BBC, like any other local church, is a work in progress. This is true in many ways.
The work-in-progress nature of the church has been highlighted administratively during COVID-19. We have consistently had to evaluate and re-evaluate the way we organise corporate gatherings for worship and mutual edification. There have been many changes due to a fluid situation in response to the pandemic. We are thankful for the congregation’s patient understanding in this. Most have responded with constructive engagement and have given the benefit of the doubt, which has made the leadership’s responsibility far easier. The church’s support has been and remains much appreciated.
But more importantly, BBC (like any local church) is spiritually a work in progress. Jesus Christ is building us as a local church. Much work has been done over five decades and yet much work remains. As a church, we will remain a work in progress, to quote the words of Paul, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
In this study, I wish to draw our attention to this reality by considering Paul’s statement in Ephesians 2:10 that the local church is “God’s workmanship.” The Christian, individually, is a work of God—a work in progress—as are Christians corporately in the local church.
“God’s workmanship” is a lovely expression, which indicates God’s power and purpose in forming a people for himself (1:20–2:22ff). The local church is both the product of the work of God as well as a work in progress. It is a product of God and it perseveres by God. We could say it is both the end as well as the means to that end. Our local church is a persevering work of God in progress.
Brothers and sisters think about this: We are a work of God. What a gracious privilege. What a wonderful mercy. To be called out of the domain of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear Son is an inestimable blessing—not one that we deserve but certainly one in which we are to delight.
To help us in our delightful perseverance, this study begins a series called A Work in Progress. My goal is to help us to more clearly and more joyfully appreciate this work of God and to be better equipped to faithfully and joyfully fulfil our responsibilities to Jesus Christ and to one another, as expressed in our church covenant.
May this series be used by our Saviour to build us up in the most holy faith, resulting in the building up of our local body of Christ. May we keep covenant with one another hence ensuring that we remain, a work in progress.
Paul’s larger purpose in Ephesians 2 is to reveal the glory of the church in its counter-intuitive make up—that is, its multi-ethnic and otherwise diverse congregation of peoples. Such a work is the product of God’s gracious power and it progresses by God’s gracious power.
Ethnic conflicts and prejudices are as old as the tower of Babel. In the ancient world, perhaps there was no greater conflict than that between Jew and Gentile.
To a Jewish person, the world was divided between Jew and Gentile. Of course there was biblical precedent for this. After all, God had chosen the Jewish people to be his unique possession and had given to the Jewish people laws specifically to keep them separate from the ”nations.” The English word “heathen,” though rather pejorative in our day, means “nation” or “Gentile,” which fundamentally means not Jewish.
But where the Jewish people went wrong was in assuming that they were inherently better than non-Jews. Despite God’s clear revelation to the contrary (Deuteronomy 4:7), they failed to recognise that it was because of God’s grace that they were his chosen people. It was by God’s grace that they were his peculiar people. It was through God’s grace that they were his work. And it was for God’s grace they were his work.
Their failure to remember what they were apart from God’s grace led to their fall from grace. Their failure to appreciate that they were a gracious work of a sovereign God led to arrogance, self-righteousness, and spiritual blindness, such that they crucified the promised Seed. Paul wanted to protect the church of Ephesus (and perhaps other local churches in what may have been a circular letter) from this same failure. Hence, he reminded them that they were what they were by the grace of God. They were God’s workmanship. Therefore, while reminding them of what they were (1:20–23; 2:10), he also reminded them of what they formerly were (vv. 1–3) and how they became God’s workmanship (vv. 4–9). It is the same reminder we need. Often.
The Greek term translated “workmanship” is the word from which we get the English word “poem.” The God-wrought local church, composed of diverse peoples, is God’s poem. The local church expresses the intention of its author. Note the emphasis on God’s workmanship. He is the cause. Just as poems require an author, so does the church. So does the Christian. We exist because God has brought us into existence. And our existence is to be faithful to God’s authorial intent. God’s purpose for his church is that Christians, amid their diversity, will grow up to be like Jesus Christ. God’s purpose for the church is that it will look more and more like the body of Christ. God’s purpose is that, when people look at the local church, they will see Jesus. I think you will agree, we are a work in progress.
Let’s unpack the context of our poem.
A Poem Addressing our Misery
The church is a powerful display of God’s workmanship when we consider the material with which he had to work. Paul spells this out in vv. 1–3.
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—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
Paul reminds the Ephesians that, prior to their conversion, they were spiritually and relationally dead to God, while very much alive to sin. “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (v. 2). The same is true of every believer. Prior to salvation, self was on the throne and we were dead to any desire to live for or please the Lord. Paul quite literally describes unbelievers as dead men walking: not just ill, not just sick of soul, but rather stone-cold dead in need of resurrection (see also John 5:19–29). In fact, elsewhere he writes that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead was at work in us to regenerate us (Ephesians 1:19–20).
Of course most of us were not dead to religion. We were not dead to wanting to be happy. We were not even dead to so-called spirituality. We were alive to self-deception about our true condition before God. We may have been “spiritual,” but we were spiritually dead: mere religiously dressed up corpses. We were not a poem; we were, instead, a tragedy. Only God can change such a story. Only God can transform such misery into beauty.
Deceived and Disoriented
Not only were the Ephesians formerly dead; they were also deceived and disoriented, “following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air” (v. 2). Once again, what was true of them was true of us.
The trajectory of our life was from bad to worse. Rather than walking on the path lit bright by the light of God’s truth, we walked the route of rebellion, a route littered with “trespasses and sins.” We occupied ourselves with the values of this age. Worldliness—that which is fallen and fading (1 John 2:15–17)—determined the direction of our life. You and I thought we had it all together, but we were as deluded and disoriented as one could be. We believed lies and we were living a lie. When asked how we were doing, we superficially (and fundamentally dishonestly) replied, “Great!”
Yes, we may have been successful economically, athletically, academically, socially, and professionally. But the “course” we were following was leading us to destruction (Matthew 7:14). We had bought into the lie that we could do it our way when, in fact, we were pawns of the prince of the power of the air. We were the opposite of the wise person. That is, we lived like we had no eyes in our head (Ecclesiastes 2:14).
According to Paul, the unbelieving Ephesians were also disobedient: “the sons of disobedience” (v. 2). This almost goes without saying but, since Paul said it, we must also say it.
The phrase “sons of disobedience” characterises the trajectory of our life apart from God’s powerful poetic life. Our lives were bent in the wrong direction. Whether in thought or deed, whether by commission or omission, we did not obey God because we did not love him. Rather, like lost sheep, we each turned our own way (Isaiah 53:6).
Paul continues by describing the Ephesians in their former unbelieving state as those who “lived in the passions of their flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (v. 3). The picture is of a life dominated with self-love. Formerly, the Ephesians followed only what made them feel good. They pursued pleasure at all costs. Like fools, God was not in their thoughts (Psalm 10:4). They were depraved. That might sound extreme—and it is—but it is also true.
When we speak of the depravity of man as a theological category, we are speaking of our sin nature that has affected every aspect of our life: our affections, and our thoughts, and our will. The Bible teaches that every area of our lives is in rebellion against God. We have fallen, each of us, and in all areas. This does not mean we are as bad as we could be; it means that, in comparison to God, we are bad to the bone. Our nature is polluted with sin. Only a work of God can rescue us. God needs to rewrite our lives. Only God’swork of salvation can transform our horror story into a glorious poem.
Finally, Paul reminds the Ephesians of the consequence of their misery. Ultimately, they were “children of wrath” (v. 3). Apart from the gospel, they stood under his eternal condemnation. Their only hope of escape was God’s workmanship.
Brothers and sisters, when we consider that we all shared the same horrific biography, what an amazing realisation it is that, despite what we deserved, by God’s grace he has made us his workmanship. And he is continuing this work. We are graced to be God’s poem. We share this rhythm of regeneration and relationship with God—together.
When we covenant as members of a local church, we are acknowledging this. We are acknowledging that we are a work (“poem”) of God and that, through us, he is publishing a message. We have no more right (or power) to be self-published than do the words of a poem. We exist as a work of God by his design and therefore in accordance with his purpose. To the degree that each of us embraces this understanding, we will appreciate his grace and will appreciate each other as an important word/line in God’s poem.
A Poem Authored by Mercy
“But God.” An eternity of praise resides in those two words: an eternity of blissful joy. Those two words turn the dark canvass of vv. 1–3 into a palate of beautiful colours of every hue. They transform a horror story into a beautiful poem. “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” (vv. 4–5).
God loved us when we were unlovely. He loved us when we had the stench of death. He loved us when we were running away from him. He loved us when we were rebelling against his rule, against his righteousness, against the riches of his grace, against his offer of redemption. God is not merely merciful but is rather “rich in mercy.” He has an abundance of mercy.
Mercy has been defined as God not giving to us what we deserve. There is more to it than that, but that is a good place to begin. Having seen what we were (vv. 1–3) and therefore realising that we deserves damnation, God choosing rather to make us his workmanship points us to this amazing mercy. Rather than making us objects of wrath, God in his mercy has made us objects of his work.
There is much that can be said about this but, for our purposes today, note that God’s mercy to us obligates us to be merciful to one another. Sadly, mercy is all too often missing from those whom God has gathered by his mercy.
The preamble to our covenant begins, “By God’s grace we are gathered as those who have repented and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Though there is a difference in the distinction, mercy and grace come from the same womb. God, in his mercy, chose to show saving grace to us. This mercy and grace were not merely individualistic; rather, he has corporately gathered “mercied” individuals into this body.
We should often reflect on this. It will do our souls good. It will do our church good. As we consider God’s mercy to us, we will be better equipped to show mercy to others. This is always important. And in these days, it may be particularly relevant.
I write these words in the midst of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, which has invited all sorts of restrictions on church gatherings. We are perhaps more prone to a grumbling spirit in these trying days than at other times. There are plenty of opportunities to criticise and complain. Our gathering is not ideal, by any measure. We meet outside in the hot summer sun. To counteract the heat, we have chosen to meet a full hour-and-a-half earlier than normal. Parents with young children face particular challenges. This time has unique distractions and discomforts. But reflecting on what we deserve in the light of the mercies we have received will guard our hearts and mouths from griping. The remembrance of God’s mercy will motivate us to serve one another. It will motivate us to forbear with one another. It will move us to die to self, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. When we are tempted to complain about our discomfort, think of the discomfort of Jesus Christ crucified.
I’m sure I will say this again, but before murmuring about our situation, perhaps think about Christians for whom it is a challenge, even a danger, to gather at all—COVID-19 or otherwise. Think of churches in China, India, North Africa, Saudi Arabia, etc. Let the experience of God’s saving mercy empower us to “solemnly and joyfully renew our covenant with each other.”
A Poem Arising from a Miracle
Paul goes on to describe how the poem came to be written:
By grace you have been saved—and [God] raised us up with [Christ] and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
In the gospel, we moved from death to life. That is a miracle. It was a miracle when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:28–44). It was a miracle when Jesus raised Jairus’s daughter from death to life (Mark 5:35–43). It was a miracle when Dorcas experienced resurrection power at the hands of Peter (Acts 9:36–43). But, lest we miss it, it is no less a miracle when someone is raised from spiritual death to spiritual life. This is a profound miracle and Paul exhausts his vocabulary to fully and adequately express the profundity of our conversion.
When Paul preached the gospel in Ephesus (Acts 19), God was mightily at work (vv. 11–17). Many were truly converted, evidenced by costly repentance (vv. 18–19). We are informed that “the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (v. 20). This work of God was progressing and, as this epistle makes clear, it was a work in progress.
Thomas Chalmers spoke of “the expulsive power of a new affection.” He testified that, when he was truly converted (after he was appointed a minister of the gospel), spiritual life began to push out those things that were “dead in trespasses and sins” just as a new leaf pushes the old, dead leaf off the branch. This was clearly the case in Ephesus.
As those who were once idol worshippers began to worship and serve the true God, society felt the impact (vv. 18–19, 23ff). This was a miracle brought about by the power of God. Those with eyes to see perceived God’s powerful workmanship and the futility of the workmanship of the idolatrous silversmiths.
But there was another work going on here that is too often missed. Paul picks up on it in the remainder of chapter 2: the workmanship of the new temple, the new building of God, the local church (vv. 19–22). Jew and Gentile together as one people was testimony to the miracle working power of God’s saving grace. Where there had been partisan and polarising mistreatment of one another, now there was supernatural unity amid diversity. There was now “one new man in the place of the two” (v. 15).
Those who saw themselves as citizens of Israel, and those who saw themselves as citizens of Ephesus, and those who saw themselves as citizens of Rome now viewed themselves as fellow citizens of God’s nation, God’s kingdom. Gentiles who had been converted to Jesus Christ were now to view themselves alongside Jewish converts as members of the same household: the household of God (v. 19). This household is also referred to as “a holy temple in the Lord” and “a dwelling place for God” (v. 21).
“By the Spirit” (v. 22) they were graced with repentance from their sins and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But this grace included the gift of being gathered together with other believers in Christ. Having been baptised, they were united as one body. As they gathered to partake of the Lord’s Supper, the many would become the one. Superficial distinctions and diverse opinions would be laid aside as they reaffirmed one another in the faith and in the family. Where there had been partisan strife and hateful prejudice, now there would be joy and a solemn realisation that, by grace, they were God’s workmanship!
This same reality is at the heart of our church covenant. By God’s sovereign, gracious, powerful work, we have been raised from death to life. Our deceived and disoriented life was put right. By a work of God, we turned from disobedience to the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5; 16:26). By the work of God, our desires were converted from the priority of self-love to the priority of loving God. By the work of God, we were delivered from being damned under the wrath of God to being delivered to the peace and joy of reconciliation with God. And though we each experienced this individually, it is equally true that we have been gathered as fellow-citizens, members of the household of God privileged to be joined together as a work in which progress is being made to “a holy temple in the Lord.”
This is why we formally covenant with one another as a local church. Without apology. We need the reminder that what we are is unique. The local church in Ephesus was the most unique, and most important, entity in the city. So is the biblical local church in our town. We are God’s workmanship! If people have difficulty believing in God’s creation of the world, we serve as testimony that God, by his word, can build a work out of nothing. (Verses 1–3 reveal that, apart from God, we are nothing.)
We need the reminder that what really matters doesn’t really matter to the world. Our covenant keeps before us what is important. It is counterintuitive and therefore countercultural. It flies in the face of a society characterised by vv. 1–3.
We need the reminder of God’s grace. Note that the covenant opens and closes with grace. This humbles us. It makes us hopeful. It fuels harmony. It motivates us to holiness. Being God’s workmanship means we are different. “Different” is at the root of holiness. The covenant merely summarises the biblical expectation of those whom God saves: Everyone whom he saves is his work.
A Poem that Articulates a Message
Let me expand on what we have noted above. Our world, like the world of Asia Minor in Paul’s day, is fractured and divided. It’s ugly. We witness all kinds of attempts to bring about unity and harmony amid so much diversity. Those who pay attention observe that whatever the motive and effort, it’s not working. Just read the news. Just browse social media. Consider the American elections. Utter the words “black lives matter.” Friction, frustration, fractures, and faction. We see these things all around us. What is the solution? God’s workmanship.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only solution for reconciliation between peoples precisely because it is the only solution for reconciliation between God and man. Our vertical separation results in our horizontal separations. But when God grants to sinners repentance and faith, enmity between man and God is removed clearing the way for hostility between man and man to be removed. The cross is designed to make peace between God and man and man and man.
Let me get to Paul’s point. He is saying that the workmanship of God is this complete work of reconciliation. God’s wrath is satisfied, resulting in walls between Jew and Gentile torn down (vv. 11–15). God’s workmanship of creating in Christ Jesus “one new man” (vv. 10, 15) results in the “good works” (v. 10) of loving one another and working with one another for the building up “a dwelling place in the Spirit” (v. 22). That, my friend, is the good work that God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. That is God’s workmanship. Christ-driven love and Christ-driven joyful harmony is what God has wrought and it is where we remain a work in progress. Our church covenant acknowledges this. Our church covenant expresses this desire and our commitment to strive for it.
So, how are we doing? How are you doing? The pandemic is a providential revelation of the work that has been accomplished as well as a revelation of the works that are yet to be done. Have you maximised or have you minimised the priority of your local church? Are you tearing it down or are you building it up?
If you are like me, you feel a sense of “woe is me.” I have failed, in many ways. But this passage encourages me, and I hope it encourages you, that, by God’s grace, I, along with you, am his workmanship.
God’s grace will humble us and will revive us with hope for holiness. A work in progress requires the gospel preached and believed. Let’s preach it to ourselves daily. And as we do, we will persevere as a work in progress.