William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

The Christless Life And The Grace Of God (Ephesians 2:1-10)

2:1-10 When you were dead in your sins and trespasses, those sins and trespasses in which once you walked, living life in the way in which this present age of this world lives it, living life as the ruler of the power of the air dictates it, that spirit who now operates in the children of disobedience--and once all we too lived the same kind of life as these children of disobedience do, a life in which we were at the mercy of the desires of our lower nature, a life in which we followed the wishes of our lower nature and of our own designs, a life in which, so far as human nature goes, we deserved nothing but the wrath of God, as the others do--although we were all like that, I say, God, because he is rich in mercy, and because of his great love with which he has loved us, made us alive in Christ Jesus, even when we were dead in trespasses (it is by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Christ, and gave us a seat in the heavenly places with Christ, because of what Christ Jesus did for us. This he did so that in the age to come the surpassing riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus might be demonstrated. For it is by grace appropriated by faith that you have been saved. You had nothing to do with this. It was God's gift to you. It was not the result of works, for it was God's design that no one should be able to boast. For we are his work, created in Christ Jesus for good works, works which God prepared beforehand that we might walk in them.

In this passage Paul's thought flows on regardless of the rules of grammar; he begins sentences and never finishes them; he begins with one construction and halfway through he glides into another. That is because this is far more a lyric of the love of God than a careful theological exposition. The song of the nightingale is not to be analysed by the laws of musical composition. The lark sings for the joy of singing. That is what Paul is doing here. He is pouring out his heart, and the claims of grammar have to give way to the wonder of grace.

Life Without Christ ( Ephesians 2:1-3 )

2:1-3 When you were dead in your sins and trespasses, those sins and trespasses in which you once walked, living life in the way this present age lives it, living life as the ruler of the power of the air dictates it, that spirit who now operates in the children of disobedience--and once all we too lived the same kind of life as these children of disobedience do, a life in which we were at the mercy of the desires of our lower nature, a life in which we followed the wishes of our lower nature and of our own designs, a life in which, as far as human nature goes, we deserved nothing but the wrath of God, as the others do.

When Paul speaks of you, he is speaking of the Gentiles; when he speaks of us he is speaking of the Jews, his fellow countrymen. In this passage he shows how terrible the Christless life was for Gentile and for Jew alike.

(i) He says that that life was lived in sins and trespasses. The words he uses are interesting. The word for sin is hamartia ( Greek #266 ); and hamartia ( Greek #266 ) is a shooting word. It literally means a miss. A man shoots his arrow at the target; the arrow misses; that is hamartia ( Greek #266 ). Sin is the failure to hit the target of life. That is precisely why sin is so universal.

We commonly have a wrong idea of sin. We would readily agree that the robber, murderer, the razor-slasher, the drunkard, the gangster are sinners, but, since most of us are respectable citizens, in our heart of hearts we think that sin has not very much to do with us. We would probably rather resent being called hell-deserving sinners. But hamartia ( Greek #266 ) brings us face to face with what sin is, the failure to be what we ought to be and could be.

Is a man as good a husband as he might be? Does he try to make life easier for his wife? Does he inflict his moods on his family? Is a woman as good a wife as she might be? Does she really take an interest in her husband's work and try to understand his problems and his worries? Are we as good parents as we might be? Do we discipline and train our children as we ought, or do we often shirk the issue? As our children grow older, do we come nearer to them, or do they drift away until conversation is often difficult and we and they are practically strangers? Are we as good sons and daughters as we might be? Do we ever even try to say thank you for what has been done for us? Do we ever see the hurt look in our parents' eyes and know that we put it there? Are we as good workmen as we could be? Is every working hour filled with our most conscientious work and is every task done as well as we could possibly do it?

When we realize what sin is, we come to see that it is not something which theologians have invented. It is something with which life is permeated. It is the failure in any sphere of life to be what we ought to be and could be.

The other word Paul uses, translated trespasses is paraptoma ( Greek #3900 ). This literally means a slip or a fall. It is used for a man losing the way and straying from the right road; it is used for a man failing to grasp and slipping away from the truth. Trespass, is taking the wrong road when we could take the right one; it is missing the truth that we should have known. Therefore it is the failure to reach the goal we ought to have reached.

Are we in life where we ought to be? Have we reached the goal of efficiency and skill that our gifts might have enabled us to reach? Have we reached the goal of service to others that we might have reached? Have we reached the goal of goodness to which we might have attained?

The central idea of sin is failure, failure to hit the target, failure to hold to the road, failure to make life what it was capable of becoming; and that definition includes every one of us.

Death In Life ( Ephesians 2:1-3 Continued)

Paul speaks about people being dead in sins. What did he mean? Some have taken it to mean that without Christ men live in a state of sin which in the life to come produces the death of the soul. But Paul is not talking about the life to come; he is talking about this present life. There are three directions in which the effect of sin is deadly.

(i) Sin kills innocence. No one is precisely the same after he has sinned. The psychologists tell us that we never forget anything.

It may not be in our conscious memory, but everything we ever did or saw or heard is buried in our subconscious memories. The result is that sin leaves a permanent effect on a man.

In Du Maurier's novel Trilby there is an example of that. For the first time in his life Little Billee has taken part in a drunken debauch and has himself been drunk. "And when, after some forty-eight hours or so, he had quite slept off the fumes of that memorable Christmas debauch, he found that a sad thing had happened to him, and a strange! It was as though a tarnishing breath had swept over the reminiscent mirror of his mind and left a little film behind it, so that no past thing he wished to see therein was reflected with quite the same pristine clearness. As though the keen, quick, razor edge of his power to reach and re-evoke the by-gone charm and glamour and essence of things had been blunted and coarsened. As though the bloom of that special joy, the gift he had of recalling past emotions and sensations and situations, and making them actual once more by a mere effort of will, had been brushed away. And he never recovered the full use of that most precious faculty, the boon of youth and happy childhood, and which he had once possessed, without knowing it, in such singular and exceptional completeness.

The experience of sin had left a kind of tarnishing film on his mind and things could never be quite the same again. If we stain a garment or a carpet, we may send it to be cleaned, but it is never again quite the same. Sin does something to a man; it kills innocence; and innocence, once lost, can never be recovered.

(ii) Sin kills ideals. In the lives of so many there is a kind of tragic process. At first a man regards some wrong thing with horror; the second stage comes when he is tempted into doing it, but even as he does it, he is still unhappy and ill at ease and very conscious that it is wrong; the third stage is when he has done the thing so often that he does it without a qualm. Each sin makes the next sin easier. Wordsworth in the Intimations of Immortality wrote:

"The youth, who daily from the east

Must travel, still is Nature's priest,

And by the vision splendid

Is on his way attended;

At length the man perceives it die away,

And fade into the light of common day."

Sin is a kind of suicide, for it kills the ideals which make life worth while.

(iii) In the end sin kills the will. At first a man engages in some forbidden pleasure because he wants to do so; in the end he engages in it because he cannot help doing so. Once a thing becomes a habit it is not far from being a necessity. When a man has allowed some habit, some indulgence, some forbidden practice to master him, he becomes its slave. As the old saying has it. "Sow an act and reap a habit; sow a habit and reap a character; sow a character and reap a destiny."

There is a certain murderous power in sin. It kills innocence; sin may be forgiven but its effect remains. As Origen had it: "The scars remain." Sin kills ideals; men begin to do without a qualm the thing which once they regarded with horror. Sin kills the will; the thing so grips a man that he cannot break free.

The Marks Of The Christless Life ( Ephesians 2:1-3 Continued)

In this passage Paul makes a kind of list of the characteristics of life without Christ.

(i) It is life lived in the way this present age lives it. That is to say, it is life lived on the world's standards and with the world's values. Christianity demands forgiveness, but the ancient writers said it was a sign of weakness to have the power to avenge oneself for injury and not to do so. Christianity demands love even to our enemies, but Plutarch said that the sign of a good man was that he was useful to his friends and terrible to his enemies. Christianity demands service, but the world cannot understand the missionary for instance, who goes away to some foreign land to teach in a school or heal in a hospital for a quarter of the salary he or she might obtain at home in some secular service. The essence of the world's standard is that it sets self in the centre, the essence of the Christian standard is that it sets Christ and others in the centre. The essence of the worldly man is, as someone has said, that "he knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." The world's motive is profit. the Christian's dynamic is the desire to serve.

(ii) It is life lived under the dictates of the prince of the air. Here again we are at something which was very real in the days of Paul but which is not so real to us. The ancient world believed strenuously in demons. They believed that the air was so crowded with these demons that there was not room to insert a pinpoint between them. Pythagoras said: "The whole air is full of Spirits." Philo said: "There are spirits flying everywhere through the air." "The air is the house of the disembodied spirits." These demons were not all bad, but many were, out to propagate evil, to frustrate the purposes of God and to ruin the souls of men. The man who is under their domination has taken sides against God.

(iii) It is a life characterized by disobedience. God has many ways of revealing his will to men. He does so by conscience, the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking within us; he does so by giving to men the wisdom and the commandments of his book; he does so through the advice of good and godly men. But the man who lives the Christless life takes his own way of things, even when he knows what God's way is.

(iv) It is a life which is at the mercy of desire. The word for desire is epithumia ( Greek #1939 ) which characteristically means desire for the wrong and the forbidden thing. To succumb to that is inevitably to come to disaster.

One of the tragedies of the nineteenth century was the career of Oscar Wilde. He had a brilliant mind, and won the highest academic honours; he was a scintillating writer, and won the highest rewards in literature; he had all the charm in the world and was a man whose instinct it was to be kind; yet he fell to temptation and came to prison and disgrace. When he was suffering for his fall, he wrote his book De Profundis and in it he said: "The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease.... Tired of being on the heights I deliberately went to the depths in search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber, one has some day to cry aloud from the house-top. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace."

Desire is a bad master, and to be at the mercy of desire is to be a slave. And desire is not simply a fleshly thing; it is the craving for any forbidden thing.

(v) It is the life which follows what the King James Version calls the desires of our flesh. We must be careful to understand what Paul means by the sins of the flesh. He means far more than sexual sins. In Galatians 5:19-21 Paul lists the sins of the flesh. True, he starts with adultery and fornication, but he goes on to idolatry, hatred, wrath, strife, envyings, seditions, heresies. The flesh is that part of our nature which gives sin a bridgehead and a point of attack.

The meaning of "the flesh" will vary from person to person. One man's weakness may be in his body and his risk may be sexual sin; another's may be in spiritual things and his risk in pride; another's may be in earthly things and his risk unworthy ambition; another's sin may be in his temper and his risk in envyings and strife. All these are sins of the flesh. Let no man think that, because he has escaped the grosser sins of the body, he has avoided the sins of the flesh. The flesh is anything in us which gives sin its chance; it is human nature without God. To live according to the dictates of the flesh is simply to live in such a way, that our lower nature, the worse part of us, dominates our lives.

(vi) It is life which is deserving only of the wrath of God. Many a man's life is embittered because he feels that he has never had what his talents and his work deserve; but in the sight of God no man deserves anything but condemnation. It is only his love in Christ which has forgiven men who deserved nothing but punishment from him, men who had grieved his love and broken his law.

The Work Of Christ ( Ephesians 2:4-10 )

2:4-10 Although we were all like that, I say, God, because he is rich in mercy and because of his great love with which he has loved us, made us alive in Jesus Christ, even when we were dead in trespasses (it is by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Christ, and gave us a seat in the heavenly places with Christ, because of what Christ Jesus did for us. This he did so that in the age to come the surpassing riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus might be demonstrated. For it is by grace appropriated by faith that you have been saved. You had nothing to do with this. It was God's gift to you. It was not the result of works, for it was God's design that no one should be able to boast. For we are his work, created in Christ Jesus for good works, works which God prepared beforehand that we might walk in them.

Paul had begun by saying that, as we are, we are dead in sins and trespasses; now he says that God in his love and mercy has made us alive in Jesus Christ. What exactly did he mean by that? We saw that there were three things involved in being dead in sins and trespasses. Jesus has something to do about each of them.

(i) We saw that sin kills innocence. Not even Jesus can give a man back his lost innocence, for not even Jesus can put back the clock; but what he can do is take away the sense of guilt which the lost innocence necessarily brings with it.

The first thing sin does is create a feeling of estrangement between us and God. Whenever a man realizes that he has sinned, he is oppressed with the feeling that he dare not approach God. When Isaiah received his vision of God, his first reaction was to say: "Woe is me! for I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips" ( Isaiah 6:5 ). When Peter realized who Jesus was, his first reaction was: "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord" ( Luke 5:8 ).

Jesus begins by taking that sense of estrangement away. He came to tell us that no matter what we are like the door is open to the presence of God. Suppose there was a son who did some shameful thing and then ran away, because he was sure that there was no use in going home, because the door was bound to be shut. Then suppose someone came with the news that the door was still open and a welcome was waiting at home. What a difference that news would make! It was just that kind of news that Jesus brought. He came to take away the sense of estrangement and of guilt, by telling us that God wants us just as we are.

(ii) We saw that sin killed the ideals by which men live. Jesus reawakens the ideal in the heart of man.

The story is told of a negro engineer in a river ferry-boat in America. His boat was old and he did not worry over much about it; the engines were begrimed and ill-cared for. This engineer was soundly converted. The first thing he did was to go back to his ferry-boat and polish his engines until every part of the machinery shone like a mirror. One of the regular passengers commented on the change. "What have you been up to?" he asked the engineer. "What set you cleaning and polishing these old engines of yours?" "Sir," answered the engineer, "I've got a glory." That is what Christ does for a man. He gives him a glory.

It is told that in the congregation in Edinburgh to which George Matheson came there was an old woman who lived in a cellar in filthy conditions. After some months of Matheson's ministry, communion time came round. When the elder called at this old woman's cellar with the cards, he found that she had gone. He tracked her down. He found her in an attic room. She was very poor and there were no luxuries, but the attic was as light and airy and clean as the cellar had been dark and dismal and dirty. "I see you've changed your house," he said to her. "Ay," she said, "I have. You canna hear George Matheson preach and live in a cellar." The Christian message had rekindled the ideal.

As the old hymn has it:

"Deep in the human heart, crushed by the tempter,

Feelings lie buried that grace can restore."

The grace of Jesus Christ rekindles the ideals which repeated failing to sin has extinguished. And by that very rekindling, life is set climbing again.

(iii) Greater than anything else, Jesus Christ revives and restores the lost will. We saw that the deadly thing about sin was that it slowly but surely destroyed a man's will and that the indulgence which had begun as a pleasure became a necessity. Jesus recreates the will.

That in fact is always what love does. The effect of a great love is always a cleansing thing. When a person really and truly falls in love, his love compels him to goodness. He loves the loved one so much that the love of his sins is broken.

That is what Christ does for us. When we love him, that love recreates and restores our will towards goodness. As the hymn has it:

"He breaks the power of cancelled sin,

He sets the prisoner free."

The Work And The Works Of Grace ( Ephesians 2:4-10 Continued)

Paul closes this passage with a great exposition of that paradox which always lies at the heart of his view of the gospel. That paradox has two arms.

(i) Paul insists that it is by grace that we are saved. We have not earned salvation nor could we have earned it. It is the gift of God and our part is simply to accept it. Paul's point of view is undeniably true; and for two reasons.

(a) God is perfection; and, therefore, only perfection is good enough for him. Man by his very nature cannot bring perfection to God; and so, if ever man is to win his way to God, it must always be God who gives and man who takes.

(b) God is love; sin is therefore a crime, not against law, but against love. Now it is possible to make atonement for a broken law, but it is impossible to make atonement for a broken heart; and sin is not so much breaking God's law as it is breaking God's heart. Let us take a crude and imperfect analogy. Suppose a motorist by careless driving kills a child. He is arrested, tried, found guilty, sentenced to a term of imprisonment and/or to a fine. After he has paid the fine and served the imprisonment, as far as the law is concerned, the whole matter is over. But it is very different in relation to the mother whose child he killed. He can never put things right with her by serving a term of imprisonment and paying a fine. The only thing which can restore his relationship to her is an act of free forgiveness on her part. That is the way we are to God. It is not God's laws against which we have sinned; it is against his heart. And therefore only an act of free forgiveness of the grace of God can put us back into the right relationship with him.

(ii) That is to say that works have nothing to do with earning salvation. It is neither right nor possible to leave the teaching of Paul here--and yet that is where it is so often left. Paul goes on to say that we are recreated by God for good works. Here is the Pauline paradox. All the good works in the world cannot put us right with God; but there is something radically wrong with the Christianity which does not issue in good works.

There is nothing mysterious about this. It is simply an inevitable law of love. If someone fine loves us, we know that we do not and cannot deserve that love. At the same time we know with utter conviction that we must spend all life in trying to be worthy of it.

That is our relationship to God. Good works can never earn salvation; but there is something radically wrong if salvation does not produce good works. It is not that our good works put God in our debt; rather that God's love lays on us the obligation to try throughout all life to be worthy of it.

We know what God wants us to do; God has prepared long beforehand the kind of life He wants us to live, and has told us about it in his book and through his son. We cannot earn God's love; but we can and must show how grateful we are for it, by seeking with our whole hearts to live the kind of life which will bring joy to God's heart.

- William Barclay's Daily Study Bible