But God....

Christian! Have you ever felt like you really don't matter? Have you ever believed that no matter what your accomplishments you would never be able to please your worst critics? Are your worst critics those of your own friends and family circle? Have you struggled to do the best you can but keep finding that you fall short of the goals you intended? Have you gone so far as to write down a scorecard of your successes vs failures and see no hope for a better life? Do even feel like you are undeserving of God's love for you-because you are the worst of His new creation? Would you believe that in your worst moments, your weakest state of being, your worst sin, God the Father, who is rich in mercy, love, and grace loves you and had you in mind when He gave His only Son for you? You and others in your circle of influence expected perfection when you you confessed Jesus as your Savior, instead you and most of them only see your failures. But God...


But God...! Ephesians 2:4-6
These two three-letter words draw us into Ephesians 2:4, where the apostle Paul begins to set forth the story of our great salvation from the hopelessness and death of our human condition. Nothing is more important in our lives than that we grasp the enormous meaning for our lives that is contained within these brief but towering words. The New Revised Standard Version renders verses 4 to 6 in this way:
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through 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. . . .
The NIV, the version we have used throughout this study, renders the passage a bit differently. Instead of opening with the words "But God. . .", it rearranges the syntax slightly--but the meaning is the same:
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.
Verse 4 marks a dramatic contrast in Paul's argument. We move from the gloomy picture of the human condition of verses 1-3 to a brilliant image of hope, joy, and gladness--the glory of our salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The hinge point between gloom and gladness (as expressed in the NRSV) are these two little words, "But God. . . ."

Mercy, grace, and love
The apostle is careful to inform us of God's motivation for moving us from death to life, from darkness to light: "But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses. . . ." We were dead then God, driven by a heart of mercy and love as deep as time and as wide as space, began to move. God's mercy is a powerful thing.

Do you know what mercy is? Do you know how mercy differs from grace? We bandy these terms about so often in the church that I think, for some people, they become little more than theologically-sound background noise. Mercy and grace are two very specific and distinct concepts, and they are as real--no, more real--than the page you are reading right now.

A little boy in Sunday School was asked to tell the difference between kindness and loving-kindness, because Scripture uses both those words. He put it this way: "If I ask my mother for a slice of bread and butter and she gives it to me, that is kindness. But if she puts jam on it, that is loving-kindness!" That is great theological truth! That is a beautiful illustration of the difference between kindness and loving-kindness.

There is a similar difference between mercy and grace. Both mercy and grace reach out from God to us but for different reasons. It is our guilt that draws forth the grace of God. We deserve punishment; we receive forgiveness. That is God's grace to us. The grace of God has dealt with our guilt.

It is not our guilt but our misery that calls forth God's mercy. A parent understands this concept very well. If your child suffers from a severe cold--her throat is sore, her eyes water, her nose runs so that she can hardly breathe, she aches in every joint, and all she can do is throw her arms around your neck and cry. And what do you feel? Pity, compassion, and a sense of urgency to provide relief. Her misery calls forth your mercy. That is what Paul says has awakened the mercy of God--our misery as human beings.

We are dead in our trespasses and sin. We are corrupt and decaying. We are in bondage to Satan, an evil spirit who tempts us into self-destruction and disobedience. We 'blindly injure ourselves and each other, we destroy the peace in our household, we suffer heartache, despair, rejection, disillusionment, boredom, frustration, and grief. While life is often a wonderful experience, we have to admit that much of life is stained with the blood and tears of human tragedy.

God understands our condition, He empathizes with us, and the sight of our suffering awakens His love, moving Him to reach out to us. He is so moved by our plight, in fact, that He gave His only Son as a sacrifice upon the cross for our sake. The cross, as ugly and bloodstained as it is, stands as a symbol of God's love and mercy to us. How do we know that God loved us? Because, as John 3:16 tells us, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. . . ." That is an unmistakable mark of God's love.

What is love? A lot of people think love is a feeling, an itch in the heart you can't scratch. But the love of God is much deeper than a mere feeling. His love is a decision, a choice He made about us, expressed in action--the act of sending and sacrificing Jesus for our sakes. He did not demand that we climb up to Him; He descended to us. He is not a God of indifference or unconcern. He was touched with our misery and He came and He wept and He suffered. He became the poorest of the poor. He endured the torture and shame of the cross. He took our sins upon Himself. He did all this for us even when we were dead in our transgressions and sins.

Alive with Christ
The theme of "But God. . ." is not mere theoretical, theological talk. It is an immensely practical, powerful truth for our daily lives. Once we understand what God has done for us, and the riches that are ours in Jesus Christ, we have the secret of joyful daily living. As long as we ignore or fail to grasp what God has done for us, we will always be struggling and frustrated in our faith. The truth that we were dead and now alive, that we were shut up in endless gloom and now showered with glory--this is the secret of liberty, joy, and beauty of character! When we truly catch a glimpse of the length and height and breadth of God's love for us, a once-boring earthly existence becomes an exciting touch of heaven on earth.
Paul goes on to bring out three exciting facets of our new life with Christ: 1. Paul says that God "made us alive together with Christ," and he adds parenthetically, "by grace you have been saved." Our salvation is a hundred percent God, zero percent us. We cannot add a thing to what God has done for us. It is utterly by God's grace that we are made alive together with Christ. 2. We have been "raised up with him." 3. We have been "made to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus."

These are present realities, not future theological theories. In the original Greek, the statement that God "made us alive together with Christ" is only two words. One word contains the sense of "made us alive together with" and the other word is Christ. There is a sense of immediacy and excitement in this statement that God enlivened us with Christ--and indeed, it is an exciting event!

Now, that doesn't mean that the experience is always exciting and emotional--often, it does not feel like a dramatic event at all. I have had the joy of leading scores of people to Christ, and almost always it is very quiet moment. For some, a pleasant sense of peace comes over them. Others experience a quiet sense of joy. In some cases, there is a big rush of emotion, an epiphany, even a spiritual ecstasy--but in my experience, that is very rare. Yet, even though a person's conversion experience may be a quiet one, something tremendous has taken place--a human being has crossed over from death to life.

Imagine that you had a corpse sitting in your living room for a week or two. I know this sounds gruesome, but I can really think of no more apt way to make this point! Let us say that you knew this person in life, and now he or she is utterly dead, with no ability to think, speak, hear, move, or feel emotions. Now imagine that you have the power to lay hands on this corpse and bring this individual back to life. What an astonishing miracle that would be bringing a dead person back to life.

Yet that is exactly what the apostle Paul says has taken place when a person comes in faith to Jesus Christ. That which was dead becomes alive together with Christ. It is no less real and dramatic than that.

God employs numerous similes in His Word to bring this truth alive in our lives. He compares conversion to the process of birth. Becoming a Christian is likened to being born again. Before birth, there is conception, which takes place as the result of an act of love, an act of merging. It is a dramatic, miraculous event that brings life into the world. Paul wants to compel our attention, so he uses a similar metaphor here in Ephesians, comparing the conversion experience to the resurrection event, in which we who are dead receive life from Him. We are made alive with Jesus Christ.

There is a sign I always look for when a person makes a decision for Jesus Christ: a change in attitude. I find that it begins to show almost immediately. Self-centeredness evaporates; others-centeredness becomes apparent. Many times at the moment someone comes to Christ, they say, "I wish you would tell this to my brother," or, "I wish you'd pray for my parents." Immediately, their thoughts have turned away from their own wonderful experience to the spiritual need of someone they care about. That is a sure sign that this person has come alive in Christ, and passed from death unto life.

The conversion experience also produces an immediate reaction in a person's attitude toward God. I have found that most nonChristians tend to be afraid of God. They avoid church because they see people enjoying God's presence there, and it makes them feel uneasy. And that's all right-people should be expected to have to come to church to find God. Evangelism is supposed to take place in the neighborhood and marketplace, not inside the chapel walls. Church is for Christians. God reaches out to people where they are, through His own people.

Non-Christians tend to be afraid of God and afraid of death. Funerals make them uneasy and nervous--"Let's get this thing over with so I can get back to my life." Death makes them think of being in the presence of God--and they don't want that!

But when non Christians become Christians, their attitudes toward God and death change immediately. Instead of seeing God as their judge, they see Him as their Father--or better yet, their Daddy. They belong to Him, and they trust His love. They have a hunger for God, and death no longer holds any terror for them. Immediately. God is now their Father. They have a sense of belonging. And now the one Person they want above all others is God. As the Psalmist writes, "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?" (Psalm 42:1).
Other examples of the change that comes over those who place their trust in Jesus: They suddenly become able to love the unlovable, endure the unendurable, and forgive the unforgivable.

Many a husband or wife has told me of reaching a point in his or her marriage of complete estrangement, of literally hating the spouse, of being unable to stand the sight of the one he or she vowed to love till death. Then, upon receiving Christ, that person discovered that a new relationship was possible. No, the struggles did not instantly vanish, but the individual was able to look at his or her spouse in a new way, and to make a Christlike decision to love, even in unlovely circumstances. I have seen many marriages saved and many non believing spouses won to Christ as a result of one partner accepting Christ and discovering a new-found ability to love the unlovable. That does not mean you are required to go back into abuse, ABUSE IS A DEAL BREAKER IN MARRIAGE, but where there is no abuse there should be forgiveness and an expectation of renewal.

Others are able to endure the unendurable after they come to Christ. I remember one woman who struggled for well over a decade with constant pain that often immobilized her. She went through terrible struggles with depression, discouragement, and defeat. There were times when she considered using a bottle of pain pills as an escape from the pain of this life but she held on, enduring the unendurable because of the power released in her by the risen Lord.

Still others have discovered, in their new relationship with Jesus Christ, the ability to forgive the unforgivable. In her Holocaust memoir The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom tells how she and her family resisted the Nazis by hiding Jews in their home. They were ultimately discovered and sent to a concentration camp. Corrie barely survived until the end of the war; her family members died in captivity. Seared by this terrible trial by fire, Corrie's faith in God also survived, and she spent much of her time in the post-war years traveling in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, sharing her faith in Christ.

On one occasion in 1947, while speaking in a church in Munich, she noticed a balding man in a gray overcoat near the rear of the basement room. She had been speaking on the subject of God's forgiveness, but her heart froze within her when she recognized the man. She could picture him as she had seen him so many times before, in his blue Nazi uniform with the visored cap--the cruelest of the guards at the Ravensbruck Camp where Corrie had suffered the most horrible indignities, and where her own sister had died. Yet here he was, at the end of her talk, coming up the aisle toward her with his hand thrust out. "Thank you for your fine message," he said. "How wonderful it is to know that all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!"

Yes, Corrie had said that. She had spoken so easily of God's forgiveness, but here was a man whom she despised and condemned with every fiber of her being. She couldn't take his hand! She couldn't extend forgiveness to this Nazi oppressor! She realized that this man didn't remember her--how could he remember one prisoner among thousands?
"You mentioned Ravensbruck," the man continued, his hand still extended. "I was a guard there. I'm ashamed to admit it, but it's true. But since then, I've come to know Jesus as my Lord and Savior. It has been hard for me to forgive myself for all the cruel things I did but I know that God has forgiven me. And please, if you would, I would like to hear from your lips too that God has forgiven me." And Corrie recorded her response in her book:
I stood there--I whose sins had again and again been forgiven--and could not forgive. It could not have been many seconds that he stood there--hand held out--but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. For I had to do it. I knew that. It was as simple and as horrible as that. And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. And so, woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me.
And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, and sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. "I forgive you, brother," I cried. "With all my heart!"
For a long moment we grasped each other's hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God's love so intensely as I did then.
That is the power of resurrection life. It is for impossible situations like that. Resurrection power baffles and bewilders the world, enabling us to love the unlovable, endure the unendurable, and forgive the unforgivable. That is what it means to be raised up together with Jesus Christ.

Joined to Christ
It is significant that Paul underscores the words "with Christ" or "with him" by repeating them three times in these verses. 1. "We are made alive together with Christ." 2. "We are raised up with him." 3. "We are made to sit with him."

The greatest fact of our entire Christian experience is that we are with Christ and He is with us--that we are, in fact, joined to Jesus Christ. We are one with him. Do you remember the Lord's teaching on this subject? He said, "I am the vine; you are the branches" (John 15:5). Can you tell where the branch ends and the vine starts? No. They are one plant, sharing one life together. So from here on, our identity is no longer "in Adam," but "in Christ." We are no longer ordinary human beings. We are new creations, and His identity becomes ours.
Later in this letter, Paul will liken the church to a body of which Christ is the head. Have you examined your body lately? Tug at your fingers. Why don't they come off? Wag your head from side to side. Why doesn't it roll off your shoulders? It's because they share the life of the body. They are not buttoned, glued, stapled, or tacked on. They are an organic part of your body. That's the way it is with us and Jesus. We have been joined with Christ, and we are an integral part of His body.

Finally, notice that the verbs in this passage are all in the past tense. This is something that has happened, not something that's going to happen. It is already true, and every Christian has this experience. We were made alive in Jesus Christ. We are not the same as we once were. We cannot ever be the same again.

Now, you see the radical difference that two little words make: "But God. . . ." Those two words spell the difference between gloom and glory, between darkness and light, between death and life. It is the most astounding, thrilling, life-changing statement human ears have ever heard: Once we were dead in our trespasses and sins-- "But God!"

See you next blog,

Ted

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