Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 04/19/1998

Ephesians 2:4

"But God..."

There is a simple word that has just one syllable and only three letters, but which is nonetheless one of the most powerful and devastating vocables in the English language. "Your presentation was masterfully organized, well supported, and highly persuasive. BUT . . . we've decided to go with another company." "Your child is cooperative, well adapted to school, and well liked by his fellow students. BUT . . . he's flunking math, English, history, and PE." "Your congregation [this is my favorite] is warm and friendly, your doctrine is sound, and your teaching is the best we've ever heard. BUT . . . we've decided to look for another church." It gets so that every time you hear this word you freeze and even cringe, waiting for the other shoe to drop. In the space of one short breath it reverses your expectations and can turn your whole world upside down. It can send your dearest dreams crashing down to the depths of despair. BUT . . . depending on the context, it can also turn night to day, dejection to hope, sorrow to joy, just as suddenly, just as dramatically, just as powerfully. Such is the use Paul makes of it in Ephesians 2:4. "You were dead in your trespasses and sins . . . BUT God, being rich in mercy . . . ."


This little phrase "But God" is really a summary of the whole Christian message. In context here, as it signals an exhilarating upturn in Paul's development of the doctrine of regeneration, it tells us of both the hopelessness of man's condition and the sole sufficiency of the work of Christ to meet it.


It is absolutely foundational, absolutely essential to an adequate appreciation of the Gospel that we understand the utter hopelessness of all human solutions to the central problem of the human race, which is Sin. Nobody knows how old the human race is, but most people can agree that it is old enough to know better. But knowing better is no solution when the problem lies in the human heart itself.

We must see and feel the hopelessness of all human solutions because God's solution is drastic. It is to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ. It is to admit your guilt, to confess yourself 180 degrees in the wrong, to see yourself as an inexcusable rebel against your good and gracious king. It therefore involves surrender, laying down your arms and casting yourself on His mercy. It means giving up all claims to sovereignty, self-rule, even rights, accepting Another as rightfully your absolute ruler. It means giving up all claims to being able to solve your own problems yourself; it means an admission of total helplessness. And this is totally unacceptable to the natural man. Therefore, men will simply not accept God's solution until they are completely satisfied that there is no other way.

This intractability flows from the very nature of the problem: We are Dead in trespasses and sins--not sick, not hamstrung, not disadvantaged, not mortally ill--DEAD. Ezekiel recognized the problem years before Christ, when he was asked the unanswerable question, "Shall these bones live?" (37:3). And when you look objectively at the human race, you must recognize that moral and spiritual death and impotence is the only adequate description of our situation. We've had the war to end all wars; we've had the war to make the world safe for democracy. And since winning them we've had Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Sadam Hussein, and Osama Bin Laden. We've had a League of Nations that is disbanded and a United Nations that is a joke; and still we've had Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, etc., etc., etc. Why? Because we do the same thing on a personal level, coveting the wealth, position, or prestige of another. So why should nations behave any better than individuals? Indeed, human beings usually behave worse in groups than they do as individuals. The problem is not our philosophies or our policies, though ill-advised and utopian ones can make t hings even worse. The PROBLEM is our NATURE.

And as for THE SOLUTION? Well, let's look at some of the band-aids that the philosophies of men offer us.

  1. LOVE.
    "Reach out and touch somebody's hand. / Make this world a better place if you can." "What the world needs now is love, sweet love. / That's the only thing that there's much too little of." Well, yes, one wants to reply. And if frogs had wings they could fly south for the winter instead of sleeping in the mud. Where is this love going to come from? Out of hearts that are dead in trespasses and sins, bent toward selfishness, deceitfully wicked above all things? Shall these bones live? Let's paraphrase Ezekiel's question: Shall these bones love?
    Education, many would tell us, is the solution to all our problems. If people could just be enlightened; if we could just explain it to them. Now, I am in favor of education. I've got about as much as it's legal to get, and I wouldn't want to give any of it back. But it is not the solution to the Problem because it doesn't even address the Problem, which is not ignorance but wickedness. If education is the solution, then why is there so much VD on college campuses? If we can't even teach reading, how are we going to teach living? Teddy Roosevelt said that "To educate a man in mind but not in morals is to educate a menace to society." But can we even educate the natural man in morals? Martin Luther said even more profoundly, "Schools will prove great gateways to Hell" unless they are based on a biblical philosophy of life, i.e., "unless the Scriptures reign paramount." But even Christian education is not the answer unless it presupposes a much more radical Solution that even Christian schools cannot provide or guarantee. How do you educate a corpse? Shall these bones learn?
    Increasingly people look to politics for answers. If we can just reform the laws, appropriate a little more money, create some new programs . . . . And so at unconscionable expense Lyndon Johnson declared "war on poverty" in an attempt to create the "great society." And for all our idealism we succeeded only in destabilizing the black family, destroying individual initiative, creating a culture of dependence and a runaway debt. (Both Liberal and Conservative politics are incapable of bringing in the millennium. The only difference is, SOME Conservatives understand this truth.) Mark it down: The more utopian the political vision, the more repressive and inhumane will be the regime that tries to implement it. Can these bones lead?
    Many put their hope in science and technology. And they bring many blessings but no final answers. Each solution creates unanticipated new problems of its own. Think of wonder drugs that have now given us super-viruses. What layman can understand the technicalities of the "star wars" debate? So how are voters to decide what to pursue and how to use it? Here is the ultimate problem: Who will control and use this technology? Fallen people like us. Can these bones light our way?
    Most ludicrous of all, yet widely believed, is the idea that Evolution itself will eventually take us to a place where we will transcend our aggressive "animal" tendencies. Our problem is that we just aren't evolved enough yet. Now, I can believe in warp drive, transporter technology, and even (almost) in the universal translator; but when Star Trek asks me to accept this idea I can no longer suspend my disbelief. Even if it were possible, it isn't going to happen in my lifetime. When? A million years from now? What hope is there in this for ME, for MY grandchildren? Shall these bones last?


Can these bones live? Can these bones love? Will these bones last? No. BUT . . . GOD. We must see the absolute futility of all human solutions so we will be prepared to turn to the one place where hope is to be found: in the God who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

You will never be saved until you give up all hope of attaining your own salvation. You will never pin all your hopes on the Unseen until you have given up all hope in material things and temporal experience. You will never confess yourself a helpless and hopeless sinner and accept Christ's death as the payment for your sin as long as you can still put any hope in your own righteousness. You will never understand the Gospel of Grace until then. You will never deny yourself, take up your Cross, and follow Him until you are convinced that nothing stands between you and meaninglessness--nothing stands between you and eternal loneliness--NOTHING stands between you and the flames of Hell--BUT GOD.

And you will never live a victorious Christian life until you come to grips with the same two words. At your salvation you accepted in principle the truth that "Apart from me ye can do nothing," but the world system, your own flesh, and the Devil will conspire to keep you from living that way in practice. Therefore, you will never read the Bible as you ought until you have given up all hope in your own wisdom. You will never pray as you ought until you have given up all trust in your own strength and ability. You will never serve, depend on, walk with the Lord as you ought until you have become convinced in the very heart of your heart and the bones of your bones that NOTHING stands between you and a life of spiritual defeat, barrenness, and uselessness--BUT GOD.


We must never take this truth for granted. We must meditate on it, reinforce it, live by it. The situation would be utterly hopeless . . . but God. But God what? But God, being rich in mercy . . . hath made us alive IN CHRIST. For by Grace we are saved through Faith. He has done everything. Therefore, let us worship and praise him.

Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams