Boasting Only in God
March 19, 2006
We find ourselves today in Ephesians 2, right in the middle of one of the most grand theological treatises ever written. If only we could start with chapter 1 and follow Paul's argument to see with even greater clarity the immense wonder of our salvation, and more than that, the immense wonder and glory of the God who authored it.
But we are beginning here, nevertheless, because it does directly relate to the passage that Phil preached the past two weeks, as well as what he will preach next week in Titus 3. There, we have seen that Paul has urged Titus to lead the Cretans to act in a manner worthy of the calling to which they've been called, specifically with regards to the government, but also towards the society at large. Why? What is Paul's reason for telling them to act these ways? He could have simply answered because you should love your neighbor - so stop complaining and do it! But he doesn't. Instead, he gives a reason; For we were once the same as them. We were just as sinful, just as arrogant, just as despicable as those we could look down on. The reason we shouldn't is that apart from God's sovereign, gracious, undeserved work in our lives, we would be just like they are, and it may be yet that they may be saved. We are no better than they. We have no reason to boast.
This week, then, we see Paul bringing out a similar theme. We were at one time just like the world. But apart from our doing, apart from anything that we should expect, God saved us. He raised us up from the dead, He gave us life in Christ. He poured out His kindness, mercy, love, and grace on us. Why? So that He would be glorified. And again, we see the same emphasis as the passage in Titus - however we are saved, it is done in a way that we have no grounds to boast. We bring nothing to the table. We don't even bring ourselves - we are dead. If we are to be saved, it is all of God, over against and overcoming our deadness and utter depravity. And it is with this deadness and depravity that Paul begins verse 1.
o 2:1-3 - "And you" - The Incapability of Man to be Righteous
Did you notice the grammatical division that Paul made? He splits verses 1-10 by two phrases. "And you," and "But God." It is as if Paul is giving headings for the explanations to follow. You want to know how to be "in Christ" as back in Ch. 1? Here you go. Heading 1 - And You. First explanation - You were dead because of your transgressions and sins. This is your contribution to salvation. The rest of verses 1-3 is the explication of this truth.
"You were dead in your transgressions and sins," most of your translations will say. It would probably be translated better that, "You were dead because of your transgressions and sins." This was the promise of God to Adam. In Genesis 2:17, Adam was told by God that, "from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die." Not too many verses later, Adam does eat from it, but yet he does not evaporate back into the dust from which he was created. In fact, he seems to thrive, putting on clothes and hiding from danger, having children, living to the ripe old age of 930. But God's promise did not fail. Adam did die at that very moment, in his soul. It became corrupt and rotten. Why, one would not even recognize him as the same person if they could see his soul. And we are no less rotten and putrid if God has yet to recreate us into the image of His Son. You see, we are in union with Adam by nature. He is our federal head, our representative. We think the same way that he does. We do the same things that he did. We sin the same sins that he did. We have died the same death that he did. In fact, because of his sin, we were born dead - and each time we sin we show that we agree with him in what he did. As David pondered in Psalm 51:5, "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me."
We also try to use the same excuses Adam did. What was his excuse before His holy creator, after he chose to impose his own will over against God's? The woman You gave me led me to eat of the tree. He passed the blame. And we do the same. Well, Paul anticipates our passing the blame, and confronts us head-on about three causes of our deadness in sin.
Three Causes of Deadness in Sin
1. First, he recognizes that sin is cultural. Paul here says that we walked formerly, "according to the age/course/ways of this world." It is what society is doing. This is not new. Scripture says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. How many examples are there in the OT of a corrupt society leading to increased sinfulness. And it seems that Paul is saying that we can look at culture and see it leading us to sin.
2. Secondly, he recognizes that sin is not only cultural, but it is also stirred up by Satan. This is no less who Eve blamed when Adam blamed her for the first sin. "The serpent deceived me, and I ate." Here Paul refers to Satan's leading us to sin, as well. He refers to him as the "ruler of the jurisdiction/domain of the air." Satan does have sway in this domain, the domain of the air, what the Greeks understood to be the domain between heaven and earth where the spirits or demonic forces were. We see also that Satan is even ruler of the spirit now working in the sons of disobedience. Satan is not omnipresent. He cannot be multiple places at once - He is not God. Omnipresence is only an attribute that God has. But Satan does command other demons. And through his command of them, he does show himself to be a formidable foe. His hand does stir us up to sin.
3. But can we pin all of our sin on these two "according to" statements? No, I'm afraid we can't. If we want to get to the root of why we sin, we need to look to what Paul says is a third cause of our deadness. Not the world. Not Satan. But our own sinfulness. When we are separated from God, Paul says we live among the "sons of disobedience" that are under the sway of Satanic activity. What does it mean to be disobedient? To not do the will of your authority - to disobey Him. This disobedience is what Paul is getting at. We, knowing the will of God, choose to do "the will of our flesh and mind." This is why I have no problem speaking of "free will." "Oh, we must have our free will." Fine, have your free will. Your will is just as free as your nature will allow it to be. Exercise your free will. It will only do what your flesh and your mind will allow it. And there is the rub. Is our flesh and our mind free before God does His renewing work (Titus 3)? A better question is not, "Are they free," but, "Are they good?" Are they deserving of commendation or condemnation? Paul goes on to tell us - "And we were children of wrath by nature." By Nature. If you want to know the root of your sin, don't look to the world; don't look to Satan; look to yourself. There you will find all of the corruption and rottenness that you see in everyone else.
It is interesting that Paul is no longer pointing the finger at the Gentiles only. He begins with, "And you," in verse 1. But by verse 3 we see that he has expanded the you to "we" - "Among whom also we all lived formerly in the desires of our flesh...we were children of wrath by nature." And then to be clear, he tacks on to the end of it all, "As also the rest." This is the story of humanity up to this point in the text. We are all dead because of our transgressions and sins. We are all influenced by the culture around us, by the devil and his demons, and we are all full to overflowing with the justification of God's wrath against us. As John Gerstner noted, we are like zombies - up, walking around, but rotting and putrid. We are an offense to the nostrils of God. And God's wrath will not be stifled. It will not go away. It is His measured and right judgment against sin.
Though physically we are alive (but dying), spiritually we are dead. To picture this, we need to look no further than the artist Rembrandt. Art can be a powerful tool in conveying truth, and Rembrandt always amazes me not only with the skill of his hand, but also with the skill of his heart to convey the Word of God. Have you seen his interpretation of the Raising of Lazarus. An interesting note about that painting - the face that you see on Lazarus is Rembrandt"s. You see, Rembrandt saw himself spiritually as Lazarus was physically - dead and rotting. But when Jesus came and called, he rose from the dead. He was no longer bound by his nature - that dead nature that we all have B.C. He was given new life. George Whitfield urged:
Come, ye dead, Christless, unconverted sinners, come and see the place where they laid the body of the deceased Lazarus; behold him laid out, bound hand and foot with grave-clothes, locked up and stinking in a dark cave...view him again and again; go nearer to him; be not afraid; smell him. Ah! How he stinketh...Was he bound hand and foot with grave-clothes? So art though bound hand and foot with corruptions: and as a stone was laid on the sepulcher, so is there a stone of unbelief upon thy stupid heart...And, what is still more effecting, thou art as unable to raise thyself out of this loathsome, dead state, to a life of righteousness and true holiness, as ever Lazarus was to raise himself from the cave in which he lay so long...all thy efforts, exerted with never so much vigor, will prove fruitless and abortive, till that same Jesus, who said, 'Take away the stone,' and cried 'Lazarus, come forth,' also quicken you.
We can also look to the OT to get another picture of our state in our deadness in sin. In Ezekiel 37:1-3, we see this famous passage imaging forth the deadness of Israel in their sins:
The hand of the LORD was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; and it was full of bones. He caused me to pass among them round about, and behold there were very many on the surface of the valley; and lo, they were very dry. He said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered, "O Lord God, You know."
This is us. We are dead bones, dry, having no life. And when we see ourselves as such dry bones, we too should be asking, "Can these bones live?"
Well, we've seen Paul's picture of us all in our sin. Dead. Sinful. Children of wrath. Is that the end? Should we just go home? Should we learn to deal with it? Is this your lot?
No? Why not? Oh yes, there is the issue of the context to deal with, isn't there. We must never read small portions of Scripture without looking at its context. We must always look to see how a part fits into the whole. And here, there is the most wonderful change of events to take place. We were hopeless, but God, full of grace, steps in and calls, "Sinner, come forth." Let us look at how Paul says it.
o 2:4-7 - "But God" - The Full Capability of God to Make Us Righteous.
Here in verse 4 we find the second heading of the text - "But God." Does this phrase look familiar? Remember in Titus 3, at the transition from Paul telling us what we were like to what God has done to change our state? "But God." These are two of the most powerful words in the Bible. Some have even ventured to call it the abridged gospel. If we are ever going to understand biblically the way a sinner becomes reconciled to God, adopted as a son, and saved from the wrath to come, we must recognize that it is the work of God, alone - Solus dei.
In fact, what is it that we do in our being saved? Can we do anything to earn the favor of God? Let us look at how Paul describes it. Verese 4-7 are one big sentence, with the main clause being, "God made us alive together in Christ, and He raised us together, and He seated us together in Christ Jesus." Everything else that is said supports or modifies this statement. Paul begins verse 4 in the Greek with, "But God," and doesn't get to the verb until the end of verse 5. Back up in verse 1, when he begins with "And you," he never gets to a main verb. It's just the heading, and then a bunch of modifiers. It may be that he was trying to get across that you didn't do anything pertaining to salvation. Here, though, we see that "But God" is completed by three verbs. Paul makes up these three "with-" verbs, verbs of fellowship. He somehow needed to get across to the readers of this epistle that if we were ever going to be made alive, it would have to be through our union with Christ. You see, it is Christ that did what we could not do. We sinned in Adam, but He did not. We continually break God's Law, He did not. We are always seeking to do the "will of the flesh and the mind." He is not. We were children of wrath, but He is not. You see, we needed a new union. We had Adam as our federal head. He fell, and we cheered him on. We need someone else to be joined to, someone to take on our sin, and who will give us His righteousness. We need a new federal head. We need to be "in Christ." And that is what Paul speaks of here.
Three Verbs of Fellowship
1. First, we see that God "made us alive together in Christ." Why? Because He is "rich in mercy," Paul tells us. He has an abundance of it. It overflows and pours into the crevice that separated us and Him. Where does this mercy come from? It is "out of His great love with which He loved us." And what it amazing is when God made us alive: "Even while we were dead in transgressions." Even as we were driving the nails into the hands of Jesus. Even while we were seeking our will over His. Even while we were rotting away in a death cave of our own making, God made us alive together in Christ. "Made alive together with." What is Paul picturing? Look back at 1:19b-20. You see, Paul sees that when Christ died for sins, He was propitiating the wrath that we deserved. When God raised Jesus from the dead, showing His acceptance of the payment, He was accepting the payment for the sins that we owed. Paul is not only speaking of a federal, covenantal union here. Rather, he understands that the union we have in Christ is more than that. It is also a vital and experiential union. Our being raised with Christ isn't just a legal transaction. It is also what really happened to us. We are no longer dead in trespasses and sins. We are really alive in Christ. We were once non passe non paccare, not able not to sin. But because of Christ's work, and God's work of making us alive together with Christ, we are now passe non paccare, able not to sin. We have experienced this union first hand, if we trust Christ's merits for salvation.
But next we see Paul interrupting himself, struggling to contain the point he is trying to make in his argument, blurting out, "By grace you have been saved." God didn't have to make us alive. He was not constrained to do that by His character, or any promises that He made. No, it is all of grace; the unmerited favor of God to sinners. Paul will come back to finish this thought in verse 8.
2. Well, we see a second "with-" verb that Paul uses is that God "raised us together." Again, we need to understand this was the work of God in Christ. God did not just raise Jesus from the dead (resurrection), but He raised Him up into the heavens - this is what we call the ascension. Paul here is telling us that we, too, have been raised. But you say, "I am still on earth. I am not with Christ in heaven." Oh, but you are brother or sister. If you are in Christ, you are a new creation. The old has gone and the new has come. You no longer operate only in the realm of the world. You now have spiritual appraisal of things. You no longer see the worst in everyone, but you see the work of God in their lives and seek to be a blessing to them. You no longer hold fellow Christians in contempt, but you have love for the brethren. You are living not with your head, but your hearts, in the clouds. We have been raised up with Christ.
3. Paul goes on to tell us the third "with-" verb, and that is that God "seated together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. This refers to Christ's cession. Paul speaks to this back in 1:20-21 . Here in 2:6, though, it is used in reference to us. What? Are we somehow to believe that we are reigning over all powers and authorities? Well, is that the point of what Paul is saying? It seems that what he emphasized about Christ was not that He is now ruling, but that He is now in perfect fellowship with the Father. He is at the Father's right hand, the place of favor. He is above every name. We, too, are seated with Him. We are now no longer at enmity with God. The sin that once separated us has been taken away in Christ.
An important question that you should ask after seeing what we were like, and then what God has done anyway, is, "Why would God do these three things? Why would he make us alive when we deserve death? Why would he raise us instead of leaving us to wallow in the hole that we preferred. Why would he seat us in the place of favor, when He should have separated us eternally in hell?" Paul tells us the reason in vs. 7, "So that He might demonstrate the surpassing riches of His grace in the coming ages because of the kindness upon us in Christ Jesus." Why did God save us? Because we were desirable? No. Because He saw some merit or potential in us? No. Because we did our part, and He was just doing His? No. The reason that God chose to save us was so that His grace would be demonstrated in the coming ages. When the great judgment commences, God's grace, and justice, will be shown forth like we've never seen it. Yes, we deserved wrath, but instead we've been given abundant life in Christ.
Why? Paul tells us in the last part of verse 7: Because of the kindness that is shown towards us because of Christ Jesus. We have been used not just to show the riches of God's grace, but also to display the love the Father has for the Son. Christ identified with us - He bore our sin and gave us His righteousness - and the Father now shows us the same kindness that He showed the Son from eternity past. The only reason that we are shown kindness or love or mercy or grace is because of the Father's love for the Son. We are the gift of the Father to the Son - His holy Church. And the Son turns to the Father and says, "I love you Father. I want to thank you for the gift and show you my love by making them clean so that everyone will know that you are glorious and are full of kindness and love and mercy and grace."
God shows forth His glory through His grace and power towards us. Remember Ezekiel's answer to God's question -
"Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered, "O Lord God, You know." Again He said to me, "Prophesy over these bones and say to them, 'O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.' "Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones, 'Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life. 'I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you that you may come alive; and you will know that I am the LORD.'" So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, sinews were on them, and flesh grew and skin covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then He said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, 'Thus says the Lord GOD, "Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they come to life."'" So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
When God regenerates someone, it is no less a picture of supernatural wonder. That the dead come alive should never become routine and expected to us.
Well, as I mentioned earlier from verse 5, Paul interrupts his flow of thought to blurt out, "By grace you have been saved." This statement goes along with these preceding verses well. He wants to finish this thought, though. And from it comes another aspect of Paul's argument.
o 2:8-10 - "Not by works", but "for works." - The Provision of Works for God's Glory.
Paul has just finished telling us why God will be shown to be glorious by His work in Christ for us. But there is more to it. No matter how much God did to save us, or to bridge the gap that separated us from Him, if we were to add to that work, even just a little bit, would we not deserve some renown? If we could just take a step towards God, even if He did the rest, would that not in some manner show us to be not as bad as those who don't take that step? Yeah, we're dead spiritually, but maybe just the not-so-bad kind of dead, where we can make some God-honoring decisions. Maybe what Paul was saying is that we were really just sick, even if mortally sick. We have problems, and we need God's help, but we can still pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and overcome death.
R. Kent Hughes illustrates it this way. An Olympic swimmer, an average swimmer, and a non-swimmer are in a plane crash a thousand miles off the coast. The Olympic swimmer calls out, "Follow me." They take off towards shore, but in just a few seconds the non-swimmer goes down. About thirty minutes later, the average swimmer goes down. But the Olympic swimmer goes on for 25 hours, covering an impressive 50 miles. Great! Only 475 more hours to go - It'll be 19 days, if he doesn't slow down. Our problem is that we don't recognize the distance between us and God. We think that our pathetic attempts at pleasing Him will somehow overcome the affront to His holiness that we make every time we sin.
Thus Paul backs up what he has been saying about God's role in salvation by repeating what he has already said - "By grace you have been saved." How are we saved by grace? That is, how is God's grace appropriated to us? What is the thoroughfare through which salvation is given to us? It is "through faith." Now, we may step back and say, "Well then. We have seen God's part in salvation, now we finally get to our part - faith." But be careful. Do not go down that road too quickly. Paul gets there before you and closes that door, too. Faith is not a work, it is a gift. All of salvation is a gift, including faith. It is not from you. It is from God. Think back to the picture of a dead man. Can a dead man ask to be raised? Can he seek to ascend and be seated with Christ? Can he even believe such is possible? No. He is dead. If we seek to add our faith to God's work, then we are showing that we not only don't understand true faith/trust, but also we don't understand our plight and Christ's accomplished work. We cannot overcome an eternity's worth of wrath by an infinite God by our finite, feeble faith. We can't "do" faith in exchange for grace.
And to further counter this possible mistake, Paul adds in verse 9 that salvation is not by works. Why not? "So that no one might boast." Remember, He has already told us that the purpose of God's making us alive, raising us, and seating us is so that the riches of His grace will be shown forth. If we add anything to salvation, we then have some reason to boast. Why? Because Paul has already told us another important bit of information, namely that we were dead in our sins. So if we, apart from God's gift, have overcome our deadness, or raised ourselves from the grave, seen God in Christ for who He truly is, repented and began to have faith in Christ's merits, then in some sense we have great reason to boast. We've just done the impossible. The dead raised the dead. Should not the holy angles, and all the rest of creation, then look to us and praise our good works? Well, yes they should, because that would have been quite a feat.
But that, in fact, is not the way salvation works. We are saved apart from works, not from ourselves, in no way allowing us to boast, so that God will be solely glorified.
So, is Paul saying that we should become antinomian, and sin all the more so that grace will abound? By no means! We are to do good works, but not to somehow earn salvation. Paul tells us in vs. 10 the reason we cannot be saved by works. The reason is that we are the "workmanship" or "work of art" of God, and we have been created in Christ Jesus for the purpose of good works. The good works did not come before, and therefore earn the re-creation. Rather, the re-creation happened so that we would be able to do good works. God even prepared these works beforehand so that we would walk in them. Not only is salvation a gift, but so are our good works! So go ahead, boast your good works, but be sure to put responsibility where it is due. God is the one who give you your good works.
Martin Luther once said, "Justification is by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone." This is what the apostle James was getting at James 2 when he seems to be disagreeing with Paul on the roll of works in the believer's life. There is not faith given by God that does not also have works with it. Again, not because you must earn your salvation by faith and works - they are both gifts. The issue is that if God has given one, He has given the other. If you have been saved, then the same Spirit that made you able to repent and believe also makes you able to do God's will. Both faith and good works are the work of God, and are merciful gifts.
In conclusion, let me urge you to examine yourself - Do you look to God, and God alone, as the source of salvation from His wrath. Are you trying to make God like you by doing good works, whatever and however many they are? Do you really think you can pay off your eternal sin debt by making payments with good works? It's like getting an advance on a credit card to pay off the credit card. You will just sink deeper and deeper in debt. You cannot overcome your sin.
The good news of the gospel, though, is that Christ has overcome the sin of those who trust in Him. He has paid our debt. He has even given us an expense account of good works that He urges us to spend liberally. Trust in this Jesus. He is a good King. He is a loving Lord, to those who are His.
But to those of you who have not been made alive, raised, and seated with Jesus, do not presume to linger at the door of His grace too long. He is also a just Judge. You do not know when the judgment will begin. What will you plead on that day before this Judge? Your feeble good works? Or Christ's infinitely excellent merits and His blood that paid for sins? Go to Christ. Beg in contrition for Him to recreate you. Beg for Him to be your King and Lord. Beg that He would give you the strength to repent from your sin and believe in His person and trust in His work. Only then will you see that boasting in yourself is hopeless. Boast in God. He has done the work - glorify Him by trusting that it is sufficient.
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