One of the biggest obstacles to a proper understanding of the Gospel is pride. It is the DNA of our fallen human nature apart from God. And pride can be found most evidently in religious people. The Pharisees were the perfect example of this. They were self righteous and morally upright, at least that was the case externally. Sin to the religious Pharisees was defined by what a person did rather than who they are.
The religious leaders of the 1st century were very good at keeping rules and stringent to adhere closely to the laws of Moses. Their external obedience was impeccable. And they prided themselves on their works while at the same time turning their noses upward towards anyone who was unable to external clean their lives up.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” Matthew 23:27.
The issue was not external but internal. And even today, the issue is not that we have sinned against God, it is that we’ve never done anything but sin. We are sinners not because of what we’ve done. We are sinners because of who we are. Our hearts are corrupted. And this corruption infects every area of our being.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?Jeremiah 17:9.
How can a corrupt, morally bankrupt heart make itself choose things that are pure? A supernaturally work must be done.
Our human pride is largest stumbling block within the church to understanding the magnificent grace of God and it is the same malady that consumed the Pharisees. I am sad to say that I embraced pride in this area for years. The Pharisees didn’t want to see themselves as being depraved they truly were. Jesus pointed out their spiritual deadness and condemnation before God constantly. And they crucified Him for it.
Currently, our church is going through the book of Ephesians verse by verse. And we are approaching a passage of scripture in Ephesians 2 that will provoke one of two reactions within the human heart. The first reaction to the words of Paul in Ephesians 2 could be offense spawned by pride much like the Pharisees. The second and proper reaction is a brokenness of who were followed by a gratefulness for who Christ is.
Before we can fully understand the good news of the Gospel, we must come to terms with the bad news. Paul opens Ephesians 2 with the bad news. He pulls no punches, and holds nothing back in describing fallen man without Christ.
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” Ephesians 2:1.
Paul did not say that the sinner was “hindered” in his trespasses. Paul did not say the sinner was “struggling to overcome” his trespasses. Paul said that you and I were dead in them. In this state of spiritual death described in Ephesians 2:1, notice what we are dead towards. We have the ability to follow the course of this world. And we have the ability to follow the temptations of Satan. We are alive to the flesh. But we are dead to Christ and incapable of making ourselves alive to him. To be dead in trespasses is to be unable to overcome them.
Many believers begin to swell up with pride at a verse such as this. The natural inclination is to bend the verse as to make us not quite as bad as Paul portrays us. I have heard people say things like “Yes, we are spiritually dead UNTIL we accept Jesus.” But dead is dead. And to my knowledge, dead people can’t accept or do anything. They are without hope. In the flesh, we are alive to the things of this world and dead to the understanding or even seeking of the spirit of God.
“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” 1 Corinthians 2:14.
The preacher does not give understanding to people. God through His spoken word brings understanding and life. It is impossible to understand the ways of God unless God brings a person first out of spiritual deadness. Ezekiel 37 embodies this concept, where God tells Ezekiel to speak to the dead bones, and through the spoken word of God, the Lord gives the bones life.
Just a side note for us preachers, if we do not ascribe this new life being given to sinners wholly to God, then we are liable to take credit for supernatural things that we had no part in. Namely, the conversion of sinners in our congregations when it was actually God’s work, not ours.
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”Romans 3:11-12.
Outside of faith in Christ, we are dead in our sins. It’s not merely that the sinner won’t come to Christ. They cannot come.
“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” Romans 8:7.
Reading the verse above, if it is true (as some would say) that we are dead in our sins (which is to have a mind set on the flesh) until we make the decision to follow Christ, that would mean that our fleshly mind would have to eventually submit to God. However, the text above in Romans says that the mind set on the flesh (which described us all at one point) cannot submit to God. So if we believe the Bible, and the text is true that we are unable to submit to God in our sinful flesh, how is it that we are saved?
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” Ephesians 2:4-5.
Who made us alive? Who brought us back from death? Yes, we must make the decision to put sin aside and follow Christ. But ultimately, who is responsible for enabling us to make a decision like this which Paul has specifically said we are dead and unable to do it?
We see only the external actions of a person putting the flesh aside and submitting to Christ. We see the hand go up in repentance. We see the march down the aisle to talk to the preacher. We see the person changing their way of life and beginning to follow Jesus. These things are what we see externally.
But we are unable to see the workings of the Spirit. And because of this, we often deny the workings of the Spirit and the depravity of man. A fellow once told me that he was saved because he decided to follow Jesus in the pew and then proceeded to walk down the aisle in new life. And I told him that the only reason he was able to decide to follow Jesus and walk in new life is because God had already regenerated His heart and saved him in his seat prior to his decision.
Recently I wrote a blog about the irresistible grace of God. Many times irresistible grace can be mistaken for robotic programming. But we are not robots awaiting God to just reprogram us to follow Him. God created man being perfect. And due to the fall of Adam, the whole human race was infected with this sin nature. It changed us into what we are. We are not robots, we are sick with sin that has killed us spiritually. And due to this sickness we naturally do not have a taste or desire for God.
Think about a food that you really like. I love pizza. Just the smell of melted mozzarella cheese combined with pepperoni will make my mouth begin to water. I remember a while back I had a terrible stomach virus. My wife Lacy had ordered pizza for the boys dinner that night. As I lay in bed feeling horribly ill, one my boys brought me a slice of pizza. The smell of the pizza nauseated me and just the thought of taking a bite made me want to vomit. I normally would have devoured this pizza, but the sickness made me want to avoid it like the plague.
Our condition is much worse. Again, we are not just sick with sin, we are dead in it. And when God opens the eyes and brings a once spiritually dead person back to life, he immediately begins to hunger for God and disdain sin. Did God make this person a robot. Absolutely not. God cured him of his mortal sickness and freed him to enjoy the pleasures of God that he was created for. Jesus literally resurrects us from dead to breath new life.
“I am the resurrection and the life.” John 11:25.
We have no way of understanding the depths of that verse if we do not believe that we were once inescapably dead in our sins and that God is the one who is the catalyst of our choosing to follow Him in new life. We are not just sick in sin and in need of intellectually making the right choice. We’re dead and without hope. And in this death, we did not resurrect ourselves. Jesus will not give us a congratulations for our right decision when we get to Heaven. We will be thanking Him for bringing us out of death.
The only way we can live spiritually is if we have been resurrected and given new life through the indwelling Spirit of Christ. He is the resurrection of our souls and the life within us.
In the opening of Ephesians, Paul gives thanks to God for the faithfulness of the church in Ephesus.
“For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you” Ephesians 1:15-16.
If we are the activating agent in our faith, why does Paul thank God for the faith they have? If they were faithful due to finally getting their act together, then why doesn’t Paul thank them? Paul thanks God because He marvels at the amazing spiritual resurrection that Christ has performed in their lives.
We read scriptures like Ephesians 2 in our churches, and we sing hymns with words like “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost but now Im found was blind but now I see.” Yet at the same time in doing these things, our human nature fights against what is actually being said.
Consider the words of the hymn “Amazing Grace” and what is being communicated. I am a wretch of a person. I was lost. I did not find Jesus, He found me. My vision to see Him was not blurry or obstructed. I was totally blind. But He gave me life. He opened my eyes and gave me sight where there once were only dead eyes. He pulled me out of the darkness and into the light.
This reality of who we are is offensive. We are wretched, we are spiritually dead, and we are in our flesh, hostile to the things of God. And if we let pride seep in we will inevitably miss out on reveling in the joy of the Lord.
When I realized the depths of my own spiritual inability and depravity, my first reaction was denial. Proudly in my mind, I went over a checklist of the things I had done to justify myself before God. But when it truly set in, I was broken. I was humbled. I was brought to tears and placed on my knees in utter shame. And from their, a thankfulness that I had never experienced before flooded my soul. And I saw a God that truly has the power of resurrection in all areas of life.
The final words of the great preacher Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones on his death-bed ring heavy in my heart. Lloyd Jones said as he drew his final breaths, “I am a great sinner. But Christ is an even greater savior.” This is the Gospel truth. This is the bad news and good news all in one. And it should fill our hearts with gratitude.