by The Rt. Rev. Daniel R. Morse
In the last sermon we looked at a somewhat depressing description of the human condition [The Human Condition]. As I said, I was not going out of my way to be depressing and St. Paul was not going out of his way to depress us. The intention, rather, was to give us a realistic and accurate description of the human condition so that we might be in a position to appreciate God’s compassion.
After that somewhat gloomy description of the human condition—which IS gloomy and depressing—we come now to two of the most wonderful words in the whole Bible. They are the first two words in verse 4: “But God.” If we spend all of our time talking about the terrible condition that we are in and then say, “But we can’t help it” or “But we’re trying as hard as we can” or “But God shouldn’t be so mean,” then there is no hope, because those kinds of answers leave us in our terrible condition.
The “But God” here has the same sort of feeling you might have had if you have ever heard someone say, “Yes, I know all of that. Yes, I agree with all of that. But . . . .” And everything that follows the but is a denial of all that they said they agreed with. So the “but” serves as an extreme contrast or contradiction to everything that has previously been said. In this chapter of Ephesians the “But God” functions in the same way.
The two words “But God” introduce the whole Christian message, because those two words tell us very eloquently of God’s intervention. We have a gloomy picture of the human condition. Not only are we dead, but we are slaves in our deadness, and we are under the wrath and the condemnation of God. All those things are true.
But God intervenes. And those two words tell us that our hope and our rescue come wholly from outside of ourselves. He does not say, “But you can do something about it by repenting, by believing, by changing your situation.” He does not suggest to us that the solution or the deliverance comes from within us. Paul introduces something entirely new, and yet it is connected to what goes before because it is the solution to the problem.
First of all, let us consider what is true of us in our sin. Secondly, the specific teaching of the Gospel embodied in the words “But God.” Thirdly, we will make a few applications.
I. Man in His Sin
As we saw in the previous sermon, man is dead spiritually. He is governed by his own sinful mind, and he is dominated by an evil power outside of himself. As a result, he is also under the wrath of God. Man’s condition is utterly hopeless. He is utterly unable to do anything for himself.
This is the only real and adequate explanation for strife. In the book of James, James raises this question: Where do wars come from? Wars come from the lusts that war in our hearts. That is a general principle of the Word of God. It does not make any difference if we are talking about nations, families, races, or individuals.
No amount of education, and no amount of fear-mongering will stop sins from being repeated. We will never outgrow our need of policemen. If our world is to be put right, it must be done by God. And that is why the Apostle Paul begins verse 4 by saying “But God.”
It is only when we start with a realistic assessment of the human condition that we are prepared to appreciate what St. Paul means when he says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
But God. . . .
II. What Has God Done?
First let us consider a few things these words do not mean. The reason it is necessary to speak of what these words do not mean is that there are so many errors that are put forth in the name of the Church and in the name of Christianity. St. Paul wants us to know that there is no solution in anything that we do—patriotism, courage, good deeds, self-sacrifice, or Christian virtues. The solution is not there. The solution is nowhere to be found except in the power of God through the Holy Spirit. The only hope is in “But God.” It is not in anything that we can do, but in what God does. There is no solution until God, by his Holy Spirit, changes us by the Holy Spirit. The Christian message for the world is to call the world to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. That is what the world needs to hear. That is what the Christian Church can offer to the world that nobody else can give.
God has done something. That is the beauty of the Lord’s Supper. It may seem strange to mention the Lord’s Supper at this point because St. Paul is not talking about the Lord’s Supper, but the beauty of the Lord’s Supper is that it declares that God has done something. The Lord’s Supper, week by week, gives eloquent testimony to the fact that we are sinners, that Jesus Christ had to die on the cross if there was to be any deliverance for sinners. God sent his Son. God acted. The Lord’s Supper, therefore, is not a sad time as much as it is a time of rejoicing and celebration because God has acted to do away with sin.
And what has God done? First of all, God restrains evil. For instance, consider the Tower of Babel. As the world began to be populated again after the Flood, all the people spoke one language and had one society. God told them to split up and spread out in the earth and replenish the earth. But they said, “No, we don’t want to do that. We want to stay here. Instead of building a world that is honoring to God, we want to build a city and a tower that will honor us. We want to be God walking on the earth, so we are not going to do what God says. We are going to make a name for ourselves.” God saw that sinful, wicked man, if left to himself and able without any kind of restraint to plan and to implement his plans, would create hell on earth. So what did God do? He confounded their language so that they could not understand each other anymore. He forced them to go their separate ways.
Just think how sinfu1 our world would be if we could get the Russians, the Americans, the Chinese, the French, the British, and the Arabs with all their power to agree to use their power for exactly the same purpose, just think what a hell we could create. God divided nations and kept them in conflict with one another in order to restrain evil. That is the message of the Tower of Babel.
The message of the Day of Pentecost is that God now in Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit, and through the proclamation of the Gospel is undoing the effects of the Tower of Babel. It is not through diplomacy, but it is only through Jesus Christ and through the preaching of the Gospel that there can be true unity, true peace, and true love in the earth. That is the first thing God is doing. He is intervening even now in the present time, to restrain wickedness in the earth by various means.
The second thing that God is doing is delivering individuals from the wrath to come. He is acting by the Holy Spirit to regenerate sinners—that is, to give them new hearts and to deliver them from the wrath to come. This is not an appeal to individuals to reform themselves, but it is a statement of fact. God has acted. So, for instance, when Jesus speaks to Nicodemus in John 3 and says, “You must be born again,” he is not telling Nicodemus that there is something he must do. And Nicodemus understood that very well. He said, “How can that be? How can I climb back into my mother’s womb and be born again now that I am an old man?” And Jesus says, “Right, Nicodemus. You got the point. You can’t do that. The Holy Spirit must do that to you.” Often when people say, “You must be born again,” they mean for the sinner to do something. They say, “Be born again,” as though this were a command to the sinner. But, as a matter of fact, this is not an admonition to the individual to do anything. It is a statement of fact that the Holy Spirit must work in the person’s life.
The third positive thing that God has done is that he has made us citizens of a new kingdom, the kingdom of Jesus Christ. He has taken us from that dark and gloomy slavery that we were in, and he has put us into the kingdom of his Dear Son. So here is the Gospel: God restrains our evil. God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, delivers us from the condemnation to come, and God puts us into the kingdom of his Dear Son.
The first application is that we must not, cannot, and do not pin our hopes for the future or rest our affections on this world. The Bible teaches us all the way through that Christians are pilgrims in this world. We do not seek an enduring city here. We always have our eye on Heaven. It is our goal, and we are moving in that direction. We view ourselves as pilgrims, and we do not trust in any of the measures that this world may devise in order to bring peace or happiness.
The second application is that because man is as he is and because it takes the intervention of a sovereign God to change sinners, then we are never surprised by what happens. We expect sinners to kill each other, to steal from each other, to be violent with each other, to lie, and to hate. We expect these things because that is the nature of the world. It is a sinful world, and we do not expect good from the world. In a sense, they cannot help it. That does not excuse what they do or make it right. That does not excuse our sins or make them right. But we do not expect them to do any more than that, and we are not surprised by the outworking of sin, because we know that they are dead and enslaved to sin.
The third application is that the Christian is more than a conqueror in Jesus Christ. Paul tells us that in Romans 8. When Paul says in Ephesians 2, “But God has made you alive,” he does not mean that God found you dead in your sins and sprayed perfume on you to make your dead body smell nice. He says that God made you alive. In Jesus Christ the Christian is alive forever.
So as we face the difficulties of our lives— whether they are on the national level or on the individual level, whether they are the problems that we face as a church or the problems that we face as families— we do not draw on our power, or on our abilities. The solution to all our problems is “But God.” We look at ourselves and all our difficulties, and temptations, and we take very seriously what Paul says in the first three verses of Ephesians 2, where he tells us that we are dead in sin, enslaved to sin, and unable to get out of it. There is no solution—“But God.” So we turn to God and find his answers in Christ.
The last application is that because God has intervened to deliver us from sin and all its consequences, we are safe in the hands of God. We will not fear what man can do to us, because we are heirs of glory. Do you think that God would go to all the trouble to find us in our dead, enslaved, condemned condition; join us to Jesus Christ; and then ten years later say, “What’s the use? I give up?” No, we are safe in the hands of God.
We can come to God and say, “Lord, you have displayed your almighty power on the cross of Jesus Christ and by the outpouring of your Holy Spirit to join me to Jesus Christ and to raise me from the dead, to give me new life. And I know now that because of that you will not leave me. You will not abandon your work half-finished, but you will finish your work. I am an heir of glory. I am safe in your hands.”
If you were depressed and gloomy after hearing in the previous sermon what we are in and of ourselves, let us now rejoice greatly because we are redeemed by Christ, and carried in the eternal arms of God.