In the 37th chapter of his prophecy, Ezekiel describes for us how the hand of the Lord was upon him, and how he was led out in the Spirit and set down in the middle of a valley full of bones. There lay parts of human skeletons spread over the ground in such great numbers that the prophet had to walk around them in order to view them all. Then came the voice of the Lord with the question: "Son of man, shall these bones live?" Ezekiel answered: "Lord God, you know," as if to say, "For men this is impossible; if it is to come to pass, you, the Lord God, must do it." And in confirmation of this answer, he received the task of prophesying to those dry bones: "You dry bones! hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God: 'Behold, I shall cause breath to enter you, and you shall become alive.'"
The prophet did as commanded, and, as if the bones had understood his words, there was noise and commotion among them. At first it seemed impossible to detect any kind of order in the agitated mass, but before long they drew near to each other, bone to bone; what had just been scattered about in pieces now became articulated human skeletons. Look! The dry bones were clothed with flesh, and the prophet saw how delicate tendons intertwined among these bones and a pale skin was laid upon them so that the hideous skeletons changed into well-formed bodies.
Still, with that the prophecy was not yet fulfilled because there was no spirit in those bodies. Therefore, the command of the Lord again came to Ezekiel: "Prophesy to the spirit, prophesy, son of man! Say to the spirit, 'Oh spirit! come from the four winds, and breathe into these dead that they may become alive'." Hardly had this taken place than a mighty rustling was heard among those pale dead, the breath of life flowed over their lips, warm blood colored their cold cheeks red, dull eyes began to sparkle with the light of life, they stretched out their arms, and rose up on their feet—a well-prepared people that God had fashioned for himself out of dry bones through his mighty power.
All this, my hearers, was a symbolic prophecy of the national re-creation of God's covenant people, who mourned in exile. Those bones were the entire house of Israel. The Lord would open their graves, raise them up, and bring them back to their land. At the same time, however, it is a striking image of the resurrection of the spiritual Israel out of the graves of its sin and impurity, which we wish to speak to you about today, according to the word of the apostle in Ephesians 2:4,5: "But God who is rich in mercy, through his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through transgressions, has made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)." It is, as was just observed, "the spiritual resurrection of believers," which demands our attention. We will endeavor to consider it under the following points: (a) What it flows from; (b) What it presupposes; (c) How it is accomplished; (d) What it obliges us to.
According to our text, it is God's mercy and love out of which salvation is born. These two are the springs out of which it wells up, and therefore its entire character must correspond to this source. What springs from the bowels of God's mercy and love must in its entire course overflow with love and mercy. What comes from God, without our being able to prepare for or take away from it in any way, cannot in its duration be dependent on us but is, like God himself, unchangeable and eternally faithful; "I the Lord do not change, therefore, O children of Jacob, you are not consumed."
It is to a rich mercy and a great love that Paul points the Ephesians, as the source of their resurrection. And that is so as the latter is the foundation for the former. God was rich in mercy through his great love. Not until we rightly understand this will there be opened to us something of the riches that brought these glorious words of thanksgiving to the lips of the apostle.
What then is the situation? Imagine for a moment that the text read: "God, who is rich in mercy, has made us alive together with Christ," and that the words, "through his great love with which he loved us," were omitted. What a different outlook on the matter would immediately result! It would then say: God saw us in the misery of our sins and was moved in mercy to save us in Christ. Thus the foundation of our salvation would be nothing but a natural feeling of pity in God because of the wretchedness of his creatures.
To be sure, that alone would already be inexpressibly much. When the holy God has dealings with sinful creatures such that he is moved to pity and mercy towards them, that is such a miracle of divine grace that it constrains us to kneel in adoration before him who accomplishes it.
But the great love leaves the rich mercy far behind and is at once distinguished from it. That can be easily grasped. Suppose yourself to be mortally ill without nursing care and someone comes who, out of pure mercy and moved by your pitiable state, cares for you. What do you think, would the hand of that person make your bed as gently as the hand that a loving father or mother or spouse would extend to you?
Well then, the situation in our text is no different. It makes a great difference whether a redeemed person must say: God saw me in my misery and therefore he said to me, live, or whether, along with that, he may voice the glorious thought: God has loved me with an everlasting love, therefore he has drawn me with cords of loving kindness.
This great difference, which we immediately sense, may be given a satisfactory explanation. In order to grasp the proper relationship in which mercy and love appear here, we will look briefly at the respects in which they are different.
First, love has a more noble origin, provided it is born of the one who loves. Mercy is different. There the reason why one shows mercy comes from outside, prompted by the wretched situation of the object. Where there is no misery, there is no place for mercy, and as soon as the distress has subsided your compassion for the sufferer ends. Dependent on external circumstances and temporary in origin and duration, mercy cannot be compared with love. What if we had to think that it were only our sins which had moved God to save us? Oh no! It was love, which was not aroused by us but was grounded from eternity in the depth of divine being, whose length, breadth, depth, and height cannot be measured by our finite comprehension but by the infinite comprehension of God. It never ends, even as it never had a beginning.
Moreover, a distinction has to be made between divine and human love. The latter loves because it beholds and admires something beautiful and loveable in its object. Not so with God. He loved his own before the mountains came to be, before the earth and the world were brought forth. It was not at all that he knew, by virtue of his eternal foreknowledge, that they would be loveable. Oh no! All that they would be in this respect, he himself had decided to make them. He saw them dead in their sins and crimes, without form or glory, covered with their own blood. This is the great mystery that no man can solve—how God could love sinners, without there being anything in them worthy of his love. Mysterious, eternal love of God, you are beyond comprehension!
Secondly, love has a nobler nature. It is the firstborn of all God's virtues. "He who does not love, does not know God, for God is love," testifies the apostle John. God's being consists of love, and therefore when it is said that he loved those who were his in Christ Jesus, that means that his whole being expressed itself in that love and carried over to its objects. It was not a part of his affection that he bestowed upon these who were loved from eternity, but the fullness of his own blessed being. He did not purpose for them a gift located outside of himself, but his love was so great and rich that it was satisfied with nothing less than giving itself: God gave himself in Christ Jesus, his only begotten Son, who is the reflection of his glory and the express image of his substance. Precisely because in this deed God gave himself for sinners, the Scriptures call this the greatest revelation of God's love, which includes all others. "Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends," testifies the Savior. And the apostle asks: "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him give us all things?"
Thirdly, the distinction is seen in the object to which both reach out. Mercy is a common emotion, inherent in our nature, but love is something personal, the affection of a person for a person. Precisely this constitutes the richness of the faith of God's children, that every one of them can say with Paul: "He loved me, and gave himself for me" It is a discriminating love, which, although it encompasses the whole church, still has a personal relation to each one and knows everyone of its own by name. The Scriptures compare it to the love of a man for his wife, a bridegroom for his bride. It follows its objects their whole life through with a care that protects, leads and blesses. It sets apart a Paul from the womb for his worldwide task, but the tears of even the least among God's children are numbered in its bottle, and none of them is forgotten by God. Its greatness condescends to the smallest, who through such exertions is made great. The blood of his own is precious in God's sight. So unique and personal is this relationship between him and those he loves that he himself declares: The one who touches them, touches the apple of my eye. In an their oppression he is oppressed, through his love and through his grace he delivers them; he takes them up and carries them, now as in days of old.
From these observations the meaning of our text becomes clear. Before all else, the apostle intends to say that love precedes mercy in order. In the second place, because that love was so great, mercy became so rich. Through his great love, literally, for the sake of it, God was so rich, so wonderfully merciful. That love desired to express itself and did so in a wealth of mercies. In spite of their unsightly form and their impurity, this love still declares: "They are my people, children, whose lineage will not prove false. Thus he has become a Savior for them." For God, too, has a love that desires to work. Where he creates children for the glory of his great Name and pours out on those children his tender mercies, there is a love that is impelled, a love that must disclose more and more of itself. Therefore it is absurd to think that he could let them go and consider them sufficiently blessed, before he had communicated to them an the riches found in his divine fullness, before he had raised them as high as they could go and endowed their being with that perfection of which it was capable. For although he works all things according to his will, what is divine in that will is that the highest object of his glorious good pleasure is at the same time the greatest good of his children.
This mercy, enriched and made tender by God's love, had an ample area in which to display itself. It found its objects, according to our text, "dead in transgressions," that is to say, in the most wretched condition that one could imagine. And, what is most remarkable of all, this condition, however miserable in itself, was not such that, seen from a human point of view, it appeared capable of evoking mercy. Only when we clearly comprehend this will we in some measure have plumbed the deep meaning of Paul's words. To that end, in the second place, we must consider what this spiritual resurrection presupposes, in other words, what the expression "dead in transgressions" means.
On the surface it seems easy to say what "death" is. It is the opposite of "life," one will immediately answer. But just here lies the difficulty. The greatest wise men in this world have never been able to explain what life is and how it originates. And therefore the difficulty in clarifying the opposite, apart from God's Word.
Scripture, however, gives us an unambiguous answer to the question of what "death" is, and it does so by showing repeatedly in the clearest light what it would have us to understand by "life." In the first place, according to Scripture, life is an attribute of God. He alone has true life in and of himself In the second place, Scripture teaches that all creaturely life is derived from God and is nourished only in fellowship with him. So, at the beginning of all things, after the first creation, darkness covered the abyss and the earth was desolate and empty, a dead, formless mass. But as soon as the Spirit of God brooded, hovering over the waters, there was light and movement, the mass began to seethe and ferment, life originated in it by its contact with God. Again, when the Lord God had formed man out of the dust of the earth, he lay there like a dead man, lifeless and cold, until God blew into his nostrils the breath of life; thus man became a living being. From this it is plain enough that Scripture makes all life dependent on fellowship with God. Conversely, then, death can be defined as being cut off from the source of life. When we speak of temporal, spiritual and eternal death, repeatedly this thought lies at the foundation. In temporal death it is the body that is cut off from the source of its life, that is, the soul, and it slowly dissolves, there is no longer a living, animating principle that keeps it together; it returns to dust, from which it was taken. It is no different with the soul. In spiritual death it is cut off from the fountainhead of its life, the living God, and, accordingly, it dies, is completely torn from its context, looses its unity, perishes. Eternal death is the total separation of both body and soul, when these will one day be reunited, from the fellowship of God. In the outermost darkness, where no ray of divine light any longer penetrates, this alienation from God reaches its zenith and its most dreadful revelation.
From this it is immediately clear to us why Paul announces to the Ephesians that they were dead "in their transgressions." Sin is nothing other than renouncing, abandoning God's fellowship, turning away from him and choosing one's own way. If, then, there is life only in this fellowship, for those who abandon it death must enter immediately. "The mind of the flesh is death." And so it came to pass. As soon as Adam ate, that is to say, as soon as he severed the thread of conformity to God's law and the blessed fellowship with his creator, in that same moment he died the death.
We must, however, go a step further and examine not only the cause of death but also its manifestations. Here again what we see happening in every temporal death can provide us with a starting point. The first thing that strikes us in a dead person is that he lies there stiff and motionless. That same body that was formerly animated and suffused by the soul and in its most delicate fibers and nerves willingly lent itself as a tool to the soul, is now rigid and immobile, cold as a piece of marble. Not only has the activity of the soul upon the body ceased, but the body itself has lost the ability to obey that influence. It no longer receives impulses from the soul and shows no indication of being susceptible to them. A power is certainly still at work in such a body, but no other power than that which works in all matter, the natural power that leads to dissolution.
We also find all these characteristics in spiritual death. Here the same thing happens to the soul that we just saw taking place with the body. As soon as God takes away his Holy Spirit and withdraws his fellowship, the soul becomes insensible and hardened, spiritual numbness overpowers it. Where life is present, you will notice how it courses through all the parts of the body: it beats in the heart, throbs in the pulse, hovers in the breath, gleams in the eye, and makes itself known by numberless marks. All this is missing in a dead person. Likewise, in a spiritually dead person one searches in vain for the heart throb of faith, the pulse beat of prayer, the breath of love, the look of sympathy—for any expression of a hidden, inward life. The person dead in transgressions is a person, just as a dead body is a body, and yet, when you yourself possess spiritual life, you will feel the distance between yourself and that person, in the same way as living persons naturally recoil from the dead. You miss the image of God in their features, just as the image of the soul is missing in the face of the deceased. And just as death often leaves its stamp on the pallid countenance in misshapen and distorted lines, so the spiritual death of sin puts its horrible marks upon the destroyed soul.
But not only is the spiritually dead person incapable of moving and developing any power of himself, receptivity to impressions from the outside is also lacking. All life has these two sides: it makes impressions and receives impressions, and in so doing develops and grows. Both of these are lacking in the sinner in his natural state. He does not seek God, and when God comes to seek him, he does not answer, gives no signs of life, and remains insensible. When the Word of God, from which all spiritual life draws its sustenance, is brought into contact with him, his eye does not see it, his ear does not hear it, his heart does not give assent to it, it goes by him like an idle sound. "The natural man does not comprehend the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned."
But there is more than this. In a dead body the powers by nature inherent in all matter are at work, decompose and dissolve it. They were already present earlier, but were countered and made harmless by another, higher power. The life-power of the soul did not allow it to perish However, as soon as that life-power receded, those natural forces were given free play, immediately began their work, and did not rest until the body was turned to dust. It is no different with a sinful man. The love of the world and selfishness work within him. As long as love and God's fellowship lived in him, they controlled all lower forces and led them in the right direction so that they could not harm him. But look! As soon as the person was cut off from God, and the life-power from God no longer exercised control in his soul, in that same moment the love of the world and selfishness began their horrible work, ruined the soul, and brought it unavoidably into destruction. It is impossible that a man who is "dead in transgressions" should remain what he was. One would expect with just as much right that a dead body should remain as it was. So, if anything is clear, it is that sin makes man more and more abominable, and finally must be so displayed that all turn away with abhorrence and loathing. Although this may be less evident in some than in others, the principle of death is present in all and that principle, if it continues its work, can lead to nothing but open enmity against the Almighty.
Only when viewed in this light is full justice done to the expression of the apostle, "even when we were dead in transgressions." Even then still he has made us alive. That can only be explained by God's great love. Were our spiritual death nothing more than a pitiable illness, the situation would be easily understandable. Were it no more than cold indifference, even then it would be thinkable. But now that it has developed into direct, straightforward enmity towards God, there is no alternative to solving this mystery of God's divine mercy than to assume that an eternal, mysterious love was at work behind it, was its foundation, and was expressed in it.
Imagine for a moment that you seek the good of someone with whom you do not have a relationship, that you do everything in your power to advance his welfare; you sacrifice yourself for him. But look! Instead of thankfully acknowledging that, he remains indifferent, begins to hate you, and ends up by cursing you. What do you think? Would the miserable condition of such a person be likely to evoke your mercy?
But now, imagine for a moment that all the circumstances just mentioned are the same, except that this time the scoundrel is not a stranger but your own son. Could you stop loving him because he hates you? Could you cease praying for him because he curses you? Could you restrain the urgings of your fatherly mercy because he has seared his conscience? I think not! You will say: He is still my son, whom I have carried in my arms. The more such a rogue causes you shame and heartbreak, all the more will you watch, moved by deep pity for him, how he willfully throws himself into ruin.
Where now is the distinction? Why can't you show mercy to a stranger who behaves like this but can towards your own child, although he may be ten times more vile than the stranger? The answer is simple: in the first case, no love drove you to pity; in the second, a great love had to be expressed in rich mercy.
Our case is no different. In themselves sinners are not objects of mercy but vessels of wrath. Sin is enmity and enmity as such does not fall within the scope of pity. But from eternity God had loved those sinners, those enemies, those spiritually dead, with a fatherly love. This love was the foundation of everything and was before everything. It is useless to ask after its origin. It came from the inscrutable being of God and embraced the objects of its free choice even before they had existence. It determined to make them in such a way as to reflect that love. And look what happened! Those children fell, sank into sin and death. Instead of sons they became devils. Love was answered with hate. Nevertheless—and here lies the precious core of our text—all this was not able to extinguish that love, because it is impossible to tear the son from the heart of the father. On the contrary, it now first came to light clearly that it was love and not just kindness. Where the latter would have stopped it went further and emerged triumphant. It did not love the righteous and virtuous, but the godless. In this "God demonstrates his love toward us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us." This is the deepest reason why Paul knows to ascribe to no other cause than a great, divine love the fact that those who lay in the midst of sin and death and were enemies of God were nevertheless endowed with the greatest benefits that could befall them, namely that God, according to his rich mercy, made them alive together with Christ, the Lord.