And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 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— 3 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. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, ~~Ephesians 2:1-4 (ESV)I realize that verse 4 breaks off mid-sentence, but that itty-bitty verse overflows with more content than I can adequately cover. We'll chew on it as much as we can today, but then we'll need to progress to the rest of the text.
Notice, first of all, those two lovely words, "But God." Paul uses them to shift the spotlight from our totally wretched condition to the glorious Lord and His power to transform us. With these two small words, He shows Himself to be the active agent in our salvation process. Remember that verse 1 pronounces us "dead." God needs to do everything regarding our salvation because our sin-saturated natures leave us as spiritually lifeless corpses, completely incapable of effecting our own salvation. We would be hopeless...but God has intervened!
He has intervened by contrasting our moral bankruptcy with His richness in mercy. Specifically, He shows the "immeasurable riches of His grace" in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:7). Paul has previously explained "the riches of His grace" as having come through Christ's blood (Ephesians 1:7), through which He forgives our sins.
Mercy refers back to our sinful condition, as Adam Clarke explained: "As they were corrupt in their nature, and sinful in their practice, they could possess no merit, nor have any claim upon God; and it required much mercy to remove so much misery, and to pardon such transgressions."
This mercy comes as a result of God's love...or, as Vincent Word Studies says. He saves us "in order to satisfy" His love.
Again quoting Clarke: "God’s infinite love is the groundwork of our salvation; in reference to us that love assumes the form of mercy, and that mercy provides the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. And therefore the apostle adds, Ephesians 2:5 : By grace ye are saved - it is by God’s free mercy in Christ that ye are brought into this state of salvation."
As we think about God's love as the chief cause for His mercy, it helps to reflect on the nature of His love. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 provides the classic description of God's love, including (verse 6) His grief over sin and joy over truth. Love can't ignore justice. But Jesus satisfied justice by His death (1 John 2:2) Thus John 3:16 affirms that God gave (or sacrificed) His Son, requiring nothing more than that we rest our faith in Christ.
So that tiny phrase, "But God," turns out to be huge! God transforms us from our lifeless enslavement to sin into recipients of His mercy and love. He assumes all the responsibility for bringing about this astonishing transformation, making it entirely appropriate for all the glory to go to Him.