From Living Dead to Truly Alive
Today’s text is perhaps the single greatest explanation of how we arrive at a “LIVE out LOUD” Christianity in the Bible. Paul explores the radical transformation we experience because of God’s resurrection salvation – from death to life.
Today, I want to talk through the text with a walk through observation and explanation approach. So, if you would bring your Bible’s out, and follow along as we step through this text together you will learn that moving from the living dead to being truly alive gives you reason to “LIVE out LOUD”.
1. We were the living dead
If someone handed you a couple of pills and said, "Swallow these," would you do it? Not likely. However, if you were in a medical office and the person speaking was a doctor who had just told you that you would die unless you took the pills, you would be more likely to do so.
Sometimes you have to know how bad the bad news is before you can appreciate the good news. Paul tells us how bad the bad news is in verse 1: "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins." We were the living dead. Dead. Not sick, not dying, not having an off day—dead. What can dead people do to help themselves? Not much . . . in fact, absolutely nothing (LAB Commentary). Let’s continue:
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in 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. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest we were by nature objects of wrath.” (vs. 1-3)
At first glance Paul’s description of life without Christ appears too harsh. Is everyone as degraded as he suggests? Does not life also have joy and happiness in it? Are there not many good, ethical people for whom this description does not fit? Is everyone destined for God’s wrath?
Paul is not denying the value of creation or of humanity created in the image of God. He is not saying all human beings are worthless, nor is his primary concern what will happen on Judgment Day. His concern is to contrast the plight of humanity without God with the privilege of humanity with God and in Christ.
We would like for Paul’s assessment to be a harsh overstatement of reality. Unfortunately, Paul’s estimate is not so harsh when we breakdown what he says.
As Paul looks back on the former life, his first assessment is that it is dead, that is spiritual death, a life lived outside of a relationship with God. A life so lived is a meaningless life not worth living.
I’ve never been one who was into the horror movie scene. When all the slasher movies of the 70’s and 80’s began to come out, I didn’t see a one. When they were released on VHS, I watched only about 15 minutes of one of the Jason movies. Those movies just didn’t do it for me.
However, when I was around 6 to 8 years of age, I would sometimes stay up with my oldest sister late nights on Saturday and watch “Creature Feature” on WGN – B movies to the hilt, with all of the classic monsters – Dracula, Frankenstein, the Were Wolf, and the Thing. But, nearly without exception, what scared me the most were the Zombies – the soulless living dead – those who when in at a moment of lucidity ask the living to deliver them from their dark life of death.
That resembles the picture Paul is painting here - The soulless zombie wandering lifelessly through this existence. “These people are physically alive, but their sins have rendered them spiritually unresponsive, alienated from God, and thus incapable of experiencing the full life that God could give them.” (LAB Commentary)
So, how does Paul arrive at this assessment? God is the sources of life and the only way to truly experience life is in relationship to the one who created it. A life outside of that relationship, a life separated from God, is a life that is dead.
The context for their lifelessness is the sins in which they take residence. Sin is their home – that is what that little word ‘in’ denotes. That is the place where they eat and sleep, and live their lives.
Ernest Best describes 2:1 as “a realized eschatological conception of death.” What he means by that is: death, the end result of a life lived outside of a relationship with God, has invaded and permeated the present. Sin has both caused death and provides evidence of spiritual death. Because of sin, peoples’ relationship with God is broken and they are powerless to change anything. We have tried to find life in ourselves and in our own desires, and in the process have cut ourselves off from the giver of life.
It is as if we are all Dr. Malcolm Crowe, played by Bruce Willis in the M. Night Shyamalan movie, “The Sixth Sense.” We are wandering through what we consider to be living - not realizing the terminal degree of our condition.
Both ancient and contemporary cultures have come to the same conclusion. Ancient Greeks coined the phrase, “Soma sema,” – the body is a tomb.
Or take Revelation 22:8:
“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars – their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
One thing that that verse not so subtly implies is there is a first death. That is the death in their sins and transgressions. The death in their sins serves as a precursor to the eternal separation that they will experience from God.
“… sins in which you used to live” – literally, “in which you used to walk,” at the start of verse 2, describes the path in which a person walks and the boundaries that shape their lives. It is like the habitual route that you take in order to get to work, only leading you to sin. It is that well-worn spiritual rut that you have tried to break out of, time and time again, only to find yourself sunk to the axle in the same sin.
Sin is the act of choosing our own way and leaving God out of the picture. And a life lived in sin is a life that is lived outside of relationship with God.
But notice that the text is not addressing only the ‘evil’ sinners – the Jeffrey Damners, the Adolph Hitlers, the child-molester, the rapist, the serial killer. As Christians, we like to transfer sinner talk to those who are the heinous offenders. Yet, this text addresses us. “As for YOU, YOU were dead in YOUR transgressions and sins, in which YOU used to live when YOU followed the ways of world…”
We are not insulated from this assessment. Even religious people can be dead in sins. Recall Jesus’ complaint against the Pharisees in Matthew 23:27: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s’ bones and everything unclean.” Or consider the words of Christ to the church of Sardis: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God” (Rev 3:1b-2).
The biblical statement about spiritual ‘deadness’ may not seem to square with the facts. Lots of people who make no Christian profession whatever, who even openly repudiate Jesus Christ, appear to be very much alive. One has the vigorous body of an athlete, another the lively mind of a scholar, a third the vivacious personality of a film-star. Are we to say that such people, if Christ has not saved them, are dead? Yes, for in the sphere which matters most supremely (which is neither the body, nor the mind, nor the personality, but the soul), they have no life. And you can tell it.
What sin hangs over you like a death shroud? Each of us is guilty of living a life of disobedient rebellion against God. All of us are guilty of attempting to push him out of the picture. Whatever goodness exists within us, without God, is a short-term allusion that doesn’t alter the decomposition of our souls in death.
And as we reject the authority of God in our lives we have chosen to willingly come under Satan’s authority. The “ruler of the air” has control of this godless domain, and people choose a tyrant instead of the God who created them.
Many Jewish people sought to explain all sin as the direct result of demonic activity (Bible Background Commentary)– You know, “The Devil made me do it.” By emphasizing the devil’s role, my own culpability is diminished.
However, Paul does not see sin as always directly inspired by demons but thinks that the world is pervaded with the devil’s less direct influence. The devil is not the marquee player; most of us do evil well enough by ourselves. Paul does see a threat here, but he is more concerned that people have aligned themselves with the ruler of this world than that they will be overpowered by him.
That is why he goes on to say that we were those guilty of “gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.” Implicit is the thought that without God, our sinful desires are the lord in control. They must be gratifies and followed. “In the end the blame is not placed on the ruler, but on us. We have chosen to follow our own desires, and our society has reinforced the choice” (NIV Application Commentary).
How, for example, did Germany become so pervasively distorted to follow Nazism? Not because German people are more sinful than others people, but because a whole self-seeking order grew up in the chaos after the Depression and deceived millions, including many in the church. Germans were seeking what all of us seek – security, respect, and economic prosperity.
How did the Unites States become so distorted with racism? Why does materialism have such a deep grip on our society? How do needs become cravings, and cravings become needs? How does sexual practice become so distorted as to be idolatrous?
This text attempts to describe what was formerly true, but for many Christians that is still their reality. A break with the past has not really occurred. They are attracted to the glitz and glitter of the world. One can understand that people who do not know God are stranded in a living death, but how can one comprehend Christians who have found life still turning back to death? Christians need to be much more aware that the old order still wants to define who we are. If the desires of Christians are the same as those of non-Christians and if the desires are fulfilled the same way, the gospel is useless.
In the end, our death march toward a sinful gratifying of our self-indulgent lusts ends with our being “objects of wrath” – literally, ‘children of wrath’ which carries the sense of identity – children characterized by or described by wrath. This wrath carries both present and future wrath implications. Yet this is not fits of anger on God’s part, rather, wrath points to God’s constant displeasure and reaction against sin.
Yet others might ask, “How can a loving God get so angry?” He gets angry because he cares. Wrath and judgment are necessary for salvation. If God does not have wrath, salvation is not needed.
The problem is that we have attempted to dissociate the loving God from the God of wrath. “But love is not the opposite of wrath. As difficult as it may be to conceive, the wrath of God is an expression of his love … Already in the third century, the theologian Lactantius wrote, ‘he who does not get angry does not care.’ If God can look at the sin and injustice in this world and not get angry, he is not much of a God. The God of the Bible is not some unmovable, unfeeling force, but a God who cares” (NIV Application Commentary).
2. We have been restored to life
So through that love, God has taken us from the living dead and breathed life back into us. We have been restored to life.
Notice what Paul says:
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 transgressions – 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 show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
The New Testament scholar Marcus Barth says that "in the majority of occurrences in the New Testament, the verb ’to make alive’ is a synonym of "to raise’ from the dead." Man is radically dead, and he can be saved only by the radicalness of resurrection! (Preaching the Word)
The only way spiritually dead people can have a relationship with God is to be made alive. And God is the only person who can accomplish that, which he did through his Son, Jesus Christ. Christ defeated sin and death through his death and resurrection, thus offering spiritual life to those dead in sins. (LAB Commentary).
Interestly, Paul says nothing here about Christ’s death. While the Resurrection is inseparable from the Crucifixion, Paul does not bother to mention Christ’s atoning sacrifice. He is more concerned about the ability of the Resurrection to breath life back into souls of those who were spiritually dead.
Paul says that we have been saved by grace. The term ‘saved’ points to the idea of rescue from danger. The idea expressed is:
· … the pulling of a drowning child from the water as they begin to go under for the last time.
· … a fellow pedestrian pushing another out of the way of a careless driver.
· … the dislodging the food from the throat of a choking person.
Salvation is more than forgiveness of our sins. Salvation is being raised from the certainty of death, redeemed from slavery to sin, and rescued from the unleashed wrath of God. Salvation is more than, “Phew, I got off the hook for that.”
Here it carries the particular sense of the resurrection rescue mission to retrieve us from the spiritual death that has come to define our condition outside of Christ. It is new life and a new reason for living breathed into the soul of those who were once dead.
The threefold repetition of ‘with Christ’ or ‘with him’ is significant and underscores Paul’s emphasis on participation with Christ. To enjoy salvation requires being connected to and identifying with the Savior.
Jesus participated in the plight of mankind. He became one with humanity and took on the penalty of sin. In conversion and baptism we identify with Christ’s death and resurrection, and we live out the pattern we identify with Christ’s in our lives. Christianity is not primarily a religion of ideas, but a religion of participation, of involvement, and of fellowship with God in Christ. Christians are called into fellowship with God’s Son, have been crucified with Christ, have been baptized into his death, have put off the old being and have put on Christ himself, and will be united with him in his resurrection. (NIV Application Commentary)
Our exaltation with Christ in the heavenly realms is merely an extension of this identification with Christ. This is a reality, although not literal. It is Paul’s way of saying that Jesus is victorious and that his victory – not the human plight – determines who we really are.
This passage begins with ‘But … God’. These two monosyllables set against the desperate condition of fallen humankind the gracious initiative and sovereign action of God. We were the objects of wrath, but God out of the great love with which he loved us had mercy on us. We were dead, and the dead do not rise, but God made us alive with Christ. We were slaves, in a situation of dishonor and powerlessness, but God has raised us with Christ and set us at his own right hand, in a position of honor and power. Thus God has taken action to reverse our condition in sin. It is essential to hold both parts of this contrast together, namely, what we are by nature and what we are by grace.
So how did he do it? How did God take us who were once dead, completely lifeless without hope in any spiritual sense, and breathe life into us?
3. How it all happened
In the final three verses of this section, Paul tells us how Christians have had their souls re-invigorated with the power of the resurrection.
For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Actually, Paul spends nearly as many words in these verses to define how our spiritual resurrection didn’t happen. Let’s look at three such phrases:
“Not from yourselves, it is a gift of God”. Some of us when given a gift may respond, “Thank you very much. What did I do to deserve this?” Nothing – You didn’t do a thing that is why it is called a gift.
“Not by works”- ‘works’ refers to any human accomplishment by which one thinks to gain status or privilege before God. In reality, however, nothing we do grants standing before God. Humans in and of themselves have no claim on God. In fact, we are absolutely incapable of doing anything that would result in God’s owing us – salvation or not.
“So that no one can boast.” Salvation is not about us and our worth, what we have accomplished – it is about God and his free gift of grace … no strings attached … no hidden costs.
Here is what we learn from all three of those phrases: Salvation is not about what we’ve done.
Yet many of us struggle with a kind of pharisaic pride because of our salvation. I’m in. I have grown (more or less to some degree). And that pride breeds an accompanying disdain for those outside of God’s family. However, if we do that, we disclaim that our spiritual livelihood is due to association with Christ, and we make it all about ourselves. Pride is just as wrong after conversion as before.
Now, let’s look at two phrases that define how we believers do experience the saving spiritual resurrection.
“It is by grace” – Grace means the completely undeserved, loving commitment of God to us. For some reason unknown to us, but which is rooted in his nature, God gives himself to us, attaches himself to us, and acts to rescue us. The initiative always lies only and completely with him.
We become Christians through God’s unmerited favor, not as the result of any effort, ability, intelligent choice, or act of service on our part. That is why Paul includes the statement about us still being in our sins. We didn’t do anything. The initiative all rested in God. He was the active party, moving before we ever made a move towards him.
And that grace was received “through faith.” Faith is relational, a covenant word, expressing the commitment and trust that bind two parties together. Faith defines reliance on a reliable God. It doesn’t say so much about us, rather is says, “God is trustworthy.”
Listen one last time to these verses. This time from the Message:
Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and the saving.
Paul began this paragraph with a faithful portrayal of man as subject to three terrible powers, namely ‘sin’, ‘death’ and ‘wrath.’ Yet, he refused to despair because he trusted in God. The only hope for dead people lies in a resurrection. But then the living God is the God of the resurrection. (Stott)
Resources: Snodgrass, Klyne. Ephesians. NIV Application Commentary.
O’Brien, Peter, T. The Letter To the Ephesians.
Stott, John R. W. God’s New Society.