|IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 29, September 13 to September 19, 1999|
We began this series by looking at the question "What is the church?" In our first look at the question we saw that the church is and always has been the people of God. Second, we added that the church is the place for forgiven sinners.
But what else does the Bible say about the church? What else is true about God's gathered, sinful but forgiven people? As a means of answering that question, we will look at two different passages, starting with one of the Bible's great chapters — Ephesians 2:1-10 — a chapter which has a lot to say about God's church.
Now, as a bit of background on the letter to the Ephesians, the message of this letter can be summed up in one word: "new." As John Stott explains, this letter is all about our new life in Christ and the new community that God is forming out of those who are in Christ, as well as the new standards of living which God expects of his people and the new relationships into which God has brought us (with himself, with each other, and with the world) — new life, new society, new standards, new relationships.
In the first part of the letter (1:3-2:10), Paul is talking about what God has done for us in giving us new life in Christ. God has bestowed many and great blessings upon us in Christ. But Paul's concern for the Ephesians is not just that they would have a lot of correct information about God in their heads, but that they should know experientially these great blessings that have been given to them. He prays to this end in 1:15-23.
Now, in order to highlight the greatness of the new life we have been given in Christ, Paul reminds the Ephesian Christians of what they were before God came into the picture. In doing so, he emphasises three things that were once true about all of God's people and which are still true about those who don't know God:
1. We were dead in our trespasses and sins, in which we used to live (2:1-2a).
When Paul says we were "dead," he is not talking about physical death because, as he points out, this death was a condition in which we used to live. To borrow a title from a fairly recent movie, we were "dead men walking" and "dead women walking," the "living dead." A similar idea is seen in Matthew 8:21-22 when Jesus asks a disciple to follow him and the disciple says, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father," meaning not that his father's funeral was scheduled for that day but rather that he wanted to delay following Jesus until his father had seen out his remaining years, and then he would come. Jesus firmly responded, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead." Let the dead bury the dead? What was Jesus saying? He was saying the same thing that Paul is echoing here: people who don't know God are in a state of living death — physically alive, but spiritually dead and completely unresponsive to God the Father.
For about four years, I worked as an ambulance officer in the United States. As a result of that work, I got to see and handle a lot of dead people. If there is anything I know about people who have died, it is this: they are completely unresponsive. They're not mostly unresponsive, they're not largely unresponsive. They are completely, utterly incapable of responding to anything — no matter how much you wish they were, no matter how badly you might want it to be otherwise. You can yell, scream, hit, punch, kick — do whatever you want — you will get no response.
When Paul says that we were dead in our trespasses and sins, he means it. He means that we were completely unresponsive to God. We weren't mostly unresponsive, we weren't merely indifferent, it wasn't that we were just less responsive to him relative to other things. Paul is not saying we were merely spiritually wounded here. He is saying that we were dead. He is saying that we were incapable of response. We were beyond help. Now, that's important to remember. In fact, it's crucial to remember because a lot of bad theology has been built upon a misunderstanding of this text, and others just like it. If you fail to comprehend the lost person's complete inability to respond to God, in and of themselves, then you will never understand what it means to be saved by grace, not by works. You will never fully understand the significance of what Christ has done, indeed you will not be able to explain why Christ even had to die in the first place. Paul does not say that we were spiritually sick, he says we were dead.
The proof of this was demonstrated in at least two ways: by our transgressions and by our sins. Now, Paul uses two different words here because he wants to get across two different ideas. "Transgression" is about crossing a known boundary. It's like seeing the sign that says "keep off the grass," and deciding to step on it anyway. That's transgression. Paul says that spiritual deadness is illustrated by the fact that people knowingly and willingly step across known boundaries, in all sorts of ways.
The other word is "sins," and that word is about falling short of a mark. It's about not living up to a certain standard. It's about neglecting to do what might have been done or what ought to have been done. Paul says that we once demonstrated our spiritual deadness by falling short in loving God, honouring God, and serving God with our lives. So, by both transgression and sin, we show ourselves to be spiritually dead — people who are unresponsive to God.
Now, of course, some might find this hard to accept. You may think of a particular sports hero that you admire, one who is full of life and energy. Is this person really dead, as Paul means it here? Perhaps you might think of someone who is quite brilliant in her field, a person with a wonderful mind. Is she really spiritually dead? Or perhaps it is a bit closer to home. Perhaps you know of a particular friend or family member who seems so vivacious, so full of life, so concerned about others. Is this person truly dead, as Paul is suggesting here?
In a word, yes. If these people have not experienced the transforming miracle of God's grace, the working of God's Spirit in their hearts, then, regardless of how alive they might appear in every other category, when it comes to God they are "as dead as a doorpost."
What is the proof of that? The proof is that in the area of life that matters the most they are completely unresponsive. Is there a love for the Lord Jesus Christ? Is there a grateful admission that their life belongs to God? Is there a willing acknowledgement that they too were sinners who were without hope apart from the death of Christ on their behalf? Is there a demonstrated responsiveness to the Spirit of God in their life, working to demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit in their daily life? Is there a yearning in their hearts to know God better, a love for the Scriptures, a desire to be with and serve his people? Sadly, the answer for so many people whom the world might describe as "full of life" is no, none of these things are present. When it comes to the things of God they are completely unresponsive. They are deaf to what God is saying and blind to what God has done. They are as unresponsive to God as a corpse. That is the current condition of the world apart from Christ, and that was our own condition, before we were saved. But not only that . . .
2. We actively followed Satan, the world, and our own evil desires (2:2-3a).
In other words, not only were we unresponsive to God, but we were totally responsive to evil. Paul says we used to follow the ways of this world, meaning by that the worlds values, practices and ideals, all of which are quite alien to what God says is important. We were also led along by our own evil desires, the "cravings of our sinful nature" as Paul puts it. And while Paul's language in our own day might seem to refer particularly to desires of a sexual nature, the fact is that Paul's reference is quite generic. It includes not only sexual desire, but also every other kind of desire and craving that captivates and enslaves people, such as greed, power, envy, hatred, etc. In following the ways of the world and the cravings of our sinful nature, we have actually shown ourselves to be followers of Satan, whom Paul descriptively depicts here as "the ruler of the kingdom of the air." We were followers of Satan because, as the passage shows, "the ways of this world" are the ways of Satan. In gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature we cooperarte with "the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient."
So, on top of ignoring God, we were totally devoted to the ways of the world and to following our own desires. In so doing, we were in full cooperation with Satan. The result of this was that . . .
3. We were by nature objects of wrath (2:3b).
In other words, we were condemned. Because of our unresponsiveness to God, because of our sinful condition, we were in line to be on the receiving end of God's anger and judgment against sin. The often popular assumption that "everyone is a child of God," or that God owes everyone a fair go, couldn't be further from the truth. Paul says that by nature we were objects of wrath. Now, admittedly, Paul is painting a very dark picture here. But he does so because it is true and because it highlights, by stark contrast, the greatness of what God has done, a subject to which he turns in 2:4. The three great truths about our condition before Christ — that we were dead, that we were followers of evil, and that we were condemned — these three truths are completely overturned by three greater truths, all as a result of what God has done.
THREE GREATER TRUTHS
1. We were once dead, but now we are alive with Christ (2:4-6).
Where once we were unresponsive to God, uninterested in spiritual things, we are now alive with Christ. The sin which separated us from God, and the judgment that we deserved as a result, have both been dealt with by Christ's death on the cross.
On top of that, we have been given a new heart, one that is responsive to God. Our eyes have been opened, our ears have been unblocked. Where once there was no concern for knowing God, there is now a great passion to do so. Where once we did not know nor care what God said in his Scriptures, now we want to know, now his words have become precious to us. Where once we had no desire to belong to the people of God, now we feel a common kinship, and a desire to be among God's people. Actions and attitudes with which we had become quite comfortable are now causes of shame, things to be avoided rather than sought. All of these things are a result of God's making us alive in Christ. All of these are now indicators of how we have become responsive to God.
Note Paul's language here. He says we have been raised up with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus. This is the very same language Paul used in chapter 1, speaking about Jesus:
"I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 1:18-20).
What a complete turnaround! We went from being completely unresponsive to God to a position of being seated with him, in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus. And not only have we been made alive in Christ, but . . .
2. Though we were once objects of wrath, now we are objects of mercy (2:6?9).
Twice Paul says, "It is by grace you have been saved" (2:5,8). In 2:6-7 Paul says that God raised us up with Christ in order that he might show his grace and kindness to us, in Jesus. We were by nature objects of wrath, but God has chosen to show us mercy instead. Paul takes great pains to make it clear in these verses that we are who we are because of grace and nothing else — not good works, not because we have earned or merited something. Indeed, this is not simply the conclusion reached from 2:8 alone, although it is certainly there. It is the inescapable conclusion of the whole section of 2:1-10:
a) we were dead in sin (2:1,5);
b) God made us alive (2:4);
c) God raised us up, and seated us with Christ (2:6);
d) it is by grace you have been saved (2:5,8); and
e) even our good works are part of the plan of God (2:10).
The whole event of our salvation is a testimony to the sovereign work and intervention of God. Indeed, this is the point of 2:8: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast."
Notice the word "this" in the middle of the verse. When Paul says "this" is not from yourselves, he is not referring merely to faith. He is not just saying that faith is not of ourselves. He is saying much more than that. Indeed, the construction in the original language suggests that Paul was referring to the whole act of our being saved as a gift from God. From beginning to end, the whole thing is a gift of God, and thus there is no part, no step in the process to which we can lay claim, no stage at which we might boast that we contributed to our own salvation. But there's one more reversal, and this is perhaps the most surprising of all . . .
3. Where once we were doers of evil, now we are to be doers of good (2:10).
It is particularly striking to note that, in a section emphasising what God has done, and our complete moral and spiritual inability to do anything to save ourselves, Paul so strongly makes a point about grace that ends with a final emphasis upon good works — our works.
What is Paul on about here? Is he deliberately trying to be difficult? Is he messing with our minds, first talking about works in a negative fashion and then talking about them in a positive fashion in the very next verse? What's going on here?
What's going on is that Paul is underscoring an important truth about God's people, and yet wanting to do it in a way which will avoid confusion and misunderstanding. Paul has already made it painfully obvious that works have nothing to do with salvation. Having established that, he now feels free to say that while good works do not result in salvation, they are a result of being saved. They are the evidence that a person has been made new in Christ, that God's work is going on in his heart.
Now, in order to expand on this just a bit, let's take a look at another part of the Bible, Titus 2 and 3. In this letter, Paul is writing to encourage and instruct Titus, a young pastor of the church in Crete. Now, there are a great many things going on in these two chapters which, for our purposes, will not be addressed. However, one thing I do want you to notice is the common emphasis in these two chapters on Christians "doing the right thing," on "doing good." If ever you were to write a theology of good works from the Bible, Titus 2 and 3 would have to figure prominently in your thinking. Notice how it keeps coming up . . .
a) in the discussion about the behaviour of the women (2:3-7);Clearly, the emphasis upon God's people in Crete engaging in good works is central to a proper understanding of these verses. And, looking at these chapters we see that the purposes of "doing good" are expressed in various ways:
b) in the discussion about the behaviour of the men (2:6-8);
c) in the discussion about the behaviour of those who have become Christians but are still enslaved to others (2:9-10);
d) in Paul's statement that Jesus gave himself for us — to redeem us, to purify us, and to create a people who are "eager to do good" (2:14);
e) in Paul's encouragement to "be ready to do whatever is good" (3:1);
f) in Paul's instruction to "devote yourself to doing what is good" (3:8); and
g) in Paul's instruction that they should "devote themselves to doing what is good" (3:14).
a) so that no one will malign the word of God (2:5);
b) so that those who oppose God's people will have nothing bad to say (2:8);
c) so that the teaching about God will be attractive to the lost (2:10);
d) so that the general public good is promoted (3:8); and
e) so that daily needs are provided for and Christians will live constructively, not destructively (3:14).
Of all the differing purposes of "doing good" that appear in these verses, the one idea that seems to be behind them all is the one expressed in verse 10: doing good so that the teaching about God our Saviour will be attractive. And what, specifically, will be attractive to the watching world? We will be — you and me, individually and together. As we engage in good works and exhibit good behaviour, our lives will adorn the gospel of Jesus Christ, it will make it attractive to outsiders.
Look back at 3:3-8 for a moment. As you read these verses, they sound very similar to what Paul says in Ephesians 2:1-10, don't they? Both passages talk about what we were and what we now are, by God's grace. And in both places, there is an emphasis upon the many great things that God has done on our behalf. All those great things that God has done (choosing to show us his love, forgiving us through Jesus death, the rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, becoming heirs of eternal life) are great and fantastic, but they are also unseen. They are things which are not visible to the watching world. These great realities remain invisible to the lost world — unless and until they are manifested in our manner of living. It is when the grace of God results in holy living and good works that the truth of what God has done becomes apparent to the lost people around us. It is as we do those good things which God prepared for us to do that the grace of God is highlighted, that the wonder and goodness of God is "proven" to the outside world. Which is why both passages end up the same way — emphasising good works as an objective visible indicator of God's gracious, invisible work in the hearts of those upon whom he has been merciful.
David Cook tells the story of a person who was "converted by a tea towel." The gist of the story was this: a young man who had become a Christian asked his Mum for a tea towel one evening so that he could help with the washing. Through that simple request, the woman was alerted to the reality of God's work in her son's heart. As she saw the fruit of his conversion evidenced in good works — in all sorts of ways — she was drawn to look past her son to the reason for this remarkable change. And eventually she became a Christian — converted through a tea towel.
Not long after I became a Christian (I was in university at the time), I started trying to witness to my parents, especially my father. Unfortunately, my attitude in carrying this out was not terribly respectful. I had a certain arrogance and pride in the way I took up this task of informing my parents of how they needed to get their act straight with God. Looking back now, I can see why so much of what I said at the time fell upon deaf ears. As far as my father was concerned, at least, it would have been simply more of the same from me, except that now my disrespect was dressed up in Christian clothes.
Not long after that, God convicted me about my attitude toward my parents and humbled me. I went back to my parents and I apologised to them for my attitude — not so much for what I had been saying to them, but for the way I had been saying it. It was at that point, humanly speaking, that my father realised that something really had happened that he couldn't explain. I was a changed and changing person — and my father wanted to know how and why. Suddenly the gospel of grace had become quite attractive.
This is what the church is all about. It is God's workmanship, God's masterpieces — his portraits of grace, made obvious by the good works which characterise our lives and draw people firstly to us, and then beyond us to the Artist whose skill is turning an ordinary human canvass into a priceless work of divine art.
And this reality begs us to ask of ourselves and of our church, "What good are we? For what good are we responsible? Where are the good works in which we, as individuals and as a church, are engaged? Where are the good works that are making the gospel we preach attractive, even irresistable to others? Where are they? What are the opportunities for ‘doing good' that present themselves regularly in our neighbourhoods, in our places of work, in the places where we study or train, in our communities? Are we known for doing good? Do you and I individually have that sort of reputation? Do we as a church have that sort of reputation? Have we been labelled with the honourable slander of being ‘a bunch of do gooders'? Are we even in danger of getting labelled like that?"
When people think of organizations that do good in our cities, what is the first name on everyone's lips? Is it the Presbyterian Church? Not where I live. Is it the Anglican church? No. Is it the Baptist Church? No. Is it my church? Is it your church? If not, why not? If your church packed its bags and shut its doors tomorrow, apart from your own church members how many people would know or even care?
The questions are cliched by now, but the sting is still in the tail: If you were hauled before a judge, accused of being a Christian, would there be enough external evidence to bring a conviction? It's a question I ask myself all the time, about my life and about your lives. If I were hauled before a judge as a Christian preacher, would there be enough evidence in this congregation to convict me? If the entire congregation were jailed for practicing Christianity, would there be enough evidence in the wider community to make that charge stick?
Friends, let me tell you, these are hard questions. But they are questions that won't go away and shouldn't go away. I don't want you to rest until you have done something about this in your own life. I don't want the church to rest until we have taken some steps in the right direction, until we have found ways to adorn the grace work of God in our lives by acts of justice and mercy which are excellent and profitable for everyone.
Now there's a right way and wrong way to respond to these sorts of things. The wrong way is to pick up a handful of rocks and start throwing them at all the people who fall short, and at the church as a whole. Let me suggest that if you take that approach, you're going to need a lot of rocks. As we have seen before, the church is full of sinners, a fact which should neither surprise no alarm us.
The right way to respond to these sorts of things is, firstly, to own up to it, to admit that we've got some work to do here. Secondly, you can remember that while we are indeed God's masterpieces, we are still very much a work in progress. Thirdly, you can start thinking of ways you can constructively "spur one another on to love and good deeds," as the Scripture says (Heb. 10:24). That means you need to determine in your own heart to make some changes, to do things differently, to make a contribution, to be used of God to make the places where you live, worship and fellowship better portraits than they already are. And to be sure, we have made a difference for some. There are people whose lives have been touched deeply. But we can do better than that — we can do so much more.
John Stott tells a story about how, one day, he was attending a special ceremony in honour of his old professor at the Theological College at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, a man by the name of Gibson. As the professor was retiring after many years of service to the College, a portrait of him had been commissioned and was unveiled during the ceremony. When Professor Gibson rose to speak, he acknowledged the painter by saying that he believed that in the future people looking at the picture would ask not, "Who is this man?" but rather, "Who painted that portrait?"
"We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Eph. 2:10).
My hope and prayer is that in the future, when people look at my church and your church, at both the individuals and the church as a whole, they would see example after example of changed lives. I pray that they would see the grace of God in operation, that they would see example upon example of people who used to live one way but are now living in an entirely new way. I pray that they would see Christians whose godly lives and good works adorn the message of grace, whose very existence compels onlookers to ask, "Who painted this portrait?"
What is the church? It's a bunch of do-gooders. But it's more than that. It's a Portrait — God's Portrait of Grace.