[K:NWTS 5/1 (May 1990) 3-21]
In the 37th chapter of his prophecy, Ezekiel describes for us how the hand of the Lord was upon him, and how he was led out in the Spirit and set down in the middle of a valley full of bones. There lay parts of human skeletons spread over the ground in such great numbers that the prophet had to walk around them in order to view them all. Then came the voice of the Lord with the question: "Son of man, shall these bones live?" Ezekiel answered: "Lord God, you know," as if to say, "For men this is impossible; if it is to come to pass, you, the Lord God, must do it." And in confirmation of this answer, he received the task of prophesying to those dry bones: "You dry bones! hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God: 'Behold, I shall cause breath to enter you, and you shall become alive.'"
The prophet did as commanded, and, as if the bones had understood his words, there was noise and commotion among them. At first it seemed impossible to detect any kind of order in the agitated mass, but before long they drew near to each other, bone to bone; what had just been scattered about in pieces now became articulated human skeletons. Look! The dry bones were clothed with flesh, and the prophet saw how delicate tendons intertwined among these bones and a pale skin was laid upon them so that the hideous skeletons changed into well-formed bodies.
Still, with that the prophecy was not yet fulfilled because there was no spirit in those bodies. Therefore, the command of the Lord again came to Ezekiel: "Prophesy to the spirit, prophesy, son of man! Say to the spirit, 'Oh spirit! come from the four winds, and breathe into these dead that they may become alive'." Hardly had this taken place than a mighty rustling was heard among those pale dead, the breath of life flowed over their lips, warm blood colored their cold cheeks red, dull eyes began to sparkle with the light of life, they stretched out their arms, and rose up on their feet—a well-prepared people that God had fashioned for himself out of dry bones through his mighty power.
All this, my hearers, was a symbolic prophecy of the national re-creation of God's covenant people, who mourned in exile. Those bones were the entire house of Israel. The Lord would open their graves, raise them up, and bring them back to their land. At the same time, however, it is a striking image of the resurrection of the spiritual Israel out of the graves of its sin and impurity, which we wish to speak to you about today, according to the word of the apostle in Ephesians 2:4,5: "But God who is rich in mercy, through his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through transgressions, has made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)." It is, as was just observed, "the spiritual resurrection of believers," which demands our attention. We will endeavor to consider it under the following points: (a) What it flows from; (b) What it presupposes; (c) How it is accomplished; (d) What it obliges us to.
According to our text, it is God's mercy and love out of which salvation is born. These two are the springs out of which it wells up, and therefore its entire character must correspond to this source. What springs from the bowels of God's mercy and love must in its entire course overflow with love and mercy. What comes from God, without our being able to prepare for or take away from it in any way, cannot in its duration be dependent on us but is, like God himself, unchangeable and eternally faithful; "I the Lord do not change, therefore, O children of Jacob, you are not consumed."
It is to a rich mercy and a great love that Paul points the Ephesians, as the source of their resurrection. And that is so as the latter is the foundation for the former. God was rich in mercy through his great love. Not until we rightly understand this will there be opened to us something of the riches that brought these glorious words of thanksgiving to the lips of the apostle.
What then is the situation? Imagine for a moment that the text read: "God, who is rich in mercy, has made us alive together with Christ," and that the words, "through his great love with which he loved us," were omitted. What a different outlook on the matter would immediately result! It would then say: God saw us in the misery of our sins and was moved in mercy to save us in Christ. Thus the foundation of our salvation would be nothing but a natural feeling of pity in God because of the wretchedness of his creatures.
To be sure, that alone would already be inexpressibly much. When the holy God has dealings with sinful creatures such that he is moved to pity and mercy towards them, that is such a miracle of divine grace that it constrains us to kneel in adoration before him who accomplishes it.
But the great love leaves the rich mercy far behind and is at once distinguished from it. That can be easily grasped. Suppose yourself to be mortally ill without nursing care and someone comes who, out of pure mercy and moved by your pitiable state, cares for you. What do you think, would the hand of that person make your bed as gently as the hand that a loving father or mother or spouse would extend to you?
Well then, the situation in our text is no different. It makes a great difference whether a redeemed person must say: God saw me in my misery and therefore he said to me, live, or whether, along with that, he may voice the glorious thought: God has loved me with an everlasting love, therefore he has drawn me with cords of loving kindness.
This great difference, which we immediately sense, may be given a satisfactory explanation. In order to grasp the proper relationship in which mercy and love appear here, we will look briefly at the respects in which they are different.
First, love has a more noble origin, provided it is born of the one who loves. Mercy is different. There the reason why one shows mercy comes from outside, prompted by the wretched situation of the object. Where there is no misery, there is no place for mercy, and as soon as the distress has subsided your compassion for the sufferer ends. Dependent on external circumstances and temporary in origin and duration, mercy cannot be compared with love. What if we had to think that it were only our sins which had moved God to save us? Oh no! It was love, which was not aroused by us but was grounded from eternity in the depth of divine being, whose length, breadth, depth, and height cannot be measured by our finite comprehension but by the infinite comprehension of God. It never ends, even as it never had a beginning.
Moreover, a distinction has to be made between divine and human love. The latter loves because it beholds and admires something beautiful and loveable in its object. Not so with God. He loved his own before the mountains came to be, before the earth and the world were brought forth. It was not at all that he knew, by virtue of his eternal foreknowledge, that they would be loveable. Oh no! All that they would be in this respect, he himself had decided to make them. He saw them dead in their sins and crimes, without form or glory, covered with their own blood. This is the great mystery that no man can solve—how God could love sinners, without there being anything in them worthy of his love. Mysterious, eternal love of God, you are beyond comprehension!
Secondly, love has a nobler nature. It is the firstborn of all God's virtues. "He who does not love, does not know God, for God is love," testifies the apostle John. God's being consists of love, and therefore when it is said that he loved those who were his in Christ Jesus, that means that his whole being expressed itself in that love and carried over to its objects. It was not a part of his affection that he bestowed upon these who were loved from eternity, but the fullness of his own blessed being. He did not purpose for them a gift located outside of himself, but his love was so great and rich that it was satisfied with nothing less than giving itself: God gave himself in Christ Jesus, his only begotten Son, who is the reflection of his glory and the express image of his substance. Precisely because in this deed God gave himself for sinners, the Scriptures call this the greatest revelation of God's love, which includes all others. "Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends," testifies the Savior. And the apostle asks: "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him give us all things?"
Thirdly, the distinction is seen in the object to which both reach out. Mercy is a common emotion, inherent in our nature, but love is something personal, the affection of a person for a person. Precisely this constitutes the richness of the faith of God's children, that every one of them can say with Paul: "He loved me, and gave himself for me" It is a discriminating love, which, although it encompasses the whole church, still has a personal relation to each one and knows everyone of its own by name. The Scriptures compare it to the love of a man for his wife, a bridegroom for his bride. It follows its objects their whole life through with a care that protects, leads and blesses. It sets apart a Paul from the womb for his worldwide task, but the tears of even the least among God's children are numbered in its bottle, and none of them is forgotten by God. Its greatness condescends to the smallest, who through such exertions is made great. The blood of his own is precious in God's sight. So unique and personal is this relationship between him and those he loves that he himself declares: The one who touches them, touches the apple of my eye. In an their oppression he is oppressed, through his love and through his grace he delivers them; he takes them up and carries them, now as in days of old.
From these observations the meaning of our text becomes clear. Before all else, the apostle intends to say that love precedes mercy in order. In the second place, because that love was so great, mercy became so rich. Through his great love, literally, for the sake of it, God was so rich, so wonderfully merciful. That love desired to express itself and did so in a wealth of mercies. In spite of their unsightly form and their impurity, this love still declares: "They are my people, children, whose lineage will not prove false. Thus he has become a Savior for them." For God, too, has a love that desires to work. Where he creates children for the glory of his great Name and pours out on those children his tender mercies, there is a love that is impelled, a love that must disclose more and more of itself. Therefore it is absurd to think that he could let them go and consider them sufficiently blessed, before he had communicated to them an the riches found in his divine fullness, before he had raised them as high as they could go and endowed their being with that perfection of which it was capable. For although he works all things according to his will, what is divine in that will is that the highest object of his glorious good pleasure is at the same time the greatest good of his children.
This mercy, enriched and made tender by God's love, had an ample area in which to display itself. It found its objects, according to our text, "dead in transgressions," that is to say, in the most wretched condition that one could imagine. And, what is most remarkable of all, this condition, however miserable in itself, was not such that, seen from a human point of view, it appeared capable of evoking mercy. Only when we clearly comprehend this will we in some measure have plumbed the deep meaning of Paul's words. To that end, in the second place, we must consider what this spiritual resurrection presupposes, in other words, what the expression "dead in transgressions" means.
On the surface it seems easy to say what "death" is. It is the opposite of "life," one will immediately answer. But just here lies the difficulty. The greatest wise men in this world have never been able to explain what life is and how it originates. And therefore the difficulty in clarifying the opposite, apart from God's Word.
Scripture, however, gives us an unambiguous answer to the question of what "death" is, and it does so by showing repeatedly in the clearest light what it would have us to understand by "life." In the first place, according to Scripture, life is an attribute of God. He alone has true life in and of himself In the second place, Scripture teaches that all creaturely life is derived from God and is nourished only in fellowship with him. So, at the beginning of all things, after the first creation, darkness covered the abyss and the earth was desolate and empty, a dead, formless mass. But as soon as the Spirit of God brooded, hovering over the waters, there was light and movement, the mass began to seethe and ferment, life originated in it by its contact with God. Again, when the Lord God had formed man out of the dust of the earth, he lay there like a dead man, lifeless and cold, until God blew into his nostrils the breath of life; thus man became a living being. From this it is plain enough that Scripture makes all life dependent on fellowship with God. Conversely, then, death can be defined as being cut off from the source of life. When we speak of temporal, spiritual and eternal death, repeatedly this thought lies at the foundation. In temporal death it is the body that is cut off from the source of its life, that is, the soul, and it slowly dissolves, there is no longer a living, animating principle that keeps it together; it returns to dust, from which it was taken. It is no different with the soul. In spiritual death it is cut off from the fountainhead of its life, the living God, and, accordingly, it dies, is completely torn from its context, looses its unity, perishes. Eternal death is the total separation of both body and soul, when these will one day be reunited, from the fellowship of God. In the outermost darkness, where no ray of divine light any longer penetrates, this alienation from God reaches its zenith and its most dreadful revelation.
From this it is immediately clear to us why Paul announces to the Ephesians that they were dead "in their transgressions." Sin is nothing other than renouncing, abandoning God's fellowship, turning away from him and choosing one's own way. If, then, there is life only in this fellowship, for those who abandon it death must enter immediately. "The mind of the flesh is death." And so it came to pass. As soon as Adam ate, that is to say, as soon as he severed the thread of conformity to God's law and the blessed fellowship with his creator, in that same moment he died the death.
We must, however, go a step further and examine not only the cause of death but also its manifestations. Here again what we see happening in every temporal death can provide us with a starting point. The first thing that strikes us in a dead person is that he lies there stiff and motionless. That same body that was formerly animated and suffused by the soul and in its most delicate fibers and nerves willingly lent itself as a tool to the soul, is now rigid and immobile, cold as a piece of marble. Not only has the activity of the soul upon the body ceased, but the body itself has lost the ability to obey that influence. It no longer receives impulses from the soul and shows no indication of being susceptible to them. A power is certainly still at work in such a body, but no other power than that which works in all matter, the natural power that leads to dissolution.
We also find all these characteristics in spiritual death. Here the same thing happens to the soul that we just saw taking place with the body. As soon as God takes away his Holy Spirit and withdraws his fellowship, the soul becomes insensible and hardened, spiritual numbness overpowers it. Where life is present, you will notice how it courses through all the parts of the body: it beats in the heart, throbs in the pulse, hovers in the breath, gleams in the eye, and makes itself known by numberless marks. All this is missing in a dead person. Likewise, in a spiritually dead person one searches in vain for the heart throb of faith, the pulse beat of prayer, the breath of love, the look of sympathy—for any expression of a hidden, inward life. The person dead in transgressions is a person, just as a dead body is a body, and yet, when you yourself possess spiritual life, you will feel the distance between yourself and that person, in the same way as living persons naturally recoil from the dead. You miss the image of God in their features, just as the image of the soul is missing in the face of the deceased. And just as death often leaves its stamp on the pallid countenance in misshapen and distorted lines, so the spiritual death of sin puts its horrible marks upon the destroyed soul.
But not only is the spiritually dead person incapable of moving and developing any power of himself, receptivity to impressions from the outside is also lacking. All life has these two sides: it makes impressions and receives impressions, and in so doing develops and grows. Both of these are lacking in the sinner in his natural state. He does not seek God, and when God comes to seek him, he does not answer, gives no signs of life, and remains insensible. When the Word of God, from which all spiritual life draws its sustenance, is brought into contact with him, his eye does not see it, his ear does not hear it, his heart does not give assent to it, it goes by him like an idle sound. "The natural man does not comprehend the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned."
But there is more than this. In a dead body the powers by nature inherent in all matter are at work, decompose and dissolve it. They were already present earlier, but were countered and made harmless by another, higher power. The life-power of the soul did not allow it to perish However, as soon as that life-power receded, those natural forces were given free play, immediately began their work, and did not rest until the body was turned to dust. It is no different with a sinful man. The love of the world and selfishness work within him. As long as love and God's fellowship lived in him, they controlled all lower forces and led them in the right direction so that they could not harm him. But look! As soon as the person was cut off from God, and the life-power from God no longer exercised control in his soul, in that same moment the love of the world and selfishness began their horrible work, ruined the soul, and brought it unavoidably into destruction. It is impossible that a man who is "dead in transgressions" should remain what he was. One would expect with just as much right that a dead body should remain as it was. So, if anything is clear, it is that sin makes man more and more abominable, and finally must be so displayed that all turn away with abhorrence and loathing. Although this may be less evident in some than in others, the principle of death is present in all and that principle, if it continues its work, can lead to nothing but open enmity against the Almighty.
Only when viewed in this light is full justice done to the expression of the apostle, "even when we were dead in transgressions." Even then still he has made us alive. That can only be explained by God's great love. Were our spiritual death nothing more than a pitiable illness, the situation would be easily understandable. Were it no more than cold indifference, even then it would be thinkable. But now that it has developed into direct, straightforward enmity towards God, there is no alternative to solving this mystery of God's divine mercy than to assume that an eternal, mysterious love was at work behind it, was its foundation, and was expressed in it.
Imagine for a moment that you seek the good of someone with whom you do not have a relationship, that you do everything in your power to advance his welfare; you sacrifice yourself for him. But look! Instead of thankfully acknowledging that, he remains indifferent, begins to hate you, and ends up by cursing you. What do you think? Would the miserable condition of such a person be likely to evoke your mercy?
But now, imagine for a moment that all the circumstances just mentioned are the same, except that this time the scoundrel is not a stranger but your own son. Could you stop loving him because he hates you? Could you cease praying for him because he curses you? Could you restrain the urgings of your fatherly mercy because he has seared his conscience? I think not! You will say: He is still my son, whom I have carried in my arms. The more such a rogue causes you shame and heartbreak, all the more will you watch, moved by deep pity for him, how he willfully throws himself into ruin.
Where now is the distinction? Why can't you show mercy to a stranger who behaves like this but can towards your own child, although he may be ten times more vile than the stranger? The answer is simple: in the first case, no love drove you to pity; in the second, a great love had to be expressed in rich mercy.
Our case is no different. In themselves sinners are not objects of mercy but vessels of wrath. Sin is enmity and enmity as such does not fall within the scope of pity. But from eternity God had loved those sinners, those enemies, those spiritually dead, with a fatherly love. This love was the foundation of everything and was before everything. It is useless to ask after its origin. It came from the inscrutable being of God and embraced the objects of its free choice even before they had existence. It determined to make them in such a way as to reflect that love. And look what happened! Those children fell, sank into sin and death. Instead of sons they became devils. Love was answered with hate. Nevertheless—and here lies the precious core of our text—all this was not able to extinguish that love, because it is impossible to tear the son from the heart of the father. On the contrary, it now first came to light clearly that it was love and not just kindness. Where the latter would have stopped it went further and emerged triumphant. It did not love the righteous and virtuous, but the godless. In this "God demonstrates his love toward us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us." This is the deepest reason why Paul knows to ascribe to no other cause than a great, divine love the fact that those who lay in the midst of sin and death and were enemies of God were nevertheless endowed with the greatest benefits that could befall them, namely that God, according to his rich mercy, made them alive together with Christ, the Lord.
If we have clearly understood all this, then it is also immediately evident that only a divine creation, a new birth is capable of changing the sinner, for he is dead. This is no metaphor, but a reality. A dead person is no more insensitive and motionless in the natural domain than a sinner is in the spiritual sense. Where death has entered, all human help and advice ceases. Go to a dead person and see whether in a natural way you can call him back to life; use all available means. In fact, if necessary, bring back warmth to the departed one, restore breathing, cause blood to flow through the veins—all that will do you no good; the attempts of all the doctors combined are not enough to restore life to one single dead person.
But suppose that Christ the Lord comes, and by a word of power recreates the departed principle of life in that dead person. Then you can use these same means and the outcome will be that the dead will live again, and before long he win show by signs of life that his soul has returned.
In the spiritual sphere it is just the same. Here the dead person is the sinner. Here at the same time is the means God has given us to use: the Word of God—a brightly shining light, a life-nourishing power. But it is impossible for the spiritually dead person to open his eyes to see that light and to open his mouth in order to ingest that nourishment, unless a higher power has caused him to awake from the slumber of unrighteousness.
But if in the inmost being of such a person God, the Holy Spirit causes his irresistible call to be heard: "Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ win shine on you," then the blind eyes are immediately opened, the deaf ears unstopped, and the hardened heart begins, with a lively interest, to seek after God and his fellowship. When the dry bones hear the word of the Lord, and the Spirit blows among them, look! There is noise and movement, they approach each other, bone to its bone; these receive sinews and flesh, and a skin to cover them and a spirit within them, and a human form appears.
Such a creative deed, therefore, is necessary. A question, however, arises: Is this possible? Can God justly bestow this benefit on a sinner, dead in transgressions, by creating a new life in him?
The answer to this must be a decisive "no." God cannot do such a thing. It is true that his love is great and his mercy rich, but his justice is inviolable. It requires that the sinner be punished and that only the one who fulfills the demand of the law be rewarded. Justice draws its rigorous line without making distinctions between persons; on the left it assigns eternal death to the transgressor of the law and on the right eternal life to the keeper of the law.
If a person dead in transgressions is to be raised up, two conditions must be met first. In the first place, he must be relieved of the burden of his guilt which rests on him because of his sins. He must bear the threatened punishment and empty to its dregs the cup of God's holy displeasure. As long as this does not happen, despite God's great love and rich mercy, there can be no talk of God showing favor to the sinner.
But suppose that the punishment has been borne, the cup emptied—even that by itself is not enough. The justice of the law must be fulfilled, that is to say, it must be perfectly obeyed and observed. Only to the one who does this can God restore life and impart his Holy Spirit.
To understand this clearly let us imagine a criminal who must bear the punishment of imprisonment designated by the law. When he is released after serving his sentence, the law has been satisfied. But is the criminal's honor restored, have his civil rights been regained, can he count on all the privileges granted to someone who keeps the law without punishment? Of course not. Although the law cannot further require penal satisfaction from him, for the most part and all too often he finds himself without civil rights and honor, disgraced and an outcast in the midst of society.
Exactly the same justice applies in the kingdom of God. Assume that the sinner is able himself to bear the punishment of his transgression, by bearing it completely so that nothing remains to be borne. This is not the case, but assume it for a moment. What then would follow? Would this be the end of the matter for the sinner? God's wrath would be removed, but his favor would not be regained. The person would still be without citizenship and rights in God's kingdom, he would still remain a beggar who has no claim to anything. The unyielding law, with its "Do this and you shall live," would still stand—with its accusation that it has not been fulfilled and its strict prohibition against giving life to the sinner.
You can immediately see where the great difficulty lies here. The law must be satisfied, because apart from keeping it there is no life. As far as we know, God does not grant eternal life to either angels or men on any other condition than perfect keeping of the law. But man cannot keep the law, he is dead in transgressions, spiritually impotent. If he is ever again to attain to keeping the law, it must be preceded by a creative act of God, by an infusion of life from God, whereby he is again put in a position to live according to the commandments of God.
Thus, two things are firmly established: (1) God cannot make man alive from his spiritual death in sin, unless he has first fulfilled the law. (2) As long as God has not made man alive, he cannot fulfill the law.
This crying contradiction demonstrates how hopeless the situation with man was. There was no solution in sight and it seemed there was nothing left for God to do but to abandon man to his miserable fate. And, indeed, if help would have had to come from man's side, it would not have appeared, not even in an eternity!
But through his great love God knew how to find a solution. He solved the riddle in a way that caused the angels to stare in wonder and the congregation on earth, in turn, to venture in joyful rapture before the heavenly authorities and powers. When the eye of God's love could find no resting place in all of sinful humanity, then it rested upon Christ Jesus, his only begotten Son, and saw in him the possibility of unraveling the sad riddle.
The Lord could not make us alive. We had forfeited the right to be made alive. There was no one who was worthy to be made alive—unless it be that the Son of God became man, and by becoming such, restored the possibility that man be made alive and be saved. To make us alive with Christ—that was the answer that God's great love gave to the question raised by his mercy, otherwise there was no means by which sinners could be rescued from eternal destruction.
The two conditions just discussed were present in Christ. He was able to wipe out the debt, and he did. At the same time, because he was not dead in transgressions, by his perfect keeping of the law he acquired the right to eternal life. Him God could raise up by his sublime power and bring back in immortality. And with that the great work was accomplished in principle. Certainly there was but one point of departure found for the spiritual resurrection, but that point lay in the Mediator Christ Jesus. With Christ it is therefore possible for God to raise us up also. He took upon himself the curse and the demands of the law, we reap the fruits together with Him. In his resurrection from the dead ours is given in fact and guaranteed by right. That new life, which he received as the reward for his obedience, passes over from him, by the working of his Spirit, to all that belong to him, so that they, awakened from the sleep of sin, let Christ shine on them, say "Amen" with a living faith to all God's words of life, hunger and thirst after the righteousness of life, and end by praising God's rich mercy, which, because of his great love, even when they were dead in their transgressions, made them alive with Christ, the Lord.
Finally, we must come to the recognition that nothing but God's love has accomplished this. In his final words the apostle draws the conclusion of our text and it is very simple: "By grace you have been saved."
The origin of this spiritual resurrection was an eternal mysterious love, welling up from God's being. The objects to which it was applied were the spiritually dead, in whom not even the slightest spark of life glowed in the ashes. Its point of departure could not even be found in man; God had to make us alive with Christ, since he could not make us alive in ourselves.
Where then is boasting? It is excluded! All who with Paul's eye survey the plan of redemption from its ultimate origins in God's eternal choice to its final unfolding in a glorified soul, and all who with Paul's faith hold fast to his Jesus, will not be able to do anything other than testify with Paul: "Free grace has saved me; for me Christ Jesus has become wisdom from God, righteousness, sanctification, and complete redemption."
This spiritual resurrection compels such humble acknowledgment. God does not grant us his work of grace so that we should glory in it as our own. Therefore he so arranged it that it would manifestly be his work from beginning to end, a divine work, and he desires to be glorified in it.
Here lies the deepest purpose that God had in raising us with Christ. It was not merely impossible for it to be otherwise, but alto magnificent and worthy of God that it took place in this manner. Just because it happened this way every possibility is cut off for the believer to nurture in his heart the unholy thought that there was still something of his own work involved.
That your guilt is atoned for in Christ is easy to see. This fact is so clear that no one who is truly Christian dares or is able to deny it. The danger, then, of self-righteousness creeping in does not lie here. It is, however, to be sought on that other side. How easy, how natural, how seemingly innocent, how tempting it is for you to suppose that, after your guilt is atoned for in Christ, you then have life of your self, that, where your Surety has accomplished the first half by bearing your affliction, you can achieve the second half in your own power by earning eternal life for yourself.
This, in fact, is what Rome teaches us, and with such teaching it wrests the crown from God's work of grace. But God knew what sort of creatures we were, and that is why he has barred the way to this terrible error for every one who truly fears him, by not making us alive in ourselves but by making us alive in Christ. First Christ, then, by his Spirit, we out of and with him.
As long as a believer fastens his eyes of faith on Christ Jesus, as long as he holds fast to the Mediator, he can do nothing else but testify with Paul: "By grace I have been saved," and, "It was God's gift."
By that faith life flows from Christ to the believer. He not only knows that but feels it. "Outside of Jesus there is no life," his soul says to him. Or it repeats after Paul: "I live, yet no longer I, but Christ lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."
The unavoidable conclusion from this is that this life was in Christ before it came to us, that, consequently, it was not earned by us but acquired by him. He possessed it, long before we had performed any works; it was not manifested in us until we, by faith, came into contact with him, the living Christ.
Thus our faith becomes an unimpeachable witness, which, with every drink we take from the cup of God's redemption, cries out: "By grace you have been saved!" Thus it becomes an ever-flowing stream, whose incessantly rushing waters do not cease mentioning: "Not of yourselves, it is God's gift!"
Everyone who understands this language bows in humility in order to repeat it from the depths of his soul and thus respond to the glorious purpose of God, who created him as his creature in Christ Jesus, for good works, so that he might show in the ages to come the riches of his grace, through his kindness toward them in Christ Jesus.
And now, my hearers, what does this language say to you? Does it appear to you as the narrow-minded expression of a dead and deadening doctrine, or as the most intimate core of the precious truth, that man is saved by pure grace, without consideration of anything in him?
Seen in this light, does not the truth about which Paul boasted have another complexion than that to which we are interminably pointed, namely that it makes the door of salvation so narrow that only a few are able to enter, that it limits the free Gospel and robs his preaching of power?
Where, then, has the apostle ended with his teaching? In an anxious concern as to how far he dared to go with the Gospel of Christ? Oh no! The opposite was the case: He ended in glorious praise of the matchless, unsearchable love of God, whose kingdom is in all and over all, and with that glorious message he went from Antioch to Rome, and, wherever he came, his Gospel was not in words but in power.
And with that we shall have to end. God's purpose with us in presenting this teaching in his Word has never been that we should sit down and attempt, by brooding, to find out whether we, too, are numbered among those who from eternity are loved in Christ Jesus. That is a hopeless task, my hearers! It is like arithmetic without numbers. God has not put any data at our disposal by which we can determine the outcome as either "yes" or "no". Such an approach would be an atrocious abuse, a turning of what is meant for God's glory into our destruction.
It is only in Christ Jesus that you can obtain certainty about this matter. Here also you must begin with him and end in him. If you are loved, it has been in him, as a member of his body. Therefore look to him! Only when he turns you away will you have the right to say that God has not loved you with an everlasting love, but not until then.
The most absurd conclusion that can ever be drawn from this truth is that it gives you the right to sit still. The opposite is true. In its deepest grounding this truth comes down to the fact that you are completely powerless, that you are wholly dependent upon God, that in yourself you are irretrievably lost. To what must such an awesome thought now lead you? To continue sleeping calmly upon the dregs of idleness? Or, with holy trembling, to call upon that God from whom alone your help can come?
You will want to agree to the latter. If you rightly feel your own helplessness and impotence, you will cry out to the mighty One of Jacob for mercy and will not cease until it is granted. For a sinking and perishing sinner who feels that he is slipping away it is impossible to keep still. He will cry out until the waters of destruction close over him.
But that cannot happen. No one who cries out for mercy is turned away. "The one who comes to me I will in no wise cast out," the Savior says. Oh, try that and you will discover that his word is truth!
And for you who perceive that life-giving power of Christ in your own soul, this truth must be a new stimulus to humility and meekness. Your life came from Christ, it continues to be hid with Christ in God. You must draw all your lifeblood from him, so that the excellence of the power may be from God and not from you. Do not look for it anywhere else but from him. Let Christ dwell in your hearts by faith, so that you may be rooted and grounded in love. The more that happens the less you will become and will sink away deeper in your insignificance. God, on the other hand, will become greater and more glorious, and the more the language of your life will become that beautiful word of the apostle, in which prayer and thanksgiving fuse together: "Now to him who is powerful to do more than abundantly, above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to him, I say, be the glory in the church, through Christ Jesus, in all generations, forever and ever." AMEN.
(A translation of De Geestelijke Opstanding der Geloovigen. Leerrede Over Ephese II:4,5 [Grand Rapids: J.C. Melis, Drukker, n.d.])
Dr. Gaffin is Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania