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God’s Overflowing Love
Spring Quarter: God Loves Us
Unit 1: God’s Eternal, Preserving, Renewing Love
Sunday school lesson for the week of March 12, 2017
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: Ephesians 2:1-10
The speaker described his former life. He said he did a lot of things of which he was ashamed. He rebelled and drank obsessively. On a number of occasions he was rude to his mama. He was self-centered and deeply depressed. He was really, really unhappy. But then he smiled and said, “God’s grace changed my life.”
Likewise, many of us can attest to the emptiness of our former lives. To be sure, our individual circumstances may be different from that speaker’s circumstances, but we remember our situation prior to our recognition of God’s grace.
Among other things, our scripture lesson today (Ephesians 2:1-10) is a contrast between the “before” and “after” of Christian experience. Paul begins by reminding the believers in Ephesus and beyond of their former lives without Christ. Then he describes the glorious new life in Christ which has now become theirs. In essence, Paul points out what salvation is, the way it comes to the believer and where it leads.
So what does it mean for an individual to be a Christian? These 10 verses before us are an important summary of Paul’s teaching on the subject.
We see the need of salvation – Dead to Life
With all that is going on in modern medicine, when can a patient be pronounced dead? Undoubtedly, the medical profession has its own understanding of this issue. Physicians do recognize the signs of physical death. But do they recognize the signs of spiritual death?
Speaking to the Ephesians, Paul says “As for you, you were dead in your trespasses and sins…” (2:1). Here Paul is not only talking about the devastating results of our sins of choice, but of our own preexisting human condition as well. For whatever guilt we earn by our choices and behavior, there is an underlying reality of brokenness or “soul-sickness” that is rooted in “trespasses and sins.”
Paul states, “All of us once lived among them, the disobedient in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else” (2:3). Theologians call it original sin. But whatever you call it, though, it is humanity’s great ailment and it is a preexisting condition. We were born with it, and it is 100 percent fatal. This preexisting handicapping condition binds its victims to live disobedient worldly lives following the desires of “flesh and senses.”
In addition, it is thought by some that “trespasses and sins” contain two different thoughts of sin. “Trespasses” mean a deliberate breaking of a known law or “doing things which we ought not to have done.”
“Sin,” on the other hand, means basically to “miss the mark” – to fail to hit the target. Who of us have not missed the mark?
But back to our preexisting condition. The great 19th
century writer Oscar Wilde was brilliant and had all the charm in the world. Yet in his own tragic spiritual obituary, he confessed to succumbing to the “passions of the flesh” and going to prison. Listen to what he said, “I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul…I allowed desire to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace.”
From the world of insurance policies and small-print legalities, you and I know something about preexisting conditions. These are maladies or disorders that might disqualify us from some sort of coverage or treatment. But as scholars remind us, can there be a more serious preexisting condition than being dead? Is there any state more disqualifying?
We are informed that in our ordinary, physical life, our preexisting conditions disqualify us because human legalities don’t leave room for grace. Not so with God, however. As serious and seemingly hopeless as our human condition was, still we came under divine coverage. By grace, we were eligible for God’s treatment. Paul says, “But God…even when we were dead though our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (2:5).
The mistake of salvation - a false remedy
Now the remedy for our sin is not any cure or treatment we can do for ourselves. Example – a mother kissing a small child’s scraped knee typically makes the child feel better, but there is no evidence that there is anything truly curative in that kiss. In that moment, however, the child’s first priority is to feel better.
As adults, that may become our priority as well – feeling better rather than actually being better. The expression “drowning our sorrows” is a cultural characteristic and has more to do with feeling better. Thus, in our painkilling culture, individuals may seek unhealthy ways of eliminating or numbing their pain.
Consequently, it is no great surprise that what is done in the physical realm is also true of the spiritual realm. There too, we may be tempted to pursue what makes us feel better even if it does not make us better.
According to scholars, traditionally, there has been one particular remedy that has enjoyed special popularity among good, religious folks. The notorious deceptive treatment is “works.” Doing good works generally makes us feel better. But as we already noted, feeling good is not the same thing as being well.
Now, the apostle Paul was as acquainted with this “deception” as anyone who ever lived. He was a Pharisee, and considered himself zealous and blameless (read Philippians 3:4-6). Paul did make much of his works – that is, his own righteousness.
However, listen carefully! When Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus, he was more than eager to make clear to them the real way of salvation. Paul stated “It is “not your own doing” (2:8). He continued, “It is not the result of works” (2:9). Paul wanted these believers to move beyond the deception of works and to know the real cure for our human condition.
The means of salvation – God’s mercy and grace
Imagine the impossible! You apply for health insurance while being ill in the hospital. You talk to an agent about homeowner’s insurance while hiding in the closet during a tornado warning. You seek to purchase life insurance while on your deathbed.
What insurance company would dare take on such a risk? Right! No one in their right mind would offer such “cases” coverage. No one, that is, except God. Listen to Paul’s words, “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” (Eph. 2:4,5).
Scholars inform us that as soon as we can imagine the preposterous or impossible, we are in a position to think about God’s grace. For as long as we are making reasonable calculations, we’ll never reach grace.
What is grace? Grace signifies God’s active and unmerited favor in our behalf. Grace is utter generosity, unselfish, spontaneous, reckless generosity that acts in another’s behalf regardless of whether they are worthy or not. Jesus Christ is the means by which this grace is conveyed to humankind. As one of my favorite minister friends puts it, “Grace is going for someone what they do not deserve, have not earned, could not ask for and cannot repay.” It is grace that raises us from spiritual death to spiritual life.
Paul reiterates, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (2:8). And it is grace, according to Paul, that is the real cure—the only cure—for the human condition.
In addition, scholars remind us that the grace of God is often shortchanged in people’s minds. When we think of grace, we think of forgiveness. While that is certainly the truth, of course, it is not the whole truth.
The gospel Paul preaches reveals grace as a powerful thing. By God’s grace, we are not only forgiven, but saved and raised to a new life in Christ. And by grace, we are re-created and empowered fully to live the life God intended.
The result of salvation – God’s workmanship in and through us
Some years back, I conducted the funeral of a first cousin. Bishop Bevel Jones also participated and at one point in his meditation, he stated, “It is by grace that we are saved, but then we must be worthy of that grace.”
That’s what Paul is saying in our scripture lesson when he says, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works…” Ephesus 2:10). Thus, our salvation is not the result of good works, but our good works are the result of salvation.
It is by grace that we are saved through our faith. Thanks be to God!
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.
- What roles do grace and faith play in salvation? How do works fit into the equation? (Ephesians 2:8,9)
- Ask class members individually to state briefly one reason for thanksgiving and how God’s grace has changed their lives.