It's The "After" Picture That Matters
This morning’s passage is one of the central texts of the Protestant church. Pastors and theologians far superior to me have unlocked the power of these verses. A proper understanding of this text is absolutely crucial to the Christian faith. What is the ground of our salvation? Is it because we do more good works than bad? Can the good works of other saints of God be applied for the deficit in my account with God? What gives us hope? Why should we believe on Jesus? This passage helps answer all the central articles of our faith upon which we stand.
Exposition of the Text
The first chapter of Ephesians helps set the table to this text. It teaches us that we who have been chosen have been included in the infallible plan of God before all time, in eternity past. This teaches us that God knew all along the things that would happen. He knew about Adam’s fall and the plunging of the entire creation into chaos. He knew that He would send His Son to redeem a people unto Himself. Some preachers preach about Jesus, saying: “While He was on the cross, you were on His mind.” This statement is true enough, but it is even more vastly mind boggling that we have always from eternity past been on His mind. Paul tells us that this plan of God was currently being achieved in the believers at Ephesus through the Holy Spirit who certifies to us that we are his people.
Chapter 2 continues in this same vein and zeroes in on the present reality of how God had applied His plan to the Ephesian believers. And as this may have been a circular letter to several churches, it also speaks in general to how God is working in the church of all ages including ours today. So what Paul says here is just as true today.
Paul begins this text by reminding the Ephesians of their “before” picture. The picture was uglier than even the worst “before” picture in the weight loss commercials. They were not just sick, they were dead. Dead people are by definition beyond all human help. Paul tells the believers that they were all dead spiritually speaking because of trespasses and sins. This left them continuously bound in the cemetery. Just like a decaying body makes an ongoing testimony of physical death, their sins and trespasses also testify again and again of the spiritual deadness of all people, including once, the believer.
The believer’s life was once controlled from within by their walking according to the dictates of the world. In this they were willing to be controlled by both worldly and demonic influences. This is the lot of the unbeliever and acts as common ground to reach out to them, the believer can relate to them. What Paul also implies by the word “were” is that they are no longer dead. Nor are they to live this way any longer. Paul will deal with this extensively later in the epistle. This past condition is further emphasized in verse three. Flip Wilson is famous for the quote: “The Devil made me do it”. Paul does affirm demonic influence, but demonstrates the willingness of humanity to serve the desires of the flesh. But they are dead as far as a desire to do the will of God. The unbeliever might protest at this and say they are serving God. But if they are confronted to God who is revealed in Scripture they will show that whatever god they claim to serve, it isn’t the true God.
Verse four teaches why the believer is now different. It again begins with reminding the believer for their former dead condition. Paul wants to make sure the believer knows this. Having repeated this, Paul now paints the “after” picture for the believer. This “after” picture is orders of magnitude prettier than any of the models on television. God has made us alive in Christ. God’s eternal plan from before the beginning of time is applied in time to the believer who is transitioned from wrath to grace. It is by the grace of God that the believer has been saved. The word for saved is in a Greek tense which is called the “perfect tense”. The perfect tense emphasizes the ongoing result of an act in the past. So there is a sense of an ongoing and permanent result of having God’s grace applied. The believer is now truly alive and has eternal life. A promise that physical death cannot sever. Paul had mentioned in the first chapter that we have received a down payment of the resurrection of which inheritance we shall someday receive in full.
In verse six, Paul elaborates more fully on what being made alive entails. It is a resurrection from the dead. Jesus’ physical resurrection and exaltation to heaven is actualized in us. Because Christ has entered into the highest heaven, we who are now in Christ are there with Him in a real sense in part with the promise that at the consummation of the age we shall be physically there as well. This is our glorious future. Jesus is seated there now which means that His work is completed. Because His work is completed and we are in Him, god’s work is completed in us. We might not feel this fully at this point living in this world, but if we remember that what God has planned for us from before the beginning of time will certainly come to pass in the realm of time and space. It is as good as done.
Verse seven fills us in further on our glorious future. His work of grace in us will be permanently displayed for all the ages to come. The glorious “after” picture of the believer will be an eternal billboard to the glorious grace and kindness of God. Paul uses a compound word here which means “beyond measure”. This was provided for us by the work of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,
Verse eight is one of the verses that powered the Protestant Reformation of the church. It starts by again repeating that it is by grace we have been save to make sure that our salvation is all of grace. This time he adds “through faith”. Because grace is what is repeated, our salvation is not directly by faith but rests upon the sovereign grace of God. Faith is the means by which this grace is expressed. So it behooves us to understand what grace is. It is a word thrown around loosely apart from its proper foundation in God. Free grace has often been understood as being that God freely offers His grace which we are then free to accept or reject. But Scripture clearly teaches that free grace means that God is free to offer it to all, to none, or to some, according to His will. God is under no compulsion at all to offer grace. Rather, grace flows according to the plan and will of God from His character. It is vitally important to know this.
The way God has chosen to reveal grace to the believer is through the means of faith. The following “it is the gift of God” probably refers back to “faith”, but some see it describing “grace” as being a gift. The former seems to be what is indicated here, although “grace” by definition is a free gift. What Paul is contrasting here is faith and works. Works can never be the source of grace. Grace can never be earned. It has been described as “unmerited favor to the undeserving”. One earns a paycheck. It is not by grace, one is paid. As soon as grace is seen as a reward for works, then “grace is no longer grace”. Paul tells us in Romans that the wages of sin is death, the very death which characterized the “former” picture.
Paul lets us know in no uncertain terms that it is by grace and not by works we are saved. Works killed us. We were planted into the grave of total deadness to God A dead man cannot revive himself. A person who has a sudden case of cardiac arrest is dead. He cannot perform CPR on himself. He needs someone else to bring him back to life. Someone has to give him the gift of life. So in the similar way that the man who dropped dead is given new life by the grace of someone else, Jesus calls the dead man back to life. The difference is that the first man is restored to life in this world. In the case of the second, the gift of life is infinite in quality and everlasting in scope.
Verse nine tells us why God has chosen from eternity past the means of salvation by grace through faith instead of by works. He did it this way so that no one would boast in His presence. The theology of Ephesians is about a church that God had ordained from the beginning to which he uses the metaphors of temple and body to describe. As we delve into the book further, we will see this worked out. Let it be sufficient for now to say that the proper operation of a body requires the function of each of its members and its location within the body to be according to design. An ear makes a bad hand. A temple that has columns of unequal length is unstable to say the least. The harmony of the church is dependent on the headship of Christ and each member in its proper place. Boasting is disruptive to the church and robs God of the glory. And to rob God of His glory is to rob the church of its glory in Christ as well. This is also the purpose of the doctrine of predestination.
Verse ten sums up the passage by telling us that we are Christ’s workmanship, and that we are made for the purpose of doing good works. Good works do not save us, but flow out from the saving faith given us by God. It is important to get the relationship between faith and works right. Faith which is the gift of God’s grace alone is first. But faith is the means we come to life. And the new life fulfills the works which God has appointed us to do. We must remember elsewhere in Paul that God works in us to will and to do according to His good pleasure. Even the works we do are those which God has prepared us for. So even though we do them, it is really God who does them through us.
The “before” picture was a very ugly one. We were the walking dead. As dead people, we had no hope of life. By God’s gracious gift of faith in the finished work of Christ, we are now the walking living. We need to be about doing the works of a living faith and leave off the rotting works of death in which we once walked.
It is true that the “after” picture in heaven will be glorious where we will be that shining billboard to God’s grace. But we are also called to be witnesses in this world that others might ask the reason for the hope within us. This means we need to be billboards in this age too. God has appointed us for this work of proclamation of the Gospel. He did not call angels to announce the finished work of Christ to a dead world. He called us to proclaim the words of life to it. God spoke and the world came into existence. God has spoken fully and finally in the last days by the person of His Son Jesus Christ that new life the dead may receive, a life without limit.
God has raised up His church and prepared us to speak His words of life. These words are not the words of worldly wisdom, but the powerful life giving words of the Gospel. Let us be about the Father’s business as we eagerly await our title clear.