Ephesians 2:4–5 (ESV) … “4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—"
But God! It is wonderful to discover that although we run from God, preferring wickedness and death to righteousness and life, God has not run from us. Instead, he has come to us, and has done for us precisely what needed to be done. In a word, he has saved us. He has rescued us from the desperate, deplorable condition described at the beginning of the chapter.
When we were discussing the state of men and women before God intervenes to save them, I pointed out that our position as sinners (apart from God) is hopeless for three reasons.
First, we are “dead in [our] transgressions and sins.” This means that we are no more able to help ourselves spiritually than a corpse is able to improve its condition. Even when the gospel is preached we are no more able to respond to it than a corpse can respond to a command to get up—unless God speaks the command. Dead means hopeless. When a person dies, the struggle is over.
Second, we are enslaved by sin. This spiritual death is a strange thing. Although we are dead in sin so far as our ability to respond to God is concerned, we are nevertheless alive enough to be quite active in the practice of wickedness. In fact, we are enslaved to wicked practices. We are enslaved to sin.
Third, we are under God’s just sentence for our transgressions so that, as Paul says, we are “by nature objects of wrath” (v. 3).
But God! Here is where the beauty and wonder of the Christian gospel comes in. We were hopelessly lost in wickedness. But God has intervened to save us, and he has saved us by intervening sovereignly and righteously in each of these areas.
Notice how this works out. We were dead in sins, but God “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (v. 5). Our experience as Christians is like that of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. We were dead to any godly influence. But God can awaken the dead, and that is what he has done for us. Like Lazarus, we have heard the Lord calling us to “come out” (John 11:43); his voice brought forth life in us, and we have responded, emerging wonderfully from our spiritual tomb. Now life is no longer as it was. Life is itself new, and in addition we have a new Master and a new standard of righteous living to pursue.
Again, not only were we dead in our sins; we were also enslaved by them. Even though we might have desired to do better, we could not. Instead our struggles to escape only drew us down, plunging us deeper and deeper into sin’s quicksand.
But God! God has not only called us back to life; he has also, Paul writes, “raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (v. 6). There are no slaves in heaven. So if we have been raised up with Christ and been made to sit in the heavenly realms in him, it is as free men and women. Sin’s shackles have been broken, and we are freed to act righteously and serve God effectively in this world.
Likewise, God has dealt with the wrath question. In our sins we are indeed “objects of wrath” (v. 3). But since Jesus has suffered in our place for our sin and we have been delivered from it, we are no longer under wrath. Instead we are objects of “the incomparable riches of [God’s] grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (v. 7).
John R. W. Stott puts it like this: “These two monosyllables [‘but God’] set against the desperate condition of fallen mankind the gracious initiative and sovereign action of God. We were the objects of his wrath, but God out of the great love with which he loved us had mercy upon us. We were dead, and dead men 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.”
The words “but God” show what God has done. Besides, they draw our thoughts to God and encourage us to trust him in all things.
Am I ignorant of God? Indeed, I am. “ ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’—but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:9–10).
Am I tempted to sin? Indeed, I am. “Temptation … is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13, kjv).
Am I foolish, weak, ignoble? Yes, that too. “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Cor. 1:27–29).
Have I been the victim of other people’s sin and ill will? Probably, or at least I will be sooner or later. Still I will be able to say, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done” (Gen. 50:20).
May I put it quite simply? If you understand those two words—“but God”—they will save your soul. If you recall them daily and live by them, they will transform your life completely.