The Surpassing Riches of His Grace

January 22nd, 2019

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 our trespasses. 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, in order that in the coming ages He might display the surpassing riches of His grace, demonstrated by His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7 BSB)

Twice in these first two chapters of Ephesians Paul has used this word “surpassing.” The first was in 1:19 when he wrote of “the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.” The second is in 2:7, above, which speaks of “the surpassing riches of His grace.” He goes on to use this same word one more time, in 3:19 where he wrote, “to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.” The surpassing power and surpassing grace of God in Christ Jesus result in a personal experience which surpasses knowledge. 

Clearly there is something here that Paul was seeking to communicate, as the Spirit directed and empowered him, and I believe it involves two thoughts: (1) the immeasurable nature of God, of His knowledge, love, and power, and (2) the unknown depth of our own spirits. Both of these potentials have been hidden from our own minds by two realities. The first is the limitations of being a creation which can never assail the summits of knowledge and greatness of the Creator, nor can we understand fully the greatness of our own spirits, what they can truly contain and absorb. The second is simply the fact of sin, which has blurred, blinded, and obscured from our view and understanding these matters even further.

Can we imagine what it must be like to be God? There is joy in the heart and nature of God that the Father, Son, and Spirit share together in eternal existence that we can hardly fathom. But neither can we truly understand what it means to be fully human, and in the redemption of grace there will be fullness of joy and awareness of love that we can hardly grasp today. Just as the person and greatness and love of God are beyond our ability to comprehend, so the depth of our own spirits and our divinely fashioned capacity to receive this love are unknown even to us. 

God is higher and we are deeper than we know. This divine experience of knowing His love is “beyond knowledge,” meaning that we cannot learn this by studying – neither the reality of God nor the capacity of man. The psalmist wrote: “My mouth will declare Your righteousness and Your salvation all day long, though I cannot know their full measure” (Psalm 71:15). He made us to be reservoirs of His love, to absorb and receive and dwell in this reality, yet is only the redeemed man who can experience this. 

Rich in mercy

Mercy means “pity and compassion.” The previous verse, Eph. 2:3, said that we were “children of wrath” but instead of wrath God felt pity and compassion. God is somewhat like a parent who cleans his house and prepares to give his child a birthday party, only to see the child has misbehaved and dirtied the house, running through it with muddy feet, and tore up the decorations, even pushed over the cake and threw the presents out into the rain.

Yet this parent does not say, “Bad child! No birthday party for you!” Instead, inexplicably, this parent is moved by pity and compassion and sits with the child, stilling him, and embracing him, and graciously tells him that he will repair the damage, clean up the mess, and the party will still be held. But he wants the child to apologize, to trust that the parent wanted to do something good for the child, and to get cleaned up. Every analogy breaks down eventually, but we could say that just as this party schedule has been postponed due to the child’s bad behavior, so God’s plans for our own blessings have been postponed due to the problems of our own bad behavior.    

The Psalm says:

As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:13-14 ESV)

God “made us alive” and just as He raised Christ from the tomb, so he awakens the dead spirit of human life and raises us to the knowledge of His love. Perhaps the greatest loss of the human heart after the fall of mankind due to sin is the lost knowledge of His love. What greater thrill could the child have than to know the love of his parent? And this knowledge of the love of the Father was always with Christ, and He prayed that it would always be with us: “That the love with which You love Me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26).

Raised us up

Christ died for us, and just as He identified with us in His death, so we identify with Him. We own His death as our own, believing each one of us that our personal sins were transferred to Christ on the cross. And just as surely as we died with Him, we also believe that we are raised with Him.  “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5). (See Colossians 2:12-13.) 

This is a strong teaching of Paul’s theology, which he received by the inspiration of the Spirit. He often repeated this truth, stressing that each conversion of each human heart reflects the miracle of the resurrection. Just as God breathed life into the dead body of Jesus of Nazareth, so He breathes life into our dead spirits. And the reputation and glory of God is upheld in the ages to come by His work of redemption in human lives: “So that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7).

Our own power or God’s

But this truth is not only about the resurrection of the body and heaven, but it also applies to our daily lives. We can live each day in the reality of His resurrection today. His power is available to us through faith. The Christian life is not to be one of constant striving in our own effort to follow Christ, to please Him. Rather it is to be the daily receiving of His resurrection power that transforms our hearts. 

Our own power will inevitably focus on outward results, on how we appear to be doing to others. We will want to look holy and kind on the outside rather than be holy and kind on the inside. This is why legalistic religion always fails, because it insists on fruit while denying the source of life to the branch. But the constant biblical teaching is that we bear fruit in our lives only as the Spirit moves in our innermost person, changing our thoughts, values, and hearts. Christ said: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4).

When we speak of spiritual growth, the very heart of it is to be connected to the life of Christ. Miles Stanford wrote:

There are two main aspects to this source principle. First, the Lord Jesus is the source of our Christian life—we were born into Him; God has made us complete in Him. This truth we are to hold by faith; it is true of each of us. “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature” (II Cor. 5:17). Second, as we hold to this fact by faith, we are brought into the practical reality of it day by day in our experience. Little by little we receive that which is already ours. The important thing to know and be sure of is that all is ours; we are complete in Him—now. This fact enables us to hold still while He patiently works into our character that life of ours which is hid with Christ in God.

So the choice is ours – whether to believe, to cling to Him, to depend on Him, to trust in Him, or whether to try and please others by our “christ-like-ness.” In the last days there will be many who seek to appear religious, “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). Focus as a matter of first priority on the heart and everything else will fall into place. 

_________________________

 

 

Ephesians

Children of Wrath

January 21st, 2019

As for you, you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you used to walk when you conformed to the ways of this world and of the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit who is now at work in the sons of disobedience. At one time we all lived among them, fulfilling the cravings of our flesh and indulging its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature children of wrath. (Ephesians 2:1-3 BSB)

Something went wrong in human experience.

In the first chapter of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul explained the plan of God to bless us in Christ from before the foundation of the world, and of His work of grace in believers. He used grandiose phrases like: “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms,” “the riches of his grace that he lavished on us,” and “the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints.” He used them not for some emotional effect on the readers, but because they were and are the utter truth of God’s intentions for us.

But before he can go on and teach us more about the Christian life, he has to visit this topic of our sinfulness. The immeasurable blessings that God bestows on us through Christ have at their very foundation the sacrificial death of Christ for our sins. God from eternity planned to bless us, but something terrible got in the way, and that is our sinfulness. It was of such a nature, so strong and upsetting, that none of these plans of God for us could be fulfilled until this matter was taken out of our way.

We were dead

Death is an absolute. You cannot be deader than dead. And the Spirit inspired Paul to tell us our true condition without Christ. We were in spiritual death. We often speak of our sins as “our little foibles” or our “weaknesses,” “failings,” or “chinks in our armor.” We down play their seriousness, but God in His utter and complete holiness would not do so.  To Him we were simply dead – cut off from life.

Men are spiritually dead like a cut flower is dead. If you place the flower in a vase of water there is still the impression of life, but death has already set in and it will inevitably fade. The human race still shows some signs of kindness and greatness, but there is also the terrible signs of moral decay and death has already set in.

The world, the flesh, and the devil

There are three great enemies of righteousness in this life. The world is this fallen world with its fallen values. Here Paul spoke of “the ways of the world,” and that speaks of both an inward and outward adherence on our part. Every earthly culture has two aspects: the inner cultural values and the outward customs with their “proper” ways to act. John wrote:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not from the Father but from the world. The world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God remains forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

The flesh is the biblical way of describing our fallen human nature that is detailed here. We willingly walk in the ways of the world because of our “flesh.” Our problem is not just what is “out there” in the world but what is “in here” in our hearts. We each have a tendency to sin. We read that before Christ we lived  “fulfilling the cravings of our flesh and indulging its desires and thoughts” (Eph. 2:3).

Elsewhere Paul wrote:

I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh; for I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do. Instead, I keep on doing the evil I do not want to do. And if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (Romans 7:18-20)

Early in the American experience, many well-meaning European pioneers sought to get away from the evil influences of where they had come from and to establish new and “Christian” communities – utopias – that would be places like virtual Edens. But they found that they each brought sin with them in their own hearts into the communities.

The devil is the evil mastermind behind this entire problem. Here he is called “the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit who is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). Satan is identified as a spirit that works among the people of this world to inspire disobedience to God. Paul wrote more about the devil and demons to the Christians in Ephesus than any other church. From the Acts 19 account of the establishing of the church there, and the clear spiritual conflict they were engaged in, we can only assume that the city was a stronghold of Satanic activity.

The phrase “power of the air” shows two things. (a) Satan is not limited geographically, not more than the air we breath is locked into certain areas only.  Eventually every molecule of the atmosphere that one human breathes can be breathed in by any other person on the planet. And the same is true of the work of the devil. (b) But I believe there is some weakness intended also in this description, as though his domain is built “in the air” and not grounded in any eternal reality.

We speak of those who dwell too much in phantasies as “building castles in the air,” and this is certainly the reality of Satan. As John wrote: “Woe to the earth … with great fury the devil has come down to you, knowing he has only a short time” (Rev. 12:12).

By nature children of wrath

The human condition is such that God is fully justified to exercise His wrath against us all. There are many questions this thought raises: At what age do we become “children of wrath?” Is the wrath of God exercised with the same fierceness against all humans? These and other questions are answered in the teachings of God’s word. As Abraham said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). So God is the completely fair and equitable judge. Christ spoke of it being “more tolerable” (Mark 6:11) for some in judgement than others. So we can trust God that His judgment will be completely fair. Where God’s word is silent in details we may assume that the affirmations of His fairness and rightness adequately cover the matters in general. He is the Judge, not you or me. He will judge fairly.

But if we do not understand this point – that the entire human race earned its total condemnation in the holiness of God’s judgment – then we will not understand His love and His grace. His love motivated Him to act in grace and send Christ to die for our sins. The human race is not just a little sick spiritually, and just needs a little help, some encouragement to try harder. No, the human race is dead spiritually, and only the grace of God in Christ can make us alive spiritually.

Those of us who have come to Christ have no means to boast or to be proud of ourselves, for we, in ourselves alone, were children of wrath. All of our boasting is in the cross of Christ and in the love and grace of God in Christ. Our life comes from Him, our adoption comes from Him, and we can debate the mystery of faith – how much of it is done by us and how much is done by God – but we must be clear that no faith would be possible without the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ, and Christ Himself, to believe in, and without the Spirit at work in our hearts to bring us to faith in Christ.

So here is a reason to humbly rejoice. God has reached down into our lives and redeemed us in Christ, and has called us to Himself. He has adopted us as His children. His grace in Christ is able to take those who are properly called “children of wrath” and save them and make them like Christ spiritually.  God’s grace is amazing for more than just one reason! He reaches down to save us – that is amazing! – but He also brings us up and seats us with Christ in the heavenly places – also amazing!

Daily Devotions, Ephesians, Evening Devotionals