Not What We Once Were
I’m consistently amazed at things that I have missed when I read the Scriptures. I’ve read the book of Ephesians at least a dozen times and it’s only now that I am teaching it in a Sunday school class that I am becoming more aware of some of the themes. I am no theologian proper, but I figured it would be cool to put some of the things that I’ve picked up on. These insights will probably not be new to you though, since I’m, like, twelve years old.
Something that has really struck me was about the relationship between faith and good works. Lutherans (and all good Protestants) quote Ephesians 2:8-9 when discussing their soteriology:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (ESV)
Paul, in a discussion of the nature of man, tells us that we are “children of wrath” (2:3) and tells us our default spiritual state is one of death (2:4). Salvation is God raising us from spiritual death and saving us from damnation and the death of the whole of us, body and soul, by grace (2:5).
The first two chapters of the book of Ephesians are strong passages in favor of monergistic soteriology, seemingly excluding any possible argument for synergism. These reasons are why these particular texts are used so often when discussing salvation. However, in my reading and listening to people in my own tradition, it is plain to me that while many correctly interpret this text as the essence of what the Gospel is, I don’t often see talk of how it has shifted the nature of the Christian, the object of God’s saving grace.
Again, I preface my comments by noting that I am not a trained theologian and also that my scope of reading is (relatively) limited.
In Ephesians 1, Paul opens his letter with this:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (1:3-4a).
Paul begins his letter giving thanks to God for the spiritual blessings, all of which come through Christ. He is especially giving thanks that the Father chose us in the Son before the world began, and for choosing us with a specific purpose in mind: to be holy and blameless before Him in the Son and through His blood:
“In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace…” (1:4a-7)
God the Father, before the world began, chose His people (1:4) through the death and resurrection of His Son (1:4-7), opening our eyes to this knowledge and bringing us to faith in this work through His Spirit (1:16-18). God’s plan is to make us “holy and blameless” before Him, and Paul tells us exactly how God is accomplishing that: through His Son Jesus Christ.
Paul opens chapter 2 of Ephesians by describing our state prior to “the eyes of our heart [being] enlightened:”
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (2:1-3).
Paul reminds the church at Ephesus (and us) of the state of man before his conversion that he is alienated from God through sin and disobedience. He then describes who God is and the execution of His plan mentioned in Chapter 1:
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…” (2:5-6).
Then come the verses I began with:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (2:8-10).
Everything that God has done for us in Christ, all of our spiritual blessings in Him are contrasted with who we were prior to coming to faith in Him. “Children of wrath” are now adopted “as sons through Jesus Christ.” Those who were covered in “trespasses and sins” have now been made “holy and blameless… through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins…” We who were “dead” in those trespasses and sins have now been made “alive together with Christ…” Paul also mentions the fact that we were by nature children of wrath, who because of our nature, gave into the “passions of our flesh” and contrasts with saying that we are the “workmanship” of God, “created [or, recreated, i.e., giving us a new nature] in Christ Jesus for good works…”
Upon re-reading Ephesians, I noticed that there is no mention of justification or of imputation. These are thoroughly Biblical concepts and are the bread and butter of Lutherans, but perhaps we are guilty of reading those into some of the Pauline epistles. The emphasis in Ephesians, it seems, is on how God has changed our heart and has redeemed the very essence of humanity through the Incarnation of Christ. Paul focuses on the change God has done within the Christian (and in context with Ephesians, the implication that has on relationships and unity within the church). But the focus on a sort of recreation, or to use a more familiar term, being born again, shines in Ephesians. There is a very real shift in our identity, a shift in who we are as people when God saves us through Christ. We are not what we once were. We are not who we once were. And that means something for our lives.