“The Knowledge of God's Benevolence Toward Us” - A Sermon on Ephesians 2.1-10
It is a great pleasure for me to be back with you again this week. And, as I explained last week, it is also an honor, because when a church invites someone into their pulpit for more than one week at a time, it shows that they are confident that such a person will do more good than harm. So, it is my prayer this morning that such trust will be rewarded.
Where are we, then, in our exploration of Calvin’s definition of faith? Some of you may remember that definition from last week, but I know that I wouldn’t remember, so here it is again:
“[W]e shall posses a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ” (Institutes, 3.2.7)Last week we looked at John 1.1-18 and talked about the foundation of this firm and certain knowledge of God, discovering that it is Jesus Christ who explains God to us. Jesus is the only one who has seen God, and so he is the only one who is able to explain God. In fact, he is God and that means his explanation can’t be beat. No other explanation of God even comes close. Of course, the lynchpin of all this is the incarnation. If the Word, being God, had stayed in heaven rather than becoming incarnate as Jesus, we would have never had the top-notch explanation of God that he provides. Furthermore, this knowledge of God that Jesus brings is light, for Jesus himself is the light that shines in the darkness of our sin and untruth. Jesus’ light and truth is available for everyone, but not everyone recognizes it for the light that it is, and so some stay in darkness. But, for those who recognize Jesus’ light, God gave them power to become God’s children, not on the basis of their own will but because of God’s.
We see here that by talking about Jesus as light, John blends together the notion that Jesus explains God to us with the notion that Jesus saves us from our sin. In other words, revelation and reconciliation, knowledge of God and salvation, go together. This is why Calvin defines faith in terms of not only a firm and certain knowledge of God, but a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence to us. Our passage today tells us more about how God is benevolent to us in Jesus Christ. Like last week, we are going to go through it verse by verse, so keep your Bibles open!
Verses 1-2: You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.
Here we find a redescription of what we saw John getting at last week by talking about our darkness. Things are pushed further here, however. It is not only that we are stumbling around in darkness of our own making; rather, we are dead. We can’t even stumble, and it makes no difference whether there is light or not. Faced with the fact that we are dead in this way, two questions arise – if the dead can ask questions. First, how did we die? Second, is there any way for us to become alive again?
We get the beginning of an answer to the first question in the remainder of these two verses. We died, paradoxically enough, by living – in sin. What did that living in sin look like? We might easily get distracted here by this language about “the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work,” and so on. But this stuff is really just an attempt at explaining the source of the notions that book-end it: “following the course of this world” and disobedience. These are actually two ways of saying the same thing, that is, to follow the course of this world is to be disobedient. Its disobedience is why it is the course of this world and not the course set out by God. It is, to put matters once again in John’s terms from last week, to live a life that produces darkness, rather than light.
Verse 3: All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.
Now we get more of an explanation of how we died. In fact, this verse gives us a description of the sort of disobedient life we were living and that led to our deaths. It is important to remember that this verse doesn’t only describe the lives of some of us, or the lives of people outside the church. This verse describes the way in which all of us lived, and perhaps still are living. This is a life concerned with the gratification of animal desires – “the desires of the flesh and senses,” as our verse puts it. Why do I call these our animal desires? Because they have to do with that part of us that we share with all animals – our physical existence. But, the Bible and Christian theology understand that human beings also have a spiritual existence that animals do not have. What this verse is accusing us of is not the satisfaction of physical desire. If that were the case, then we would have to give up eating altogether, for instance. It is not satisfying physical desire that is the problem. The problem is how these desires are satisfied. They ought to be satisfied in the ways that God intended for them to be, and not in other ways. It is because we were chasing down these other ways that we died.
Because we were living in this manner, we became “children of wrath.” Does this mean that God got mad at us, like I might get mad at someone for cutting me off while I’m driving? No. That sort of anger would make God’s opinion of us and care for us dependent on our behavior, and it is not. What this means is that God hates to see us go down this path of sin, and must resist us in living these lives, even while loving us as his good creation. As Calvin puts this so nicely, God “knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made” (Institutes, 2.16.4). God’s wrath burns against sin, and against us insofar as we are dead in sin.
Verses 4-5: But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved…
The first word of these two verses is extremely important: “But!” Yes, God’s wrath burns against us and our sin – but! This wrath is not the end of the story. That God is wrathful against us and our sin is not the only thing that can be said of God. God is also “rich in mercy” and loves us with a “great love…even when we were dead through our trespasses.” How do we know this? Well, in keeping with what we saw last week, we know this because of Jesus Christ. The reason why we can say that God is rich in mercy and loves us with a great love is because God has not left us dead, but has “made us alive together with Christ.” This being made alive with Christ is what it means to say that we are saved by grace. We did not deserve this. There was nothing we could do to earn it – we were dead, after all! But, God made us alive with Christ.
Verses 6-7: …and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
Now it’s just getting piled on. Not only does God love us with a great love and show us mercy in raising us from death to life together with Christ – a point that is repeated in the opening clause of these two verses – but we have been “seated…in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” This language of “heavenly places” calls our attention back to verse 2, where we heard about “the ruler of the power of the air.” The cultures in which Scripture was written saw the world much differently than we do. They envisioned angles and demons invisibly warring in the skies, vying for control of geographical areas. Think about the way in which air-forces battle for air-supremacy over a battle field: if you control the skies, it’s much easier to control the ground. But, what our current verse tells us is that we have been lifted above all this and seated in “the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Jesus occupies the throne above this unseen battle, and we are there with him.
As verse 7 tells us, the point of all this is so that God can continue to show us grace and kindness by lavishing riches upon us “in the ages to come.” Our being made alive after having been dead is not simply a stalling operation. We won’t die in sin again. No matter what happens to our physical lives, Jesus Christ means that God is not done with us even then. The “immeasurable riches of [God’s] grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” continue to accrue forever.
The last thing to notice about these verses is how many times Jesus shows up: once in each of these two short verses, and once in the verse preceding. Jesus is at the center of everything that this passage tells us about God, which makes sense given what we saw last week about Jesus being the foundation of our firm and certain knowledge of God. But, this passage also shows us that Jesus is at the center of everything that God does for us. God’s mercy and love, the riches that God bestows on all, even God’s making us alive after we were dead in sin – all these things are accomplished in and by Jesus Christ. It is because we are united with Christ that God raises us with him, that God seats us with Christ in the heavenly places, and that God bestows all these wonderful things upon us. If last week Christ was the foundation of our firm and certain knowledge of God, this week he is the center of our knowledge of God’s benevolence to us. And, not only that: he is the center of our knowledge of God’s benevolence to us because he is the center of God’s benevolence to us. All God’s love and mercy and grace come to us in and through Christ, and God’s fatherly care can be found nowhere else.
Verses 8-9: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
After answering the first question of how we died, and proclaiming that we have been raised from this death with Christ, our passage addresses the second question: namely, how it is that we can be raised. What are the mechanics of the salvation that Christ has acquired for us? How do we hook up to it so that it becomes a recognizable part of our daily lives? To put things in terms of our discussion last week, how do we come to see the light of Jesus Christ that shines in our darkness?
Let’s look more closely at the first phrase: “For by grace you have been saved through faith…” That we are saved by grace means that God saved us even though he didn’t have to. Just for the sake of making sure we are all on the same page, here is a helpful definition to remember: “Mercy is not getting a punishment you deserve, and grace is getting a reward you didn’t earn.” So, God is merciful to us and saves us by grace. But, God has put in place a mechanism by means of which awareness of God’s mercy and grace is communicated, and that mechanism is faith. Faith is, as we have heard from Calvin already, “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us.” It is the means whereby we are able to see Jesus’ light shine in our darkness.
Now look at the rest of these two verses. This next bit is very important. This faith “is not your own doing: it is the gift of God.” Faith is not something that we conjure up. God gives it to us. Further, we read that faith is “not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” If you have faith – and I sincerely hope that you do – you have faith not because you are a better person than someone who doesn’t have faith. In fact, you may be a worse person. If you have faith, you don’t have it because you are smarter than someone who doesn’t have it. If you have faith, you don’t have it because you have more money than someone who doesn’t have it. If you have faith, you have it because God has given it to you – plain and simple. End of story. It is nothing to be proud of, even if it is something to be incredibly grateful to God for.
Also, when we tell people about Jesus and the benevolence of God revealed and enacted in him, we must do so with the prayer that God will grant them the gift of faith and with the knowledge that it is not something that we can create in them. You will never argue a non-believer into a believer. God may use your discussions as the way in which he gives them faith, but you will never create faith in them. It is important to recognize this because very often we hesitate to tell people about Jesus because we are afraid that we will fail and they will go away unconvinced. It may be true that those you share Jesus with will leave unconvinced, but that is not your fault. God gives the gift of faith on his own schedule, not ours. But, as Chris TerryNelson shared with you a couple weeks ago, we have been sent to share this good news nonetheless. Indeed, our immense gratitude to God for bestowing this gift of faith upon us should make us excited to tell other people about it.
Verse 10: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Finally, the last verse. The result of God’s benevolence in Jesus Christ, the goal of the salvation that comes to us by grace and through faith, is that we live the sort of lives that God intended for us when he created us in Christ, namely, lives defined by “good works.” To put matters more concretely, God created us in Jesus so that we would live the sort of lives that Jesus showed us how to live. Back in the first two verses, we learned that we have all deviated from this path by following the ways of the world as opposed to the way that God created for us. This is what led to our death. Through the gift of faith, God brings us full circle to where he wants us to be, namely, in Jesus Christ.
Almighty Father, you have blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ Jesus our Lord. In Jesus you have not only revealed yourself to us, but you have shown us your benevolence toward us. You have shown us that you love us with a great love even though we are dead in our sin. You have shown us that you refuse to let this sinfulness, against which your wrath burns, be the last word in your relationship to us. You have shown us that there is no length to which you won’t go on our behalf – even if it means that you, almighty God, became a human being who lived, died, and rose again. Give us the strength and the courage to share this wonderful news, this gospel, with those who have not yet seen your light. All this we pray in the name of your Son, our savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.