Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands — remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. – Ephesians 2:11-13 ESV
In these verses, Paul seems to be contradicting a statement he made in his letter to the Philippian believers. There, he told them, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14. Yet, here we hear him telling the Ephesian believers to “remember” – not once but twice. So which is it, Paul? Are we to remember or forget? Should we look back or press forward? Truthfully, I believe Paul would simply say, “Both.” As always when reading Scripture, context is critical. In his letter to the believers in Philippi, Paul was stressing “the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9 ESV). He was contrasting human merit with God’s grace. He had spent years of his life trying to earn favor with God and make himself acceptable to God. He boldly professed, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:4-6 ESV). But then he confessed, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Philippians 3:7 ESV). In other words, all his past achievements and efforts at self-justification before God were worthless when compared to the free gift of grace made available to him through faith in Jesus Christ. Which led him to conclude, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:8-9 ESV). So, for Paul, when it came to his right standing with God, there was no looking back. No need to dwell on his past efforts or put hope in his own attempts at righteousness. They were worthless to him. So he chose to look ahead and press on to the goal of righteousness made possible through faith in Christ. His past accomplishments were of no value when it came to his future righteousness.
But when he wrote to the Ephesian believers, Paul had a slightly different goal in mind. In verse 10, he reminded his readers, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10 ESV). Good works were not a means for achieving a right standing with God, but they should be a reflection of and response to our right standing with God made possible by faith in Jesus Christ. Good works were not to be meritorious, done in hopes of earning favor with God, but were to be done out of gratitude for all He has done for us. When it comes to works, grace is opposed to earning, not effort.
In the verses above, Paul is specifically addressing the Gentile converts who were part of the local church in Ephesus. He wants them to remember that their salvation had nothing to do with works. As a matter of fact, they weren’t even circumcised. He told them, “Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called ‘uncircumcised heathens’ by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts” (Ephesians 2:11 NLT). Prior to coming to faith in Christ, they had been on the outside looking in. Paul told them, “You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them” (Ephesians 2:12 NLT). And to make matters even worse, he reminded them, “You lived in this world without God and without hope” (Ephesians 2:12 NLT).
Notice the difference in Paul’s emphasis from his letter to the Philippians and his letter to the Ephesians. One is calling them to get their minds off their thoughts of self-righteousness or any hopes of earning a right standing with God based on human effort. The other is reminding them to never forget what they were before God showered them with His grace. What makes grace so amazing is our total undeservedness. None of us is righteous. None of us deserved to receive God’s grace. And yet, in spite of our undeserving status, God made His Son’s sacrificial death and gift of redemption available to us. Which is why Paul places two simple, yet powerful words right in the middle of this section of his letter: “But now…”
It should remind of us of what Paul had written just a few verses earlier. “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 — by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5 ESV). God stepped in. God intervened on our behalf, out of His love and according to His rich mercy. And Paul wanted them to remember just how bad things had been, so that they would fully appreciate all that God had done for them. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13 ESV). Far off…brought near. Outsiders…insiders. Enemies…friends. Condemned…justified. Dead…alive. Lost…found. Sinful…blameless. Guilty…forgiven.
Paul would have us never forget our past. We are not to dwell on it or feel any pangs of guilt because of it. But there is value in recalling just how bad things were before we heard the good news of Jesus Christ. The glory of grace always shines brightest against the dark backdrop of human sin and hopelessness. It is in considering what God has done for us that we gain assurance and confidence in all that He has promised to do in the future. Paul put it well in his letter to the Colossians.
You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault. But you must continue to believe this truth and stand firmly in it. Don’t drift away from the assurance you received when you heard the Good News. – Colossians 1:21-23 NLT