Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to walk our readers through the book of Ephesians in order to help them understand what it teaches and how to apply it to our lives. This series is part of our larger commitment to help Christians learn to read, interpret, reflect, and apply the Bible to their own lives. To read the rest of posts in this series click here.
Ephesians 2:1-10 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—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
I’ll never forget sitting in a worship service my freshman year, the pastor got up and began preaching, and a phrase that he used grabbed my attention. He said that in our salvation we have “the empty hand of faith.” I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about! After much time passed, I found that many theologians and pastors like to use this phrase to emphasize the fact that we bring no works with us when we are saved.
The old hymn, Rock of Ages, repeats this refrain, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.” As believers, we do nothing to add to our salvation! When we come to the throne of God, we are completely empty handed. There is nothing we can even try to bring in our hands; we have nothing! We bring no good works; rather, we are declared righteous before God only by receiving His promise.
Furthermore, this “hand of faith” is not something we raise up ourselves. Our “hand of faith” is completely empty, but we are only able to exercise faith by God giving us that faith. Notice what Paul is saying in this text, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works so that no one may boast.”
The grace and the faith that save us are not our own doing but rather divine gifts from a loving God. Even our faith is a gift from God! How humbling is this truth? We can’t even bring faith into the equation. Our salvation is a complete miracle of God. He is the one that calls us, justifies us, sanctifies us, and glorifies us. We have empty hands of faith. What Paul is teaching here is that it’s a miracle for us even for us to have hands!
This gospel presentation is very intentional from Paul. Notice he covers three major aspects: our depravity in sin, God’s sovereign grace, and our response to salvation. So, let’s jump into these three aspects briefly.
Our Depravity in Sin: We Were Dead
One of the Solas of the Reformation is sola gratia, which means by grace alone. This truth stresses the initiative of God Himself in salvation as the one who must change our hearts and give us the ability to have faith. Remember Ezekiel 36:26, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” God literally must give us a new heart as he enables us to have faith.
In our fallen condition – in our heart of stone – we are dead in our sins and misery. We are completely unable to obey the Lord’s will both inwardly and outwardly (v. 1). We want nothing to do with God; in fact, apart from His work we hate Him. Yes, these are strong words, but in our sinfulness, we despise God and his law. Our hearts must be changed. God initiates this change. Regeneration precedes faith; it is impossible for faith to precede regeneration.
I remember hearing it put this way. While we are dead in our sins and misery, we are like a man bound by chains and thrown into the ocean. That man, at the bottom of the ocean floor, is dead. He is bound. There is no way for him to save himself, but that is when Jesus reaches down, pulls him up, and breathes new life into his lungs. Did the man do anything? Could he do anything? Absolutely not – he is dead, but because of Christ, he has new life!
Most Christians today believe they are sinful and that grace is necessary for salvation, but they do not believe evil has so corrupted their will as to make them morally unable to choose Jesus. They want to argue that they can choose Jesus – which they can assent to God’s graces.
It would be like changing the illustration and somehow this man, who is dead and bound at the bottom of the ocean, swims up and breaks the water line and reaches out to Jesus as he is reaching out to him. That just doesn’t make sense.
I’ll give them this, Scripture agrees that we must decide to follow Jesus, but it also says that those to whom God gives saving grace will most certainly make the right decision; only God exercises His sovereign prerogative to give grace to some and not all. (Romans 9:14-18)
We are completely dead in our sins, and apart from the work of God, that is exactly how it would remain.
God’s Sovereign Grace: We Are Alive
Here is the good news. God’s grace makes us alive again. As believers, we have changed hearts – a changed will. We long to follow the laws of God. We long to be with him for all eternity. Our hatred of God and the things of God has been wiped away and now we find what perfect love and joy look like, in Christ.
This language – dead and alive – is the phrases that are used in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Remember the father as he tells the servants to clothe the son and to prepare a feast? Remember why he says to do these things? He says, “My son who was dead is alive.”
This is exactly the picture of the love of God for his people. We were dead and now we are alive. This parable is a picture of the love of the Father, and it should make us shout for joy because this is how the Father loves us!
It makes absolutely zero sense for the father in Luke 15 to respond in the way that he responded. The prodigal asks for his inheritance – telling the father that he would rather him be dead than alive – and goes and blows all of the riches given to him. He comes home, desiring just to be a slave in his father’s house, but that is not the plan of the father. It would actually be loving and gracious for the father to let him be a slave, but he brings him back into the home – calling him a son.
This parable should blow our minds! There is no reason this father should react in this way, but in his love he had to celebrate. Why? Because his son was dead and is now alive!
Our Response: We Should Walk
Notice how Paul concludes this gospel message. He tells us to walk rightly as Christians. This is language that we have heard many other times through the Scriptures. My mind goes immediately to 1 John 1:5-7.
Right there in verse 7, John is telling us to walk in the light, because if we are walking in the darkness and claiming that we know Christ, we lie and do not practice the truth.
Just like Paul, John is penning a call of obedience, to walk in the light. This call of obedience is one that proclaims to the world that we are children of God and that we are in fellowship with a merciful Savior. Many different Bible verses come to mind as we talk about obedience, but these texts are teaching us that our obedience is also our witness. It is about the way that we walk.
I am not a parent, but I know many stories about how parents know exactly who their child is by the way that they walk.
One dad amazed me one evening. I coach the golf team at the local Christian school in Dillon, and last season I was talking to a dad who was waiting on his son as practice was wrapping up. We waited for a while and it started getting dark, and he was visually getting a little frustrated. Well, it did not seem but seconds later, he said, “There he is, he’s finally coming.” Looking up, I glanced in that direction and about 500 yards away, there was a small silhouette of a person walking towards us. I could not tell who it was, but that dad knew it was his son by the way that he was walking.
If you are a parent, you probably have experienced a moment like this. You know without a doubt that it is your child, all by the walk. The Scriptures teach us that this is how the world will know that we are Christians. They will know us by the way that we walk. If we say that we are Christians, but we are not walking in the light, we are liars.
These are hard words by the Apostles Paul and John. They are very direct but full of truth. We are called to walk. And John reminds us that we are walking in the light, and if we do not, we are not in fellowship with the Triune God, which is full of love, mercy, and assurance.
I do not think I need to convince anyone here that light is a good thing. We can immediately think of at least one story in our lives that light was our redeeming feature. It can be stories of trying to get ready in the dark while your spouse is still in the bed sleeping and finally getting to turn the light on. Maybe it is a story about finally finding that flashlight when your lights went out during a storm, or it can be about the sun finally rising on a dark night and watching life seemingly being breathed into nature that very morning.
Light is a good thing, and the absence of it is darkness. Well, believers, we are not in the darkness. We are in the light. We belong to this glorious fellowship with our God, He is the light, and now we are in the light.
Martin Luther says, “God has surely promised His grace to the humbled: that is, to those who mourn over and despair of themselves. But a man cannot be thoroughly humbled till he realizes that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, counsels, efforts, will and works, and depends absolutely on the will, counsel, pleasure and work of Another — God alone” (The Bondage of the Will, p. 100). We are dead in our sins, but praise God he has given us a new heart to believe! And now, we walk with him and in him until he calls us home. All of this if because of Jesus, all of this is because of grace through faith.