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‘But God . . .’

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Date September 29, 2010

It is easy to see that the world is in a terrible state – with war, civil disobedience and crime affecting, in varying degrees, people across the globe. But, more fundamentally, we must recognise the terrible spiritual state of every individual human being, for frictions between nations and problems within individual countries and communities only exist because each human being is by nature a fallen creature with a sinful heart. Paul describes the fallen human condition in stark terms: ‘dead in trespasses and sins’, living ‘according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience’, having ‘our conversation . . . in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind’ (Eph. 2:1-3). If sinners ignorant of the gospel focus on this list of terms which so emphasise the seriousness of their spiritual condition, they would be left entirely without hope – provided they really believed the accuracy of the testimony God has given in the Scriptures.

This makes the opening words of the next verse tremendously significant: ‘But God’. What man cannot do is altogether within God’s power. And while there can be no hope on the merely-human level, there is every reason for hope if we receive this further testimony from the Bible.

That God would rescue anyone who is ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ depends on what Paul next refers to: ‘God . . . is rich in mercy’. He is willing to do good to those who, spiritually, are in a desperate condition, who have rebelled against himself, whose enmity against him is such that they will resist his offers of mercy, who are under the power of Satan. It is mercy beyond what we could reasonably imagine that leads God to rescue sinners whose mind ‘is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be’ (Rom. 8:7).

This speaks of human inability; no individual can, by his own power, bring himself to submit to the authority of God’s law. This is one of the consequences of spiritual death; just as a man or a woman who has died can no longer walk or talk, or even breathe, so a spiritually-dead sinner is completely unable to engage in any spiritual activity – to trust in Christ, for example, or to love God or to desire to live a holy, God-glorifying life. It is utterly impossible for sinners to do anything that will please God; they are spiritually dead. But God, in infinite mercy, can so subdue them that they submit to his law. Those who are now God’s children were unbelieving, resisting the gospel, but God the Holy Spirit has given them grace to trust in Christ. They had no love for God, for ‘the carnal mind is enmity against’ him, but the Holy Spirit, in regenerating the soul, implanted the grace of love. They lived in an environment of sin; they ‘were dead in trespasses and sins’; they did not want to be holy; but God has ‘quickened’ them (Eph. 2:5); he put new life in their souls and, from then on, their desire has been to live holy lives – to do what will glorify God.

Sinners are also ‘by nature the children of wrath’. They are guilty, not least because of original sin, and therefore subject to God’s anger – his righteous purpose to punish them because of their sin. It is because he is just that he cannot pass by their sin; he cannot treat their transgressions as if they had never happened; he must punish. Accordingly all unconverted sinners are under sentence of eternal destruction and nothing they can do can deliver them from that fearful situation. But God can deliver sinners, for he has given his Son to be their substitute – ‘for his great love wherewith he loved’ them. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16).

The love of God was acting in harmony with the justice of God; only thus could sinners be saved. Apart from the revelation God has given, it must have appeared impossible for sinners justly to escape the punishment which they so much deserve. But God, in infinite wisdom, was able to exercise mercy in perfect harmony with his justice, for the salvation of sinners. So when the Father gave the Son to a lost world in love, the Son must suffer and die; he must endure the full punishment that would otherwise fall on those sinners whom he was representing.

There are some sinners whose wickedness is so great that it may seem totally impossible for them to be saved – men such as Manasseh, who committed unspeakable crimes on a vast scale. But God showed that he was able to save this brutal king of Judah, which directs our attention to the greatness of the redemption accomplished by Christ. Yet, in this context, we should focus less on the greatness of Manasseh’s sin, although clearly his sins were unusually heinous, and place more emphasis on the seriousness of every sin, for every sin is committed against an infinite and pure God. We must never underestimate the seriousness of any sin, but however great the guilt of a particular sin – and the guilt of every sin is infinitely great – the redeeming work of Christ, being the work of a divine, infinite Person, is totally effective to blot out sin of every kind, for ‘the blood of Jesus Christ . . . cleanseth us from all sin’ (1 John 1:7).

There are other sinners whose beliefs seem to stand in the way of their salvation. They follow some false religion such as Islam or Buddhism, or they adhere to some perversion of Christianity such as Roman Catholicism or Mormonism, or they claim to believe that there is no God, professing to be atheists and underpinning their unbelief by placing supreme confidence in the philosophy of evolution. But God is able to save them. However tenaciously they may hold on to their beliefs, God can make them willing to receive the truth about himself and about themselves. The Holy Spirit can bring them to submit to the whole of the revelation he has given to mankind in Scripture and lead them on to believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as the One who came into the world to save sinners. This is what took place in pagan Ephesus and Corinth during the time of the Apostles, and even in the case of a few people in Athens, where everyone seemed to show such disdain for Paul and his teachings.

We may notice a third group of people: those who accept that God exists and that the Bible is true, who listen to preaching and say their prayers, but who are still outside the kingdom of God. It might seem relatively easy for them to be converted, but the fundamental difficulty for them is the same as for every other sinner: they are ‘dead in trespasses and sins’. They do not believe, and they cannot believe. Their heart is in the world, and they are totally unwilling to come to Christ in order that they may be saved. It is completely impossible even for such people to be saved by their own efforts, although most others would describe them as good people – like Saul of Tarsus, for instance, who could look back on his past life and declare that, as ‘touching the righteousness which is in the law’ he was ‘blameless’. But God can save them. Christ’s redemption must become their only hope, and they must see that the work of the Holy Spirit is the only power that can change their hearts and set them on the way to heaven.

The world is indeed in a terrible state. Governments and commentators of every conceivable viewpoint may put forward endless suggestions as to how the situation in various parts of the globe may be improved, or even solved. There may indeed be a degree of merit in many of these ideas. Yet we must never lose sight of the fundamental human problem: man has gone away from God and, apart from divine grace, he will go on living out his life in a fallen condition, ‘dead in trespasses and sins’. But God is able to save individuals and communities and nations, because of what Christ has done. For that blessing we must pray earnestly and constantly. It must be our only hope, ‘for there is none other name . . . whereby we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).


Kenneth D. Macleod is pastor of the Free Presbyterian Church in Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris. He is the editor of The Free Presbyterian Magazine, from the September 2010 issue of which the above editorial has been taken with permission.

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