Most of us are familiar with this famous passage from the Gospel of John: For God so loved the world that he gave us his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him might not perish but might have everlasting life (John 3:16). For many people it serves as a kind of mini-gospel.
There is something of that same quality in St. Paul’s beautiful summary of salvation and of the gospel message: For we were, by nature, children of wrath, like the others. But God, who is rich in mercy, on account of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, gave us life in Christ. It is by this grace that you are saved (Ephesians 2:3-5).
There is a compact beauty to this text from Ephesians. It paints a beautiful picture of the love of God the Father for us despite our terrible condition: we are children of wrath and are dead in our sins. The breakthrough begins with two simple words: “But God ….” From there, love comes to the rescue.
Let’s examine some of the teachings in this mini-gospel, this summary of salvation.
The Condition of our Salvation – Salvation presupposes there is something from which we must be saved. This brief text lists two fundamental conditions from which we must be snatched and saved: disaffection and death.
Disaffection – The text says, By nature, we were children of wrath. The word wrath seems to be a synonym for anger, but in the New Testament it points to an ongoing state of aversion to or disaffection with the holiness of God. Wrath speaks to our inability to endure the holiness of God in our present sinful state. Only the grace of God can adequately prepare us to endure the day of his coming and stand when he appears (Malachi 3:2).
The Greek word translated here as “wrath” is orgḗ, and it speaks to a settled anger or aversion arising from an ongoing or fixed opposition; it is different from a sudden outburst of anger. Wrath is a disposition that steadfastly opposes or recoils from someone or something that cannot be endured.
Experientially, “wrath” speaks to the utter incompatibility of the Lord’s holiness and our current condition. To speak of the wrath of God does not mean that God is angry. Rather, it speaks to our inability to endure the light of His truth and heat of His love. It is like a man who emerges from a dark room into the bright sunshine and finds the light of day too harsh to handle. The problem is not with the sunlight; it is internal to the man, who has become accustomed to the darkness. Nevertheless, he continues to protest that it is the light that is harsh.
This is our human condition without grace. We simply cannot endure the light and heat of God, who is like a blazing sun of love and truth. Only Jesus Christ, by His grace, can prepare us to enter into the full presence of God.
Before Christ, we were children of wrath, like the rest. Even to the great and holy Moses, God had to say, You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live (Ex 33:20). Only Jesus can enable us to see the Father’s beautiful face.
Death - The text says that we were dead in our sins. Thus, this problem was not going to go away through any action of ours. A few more spiritual push-ups or alms for the poor were not going to be enough—or even possible—because we were dead in our sins. Dead people cannot do anything but lie there and be acted upon by others. It doesn’t get more serious than being dead in our sins. Only God, who is life and existence Himself, can resolve this for us.
The Cause of our Salvation – The text speaks to the primary cause of our salvation: But God, who is rich in mercy, on account of the great love with which he loved us ….
To love is to will the good of the other. We who are human almost always have imperfect love. We love others, but we also expect to get something in return. If we don’t think we are getting enough back, we easily become resentful and may begin to withhold our love.
God’s love, however, is perfect and gratuitous. All that God got back in return for loving us was the cross!
This is the beauty of the text: we are saved by God on account of the great love with which He loved us.
Why does God love us? Because God is love and that is what love does—it loves. Love is more than an emotion, something we feel—it is willing the good of the other. Loving does not always involve affirmation; at times it will involve rebuke and correction. Sin and error are never the good that God wills for us. Thus, even when he must punish us or allow us to endure tribulations, it is only for our greater good, that we come to wisdom, repentance, goodness, and truth.
Love and richness in mercy are also connected in this passage. Even our imperfect love for others brings forth an understanding and a compassion that makes us more patient and more willing to presume good faith on the part of those we love. Due to our imperfections, our mercy can err by excess or defect. We may grow overly angry with those we love and be more severe with them because the blows they inflict upon us are more painful. On the other hand, sometimes we are overly merciful to those we love, becoming too tolerant and overlooking serious issues. Thus, imperfect love and imperfect mercy are often our lot.
Of course, God is perfect love. While He is rich in mercy, His mercy is His willingness to suffer on our behalf, but not in a way that harms us or inhibits our freedom. That is why one of the great evils of our time is the preaching of mercy detached from necessary repentance.
Repentance is the key that unlocks mercy. It is the door we freely open to God, admitting our need for mercy and allowing Him to apply its healing affects. His rich mercy is freely offered, not imposed.
As the Parable of the Prodigal Son teaches, if we take one step by God’s grace, the Father takes two steps and starts running toward us. Yes, our Heavenly Father loves us and is rich in mercy, rejoicing in our return and summoning the angels and saints in Heaven to the celebratory feast!
Here, then, is the cause of our salvation: God’s great love for us and the richness of His mercy. We have but to say yes by turning the key of repentance and opening the door of our heart to His rich, necessary, freely-offered mercy.
The Cure of our Salvation – The text says that God gave us life in Christ. It is by this grace that you are saved.
We who were dead in our sins and who were children of wrath like the rest are brought back to life in Christ. Notice that it is in Christ that we are saved. That is to say, Jesus does not act upon us in a merely extrinsic way. Rather, He takes us to Himself and makes us members of His Body. He is the Life as well as the Way and the Truth. He incorporates us, makes us members of His body, so that we live in Him and through Him.
- Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a member of it (1 Cor 12:27).
- Are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We therefore were buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in resurrection. … Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him (Romans 6:2-8).
- Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in him … so also the one who feeds on Me will live because of Me (Jn 6:54-55).
So, the Father gives us life in Christ not just by Christ. To be saved and no longer be dead in our sins, to live, is to be in union with Him. This is more than a juridical act, more than an imputed righteousness; it is a saving relationship and incorporation into Christ’s Body. Christ’s Body is no mere abstraction or allegory; it is the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ. It is the living, active presence of Christ in the world (see Eph 5:23, Col 1:18, Eph 1:23, Eph 4:12, 1 Cor 12:22ff, inter al).
It by this grace that we are saved, but by what grace? By the grace of a life-changing transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. The grace by which we are saved is Christ Himself and our incorporation into Him. It our remaining with Him through the relationship that is the grace of faith. He saves us by the rebirth and washing of baptism, strengthens us in the Sacrament of Confirmation, feeds us with His Body and Blood in Holy Communion, and heals our wounds in the Sacraments of Confession and Anointing of the Sick.
Here, then, is a kind of mini-Gospel or a summary of our salvation from St. Paul. It is beautiful and compact, worthy of a framed copy in a special place—or better yet, hanging on your refrigerator door.