- This, too, shall pass. (Old English poem, Deor)
- Moderation in all things (Aristotle)
- By the Skin of Your Teeth (Job 19:20)
- To thine own self be true (Hamlet)
- Fly in the Ointment (Ecclesiastes 10:1)
- How the Mighty have Fallen (2 Samuel 1:19)
- God helps those who help themselves (Aesop’s fables)
That last one is a bit of a common one – I have heard it used so many times to justify interesting decisions. But is it true?
No, it isn’t. The Christian life is not a meritocracy. We don’t earn our way into God’s favour or provision. Salvation is not reserved for those who strive to attain it.
If you believe it to be true, perhaps our passage this morning will challenge your thinking.
We have been journeying through Paul letter to the Ephesians and today we rest on Ephesians chapter 2 verses 1-5: [ESV]
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved
Now, structurally speaking this whole passage, verses 1-10 ,are actually 1 sentence in the original Greek but there is so much in these verses that breaking it down is beneficial.
This whole passage 1-10 is about God’s grace. Much is written about grace… God’s Riches at Christ’s expense, God giving us what we don’t deserve, the gift of God to enable us to be all that he calls us to be.
I was listening to Alan Scott, Pastor of Anaheim Vineyard preach on this and he gave a description that resonated with me; to paraphrase:
‘Grace is about more than covering our past – it is divine enabling to open us up to a preferable future. It leads us into our destiny. We are not simply saved from sin, we are saved for a purpose. ‘Saved from’ is too small, there is more because God’s grace is so lavish.’
For some of us here, that thought alone is enough for this morning. It’s a wonderful truth to ponder upon – because God’s grace is so lavish we have been saved for a purpose.
In the opening verses of chapter 2, Paul is setting up the foundations of his argument that it is all about God and his love for us.
He focuses on our hopelessness and helplessness without Christ – in doing so, he removes any chance that we will claim that any success or transformation is rooted in our own power. It is a frank assessment of our human nature and our utter need for God.
In chapter 1 we discovered all the blessing we have inherited being ‘in Christ’, in this passage, we discover our condition ‘outside of Christ,’ dead.
That phrase ‘God helps those who help themselves’ is actually from the Greeks. From the idea of needing to appease gods and demi-gods in order to win some favour. Our God could not be more different! Throughout this section we see the opposite is true. It’s not just different, it’s the opposite.
And going even further – it’s not just the opposite that applies to those who follow Jesus – our God helps those who reject him or break his laws. This is a God who knows our humanity and enters into it releasing lavish grace upon his children, whether they know him or not.
We heard last week of Kate & Stephen’s daughter in law being healed after they prayed, even though she doesn’t follow Jesus. Incredible grace.
This summer, Nik & I, with two of our girls went to Cumbria for a music festival. We go every year with some friends of ours and basically camp out, listening to weird music in a field for a weekend. This year, the event was held in a different place and so we had to go a different way.
Our friend is from Cumbria and so we were following him as he kind of knew the area better than us. We were travelling down this road and Nik quickly realised it was not right. It was far too long and heading in the wrong direction. Our friend kept going, willing it to be right. Eventually, they stopped, admitted it was the wrong way and we all turned around. And went back.
A very common story I am sure.
I once got very lost driving back from St Albans late at night. A road was closed and there was a diversion. I took the diversion, not registering that the road I was advised to take went in 2 directions and after an hour, realised I was driving around the Lincolnshire wolds in the dark. It was horrible. I was lost and knew I was going the wrong way. I kind of didn’t want to stop though as I was afraid of driving through the misty wolds again. I eventually had to admit defeat and turn around.
Realising we are going the wrong way is horrible and hard. That’s just geographically.
What if we are going the wrong way morally, spiritually, practically?
What if our life decisions have lead us into a place of sexual sin, financial difficulty, marital stress… the list goes on. What do we do then?
What if we’re travelling a road and know it’s not the right way, God’s way or even a healthy way? What if the road we’re travelling is actually quite enjoyable but deep down, we know it’s bringing harm or even just, not right?
When we begin chapter 2, we can see that this travelling in the wrong direction and perhaps even enjoying the view, is a part of the human condition, but God has a plan.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
Outside of Christ, we were dead in our transgression and sin.
Our transgressions, or trespasses as they are often translated are when we have deviated from the path –It is a slip, a false step. We knowingly cross a boundary.
The word ‘sin’ here means to miss the mark – like an archer failing to hit the centre. We fall short of an expected standard.
We’ve all done it. There is no hiding here, no pretence. We can’t look at another in judgement, claiming to be without sin.
We have all fallen short in thought, word and deed. I’m sure we have all gossiped, been hurtful, told God he’s wrong.
What Paul is doing here is levelling the land. I’m no higher than any of you, my history is not a glorious story of perfection. I was dead in my sin – far from God, deep in my own selfishness.
We were all there, and it’s easy to see why when we read who our travelling partner was!
I find it interesting that Paul distinguishes between the desires of the body and mind, yet also mentions them together. There is perhaps a tendency to think the mind above the body. A kind of belief that sins of the flesh are worse than sins of the mind – yet here, Paul mentions both – the mind is not morally superior to the body and both need to be in submission to Christ. Simply following these desires leads to ruin
Yet, if we’re travelling down that road, how do we stop?
Let’s read these verses again, but this time from the Message version:
It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us!
How can we change?
Tom Wright puts it like this:
‘If the problem is that the settled and habitual behaviour of the whole human race leads them on the fast road towards death – the ultimate destruction of their humanness – the answer provided by God is a way through death and out into a new sort of life entirely. This, of course, is achieved through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the King’
Remember chapter 1?
Before Jesus, we were ‘in Adam’; in our sin, belonging to the old fallen humanity, now we are ‘in Christ’ belonging to the new redeemed humanity.
Verse 1 tells us we were dead but verse 5 proclaims the amazing truth that we are now alive in Christ.
Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us!
‘God helps those who help themselves’? No, God helps those who cannot help themselves – and that’s all of us!
We who have found Jesus are ‘in Him’ and so alive. Our sin is dealt with – we are new.
We are no longer separated from god, but have access to the Father, through Jesus his Son, in the Spirit (Eph. 2: 18)
Some of us are still walking as if we’re still dead – know the truth today – you are in Christ, as he was raised, so you! Allow him to immerse you in that truth today. You can stop striving, stop trying to achieve – but instead, allow the Spirit to minister God’s grace to you.
In this short verses, we see some wonderful truths about our God:
- Our God is so rich in mercy. He didn’t give us what we did deserve, but instead, he rescued us. This doesn’t mean we don’t still sin or mess up. But what it does mean, is God, in his incredible mercy forgives us and his Spirit helps us to live a life for him.
- We see that God loves us with a great love – far beyond anything I can imagine.
- We see that we are saved by grace alone. I was dead – dead people cannot bring themselves back to life. Only God could do that. His amazing grace has given me life.
Let’s remember those words of Alan Scott again:
Grace is about more than covering our past – it is divine enabling to open us up to a preferable future.
God goes further than just rescuing me – he gives me a purpose and a future.
God is so kind and he has lavished kindness upon us.
Lavished is such an extravagant word. But is accurately sums up the grace in this passage. God is not stingy or mean.
Maybe you are travelling down the wrong road today and you know it’s time to turn around. Without Jesus, it might seem there is no turning around – the road might seem inevitable, with no way of return. But the truth is, Jesus changes everything – there is another way and you are lovingly invited into it today.