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Sin, Grace, and Works: An Exposition of Ephesians 2:1-10

Lesson ▪ 2010
Tags: Ephesians 2:1-10; Sin; Wrath; Grace; Salvation; Faith; Works
Related Resources: God’s Righteousness Revealed: An Exposition of Romans


Introduction

The text we have before us is a significant one. It is literally loaded with content, and most of it is at the core of the Christian belief system. Some of its language is well known—“by grace you have been saved through faith” (v. 8)—yet there remains profound truth to be unpacked from its compact verbiage. The text has many connections with the remainder of the book (and also with letters such as Colossians and Romans), so understanding this passage will help to unlock Ephesians and more.

In the latter verses of chapter 1 Paul expressed his prayer for the recipients of the letter to increase in their knowledge of God and his plan for their lives. Coming to terms with 2:1-10 will enable us to accomplish that goal to some extent. The themes of the text are biblical megathemes: Sin, Grace, and Works.


Bible Text (NKJV)

 1 And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, 2 in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.


Discussion

Dead in Sin and Destined for Wrath (vv. 1-3)

  • Some versions interpolate “He made alive” (or its equivalent) in v. 1. However, this phrase does not actually appear in the Greek until v. 5.
  • Before God’s mercy reached us, we were in the condition of being “dead in trespasses and sins” (v. 1; cf. Col. 2:13).
    • “As Calvin insisted (in loc.), what is meant is ‘a real and present death.’ The most vital part of man’s personality—the spirit—is dead to the most important factor in life—God” (Wood, comments on 2:1).
    • According to the NET Bible, “trespasses” (paraptoma), used in v. 1, denotes “a lapse or deviation from truth and uprightness.” Paul uses this term in the following senses:
      • Adam’s original sin (Rom. 5:15-18, 20)
      • Israel’s rejection of the covenant (Rom. 11:11-12)
      • Behavior that evidences a spiritually dead condition (Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13)
      • Sins for which Christ died (Rom. 4:25; 2 Cor. 5:19; Eph. 1:7)
      • A believer’s foray into sin (Gal. 6:1)
    • In v. 1, “sins” (hamartia) is the generic Greek word for sin. It occurs more than 170 times in the New Testament, but this is the only place that it occurs in Ephesians.
    • “‘Transgressions’ [. . .] and ‘sins’ [. . .], though slightly different in their root meanings, are basically synonymous. Both suggest deliberate acts against God and His righteousness and thus failure to live as one should. The plural of these two nouns signifies people’s repetitious involvement in sin and hence their state of unregeneration” (Hoehner 622).
  • In this condition of spiritual death we walked in conformity with the ways of the world and the designs of “the prince of the power of the air” (v. 2).
    • “Walked” (v. 2) renders peripateo, which Paul consistently uses to denote a person’s conduct (e.g., Rom. 6:4; 8:4; 2 Cor. 5:7; 10:3; Gal. 5:16; Col. 4:5). In Ephesians Paul uses it to describe the worldly behavior of the unsaved (2:1; 4:17). More often he applies it to Christian conduct, that is, conduct consistent with the divine calling (4:1), full of love (5:2), light (5:8), and wisdom (5:15), and characterized by good works (2:10).
    • Erickson identifies “the air” (v. 2) with “the presumed dwelling-place of the spirit world” (1024). “Taken literally, this would signify the atmosphere around the earth, which, according to ancient cosmology, is the abode of demons” (Wood, comments on 2:2).
    • “Power” (exousia) occurs in (v. 2). Paul often couples this word with “principality” (arche) to denote invisible structures of spiritual authority (1:21; 3:10; 6:12; cf. Col. 1:16; 2:10; 2:15).
  • Along with everyone else, we who are now saved formerly lived under the devil’s influence, in rebellion against God and fulfilling our own desires (vv. 2-3).
    • In v. 2 Paul says that a satanic personage operates (“works” [energeo]) among the unsaved. This contrasts with the power that God exercised in the resurrection of Christ, which is also meted out to believers (3:20).
    • Sons of disobedience is a Semitic idiom that means ‘people characterized by disobedience.’ However, it also contains a subtle allusion to vv. 4-10: Some of those sons of disobedience have become sons of God” (NET Bible, fn to 2:2). “‘Sons of disobedience’ [. . .] is a Hebrew turn of phrase disclosing the fact that rebellion against God and refusal to believe in him is inherent in man [. . .]” (Wood, comments on 2:2). Paul uses the same phrase in 5:6 and Colossians 3:6, where he emphasizes that they are destined to suffer God’s wrath (cf. 2:3).
    • “This [sinful] nature can manifest itself in a respectable form as well as in disreputable pursuits. The ‘thoughts’ [. . .] suggest that even unbelievers’ reasoning processes [. . .] are perverted” (622-23).
  • Our prospects were dark, as we were “children of wrath,” justly subject to God’s judgment (v. 3).
    • “Wrath” (orge) occurs frequently in Paul’s writings, especially in Romans 1-9, where it appears 7 times.
    • Children of wrath is a Semitic idiom which may mean either ‘people characterized by wrath’ or ‘people destined for wrath’” (NET Bible, fn to 2:3).
Not long ago I passed a church facility that had signs posted around it with the message, “God isn’t mad at you.” Presumably the people at the church wanted to communicate affirmation and acceptance to outsiders. But it’s wrong to dilute the severity of God’s word in an effort to make it more attractive. The fact is that God is offended—angry—by our arrogant failure to glorify him as God. That fact is the beginning of the gospel. Without a justly offended God, there is no need for redemption, and the death of Jesus Christ seems a cruel irony.
  • Verses 1-2 apparently refer to the Gentiles, whereas v. 3 refers to the Jews (e.g., Erickson 1023-24; Hoehner 622; Wood, comments on 2:1, 3).

Alive in Christ by the Grace of God (vv. 4-7)

  • God acted to show us grace in our sinful condition because of his deep mercy and love toward us (v. 4). Both of these motivations are rooted in his character rather than our merits.
    • “Rich” (plousios) occurs three times in Paul’s writings; two of these refer to something other than monetary wealth (v. 4; 2 Cor. 8:9). However, ploutos (“riches, wealth”) occurs more frequently. This term assures us of the abundance of God’s goodness, forbearance and patience (Rom. 2:4); the glory that he bestows of the recipients of his mercy (Rom. 9:23); the salvation that he offers to Gentiles (Rom. 11:12; cf. Col. 1:27); the fullness of his wisdom and knowledge (Rom. 11:33). Elsewhere in Ephesians we are told that God is rich in grace (1:7; 2:7), in glory (3:16), and in his inheritance, the saints (1:18). God’s riches are found in the person of Christ (3:8).
On Tuesday of this week I worked a full day, except for an hour in the afternoon when I visited the dentist to get a couple of painful fillings. After I got off work, I mowed the lawn. When I finally came in the house to eat dinner alone (normal dinnertime was over; my wife and kids had eaten already), a telemarketer called me. During my meal, one of my boys misbehaved in the back yard and I had to get up several times to correct him. All the while I knew that I still had to walk the dog and help with my sons’ homework. Needless to say, this situation was trying my patience. I didn’t have the resources in myself to be patient through all of that. That’s how God differs from us. He possesses and displays all of his attributes perfectly. He is perfect in his patience, in his love, in his wisdom, in his power. And through Christ and the Holy Spirit, he wants to make those virtues ours.
    • Elsewhere in Ephesians Paul makes mention of Christ’s love toward us. He prays that his readers will come “to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge” (3:19), and he enjoins them to practice love in imitation of Christ’s example of sacrificial love (5:2).
    • “In the New Testament eleos means ‘undeserved kindness’ toward sinners. [. . .] Since sinners are spiritually dead toward God, they have nothing to commend them to God. This is why Paul described this love as being ‘great’” (Hoehner 623).
  • Paul sums up God’s saving work in one word: grace (v. 5). Through grace we are united with Christ, and thereby are made alive (v. 5), raised up (v. 6), and seated in heavenly realms (v. 6).
    • Hoehner interprets these three actions as regeneration of what was spiritually dead; impartation of a “new life, power, and position” (cf. Col. 3:1-2), and exaltation as children of God/citizens of heaven (623-24).
    • “The heavenly places” are literally “the heavenlies” (epouranios). In Ephesians Paul employs this phrase in a unique way (Mullen 334; Schoonhoven 655). Christ has been seated at God’s right hand in the heavenlies (1:20). God has raised believers to be seated there with Christ, blessed with all spiritual blessings (1:3; 2:6). But being in the heavenlies is not a tranquil existence, for believers must combat evil spiritual beings there (6:12). The rulers of the spiritual realm take note of God’s wisdom in the heavenlies through the mystery of the church (3:10).
    • The blessings of God’s grace come to us in union with Christ, as reflected in the double use of “in Christ Jesus” (vv. 6, 7) and in three verbs: suzoopoieo (“made us alive together with” [v. 5]); sunegeiro (“raised us up together” [v. 6]); and sugkathizo (“made us sit together” [v. 6]).
  • We cannot grasp the extent of God’s grace and kindness during our earthly experience. In fact, God saved us so that “he might show” these realities in the afterlife (v. 7). “This eschatological dimension implies that it will be for the benefit of angels as well as men” (Wood, comments on 2:7). Nevertheless, Paul prays that even now his readers will increase in their understanding of these blessings (1:15ff; 3:14ff).
    • Verse 7 begins with “that” (hina), indicating a purpose clause.
    • “Show” translates the word endeiknumi, which means to point out, demonstrate, or display (NET Bible). Paul uses this word in other epistles to refer to God’s desire to make his character known—whether his power, through Pharaoh’s obstinacy (Rom. 9:17); his wrath and power, through the ultimate judgment of persistent unbelievers (Rom. 9:22); or his patience, through his bestowal of eternal life on Paul (1 Tim. 1:16).

Saved to Do Good Works (vv. 8-10)

  • Paul repeats his earlier statement, “by grace you have been saved,” this time adding “through faith” (v. 8; cf. v. 5).
    • Nowhere else in 2:1-10 does Paul address the human means by which we are brought from spiritual death into grace. This is because Ephesians 2 emphasizes God’s redemptive work, not the act of faith through which it is realized, as in Romans 10.
    • Our standing in Christ is not the result of our own works; rather it is a gift (doron [gift, offering]) from God (vv. 8-9). This is the only occurrence of doron in Paul’s writings; however, he uses a related term, dorea, to refer to salvation (Rom. 5:15, 17).
    • “Faith is not a ‘work.’ It does not merit salvation; it is only the means by which one accepts God’s free salvation” (Hoehner 624). “Lest faith should be in any way misinterpreted as man's contribution to his own salvation, Paul immediately adds a rider to explain that nothing is of our own doing but everything is in the gift of God” (Wood, comments on 2:8).
    • The fact that salvation is a gift of unmerited favor logically implies that we cannot boast about receiving it (v. 9).
    • Before moving on to another theme, Paul makes his point one more way, referring to the saved as God’s “workmanship” (poiema).
      • The only other occurrence of this word in the New Testament is found in Romans 1:20, where it refers to the physical creation (“the things that are made”).
      • “The word ‘workmanship’ (poiema) [. . .] denotes a work of art or a masterpiece” (Hoehner 624).
  • Though deeds play no part in earning our salvation, they are not unrelated to it. In fact, Paul proceeds to state that God saved us—literally, created us in Christ Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15)—so that we can practice good works (v. 10; cf. Tit. 3:5).
    • This is by no means a subsidiary postscript to the paragraph. [. . .] It shows what salvation is for: it is intended to produce the good works that attest its reality. Works play no part at all in securing salvation. But afterwards Christians will prove their faith by works” (Wood, comments on 2:10).
    • It is not simply that he desires for us to do good works, or that he expects us to do them, or that he has commanded us to them. Rather, God has “prepared [them] beforehand” (v. 10). The word proetoimazo occurs only one other time in the New Testament, in Romans 9:23, where it refers to God disposing for glory those on whom he would mercifully bestow salvation. In other words, God saves us for a purpose.
    • “The life of goodness that regeneration produces has been prepared for believers to ‘do’—Greek, ‘walk about in’ (peripateo)—from all eternity. The road is already built. Here is a further reason why the Christian has nothing left to boast about. Even the good he now does has its source in God, who has made it possible” (Wood, comments on 2:10).
    • “[. . .] God has prepared a path of good works for believers which He will perform in and through them as they walk by faith. This does not mean doing a work for God; instead, it is God’s performing His work in and through believers (cf. Phil. 2:13)” (Hoehner 624).
    • The passage begins by explaining that those who are dead in sin “walk” according to the world and flesh (v. 2). It ends by exhorting us to “walk” in the paths of good works that God has ordained for us.
As we go about our days in time to come, perhaps we will be more likely to please God with our works if we meditate on the fact that he has prepared good works for us to do. As those who are alive in Christ, we must choose to live for God’s glory, for we have been freed from sin for this very purpose.
 

Sources

Erickson, Richard J. “Ephesians.” Baker Commentary on the Bible. Ed. Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000. 1020-33.

Hoehner, Harold W. “Ephesians.” The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty. Ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. New Testament ed. [Wheaton, IL]: Victor, 1983. 613-45.

Mullen, Bradford A. “Heaven, Heavens, Heavenlies.” Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible. Ed. Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000.

NET Bible

Schoonhoven, C. R. “Heavenly.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Rev. ed. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982. 655-56.

Wood, Skevington A. “Ephesians.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: With the New International Version of the Bible. Ed. Frank E. Gaebelein. Vol. 11. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978.


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