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The Christian faith essentially is the proclamation of the good news of salvation. It is, as Paul puts it, "the gospel of your salvation" (Ephesians 1:13), and therefore is the most wonderful and exciting message in all the world. Let us review that message and ponder its meaning. Our basic Scripture passage will be Ephesians 2:1-10.
I. The Condition of Man
We may first observe the condition of people prior to salvation. In a word, Paul speaks of it as death: "And you he made alive when you were dead."
The gospel is good news to dead people, not first of all to people dead in their graves, but to people in a far worse condition than that: people who are dead while still physically alive.
Who are these dead people? Paul describes them as "dead through.trespasses and sins in which you once walked." Sins have brought death. But just what are these trespasses and sins in which people walk that bring death? Paul answers: "Following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air...following the desires of body and mind."
To follow "the course of this world" is to live for worldly goals: success, fame, wealth, security, happiness. To follow "the prince of the power of the air" is to seek after evil in any form, to give in to temptation of any sort, to be the devil's minion. To follow "the desires of body and mind" is to be dominated by the passions of the flesh and the pursuits of the intellect, to make satisfactions of the body or achievements of the mind the driving force in life. All of these are trespasses and sins that bring death.
In passing one should note that from the world's viewpoint these are the things that contrariwise make for life rather than death. Life is measured in terms of success, money, prestige-or pleasures of body and mind. Such, however, is illusory; for all these are the ingredients of death-death to the spirit, the soul of man.
Man was not made by God to follow "the course of this world" or "the prince of the power of the air" or "the desires of body and mind." He was made, rather, to follow the course of heaven, the King of all power, and the desires of God's will. "For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever" (1 John 2:16-17). The course of the world is the course of death; the will of God is the way of life now and always.
When man follows the course of the world, he loses God, other people, and himself. Recall the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. Like people ever since, they were misled into thinking that the way to live was to follow their own desires rather than God's commands. It mattered not that God had said that disobedience to His will was certain death. They became convinced that to live was to do what they wanted, not what God wanted-and so they disobeyed and died. They lost God, fearful of him, running from His presence; they lost each other, blaming the other person, and in the next generation actually killing each other; they lost themselves, being ridden by feelings of guilt and shame. They were dead-dead in every way that really counted, just as dead as people of any day and generation who likewise follow everything except God and His will.
Are there many such dead people in the world? The answer is that all are dead-unless they know salvation through Jesus Christ. All? Yes, all. Listen to the words of Paul in Romans 5:12: "Sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned." We may blame Adam in part, but every man sins likewise of his own volition and hence brings about his own death.
One other word about the condition of people prior to salvation: not only are they dead, but they are, in and of themselves, hopeless and helpless both in this world and the world to come. If it is true that the physically dead cannot themselves change their lot or improve their situation or bring themselves to life, how much more true of the spiritually dead! They cannot get back to God, they cannot really love their neighbor as themselves, they cannot get rid of the inner anxiety that haunts their soul. They are shut out of the Garden of Eden, and there is no human way back.
The world prior to salvation is a cemetery, however pretty the tombstones and however lovely the graves. It is the place of the dead, not the living. Paul uses two powerful phrases in Ephesians to describe the living dead: they are "sons of disobedience" and "children of wrath." The former phrase has been sufficiently pointed to in our discussion of people's willful disobedience of God's commandments. So the living are all dead "sons of disobedience." But what about "children of wrath"? Whose wrath? The answer must be: God's.
We shall come shortly to a discussion of God's love, but we must not pass by God's wrath. The "wrath of God" is a powerful phrase throughout the Bible which refers to God's opposition to sin and evil. Evil cannot go unnoticed, for God is holy and a consuming fire against sin. He cannot abide unrighteousness in His presence. God driving out man from the garden, God raining destruction on Sodom and Gomorrah, God sending Israel into captivity, Christ angrily driving out the moneychangers from the Temple-the wrath of God is a fact because God takes sin with utter seriousness.
Sons of disobedience, children of wrath-such are all people prior to salvation. Since all are dead, there is in themselves no hope. Nor does man deserve more than the wrath of God, for he willingly follows the course of the world and not the will of God. The wages of sin is death-and such wages man receives and deserves no more.
The condition of man prior to salvation: dead.
II. The Mercy of God
Let us next contemplate God's mercy in man's plight.
"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), and raised us up with him" (Ephesians 2:4-6).
This then is the mercy of God, stemming from His great love: that though we were dead, He has brought us to life with Christ. Even as Christ died physically and was raised by God from the dead, so we who have died spiritually have been raised so that we are actually, in the truest sense of the word, alive.
But, how could this have happened? Have we not spoken of the wrath of God against all sin, that we are literally "children of wrath"? Is this wrath suddenly shifted to mercy and is God no longer a consuming fire against evil? Does He now because of great love somehow overlook or tolerate evil and save the person regardless of his sin? Such were impossible of God; mercy cannot cancel out holiness, or love replace justice. Also, unless sin were overcome, man raised up would still be the same "old" man because sin continues to bring death.
How then can God do it? The answer is that one marvelous word-in many ways the most wonderful in the Bible-grace. "By grace you have been saved." We may recall a gospel hymn with the line "Grace greater than all our sin." The grace of God is what God does through Christ, consistent with His holiness, that none of us deserves.
Grace is not God's overlooking sin, for such is impossible. It is rather God's way, utterly undeserved by us, of dealing with sin through Jesus Christ and bringing us to salvation through His death on the cross.
Let us look back at Ephesians 1:7-8: "In him (Christ) we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us."
Ah, there we have it! In the death ("his blood") of Jesus Christ sin has been dealt with completely. Dead as we were through our trespasses and sins in which we once walked, "following the course of the world," etc., death has been overcome by "redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses."
We have spoken of the wrath of God in the Old Testament revealed against Adam and Eve, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Israelites. As "sons of disobedience" they were constantly undergoing divine punishment, more and more lost to God, lost to one another, even lost to themselves. They deserved no more than death and God's fury. But now we gladly call to mind that in the Old Testament God is also revealed to be merciful and gracious. He has no delight in punishment. His earnest desire is that His people will repent, turn from their evil ways, and walk in His truth. When sins are committed, there are always the alternatives: continue in them and be destroyed, or turn from them in true repentance, and God will surely forgive. Concerning the latter, "if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin" (2 Chronicles 7:14)
The fact that they did not change "their wicked ways," for they had become "sons of disobedience" and "by nature children of wrath"-indeed "dead through trespasses and sins"-has already been commented on. But this tragic lot was their own doing; they should have been able to "turn," and in that turning receive God's ever ready forgiveness. Punishment brought some temporary change in them, but the call to repentance invariably fell on deaf ears and hard hearts.
Let us pause now to ask the question: how is forgiveness related to God's holiness? If God is a consuming fire against all evil, how could He have forgiven and still been true to Himself? For does not forgiveness mean to treat sin lightly?
To answer: forgiveness is misunderstood when it is thought of as a "soft" way of dealing with sin. For forgiveness can only be received where there is repentance-and repentance is hard, terribly hard. If such repentance does come, it means turning from sin in the assurance that all is forgiven. Hence forgiveness is not only an act of God's grace and mercy; it is also that which is most satisfactory to His holiness. For, in a way that punishment never can, it may lead to holiness of life.
To use a common illustration: a child may break a parent's law and be found out. If the parent is only concerned with justice, he will administer appropriate discipline. But if the parent also loves the child and desires strong character ("holiness of life") in him, he will hope for true repentance-a genuine sorrow for the sin, and a desire to forsake it-and will gladly forgive. The sin has not been dealt with lightly: it has been overcome through travail of soul.
The final problem which the Old Testament cannot answer is how to bring people to true repentance. God is ever standing ready to forgive their sin, but they do not truly repent. It seems they cannot, for they are so under sin's dominion as to be "sons of disobedience" and as a result "children of wrath." They are spiritually dead and cannot come to real repentance.
Now to return to the New Testament and the wonderful answer which is provided by Jesus Christ: "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace." Something has happened in Christ which has brought about true repentance and salvation. Something has happened powerful enough to break the dominion of sin, to awaken us from the dead, to change us from children of wrath to children of peace. Something has brought to us overwhelming conviction of sin and the desire to forsake it always. Something has brought us from death to life.
This "something" which has done all this, and much more, was Christ's death on the cross.
When His death on the cross first penetrates us, there comes the realization that "there is none righteous, no, not one." We sense that all our life and deeds are infected with the same pride and envy, the same self-concern and self-approval, that put Him to death. The disciples who betrayed Him, denied Him, forsook Him, the religious leaders and nation that scourged Him and pilloried Him-we are a part of all them. Every sin against one's neighbor is against Him who is the Son of man; every sin against God is against Him who is the Son of God; every sin against self is against Him through whom we were made. It is not that we sin now and then, but that the whole bent of life-"the heart turned in upon itself"-is a life that crucified Jesus Christ. We are sinners, deserving only the wrath of Almighty God. If He should destroy us now, we would abundantly deserve it.
Such a realization could drive us to the very brink of despair. Like Judas of old, we might want to end it all. We may feel no repentance-only remorse, misery, and bleak hopelessness. Try as hard as we will to change, to repent, we are still held fast in the toils of our own trespasses and sins which now have become a mountain of infinite proportions.
But let us look again at this same death on the cross-at something utterly amazing. Thus far we have been seeing ourselves more and more marked out as sinners, and the cross as the climax of our villainy. We have been descending further and further into the abyss as we have felt the fierce judgments of the Almighty upon our evil. But now at the cross we discover-marvelous to relate-that God in His great mercy and love has been following us step by step, sharing our pain, entering into our suffering, feeling our punishment upon Himself, bearing our evil as if it were His very own. In His holy wrath, His righteous judgments smite us through and through; but in His holy love, He is smitten far more than we. Far more than any earthly father who suffers with an erring child in his pain, despair, and punishment, so God suffers with us. It is not just that every evil is against Him, that every sin crucifies Jesus Christ; it is that in His vast love He suffers infinitely more than we in receiving His own judgments upon Himself. We cannot die without His dying with us; we cannot feel Godforsaken without His feeling more Godforsaken than we; we cannot go to the depths of Sheol without His going at our side. So does His Son die in our death; so does He cry, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"; so does Christ descend into hell.
At last the full marvel and wonder of God's action in the death of Jesus Christ dawns upon us. It is not only that He died with us: He also died for us. He not only went all the way with us; He also so completely identified Himself in love with our lost souls that He actually met death in our place. "The wages of sin is death"-and, marvel of marvels, we now know He made full payment. His love was so great He could not just die with us; rather did He die our death that we might live again.
This is what happened at Calvary. And through the vastness of such love we can repent, because it is He Himself that has broken the power of sin; it is He Himself who has made full atonement; it is He Himself who was crucified in our stead; it is He Himself who pours forth forgiveness beyond measure. O God, have mercy; Christ, have mercy: we repent in dust and ashes. Thy mercy and love have smitten us through and through!
In such divine compassion there is redemption; in such forgiveness there is repentance and salvation.
III. The Role of Faith
Finally let us note the place of faith. "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God-not because of works, lest any man should boast."
We have beheld at the cross the incomparable vision of justice and mercy in their ultimate expression: the wrath of God against sin being discharged against Himself in His Son, and forgiveness being poured into every repentant heart. It follows that faith is the avenue through which this great salvation comes. To believe in Jesus Christ and His death for us is essential to our repentance and receiving His wondrous forgiveness.
For surely there is nothing automatic about Christ's dying in our place. He died for the sins of all the world, but unless we believe in Him and what He has done for us, we are yet "dead through...trespasses and sins." It is only by such faith that we are brought to repentance, and without repentance there can be no appropriation of the divine forgiveness. It is only in such faith that we are "made alive...together with Christ...and raised up with him."
What do our works contribute to this great salvation? Absolutely nothing: for contrariwise it was our works that made this salvation necessary. Our works consisted basically in "following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air...following the desires of body and mind." It was our works that led to the loss of God, of other people, of ourselves. It was our works that led to death-the very death the Son of God embraced for our sakes. Our works, whatever their supposed goodness, are all infused with evil. Our works are those that helped nail Christ to the cross; our works are terrifyingly shown in His agony on the tree; our works-God, have mercy; Christ, have mercy....
So do we turn from all works to Jesus Christ. Boasting is forever gone. Salvation is through Him and Him alone.
Then it is, on the other side of salvation, that good works do actually begin. For even as by faith and repentance we died with Christ to sin, so do we rise with Him to live a new life through the wonder of His grace. We may then through the living Christ begin to do works that are truly good. Such is God's will, "for we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." This is the goal: the climax of God's great act of salvation.