Imagine for a moment that you have been accused of a crime, convicted, and sentenced to receive the death penalty. How hopeless would you feel? What would it be like to a dead person walking? What would it be like if the judge who condemned you suddenly freed and released you from this sentence while you were alone in your cell? How could you begin to describe this new freedom? What kind of love would you have for that judge? What outlook would you now have on life? In today’s sermon, we will see how we were guilty of the death penalty and not only sentenced to die, but we were condemned to the ultimate, unending death – hell. We will also learn the story of our release from death row because you are raised in Christ! Even though you were deserving of death, you have been given life.
- Death is what you deserved
Paul starts our reading in a dark place. “As for you, you were dead in your trespasses and sin.” Imagine being the Ephesians hearing this letter read for the first time. Paul certainly wasn’t beating around the bush. Paul was writing to the Ephesians urging them to turn from their idolatrous ways, as the Ephesians had been guilty of worshipping false gods – specifically, an idol by the name of Artemis. So, Paul had to remind them of God’s eternal plan to save humanity not through earthly gods, but through Jesus. But here, Paul is describing what God saw in the Ephesians before they knew the saving work of Christ. Previously, God saw them as dead. Paul is telling the Ephesians, and he explains to us today what the cause of this death was. We were dead because of our transgressions and sin against God.
Paul describes the cause of this death as those spiritually lost to sin. Think of throwing darts on a dartboard. God demands that we live perfect lives. That we hit bullseye after bullseye, but when we sin, we fall short of that bullseye and miss the mark of perfection. Paul describes that the Ephesians’ cause of death was also by their transgressions. You might think of transgressions as a sign that says, “No trespassing, violators will be prosecuted.” A homeowner might put this sign in their front yard to let everyone know that there will be consequences for stepping over property lines. In the same way, whenever we break God’s law, we “step over” the line of perfection and sin against God. We have all been guilty of stepping over this line in our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. Death is what we deserved. The point? Miss the dart board – and your friends will laugh at you. Miss God’s perfection – and your Creator will condemn you!
And so, Paul explains that our trespasses and sin are the cause of spiritual death. Paul continues, “in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.”
This news from Paul gets worse. Paul is saying that we were not only dead, but they were hostile to God. We have been hostile to God since we were born. We were “children of wrath.” Paul shows us that we were responsible for our own spiritual death. Paul says here that YOU were tempted by the ways of the world and gave into them. YOU gave in to the ruler of the air, temptations of the Devil. Paul comes with the hard-hitting reality that YOU gave in to the cravings of your sinful flesh. If you’re anything like me, sometimes you might crave a midnight snack before you go to bed. Maybe it’s something sweet, something salty, you might be desperate and eat anything in sight. Paul says that our sinful flesh as one who CRAVES sin. As Americans and consumers, it’s too easy to become unhappy with what we have. We become so dissatisfied with how God wants us to live that we CRAVE the temptations the Devil puts in front of us. We drink his spiritual poison by giving into those temptations time and time again. What Paul wanted for the Ephesians and wants for us is to look in the mirror and see how we are our own worst enemy. We were not only dead in sin. We, in sin, dug our own grave.
Of course, Paul isn’t saying that we were physically dead. He wasn’t addressing the Ephesians as though they were physically buried 6 feet underground! Instead, think of Paul’s address as a TV show called Walking Dead. If you haven’t heard of it, The Walking Dead is a science-fiction show about dead people that have come back to life as zombies. This is how Paul described our previous relationship to God! In God’s eyes, when we lived without Christ, we were the “Walking Dead.” We lived like so many others in this world. We walked and talked like we were alive, but spiritually, we were as dead as a doornail. We could only do what dead people do. Nothing. And so, we were deserving of death – far, far removed from God who is Life!
- Life is what you have been given
Even though we could do nothing for God, even though we craved open rebellion against him, even though we were unlovable to a holy God, Paul gives so much hope with just two words, “But God.” These words begin a section of Scripture where God gives us the solution to our problem of spiritual death. With these words, Paul shifts his focus from our sins which killed us to the life God gives to us.
“4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”
Love between human beings is often transactional. We love while expecting to receive love in return. In the early 1990s, Gary Chapman wrote a book called “The Five Love Languages.” He wrote this book to help couples discover their love language or the best way that you can express love to your spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend. In his book, he lays out 5 generic categories like words of affirmation, acts of service, or quality time spent with one another. In finding their personal “love language,” Chapman infers that couples will be more equipped to give and receive love in their relationship.
But God’s love is different. God’s love isn’t “transactional.” God’s love is infinitely better. We have nothing to offer God. There are no words of affirmation we can offer God. Everything we talked about in the first 3 verses of our reading for today prove that. No amount of quality time can earn God’s love. There are no acts of service we can do for God that make us more worthy to receive love from our Creator. But God’s love is a powerful one-way expression from a perfect God to members of the spiritual “Walking Dead.” This love is not self-serving in any way. This expression of love is found in God’s mercy. God was merciful to us by not giving us the death we deserved, but he sent Jesus in our place to suffer for the sins we commit each day. God has made us alive with Christ through the free gift of grace.
Our Gospel reading for today is perhaps the most well-known section in the Bible. John 3:16 is often called the “Gospel in a nutshell.” It so beautifully shows God’s love in action. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
In his mercy, God knew that we couldn’t save ourselves. The only solution to the problem of sin was God himself. So he was moved to take action to save his lost creation. God’s free gift of sending his Son was God’s ultimate example of grace toward sinners. Now that Christ has been raised from the dead, God’s gift of grace continues to change our lives forever. “8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—.”
When you think of grace, you might think way back to your days in Catechism class, or back to a Bible Information Class with one of the Pastors here at Christ the Lord and remember that grace is God’s undeserved love for sinners. But think about what that means. When you were growing up and received presents on your birthday, what did you do to deserve those gifts? Nothing. While grace is also a gift, there is a big difference between birthday gifts we receive and grace. We receive gifts from those who love us because of our relationship to a person giving a gift. Where God’s gift of grace exists, it has nothing to do with us. We cannot choose to receive God’s grace. There was nothing God saw in you or me that caused Him to give us the gift of salvation.
Grace doesn’t always make sense to us. As Americans, we typically like to think that if we want something, we need to earn it. But how often have we proved time and time again that we deserve nothing from Him? Have you ever betrayed the confidence of someone who trusted you, said something so spiteful to someone you love? Neglected your sins for so long that you are unsure if God could forgive you? Then dear friend, listen to Paul’s words today and find comfort that grace is not dependent on you. God has forgiven ALL your sins. Through the Holy Spirit, you can be sure that Jesus has paid for all of your sins and your faith is genuine. God’s gift of grace works miracle after miracle because of Jesus’ resurrection.
Because this work of faith and conversion is all God’s doing, he deserves all the credit. Verse 9 says, “9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Paul makes it clear that the miracles of grace and faith are all God’s doing. Therefore, we cannot boast about them. When we boast about something, we claim it as something we have done. By ourselves, we are as good as dead. In Christ, we are free to live because the power of God has raised us to spiritual life. In faith, we live our lives as we recognize that God has given us new life and praise him in our works to glorify our Savior and God.
About 500 years ago, a monk named Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. While he didn’t necessarily sound “Lutheran” in those theses, he knew that he was deserving of death. A year later, Luther had time to study the Scriptures and discover God’s gift of grace in the Bible. At the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther wrote, “The law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.” Because of grace, you have been raised with Christ! His work is done. His grace is yours. Believe it!