Scripture: Ephesians 2:1-7
Our salvation is a wonderful thing. The Lord saved us. He took us out of the spiritual mess we were in and made us anew. This is the gospel message, a message that informs us through the preached Word that, as unbelievers, nothing but Hell and destruction once awaited us. But the Lord loved us so much that He sent Jesus. As John 3:16-17 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” Yes, it’s a glorious message, of how God could love wretched sinners like us, those who didn’t deserve His love, His salvation, or His favor. Yes, in our ugliness, in our sinful state, the Lord made a way for us.
This is a message that I pray we here at The Essential Church never get tired of telling, preaching, teaching, and speaking, no matter how many times we say it.
And yet, I fear that sometimes, we become so complacent in our salvation (however long we’ve been in it; some have been in it for decades, others a few years max) that we take it for granted, we take God for granted. The more we’re in grace, we should be reminded of just how helpless we were before Christ. When we sing songs such as “I once was lost in sin, but Jesus took me in/ and then a little light from heaven filled my soul/ it bathed my heart in love, and wrote my name above/and just a little talk with Jesus makes it right,” or “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me/ I once was lost, but now I’m found/was blind but now I see,” or “What can wash away my sin/ nothing but the blood of Jesus/ what can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus/ Oh, precious, is that flow/ that makes me white as snow/ no other fount I know/ nothing but the blood of Jesus,” and others, I think we often emphasize what we are “now” as opposed to what we “were.”
We like to look on the bright side of things, focus on where we are now, emphasize today and tomorrow as opposed to yesterday, yesteryear, the past, that ugly part of our lives filled with embarrassing details that would make us cry if anyone knew the “real us” as opposed to the facade we put on in church every Sunday. Yes, we all have sinned, but we all try to cover our dirt in at least the most subtle of ways. We embrace the gospel message because it speaks to our hearts and tells us that, no matter what we used to be, we can be made anew in Christ now. That, no matter how ugly our past and no matter how tragic it is, our future can be brighter, is brighter, will be brighter with Jesus.
But in order to fully appreciate where we are now, we have to look back. One can’t properly reflect without looking back. If you don’t know how terrible your past was, you can’t see how far you’ve come through grace by the Lord’s mercy. If you don’t realize that your works deserved nothing but Hell, that “the wages of sin is death” as Paul says in Romans 6:23, then you can’t appreciate the gift of God that is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord. If you don’t realize that your works are nothing short of sinful, you can’t glorify God and express proper praise and gratitude for His grace — His unmerited, undeserved grace.
As George Santayana once said, “Those who fail to remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” and those who fail to reflect on their past in the Christian life are doomed to repeat the same mistakes they made as sinners before they came to faith. If you’re driving down the road, and you don’t remember that you were on such-and-such street, you’ll likely end up driving down the same road you came from because, well, you don’t remember.
So, while we’re tempted to come to Jesus and toss away everything we did, we can’t. For, if we don’t reflect and remember, then we can’t realize what we have in Christ. If you think your works merit salvation, then you don’t really know what Christ has done for you. How can you worship a God whom you don’t appreciate? How can you thank a God for saving you if you don’t think you need Him and you think you can do fine all on your own?
You don’t thank someone for doing something if you don’t know they’ve done it, don’t understand what they’ve done, or not benefited from it. Those who don’t realize what Christ has done for them don’t seem to understand the benefit they’ve gained. Some of these persons are Christians, those who’ve said The Sinner’s Prayer and come to faith in Christ, but they don’t understand why it’s important to be with Christ and have union with Him.
It’s to these believers and the Ephesians that Paul has written the words of Ephesians 2. Paul writes to contrast where we once were with who we are in Christ now, and he does it using one phrase. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In verses 1-3, a long sentence in Paul’s letter, the apostle says, “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.” These words tell us that the Lord “made us alive,” a phrase that tells us that we didn’t do it ourselves but that God did it. “He made us alive” is in contrast to “dead in trespasses and sins.” To be dead in trespasses and sins is to be living in wrongdoing, sin, iniquity. This was the life of the Ephesians at one point, and it was our lifestyle as well.
The wages of sin is death, and these trespasses and sins produced nothing but death. In the words of my now deceased Father in the ministry, Pastor Luther Alston, we were “on our way to Hell and enjoying the trip,” without a care in the world, without regard to just how lost we were. We were in darkness, lost in sin, and didn’t know our end. Our lostness, our spiritual darkness, our sin, was so normal to us that we didn’t know just how much of a death sentence we were under. It’s like someone who’s so inebriated that they don’t realize that they’re driving drunk and they end up close to taking his or her own life, driving while impaired.
What Paul is saying in verse 1 is that we were once lost, separated from Christ, and, as I like to say, “dead men walking.” We were physically alive, walking around, paying bills, marrying spouses, having children, working our 9-5, driving our vehicles, teaching students, filling out income tax returns, but we were dead. It was if our funeral had already been prepared, obituary already written, flowers already placed around the casket, dressed for burial, with mourners all around us. Despite how things appeared on the outside, there was the spiritual man within — and he or she was already dead, dead, dead, never to rise from the ashes.
Paul says in verse 2 that we did the same things the world did, walking after Satan: “in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience.” The “spirit” at work in “the sons of disobedience” is Satan, and we were once led by this spirit. This lets us know that no man is devoid of a spirit; either he or she is being led by the Spirit of God or the spirit of the devil. No man is a true atheist who doesn’t live some sort of spiritual life.
The issue is a matter of “which” spiritual life you’re living, and we once walked according to the spirit of Satan, the one who is at work in all those who disobey. If you’re not a believer, you’re an unbeliever who walks after Satan. There is no third option where you’re not following God, but you’re not following Satan, either, but you’re just “you.” Society likes third options, but it’s not that way in spiritual things. There are only two options, and those who aren’t walking according to the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, are walking according to the spirit of Satan.
In verse 3, Paul tells the Ephesians that they were giving in to their flesh, living out their lusts: “the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.” Yes, we were living out the flesh and the mind, doing whatever they wanted to do: sleeping with married men or women, doing drugs, glorifying one-night stands, telling lies, breaking up homes, using and abusing friends, stealing money, evading our taxes, with both feet firmly planted in the world. You know that statement, “Throw your hands in the air, and wave ’em like you just don’t care”? Well, that was us: we lived according to the prince of the power of the air, Satan, and we just. didn’t. care.
At the end of verse 3, Paul says that we were “by nature children of wrath.” The phrase “by nature” tells us that this is the original state of every man: every man is born into sin and shaped in iniquity, as David says in Psalm 51. This is the state of every human being ever born into the world, whether they know it or not. When they’re born, they’re born under the wrath of God. And when every man comes to realize his desire to do wrong, he is condemned on account of his acknowledgment of right and wrong. As “children of wrath,” we were subject to the wrath, the condemnation, of God Himself.
Those who are under the wrath of God are condemned, dead men walking, those who, when they die, are lost eternally. And that was us. By nature, by our sheer birth, the condemnation of God and the death sentence were on our heads. A death warrant was issued for us that day when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, and we spiritually accepted that death warrant when we breathed the breath of life for the first moment of our existence. We were just like everyone else.
As sad as these verses are, however, thank God this isn’t the end of the story. For, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:4, “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” The first two words, “But God,” shouldn’t be skipped over so quickly for the other stuff because, if these two words weren’t true, then salvation would be imaginary — and we would still be lost, yet in our sins, still children of wrath, still condemned, and still earning the wages of sin, death. If it weren’t for these two words, “But God,” we wouldn’t have something to contrast with verses 1-3 of Ephesians 2. Yes, we need to pay attention to these two words.
Now, you’ve all had grammar before, so this isn’t entirely new to any of you. If someone says, “My car died in traffic and it seemed as though I wasn’t going to make it to work for that presentation, BUT BOB saw me, pulled over, and offered me a ride to work,” we’d think that Bob saved the day, that the situation was hopeless until Bob came to the rescue and helped you get to work, make that presentation, and get that promotion. If someone said, “I thought I would have to pay for those medical bills, BUT INSURANCE kicked in,” we’d all celebrate because of the hopeless financial situation that the insurance covered. When someone says, “But this” or “but that,” we know these words are a contrast to what was said before them.
So, in Ephesians 2:4, when Paul uses the phrase “But God,” he’s saying something monumental, something mindblowing, something breathtaking, something groundbreaking, something revolutionary, something unexpected. We were headed to a dead-end collision of spiritual death, a tragedy of eternal shipwreck, when God stepped in to intervene. “But God” is a contrast phrase, but God makes all the difference. Can I get a witness? When God steps in, it doesn’t matter how messy, hopeless, or impossible the situation looks, God makes it right. God can fix whatever’s broken, turn around whatever needs to, change whatever’s not right, correct whatever’s wrong, alter whatever’s in need of revision, transform whatever needs transformation.
The phrase “But God” says that God came to our rescue. We were dead in sins, headed for eternity in Hell, almost in Satan’s grasp BUT GOD. Is there someone that’ll agree with me today? I’m preaching to myself today. We were dead men and dead women walking BUT GOD. We were sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more, BUT GOD, BUT THE MASTER of the sea, heard my despairing cry, and from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. BUT GOD, BUT GOD, BUT GOD!
BUT GOD stepped in. Even when we were dead in trespasses, Paul says in Ephesians 2:5, the Lord did something: “He made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).” First, He spiritually resurrected us as though we’d been resurrected with Christ. Through our union with Christ, when He died, it’s as though we died, too. Remember? We were “dead in trespasses and sins.” Our spiritual funeral had been prepared, everything had been made ready to mourn us BUT GOD! BUT GOD raised us up with Him. He gave us resurrection even when we were dead and our spiritual funeral was already set in motion.
Even in the midst of our spiritual deadness, God gave us resurrection through His grace. This is what it means when Paul says “by grace you have been saved.” It means that we owe our salvation to God’s grace. His unmerited favor is how we’re standing here today. God’s unmerited favor is the reason why we can rejoice in our salvation. His grace is the reason why we can praise God, the reason why we can have an assurance of our salvation, the reason we can anticipate His return and cling to His promise that He’s gone away to prepare a place for us and that, though He tarries, He’s coming again for those who love Him.
In verse 6, He spiritually raised us, removed us from the condemnation we were under, removed us from His wrath, and “made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” We’ve been raised from the wrath we were under and made to sit with Christ in Heaven. Though we’re not there yet, though we’ve not yet seen this actualize, there’s a seat for us in glory to rule and reign with Christ because we receive all these blessings by faith before they one day become sight.
Let me explain this for you in other terms: remember Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel, the son that Jacob loved more than all the others? Remember where Joseph is when he interprets the dreams of the cupbearer? He’s in a dungeon, locked up, falsely accused but looking guilty because Potiphar’s wife has said that he tried to rape her and force her against her will. Potiphar, forgetting all the good Joseph had done for him and his house, throws him into prison. We find Joseph in the dungeon, wondering when the dreams of God about him reigning over his brothers would ever come true — IF they’d ever, come true.
But one day, Pharaoh has some dreams that no one in the kingdom can interpret. It’s then that the cupbearer remembers Joseph and says, “when I was down there in the dungeon, there was this young man who interpreted my dreams. He can interpret Pharaoh’s. And then, suddenly, there was this elevation in the life of Joseph; everything changed. He was hanging out in the dungeon, condemned, awaiting whatever sentence he might be given, BUT GOD appointed a time when he’d come out of jail. It seemed as if his brothers had won. Remember when they said they’d kill him, “And then we’ll see what becomes of his dreams,” they said? They thought they’d kill his dreams, BUT GOD stepped in at the appointed time and raised Joseph from being a condemned criminal to second in command to Pharaoh in all of Egypt. Joseph went from being criminalized to being crowned, all in a day.
And that’s what God did for us: we were criminals, condemned, guilty on all counts, on death row, awaiting the time of our execution, BUT GOD stepped in and saved us through His grace. His grace took us from criminal to crowned all because of His love that He has for us. His love is what’s made the difference, and Paul encapsulates all that God has done for us with two words: “But God.”
That experience that Joseph had, where he went from criminalized and condemned to crowned, is the same experience that’s happened to those of us who believe. We have to reflect on how bad, how lost, how hopeless our situation was, before looking at God who gave us hope. If you don’t realize how hopeless you are, you don’t cry out for rescue. Paul says here that we were hopeless, BUT GOD.
God rescued us from the death sentence that brought a gas chamber, the torture chamber, lethal injection, and raised us with Jesus Christ; God gave us a crown in exchange for our conviction. And He did this while we were yet sinners. As Romans 5:8 says, “God commends His love toward us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” And in the ages to come, God intends to show us the riches of His grace, just how marvelous it truly is. For, as Paul also wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:9, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” Our situation was hopeless, BUT GOD.
No, that phrase, “But God,” is not something to take lightly. If mom were here, she’d tell us that, though she is gone, we should rejoice in God’s grace. Though she fought a hard fight, faced a three-year battle with breast, lung, and then brain cancer, that’s not what we should focus on; no, what we should meditate on is God’s grace, that He crowned us even when we were convicted because of His love and grace that we so don’t deserve. That’s what we can celebrate in. Her life, as shining of a light as it was, was a life given by God. She was a gift, given to me, for 24.5 years; I love her, I adore her, and I miss her very much. But if she were here, she’d say to me, “Baby, rejoice in God’s grace, rejoice in BUT GOD. Think on these words when you get sad and miss me, reflect on these words when you wonder how long it’ll be before you see me again, reflect on what Christ has done for you and how, with His promise in our hearts and minds, we’ll one day reunite and see each other again.” And that’s what I’ve clung to every day for the last 9 years: His promise that the saints of God will reunite in our Heavenly home.
We were lost, BUT GOD. We were condemned, preparations were being made for our execution, BUT GOD stepped in and offered us grace. He looked beyond our faults and saw our needs. BUT GOD might be two words only, but they’re two strong words that characterize our entire life in Christ. They remind us of who we once were, how condemned we once were, and who we are now. Those two words, though small in number, make all the difference in the world.
Opening Selection: “I Call You Holy” (Donnie McClurkin)
“The Lord is My Light” (Dannibelle Hall)
“Be Thou Exalted” (The Rance Allen Group)
“Thank You Lord For All You’ve Done For Me” (Walter Hawkins)
Inspirational Selection: “I Believe” (Marvin Sapp)
“Someday, I’m Going Where Jesus Is” (Carlene Davis)
“They Got The Word” (Mississippi Mass Choir)
Final Selection: “Bye and Bye” (Georgia Mass Choir)