A Commentary by John Stott
Verse 4 begins with a mighty adversative: *But God…* These two monosyllables set against the desperate condition of fallen mankind the gracious initiative and sovereign action of God. We were the objects of his wrath, *but God, out of the great love with which he loved us* had mercy upon us. We were dead, and dead men do not rise, *but God* made us alive with Christ. We were slaves, in a situation of dishonour and powerlessness,. *but God* has raised us with Christ and set us at his own right hand, in a position of honour and power. Thus God has taken action to reverse our condition of sin. It is essential to hold both parts of this contrast together, namely what we are by nature and what we are by grace, the human condition and the divine compassion, God’s wrath and God’s love. Christians are sometimes criticized for being morbidly preoccupied with their sin and guilt. The criticism is not fair when we are facing the facts about ourselves (for it is never unhealthy to look reality in the face), but only when we fail to go on to glory in God’s mercy and grace.
We need now to enquire exactly what God has done, and also why he has done it.
a). What has God done.
In one word he has *saved* us. In both verse 5 and verse 8 the same assertion is made: *By grace you have been saved*. Some commentators have even suggested that verses 4-10 are a kind of hymn celebrating the glories of salvation and of *sola gratia*, which is twice interrupted by the liturgical acclamation ‘By grace you have been saved’. ‘Saved’ is a perfect participle (*sesosmenoi*). It emphasizes the abiding consequences of God’s saving action in the past, as if Paul should say, ‘You are people who have been saved and remain for ever saved.’ Many today, however, are saying that they find traditional salvation language meaningless. So we need to probe into what Paul writes.
In fact he coins three verbs, which take up what God did in Christ and then (by the addition of the prefix *syn*, ‘together with’) link us to Christ in these events. Thus first, God *made us alive together with Christ* (verse 5), next he *raised us up with him* (verse 6a), and thirdly he *made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (verse 6b). These verbs (‘made alive’, ‘raised’ and made to sit’) refer to the three successive historical events in the saving career of Jesus, which are normally called the resurrection, the ascension and the session. We declare our belief in them when we say the Creed: ‘The third day he rose again from the dead, he ascended into heaven, and he sits at the right hand of God the Father.’ What excites our amazement, however, is that now Paul is not writing about Christ but about us. He is affirming not that God quickened, raised and seated Christ, but that he quickened, raised and seated us with Christ.
Fundamental to New Testament Christianity is this concept of the union of God’s people with Christ. What constitutes the distinctness of the members of God’s new society? Not just that they admire and even worship Jesus, not just that they assent to the dogmas of the church, not even that they live by certain moral standards. No, what makes them distinctive is their new solidarity as a people who are ‘in Christ’. By virtue of their union with Christ they have actually shared in his resurrection, ascension and session. In the ‘heavenly places’, the unseen world of spiritual reality, in which the principalities and powers operate (3:10; 6:12) and in which Christ reigns supreme (1:20), there God has blessed his people in Christ (1:3) and there he has seated them with Christ (2:6). For if we are seated with Christ in the heavenlies, there can be no doubt what we are sitting on: thrones! Moreover, this talk about solidarity with Christ in his resurrection and exaltation is not a piece of meaningless Christian mysticism. It bears witness to a living experience, that Christ has given us on the one hand a new life (with a sensitive awareness of the reality of God, and a love for him and for his people) and on the other a new victory (with evil increasingly under our feet). We were dead, but have been made spiritually alive and alert. We were in captivity, but have been enthroned.