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But God!

Tom Pennington Ephesians 2:4


This morning we're going to step away from our study of the book of Romans. Lord willing, next Sunday we'll come back. We've just begun what will be, I'm sure, a multi-year study, that's an understatement, through the book of Romans. But this morning as we look to the Lord's Table, I want to step away from Romans because as I've been meditating on that initial expression in Romans 1, "…the gospel of God…" and on God's initiative in the gospel, I just can't stay away from one of my favorite New Testament passages. It's one that we studied together now some six years ago. It's the passage that shaped my early Christian life and my understanding of Christian doctrine more than any other passage.

It's Ephesians 2:1-10, where I want us to turn this morning as we prepare our hearts for communion. If you're a Christian, Ephesians 2 is your spiritual biography. It describes how God, by an act of His sovereign grace, brought you out of spiritual death and made you alive; how He rescued you spiritually. We can reduce the powerful message of this passage to one simple sentence, and this would be it: salvation is entirely a work of God from beginning to end.

If you miss this, and you miss it badly enough, you can't be a Christian, if you believe that your works and your merit add to your acceptance before God. But you can even be a believer who understands that you don't gain a right standing before God based on anything you do, and yet still believe that you contribute in some way to your salvation. And if you do that, you will become thoroughly man-centered, you will take some of the credit, and you will steal glory from God. Under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, Paul believed that it was crucial for the Ephesians and for us to understand what God did when He saved us. And so, Paul sets out in these ten verses to explain the dramatic change that has occurred to every believer and he explains that change in three simple movements. They're easily recognizable there in Ephesians 2: in verses 1-3, we could describe that movement as what we were; Verses 4- 6, what God did; and verses 7-10, why God did it.

In the first three verses of this chapter, Paul reminds us of what we used to be, or what we were. I want you to notice how he makes this clear. Notice the key expression at the end of verse 3, "by nature." Everything Paul rehearses in the first three verses of this chapter is what you were and I was "…by nature…." Notice he also uses in verses 2 and 3 the word "formerly." If you're in Christ, this describes who and what you were "formerly" before Christ.

Now, he begins in explaining what we were by identifying our true condition before Christ. Notice how he begins in verse 1, "And you were dead…" There was our condition; that was your condition, my condition before we came to Christ. We were spiritually lifeless; we could not know God; we could not respond to God. We may have been religious, we may have prayed, we may have done various things that have a religious overtone to them, but in God's perspective we were dead to Him. That was our condition. Notice the root cause of this condition, verse 1 goes on to say, "And you were dead… [notice the marginal note there in verse 1, by reason of] your trespasses and sins." Truth is, we were twice dead, because Romans 5 says we were dead because we were born in Adam, and Adam, as our representative, sinned in our place, and we were born spiritually dead. In Adam, all died. But Paul, here, says we're also spiritually dead by reason of our own trespasses and sins, by our own acts of rebellion against God and His law. We were spiritually dead. So, our condition was we were dead; the root cause of that condition was by reason of our trespasses and sins.

Now notice verses 2 and 3, the practical results of our condition. We walked, Paul says, or we were in lockstep, with three powerful forces. First of all, we were enslaved to the world. Notice according to verse 2 we "…walked according to the course of this world…", literally, "according to the course of this age." In other words, we conducted our lives in lockstep with the mindset, the values of our times. Look around you, the people who live around you who are not in Christ, they are in a serious form of group think. They are being led down the path by the mindset and the values of our age, and, before Christ, that was true of us as well.

We were also enslaved, not only to the world, but we were enslaved to the devil. Notice verse 2 adds that we walked "…according to the prince of the power of the air…." That's a reference to Satan. He's also the prince of the spirit, that is the mindset, the zeitgeist, of the world. The spirit of the age that's "…now working in the sons of disobedience," that is, in all unbelievers. In other words, we were enslaved to the devil. Isn't that what Jesus said? He said, "You are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father you will do." That's true of every unbeliever, and before you were in Christ, that was true of you as well. You were in lockstep with the mindset of the age, you were in lockstep with Satan himself, and so was I.

Notice, we were also enslaved to the flesh. Verse 3, "Among them [that is, among the sons of disobedience, among the other unbelievers] we [now Paul adds himself here. Remember Paul was a Pharisee, but he says among the sons of disobedience, we] too all formerly lived [and here's what our life was like, we lived] in the[cravings] of our flesh…," the cravings of our fallenness, and that took two paths: we indulged the desires of the flesh, here flesh means the body, and the mind. So we had this package of fallenness that controlled us, that enslaved us, and we lived to satisfy the desires or the will of our bodies and the will of our minds, and we were driven, enslaved by these things.

But it gets worse. Notice the end of verse 3, God's perspective of us. We've seen our true condition, we were dead. The root cause, by reason of our trespasses and sins, the practical results, we were enslaved to the world around us, to Satan himself, and to our flesh. But notice God's perspective, the end of verse 3, "…and [we] were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest." God saw us, not as being His children, but as being the "children of wrath." In other words, it was coming on us as certain as if it were our middle name. This is God's perspective, and that's chilling to stop and think that that's how God thought of me, before Christ. That's how God thought of you, before Christ. This is what we were.

Now, we need to ask ourselves this question. Why does Paul need to take them, and us, back down that path, back to what we used to be? Because you cannot fully appreciate what God has done, and live in light of what God has done in your life, if you don't first understand what you were when God found you, what you were before. You see, Paul wants us to see that our spiritual circumstances were utterly hopeless. You see that in those first three verses? Let me put it this way: before Christ, if we wanted to help ourselves, spiritually, here's what we would have had to do. First of all, we would have had to raise ourselves from spiritual death. Secondly, we would have had to erase a lifetime record of trespasses and sins. Or in the words of Nicodemus, we would have had to go back into our mother's womb and start all over again. We would have had to free ourselves from slavery, slavery to the thinking of our times, slavery to the devil's spiritual system of religious deception, slavery to the dominating and controlling power of our own flesh.

And even if you could have done that, even if we could have done these things, as huge as they are, there would have still been one unsurmountable obstacle, an ocean we could never swim, a canyon we could never cross, an Everest we could never climb. Because we would have to satisfy the just wrath of God against all of the sins we have committed, and if we could do all of that, that just gets us back to ground level.That just gets us back to zero, because God's standard is perfection. So if we had the power, and we don't, to obliterate our past, to start our lives over from scratch, to reconcile ourselves to God, in order to truly be acceptable to God, we would need to live our lives from that time on and forever without ever sinning once again, without ever failing to love God perfectly, without ever failing to love others as we love ourselves. That's the standard.

No wonder down in verse 12, Paul says, "we had no hope". All we could do was wait in dread of an eternity of God's anger and punishment against our sins. But into the hopelessness of our situation, into the bleakness of our spiritual condition, come the two most powerful words found in any language. Look at verse 4, "But God…." With those two words, Paul begins the second great part of this paragraph. We've seen what we were. Now he begins to show us what God did. This new section begins with what one author calls "a mighty adversative." "But God…." In Greek, the word "but" is a tiny, two-letter word, but these two Greek letters introduce us to the wonderful news of God's divine grace. It marks a contrast between our past and our future, between our past and our present. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, "These two words, in and of themselves, in a sense contain the whole of the gospel." "But God…."

The contrast between the first three verses of this chapter and the first two words of verse 4, the contrast is like the contrast between darkness and light, between white and black, between heaven and hell, between God and man, between life and death. In the first three verses, Paul looks back to show us what we used to be, and, frankly, it is an ugly, disgusting spiritual portrait. But beginning with verse 4, Paul reminds us of how we as Christians came to be so different today. "But God…." Those two little words teach us four crucial lessons about salvation as we prepare our thoughts and hearts for communion. I want you to think with me about the little words and their powerful lessons. Four crucial lessons about salvation from those two words: "But God…."

The first lesson they teach us is that salvation is a divine initiative. Those two words remind us that God is the One who takes the initiative to reconcile man to Himself, and He's always taken the initiative. Think about it this way: after Adam sinned, what did Adam do? Did he run to God? Did he run to find the God that he walked with in the cool of the garden every day? No, he ran from God, and he hid himself. God had to come looking. God had to come seeking. He had to take the initiative. The rest of the Old Testament is really a story of God seeking sinners, taking the initiative to rescue them. And oh, by the way, even in the Old Testament we learn that wasn't just going to be for the Jews. It was going to be for all nations.

In Isaiah 49:6, we have a passage about the Messiah. It's one of the Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah, and listen to what God said to Messiah in Isaiah 49:6, "It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; [In other words, it's not enough for You just to rescue the Jewish people,] I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth." God says, "I'm going on a search and rescue mission and it's larger than the boundaries of Israel. It's the whole planet."

The New Testament is filled with similar examples of God seeking out sinners. I love the story of Zaccheus. There is no more powerful illustration in the life of Christ, although there are many, seems to me there's no more powerful one than Jesus coming to the base of that tree, calling Zaccheus down, and saying "we're going to your house today." Do you know how that story ends? Luke 19:10, Jesus says, "The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost." "I came to pursue and to rescue those who were lost, and Zaccheus you are a perfect illustration of that search and rescue mission."

In Luke 15, Jesus gives three powerful parables, illustrations of his seeking lost people. Do you remember the story of the woman with the lost coin, and the man with the lost sheep, and the father who had two lost sons: the prodigal who strayed into the far country representing the of worst of sinners, and the elder brother who was every bit as lost in his self-righteousness. All three of those parables show Christ seeking lost people, and God Himself, rejoicing when they're found. You understand that God is still seeking sinners today? How does He do that? He does it through the gospel message.

Turn to 2 Thessalonians 2:13. Paul writes, "But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation [there's election in eternity past, and He accomplished that salvation] through sanctification by the Spirit [that is, the setting apart by the Spirit] and faith in the truth." Now watch verse 1: "It was for this [or to this goal that God] …called you [how did God call you?] through our gospel…." If you're a Christian, it's because one time you heard the gospel. The Father was in that gospel message, calling you to Himself. That's called the effectual call. We'll actually look at that more next week in the book of Romans. There was a time when the Father called you through the gospel, and you came. God alone initiates man's rescue.

Now, this is so important to understand because most people have a flawed understanding of the nature of salvation. In fact, if you ask the average Christian even to explain salvation, here's what he'll do: he'll say, "Well, it's like this. Imagine that you're on the deck of a boat out in the middle of the sea and suddenly, accidentally, you fall overboard; and you find yourself treading water in a huge ocean, in the middle of a raging storm. Your only hope," they will say, "is for God to throw you a life preserver, and God is so good that He does that." They say, "He throws the life preserver of the gospel message and you see that message, you see that life preserver, and you fight, and you claw yourself to the life preserver, and you lock your arms around it and God hauls you into the boat using that life preserver." That's not an accurate picture of salvation at all. The actual truth is far different.

You see, based on what we've already learned from Ephesians 2, imagine this: imagine if you were caught at sea, floating hopelessly in the storm, and you were already dead. You have no ability to see your rescuer, you cannot fight your way to the life preserver, you have no strength to lock your arms around the truth that will rescue you. Instead, you are sinking hopelessly without the slightest ability to aid in your rescue; in fact, you are completely unaware that you're even in danger. You don't even know that you need rescue, because you are spiritually dead. That's what we were like when God found us. That's why the most beautiful words in the world to you should be those two little words that begin verse 4, "But God…." When we did not, when we could not initiate our own rescue, God did. Our salvation is the result of a divine initiative.

There's a second immense lesson in those two little words. Not only is salvation a divine initiative, but salvation is a sovereign act. You see in verses 1 to 3, we are the ones acting and every time we acted, we forged another link in the chains that bound us. But beginning with verse 4, God steps in. It's interesting, verses 1-10 of Ephesians 2 is one sentence in the Greek text. There is no subject to the sentence in the first three verses. The subject of the sentence doesn't come till verse 4 and it's the word 'God.' God is the subject of this sentence. He is the sole subject of this sentence. God, notice verse 4 and verse 5, God made us alive. He is the one acting to rescue us, and He acts alone. Salvation is a work of God from beginning to end.

Now this is very important to understand because there are four basic views of how man is spiritually rescued. One view says man doesn't need to be spiritually rescued at all; he's basically pretty good. He doesn't need rescue, he needs a little help, he needs to be propped up a little bit, and he needs, you know, some urging to do the right thing, but he doesn't need rescue. A second view says, no that's not true, we understand fallenness, we understand that we're not what we ought to be. But the second view says man is solely responsible for his own rescue. Yes, we need rescue, but you can do it. This is salvation by human works and human merit.

A third view says, no, you can't do it on your own. Man cooperates with God to accomplish his spiritual rescue. This is called synergism, it means God and man work together to accomplish our spiritual rescue. Neither of us can accomplish it alone, so God and man must work together. It says, listen, God's done His part; He's provided the gospel and now He's just sitting in heaven wringing His hands hoping someone will believe it. You now have to do your part and God and man, working together, bring salvation.

The fourth view, and the biblical view, is that God alone can spiritually rescue a man from death. It's called monergism: "mono" meaning one, "erg," a unit of work, "one working,"- monergism. God alone acts to effect man's spiritual rescue. That's the significance of those two little words: "But God…." This passage makes it clear that God's sovereign act alone accomplishes our salvation. God made you alive; couldn't be any clearer than that. All human efforts are futile.

By the way, this is why when you really begin to understand your condition in verses 1 to 3, you remember this: if you're in Christ, there is a time when you begin to get it, you begin to see your true spiritual condition. And where does that drive you? It drives you to become a beggar before God: "God be merciful to me, the sinner." Because you realize, there's nothing I can do; God has to do this; God must act. Look at Ephesians 2:5, "…(by grace…[ by this quality in God that delights in doing good to those who deserve exactly the opposite.] …by grace you have been saved)…." Verse 8, "For by grace you have been…[rescued] through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast."

Do you understand why this had to be a sovereign act? James Montgomery Boice writes, "We're like swimmers, drowning in a vast ocean of cold water; or explorers sinking in a deep bog of quicksand; we're like astronauts lost in the black, hostile void of outer space; we're like prisoners awaiting execution. But there is good news: God has intervened to rescue us through the work of His divine Son, Jesus Christ." You see, now you understand why God commanded Gabriel to tell Joseph to name the baby, Jesus. Jesus is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew name, Joshua, Yeshua, and it means "Yahweh saves." He's the one who rescues. That is the reality that we have to understand.

God acted to accomplish man's spiritual rescue in Christ. In fact, Jesus came for that purpose. Listen to John 3:17, God sent His Son into the world so "…that the world might be saved [rescued] through Him." John 12:47, Jesus says, I came "…to save the world." "I came to rescue the world." Now, in the New Testament, to save, or to rescue refers primarily to the personal, spiritual rescue of someone from their sin and the wrath of God that that sin deserves. The most important point is this word "to save" is who does it. You don't save yourself; you don't rescue yourself; God rescues. It is a sovereign, monergistic act.

Now that brings us to the third lesson, these two words "But God…" teaches. Not only is salvation a divine initiative, a sovereign act, but it's also a comprehensive rescue. God's deliverance, His rescue, is comprehensive. Look again at verses 1 to 3. That was our condition, and Christ rescues us from all of those things. He rescues us from spiritual death unto life; He rescues us from trespasses and sins, unto good works; He rescues us from slavery into freedom in Christ. Our slavery to the world has been broken; our slavery to the devil is over. We have a new Father. Our long, hard slavery to the flesh is no longer a necessity for us; we can obey God. But as wonderful as it is to be rescued from those things, none of them is what we most need to be rescued from. We most need to be rescued from what comes at the end of verse 3: the wrath of God, God's wrath against our sin.

In John 3,you have the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16. But that chapter ends by saying this: for the one who doesn't believe, the one who doesn't know Christ, the wrath of God is abiding on him. That's a, terrifying thought, honestly. Before I came to Christ, every day I lived, the wrath of God hung over my head like the sword of Damocles, like a thunderstorm ready to break loose on me at any moment. But that wrath, Jesus tells us, will be shown in its greatest fury when sinners stand individually before God. I want you to think about this. Stop for a moment and let this settle into your minds. Apart from Christ, you would stand individually before God your Creator and give an account for everything you have done in your life, and it would not go well. If you want to know how it would go, read Revelation 20 where John the Apostle describes the Great White Throne and everyone is judged out of the books, the record of their lives, and nobody gets a pass. 'Oh, well, you lived a pretty good life.' No, it says in that passage everyone at that judgment is thrown into the lake of fire.

The wrath of God is coming. Again, we don't like to think about that, but John the Baptist said "flee from the wrath to come." Paul in Romans 2 said, "…because of your stubbornness and [your] unrepentant heart you are storing up [God's] wrath for yourself [when]…the day of wrath…" comes. In Ephesians 5, Paul's talking about sexual sin, sins of the thoughts, sins of action. And he says, "Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God…[will come] … upon the sons of disobedience." It's coming. You can ignore it, can act like it's not going to happen, but the Bible warns it's coming.

So, Christian, understand this, before Christ, we all lived under the shadow of that. We all lived, as it were, on death row, just waiting for God's sentence to be finalized and for the sentence to be carried out. But God in His grace made a way for us to escape His wrath, and it's in Christ. This is really what salvation is all about. It's being rescued from God's just wrath against my sin. Romans 5:9, "…we shall be saved from the wrath of God through… [Jesus]." 1 Thessalonians 1:10, Jesus "…rescues us from the wrath to come." 1 Thessalonians 5:9, "…God has not destined us [who believe] for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ."

Christian, you have to look forward, not to the wrath of God, but to God's eternal kindness. Look at Ephesians 2:7, "…in the ages to come… [He's going to show you] …the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus." You see the difference a few verses make? The difference is in those two little words, "But God." They mean our salvation is a divine initiative; it's a sovereign act; it's a comprehensive rescue; and, most importantly, it's a rescue from the wrath of God.

The final lesson we learn from those two little words is that salvation is a future certainty. Christian, there's great encouragement and comfort for you here. If God initiated your rescue and if your rescue was a sovereign act of God, and it was, then He will finish what He started. I love the truth of Romans 8:29. Paul writes, "…those whom …[God] foreknew, [those whom He chose to Himself] …He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son…." When God chose you in eternity past, when He saved you in time, He had already decided that someday your character would bear the stamp of the character of Jesus Christ. That's why he ends that passage by saying, "look, if He chose you, He called you; if He called you, He justified you; and if He justified you, He's going to glorify you." It's going to happen.

Philippians 1:6 chapter 1 verse 6, Paul says, "…I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus." If God started the work in you, if He's the one who rescued you, He will finish what He started. There was an old Scottish woman who was near death and her pastor was quizzing her on how sure she was that she was in Christ and would be in heaven. And he asked her, "Now where are you going to be when you die?" And she said, "I'm going to be in heaven." And he said, "Well, how do you know that?" And she went on to describe the truth of the gospel that God had saved her in Christ and Christ had paid for her sins. And he said, "But, what if God doesn't keep His word? What if He doesn't save you? What if you end up in hell after all?" And this dear old saint said, "That'll never happen." And he said, "Well why not?" And she said, "Because God has much more at stake than I do. His honor, His reputation, His glory: He will finish what He started."

That's absolutely right. That's why Jude finishes his little letter, "Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, [during this life] and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy [He can do that; He is able to do that] to the only God our Savior, [our Rescuer] through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen." James Montgomery Boice was right. He said, "If you understand those two words,"But God…," if you really understand them, they will save your soul." But even as a Christian, as you will recall them daily and live in the light of those two little words, they will transform your life completely. "But God…" God accomplished our rescue in Christ on the cross, and that's what we celebrate in the Lord's Table.

Our Father, we thank You that you are a Savior and that You would have come up with such a plan, at such cost to Yourself. Father, we rejoice in Your goodness, in Your grace toward us in Christ. Thank you for what we've been reminded of even this morning, that You initiated our salvation. That it was a sovereign act, that You even gave us repentance as a gift, and faith as a gift to be able to respond to the gospel as You were in that gospel, drawing us to Yourself. Father, we thank You for the amazing truth that You are a Savior, that You are a Rescuer by nature, and we celebrate that today, even in the Lord's table. Lord, help us to live in light of it, help us to remember even as we leave this place, all that we used to be, what we were when You found us. And remind us, and drill into our minds and hearts, those two precious words, "But God…." We thank You, oh Father, in Jesus' name. Amen.