On the Plains of Moab Blog
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April 21, 2013, 12:12 PM

Sermon Text: "Dead in your Trespasses...but Alive to Christ!"

Text: Ephesians 2:1-10

Doing a sermon on a good Reformed topic today.  Calvinism, predestination, election and the implications of believing that the Bible actually teaches this!  To show you that this Calvinist has a sense of humor and can take it as good as he gives it.  Consider this light story.  A Calvinist, as you may know, believes fervently in the sovereignty of God is all of life, most especially in salvation.

A Calvinist dies and finds himself at a crossroads where there are two signs pointing down two different roads.  One says in big letters, "Predestination Believers" and the other says "Free Will Believers."  Being a Calvinist and believing in predestination, he takes the Predestination road.  He walks down the road and comes to a big golden door with the word PREDESTINATION written above it.  He knocks on the door and an angel opens the door and asks, "What brings you to my door?"  The Calvinist answers, "There were two signs and I chose the one that said "Predestination Believers."  The angel asks, "You chose it?"  "Well then, you can't come in."  And he slammed the door shut.  The Calvinist is crushed and walks back to the crossroads where the two signs were.  He then reluctantly takes the Free Will Believers road and comes to another huge golden door with the words FREE WILL written above it.  Another angel opens the door and asks the same question, "What brings you to my door?"  And the Calvinist says, "I had no choice!"

As we consider the subject matter of what I just read in Ephesians 2, a classic book by the great Reformer Martin Luther comes to mind:  The Bondage of the Will (1525).  [Literally from Latin title:  "On Un-free Will" or "Concerning Bound Choice"]  Bondage of the Will is a rather lengthy response from Luther to a book written by the humanist scholar, Erasmus.  To briefly sum it up, Erasmus wrote a caustic critique of Luther’s teaching on predestination and election.  The book came to be known simply as Erasmus’ Diatribe.  His argument went something like this -- and I do recognize that I’m grossly simplifying a complex line of reasoning! -- Why bother with this troublesome doctrine?  It’s way too controversial and dangerous.  Furthermore, fallen men and women may be damaged goods, but they still have some capacity, meager though it is, to choose God.

Luther responds by meticulously taking apart Erasmus’ argument one sentence at a time!  In one well-known passage, Luther compares fallen humanity to a horse standing between the devil and God.  He says that the horse is either ridden by the devil or God.  The horse doesn’t decide who rides him!  To Luther, people do not have free will; only God can be described as having a free will.

I.  The Reality of being Dead in our Sins

I think, based on what we read in Ephesians 2, clearly Luther was on the right track.  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[!] (Eph. 2:1-2 ESV).  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. (Eph. 2:3 ESV).  However, 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.... (Eph. 2:4-6 ESV).  According to Paul and Martin Luther, choosing God is not your choice.  Dead people don't choose.  Dead people can't choose.  God chooses you!

The rest of our passage in Ephesians 2 unpacks this radical thought that we were dead as a doornail in sin until God made us alive in Christ:  Once again, 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. (Eph. 2:8-9 ESV).  Your belonging to God and your eternal salvation is not about what you have done for it or even what you should be doing for it; it’s about what God has already done for you and for what God continues to do for you.

Back in the Old Testament, in Deuteronomy 6-9, Moses tells Israel the same thing.  They, says he, not to forget God in the midst of blessing:[W]hen it shall come about when the Lord your God brings you into the land which He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you, great and splendid cities which you did not build, and houses full of all good things which you did not fill, and hewn cisterns which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant, and you eat and are satisfied then watch yourself, that you do not forget the Lord who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Deut 6:10-12).

But, at the same time, Moses reminds Israel that it’s not because of their righteousness that they’re finally going to realize the blessings of the Promise Land.  "Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, 'It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land....Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. (Deu 9:4, 6 ESV).

To put this in a more contemporary setting, suppose you inherited a lavishly furnished mansion; finely manicured yard; two luxury cars in the garage, etc.  Would you go around bragging to your friends about your achievement of such a lofty status?  Of course not!  You realize that these things were given to you.  An unearned gift.  You were merely a beneficiary of somebody else’s hard work!

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

But, I need to take a turn here and give us a pastoral reality check on the way that this teaching can go so wrong.

II.  The Joy of being Alive to Christ.

It happens as we are basking in the wonderful glow of God’s goodness towards us in salvation, we might be tempted to do what Peter did on the Mount of Transfiguration.  “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” (Matt. 17:4).  Let’s stay here forever!  But a dangerous attitude sets in if we leave things here on the mountaintop of Ephesians 2:8-9.  It goes something like this:

Because God does the electing and the choosing, there’s nothing more for me to do.  Why should I share my faith?  God’s already determined everything, hasn’t he?  Incidentally, that’s how Presbyterians got their unfortunate reputation as “the frozen chosen.”

Immediately following the truth that we are saved by grace through faith alone 2:10 declares:

“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we would walk in them.”

Here is a corrective to a perverted Calvinism!  When Paul says that we are God’s workmanship, he’s really saying that we are a new creation – (Cf. 2 Cor. 5:17) Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come[!] – In Christ, you have died to your old way of life.  When God saves you, you don’t then become a stagnant pond; or perhaps should I say, a frozen pond!  Quite the opposite.

Richard Mouw, who is the former President of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, commented on this point very ably in his splendid little book entitled, Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport.  In that book, Mouw challenges the caricature of the typical Calvinist.  He writes:

“Suppose a person is elected to be president of the United States and then spends the first year of his presidency talking a lot about the fact that he has been elected.  In his talks to the nation, he tells us how thrilled he is that – of all the people who might have been chosen for the job – was elected to the office of president.  He commissions studies to find out exactly how he got elected.  He regularly thanks those citizens who cast their votes for him.  He also talks much about his predecessors – people before him who had been elected to the presidency – and tells us how privileged he considers himself to be counted in the company of such a distinguished group of elected officials.  Surely there would come a point where we would all urge him to think about an important question he seems to be ignoring:  What were you elected for?  What did we elect you to do?” (pp.64-65)

Ephesians 2:10 says you have been re-created by God, in Christ Jesus for good works!  Hear me well, you’re not saved by works; but at the same time, remember that you’re surely not saved from works!  And it is precisely here where it gets a little sticky.

Paul says that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”  There are numerous ways that commentators have tried to tone down this difficult verse – like translating it “We were prepared beforehand to walk in good works.”  Another interpretation that hits, in my estimation, closer to the truth is that the good works that were prepared in advance for us to do refers to the godly behavior encouraged in the rest of this letter to the Ephesians:

  • 4:1-2  I [Paul] therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.... (ESV).
  • 4:7  But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift. (ESV).
  • 4:11-12  [God] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.... (ESV).
  • 4:15  ...Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.... (ESV).
  • 4:22-24  ...Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (ESV).
  • 5:1-2  Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (ESV).
  • 5:8-10  ...At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.  Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. (ESV).
  • 6:10-13  Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.  Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (ESV).

God not only chose us before the foundation of the world; he also prepared these good works that we would perform as well.

You have heard the Word of God, now consider it well.   Amen.

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