The biggest BUT in the world is “But God.” Everything changes when God intervenes in our lives!
March 30-31, 2019
Pastor Joe Wittwer
The Biggest BUT in the World!
#1—But God made us alive!
Ephesians 2:1-10 (p. 1006)
The Big Idea: The biggest BUT in the world is “But God.” Everything changes when God intervenes in our lives!
Introduction and offering:
ILL: How many of you remember Pee-wee Herman? In his first movie, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” Pee-wee proposes an adventure to a friend, who starts objecting, “But what about this? But what about that?” And Pee-wee responds, “Everybody has a big but.”
I want to talk with you about the biggest BUT in the world: But God! There are multiple places in the New Testament where the phrase “but God” indicates God’s intervention in our lives. For example, in the book of Acts, when the apostles tell the Jesus story, they often say, “You put Christ to death, but God raised Him from the dead!” That’s a big BUT!
Today, we’re going to look at a classic passage in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians 2:1-10 (p. 1006). Paul begins by describing the universal human condition apart from God: here’s the mess we’re in. Then in verse 4, he says, “But God” and describes what God has done for us in Christ and why. It’s the biggest BUT in the world!
The Big Idea: The biggest BUT in the world is “But God.” Everything changes when God intervenes in our lives!
Offering: 1 Corinthians 16:2 On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.
- Regular, habitual
- Everyone, each one
- Planned, set aside
- Proportional, in keeping with your income
Ephesians 2:1–3 (p. 1006)
1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 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. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.
- We were dead in our sins.
In these 3 verses, Paul summarizes the universal human condition apart from God. He is going to describe us as dead, enslaved and condemned. This is us.
First, we were dead in our sin.
Or more exactly, we were dead in our transgressions and sins. A transgression is a false step, crossing a known boundary, straying from the right path. A sin is missing the mark, falling short of a standard. These two words together cover both active or passive sin. Or said another way: sins of omission (failure to do right) and sins of commission (actively doing wrong). We were dead in our sin and transgressions.
We were dead. What does that mean? Perhaps you’re thinking, “I’m not a Christian, but I’m sure alive.” I get it. Before I met Jesus, I was very much alive too—13 and getting in all kinds of trouble! What does Paul mean that we were dead?
He means that we were spiritually dead. In fact, notice that right after Paul said we were dead, he said we used to live in our sins. “You were dead in your sins in which you used to live.” So we were the living dead! We were physically alive, but spiritually dead in our sins.
Think of it in these two ways.
Death is separation. Physical death is separation from the body—at death, your soul or spirit are separated from your body. Spiritual death is separation from God, who is the source of life.
In the beginning, God made us in His image for a relationship with Himself. He put the first humans in paradise and gave them one command:
Genesis 2:16-17 (p. 2) And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
One boundary: cross it and you die. We know that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Did they drop over dead on the spot? No—it would be many years before they died physically, although they started dying that moment. But what happened immediately? They were expelled from paradise—cast out from the presence of God. They were separated from God and lost that life-giving relationship. Sin separated them from God, and they died spiritually.
Romans 6:23 (p. 970) For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is a one verse summary of the ten verses we’re reading today. Sin is a slave master and pays a wage: death. We die physically, socially, emotionally and spiritually. Sin separates us from God—we were dead in our sin. Death is separation.
Death is being unresponsive. Dead people don’t respond. Being spiritually dead means we are unresponsive to God. Paul uses this idea in several places; one of them is
Romans 6:11 (p. 970) In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
In this chapter, Paul describes what happens when we are baptized. Our old person dies with Christ, is buried with Christ, and is raised with Christ to live a new life. In our old life, we were dead to God, but alive to sin. That is, we were unresponsive to God, but very responsive to sin. But now, since we’re baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we’re living a new life that is dead to sin, but alive to God. Responsive to God, unresponsive to sin.
ILL: Invite someone up to be dead. Have two people represent God and sin. Show life before and after Jesus.
When Paul says we were dead in our sins, he means we were dead to God. Unresponsive. This means we couldn’t save ourselves. We couldn’t repair our broken relationship with God. We couldn’t bridge the separation between us. We were dead. Dead people can’t do anything. Dead people can’t save themselves. It had to come from God—and it does. God awakens us and makes us alive. First, we were dead.
Second, we were enslaved. We were enslaved by the world, the devil and the flesh.
The world. In verse 2 he says that when we were living in sin, we “followed the ways of this world.” Paul uses “the world” to refer to human culture apart from God. It is a whole social value system that is alien to God. This is what we were talking about in our last series, Resist. Human culture is both beautiful and bent. Our culture has many good values; it also has many bad ones. And this is true of every human culture. So Paul says in Romans 12:2, “Don’t be conformed to this world—don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold.” But before God saved us, we were held captive by the values of the world; we followed the ways of this world.
The flesh. In verse 3 he says that we lived “gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.” The flesh isn’t this: our body. Let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with our natural bodily desires, whether for food, sleep or sex. God made us this way. But these things can become idols or be abused. Our desire for food can become gluttony; our desire for sleep can become laziness; and our desire for sex can become lust. Paul uses the term “flesh” not of our natural bodily desires but of our selfish and sinful human nature. We could substitute the term, “selfishness.” “Gratifying the cravings of our selfishness.” Before God intervened, we were enslaved to our selfishness.
The devil. We were enslaved by the world outside us, by our selfishness inside us, and by the devil actively working through both. Paul describes him in verse 2 as “the ruler of the kingdom of air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” Jesus and all of the New Testament writers believed that there is an evil spiritual being bent on opposing God and destroying us. They believed that we are engaged in a spiritual battle. And this was part of our deadness: we were following the devil without even knowing it. We were deceived and enslaved. We were dead, and enslaved.
We were condemned. He finishes describing our condition by saying, “we were deserving of wrath.” Our sin and rebellion earned the just sentence of God’s wrath and punishment. God’s wrath or anger is not at all like ours. It is never capricious or arbitrary. It is God’s reaction to only one thing, evil, so it is entirely predictable. God’s wrath is his righteous hostility to evil.
Some people find the idea of God’s wrath repugnant. I believe they don’t understand it, and if they did, they would see it’s an essential characteristic of a loving God.
ILL: Miroslav Volf, a Christian theologian from Croatia, used to reject the concept of God’s wrath. He thought that the idea of an angry God was barbaric, completely unworthy of a God of love. But then his country experienced a brutal war with terrible atrocities. In his book, Free of Charge, he wrote:
“My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry.
Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them?
Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.”
I think we can all understand God’s wrath against terrible sin in the world like the Rwandan genocide. But I don’t think we understand the depth of our own sin, and God’s wrath toward it.
That’s what Paul is emphasizing in verses 1-3. We were dead in our sins, enslaved and justly condemned. We could not save ourselves.
- But God made us alive in Christ.
Ephesians 2:4-10 (p. 1006)
4 But because of his great love for us, God, (GK: but God) who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 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. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
We were dead, but God made us alive with Christ.
We were enslaved, but God freed us and raised us with Christ.
We were condemned, but God saved us and seated us with Christ.
But God! It’s the biggest but in the world!
We were dead, but God made us alive in Christ. We say this all the time: Jesus didn’t come to make you more religious; He came to make you more alive. Fully alive! Jesus said in John 10:10 “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.” Jesus came to make you fully alive in every dimension of life!
The first 3 verses are what we’ve done; the next 7 are what God has done. The first 3 verses describe our mess; the next 7 describe God’s solution. The first 3 verses tell what we have made of ourselves; the next 7 tell what God has made of us.
ILL: Here’s a thought for all of you who have done Rooted and written your 2-3 minute story. It’s easy to talk about our life before Jesus—what we made of ourselves—and often we spend most of our story there, and finish with our But God moment. What if we made our stories more about Jesus and what He’s done for us, and less about us? More Jesus, less me. Here’s who I was without Jesus: 3 verses. But God saved me, and here’s who I am becoming with Jesus: 7 verses. Spend more time there. To do that, I challenge you today or tomorrow to make a list of the changes God has made in your life. How are you different now than before?
So what has God done and why did He do it? Paul answers those two questions.
What has God done? In a word, He has saved us. Look at v. 5 and v. 8. “It is by grace you have been saved.” That word “saved” simply means “rescued.” It means you were in a mess you couldn’t fix and someone else came to your rescue—in this case, God.
ILL: A number of years ago, Laina and I went on a Sunday afternoon drive in the spring, and I managed to get our car stuck in the mud…deep…up to the axels. I tried everything to save myself, and we only sunk deeper. Finally, I realized I wasn’t going to save myself and made some phone calls, and stood by the main road, waiting for my savior. Who was I waiting for? The tow truck.
A friend drove by and asked me, “Joe, what are you doing standing out here in the cold in the middle of nowhere.” I told him my car was stuck, and he was sympathetic, but couldn’t help me. I didn’t need sympathy; I needed rescue!
A neighbor came out and chatted. He told me that I wasn’t very smart to drive off the road at this time of year when the ground was so soft. He told me about a couple of other idiots like me who had done the same thing only last week. His comments were well-intended, but useless. I already knew I was dumb; I didn’t need criticism, I needed rescue!
Another guy stopped and actually tried to help. First he suggested I try rocking the car back and forth. I had done that, but tried again, and only dug in deeper. Then he suggested we try breaking up pine branches and putting them under the wheels for traction. We tried that, and sunk deeper. I didn’t need more suggestions; I needed rescue. I needed a tow truck!
Finally, the tow truck came! Here’s the crazy part: the tow truck got stuck trying to get us out, and we had to call a second tow truck—and it was humongous—to come and pull us both out! I was stuck and couldn’t save myself. I needed a savior. I needed a tow truck!
If you understand the first 3 verses, you know why we need to be saved, rescued. We’re all hopelessly stuck and can’t save ourselves. BUT GOD! He did it!
He saved us from death—He made us alive with Christ. I’m alive to God now. I’m no longer separated from God; I’m close to Him. I’m no longer unresponsive to God; I’m in an every day relationship with Him. I’m fully alive! I didn’t do that for myself—God made me alive with Christ. He did it!
He saved us from slavery—He freed us in Christ from the controlling influence of the world, our selfishness and the devil. Of course I still battle my selfishness; I still live in the world and must resist its negative influences; and life is still a spiritual battle. Peter said:
1 Peter 5:8 Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
Peter wrote that to Christians! We have an enemy who would love to destroy us! We’re in a battle. But Jesus defeated him on the cross, so I’m no longer a slave to the devil, or the world, or even myself. Jesus is my Lord now, and He has given me His Spirit to empower me to live a new life. I still battle, but I’m not enslaved. I didn’t do that myself—God saved me and set me free in Christ. He did it!
He saved us from condemnation—He forgave us completely in Christ and seated us with Christ. Paul says that we are “seated in the heavenly realms in Christ.” Where is Jesus seated? The Bible says in a dozen places that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father. (Acts 2:33-34, 5:31, 7:55-56, Romans 8:34, Ephesians 1:20, Colossians 3:1, Hebrews 1:3, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2, 1 Peter 3:22) The right hand seat was the place of highest honor, authority and favor. We’ve gone from being condemned under God’s judgment to sitting at God’s right hand—the place of favor, honor and authority! I didn’t do that myself—God saved me and raised me and seated me with Christ. He did it!
What has God done? He saved us by His grace. He made us alive with Christ, raised us with Christ, and seated us with Christ at the right hand of the Father. Paul’s favorite expression in his letters is “in Christ.” We are in Christ, that is, we are united with Christ, in a relationship with Jesus that changes everything about us. Here in this passage, Paul says that We are united with Christ in His resurrection (made alive with Christ), in His ascension (raised with Christ), and in His session (seated in Christ). For Paul, this is what makes us Christian. It’s not that we follow certain moral rules (although we do), or that we do certain spiritual practices such as worship, prayer, doing good (although we do). What makes us Christian is not what we do for God, but what He’s done for us—that He has saved us in Christ, made us alive with Christ, raised us and seated us in Christ. We are in Christ. And He did it—it’s all Him, not us.
1 Corinthians 1:30 It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus.
Being in Christ is not just some mystical idea; it is about being in relationship with Jesus, and it has very practical consequences. I’m alive to God and living a whole new life. Here’s just one example.
We are seated in Christ at the right hand of the Father—the place of honor, favor and authority. God placed you there, at His side! How does that change things?
ILL: Have you ever asked someone how they’re doing, and they say, “Fine, under the circumstances.” I want to say, “What are you doing under there?” You’re seated with Christ at the right hand of the Father. How does that change your perspective? “Father, what are we going to do?”
ILL: Here’s a cool story from this week’s news: 71-year-old Plaxedes Dilon of Zimbabwe wanted to help victims of Cyclone Idai, which tore through parts of Africa last week. So, she loaded up a giant sack of clothes and household items and walked 6 miles to a church in Harare that was collecting donations. It gets even better: The church, thoroughly impressed with her generosity (and probably her upper body strength) posted about her donation, and it caught the eye of Zimbabwean billionaire Strive Masiyiwa. The telecom executive said Dilon’s trek was “one of the most remarkable acts of compassion I have ever seen.” He vowed to meet her, pray with her and even build her a house and provide her with some living money.
It’s a cool story. I think Plaxedes’ life is about to change. She will have a relationship with one of the wealthiest men in the world who has vowed to provide for her. You’ve got it even better! God has set you at His right hand in Christ!
We were dead, but God made us alive with Christ! This is what He has done.
Why has God done it? Look back at our text and four words pop out.
- 4 because of His great love.
- 4 God is rich in mercy.
- 5, 8 by grace you have been saved.
- 7 the incomparable riches of His grace, expressed in his kindness to us.
Great love, rich mercy, rich grace and kindness. This is what motivated God to save us. It wasn’t anything in us; it was something in Him—His mercy, love, grace and kindness.
Paul emphasizes this in verses 8-9 when he says that we are saved by grace through faith—and then adds two negatives for emphasis. “This is not from yourselves.” You didn’t save yourself; God did it. “Not by works.” You didn’t earn it; it’s God’s free gift. Then the clincher: “So that no one can boast.”
No one can say, “I saved myself. I earned it. I deserved it. I did it.” No one can boast, because we were dead and unable to save ourselves, BUT GOD did it!
It’s all God’s doing, and so we boast in the Lord. We brag about Jesus and what He’s done for us. We are trophies of God’s grace! Look at verse 7: He has seated us with Christ “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.” God will show or display the incomparable riches of His grace through us. Through all eternity, people will look at you, and be amazed! “Wow, you’re here? God is good!” Turn to your neighbor and tell them, “You’re a trophy of grace.”
Look again at verse 10. You are God’s handiwork, His new creation, His masterpiece, created in Christ to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Literally, it says that God prepared these good works in advance for us to walk in. And the passage begins in verse 1 with us dead in our trespasses and sins which we used to walk in. Paul loved to use the word “walk” for our lifestyle, our daily behavior. The passage starts with us walking in transgressions and sins in which the devil had us trapped; it ends with us walking in good works which God has prepared for us. The change is complete. All because of God.
We were dead, but God made us alive!
END: BAPTISM CLASS Room 205 after service
Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge (Zondervan, 2006), pp. 138-139