God’s Mercy Toward Sinners

When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (Col. 2:13-14)

     When writing to the Christians at Colossae, Paul reminds them of a time before their spiritual conversion when they were physically alive but spiritually “dead” (Col. 2:13).  Biblically, this is the state of all men who have not trusted Christ as their Savior.  According to Scripture, death means separation not cessation.  Unbelievers are physically alive but spiritually separated from God.  Once they believe in Jesus as their Savior, they are given spiritual life and can then begin their spiritual walk with the Lord.  This was true for the Christians at Colossae, who went from a state of spiritual death to spiritual life at the moment they trusted Christ as their Savior. 

     Not being in a relationship with God, the Scripture declares unbelievers in very negative terms as “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18), alienated from God (Col. 1:21), and devoid of the Holy Spirit (Jude 1:19; cf. 1 Cor. 2:14).  It is only at the moment we trust Christ as our Savior that we are given spiritual life and are made “alive together with Him” (Col. 2:13).  According to Scripture, there are two groups of people on the planet: those who are spiritually alive and those who are spiritually dead.  Every person we’ve ever known, currently know, or will ever know, fit into one of these two categories.  That’s it.  There are only these two groups.  Those who have trusted in Christ for salvation are spiritually alive, and those who have rejected Him as Savior reside in spiritual death. 

And you [Christians at Ephesus] were [before salvation] dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course [patterned values] of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air [Satan], of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience [rebellious unbelievers].  Among them we too all formerly lived [before being saved] in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath [enemies of God], even as the rest [of humanity].  (Eph. 2:1-3)

     The apostle Paul does not pull any punches when writing to the Christians at Ephesus about their pre-salvation life.  They were sinners, lost without Christ, and they acted like it.  They were spiritually dead (separated from God), and their fallen nature influenced them to follow the warped values of this world which have been molded by Satan.  Paul is writing to us too.  Before our salvation, “we did what came naturally because it naturally fit into the patterns external and internal to us.  This is evidence that we were dead in transgressions and sins and we, with all other people, were children destined for God’s wrath.  It was a vicious cycle that seemed to have no escape.”[1]

     People who are spiritually dead lack the capacity to live for God, and because they do not have the Holy Spirit within them, can only follow the sinful nature they were born with.  They may be moral or immoral, religious or irreligious, educated or uneducated, but God and His Word are excluded from having any say over their thoughts or actions as they seek to magnify self and live according to worldly values.  Scripture describes the unbeliever as one who is “devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 1:19), and a “natural man” who “cannot know the things of God” (1 Cor. 2:14).  The unbeliever is dead in his sin and helpless to change his spiritual condition.  Without God, his situation is dark and hopeless.  However, God graciously intervenes and disrupts the life of the unbeliever with the good news of the gospel, which states: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4).  When the unbeliever trusts in Christ as his Savior, he is born again and made spiritually alive (1 Pet. 1:3, 23).  At the moment of faith in Christ, he is adopted into God’s royal family.  That’s grace!

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were [spiritually] dead in our transgressions, made us [spiritually] 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, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  (Eph. 2:4-7)

     Though the Christians at Ephesus were at one time “dead” in their sins, God intervened with the gospel, and at the moment they trusted Christ for salvation, He made them “alive together with Christ.”  This life-giving act of God was not performed because of some beauty or worthiness in them, for Paul had already described them in hopeless and desperate terms; rather, it was because of God’s “mercy” and “great love” and “grace” that He acted the way He did.  God never loves or saves men because of any worthiness in them, for if men got what they deserved, they’d all burn forever in the Lake of Fire!  God saves because He is merciful, loving, and full of grace. 

Over against the dark picture of human ruin presented in Ephesians 2:1-3, the Apostle now proceeds…to set forth the only existing hope for man, namely, the fact that God is “rich in mercy for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins.”  With full recognition of the depths to which man has fallen, it is nevertheless declared that there is abundant salvation for all who believe: a salvation which so far exceeds the ruin that it not only reverses all that man lost by the fall, but it lifts him up far above his original unfallen state to the highest conceivable position in heaven, there to share forever the fellowship and the glory of the Triune God.[2]

     God is glorified when He acts in grace toward undeserving sinners.  Men are benefited when they receive God’s salvation by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9).  

Excerpt from my book: The Christian Life 

Dr. Steven R. Cook

[1] Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI., Baker Book House, 2002), 324.

[2] Lewis S. Chafer, The Epistle to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI., Kregel Publications, 1991), 63.

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