“The Awfulness of Sin, the Greatness of Salvation”
February 14, 2016
We were by nature objects of wrath, but God rescued us by grace.
I. The Awfulness of Sin (Ephesians 2:1-3)
II. The Greatness of Salvation (Ephesians 2:4-10)
About thirty years ago I was given the opportunity to preach my first ever sermon. So I selected a text that seemed central to me, and I imitated the best preachers I could imitate, and I preached it. I remember one of the people who talked to me afterwards was Novella Denney, and she, very graciously, said she felt I should pursue preaching. Thanks, Novella for the encouragement. But I called that sermon, on Ephesians 2:1-10, ‘The Awfulness of Sin, the Greatness of Salvation.’ I wanted to show that understanding how awful and pervasive our sin is helps us to appreciate the overwhelming graceness of grace.
Twenty-five years later I was sitting with Jim Dutton at a restaurant, and the subject of sin and grace came up, and I realized that the central message of my life and ministry has never changed. Every sermon I preach, every life I try to speak into is conditioned by the truth of how lost and fallen we are due to sin, and the truth of the greatness of the gracious rescue God has achieved in Jesus. And this is not just a theological truth. I’ve seen over and over in my own life how a deep-seated experience of this Gospel makes a huge difference to how I approach my own life and the life issues of others. So this morning we’re going to look at Ephesians 2:1-10, and we’ll see, in Paul’s immortal words that we were by nature objects of wrath, but God rescued us by grace.
Ephesians 2 begins with a downward spiral into the depths of sin, followed by an upward spiral into the wonders of grace. So, the awfulness of sin, verses 1-3: And you were dead in your trespasses and sins 2in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3Among whom we all once lived, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.
The awfulness of sin. Early this week I ran out to Petsmart. I needed Iams puppy cookies, which are a favorite of both my old dog and my young dog. The box I bought was a fine looking box, clean and bright with cute puppy pictures. But when I opened it, I found appearances were deceiving. It was full of pantry moths, Indian meal moths. That’s an apt metaphor for the awfulness of sin. As Jesus said, people look good on the outside, but inside they are full of corruption. And that’s not some people, that’s all of us. We are all corrupt with the awfulness of sin. Paul calls this death. “As for you, you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” The effect of sin is death. The word in Greek is used of both physical and spiritual death, but the reference here is clearly spiritual. They are not yet physically dead, but they are dead spiritually.
The mental image, shocking as it might be, is of a bloated corpse, floating in the filth and sewage in which he or she drowned. That’s the awfulness of sin. Yet this horrible death is an outcome of simple separation from God. Recall Isaiah 59: “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you.” Sin separates. If you’ve sinned and not received salvation, you are separated from God. Like a baby separated from its mother, or a branch separated from the tree, the very fact of separation is a death sentence. Like a chicken with its head cut off, you’re dead, you just don’t know it yet.
Sin, defined simply, is disobeying or rebelling against God. When we do something we know is wrong, something God says is wrong, something that hurts others, we have sinned. Whether it’s a common thing, anger or selfishness, or a major thing like adultery or murder, doesn’t matter, it’s all sin. Scripture’s clear truth is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and that “The wages of sin is death.” This is simple cause and effect. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out: Sin, die. Even a child can understand that.
Yet many people deny that this truth applies to them. Even though by the objective ten-commandant standards of stealing and lying and cursing with God’s name you admit you’ve done wrong, even though the shame and guilt in your conscience makes you miserable and even though the people around you are hurt because of what you’ve done, you are unconvinced sin has consequences.
Paul’s burden at this point in Ephesians is to clarify how trapped we are in sin, how devastating its outcome. The world, the flesh and the devil conspire to keep us trapped. Before salvation we’re alive to these things but dead to God and to righteousness. Verses 1-2: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world.”
The world is a system, organized by Satan, that hates and opposed all that is godly. Ask yourself: Is there anything in this world, the media, politics, business or industry, that consistently promotes right behavior or a Godward focus among men? No. These things usually condone wrong behavior and focus, whether greed or lust or pride or skepticism. Satan’s goal for the world system is to produce a climate of hurt and pain, approval of selfishness, promotion of sin.
Satan is behind this world system. Paul says you followed “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit now at work in those who are disobedient.” This spirit is our accuser, Satan himself. He rules this world’s spiritual realm, principalities, and powers, rulers and authorities. John says “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” He orchestrates this evil system to keep us from faith. Paul says “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”
But we can’t blame the world or the devil entirely. It’s us. Paul says “Among whom we all once lived, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.” Our sinful nature, or our flesh, is the part of us that won’t resist sin, that wants to rebel against God, and to give in to every desire of evil. Paul wrote the Galatians that “the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” The sinful nature will always choose sin.
These factors - the world, the flesh, and the devil are apparent in the first sin, when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Their sin was putting self ahead of God, rebellion against God, pride. They chose to be in charge of their own lives. This is the underlying sin of all others.
I recently read an article by Gavin Ortland, trying to identify key stumbling blocks to the Gospel in our culture. He essentially says that as a culture we have gotten so selfish that we won’t even accept objective realities. He says “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality; today it’s how to subdue reality to the wishes of men. Our culture says you should be able to do anything you want so long as you don’t inhibit someone else’s self-expression.” Later he says “To challenge our culture’s inverted moral compass, we must help people see that dying to self is the path to life, that what happened to Ebenezer Scrooge is a better picture of the human ideal than what’s preached in the self-help section at Barnes & Noble.”
Satan is the father of these lies. In the garden he promulgated the great lie that man could be independent of God. “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Satan seduces us to rebel against God and put ourselves first. One of his recent ploys is the lie that takes away our responsibility for our sin. He convinces us we’re victims. In the episode with Adam and Eve, when God confronts them with their sin, Adam says “the woman you gave me made me eat.” It’s her fault, it’s your fault, it’s not my fault. In the same way, Eve blames the serpent who tempted her.
The story is told that one day Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, visited a prison and talked with each of the inmates. There were endless tales of innocence, of misunderstood motives, and of exploitation. Finally the king stopped at the cell of a convict who remained silent. "Well," remarked Frederick, "I suppose you are an innocent victim too?" "No, sir, I'm not," replied the man. "I'm guilty and deserve my punishment." Turning to the warden, the king said, "Here, release this rascal before he corrupts all these fine innocent people!"
Satan always looks to feed you a lie, making you a victim, not responsible for your own sin. “I had a bad home life. My parents didn’t raise me right. I’ve had a run of bad luck with money. My husband’s lazy. My wife’s a nag. My kids deserved it. I’m too busy. I’m weak in this area. I can’t help myself.”
Also present in the Garden was the flesh, human nature, human desires. Even before the Fall, Eve, by Satan’s leading, saw that the forbidden fruit of the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eye and desirable for gaining wisdom. Then she ate. She gave in to the desire for what was forbidden. In the same way we give in to the desires of our flesh, fallen and evil desires. Romans 1 teaches that because of rebellion God gave us over to the sinful desires of our hearts, to shameful lusts and to a depraved mind. We have all known the inner impulse that says: “I don’t care about consequences, I want this. I need this.”
Last weekend 52 advertisers paid a million dollars a minute to tell us what we need, from the Audi R8 that will make us feel alive to the Doritos that not even a baby in the womb can resist to razor blades, to a cure for toe nail fungus. The goal is to make me feel that I need this. It’s all about me, it’s all about self.
John Stott sums this up in his wonderful book The Cross of Christ. “The emphasis of Scripture is on the godless self-centeredness of sins. We actively refuse to acknowledge and obey God as our Creator and Lord. We have rejected the position of dependence which our createdness inevitably involves, and made a bid for independence. Worse still, we have dared to proclaim our self-dependence, our autonomy, which is to claim the position occupied by God alone. Sin is not a regrettable lapse from conventional standards: it’s essence is hostility to God, active rebellion against Him.”
So we have seen that all of us are, or were at one time dead in sin, trapped there by a corrupt world system, a corrupt tempter, a corrupt human nature. As a result, Paul says at the end of verse 3 that we were by nature objects of wrath. God’s response to this sin is wrath. The word translated objects there is frequently translated ‘children.’ It means those who are closely associated with someone or something. It says we are naturally heirs to the wrath of God.
How do we understand the wrath of God? We have to start with God’s holiness. That God is holy, entirely pure and sinless, is at the heart of what the Bible teaches. This truth is sung before God’s throne in Isaiah Chapter 6, where the seraphim cry “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord Almighty.” Isaiah responds “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips” He saw his own sinfulness in the light of God’s holiness. Habakkuk 1:13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil: you cannot tolerate wrong. Psalm 5 “You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot dwell. The arrogant cannot stand in your presence.”
God’s wrath is his holy response to evil. Stott says: “God cannot be in the presence of sin, and if it approaches him too closely, it is repudiated or consumed.” This is God’s wrath, his right and just response to rebellious sinners. When we admit we’re sinners, when we go on to agree that God is holy, we will also agree that it is fair, just to separate us from his presence. Think of it this way: an operating room is supposed to be a sterile environment. Would it be right for the chief surgeon to invite an unkempt, drunken, flea-ridden bum with dung on his hands to reach in and do heart massage? No. In the same way, it wouldn’t be right for a holy God to invite you to do your thing in his presence.
Stott concludes: “When we have glimpsed the blinding glory of the holiness of God, and have been so convicted of our sin by the Holy Spirit that we tremble before God and acknowledge what we are, then and only then does the necessity of the cross become so obvious that we are astonished we never saw it before.” If God desires to save us, he must find a way equally expressive of his wrath and his love, his justice and his mercy. He has done so, in the cross. When you see a person caught in sin, take them to the cross because that’s where justice happens, that’s where wrath happens, where justice and wrath deal with those sins fully, in love and sacrifice and mercy.
Look at verse 4. This is one of the most marvelous transitions in all Scripture. “But God.” That’s it. We don’t need to go any further yet. “But God.” These might be the most marvelous two words in the English. “But, God.” Given everything we’ve said, it’s a remarkable juxtaposition. But God.
God detests sin. It repulses him. It makes him vomit. You, on the other hand, chose to wallow in it, to declare total independence from him, setting yourself up as a god. Therefore, you were by nature an object of wrath. But God, who is rich in mercy. But God, because of his great love for us. But God, while we were dead in our transgressions. But God, verse 5, made us alive with Christ. How? Christ became sin for us. 2 Corinthians 5:21 “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us.” Christ experienced that wrath of God which should have been directed at me. Christ knew the revulsion, the disgust, in a sense even the hatred of God the Father. He knew the separation sin creates from a holy God. This is why he cries on the cross “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” He died to give us rebellious self-centered sinners life.
Because of what Christ has done, Paul can say “It is by grace you have been saved.” Do you disagree? Do you suppose even for a minute there is one thing you could have done in your own power to turn aside the wrath which was your due? No. Only the grace of God in the sacrifice of Jesus could satisfy the wrath you deserved. God directed the wrath due us at him.
It’s like you are cowering in a field in the teeth of a great storm. You know the next bolt will strike you. Suddenly Jesus comes up, and stands over you with arms outstretched and shouts “Let it be me.” And with a roar that shakes the earth that next shattering bolt of lightning strikes him. Sin so vile, wrath so great that it required the death of his Son could never be repaid by mere good works or any action on your part. You are saved by the grace of God.
If that isn’t enough look what else God has done by grace. Verses 6-7, God “raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace through his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Here is a great truth, hinted at already in Ephesians 1: God has raised us up as he raised Christ. He has already positioned us in the place of exaltation which we will occupy after our physical resurrection, in the ages to come. He has raised us in the spiritual realm in order to show every creature in that realm, both good creatures and evil, the incomparable riches of his grace, his unfathomable kindness to us.
The Bible frequently talks about God rescuing us from the pit. Psalm 88:6 You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. 7Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. But then Psalm 40:1-2 I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. 2He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.” God’s grace is that which lifts us up out of the slime, out of the mud and filth of our sin, and places us in heaven with Christ, finding our righteousness and cleanness in him.
I remember a work project with the high school group from the church where I grew up. We worked at a Christian camp for impoverished kids in the hills of West Virginia. One rainy year we were to put up a fence. So here we are digging with post hole diggers, but the mud just slid back into the holes. The only way to get it out was to lie, face down, reach in, arms-length, and pull out handfuls of ooze. In minutes you were covered. Lying on your face, mud would get in your eyes or mouth. You couldn’t wipe it with your hands, they were covered. You couldn’t wipe it with your clothes, they were caked. The only thing you could do was to go to the main house, and have somebody hose you off.
That’s what it feels like to be in the mud and mire of sin. You can’t wipe it off, because you are just covered with it, and your garments are just caked. But you can be washed, cleansed and clothed in righteousness. By the grace of God in Jesus Christ, by his blood shed for you. In the words of the Psalmist: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” Or in the words of a hymn, be washed in the blood of the lamb.
Christ raises us from our pit, cleanses us, and seats us with him in the heavenly realms. We go from death to life, sin to holiness, hell to heaven. Thus we become God’s trophies of grace, on display in the spiritual realm. In three verses we have gone from objects of wrath to exaltation in heaven. How? Not by our merit, but only by His grace. It is only by his grace. Only by his grace.
Paul comes back in verses 8 and 9 to emphasize this. 8For it is grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, 9not by works, so that no one can boast. Salvation is utterly impossible to sinful men: It is impossible to dodge the bullet, to make yourself clean, impossible for a dead person to lift the coffin lid. But what is impossible to men is possible to God. He gives salvation as a free gift. At great cost he pays the whole price. Neither down-payment, installments nor final payment is required from you. Instead salvation is by grace though faith: and even the faith is God’s free gift.
Let me speak to anyone here who may not have experienced this. I’ve been talking mostly as if you had already accepted this free gift. But maybe that’s not you. Maybe you never knew the awfulness of sin. You’re just now understanding “Yes, I’ve been in rebellion against God.” “Nothing I can do will gain me eternal life.” “Yes I’m down in that pit.” “I feel like the next bolt is due me.” Let me tell you what Jesus would say if he was here. He’d say “I love you. I died on my cross the death that you deserved. I took the stroke destined for you. I bore the wrath you earned. And I want to lift you out of the pit, I want to cleanse you from your crawling sin, and I want to give you life.”
You can go from death to life. All you need do is turn to him in trust. “Lord, because of my rebellion, I don’t deserve to avoid your wrath, I can’t get this mud off, I can’t make myself clean. I can’t lift myself out of this pit. But I trust that you can, because of what you did, and I trust now that you will rescue and cleanse me.” You can tell him that, and can go from death to life, right now.
If you are a believer, how does this apply? Three things. First, I hope you will deeply recognize the awfulness of sin, and the greatness of salvation. I’m praying your heart will be filled with gratitude to God as you see the amazing, wonderful thing he’s done. But there are two other things in this text. One is that Paul says we are saved by grace, so that no one can boast. We need to recognize again that there is nothing in us, not in our behavior, our character, not even in our response to God that has any value in saving us. Only the deflection of God’s wrath onto Jesus Christ keeps us from hell. Therefore, we must not behave as if we were, in ourselves, more spiritual or worthy than the lowest sinner. All the worthiness belongs to God, who saved us by grace.
Paul calls himself ‘the foremost of sinners’ but he also affirms “it is no long I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” So spend time repenting of yourself, pride, self-confidence, self-worth, self-sufficiency, and instead let your confidence, value, and sufficiency be in Jesus your Savior.
The last thing we see in the text is a mandate for believers to do good, to do good works. As the last thing, this is a grateful response to what God has done. Verse 10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” But for grace you would be what you once were: a marred and deformed creation. But by grace you are now a re-creation, God completely remaking you into the image of the perfect Christ, so that you might do good. 2 Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”
You are God’s masterpiece. The word translated ‘workmanship’ describes the work of a master craftsman, a work of art. When he gives us new life, he recreates us, and specifically designs us for good works. He redesigns and forms us to bring glory to him by doing the work that he then calls us to do. As believers we do these good works, not because by them we earn merit or standing before God, but because God has transformed us, is transforming us into the image of Christ. And Christ is good. So it follows that as we are made into that image, we too will do what is good. Just as a dead person can only by nature, rot, so a living person must grow to do the things and bear the fruit God has prepared in advance, becoming a fruitful branch on the vine, a useful part of the body.
As we close this morning, I hope that your mind and your heart are filled with images. Images on the one hand of the awfulness of sin, images of death, and rot, and dirt and destruction, that speak of how vile sin is to a holy God. But I hope your mind is also filled with gratitude for the images of life. Because Jesus died for you, death is not the final image, but life. Dirt is not the final image, but cleansing, a clothing in white purity. Rot is not the final image, but growth, health and vigor for all eternity. Destruction is not the final image, hell is not the final image, but heaven is the final image, exaltation is the final image. The awfulness of sin, yes. But the greatness of salvation.