“Man Apart from God”

Ephesians 2:11-22

November 4, 2001

Text Comment

This great paragraph concerns the peace that Christ has brought between sinful human beings and God, on the one hand, and between human beings themselves on the other:  God’s reconciliation in both its vertical and horizontal dimensions.  But, in setting the stage for a discussion of that reconciliation, Paul gives a penetrating and thought provoking description of the condition of man in unbelief, man apart from God and Christ.  We will consider that description, in vv. 11-13 this morning and then, Lord willing, the main burden of the paragraph next Lord’s Day morning.

v.11     The “therefore” with which the verse begins connects this thought to what has gone before.  He is now describing and applying in a new way the history of his readers’ salvation, which has been described in vv. 1-10. We learn at least from Paul’s way of addressing his readers that most if not all of them were Gentiles, not Jews.

v.12     Paul speaks similarly in Romans 9:3-5.  He does not deny the widespread unbelief in the Israel of his day, indeed he says, “…I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.  Theirs is the adoption of sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.  Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised.”

v.13     Again, as in the paragraph above and as so often in Paul, the decisive moment in their salvation occurred not when they did something, but when Christ did something for them.

What we have in v. 12 is a description of unbelieving human beings, of people who are not Christians.  This is what their situation was before they became Christians.  And Paul’s description of man in sin, of unbelieving man, of non-Christian man, though always of great importance, has become once again of still greater importance in our historical moment.

Here Paul says what was true of these people before they became Christians.  And it is precisely this truth about the unbelieving world that the church is growing less and less willing to proclaim.  Paul says that these people were without God even though the Gentile world worshipped multitudes of gods and was intensely religious.  He says that they were without hope even though the Gentile religious world held out many hopes to mankind.  Paul is saying that their gods and their hopes were all false, all amounted to nothing.  Only in Christianity, only in Christ can God and hope be found.   Even more controversially, at least in our day, he says that before they believed, they were separate from Christ and that another way of saying that is that they were excluded from citizenship in Israel.  They were apart from God and without hope precisely because they did not belong to that group, that people among whom God’s favor was to be found.

He is describing these things, of course, in terms of the specific circumstances of his day, but we could today make the same point by saying that they were separate from Christ because they did not belong to the Christian church.  Israel had been the church for ages and was still the church when these Gentiles were still unbelievers, and the fact that many in the Jewish church of that time were themselves unbelievers did not mean that it wasn’t still necessary to belong to the church in order to be in living connection with Jesus Christ.  They were strangers to the covenants of promise, or, we might say, they were strangers to the gospel, the message of salvation in Christ, and, says Paul, so long as they were strangers to that truth, that message, they were without God and without hope.

But that is precisely what is becoming more and more difficult for Christians to believe, or, if they still believe it, still more and more difficult for Christians to say.

Listen to Prof. David Wells, who, you may remember preached in this pulpit several years ago.  This is from his very important book, No Place for Truth, in which he sounds the warning that the Christian world, the evangelical Christian world is losing touch with its foundations in the truth of God’s Word and in the absolute antithesis between truth and error that is everywhere taught or assumed in God’s Word.

“The Apostles asserted that Christ alone is the truth in the midst of a world that was more religiously diverse than any we have known in the West until relatively recently.  We today are far closer in religious temper to apostolic times than any period since the Reformation.  Indeed, most of the modern period in the West has been quite unlike apostolic times inasmuch as we have been spared inter-religious conflict and much of the doubt that invariably accompanies such conflict.  It is, therefore, hard to imagine a more specious argument than the one advanced along many fronts today, backed actively by the World Council of Churches and implicitly by the documents of the Second Vatican Council, that the contemporary experience of religious pluralism is the reason that the apostolic formulation of the faith can no longer be held!  Such assertions make the apostles and often Jesus himself look like innocents who were spared the dreadful dilemmas that, sadly, we have to face with such flinty honesty, in the process divesting ourselves of the very truth that they insisted must be preserved.”  [104]

You get his point.  People today are being persuaded by the sheer numbers of non-Christians in our world – millions, even billions of people who are not Christians and who practice some other faith – persuaded that we cannot simply consign all of these people – many of whom strike us as attractive human beings – to a hopeless eternity.  Seeing the astonishing religious diversity of the human race, we can no longer insist that one has to become a Christian in order to be saved.   It is simply becoming harder and harder to believe that the Muslim world and the Buddhist world and the Hindu world must give up its Islam and its Buddhism and its Hinduism and become Christian or it cannot be saved.

But, of course, Paul knew very well how religious people were in his day, knew very well that Christianity was very definitely a minority report in the religious world of that time – Christians were a tiny group in comparison with the adherents of the other religions of the world of that time – but, with all the authority of an apostle of Jesus Christ, he still maintained, without apology, the absolute necessity of becoming a Christian in order to be saved.  He maintained that position with respect to both Jews and Gentiles, for those who were in the church and those who were outside of it – true and living faith in Jesus Christ is the indispensable condition of salvation.  Apart from the gospel of Christ, apart from membership in the church of Jesus Christ, apart from the embrace of the covenant that God made with those who believe in his son, a man or woman is without God and without hope because he or she is separate from Christ!

Believe me, my brethren, the church’s conviction is beginning to waver at just this point in our day.  The pressure of our culture’s prejudice against what they see as intolerance and bigotry and absolutism is so fierce that many Christians are wilting in the face of it. 

As long ago as 1978 Billy Graham was quoted in McCall’s magazine as saying, “I used to believe that pagans in far countries were lost if they did not believe the gospel of Christ preached to them.  I no longer believe that.”  That statement was so controversial and so alarmed many supporters of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association that Christianity Today, the evangelical magazine, ran a story claiming that Dr. Graham had been misquoted.

But, in 1997, in a videotaped interview with Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral, Dr. Graham went further still.

“[The body of Christ will be made up] from all the Christian groups around the world, outside the Christian groups, I think that everybody that loves or knows Christ, whether they are conscious of it or not, they are members of the body of Christ.  And I don’t think that we are going to see a great sweeping revival that will turn the whole world to Christ at any time.  I think James answered that – the Apostle James in the first Council in Jerusalem – when he said that God’s purpose for this age is to call out a people for his name.  And that is what he is doing today.  He is calling people out of the world for his name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they have been called by God.  They may not know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something they do not have, and they turn to the only light they have, and I think that they are saved and they are going to be with us in heaven.”

Dr. Schuller, surprised and delighted by this statement, zeroed in to assure himself that he had heard Dr. Graham correctly.  “What, what I hear you saying, that it’s possible for Jesus Christ to come into human hearts and soul and life, even if they have been born in darkness and have never had exposure to the Bible?  Is that a correct interpretation of what you are saying?”  “Yes it is,” Dr. Graham responded.  [Cited in I. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, 74]

Now, I do not mention this to lower your estimation of Dr. Graham.  He has been for two generations a stalwart of evangelical faith and has represented the Gospel with faithfulness, with graciousness, and with a notable personal probity, not an easy thing by any means for a man so long in the limelight as he has been.  And, it is certainly possible that in that interview by Dr. Schuller Dr. Graham was not at his very best.  He was by then an older man and growing weaker with his Parkinson’s.  I am happy to give him the benefit of the doubt.  My simple point is that the fact that Dr. Graham should utter such sentiments, the representative American evangelical for so long, is a certain demonstration that such ideas are very definitely in the wind in our day and that we can count on them being held by more and more people who ought to know better. 

To believe that one can be the follower of another faith and still be saved,  to believe that God would never absolutely require the embrace of a definite theological viewpoint and a change in religious loyalties and practices, to scorn the very idea that one had to be a part of the Christian church to go to heaven, are such quintessentially modern and American convictions that it is no wonder that the evangelical church is finding it harder and harder to resist them.  “Tell me what the world is thinking,” Dr. Francis Schaeffer used to say, “and I will tell you what much of the church will be thinking in twenty years time.”

But, the fact is, Paul believed precisely those things that are now being given up in Christendom.  He believed and he taught in unmistakable language that one had to call upon the name of the Lord Jesus to be saved and that no one could call on whom they had not heard and that no one would hear unless Christian preachers were sent to them.  In Ephesians 1 he has said already that these folk were “included in Christ”, that’s how he puts it in v.13, when they heard the message about Christ and believed it.  And here, in Ephesians 2, he said to these Gentiles believers that, before they became Christians, they were without God and without hope in the world, they were separated from Christ and from his church and people.  He manifestly did not say that some of them were, in fact, already saved – though they didn’t know it – saved even before they heard about Christ, because they knew in their hearts that they were in need of something that they did not have and turned to the only light that they had.

Paul does not say any such thing.  Never in the Bible is any such thing ever said.  And, to the contrary, the point is made times without number, as it is here, that men and women who are not Christians or not yet Christians, are without God and without hope, that they cannot be saved without embracing the covenant of God and without becoming a member of his church and people.  To be saved a person must be in Christ and without true faith in Jesus Christ a person remain separated from Christ.

As Paul has already said emphatically and repeatedly already in Ephesians, salvation comes to dead sinners because of God’s love and choice, because of Christ’s having lived and died and risen again for them, and because of the Holy Spirit’s enlightening their minds and drawing their hearts to Christ.  Salvation is by God’s grace through faith in Christ.  It is always and in every case.  And this salvation is all of a piece.  No one who is included in God’s grace before the foundation of the world will fail to be made alive in Christ and no one who is made alive in Christ will fail to become a believer in Christ by the Holy Spirit’s work within him or her.  Faith in Christ will be worked in that man or woman’s heart even if it requires God to move entire civilizations out of the way so that one missionary, with one Bible, can reach that person whom God has loved and Christ has redeemed with the good news, so that, by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, he or she might believe and be saved by believing in Jesus as he is offered in the gospel.

In the Bible, from start to finish, there is no way for a human being, dead in transgressions and sins, to be made alive except in the Christian way.  If the salvation of the world, if our peace with God required the blood of the Son of God, then we can be sure that there is no other name under heaven whereby we must be saved.  And if the instrumentality God employs to bring human beings into possession of his salvation is living faith in Jesus Christ, then, as the Scripture says, that faith in Christ will be given to them and worked in them.

The problem with all of this stems from the fact that we find it so difficult to live by faith.  We are always making our judgments by sight and by sense.  And the problem is, sight will not disclose to you the immense difference between belief and unbelief, between the Christian and the non-Christian.   Take note of what Paul says and, at the same time, of what he does not say!  Unbelievers are without God, separated from Christ, and without hope.  He does not say that they are without a measure of human accomplishment, without a sincere devotion to their own religion or philosophy of life.  He doesn’t say that their lives were worthless and nothing before they became Christians.  He doesn’t deny that they may have been, in a certain sense, attractive people.  Remember how Jesus loved and admired the rich young ruler who nevertheless went away from him unsaved.

What is more he never says that when a person becomes a Christian he or she will change in ways that make it perfectly obvious to anyone that they have God and hope while others do not. A Christian’s outward appearance does not change, although sometimes the joy Christ brings can make a great difference.  In many ways the lives these new Christians lived went on as before.  They kept the same jobs, in many cases the same friends, they lived in the same cities, wore the same clothes.  It was certainly not obvious to their non-Christian friends that while they themselves remained without God these Christian converts had been brought near to God.  That is what the Christians claimed, but their non-Christian neighbors couldn’t see it.

And, in the same way, people today look at the Christian church, with all of its divisions and its weaknesses and its public embarrassments and they find it frankly preposterous that God would absolutely require that someone, anyone, no matter where he lived in the world, would belong to that or he or she could not go to heaven.  But that is what Paul said: not to belong to the church, the Israel of God is to remain unsaved.  Imagine how that must strike a Muslim in the Middle East today!  But to be excluded from the citizenship of Israel means to be outside of that circle that God is particularly interested in and committed to.  Now, to be sure, and Paul says this frequently also, one can belong to the church in an outward way and still not be saved.  That was true in Israel in his day and he says so in Romans 9:  not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.  But it still remains the case that those who are saved are found in the house of God, the church of Christ, the Israel of God, and not elsewhere, even in other religious communities.

But, Paul never says that those who belong to the Israel of God, those who are members of Christ’s church, can be distinguished from others in the simple, visible way that the world expects.  Christians are not more successful or prosperous than other people as a class.  There are many blessings of the gospel that help them to prosper, to be sure, but life can be as difficult for them as for others.  Think, for example, of the description of the faithful that we are given in Hebrews 11:37:  “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison.  They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword.  They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated…”  J.S. Stewart speaks of “faith’s grim heredity.”  Being a Christian doesn’t make you so great and successful a person, not in the world’s eyes at any rate.  And, to be honest, the church doesn’t bowl over the world with its impressiveness.  We in the church have given the world as much to laugh at, as much to scorn as we have given them reason to admire and wonder.

The world’s problem, our society’s problem is that it cannot see the difference between non-Christians and Christians.  And not seeing the difference, they cannot understand how it would be possible that God should make such a great and terrible difference between believers and unbelievers both in their present situation and their future destiny, such a great difference as that one has God and the other does not, one has hope and the other has none.  They look at Christians and they are sinners like the rest. Christians don’t strike unbelievers as so much better people than they.  Christians have many of the same problems that other people have and some problems that non-Christians don’t have.  They live as long lives and die in the same ways.  There doesn’t seem to be anything so great about the Christian church.  The world can’t find a difference between the two people – Christians and non-Christians – sufficient to account for such a vast difference in present situation and in eventual destiny.  How can it be true of people so much alike in all the ways we can see, that some are with God and some are without God, some have hope of the world to come and some do not, no matter what they might think, some are going to heaven and some, in fact, are going to hell.  God surely would not make such a huge thing, a momentous thing out of differences so small the world can hardly detect them!

Ah, but the fact that the world cannot see the difference does not mean that the difference is small. That is Paul’s point.  The grace of God, the death and resurrection of Christ, the mighty working of the Holy Spirit in the soul, these are not small things, these are the greatest things of all and it is these things that make for such a decisive difference between Christians and non-Christians that Paul can say of the latter that they are without God and without hope in the world.  These are great differences indeed.  It does not yet appear to be so huge a difference, but it is.   If we could now see believers seated in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, as Paul says they are in principle in v. 6, then we would think that the difference is too great to calculate.  But we cannot yet see them there.

If you could see the believer next to you, if you could see the believer in Christ who works with you at the office, if you could see that Christian man or woman walking down a crowded city street – if you saw him or her as he or she will one day appear when the full majesty of God’s salvation is upon him and when she is in her glorified body and has been made like Christ – I say, you would be tempted and everyone else on that street would be tempted to fall down on your knees in front of that person and worship him or her. The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian would be so vast, so terrible, it would take our breath away.

In the same way, if you saw the people in that same office or on that same street who do not and will never believe in Jesus Christ as they will someday be on account of their unbelief you would recoil from them in horror and fear.  You live, we all live among a world of gods and goddesses to be – lower case “g” – and among a world of devils to be.  The problem is, they can be seen for what they are only by faith!  The vast difference between them, which is the difference between God and Satan, heaven and hell, good and evil, can be detected only by faith.  This is so because that difference has all to do with their connection to Jesus Christ and that connection is largely invisible, it is by faith.  Someday we will all see that difference worked out in its terrible and wonderful power, but now we can only know it and believe it on the strength of what God has said and promised.

And he has said that those who do not believe in Jesus Christ are without him and without hope and that those who do are, in principle, already seated in the heavenly realms with Christ Jesus his beloved Son.

A true Christian knows this, of course; knows that in Christ and by faith in Christ he or she has found the secret to all happiness for ever and ever and that, in comparison to that, nothing that separates or distinguishes men in this world amounts to anything.  Listen to Malcolm Muggeridge, having become a Christian later in his life.

“I may, I suppose, regard myself as a relatively successful man.  People occasionally stare at me in the streets:  that’s fame.  I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Internal Revenue: that’s success.  Furnished with money and a little fame, even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions: that’s pleasure.  And it might happen, once in a while, that something I might have said or wrote was sufficiently heeded, for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time: that’s fulfillment.  Yet I say to you, and beg you to believe me, multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing, less than nothing, a positive impediment, measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are.”  [Jesus Rediscovered, 77]

There are those in this world who are without God – think of it, to be in God’s earth without God – and there are those who have been brought near to him.  Two kinds of people and only two.  And the difference, of course, the difference, is God’s Son.  Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.  They who have the Son have life, they who do not have the Son of God do not have life.  You know it is so, it must be so!  Don’t close your eyes tonight, my friends, unless you are sure, sure beyond reasonable doubt, that you have the Son.  He said, he promised, “he who comes to me I will never drive away.”