Imagine that my sister is a drug addict. Precisely because I love my sister, I will move heaven and earth to try and help her change. Because I love her, I am not content to “accept her as she is.” Love desires the best for the beloved. That is why God is not content for us to live our own lives on our own terms; that is not the best thing for us, not even close. Because of God’s love for us, our best good has become fully intertwined with God’s best good.
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Download Ephesians 2;1-10
If I could use only one chapter of the Bible to summarize Christianity, it would be Ephesians chapter 2. Everything is here. It is Christianity 101. But one of the challenges of that is that it’s so “big.” I grew up in the country of Papua New Guinea. It’s an amazing place, and pretty much unlike anywhere else in the world. When I was younger, and people found this out, they would say, “What was that like?” I understand the kind spirit behind the question, but frankly, it was unanswerable. Growing up in New Guinea was my entire life, it formed who I am today. There were many things about my childhood that affected me profoundly; I had many remarkable experiences, and traveled more in my first 18 years than many people travel in a lifetime. If I hadn’t grown up there, I would be a very different person than I am now.
So, usually I answered the question by saying, “It was nice.”
But this Ephesians passage is like that. It is everything. The truth that is here has a deep, and profound effect on those who believe it. It forms who we are today. There is no way that I can do it justice. In the short time I have here. But I approach this passage, as always listening for what the Holy Spirit might want to draw out at this moment in time.
About 500 years ago, this verse, and a few others like it, shook Western civilization to its foundations. One of the men who was involved in that process was Martin Luther. Luther used to talk about the tensions in the Christian faith as if it were like riding a horse. It takes a certain physical grace to keep your balance on a horse. Some people fall off the right side, and others the left. (I myself, when I was young, managed somehow to fall off the back of a horse, but that story is irrelevant to my point here).
The left side of the horse is where we essentially take God’s love for granted. Of course God loves everyone – that’s part of what it means for him to be God, right? “Because God loves me,” (say the left-siders), “it doesn’t matter at all how I behave. I have a free ticket to heaven, so I can live however I want to, here on earth. God’s love is so great, that he doesn’t really care. He just wants to affirm me as I am.”
In our culture today, if there is one thing that most people believe, it is that every person should be the best version of themselves that they can be. To make it personal, I should try and best me that I can be. God made me, and so he wants me to be me. Since he made me, and loves me, everyone should just accept me how I am, and not try to change me, or put rules or restrictions on my behavior. But if this is how you think, I believe you haven’t yet understood what love is all about. Real love does not accept the beloved with no desire for change. Real love desires the best for everyone, and that usually means change.
Let me give you an example. Suppose a friend of my cousin is a drug addict. As a drug addict, my cousin’s friend is harming his body. He is destroying his relationships. He is ruining his financial future. He is inexorably deteriorating physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. If I find out about this concerning someone I don’t know – like my cousin’s friend – I may say, “Gee, that’s too bad.” But honestly, I’m not particularly motivated to make sure that that person changes. Do I except my cousin’s friend as he is, because I love him? No, in fact it’s almost the opposite. It is because I don’t care about him that I’m content to let him be “who he is.”
Now, imagine that the drug addict is not my cousin’s friend, but my own sister. Precisely because I love my sister, I will move heaven and earth to try and help her change. Because I love her, I am not content to “accept her as she is.” Love desires the best for the beloved. That is why God is not content for us to live our own lives on our own terms; that is not the best thing for us, not even close.
Listen to how Paul describes our situation apart from Christ:
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins 2 in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient. 3 We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. (HCSB Free. Ephesians 2:1-3)
I want to make sure that we don’t skim over verse two. The “ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient,” means demonic forces, possibly the devil himself. Apart from Christ we are pawns of the devil. Either we belong to the kingdom of God, or we are in deep trouble. We are most certainly not okay as we are.
Sometimes Christians get the sense that once they are saved, they have a ticket for heaven and now they can live however they want to live until it’s time for them to go to heaven. That too, is the attitude from the left side of the horse. That too, is wrong. The deeper we get into this, the more you’ll see that, but I will just say that the end of this passage is in contrast with the beginning. In the beginning, apart from Christ we were “walking” in sin and trespasses. By walk, or walking, Paul simply means our way of life. But at the end, once we are redeemed in Christ, saved entirely by his grace, there is more. Still continuing on by grace (not by works). God has prepared good works for us to “walk in” (verse 10). So we are to go from living in a way that is contrary to God’s loving desire for us to a way of life that God has prepared for us, a way of life that brings honor and glory to himself.
But we don’t get there on our own. Remember the horse? We’ve been talking about the left side. The right side of the horse is to put too much emphasis on what you do for God. In Martin Luther’s time, everyone was falling off the right side. Almost everyone believed that they would be saved by being good people and doing good things. That might sound OK, at one level, right? I mean, it means people will try to behave well, and that’s good thing. But people who are trying to justify themselves are ultimately people who will hurt others in order to help themselves. They are under tremendous pressure to perform right, and to judge how well they are doing. Very few people can avoid also judging how everyone else is doing. People start making up rules so that they can know that they are “safe,” and they quickly become harsh and unloving.
Luther’s great task in life was to show those people that they were wrong, that God’s grace, as this passage teaches, has nothing to do with our efforts. Not only do our good works accomplish nothing, but apart from Christ, our good works are energized by the devil. That’s a scary thought. Sometimes, in our pluralistic society, we can sort of think that people who don’t trust Jesus are kind of in neutral territory. I hope that we Christians often meet people who think and believe differently than we do, and I hope we can be respectful and kind and loving to them. But we need to be very clear about what the Bible says here: there is no neutral ground. Now, let me be clear: we should never imagine that other people are the enemy. But they do live under the influence of the enemy. Either we belong to the kingdom of God, or we walk “according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient (2:2). Apart from God, we have no hope of actually being morally good, because there is no moral good apart from God.
This is offensive to those who fall off the right side of the horse, but it is what the Bible says. The text says, “you were dead in your transgressions and sins.” A corpse can’t “try hard.” A dead person can’t “do the best he can.” No, if you are dead, your actions are taken completely out of the picture, because a dead person can’t do anything. There is nothing we could possibly do for ourselves, spiritually. We don’t “do our best and God does the rest.” God does it all. We can’t do our best. Our ‘best’ is sin and gratifying the desires of our corrupt nature. Our ‘best’ results in us being used as pawns of the devil. “Doing our best” is ridiculous, because a dead person can’t do anything, and we were spiritually dead. Now, bearing that in mind, look at what Paul says next:
4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, 5 made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! 6 Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, 7 so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
Now, I want to make sure we understand God’s grace fully. Let me start by taking human beings down a peg or two. (I am going to say “you,” but please understand, I include myself in this.) Life is not about you. Once again, this is in contrast to our culture, which is all about people being the “best authentic selves” that they can be. Self-fulfillment is a by-product of trusting God, but it should never be our goal. God does not exist to help you become a fulfilled person. He does not exist to fix the people around you, or to make your circumstances better. If God is, in fact, God, than the Supreme Good in the Universe is Himself. If He is the best and most wonderful thing in existence, than it is only right that he should seek to please Himself, to glorify Himself. There is nothing better than him, no greater good than His own pleasure. So, just as we should seek to honor and glorify God because he is the Highest Good, so he should seek to bring honor and glory to himself – for the same reason. That is God’s focus. That is His continual, ongoing activity. We are not necessary to God’s happiness, nor to his glory.
But here is the amazing part: he has chosen to bring glory to Himself by being gracious and kind to us in Jesus Christ. We are part of God’s plan to glorify Himself; we are part of God’s plan to please himself. In his love, he has made us part of the best thing in the Universe. We get to be a part of this highest, best good. That means, it becomes part of the best thing in the universe for us to be saved by Jesus. Our best good has become wrapped up in God’s best good.
Imagine a billionaire who wants the world to see him as a kind, generous man. So, he buys two square miles of slum in the worst part of the city. He tears down all the houses, and builds a resort-style complex, and then settles all the former slum dwellers into million-dollar homes there. The billionaire might be building this for selfish reasons, but there is no way that the result is actually selfish. He has chosen to make the well-being of poor people necessary to his own sense of self as a generous person. He does this not because the poor people have pleased him, but rather, because it pleases himself to do it, and to have others see it.
That is a little bit like God, except that, because he is God, it is good and right for him to please himself. But he didn’t have to include us in that plan – he just did, because he is so gracious, kind and loving.
So, we need to fully understand what we do contributes nothing to our salvation and cannot earn God’s approval and grace. Those things have already been given freely to us and we receive them simply by believing and trusting that God has given them to us in and through Jesus Christ. That’s it – no “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts.”
With that firmly understood, let’s go back to the good works I mentioned earlier:
For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
Being a part of God’s plan to glorify himself means that he has prepared good works for us to walk in. These are not good because we do them, but rather because God has already set us up to do them.
Let me explain it like this. Consider a family that has adopted a baby. The child belongs to the family for one reason only – the family loves her, chose her and wants her. There is nothing that a tiny baby could possibly do to earn that love. It starts with the love of her parents, long before she can ever return that love. This is how it is with us and God. After all, we already saw in Ephesians 1:5 that,
“In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ in accordance with his pleasure and will…”
Now think about an adopted child again. As she grows older, she will start to behave in certain ways simply because she has already been adopted. She may hug and kiss her mommy and daddy. She’ll come running to them with her fears and problems. This adopted child will probably grow up speaking like others in her family. She’ll fight and forgive and love her brothers and sisters. Her parents will train her concerning the rules, and will have to discipline her at times, and at times she’ll have to adjust her behavior. She will do these things, not to try and get into the family, but rather, because she is already in it.
Can you imagine a little boy who cleans his room daily, is always kind to his brothers and sisters, mows the lawn and fixes supper twice a week? I can’t either. But just suppose there was. Suppose his parents asked him why he did these things, and his response was: “Well, I want to get into this family. I want you to love me, and I know if I don’t do these things you won’t love me and I can’t be part of the family.” That would break the heart of any parent. We don’t accept our children on the basis of what they do for us. We accept them and love them because they are ours.
Consider it from another angle. Imagine there was a boy from another family who came over to your house and washed the dishes, cleaned the rooms and spoke to you respectfully. Would you, simply because he behaves well, adopt him as your own child? Of course not. Good behavior is not enough to make someone part of your family. It would be ridiculous if it were.
So, we are God’s children. There are certain things that the Lord wants us to do. There are certain behaviors he would like us to either change or start doing. But we do these things because God has already adopted us. We do them because that’s part of what it means to be in this family. There is no way that we can get into the family in the first place by trying to act like family members. We are adopted by God’s choice. “Doing” is a result of our adoption, not the cause of it.
In fact, we are God’s creation (not our own) and he has created certain things for us to do. There is a stunning truth about our good works: they aren’t ours anyway. God has already prepared in advance the good things he wants you to do. You see, when God made you, he had already planned certain things he wanted you to do.
God has worked for years to bring you to the place in your life where you are now. He created you and at the same time he created the opportunities for you to do certain things that only you can do. The Bible says that God formed your inmost being and put you together in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13-16). The Lord told the prophet Jeremiah this:
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart for my holy purpose.” (Jeremiah 1:5, God’s Word version).
Those words are not just for Jeremiah – they are for you too. You are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works that he has already set up for you to do. You are unique, and the good works that you are to do are also prepared by God uniquely for you.
Now, we can take this uniqueness a bit too far sometimes. It would be ridiculous to say – “well, I was not uniquely created to do the good work of obeying the commandment, ‘do not lie.’ Honesty is just not one of the good works I was created for.” No, because we are in the family, there are certain “good works” that are common to everyone. In other words, God created all of his children for the good work of honesty, and the other things in the ten commandments. Scripture is in fact very clear about the good works that are common to all believers in Jesus.
But there are good works uniquely prepared for you to do. Those things, also, are to show off God’s glory. We used to walk – to live our lives – in sins and transgressions, under the influence of the devil. Now, through God’s incredible grace, we are included his plan to glorify himself. You have a place. You have a purpose. You, as you trust in Jesus and walk in the good works he puts in front of you, are bringing glory to God. You, by God’s grace, are a part of God’s glory. I know you don’t always feel that that is true. But we are called to believe God’s Word (the Bible) even more than our own feelings. He says it is true. Rest in it. Do not sell yourself short, or undervalue your worth in Christ Jesus.
By the way, we do those good works not through striving, but through trusting. The more we believe what these verses say the more room the Lord has to work in and through us. Trust him, he will fulfill his plan to make you part of the best purpose in the universe. Thank him for his grace. And stay on that horse!