It is the twist which makes "Good news / bad news" scenarios humorous. Their humor is that the good news never outweighs the bad. Fortunately, in Scripture when we come across a combination of good news/bad news, it is the good which always wins out. Where the Law condemns, the Gospel frees. The trouble is we so dislike to hear really bad news, that we sweep it under the rug to avoid the negative feelings we may find when the negative is explained. Unfortunately, we do this to our own peril, for when we downplay the bad, the good ceases to be so great. In our passage this morning, we find ourselves confronted with news so horrible that people down through the ages have denied its truth, have so deliberately downplayed its diagnosis of humanity that the good news of what God has done seems rather superficial, even unnecessary. But when this is done we no longer have a realistic outlook on where we are. When we deny the tremendous hopelessness of our condition without Christ we then lose the magnificent glory and wonder of the position we have in Christ. You cannot worship God for who He is, unless you understand who you are, unless you understand the true depravity of the human race. But once we accept this most difficult teaching, once we understand that there is absolutely no basis on which we can approach a perfectly holy God, then we can begin to understand the breadth and length and height and depth of God's love; we can begin to know the love of Christ. This most difficult truth is also one of the most important truths in all Scripture.
What is the bad news?
We are dead - verse 1
Paul begins pulling no punches. Having just concluded praising Gods grace in our salvation and praying that we would understand this truth more, he turns the focus from our loving Father to our own lives. What does he see? Death. That is the kind of bad news we never want to hear.
The trouble with death is that there are no degrees of death. If you have been dead for a minute or a year, you are still dead. Someone hit by a train is no more dead than someone who dies peacefully in his sleep. They are both just as dead.
Of course the trouble with this bad news, what makes it so hard to swallow, is that from all appearances we are doing rather well. Our bodies are virile and robust; we have quick, active intellects, were brimming with personality. But in the area that matters the most, in the soul, there is the stench of death. We are blind to the demands and glory of Christ. We are as deaf to the Holy Spirit as a corpse. We should not hesitate to see that a life without God (however physically fit and mentally alert you may be) is a living death.
Being dead means we are powerless.
The body in the casket may look familiar, but you well know that there is nothing you can say or do to get him to respond. You can bring his favorite meal, shout at the top of your lungs, give him an electrical shock - he is incapable of a response.
In the same way, with respect to God we have no innate power to respond to Him. We have no ability to respond with perfect obedience from the heart. Without Gods grace we are all corpses lying on the slab unable to respond.
Being dead means we are corrupt.
Funeral homes are a big business, not just because we want a memorial for those whom we love, but also because dead bodies deteriorate. With death there is decay; they rot and smell. Remember when Jesus tells those gathered around Lazarus's tomb to open it four days after Lazarus died? Remember Martha's reaction? To quote her in the elegant Elizabethan English of the KJV, Martha says, "Lord, by this time he stinketh!"
Not only are we unable to respond, what is present has a rather putrid odor about it. We are corrupt. The residing sin within each of us is a foul odor before God. Our sinfulness is offensive. We are not only unable to respond, but whatever we do reeks.
Why are we dead?
Transgressions are sometimes called "trespasses." Hunters see "No Trespassing" signs. They mark the boundary line which you are not to cross. The word means to slip, fall or to deliberately deviate from the right direction. When God demands a certain action and we do not do it, that is a transgression, we step over the line.
"Sins" is the more familiar word. This refers to our missing the mark. This includes those things we try to do well and fail due to a lack of perfection as well as those habitual choices we make that are counter to Gods demands.
Our spiritual death is nothing else than our alienation from God. We are lifeless, motionless when it comes to pleasing God. This is how, prior to responding in faith to Gods grace, we used to live.
Our life, apart from Christ, is that of the living dead. Like those horror flicks of the 50s we are part of the night of the living dead, zombies. How does this living death manifest itself?
We are dominated - verse 2a
We are under the dominion of the rules of our world.
Without Christ we are under the domination, the control of this age. With what the NIV translates as the "ways of the world," Paul uses two common terms to define humanity apart from God. The "ways of this world" refers to existence defined solely by earthbound motives, life which does not acknowledge God, whose values are alien to God.
Weve all felt this. Our dress, our homes, our jobs are all strongly influenced by the pressures of our age. We find it so hard to dare to be different. We conform not only in fashion, but in our attitudes as well. We are governed by the perspectives of our associates, and are pressured to conform by our peers around us.
Paul does not define the "ways of this world" solely as activities which are inherently sinful. It is a mistake to consider this to refer just to "worldly activities" as opposed to "spiritual" or "godly" pursuits. The ways of this world encompasses everything we do, even that which is kind and loving, but is ultimately without reference toward God. This includes not just those who hate God, but those who just dont consider Him in all they do.
We are under the dominion of the ruler of the kingdom of the air.
Not only does our culture affect our thoughts, there is another external influence: Satan. Paul elaborates on this in chapter six, telling us that our battle is not against other people, but unseen forces of darkness. We face a spiritual, not material battle in life.
Pauls reference to Satan may be confusing to us in our day and age.
In 1923 radio was a new phenomena which Christians quickly saw as a wonderful opportunity to spread the good news of Christ. One of the first stations in the country was WMBI, affiliated with the Moody Bible Institute. While they were forging ahead in radio they received their share of angry correspondence. Quoting this verse, they were sure these Christians were in league with Satan as they used the air waves.
For the people in the first century, the gods were held to live in heaven while humans had their abode on the earth. The air in between was regarded as the home of spirits, beings intermediate between the gods and people. Many of the spirits were seen as evil. Paul is using this popular conception to bring out the truth that Satan is served by hosts of spirit beings and that it was these spirits that had been dominant in the lives of the Ephesians before they came to know the freedom that Christ gives. In the first century, people lived in fear of unseen forces, of spirits of ancestors, of demons. In our day, most people are confirmed materialists. As the first century lived in irrational fear of the spiritual, most today maintain complete apathy, both views are perilous.
What does this verse mean for us today?
Satans kingdom is of the air, it is where we live. Sometimes we say things like, "There's excitement in the air." What we mean is that excitement seems to be gripping everybody. That is Paul's point. The influence of the power spoken of in verse 2 is so pervasive, that its the power of the air. The power of the air is therefore a power that can get at man everywhere. The whole inhabited world is the domain and the subject of this power.
Escape is impossible. The influence of Satan is everywhere. It is not just found the video games, in the culture of death, the dress of the Goths. It is found in every place which does not acknowledge the reign and rule of Christ.
We are disobedient - verse 2b
It would be comfortable to blame external influences for all our ills. Were good at that. We blame the media for bad role models, schools for messed up kids, parents for not paying attention to their children, economic disparity for social ills and the list can go on. The blame game is as old as our first parents in the garden when each blamed another and ultimately pointed the finger at the God who made them. But God is clear in His condemnation. While there are certainly cultural forces at work as well as pervasive demonic beings, we are also disobedient.
The "spirit" Paul refers to in verse 2 is not the ruler he just mentioned. "Spirit" modifies the "kingdom" just mentioned. Satan is the ruler, but there is also a "spirit of the age," which affects his purpose, energizing those who are already disobedient. The disobedient are those who wholeheartedly follow the spirit of the age. Satan is a created being and not personally present in each part of Gods universe. So, it is through secondary means including an evil world view that he rules us.
When our life is not energized by God (Ephesians 1:11,20), it is energized by the power of evil, controlled by the spirit which has the evil one as its source. If people are surrendered to evil, they become those whose life is contrary to the living God, and so they are rightly called the sons of disobedience.
We are depraved - verse 3a
Our depravity is in gratifying our cravings.
Paul continues in verse three including not only the Gentiles to whom he is writing (note the change of pronouns) but also the Jews. No matter what heritage they can point to, no matter what upbringing one had, apart from Christ ones desires and thoughts are contrary to what God demands. The bad news continues.
The internal drive of everyone is contrary to what God demands. Like the engine on the train track can go fast or slow, may switch tracks at certain junctions, it can not turn off.
You and I have within us impulses and urges which lead us to desire certain things, hold certain attitudes, insist on certain actions. We dont stop to reason these things out, it is just the way we are wired. When we are called to account, we can easily rationalize our actions; we can excuse our choices and our minds can invent all sorts of reasons for what we did.
We do what we do simply because we like doing it. We hate, we lust, we steal because it is our nature. We have to satisfy ourselves. That is our natural bent, that is the effect of our sin nature. We are all natural born sinners.
Our depravity is in governing our desires.
In addition to those cravings we all have, cravings for success, power, prestige, etc, Paul says we follow our desires and thoughts. Paul is covering his bases as this point. We can point to one aspect of our lives and say: "That is where my sin is, I have a base, sensual desire. If I could just think my way through this, Id be okay." It is not as though if we could only become some super intellectual creature, able to rationally view our choices, we could decide to do right and shun the wrong.
I grew up on the old Star Trek. I like the foibles of the characters. The sins of Captain Kirk or Dr. McCoy were clear. Kirk could not control his libido and McCoy his anger. But Spock, now, there was one to emulate. Rid of emotion, his rational self transcended error.
But even in our rational thought, sin has so tainted us that we are quick to follow its desires and thoughts. Paul moves from the emotional to rational in verse 3. Paul sees our desires, literally the will of our flesh, as fallen, too. The myth of a will free to choose good or evil collapses here. Our passions, our will, is as fallen as all other aspects.
Likewise, our thinking is faulty. Our minds direct us contrary to what God desires for us. Sin affects how I balance my checkbook, my reasoning and intellect. Sin affects every component of my life: emotions, will and reasoning.
A little girl was disciplined by her mother for kicking her brother in the shins and then pulling his hair. "Sally" her mother said, ""Why did you let the devil make you kick your little brother and pull his hair?""The devil made me kick him, but pulling his hair was my idea."
We are doomed - verse 3b
We are all in same boat.
How did Germany become so pervasively distorted to follow Nazism? Not because German people are more sinful than other people, but because a whole self-seeking order grew up in the chaos after the Depression and deceived millions, including many in the church. Germans were seeking what all of us seek: security, respect and economic prosperity. Why does materialism have such a deep grip on modern society? How do needs become cravings?? How does sexual practice become so distorted as to be idolatrous? The good is distorted by a world system that leaves God out of the picture, which is what sin always does.
Like the rest, none of us can ever escape the condemnation. Earlier this century a London newspaper editor invited people to submit essays, explaining what is wrong with the world. In response to his query, ""What's wrong with the world?" G.K. Chesterton wrote in reply, "I am."
This passage clearly details what we call total depravity.
Total depravity does not mean we are all as bad as we can be or we are equally wicked to the same degree. We are not as bad as we could be; there is always room for deprovement. Every part of each one of us is tainted by sin. There is no corner of our existence which the Fall has left untouched.
We all have the same nature.
Where does this come from? It is part of our nature. We were born into this condition and for that reason there is nothing you or I can do about it. Education, legislation, a change of environment - all these "remedies" which we propose as releases from this condition - will rearrange the pattern but will never change the basic problem. That is why humanity struggles endlessly trying to correct itself but never succeeds, never succeeds!
Just as it is a dogs nature to bark and a fishs nature to swim, it is our nature to sin. While Freud was wrong about much, his statement that biology determines destiny has an ounce of truth. David said it best in Psalm 51, "in sin did my mother conceive me."
We all deserve wrath.
What is the pronouncement on sinners such as us? We deserve Gods judgment, Gods wrath.
Gods wrath is consistent, controlled, and judicial. That is what makes it so frightening. The doctrine of wrath does not mean that God merely gets angry from time to time, lashes out in anger, and then forgets about it. It is rather that His wrath is an inevitable and growing opposition to all that is opposed to His righteousness.
That is the bad news. How will we respond?
A man purchased a white mouse to use as food for his pet snake. He dropped the unsuspecting mouse into the snake's glass cage, where the snake was sleeping in a bed of sawdust. The tiny mouse had a serious problem on his hands. At any moment he could be swallowed alive. Obviously, the mouse needed to come up with a brilliant plan. What did the terrified creature do? He quickly set up work covering the snake with sawdust chips until it was completely buried. With that, the mouse apparently thought he had solved his problem.
Unfortunately, that is how you and I try to solve it ourselves. We are too quick to apply a Band-Aid to a mortal wound. But God has a much better idea.
Whats the good news?
To stop with the bad news without moving onto the good is to miss the whole point of this passage. It is only in verse 4 do we come to the main verb, to his point. Verse 4 begins with what Karl Barth called the divine negation, the mighty adversative. "But God " While our condition was helpless, God stepped in. Where we could do nothing to save ourselves, God did everything to make us His own. The focus once again is on the work of God on our behalf. What you could not do, what I can not do for you, God does He makes you alive. Why?
God is merciful
Rather than giving us what we deserve, God is moved by His own mercy. Not based on anything inherent in us, He reaches out to vile, sinful, godless, perverted, unworthy, unholy, repulsive, depraved human beings, engulfed by sins and trespasses, in the service of Satan, and because of His love He transforms them into brilliant trophies of His grace. (Micah 7:18-19)
God is loving
With mercy Paul joins love. We are mistaken if we think of God as a rather stern judge, so that we must be on our guard all the time lest we offend Him. He is a judge, of course, and that aspect of His being and His work is not overlooked in the New Testament. But is Gods mercy and love, His grace and kindness, which stand out the most for us.
God is not an onlooker in the salvation process nor in an angry huff waiting to be appeased. Rather, He is the primary actor, the one who by His love deals with His own wrath and shows mercy to His people.
God is gracious
We have a quick view of what is coming up next with the brief refrain: "it is by grace you have been saved." Our position before God is secured by nothing less than grace alone. This great truth emphasized again in the Reformation is what we need to be reminded of again and again.
Result - we are alive with Christ
The result of all this is that those of us who were at one time dead have been made alive. Christs resurrection is also ours not just in the future when our bodies will be brought back to life, but today, that death, domination, disobedience, depravity and doom are all removed because of the work of Christ.
This is what Christ said before His death, speaking of what is true today, when He said: "I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live."
If my plight is a living spiritual death, the solution is a spiritual resurrection. Life must be infused. The good news is that this has happened. This is true today.
The question remains for us today: "Where will you live?" in the past (in sin) or in Christ?
How will you now respond? Our first response should take us back where this letter began with praise being given to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us with spiritual blessings in the heavenlies. From there we can move out to serve as we will see next week.
But this morning I invite you to apply the truth of your sinfulness and Gods grace here at the Table. This is an opportunity to profess your faith in Christs completed work for you. As you eat and drink together, you proclaim your need of a Savior and the all-sufficiency of Christs death for you.