Rich in Mercy

Original Date: 
Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ephesians 2:1-8 But God…Rich in Mercy

1984 NIV
I am a fan of the 1984 New International Version of the Bible. Some of you have heard me talk about this before (or complain about it) so I thought I should explain.

In 2011 an updated version of the NIV came out. For a while, if you went to an online Bible site like or YouVersion, you could choose between the 1984 or the 2011 edition of the NIV. But, a couple of years ago the NIV’s publisher, Zondervan, decided that they prefer their new edition and pulled all copies of the 1984 off the internet. I was, and remain, distraught.

Now, I need to explain something about Bible translations. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Moreover, Biblical Greek and Biblical Hebrew are--for all intents and purposes—dead languages. While people speak Greek and Hebrew today, the languages have evolved and changed. The languages of the Bible are essentially a snapshot of those languages at a specific point in time.

English, meanwhile, is very much a living and dynamic language that is constantly growing and changing. Just read a bit of Shakespeare, for example, and you’ll realize English was very different 400 years ago from what it is now.

So one of the reasons we have so many translations—and will need more over time—is because we are translating documents that will never change into a language that is always changing. In order for the Bible to make sense to new generations, we need English translations that keep pace with the development of the language.

Also, it is worth noting that the Bible is the most-studied and best-attested ancient document in the world. There is an academic discipline known as textual criticism that has carefully compared the many copies of scripture we have against one another in the original languages to uncover any copyist or editorial errors. The Bible has been so carefully studied and argued over that scholars today believe that our Greek New Testament is 99.5 percent accurate. Any major translation that appears in print today is the subject of a great deal of scholarly review and revision.

All this is to say that the major English translations we have today are trustworthy. The differences between them are due more to efforts to best express the Bible in English than arguments over what the Bible says in the original language. I’m sure that the 2011 edition of the NIV is a reliable and accurate reflection of God’s Word. Whatever English translation you prefer, it has its merits and will help you get to know God.

But I grew up with the 1984 version. Most of my study in the Bible has been based on the 1984. Most Bible passages that I have memorized are in the language of the 1984. My heart speaks the words of the 1984 NIV. Many of you might feel the same way about the King James Version, or a different translation of the Bible. We are drawn to the language that helped us get to know Jesus best.

More than that, it is the 1984 edition of the NIV that you have in the pews in front of you. As long as that is the version we have in the sanctuary, that is the version I will preach from. I think the words I use should match the words in front of you as much as possible.

I tell you all of this in order to say, in our passage for today, the 1984 edition of the NIV lets me down. Our key verse is Ephesians 2:4-5:

4But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved.

Here’s where the NIV lets me down: this verse should begin “But God…” That’s how it is written in the original language. In a sampling I did of major English translations, nearly every one of them begins verse 4 with “But God…” (The 2011 NIV gets it wrong as well). I think I like the phrasing of the New Living Translation best:

4 But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, 5 that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead.

Of course, I’m looking for that “But God…” language. The NIV hasn’t changed the meaning. It just misses out on those two emphatic words. The series we are currently in is called “But God” and it’s all about how those two little words have the power to change everything.

“But” is one of the most powerful words a human being can speak. It’s small, but it has the power to sweep away everything that has gone before. Consider:

• The plane went down. BUT no one was hurt.
• You have cancer. BUT it is easily treatable.
• Your son was in a car wreck. BUT he’s fine.

“But” can take bad news and turn it into something good. And when you add the word “God”, well, you really can turn things around.

And that’s especially true in Ephesians 2. What we have in this chapter is Paul’s explanation of how we become Christians. Elsewhere, I’ve said that Ephesians 2 is “every believer’s story.” If you follow Jesus, then the words in Ephesians 2:1-8 describe your life. And it all hinges on verse 4 and those two words: “But God.” Those words are the source of all our hope. And I wish my NIV 1984 had gotten it right.

Bad News, Good News
Let me give you an overview of the passage. It starts with bad news. Very, very bad news. Ephesians 2:1-3:

1As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2in 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. 3All 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.

This is our condition apart from Jesus. There is a downward spiral in these verses. In verse 1, we need a savior because we are dead in our sins. In verse 2, we need a savior because we are in captivity to Satan. In verse 3, we need a Savior because we are condemned to hell. Dead in sin, captive to evil, objects of wrath.

Imagine yourself in any crisis in the world: held captive by gunmen in a Yemeni mosque, streaking to earth in a crashing jet, huddling in a corner of your house as a tornado bores down--whatever crisis you imagine yourself in I can tell you right now that nothing could be more critical or urgent or threatening to you than what is described in these verses. This is what we are without a Savior, and it is worse than anything you can imagine.

The Bible is God’s love letter to us. He has given us the Bible because He wants us to know how much He cares about us and how much He wants to have a relationship with us. But He has to be honest about our situation, He wants us to know where we would be without Him, and so He is quite clear about the bad news. Dead in sin. Captive to evil. Objects of wrath.

Bad news like this cries out for some hope. We want some sort of good news, some sort of light. We want God to say: “But…”

And He does, verses 4-7:

4But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved. 6And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

“But God.” The situation in verses 1 through 3 is as bad as anything you can imagine. But God has done something about it. God has intervened. In Christ, our bad news can become good news.

John Piper points out that there are actually three “but Gods” in this passage. Those words only appear once, but they lead to three things that cancel out each of the three needs we have in the first three verses. So:

• We were dead in sin, BUT GOD made us alive with Christ.
• We were captive to the prince of the power of the air and enslaved to the course of this world, BUT GOD raised us with Christ and made us sit with him in the heavenly places.
• We were children of wrath and deserving of an eternity in the torments of hell, BUT GOD, instead of pouring out wrath, will spend eternity showing the immeasurable riches of his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (John Piper, But God…, Dec. 22, 1985)

This is good news. The best possible news any of us can hear. The reason Jesus got on a donkey and rode into Jerusalem, the reason He allowed Himself to be betrayed and arrested and tried, the reason He suffered and died on the cross, the reason for everything that we honor and observe during this Holy Week, is so that these things would be possible in our lives. So that God could change our condition from death to life, from captivity to freedom, and from wrath to kindness.

Let’s consider each of these truths in turn:

Spiritual CPR
First, God gives life in the place of death. Apart from Jesus, we were totally corrupted by sin and lacking any spiritual life. But God stepped in and made us alive. Verse 1:

1As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,

If you were to ask most people why we need a Savior, they would say that it is to pay for our sins. The idea many of us have is that we have been naughty. That sometimes we make bad choices. And it’s for those times where we have messed up that Jesus died.

And that’s true to an extent, but it really doesn’t go far enough. It’s not like we are in spiritual detention and we’re meant to sit in the corner for a while, and Jesus volunteered to go sit there in our place. That’s not a strong enough picture of how bad our situation really was.

The truth is, as John Piper says, “we weren't just in the doghouse with God. We… were in the morgue.” (Ibid.) If you were in the doghouse, you might whimper. You might say you were sorry. If you were in detention, you might serve your time in the corner until you get out. But if you are dead, then what can you do?

What this is saying is that apart from Christ and the quickening work of His Spirit within us, we are spiritually dead. Right now in our world there a millions upon millions of people who are spiritual zombies. They might look alive. They are very active and vigorous. They love their families and they are running businesses and they might even be giving money to charity and volunteering at soup kitchens and maybe even sitting in church on Sundays, but without Jesus alive in their hearts they are the walking dead. There is no heart for the glory of God. There is no reliance on His power. There is no spiritual inclination at all.

And this was all of us. This is a part of all our stories. Without Jesus we were all dead in our transgressions and sins and utterly unable to alter our condition. And that might still describe some of you right now. Open graves of immorality in outright rebellion against God. Or perhaps whitewashed tombs of self-righteousness believing you can get by on your own goodness. But apart from Jesus, we are all dead. There is no good in us.

BUT GOD. But God, when he walked by my open grave, instead of turning away from the stench, said to His Son: “I want that mess alive. Will you die for him?” And Jesus said yes. And that’s how I got saved. And that’s how you got saved—or can get saved. Verse 5:

5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved.

Jesus performed spiritual CPR. It’s not just that He did our time in the time out chair. He literally came down and breathed life into our spiritual lungs when there was no breath there. Ezekiel uses the language of a heart transplant. He says that we have a heart of stone. A heart that won’t beat, won’t move blood. A heart that is dead. But God comes and gives us a heart of flesh. A new heart. A new life. (Ezekiel 36:26)

And that’s why this verse says “it is by grace you have been saved.” Grace is a gift. Grace is an unmerited gift that the recipient has done nothing to earn or deserve. And isn’t that precisely what we need if we are dead? If we are dead, what can we contribute to our salvation?

Imagine being in a car accident in which you are thrown from your car and the force of your impact when you land causes your heart to stop. So you are lying there, along the side of the road, and you are for all intents and purposes dead. But then the paramedics come along and they get out the paddles and—CLEAR!—they shock your heart back to life. What can you boast about contributing to your rescue in that situation? (cf. v. 9) Where can you say that you earned your salvation?

You needed someone else to save you. You needed grace.

That’s what Jesus gives.

Prison Break
Second, God gives us freedom in the place of captivity. Apart from Jesus we are enslaved by the ways of the world. But God stepped in to set us free and raise us to a better home. Verse 2:

2in 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.

Besides being spiritually dead in our sins, the truth is that we live in a world that is corrupt and evil. We live in a world that is under the dominion of an alien power.

This verse talks about the “ruler of the kingdom of the air.” Air is where we live. In between heaven and earth is the realm of air, and that is where we live. And, of course, here on earth air is everywhere. It’s pervasive. And I think that’s part of why Paul uses that image. Because he’s saying there is an evil ruler of the kingdom of air, and his influence is everywhere.

He’s talking, of course, about Satan. The Bible says elsewhere that Satan is the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) and the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31). Not that Satan is equal in power to God—not even close!—but God has given Him room to operate and reign on the earth. During the age in which we live, God permits that the dominant themes and motifs and moods are under the control of Satan. (cf. 1 John 5:9)

And Satan’s goal is to lead us into disobedience. That’s what the verse says. He is “the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” That is to say that apart from Jesus we are under the influence and control of Satan. It’s like there is this concentration camp of sin, and Satan has us plugging away making the weapons he is using in his fight against God. We are being held captive by an alien power that most definitely does not have our best interests in mind.

And yet, the strange thing is, we’re not exactly unwilling prisoners. The beginning of the verse says that we “followed the ways of this world.” In other words, apart from Jesus our tendency is to go along with the evil in the world. We’re living in a concentration camp, but we don’t know how bad it is because we’ve never lived anywhere else.

So this isn’t just a case of “the devil made me do it” or “that’s just the way the world is.” The fact is, apart from Christ we are at home in the world, in step with the times. We’re complicit in our own imprisonment. And it looks like an impossible situation. One with no hope…

BUT GOD. But God, when He saw us slaving away in Satan’s work camp was not content to leave us in the clutches of His enemy, but came like a heavenly GI to storm the gates and set us free. Verse 6:

6And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,

So, are we seated in heaven with Christ right now? Aren’t we sitting in Hope Church, in Spencer? I’m not sure this is heaven.

Well, think of it this way. If you grow up here, but then go to college and end up getting a job on one of the coasts; you might say: “Well, I live in Los Angeles, but my heart is still in Iowa.” What you’re saying is that Iowa is your real home. You might be in Los Angeles, and you might be keeping a home there, but Iowa still holds your affections. You may live 60 or 70 years in California, but it will still be a foreign place to you.

That’s the way it is when we are saved. We continue to live here on earth, but heaven becomes our real home. It has first claim on our hearts. It’s heaven that holds our affections and governs our tastes. We may look like we are in the world. But the world has no claim on us, it is a foreign land.

So, when we are converted God frees us from the spirit of the age and the control of Satan and gives us the freedom of living in Him. It's as though we had been kidnapped and brainwashed and made to think we were really citizens of the enemy territory. The concentration camp is all we can imagine. And then Jesus crashes down the gate and shocks us out of our stupor, and we realize that what the enemy has to offer could never satisfy the deepest longings of our heart. Our heart is in the homeland.

Incomparable Riches
Third, God gives us kindness in place of wrath. Apart from Jesus we are destined for an eternity of Hell and righteous judgment. But God has replaced His anger with kindness. Verse 3:

3All 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.

Apart from Jesus, we are objects of wrath. Whose wrath? God’s.

Don’t miss this. I can’t soft pedal this. God is righteously angry over our sin. And it would be unrighteous of God to overlook our sin. For Him to have sin in His creation and not execute judgment against it would make Him complicit in that sin. And so there is wrath. And it is directed towards sinners. And it will result in Hell.

Listen, Jesus had a lot to say about Hell. He’s the one who warned us that it would be better to cut off our sinning hand rather that go with two hands to hell (Matt. 5:30). He’s the one who said that all evildoers would be thrown into a furnace of fire (Matt. 13:42). He’s the one who said that the goats on his left hand will go to eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46) and that there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12). Again and again Jesus warned that it is appointed unto man once to die and after that comes judgment (Hebrews 9:37).

And this isn’t just the hostile harpings of a fire and brimstone preacher. This is the merciful warnings of God Himself to flee the wrath that is to come.

If you were speeding down a country road in the middle of the night in a driving windstorm and you suddenly came upon a barrier of flashing lights with a sign telling you the bridge ahead was out, you wouldn’t be mad at the sign. You’d be grateful that someone had taken the time to warn you, and to prevent you from plunging to your destruction.

That’s what these warnings about God’s wrath in the Bible are for. We need to see how great our need is in order to appreciate how great our Savior is.

So, apart from God we are dead in our sins and captive to Satan and headed to certain judgment under the righteous wrath of our Holy God. It is a dire situation.

BUT GOD. But God, in spite of His righteous and just anger over sin did not want to see us perish and so He sent His son to bear the weight of His wrath on our behalf. He follows his merciful warning with a merciful promise. Verse 7:

7in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

Notice how Paul piles up words to make an impression on our hearts. God desires to be gracious to us in Christ Jesus. And less we miss the power of that word “grace” he adds the words “expressed in his kindness to us.”

Now, ask yourself this: if there were one person in the world whose kindness you would like to be the recipient of, who would it be? Suppose Warren Buffet or Bill Gates was looking to adopt someone and offered to take you on as a heir and promised to use all of their wealth in kindness toward you. You might think of a thousand things they could do that would be a kindness to you, maybe even 10 thousand things. But eventually, your imagination and their wealth would run out.

But God’s wealth will never run out. God’s imagination will never run out. That’s what Paul means by saying God’s “incomparable riches.” How rich is God? It’s immeasurable. His unlimited resources make the fortunes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet look like a grain of sand in the Sahara desert.

Plus, they could only show kindness to you for a few years—ten, thirty, sixty maybe. But look what God intends for you: “in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace.”

How long is an age? And how many ages are coming? Well, the answer is simple: all of them that lie in the future are coming. So it doesn't matter how long one of them is.

Do you know why Paul had to say it this way? Because that's how long it will take God to run out of fresh ideas about how to show you kindness. When eternity ends, God will have run out of ways to show you kindness. Now tell me, when does eternity end?

We were by nature objects of wrath, BUT GOD has promised us eternal kindness instead.

The “But God’ of Ephesians 2:4 are two of the most important words every written. And they need to be a part of our stories. We all need to be able to say: I was dead, I was captive, I was destined for wrath; BUT GOD brought me to life, set me free, and showered His kindness upon me.

If that’s not part of your story, if you can’t say this with Paul, then you need to change that. You need to open your heart to Jesus and receive the grace He has for you.

How do you do that? What do we need to do to make this a part of our story? The answer is in verse 8:

8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—

The key is faith. If life from the dead is given to you by grace, and freedom from Satan is given to you by grace, and the hope of eternal kindness is given to you by grace, then there is only one possible way to receive these things—through FAITH.

Faith isn’t doing anything. It’s receiving. It’s opening your heart and your hands to accept the gracious gift that Jesus has to offer. You CAN’T do anything. You can’t breathe life into your dead lungs. You can’t escape the concentration camp on your own. You can’t divert the wrath that is coming. You can’t do it.

But Jesus can. And He has. At the cross. And He’s offering you life and freedom and kindness if you’ll just receive it. In faith.

“But God.” Two of the most important words in the world. Make sure they are part of yoru story.