And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins. Ephesians 2:1
What does it mean to be dead? A basic definition is “lifeless, what lacks life, a corpse.” The Apostle Paul used the Greek word nekroß (nekros). It can mean “without life” physically and spiritually. The context of Paul’s usage is spiritual:
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, 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, 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. Ephesians 2:1-3
An Important Question
Paul began by writing, “And you He made alive.” That raises an important question. How did that happen? How did God make lifeless people alive? Paul doesn’t leave us wondering about the answer:
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:4-10
The context is God’s rich mercy and great love that led Him to make dead people alive “with Christ.” It’s about how God “saves” people. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves.” What does that mean? We’re saved by grace through faith but not of ourselves? How can that be? We must play some part in our salvation. Right?
That was a question I considered as a new Christian. I had spent years as an atheist, then several months investigating the claims for Christianity, before trusting in Christ for salvation. Didn’t that prove I had played a role in my own salvation? Some older Christians agreed and said I had participated with God ‘s grace to be saved, but others said I couldn’t have participated because I was spiritually “dead.” I discovered that the theological terms were synergism and monergism and that put me back into an investigative mode. Which was it? Did I participate with God in my salvation or was my salvation all of God?
I was a well-known atheist in my community. I hosted a radio program and argued with Christians on air every day. Many Christians I met after being saved told me they hated to hear me on the radio. One pastor told me he had stopped praying for me because he believed I was the one person who couldn’t be saved. He apologized for thinking there was anyone God couldn’t save.
Because of my notoriety in the community, many pastors invited me to share my salvation testimony at churches and pastoral meetings. I’m embarrassed as I remember how much credit I gave myself during those testimonies. I emphasized God’s love and grace in saving me, but also made much to do with my lengthy investigation into the claims of Christianity. I wish I had made more of God and less of myself, but the way I shared my testimony went to my view of salvation. I believed I played an important role in my salvation. God saved me, but I viewed my efforts as vital to my being saved. God got me started spiritually, but my will and intellect finally brought me to faith in Christ.
On what did I base that belief? The idea of prevenient grace where God’s grace quickens a human being and brings them to a place where they can make an informed decision for or against God and His offer of salvation. There are different views of prevenient grace (grace that “goes before, precedes”), but what I heard from many people was that the Holy Spirit opened my heart and mind to understand the message of the Gospel and I used my free will to determine whether it was something I wanted to believe. The choice was mine to make. If I chose for Christ, I received the gift of eternal life. If I chose against Christ, I didn’t receive the gift of eternal life.
The way I viewed my situation was that God’s grace quickened my heart and mind (make alive, make active) so that I could make an informed decision based on my investigation into the existence of God, the historical credibility of the Scriptures, and the reality of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When I was asked to make a decision based on my investigation, I chose to believe in Christ. God’s Grace plus my investigative skills = my salvation. That was how I shared my testimony as a young Christian.
I took some pride in my conversion from atheism to Christianity. I had freely chosen to leave the Christianity of my childhood because I was ‘smarter’ than my parents and their friends. I had freely chosen to become a Christian because of my skills as an investigator. I had asked and answered things about God, the Bible and Jesus Christ that other Christians had not been able to answer. I became a Christian through the process of God’s amazing grace and my activated will and intellectual ability.
That thinking led me to look at sharing the Gospel with people as convincing them of what had convinced me. If God’s prevenient grace had activated everyone’s will, then it was simply a matter of getting them to change their minds about what they believed about God, the Bible and Christ. That idea played into my ability as a communicator and negotiator.
Many Christians believe now as I did more than 50 years ago. They believe they shared a vital role in their salvation: their activated will and intellect worked with God’s prevenient grace to bring them to faith in Christ. God provided the grace to get things started, people brought their abilityto believe (faith).
That seemed simple enough, but it wasn’t. I came across two groups of Christians who saw salvation in different lights. One group believed that God was necessary for salvation, but was not sufficient to bring about salvation without a human being practicing their activated free will. God’s love and prevenient grace PLUS a person using their free will to respond to the Gospel was sufficient for salvation. Another group believed God was necessary AND sufficient for salvation without a person expressing their free will because their will was dead. It was not alive.
I didn’t see how both groups could be correct since it looked like they held oppositional views. If true, that meant one of the views was either not true or there was another view that was true. Maybe I was missing something.
Had I played a role in my own salvation? I thought so at first, but the more I read and studied the New Testament the more I thought my role in salvation wasn’t as much as I first thought. The reason I say that is because of a study one of our pastors led on Sunday nights. He was a professor of Greek at a local Christian college and was going verse-by-verse through Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
First, he looked at Ephesians 1:3 in the Greek:
just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world
I found that interesting. What did it mean that God “chose” people from before the foundation of the world? Did it mean that He chose them in the sense that He would activate their minds and will and give them a gentle ‘push’ toward salvation hoping we would choose Him?
Some who believe in prevenient grace believe God goes before us and prepares the way for us to believe. One description includes the idea that our sin and recognition of our need for salvation is like being on a porch. Prevenient grace prepares our hearts and minds to hear and receive the Gospel of Christ and respond in faith. Our justification by faith is the door. All we have to do is walk through the door to be saved. (United Methodist Church What We Believe)
Is that how God “chose us” in Christ before the foundation of the world?
Paul wrote this several verses later:
In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory. Ephesians 1:13-14
I read that and thought it could mean I had played a role in my salvation. I “trusted” after I “heard the word of truth.” After believing in Christ, the Holy Spirit sealed me and guaranteed my salvation. God provided me grace to believe (prevenient grace) and I provided the faith to believe based on my activated mind and will. I was on the porch investigating the claims of Christianity, believed what I had found to be true, and walked through the door of justification. I could just as easily have investigated, not believed what I found, and walked off the porch to continue my life as an atheist. God didn’t play a role in whether I made the decision to express faith (belief) in Christ. He just gave me the opportunity to consider believing the Gospel. The choice to believe was mine, not God’s. Therefore, I had something of which I could boast, and boast I did.
I felt pretty good about the role I played in my salvation until I came to the first verse in Ephesians 2:
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins
The pastor then said something I remember as if he said it just moments ago.
What does the word dead mean in the Greek? It’s the word nekros and it means ‘a dead corpse.’ Dead means dead and that’s what dead means. What do dead people do? They stink because they’re dead. They decay because they are dead. Can a corpse hear anything? No. Why? Because they’re dead. Can a corpse see anything? No. Why? Because they’re dead. Can a corpse respond to anything someone says or does? No. Why? Because they’re dead. Can a corpse follow someone’s directions to make a decision based on information they’ve considered? No. Why? Because they’re dead.
That hit me like a ton of bricks! Dead people can’t do anything because they’re dead. They’re spiritually dead. Paul made it clear that he and other humans were physically alive because they “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.” Paul made it clear that he and others had 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.” It takes someone who is physically alive to “walk” and “conduct” themselves, so Paul was addressing our spiritual death in that context.
So, if I was dead in trespasses and sins and by nature a child of wrath, how could I have responded to the Gospel? Didn’t I investigate the truth claims of Christianity for five months? Didn’t I express my faith in Christ when I asked God to forgive me for my sins? Didn’t I confess that God had raised Jesus from the dead?
But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”(that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture says, ‘Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For ‘whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Romans 10:8-13
That certainly proved I had played a vital role in my own salvation. Right?
We’ll do our best to answer that question in the next part of our special study, Calling The Dead.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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