And you were dead in the trespasses and sins  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— 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.  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— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,  so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,  not a result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Hermeneutic Interpretation of Core Text
[2:1-3] And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 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—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.
Before we look in detail at this devastating description of the human condition apart from God, we need to be clear that it is a description of everybody. Paul is not giving us a portrait of some particularly decadent tribe or degraded segment of society, or even of the extremely corrupt and debased paganism of his own day. No, this is the biblical diagnosis of fallen man in fallen society everywhere. True, Paul begins with an emphatic you, indicating in the first place his Gentile readers in Asia Minor, but he quickly goes on to write (verse 3a) that we all once lived in the same way (thus adding himself and his fellow Jews), and he concludes with a reference to the rest of mankind (verse 3b). Here then is the apostle’s estimate of everyman without God, of the universal human condition. It is a condensation into three verses of the first three chapters of Romans, in which he argues his case for the sin and guilt first of pagans, then of Jews, and so of all mankind. Here he singles out three appalling truths about unredeemed human beings, which included ourselves until God had mercy on us.
a. Because of our sin we were dead to Him.
And you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked (verses 1–2a). The death to which Paul refers is not a figure of speech, as in the parable of the Prodigal Son, ‘This my son was dead’; it is the reality of everybody’s spiritual condition outside Christ. And it is traced to their trespasses and sins. These two words seem to have been carefully chosen to give a comprehensive account of human evil. A ‘trespass’ (paraptōma) is a false step, involving either the crossing of a known boundary or a deviation from the right path. A ‘sin’ (hamartia), however, means rather a missing of the mark, a falling short of a standard.
Together the two words cover the positive and negative, or active and passive, aspects of human wrongdoing, that is to say, our sins of commission and of omission. Before God we are both rebels and failures. As a result, we are ‘dead’ or ‘alienated from the life of God’ (4:18).
For true life, ‘eternal life’, is fellowship with the living God, and spiritual death is the separation from him which sin inevitably brings: ‘Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you so that he does not hear.’
This biblical statement about the ‘deadness’ of non-Christian people causes skepticism for many because it contradicts the facts of everyday experience. Tough to interpret this passage without identifying and understanding the paradox being used. There are millions of people who make no Christian profession whatever, who even openly repudiate Jesus Christ, appear to be very much alive - famous athletes, brilliant scholars, or talented actors or musicians. There is not much secular credibility to saying these people are dead, if Christ has not saved them. are dead? In the spiritual realm of temporal existence to eternal being it is real and it matters. Outside of Christ - we are dead, and there is no life. The appearance of having everything but the reality of having nothing - blind to the glory of Jesus Christ, and deaf to the voice of the Holy Spirit. They are as unresponsive to him as a corpse. So, we should not hesitate to acknowledge that a life without God is a living death (dead man walking). To affirm this paradox is to become aware of the basic tragedy of fallen human existence - people who were created by God and for God should not be living without God.
b. Our minds and bodies were codependent enablers to our sin.
Paul is not content to say simply that we once walked in trespasses and sins. The expression is a Hebraism, indicating our former behavior or lifestyle. But a ‘walk’ suggests (at least to western minds) a pleasant promenade in the countryside, with leisured freedom to enjoy the beauties of our surroundings. Very different, however, was our former ‘walk in trespasses and sins’. There was no true freedom there, but rather a fearful bondage to forces over which we had no control. What were they? If behind death lies sin, what lies behind the sin that holds us in such captivity? Paul’s answer, when put into scriptural terminology, is ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’. He refers to these three influences as that which controlled and directed our former pre-Christian existence.
First, he describes us as following the course of this world. The Greek phrase is ‘according the age of this world’ [stochiea]. It brings together the two concepts of ‘this age’ of evil and darkness (in contrast to ‘the age to come’ which Jesus introduced) and of ‘this world’, society organized without reference to God or—as we might say—secularism (in contrast to God’s kingdom, which is his new society under his rule). So, both words ‘age’ and ‘world’ express a whole social value-system which is in hostile contradiction to God. It controls non-Christian society and holds people in moral and emotional captivity. Wherever human beings are being dehumanized—by political oppression or bureaucratic tyranny, by an outlook that is secular (repudiating God), amoral (repudiating absolutes) or materialistic (glorifying the consumer market), by poverty, hunger or unemployment, by racial discrimination, or by any form of injustice—there we can detect the sub-human values of ‘this age’ and ‘this world’. Their influence is pervasive. People tend not to have a mind of their own, but to surrender to the cultural trends and impulses of the day. This not cultural freedom - it is cultural bondage. We were all the same until Jesus liberated us.
The second captivity was to the devil, who is here named the prince of the power of the air or in some translations ‘the ruler of the kingdom of the air’. The original Greek for ‘air’ could be translated ‘foggy atmosphere’, indicating the darkness which the devil prefers to light. But the whole phrase need mean no more than that he has command of those ‘principalities and powers’ already mentioned, who operate in the unseen world. It is not good optics in our current Church environment to believe either in an actual devil or in personal demonic intelligences under his command. But there is no obvious reason why church fashion should be the director of theology, whereas the plain teaching of Jesus and his apostles (not to mention the church of the subsequent centuries) endorsed their malevolent existence.
A further phrase is the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. Since the words the spirit are in the genitive, they are not in opposition to the prince (accusative). We must rather understand that ‘the ruler of the kingdom of the air’ is also ‘the ruler of the spirit which works in disobedient people’. ‘Spirit’ then becomes an impersonal force or mood which is actively at work in non-Christian people. Since Scripture identifies the devil not only as the source of temptations to sin, but also as a ‘lion’ and a ‘murderer’, we may safely trace all evil, error and violence back to him in the end. When he and the mood he inspires are said to be at work in human beings, the verb (energeō) is the same as that used of God’s power (1:20) which raised Jesus from the dead. Only that divine energy or action could have rescued us from the devil.
The third influence which holds us in bondage is the passions of our flesh (verse 3a), where ‘flesh’ means not the living fabric which covers our skeletal system but our fallen, self-centered human nature - the desires of body and mind. This is particularly important because it shows the mistake of equating ‘the passions of the flesh’ with what is commonly called ‘the sins of the flesh’. Some clarifications are needed here.
First, there is nothing wrong with natural bodily desires, whether for food, sleep or sex. God has made the human body that way. It is only when the human appetite for food becomes gluttony, for sleep becomes sloth and for sex objectifying lust, that natural desires have been perverted into sinful desires.
Secondly, ‘the passions of the flesh’ include the wrong desires of the mind as well as of the body, namely such sins as prideful intellectualism, delusional ambition, rejection of known truth, and hostile or vengeful thoughts. Indeed, according to Paul’s exposition in Philippians 3:3–6, ‘the flesh’ covers all forms of self-confidence, even pride of ancestry, parentage, race, religion and righteousness. Wherever ‘self’ rears its ugly head against God or man, there is what scripture calls ‘the flesh’. Frederick Bruce comments, it ‘can manifest itself in respectable forms as well as in the disreputable pursuits of first-century paganism’. The natural and spiritual reality is this - our self-centeredness is a horrible bondage. So then, before Jesus Christ set us free, we were subject to oppressive influences from both within and without. Outside was ‘the world’ (the prevailing secular culture); inside was ‘the flesh’ (our fallen nature twisted of self-centeredness); and beyond both, actively working through both, was that evil spirit, the devil, ‘the ruler of the kingdom of darkness’, who held us in captivity. Not that we can now conveniently shift all the blame for our slavery on to ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’, and accept no responsibility for it ourselves. On the contrary, it is significant that in these verses ‘you’ and ‘we’ are not identified with these forces but distinguished from them, although enslaved by them. We ourselves, however, are termed sons of disobedience (verse 2b), that is, ‘God’s rebel subjects’ (NEB). We had rebelled, knowingly and voluntarily, against the loving authority of God and so had fallen under the dominion of Satan.
c. We were faced with the consequences of the evil of our own doing and condemned.
Paul did not gloss quickly his description of our pre-Christian state. He has one more unpleasant truth to tell us about ourselves. Not only were we dead and enslaved, he says, but we were also condemned: we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (verse 3b). There is not an expression in Ephesians which has provoked more conflict and controversy than this. Some commentaries make little or no attempt to understand, let alone defend, it; it is dismissed as untenable today. There are three noteworthy causes for the hostility. The words wrath – children - by nature. Let’s look to what Paul meant in using them.
First, the wrath [hē orgē] of God. God’s wrath is not like mans. It is not bad temper, not spite, not malice, not animosity, or revenge. It is never arbitrary, since it is the divine reaction to only one situation - evil. Because the wrath of God toward evil is not subject to mood or impulse, it is entirely predictable and should be expected. Yet this wrath is personal in the sense that the wrath that judges and the grace that saves are both personal. They are the wrath and the grace of God. They both are divine responses from a sovereign God - one towards evil the other towards the human condition of His Creation.
So, what is his wrath if it is neither an arbitrary reaction nor an impersonal process? It is God’s inherent hostility to evil, His nature of refusal to compromise with it, and His unchanging, unmovable, response to condemn it. Further, his wrath is not incompatible with his love – it is characteristic of it. The contrast between verses 3 and 4 is notable: we were by nature children of wrath. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us. Paul response - move from the wrath of God to the mercy and love of God without any sense of embarrassment or anomaly. He is able to hold them together in his mind because he believed in his heart that they were held together in God’s character. We need (in context), to be more grateful to God for his wrath, and to worship Him because his righteousness is perfect and He always reacts to evil in the same unchanging, predictable, uncompromising way. Without the moral constancy of God we would not know peace.
The second problem people find is in the phrase children of wrath. For the words conjure up a picture of little children, even newborn babies, as under God’s wrath, and understandably people do not like what they see in their minds. But it is safe to say that there is no allusion here to little children. The expression is another Hebraism, like ‘sons of disobedience’ in verse 2, and refers to people of all ages. NEB helpfully substitutes the statement: ‘we lay under the dreadful judgment of God’.
The third problem is in the adverbial clause by nature. In what sense is it ‘by nature’ that we were the objects of God’s wrath and judgment? To begin with, we can surely all agree that Paul draws a deliberate contrast between what we were ‘by nature’ (phusei, verse 3) and what we have become ‘by grace’ (chariti, verse 5). It is a contrast between the past and the present, between what we were when left to ourselves and what we have become because God intervened on our behalf, and so between judgment and salvation: ‘By nature we were under God’s wrath, by grace we have been saved.’ That much is clear, and uncontroversial.
But phusei, ‘by nature’, seems to describe more than our ‘natural’ condition, when left to ourselves. It seems also to point to the origin of our condition ‘as members of a fallen race’, and so to raise difficult questions about our genetic inheritance, and therefore about our moral responsibility. Is Paul’s phrase shorthand for something longer such as that by birth we have a natural tendency to sin, so therefore we do sin, and that our sin brings us under the judgment of God? Or is he saying that our very being as humans is from birth under God’s judgment?
Big question: “does our inherited human nature itself deserve God’s wrath and judgment”? This is what Paul seems to be teaching here; how can we understand him?
Probably the best commentary is his own - found in Romans. Just as these verses are a condensed version of Romans 1–3, so the expression ‘by nature children of wrath’ is a summary of Romans 5:12–14. His argument there that ‘death spread to all men because all men sinned’ is not that all inherited a sinful nature which led them to sin and so to die, but that ‘all men sinned’ in and with Adam. The Old Testament has a strong sense of the solidarity of the human race. It speaks of the next generation as being already ‘in the loins’ of the present generation, a truth which modern genetics may be said to underline. Paul is saying, then, that we cannot make Adam our scapegoat and blame him for our sin, guilt and condemnation. For we were ourselves in Adam. It may truly be said that we sinned in Adam, and that in and with him we incurred guilt and died. Is it not in this sense that we may be described as ‘by nature’ sinners and subject to God’s just judgment? The great majority of Protestant theologians have always wanted to add (even if tentatively) that they believe God’s grace and Christ’s atonement cover the years of childhood before the age of responsibility, and those in the reformed tradition have drawn attention to the biblical evidence that children with Christian parents are born within the covering of the covenant. Yet even these important qualifications do not alter the facts of our inherited sin and guilt, or of the judgment we deserve. Outside Christ man is dead because of trespasses and sins, enslaved by the world, the flesh and the devil, and condemned under the wrath of God.
It is a failure to recognize this gravity of the human condition which explains people’s naive faith in the remedies of humankind. Biblical literacy is needed, desired, and required to understand this. Yet it will take more than education and learning to rescue us from jaws of spiritual death and into to the arms of eternal life - we need Jesus. From the moment we can find Him – we need Him, and He alone is enough.
[2:4] But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,
Such was the plight of all mankind. But God broke in. We have what John Stott speaks of as ‘a mighty adversative’. Set against ‘the desperate condition of fallen mankind’ we have ‘the gracious initiative and sovereign action of God’. The subject of the verb has waited from the beginning of the chapter to this point. The verb waits till the next verse, till Paul in his usual manner (cf. 1:17; 3:9, 15–16), having mentioned the name of God, speaks in glowing terms of his goodness and grace. He is not only merciful, showing his pity to those who are totally unworthy and undeserving; he is rich in mercy (see on 1:7). That mercy proceeds from love, the great love with which he loved us. There is longing in the heart of God for humanity—the us now means Jews and Gentiles alike—to be restored to the highest and best that he had planned for them (cf. John 3:16; 1 John 4:9–10); and so he has shown himself full of mercy, and has acted in grace towards them.
[2:5] even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—
But before the apostle describes the action of the love of God, he resumes the object and emphasizes once again our human condition and desperate need. His love reached down to us even when we were dead through our trespasses (cf. Rom. 5:6, 8), and he made us alive together with Christ. We have seen that new life, and nothing less, was needed. By his death and resurrection, he did no less than bring ‘life and immortality to light’ (2 Timothy 1:10). For in his death he suffered for sin, and removed the barrier to fellowship with God that sin caused, and by his resurrection he showed his triumph over death, physical and spiritual. The forgiveness of sins means the establishment of a right relationship with God and that means new life (Colossians 2:13). Because Christ was raised from the dead, men and women are raised from being dead in sins, and have new life with Christ and in Christ (Romans 6:4–8; 8:11; 2 Corinthians 4:14). The word together, here and twice in the next verse, is given in the Greek by adding the prepositional prefix [syn] to the verb. Often Paul used it to express a union with Christ (Romans 6:6, 8; Colossians2:12; 2 Timothy 2:11–12), and in this case it led him apparently to coin a new word to express the new revelation. The preposition here may also carry the hint of the fact that from whatever racial or national background people have come, they are brought into this new life in Christ in fellowship together, a theme that is developed fully in the next section.