Teaching series from Ephesians

Total Help For Total Need

Ephesians 2:1-10

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Ephesians is perhaps Paul’s greatest exposition of the Good News of God’s grace.  In chapter one, Paul rejoices over the amazing, multi-faceted provision of God’s grace through Jesus.  Paul’s favorite comprehensive term for this provision is “salvation” (1:13) which means “rescue.”  Of course, this term implies that we are in great trouble that we can’t get ourselves out of.  The Coast Guard doesn’t send a rescue team to boats that are capable of getting to shore by themselves.  God provides us with his salvation for the same reason.  What is this trouble that we can’t get ourselves out of?  Paul tells us in 2:1-10 as he explains God’s total help for total need.  2:1-3 explains our total need, 2:4-7 explains God’s total help, and 2:8-10 explains how to receive God’s total help.

Before we look at Paul’s description of our total need apart from Christ, I want to make one important qualifying statement.  Paul is writing to Christians—people who have experienced God’s rescue.  And it is such people who find it easy to agree with Paul’s description of their plight before they met Christ.  It is only when we experience life as it was meant to be lived that we realize by contrast how empty and broken our life was before.  So if you haven’t met Christ, you will probably find it difficult to agree with all that Paul says about your life.  Fortunately, God doesn’t require that you agree with everything he says about your total need before he will rescue you.  You just need to be willing to agree that you are broken enough that you can’t put yourself back together. 

Our total need

Now let’s look at the bad news—God’s diagnosis of our condition before we meet Christ.  Paul’s diagnosis isolates three fatal problems:

First, Paul says that apart from Christ we are “dead” (read 2:1 NIV).  Paul, of course, is not saying that we are physically dead. Nor is he saying that we are intellectually dead, or aesthetically dead, or emotionally dead.  He means that we were spiritually dead.  According to the Bible, spiritual death means being alienated from God, separated from a personal love relationship with him (Jn.17:3).  When the first humans were created, this relationship was the great treasure and integration point of their lives.  As long as they trusted God as the integration point of their lives, his love filled them so that they could love the created order and one another out of fullness, and his wisdom guided them so that they could understand the created order and their place in it.  This is why God warned them that if they chose to reject him as the center of their lives, they would die.  And he didn’t say, “Several decades after you reject my loving leadership you will die.”  He said, ‘In the day that you reject my loving leadership, dying you will die.”  Yes, they would die physically later on—but they died spiritually the moment they turned away from him.

Paul is saying that we all find ourselves in the same state that they did—and for the same reasons.  Like them, we have rejected God’s loving leadership, both because we do what he forbids (paraptoma - “trespassing a known boundary”) and because we fail to do what God commands (hamartia - “falling short of a standard”).  So we are physically alive, but spiritually dead—cut off from God as the great treasure and integration point of our lives.  And this fact creates a tremendous vacuum in our hearts (PASCAL QUOTE)—where now do we find the love and meaning and purpose and security and wisdom that we need for our lives?  This problem leads to the next part of Paul’s diagnosis...

Read 2:2-3a.  This is a description of slavery.  And although one-third of the Roman Empire lived in literal slavery, that’s not what Paul is describing because he says everyone apart from Christ is a slave.  He is describing enslavement to Satan.  He does not mean that everyone apart from Christ is possessed by Satan or demons (although some are).  He means that we are enslaved to live our lives according to the course he has designed (2:2a), or to breathe the spiritual atmosphere he has created (2:2b).  And what is this course, this spiritual atmosphere?  It is trying to fill that spiritual vacuum by gratifying the cravings of our rebellious hearts (2:3).  What does this mean?  It means that instead of returning to a love relationship with God to fill that vacuum, we try to fill it with things that leave our autonomy from God intact.  (See Rom.1:21-25—refusing to worship God, we worship his creation.)  These things become the idols that rule our lives.  Things like physical pleasure (sensuality, comfort), or money and things, or degrees and career accomplishment, or control over people and our environment, or the praise and admiration of certain people for our beauty or intelligence or artistic talent or religious dedication, etc.  But these things not only do not fill the vacuum, they also enslave (addict) us and further disorder our lives.  So in determining to be free from God, we become slaves of our idols, and of the ruler who designed this way of life.

If it’s not bad enough to be spiritually dead and enslaved, apart from Christ we are also headed for God’s condemnation (read 2:3b).  God’s wrath is not like an abusive father who loses his temper because you inconvenience him.  God’s wrath is more like a fair and just judge who is implacably opposed to evil and determined to defeat and justly punish those who have allied themselves with his enemy.  God has fixed a day when he will bring all rebels to account and condemn eternally to what they have chosen in this life—banishment from his presence to perpetually bondage and brokenness (Rom.2:5). 

The problem is that in our natural state (“by nature”) we have rebelled against God, we have joined his enemy in our autonomy and conceit—and therefore we are guilty and deserve God’s condemnation.

This is total need—apart from Christ we are alienated from God, headed for God’s condemnation, and we are in bondage as we go.  This is a plight so serious, a need so total that, left to ourselves, this is a terminal condition—we are without hope (2:12). 

It is against this hopeless backdrop that Paul states the two most important words in the Bible—“but God” (read 2:4; “but God” are the first two Greek words).  Although we are more lost than we could ever imagine, God is more loving and merciful than we could ever hope!  The last word is not our sin, but God’s grace—“where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more” (Rom.5:20)!  The very One who is justified in leaving us in our plight has intervened through his Son Jesus to provide us with total help for our total need.  (Notice that Paul describes this total help in the same order as he described our total need.)

God’s total help

Apart from Christ we were alienated from God, but through Christ we are reconciled to God (read 2:5; define “reconciliation” – restoring to persons to loving unity by removing the root cause of their alienation).  By paying the penalty of our sins through Jesus’ death on the cross, God has resolved the problem that separated him from us.  The same power that raised Jesus from the dead physically can also raise us from spiritual death.  Now it is possible to experience God’s love as ultimate security and receive his guidance as ultimate direction, no matter how badly you have rebelled against him.  No one knew this better than Paul.  He murdered scores of innocent Christians, yet his writings ring with the joy of someone who is alive to God and assured of his love and forgiveness (1Tim.1:12-17).  If Jesus could make Paul alive to God, he can do that with you—no matter how alienated from God you have been!

Apart from Christ we were enslaved to Satan, but through Christ we are freed from Satan’s control (read 2:6).  When God raised Jesus from the dead, he put him in authority over Satan and his demons (1:19-22).  Now it is possible to be united with Jesus and share this authority.  Now we can see through Satan’s deceptions and overcome his opposition in our lives (explained in 6:10-20).  Now we can live by God’s power according to his design for our lives instead of being enslaved to lusts and idols (explained in chapters 4:1-6:9).  Having this kind of authority frees us from fear and fatalism—Christ is with us and he can change our lives!

Apart from Christ we were headed for eternal condemnation, but through Christ we are destined for God’s kindness (read 2:7).  We will be both the proof of God’s incredible grace (because we deserve to be in hell) and the recipients of his infinite kindness.  Heaven will not be boring because we will continue to discover and experience new depths of God’s love!  Knowing this fantastic future is assured gives us great stamina in the difficulties of this life.

Every person in this room is either still in a state of total need, or has received God’s total help.  There is no gray area on this issue.  If you have not received God’s total help, Paul explains how to receive it in 2:8-10—which we’ll look at in a few minutes.  But those of us who have received God’s total help need to regularly reflect on God’s great rescue of our lives!  On a daily basis, we need to remember what it was like to be in total need, and we need to thank God for his total help—and we need to ask God to deepen our understanding and appreciation of his total help.  Unless you do this, you will begin to take God’s total help for granted—he will no longer be the great rescuer of your life.  And then the idols will begin to reassert their power in your life.  And then, instead of becoming more humbly confident as God’s rescued child, you will become more deceived and enslaved.  This is why Paul reminds these Christians of God’s total help for their total need!

How to receive God’s total help

But before you can remember and thank God for his total help, you must receive it.  How do you go from being in total need to having God’s total help?  What condition must you fulfill to get God’s total help?  That’s what Paul explains in 2:8-10 (read NLT).

God offers his total help as a “gift.”  It is “by his grace”—an undeserved favor (charis).  The reason for the gift has nothing to do with the recipient’s worthiness; the reason lies wholly in the love of the Giver.  In the world, “there is no free lunch”—if an offer seems too good to be true, then it probably is too good to be true (MAILINGS; BROKEN PARENTAL PROMISES).  But God offers us a gift far greater than a “free lunch”—he offers us the gift of salvation (e.g., 2:4-7).  One reason why it is difficult to receive God’s total help is that we have to lay aside our cynicism/fear of being disappointed or taken advantage of—and trust that God’s offer is genuine.

That’s what it means to “believe.”  It means to put your trust in the good will of the Giver and receive the Gift he offers.  Why can you trust God’s good will?  Because he has already proven his good will by offering his own Son to rescue you (Rom.8:32).

This is what Jesus meant when he said that we must become like children to enter God’s kingdom (Mark10:15).  When you extend a gift to your young child at Christmas, how does he/she respond?  Does he ask you what the catch is?  Does she ask how much this will deduct from her allowance?  Does he remind you of how good he has been lately and promise to keep it up?  No, he trusts your good will and receives this expression of your love and opens and enjoys your gift!

Just to make sure we understand what this means, let me spell it out further:

Don’t depend on any of your good works (moral or religious) to earn God’s acceptance; admit your unworthiness and depend on Jesus’ death to give you God’s acceptance (2:9a)

Don’t try to fix your life and then come to Christ (2:10 says God creates us anew in Christ); come to Christ as you are and allow him to transform your life.

Don’t take any credit for your salvation; give all the credit to Jesus. (2:8b,9b).  There will be all kinds of people in heaven (races; ethnic groups; sinners; periods of history; etc.)—but there will be no one there saying, “God & I did a good job getting me here!”  Everyone in heaven will be blown away by how gracious God is in spite of how richly we deserved to go to hell.  And the way to initially receive God’s total help involves the same attitude.

Are you ready to receive God’s gift?  If so, pray with me now in your own heart...