In this passage, the Apostle Paul, freely, gladly, and without any apology at all, uses four rather uncomplimentary terms to describe what we were like before we gave our lives to Jesus Christ and became Christians. These are not pleasant descriptors at all. And here they are in all of their unvarnished ugliness: Paul says that we were powerless, that we were sinners, that we were ungodly, and that we were enemies of God. That’s quite a boatload of nastiness, and I suspect that some of us here this morning might resent being described in terms like that. I’m thinking that we might not have described ourselves that way even before we met Jesus Christ. We might have had a somewhat higher view of ourselves. Looking back over our lives, we might have been pretty decent people even before the Gospel began to make sense in our hearts. Then, of course, on the other hand, we could have been absolute reprobates, too. That’s the beauty of the Gospel; the Good News of Jesus Christ saves decent people from their sins and it saves the vilest offenders from their sins. The Gospel truth is that once safely in the grasp of Jesus, our pasts don’t matter at all, whether we were decent people or the most hardened of criminals. All is forgiven and all is forgotten. God has a terrible memory when it comes to our pasts, nothing is remembered, God only sees in us our forgiven perfection.
So why, then, does Paul seem to think that he needs to remind us of our pasts, when God is so wonderfully perfect at forgetting them? I think he does it for a couple of reasons. First to remind himself and us of the glorious magnitude of our salvation. Sometimes it is a good thing to sit down for a minute and to ponder what it is that we have been saved from, and to consider the depth of the love that Jesus has for us. Once in a while I think it is good for us to ponder how great and marvelous our salvation really is, and at what cost Jesus endured to accomplish it.
And the second reason that I think that Paul uses these four nasty descriptions of our lives before we met Jesus Christ, is that some of this stuff may still be lurking inside of us. And I’m going to take a bit of a leap here, and presume to speak on behalf of the Apostle Paul. If it were possible to bring Paul into this pulpit this morning, he would most likely tell us that he would have been as offended by his own words as we are, and that some of this nastiness and ugliness still lurked inside of him. Now, of course, Paul has been dead for a very long time now, and he has achieved the fullness of eternal life and glory and none of this stuff troubles him anymore. But if he were here in the flesh this morning, he would tell us that before his rather dramatic conversion to faith in Jesus Christ, not only would he be offended by his own words in this passage, but he would also tell us that these things pestered him throughout his entire earthly life.
Before his conversion, Paul would best be described as a very decent man. He would not have even considered the possibility that he was powerless, or that he was a sinner, or that he was ungodly, or that he was an enemy of God. Actually, he would have described himself in terms that are quite the opposite of these. In terms of power, Paul was probably the most influential pharisee of his day. He was educated by the best, he rose quickly in the ranks of the Pharisees, and when he began his campaign to destroy Christianity he was backed by the full power and authority of all of the other religious leaders. He was a very powerful man. And the depth of his power was absolutely terrifying to the Christian community. They lived in absolute fear of him.
Paul would also deny that he was a sinner. He once described himself as a pharisee of pharisees. His attention to ritual laws and practices was impeccable. He knew the law and he observed it with absolute devotion. He was fastidiously careful at every moment of his day not to transgress even the most minute of regulations. He was the poster child of obedience.
And ungodly? Hah! He was anything but ungodly. He studied the Scriptures, he understood the mind of God and he was a shining example of godliness and utter devotion in all things concerning his faith.
And then there’s this nasty bit about being an enemy of God. If Paul were here this morning he would emphatically deny that he was an enemy of God. Before his conversion, Paul was a friend of God, a defender of God. Paul loved God with all of his heart, soul, mind, and body. Nothing in his life even began to hint that he might be an enemy of God. In fact he was such a friend of God that he devoted his whole life and energy to eradicating this pernicious cult called Christianity.
Would Paul say that he was powerless? Never. Would Paul say that he was a sinner? Never. Would Paul say that he was ungodly? Never. Would Paul say that he was an enemy of God? Not in a million years.
And then one day, as he was making his way toward the city of Damascus, on a mission to serve God in the best way that he knew how, he met Jesus Christ in a very big way. And he began to realize, in spite of himself, that he was all of these things. That must have been quite the stunning revelation to say the least. To go from believing that he was powerful, sinless, godly, and a friend of God to the exact opposite of all of these things can only be described as a dramatic reversal of self understanding. And for Paul, it had to come that way. Paul was standing in the way of Jesus, and so Jesus had to literally stand in the way of Paul.
Some of us here this morning may have had a dramatic conversion experience like the Apostle Paul had, where Jesus quite literally stopped us dead in our tracks and set us on the right path. Sometimes it is necessary for Jesus to stand in our way in a dramatic fashion because we are either on a path that will destroy us or others. Perhaps he stops us up short in this way, because like Paul, we have the power to harm the cause of the Gospel, and God has this wonderful habit of transforming his enemies into friends.
Others of us may have come more gradually into faith in Christ. We may have grown up in a Christian home like I did, and find ourselves unable to remember a time when we were not a Christian. Others of us may have attended church for years without having much of anything sink in until that glorious moment when we realized that we did understand the Gospel, that we did believe in Jesus, and that we have indeed received the free gift of eternal life.
But however it was that we came to Jesus, or are coming to Jesus to put it more accurately, all of us have got to come to the place where we can make peace with this business of being powerless, sinful, ungodly enemies of God. When we, like Paul, can admit that we are all of these things, then the true work of the Gospel can begin in our lives.
And that’s not nearly as difficult as it may seem. And that’s because Paul makes it clear in this passage that all of the hard work has already been done. We simply need to receive it. The hard work was done by Jesus as he suffered and died on the cross. While we were weak, sinful, ungodly, and at enmity with God, and busy denying it, Christ died for us. And this is a very unusual thing, as Paul points out. Not many people would give up their lives for someone else. Paul says it can happen, but that it is rare, and it is often only for someone who is good or righteous. The implication is that it would be foolhardy to give up one’s life for an evil person and especially for one’s enemy. That just doesn’t happen. But that is exactly what Jesus did. He died for his enemies. And because that makes no sense at all, it makes all of the sense in the world. God delights in things mysterious, and God absolutely delights in dealing with paradoxes.
When we had no opportunity to provide for our own salvation Jesus offered it to us as a gift. While we were still sinners and rollicking in ungodliness, Jesus forgave all, and while we were the enemies of God, Jesus established a path toward reconciliation. And all of this was done before we were aware of what he had done for us, before we responded to the truth of the Gospel, and before we gave one whit for what Jesus had done for us.
I believe that Paul must have been quite shaken by his realization that he was an enemy of God. He got it that he was quite powerless to provide for his own salvation, and he was eternally grateful that Jesus had provided the necessary grace for him to have that salvation. He could handle it that he was a sinner, even though he was a rather persnickety pharisee. Sin happens to the best of people. He also understood this business of being ungodly, because that’s what sin did to him, and it is what sin does to us. But to be an enemy of God, that shook him to the very core of his being. He never, ever, before his conversion, imagined that he was an enemy of God, and he regretted that he was once an enemy of God for the rest of his life. And that’s why reconciliation is so important to him. He mentions it three times in this passage, and it is a common theme throughout all of his epistles.
For Paul, the proof of God’s love for us is found in reconciliation. Only God has the power and the love to turn all of his enemies into friends. That is the wonder of the Gospel. It is a complete reversal of status, and I believe that it was the most difficult thing for Jesus to accomplish as he suffered and died on the cross. And I believe that, because being reconciled to God we are also called to be reconciled to one another. The sorry truth is that some people refuse to even attempt it. But because reconciliation is the wonder of the Gospel, and because we have been reconciled to God, we ought to work at this. Reconciliation with one another is the work of the Gospel among us. Let us also make friends of our enemies.