Sermon reading by Elder Isagani Ong | Written by Rev. Nollie Malabuyo
In his book Chosen But Free, Norman Geisler writes, “Like a drowning person, a fallen person can reach out and accept the lifeline even though he cannot make it to safety on his own.” Really? Is a fallen, unregenerated person like one who is drowning, able to reach out to grab a lifesaver to save himself?
Geisler and most evangelicals believe that the unregenerate person is able to cooperate with God in his own salvation. Eighty percent of Americans believe “God helps those who help themselves.” No, this saying is nowhere taught in the Bible. Against Geisler, R.C. Sproul says that the state of human beings is not like a drowning person. Much worse than this, all human beings are actually corpses at the bottom of the sea: “God just doesn’t throw a life preserver to a drowning person. He goes to the bottom of the sea and pulls a corpse from the bottom of the sea, takes him up on the bank, breathes into him the breath of life and makes him alive.”
This is what Paul says in Ephesians 2:1-10. He begins by saying in verses 1-3 that all of us, before we were saved by God, were “dead in the trespasses and sins.” Lifeless: can’t see, hear and understand. Stone-cold dead. All vital signs non-existent. In short, Geisler is dead wrong. Against Geisler, Paul expounds on how God has saved us by grace through faith. Like the two main sections in Chapter 1, verses 3-14 and 15-23, our text consisting of ten verses in English is only one long sentence in the original Greek.
Within these ten verses, two divisions are easily seen. Verses 1-3 sets forth man’s hopeless condition without Christ’s redemption—dead in sin and under God’s wrath. In verses 4-10, Paul explains how God’s gracious salvation gives hope to those who were once hopeless, life to dead people. As an applicatory conclusion to our text, Paul begins in verse 10 what it means for saved believers to be “his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.”
Today, we meditate on the theme “Once Dead, Now Alive” under three main headings: (1)
Once Walking Dead; (2) Made Alive in Christ; and (3) Now Walking Worthy.
Once Walking Dead
In the first three verses, the bad news is that all mankind are “dead in trespasses and sins,” “sons of disobedience,” and “children of wrath.” No one is exempt from this hopeless and helpless condition. Paul does not exclude himself, he who used to be a Pharisee who diligently kept the law of Moses, and who prided in his self-righteousness above pagan Gentiles.
Paul begins the chapter by saying bluntly and directly to the Ephesians—and to us: “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” His assessment of the human condition is the truth. We are all physically alive, breathing and doing our personal business daily, until we die. But all unbelievers, according to Paul, are walking dead. All those unbelieving people out there—walking on the streets, shopping at the stores, eating at restaurants, working in their offices—they are all dead in God’s sight. They are all spiritually dead, just as Adam and Eve died spiritually on the same day they disobeyed God’s one command. Because we all descended from Adam, we are “trespassers” who stray from God’s ways, and “sinners” who fall short of God’s standards.
But most people believe that they are “basically good.” Not as bad as others who are murderers, adulterers, stealers and liars. They treat other people well and help those in need. They believe sin only as actions committed against rules and regulations, and if they do not violate those laws, they are doing good and not sinning. Many people even think that there are no such things as God, heaven or hell, so they live only for the pleasures of the present life, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Is there anything wrong with enjoying life?
This is the big problem with unbelievers. They don’t see themselves as dead, hopeless and helpless, and sinful to the core. All of us are born with a sinful nature, and this is why it is impossible for us to not sin. We are inclined to sin and have no ability to please God. In fact, we rebel against God and everything about God. We think predestination is unfair and arbitrary, Christianity as too restrictive and no fun, and the idea of God’s justice and wrath as too cruel.
All of us believers were once unbelievers, and Paul lists who we were and what we did when we were still unbelievers. First, they followed the ways, the course of this world and this age. There is a striking parallel between “following the course of this world” and “following the prince of the power of the air.” When we walk in the ways of this culture, this world, we are actually following “the prince” who is also a “spirit,” Satan himself. Paul and other New Testament writers often describe the ways of unbelievers as under the control of Satan, the “ruler of this world” and the “god of this world” (John 12:31, 14:30; 2 Cor 4:4; 1John 4:4, 5:19). When unbelievers declare their independence from God, they think they have the freedom to choose the things and life they want. But they are deceived, freeing themselves from God only to be enslaved by the devil. Paul points out that Satan has blinded the minds of unbelievers to the truth of their sinfulness and rebellion against God (2 Cor 4:4). And unbelievers actually love it and are proud of it! (Rom 1:32)
Second, Paul reminds us that we all once lived for the sinful passions and desires of the body and mind (v 3). Their mindset is the “wisdom of this age” (1 Cor 2:6), which James says is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (Jas 3:15). Ever since the serpent made Eve covet the fruit of the forbidden tree (Gen 3:6), the God-hating world has been deceived into sinful desires and lusts (1John 2:16).
Christians do not completely get rid of this sinful nature, this “flesh.” We have been freed from slavery to sin, and diligently seek the strength and comfort of the Spirit in this life-long struggle. What about unbelievers? No, they do not have this struggle, but actually enjoy these sinful desires.
Paul also describes what kind of state unbelievers are in. First, they are “sons of disobedience.” They are slaves of Satan, and they think and live contrary to God’s laws. Second, they are “by nature children of wrath.” This is very offensive to most people, including believers themselves. Psalm 51:5 says that we were conceived and born with a sinful nature inherited from fallen Adam and Eve, and this is why we all sin. Everyone, whether saved or unsaved, has a relationship with God. But the disobedient unbeliever’s relationship to God, who is perfectly holy and just, is a relationship of wrath (Eph 5:6). Paul says that God reveals to unbelievers his eternal wrath against all ungodliness and unrighteousness through his creation and through his Word (Rom 1:8). But when we were saved, what is more important than being saved from sin is being saved from God’s wrath.
Paul also writes about two impossibilities: unbelievers are unable and unwilling to come to God, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). Apart from God’s intervention through the Spirit, not a single human being will come to God in faith and repentance.
All these Scriptures point out that all people are slaves of Satan, unable and unwilling to come to faith in Christ. Therefore, unbelievers are walking dead unless the Holy Spirit gives them new minds and new hearts—regeneration, being “born again.” Without God, through his Spirit, giving life to our lifeless souls, we will remain walking dead. How then can a person be saved?
Made Alive in Christ
Salvation and regeneration are often pictured as new creation, new birth, and resurrection. In these three events, the one being re-created, reborn and resurrected are totally passive. The Spirit of God is the sole actor. Man cannot re-create himself. A baby in the womb, as Nicodemus asked Jesus, cannot initiate his own birth. And a dead person cannot resurrect himself.
This is why the Bible paints vivid pictures of salvation through stories of dead people coming to life. In Ezekiel 37, God gave flesh to dry bones and the Spirit gave them life (vv 4, 9-10). Lazarus was dead four days, and Jesus raised him from the dead by calling him to come out (John 11:43) How did the dead bodies in the valley and Lazarus stand on their feet after they were called? How could the dead hear the call? They were first given life by the Spirit, and then they heard God’s call. Therefore, new life or new birth or regeneration precedes hearing and obeying in faith. The gift of life is the only hope of dead people walking.
This is how Paul begins a new section in our text. Verses 1-3 tells us about our hopelessness. Then he begins verse 4 with, “But God.” This is a complete reversal of the first three verses. It is God alone who works in salvation, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” Paul reserves the main theme of this portion in verse 5: God “made us alive together with Christ.” Note that he calls his people while they were still “dead in sin.” God is both loving and rich in mercy. Even when we were sinners, he has already prepared “the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience” (Rom 2:4), and “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us” (Eph 2:7).
Paul mentions two spiritual blessings that God has already given us in Christ that are ours here and now in this life. Both of these have been accomplished by Christ for us. First, he “made us alive together with Christ.” Just as he raised Christ from the dead, God has also raised us up with him. Through the preaching of the gospel, the Spirit created faith in our spirits. Not only that we will be given resurrected bodies when Christ returns, but even now, we already have new life.
Second, God has “seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” When we were given new life, we were actually taken to the heavenly places with Christ, who is now seated at his Father’s right hand in heaven. Again, we do not have to wait till death to get to heaven. Because we are united to Christ, God has already seated us also with him in the heavenly places. Amazing grace!
All of these spiritual blessings are made real for us by grace, “by grace you have been saved.” God is gracious toward us who do not deserve his mercy—truly unmerited, undeserved favor. He pours out his mercy on us while we were still sinners. We “have been saved,” because our salvation was finished and accomplished, not merely made possible, by Christ on the cross. And this salvation is “through faith… not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” It is faith which is kindled in our hearts by the Spirit through the preaching of the word. Even this faith that saves is given to us by God; it does not come from our own will or doing.
So is it accurate to say that faith is a condition or requirement for salvation? The answer is no, for if it is, then it means that salvation is by works, because if faith comes from the person, then it is a work of the person who believes. This would dishonor God’s glorious grace, add to Christ’s completed work, and make the sinner his own savior. This is what Jesus explained to the crowd after they asked what they must do to the works of God, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). And since our faith, however strong it could be, can never be perfect, it would be unacceptable to God for salvation.
So instead of being a prerequisite for salvation, faith is the instrument, the means, the vessel by which we are saved. What then is the ground and condition of our salvation? It is the perfect righteousness of Christ, the only righteousness acceptable to God. It is Christ’s righteousness that is imputed or counted to the one given faith by the Spirit, as Paul says, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom 4:5).
But all of these things involved in salvation—being made new creation, faith, justification— are hidden from our eyes, just as John 3:8 says, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” This is why we see some people respond positively to the preaching of the gospel, and some do not. The Spirit works in some—the elect-—but not in those who are not elect. When we come to Christ in faith, it is not through our own free will, but God has first given us a new heart and a new mind. When we were hostile to God, we did not care about Christ and his salvation. But after regeneration, we desire to love God and obey him. What changed? It is our hearts and minds that God has renewed.
So we were dead people walking, but God gave us new life in Christ. What now? What does it have to do with my life?
Now Walking Worthy
Paul answers in verse 10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand.” There is a unity in our election, salvation and life after salvation. Paul says that God predestined us “that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4). At God’s ordained place and time and preaching, we respond to his call by repenting of our sin and trusting in Christ. And because of this faith, our lives produce fruits of good works. Afterward, we are united to Christ, who gives us new life and his own righteousness. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul assures us, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Our behavior will now evidence the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5. God’s grace and mercy surely produce good works.
Finally, Paul exhorts us to “walk in [good works]. To “walk” refers to conduct or behavior, so we are to walk in good works. Elsewhere, he commands us, “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col 1:10). Here, he lists two things that are part of walking in good works. First, “in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, and bearing fruit.” How is our walk “worthy of the Lord”? In 1 Thessalonians 2:12, our walk must be worthy of our calling into God’s kingdom and glory, a kingdom of holiness and righteousness. In Philippians 1:27, our walk or “manner of life must be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” The gospel of Christ is a gospel of faith alone in Christ alone and repentance from sins. He also encourages the church to walk in unity of one spirit and one gospel. In these ways, God is fully pleased in our good works, the fruits of the Spirit.
Second, walking in good works also means “increasing in the knowledge of God.” This means that we are to increase in the knowledge of the doctrines of Christian faith in the Scriptures as expounded by our creeds and confessions. We are to study what we do in worship and why. We are to practice our faith according to what we learn from God’s Word, not from our own opinions or the culture of the world.
Dear friends, we were formerly dead in sin, but now we are alive in holiness and righteousness. However, we are not, and cannot ever be, saved by striving to be holy and righteous by our good works. On the other hand, our salvation is not apart from good works, as James says, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead… faith apart from works is dead” (Jas 2:17, 26). This is why this is a good saying: “We are saved by faith alone, but faith that is not alone” After we are given new hearts and minds, the Holy Spirit continues to indwell us, enabling us and strengthening us for good works. This is what it means when Paul says that we have been elected and created for good works. Amen.