our resurrection with Christ; it’s about us being brought from death to life with him.
One of the great images back in the Old Testament, in the book of Ezekiel, of when salvation would come to God’s people, was a picture of a valley of dry bones, a whole army of God’s people, dead and dried out and lifeless and without hope. And God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones and say: ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD…’; and as Ezekiel prophesies, God’s spirit breathes into the bones, and they come back together, and flesh and skin reappear on them, and they stand up on their feet once again as a vast army.
That’s the kind of picture that Paul has in mind when he speaks of our salvation as being brought from death to life, made alive together with Christ.
But it’s not just that we share his resurrection; it’s also, verse 6, that we share in his ascension: “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus…”. When God raised Jesus from the dead, Paul tells us in chapter 1, he seated him at his right hand, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and he placed all things under his feet; and he did that for us.
When God raised Jesus from the dead he turned upside down the relationship between humanity and the spiritual powers of the universe—the powers of sin and death and decay and the power of the devil. Ever since the fall of Adam those powers have ruled over the human race and we have lived our lives in slavery to them; and when Jesus rises from the dead he defeats them and God places them under his feet. And when we put our trust in Jesus and become his people, we gain a share in that victory. We still live out our lives in a world that is riddled with sin and death and decay, and we still sin ourselves at times, and we still suffer pain and sickness and death, but our future is with Jesus, and because he is seated at God’s right hand, there is a place there for us, and it is so certain that Paul can speak as if we are seated there already.
* by grace…
We are made alive with Christ. Secondly, we are made alive by grace. When you read these verses, it’s as if Paul’s talking to you and he doesn’t want to let you go until he’s absolutely sure that you’ve heard this bit.2:4-9 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 is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
Over the years, various versions of Christianity have talked as if our salvation is a kind of combined effort between us and God. There was an old medieval theological slogan that said: “To the one who tries as hard as he can, God does not deny his grace.” The picture is of God’s grace standing back and waiting to see who are the good and well-meaning people who almost make it on their own steam, and then helping them over the line. It’s not just a medieval picture, of course: it’s part of the thinking of countless Christians today.
But that’s not the picture Paul paints here. Paul says, and he can’t say it emphatically enough, Paul says, it is entirely by grace. It’s not from ourselves. It’s not by works. It’s the gift of God. Sure it involves us hearing and believing and responding in faith and obedience and following Jesus; but all that stuff is not some sort of achievement that we contribute to our salvation; it’s not some sort of good work that we can boast in; it’s just dead bones being brought to life by the word of God.
* in order that…
We are saved with Christ; we are saved by grace; and, thirdly and finally, we are saved for a purpose. There are two ways Paul talks about the purpose that God saved us for in these verses. Have a look back at the passage and see if you can spot them.
In the first place, verse 7, we were saved “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.” We are a kind of display-model of the grace of God. Our salvation declares the fact that God is a God overflowing in generosity and rich in mercy. The Christians of my grandparents’ generation used to talk about people being “trophies of Grace,” and it’s not a bad expression. That’s what we all are, if we belong to Christ.
That’s the first reason; and the second reason is there in verse 10. Paul writes: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Grace is not the enemy of good works; grace is the promoter of good works. But they’re not good works that earn salvation; they’re good works that flow out of gratitude and wonder and joy at the salvation God has given us in Jesus; they’re good works that express the new person that we are in Jesus, the new person who has been brought from death to life in him.
To think about:
If this is the true story of how you came to be who you are as a Christian, what are some of the fictional alternatives that it rules out? Try writing out one or two false narratives that you might be tempted to believe, in place of the story of grace and resurrection that Paul tells here.