06 June 2016

Saved to do good.

He doesn’t want us to live in ignorance. He wants us to follow Jesus.

Ephesians 2.1-10

Some of us (like me) grew up Christian, and have no real memories of being pre-Christian. Not that we were necessarily good Christians. I had my hypocrite phase. Just about all of us have experienced a time where we weren’t following Jesus so much as our carnal impulses. And if you don’t think you ever did, odds are you’re only fooling yourself. Some Christians are still fooling themselves.

That, or we were following the crowd. Sometimes that crowd is popular culture, and sometimes it’s popular Christian culture, which only looks better. Either way we made a lot of missteps; or as the King James Version calls ’em, trespasses. We went too far in the wrong direction.

Ephesians 2.1-3 KWL
1 You—those dead in your missteps and sins 2 you previously walked in,
following this age of the world, following the leader of the air forces,
the spirit now at work in the “sons of apathy.”
3 We all used to walk backwards like that, in our bodily desires,
doing the will of our body and minds.
We were natural, emotional children, same as everyone else.

First time I read this passage in Greek, I was surprised by the word apeitheías, which sure sounded like apathy. The KJV translates it “disobedience,” and most Greek dictionaries go with that. Its root word, peítho/“persuade,” shows us what’s at the root of this sort of disobedience: These folks can’t be persuaded to obey. They’re not convinced. They have doubts. Or they just don’t care, which is how it evolved into our word apathy.

The trouble I regularly encounter whenever I try to share Jesus with pagans, or whenever I try to get people who think themselves Christian to go to church for once, is not that they’d rather sin and go to hell. Of course not. It’s that they don’t think they need Jesus, or don’t think they need to get religious about him. The stuff we devout Christians care about: They don’t see the point. They’re good enough, and God’ll let ’em into heaven anyway. They’re “too busy”—our culture’s ever-ready excuse for why people won’t do stuff, even though they’ll make time for everything else they desire.

So it’s disobedience, but it’s based on apathy. And since times change, but human nature doesn’t, it’s the same response Paul got whenever he proclaimed Jesus: Roman citizens who didn’t care, who could be easily tempted away towards other fun activities. Non-Romans who were too busy pitying themselves for their oppression to imagine Jesus would be any help. Slaves who really were too busy, and didn’t want to spare any of their rare free time learning about some obscure God of Israel who planned to take over the world. The whole world was, and is, too busy fussing, fooling around, fighting, and fornicating to pay attention to the good news.

Of course, Christians read this passage, and our eyes are immediately drawn to “the leader of the air forces, the spirit now at work in the ‘sons of apathy’.” Or as the King James Version more classically puts it:

Ephesians 2.2 KJV
Wherein in time past ye walked 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.

Ooh, the “prince of the power of the air.” Oooh, that sounds like Satan. And now we’re off, talking about spiritual warfare, speculating about how the devil and its angels are busy battling God’s angels in the skies above us, in a never-ending war that occasionally gets ground support by the prayers of “prayer warriors.” You’ve read the Frank Peretti novels. (If you haven’t, don’t bother. They’re silly.)

And so we get distracted away from the real problem: Us. It’s not about what the devil may or may not be doing; it’s about the humans who so easily get distracted away from what God’s doing. (The spiritual warfare sidetrack: A really good case in point.) While everyone in the world is off feeding their inner children all the Pixy Stiks they can eat, God had a way better plan in mind.

Saved and seated in the highest heavens.

Ephesians 2.4-7 KWL
4 God, being rich in mercy, loves us out of his great love.
5 Us, being dead in our missteps.
He makes us all alive in Christ: You’re saved by his grace.
6 He raises us and seats us together in the highest heavens, in Christ Jesus—
7 so he can show the overabundant riches of his grace in the coming ages,
in kindness to those of us who are in Christ Jesus.

If you’re new to Greek verb tenses, Paul does a lot of bouncing around between present and aorist—a verb tense we don’t have in English. In introductory ancient Greek courses, we’re told (for now) to just translate it and treat it like it’s past tense.

It’s not necessarily past tense. The word aorist literally means “no horizon”: It has no time. It’s assumed to be past, because just about all literature deals with events which took place before they were written down; i.e. the past. When Jesus spoke to his mom in the scriptures, obviously that happened in the past. (Even though John actually uses the present tense to say so: It’s légei aftí o Jisús/“Jesus tells her,” not “Jesus told her.” Jn 2.4) Aorist-tense verbs happen, or happened, or will happen—it could be either of the three, ’cause there’s no time in the aorist tense. We gotta figure out when they happen by context. Since all Paul’s other verbs and participles in these verses are present tense, my translation just sticks with the present tense throughout. Seems the most reasonable.

Problem is, that’s not how other Christians have chosen to translate it, and as a result all their aorist-tense stuff is made past tense. Which implies:

  • Present: God is rich in mercy, loves us; but we’re currently dead in sin.
  • Past: At some previous point, God had made us alive in Christ. Had saved us by his grace. Had raised us. Had seated us in heaven.

Considering all the predestination stuff in the previous chapter, it sounds like God saved us before we were ever sinners in the first place. And took us to heaven. ’Cause our English bibles describe it all with past-tense verbs, so it seems it’s already happened.

Funny, I don’t feel like I’m seated in heaven right this moment…

And neither do most Christians, unless we psyche ourselves into a state of euphoria, or our doctor prescribed us Vicodin for a knee injury. Therefore we’ve come up with three possible explanations for why Paul suggests we’re in heaven already (even though I just explained he didn’t really):

God’s timeless perspective. Since God exists in all of time—past, present, future, simultaneously—he sees everything, and knows the end from the beginning. Is 46.10 This all-of-time perspective is way outside our experience. Hence when God shares some of his knowledge/foreknowledge with his prophets, sometimes we fuddle the verb tenses. He knows the difference between past and future, but we jumble it all up, and it comes out in some of the weirdest phrasing.

To me, this explanation sounds plausible. But it’s gonna really bug some Christians who insist God inspired the bible in such a way, such jumbles could never happen.

There’s a variation of it: In it, God’s the one who’s jumbled, and the prophets are trying to copy down his revelations as best they can, but God’s mixed up past and future and present, ’cause he can’t handle linear time. You can see the obvious problems with this idea: When he became human, God lived in linear time, and handled it just fine. So it’s quite unlikely.

Good as done! Past tense doesn’t actually mean events happened in the past. It’s a metaphor for how these events are so certain to happen, so definitely will happen, they’re as good as done. So the authors of scripture figured they may as well use past tenses.

First time I taught people this idea, I was accused of going Calvinist on them. (It was a roomful of students who were a little paranoid about Calvinism, and were nervous about all the predestination stuff in Ephesians. Predestination felt too deterministic for them.) But nope, this isn’t a Calvinist idea. I got it from John Wesley’s Notes on the Bible, and Wesley’s as non-Calvinist as they come.

6. And hath raised us up together—Both Jews and gentiles already in spirit; and ere long our bodies too will be raised. And made us all sit together in heavenly places—This is spoken by way of anticipation. Believers are not yet possessed of their seats in heaven; but each of them has a place prepared for him. Wesley, at Ephesians 2.6.

My problem with this interpretation: It’s inconsistently practiced. Every promise of God (unless it comes with conditions) is as good as done. But not every promise of God was expressed in a past tense. Many are present tense. “The one who stands firm to the end will be saved,” Jesus said Mk 13.13 NIV in the future tense. It’s made no less certain by its verb tense. Nor more.

Jesus is us. We’re part of Christ’s body, and he’s the head. Ep 5.23 Since we’re part of his body—connected with him, made one with him in his death and resurrection, Ro 6.8 —we’re also one with him when he ascended to heaven and sat at his Father’s right hand. Ac 2.33 We’re linked to him in such a way that because Jesus is in heaven, we’re in heaven. No, not literally. But it’s just as good.

And we can kinda make an argument for this view from all the words Paul used in these verses which are prefixed with syn-/“with” or “together.” Made alive together, raised together, seated together. If the head’s in heaven, so’s the body, right? Weird, but it sorta works.

But in the end: No, we’re not in heaven yet. These aren’t past-tense verbs. They’re describing the whole of the salvation process: Made alive in Christ, taken to heaven. Depending on the Christian, some parts have happened already, some not yet. Heaven is part of the not-yet. We will be seated in the high heavens. But we’re not simultaneously there and here, in some weird undetectable spiritual out-of-body way.

Saved by grace.

This next bit has been dissected and analyzed like crazy by Christians who’re trying to understand God’s process. I’ll try not to be so crazy. Going for clarity here.

Ephesians 2.8-10 KWL
8 You’re all saved by his grace, through your faith.
This, God’s gift, isn’t from you, 9 isn’t from works; none can boast of it.
10 We’re his poetry, creations in Christ Jesus,
for doing the good works which God pre-prepared. We should walk in them!

Pelagians tend to zero in on the word faith: We’re saved because of our faith in God! We believe, so we’re saved.

What do we believe? Uh… doctrine. Solid theological beliefs. And we have to make sure they’re solid. We have to get ’em all reasoned out, all sorted out, all structured, all consistent. If we don’t—if there are any big gaping holes in our belief system—it’s a broken system, and therefore we’re not saved.

Sad to say, it’s not just Pelagians who think like this. Christians of all stripes have suggested to me that if I don’t believe precisely as they do, I’m going to hell. Even though my action of choosing to believe as they do—my work of good theology—is explicitly dismissed by Paul in the very next verse. I’m not saved by what I do! I’m saved by God. His grace—his generous, forgiving attitude towards his kids—is part of his character, ’cause kindness is grace in action. And we know it’s grace, because he accepted us into his kingdom before we knew any doctrines, before we knew what to believe. All we knew was we need God and want a relationship with him, and he had his arms open wide long before we ever realized any of this.

Part of the reason this Pelagian belief has spread so widely, is ’cause people keep reading verse 8 outside of the context of Ephesians. Paul just got done spelling out, in the first chapter, how God prearranged our salvation. How he adopted and sealed us with the Holy Spirit. In none of this did Paul say we were worthy or deserving of any of it. ’Cause we’re not. God did it all out of grace.

It’s only here we first see the word pístis/“faith, trust” come up. And Paul immediately stated this faith “isn’t from you.” ’Cause it’s not. It’s fruit. Ga 5.22 It’s also a product of grace.

We’re not saved by fruit! We should definitely have fruit, particularly since it’s the only evidence the Holy Spirit’s actually in us. But saved by fruit? No no no. The reason we believed in the first place, is because God graciously gave us the ability to believe in the first place. The technical term is “prevenient grace”—’cause it all comes from grace.

Graceless Christians don’t get this. It’s the weirdest thing, watching ’em read and recite verse 8 over and over again, yet still insisting their faith saves ’em. Pagans can totally see it, but with these folks there’s some impenetrable mental block. And even when they acknowledge yes, we’re saved by grace, they still fall back on insisting we need to get all our beliefs sorted out, lest heresy send us to hell. It’s bonkers.

And it makes them bonkers when I tell ’em faith is a work. “No!” they shout, “faith is not a work, because we’re not saved by works! Faith is [logical-sounding reason why it’s not a work]!” Explanations which are easily punctured, because faith is obviously a work. And a good work! We should have it. But we’re not saved by it, any more than we’re saved by our love, joy, kindness, patience, or generosity. Those things are only signs we’ve been saved. Not sources of salvation.

And they’re the reason we were saved. God made us to do good. All sorts of good; not just good works which are overtly Christian. Every good work pleases him, and every good work contributes to his kingdom in the long run.

Graceless Christians don’t get this either. Some of ’em reject any good work unless it’s obviously kingdom-related. And some of ’em reject any good work at all: “What’re you trying to do, earn your way to heaven? That’s ‘works-righteousness.’ Stop that. Doing that proves you lack faith, and only faith will save you.”

Yeah, it’s a warped sort of faith when you’re fighting good deeds: Up is down, black is white, good deeds are sin. Not a good place to be. Is 5.20 Don’t go there.