Of all the things that Paul says about those outside of Christ, perhaps the most terrifying is that the impenitent are “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). In writing this, the apostle says that those in Adam — all unregenerate human beings — deserve divine condemnation. People outside of Christ can expect nothing from the Father except for His wrath, which manifests itself ultimately in eternal punishment in hell (Rom. 1:18–3:20; see also Jude 8–13; Rev. 20:7–15).
One of the most important words in all of Scripture, as Dr. R.C. Sproul has often said, is the conjunction but (see Eph. 2:4). It indicates a contrast. Paul has told us we were children of wrath, and now he tells us what we are after we have put our faith in Christ. Thankfully, our Creator has not left humanity in its miserable estate but has chosen to rescue some people — those chosen from the foundation of the world (1:3–6). He comes to His people, who are all born into this world dead in Adam and unable to respond to His overtures, and performs a spiritual resurrection so that they have a desire to believe and be saved (2:8–10). This is God’s initiative; He takes the decisive step, for those whom He regenerates certainly come to believe in the gospel of Christ and follow Him in a life of repentant and faithful discipleship. John Calvin comments, “Everything connected with our salvation ought to be ascribed to God as its author.”
What moves our Lord to do this? It is certainly not anything in us, for being dead in sin, we were unlovely and undeserving of His love. Even the righteousness that we thought we possessed was nothing but dirty rags (Isa. 64:6). What moves Him, Paul tells us, is His mercy, love, grace, and kindness (Eph. 2:4–7). Why does He not reveal this to everyone? This indeed is a great mystery, but we can be assured that it is to the praise of His glorious grace (Eph. 1:6), according to His good purposes and pleasure. Mercy — unexpected love and generosity — cannot be showered upon us as something owed, because mercy that is owed is not mercy but obligation. It can be given only to those in a desperate situation who cannot help themselves and lack the capability to earn or pay it back. And there is no better way to describe our situation apart from Christ than utterly and hopelessly desperate.
As the sovereign, independent Creator, God is not obligated to save anyone, to show goodness and mercy toward sinners who deserve only condemnation. Since we are not autonomous but are governed by God’s law, however, He can demand that we show mercy to others, not least those who sin against us. Since we are obligated to imitate God, we should desire to imitate our Savior’s mercy (Luke 23:34; Eph. 5:1; Jude 23).