We are living in an age in which each advance in technology overtakes the last in breathtaking rapidity. It’s amazing what we can do now that just a few years ago would have seemed impossible. And it doesn’t look that there is any end in sight. Human progress is seemingly limitless. And yet, with all the improvements in lifestyle, humanity remains inhumane on so many levels. The nightly news hasn’t gotten any better. It seems that what we gain in one area, we lose in another.
Now I’m not saying that I would rather live in the 1950’s. There was inhumanity there, too. It was not the Golden Age so many people think it was, especially if you were an African-American living in the South. In the first half of the twentieth century, history recorded the advance of Nazism and Communism and two World Wars that cost millions of lives. In the second half, we saw the Cold War and a world living under the specter of a nuclear holocaust (which hasn’t gone away to this day). In the twenty-first century, it’s not much better. We have spent most of it fighting a long war against terrorists. There are still wars and rumors of wars. There are still people dying from hunger. There are still people suffering injustice. There are still people living under brutal regimes. In our own country we are watching freedoms we cherished slip away as our culture changes its values. And there is the horror of abortion, which hasn’t gone away and doesn’t look like it will any time soon.
What makes it even worse for followers of Jesus is that in the West we are seeing the decline of Christianity as the culture increasingly embraces its post-Christian identity. As I’ve noted before, we are standing on the other side of Christendom. St. Augustine saw it going up as the Roman Empire went down. We are seeing it go down as a new paganism rises out of the ashes. There are a lot of reasons for Christians to be depressed.
And yet, this is where the realism of the Bible is so helpful. It tells us that the basic reason why technology doesn’t change the inhumanity of man is that technology doesn’t even touch the basic issue. It tells us that no matter when you live, there will always be injustice, inequality, and inhumanity. It reminds us that the past was not a golden age because man essentially was the same then as he is now. And it reminds us that unless our Lord returns, the future isn’t going to erase the fundamental problem with the human race: human depravity and sin.
Inside the realism of Scripture, however, there is also optimism. For the Bible tells us that the fundamental problem with men and women will never essentially get worse. It is not worse now than it was in the past and it will not be worse in the future than it is now. Certainly, its manifestations can be worse at some times and in some places than others. But that does not change the fact that underneath the changing landscape of human tragedy in history, the corruption of the human heart has been constant. The reason for this is, according to the apostle Paul, that mankind is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). You can’t get any worse than dead.
But this is good news because that means that the prescription the Bible gives for human sinfulness is just as good now as it was in the first century. According to Paul, God has extended his power in raising people who are dead in sin up from a spiritual grave to give them new life and new hope. He has just reminded us of the power of God that raised Christ from the dead (1:20), a power that is now at work in believers (1:19). Now, in chapter 2, the apostle is going to remind us that God was at work in us even before we became believers. For being dead in sin, we also needed to be raised from death, and it took the power of God to do it: “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ” (2:4-5). Technology can’t add to the power of God. Human ingenuity can’t add to the power of God. Human advancements of any kind can’t add to the power of God. But God doesn’t need our help in giving new life to those who are spiritually dead. And he is just as powerful today as he was thousands of years ago. “For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed” (Mal. 3:6). In other words, history neither changes our basic need nor the potency of the cure. People need to be saved, and they are saved today exactly as they were 2000 years ago: by God.
However, we need to understand just how desperate our condition is, because unless we do we are never going to see our equally desperate need for God. The words “but God” at the beginning of verse 4 are prefaced by verses 1-3 for good reason. If you are not a believer in Christ, it is important for you to see this because unless you do you will never truly see the need to throw yourself on the mercy and grace of Christ for salvation and life. And it is important for those of us who share the gospel with the lost to know this, because unless we do we will falsely think that evangelism is just applying the right amount of arm-twisting and emotional manipulation to get the lost on board. But people who are lost don’t need to have their arms twisted; they need life, and only God can give that. In other words, we need to see that God is the only one who can truly change and save us, and these verses help us to see that.
To see this then, we need to carefully consider the words of the apostle in the first three verses of this second chapter. There are three basic things that the apostle points to as the condition of men and women in sin. We are dead in sin, we are in bondage to sin, and we are condemned because of sin.
First of all, the apostle describes the human condition as being dead in sin: “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins” (1). This is, in my opinion, one of the most important descriptions of human nature in the Bible. It underlines just how desperate our condition is. We are not just sick. We are not just unhealthy. We are not just weak. We are not just ignorant. We are not just temporarily unresponsive to God. No, by nature, we are dead in sin. And this is a very real state. Paul is not using the language of death and life here in a figurative way, as in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who was said to be dead and then alive again. Rather, this is a very real condition that every one of us is in apart from the grace of God.
Now the apostle is clearly not describing a physical death here. The next few verses show that these people are very much alive. The death is rather a death in sin; it is a spiritual death. Perhaps the best commentary on this phrase is the apostle’s own words in chapter 4, where he described the lost as “being alienated from the life of God” (18). To be dead in sin is to be separated, or alienated, from the life of God.
It is important to see just how we are separated from God. We are not just separated from his fellowship, though that is true. We are not just separated from his favor and blessing, though that is also true. Fundamentally, we are separated from his life. The death that the apostle describes in verse 1 is contrasted with the life that God gives to those he raises from the dead in verse 5. To “quicken” is to give life. We are dead because we are not alive spiritually.
This condition or state is the opposite of what the apostle is talking about in Romans 6. When we become alive in Christ by the grace of God, we move from a state of death in sin into a state of death to sin (Rom. 6:1-6). Paul argues in his letter to the Romans that God’s saving power moves us out of the sphere of sin into the sphere of grace. And his argument is that if you have made this transition, it is simply unthinkable for you to go on living in sin: “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Rom. 6:2). In contrast, those who are dead in sin cannot but live in sin. It is impossible for them to do anything else. By nature, we breathe in rebellion to God like we breathe in air. It is the sphere in which we live. In a state of spiritual death, we are no more responsive to God than a corpse is to a medical doctor.
An implication of this description of humanity as dead in sin is that we are unable to take one step toward God apart from his gracious intervention. This is what our Lord meant when he said, “No man can [is able] to come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (Jn. 6:44). Now that doesn’t mean that we are off the hook for our sin. Our inability to come to Christ is as real as our death in sin, but it is not an inability that takes away our responsibility. Our inability does not lie in a lack of mental or physical furniture. Rather, it lies in a heart that is settled in opposition against God. When our Lord said, “Ye will not come to me that ye might have life” (Jn. 5:40), that word “will” means “desire.” They did not come because they did not want to come. So when Jesus says that no one can come to him, the reason why they cannot is because they will not. But so settled is that “will not” that they will not until God intervenes to give them life and a new heart that desires to come.
Paul uses the same kind of language in Romans 8: “For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (5-8). The apostle clearly believed that men in sin are unable to please God or keep his law. And the reason for this is found in their hostility toward God.
Now some think that a person in this condition can just pick themselves up by their bootstraps. However, the only way a person will turn toward God and his law and his Son is if their heart and will are inclined toward God, his law, and his Son. The apostle is saying that our heart and will are not inclined toward God but against God. Therefore, unless God intervenes, we will remain in a state of death in sin. This is why in Eph. 2:4, the difference between death in sin and life in Christ lies entirely in those two words “but God.” “Even when we were dead in sins” – even when we were in this state of hostility towards God, he moved to give us new life (5).
However, I want to point out again that this is an inability that increases rather than erases our responsibility. It’s not as if people want to come to Christ but are unable. That is not the sort of inability that Paul is talking about. The reality is that people don’t come to Christ because they love darkness rather than light (cf. Jn. 3:19). So it would be an incorrect response to this doctrine to say, “Well, I’m dead in sin, so I’ll just go on living in sin until God picks me up by the scruff of the neck.” Rather, what this ought to do to you is to show you just how desperately you need God and to send you pleading with him for mercy and life. He is the only one who can change you and you need to find him if you are going to find life.
And if you are saved, the effect this ought to have on you is to praise him for the life that you have in Christ. You did not give it to yourself; it was give to you entirely of grace by God. You were in the position spiritually that Lazarus was in physically. He was in the grave, a stinking corpse. Christ comes to the tomb and people are wondering what in the world he could do. He calls out his name: “Lazarus, come forth!” and he comes (Jn. 11:43-44). In the same way, if you are a believer, it is because Christ came to your grave and called your name. He gave you life and he deserves your gratitude and love and praise and worship.
The second thing Paul points to in these verses to describe our spiritual state apart from grace is our bondage to sin (2-3). And there are three areas in which this slavery is manifested. We are enslaved to the world, to the devil, and to the flesh.
First of all, by nature we are slaves to the world: “Wherein in times past ye walked according to the course of this world.” The word “course” literally means “age.” We are generally not bound by previous generations or future ones. What binds and enslaves us is the “present evil world” (Gal. 1:4). The current age or course of this world is what the apostle is speaking to.
We see that happening all around us. People say they are free to think whatever they want, and they celebrate this. But when you inspect what they are thinking, they are really no different from everybody else. They are slaves to the course of this world. It enslaves them through television and YouTube and Facebook and Pinterest and Instagram and Twitter and cable and through a million other inlets into their hearts. It’s even happening to the church in the West. It’s disheartening to see just how fast so many churches and denominations are capitulating to the new morality of our time, ignoring 2000 years of the church’s faithful witness to the Biblical teaching. It shows you just how powerful the enslaving influence of the world can be.
And there would be no escaping it if it were not for the power of God in Christ. However, I love how the apostle prefaces his description of their former condition: “wherein in times past ye walked.” No longer. God had made them free. But that is just the point. It is God who did it. It is God who set them free.
The second enslaving influence was that of the devil: “ye walked . . . according to the prince of the power of the air, [of] the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience” (2). There is no doubt that the apostle is referring to Satan in these words. Though some in the church today are embarrassed by the Biblical insistence that there are demons and a prince of demons, we cannot ignore the clear Biblical teaching that such beings exist and that they are powerful influences in the hearts and minds of those who are lost. In fact, the apostle John states that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 Jn. 5:19, ESV).
This explains why the “course of this world” is so bad. It is bad because the power and glory of all the kingdoms of this world have been given to Satan for a time (cf. Lk. 4:5-6). He rules in the hearts of those who do not know God. Thus, the apostle goes on to describe the devil as not only the prince of the power of the air but also as the prince of the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience. There is a spirit of the age, sinful attitudes which are common to all who do not know the saving grace of Christ. And behind these attitudes is the sinister influence of the devil.
Paul is not saying that the Ephesians had been demon-possessed. No, what he is saying is probably worse: he is saying that they had been blinded by the devil to the glory of God before their conversion (cf. 2 Cor. 4:3-4). And this is the state of every man, woman, and child yet outside of Christ. To be outside of Christ is not to be in some neutral state. You are either under the Lordship of Christ or you are under the dominion of Satan. You are either serving God or the devil, whether you realize it or not. There is no third course.
The last way in which our slavery manifests itself is through bondage to sinful desires: “among whom also we all had our conversation [conduct] in times past in the lust of the flesh, fulling the desires of the flesh and of the mind” (3). Solomon wrote that a three-fold cord is not quickly broken (Eccl. 4:12). Humanity is enrapt in a three-fold cord of sin: the world, the devil, and the flesh. It is not easily broken.
Some people are enslaved to the lusts of the flesh. For instance, like pornography. Young people, do not mess around with this. The world will make light of it and make fun of you if you don’t. But don’t be deceived. It is enslaving. It will ruin your soul and shrivel up your appetite for the life-giving word of God. The apostle Peter was right when he warned: “while they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage” (2 Pet. 2:19). Of course, it doesn’t just have to be porn. The devil is looking for anything to put in your path that will take over your heart and lead you away from God. Beware the lusts of the flesh. Giving into them is like putting a noose around your neck.
Others, however, are enslaved to the lusts of the mind. For them it may not be sex but pride perhaps to which they are in bondage. They are so puffed up with their accomplishments and achievements that life just becomes all about how to do more and to achieve more. Such people are in bondage. They are in bondage to the praise of men. They are in bondage to self-worship; it drives everything they do. Everything becomes about themselves, even as their families slip away and everything truly meaningful in their lives wither and die.
These are just a couple of examples, but they demonstrate just how entangled we become with our sinful desires. They turn us inward and away from God and the gospel. They create destructive habits and patterns of thinking that blind us to that which is truly glorious and good.
And this is where we are apart from the grace of God. It is the condition of all men, not just some: “even as others” (3). Really, that should be translated, “even as the rest [of humankind].” Depravity is universal: “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). There is no one that has escaped this terrible condition. And unless we are raised from this spiritual death, this is where we will remain: in bondage to the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Unfortunately, this is not all the apostle has to say about the human condition. He ends his description by saying that we “were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (3). Now some have argued that “children of wrath” here means that they were angry people before their conversion. But most commentators agree that Paul is referring here not to the wrath of men but to the wrath of God. What makes this even more likely is that Paul appends “of God” to a similar phrase in chapter 5: “Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience” (5:6). In this chapter, Paul also describes them as the “children of disobedience” (2:2) who are under the wrath of God (2:3).
This then is the terrible consequence of sin. It is bad enough to be dead and enslaved, but to be under the wrath of God is unspeakably awful. The author of Hebrews wrote that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
We were this way “by nature.” As Charles Hodge points out, this phrase “always expresses what is natural or innate, as opposed to what is made, taught, superinduced, or in any way incidental or acquired.” In other words, he is saying that we were born this way. We are not born with a blank slate. We were born in a state of sin, and as such we were under condemnation.
This really is an explanation for the state of mankind. Why are all men sinful? Why is depravity so universal? It is because we are by nature the children of wrath. If you want an explanation of this, go to Romans 5. There Paul explains that just as Adam’s sin has brought death to all who are his descendants (which is everybody), in the same way, Christ’s righteousness has brought life to all who belong to him. In other words, Adam’s sin is imputed to those who belong to his family in the same way that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to those who belong to him. We fell in Adam and are made alive in Christ. What we are in Adam, we are by nature, and thus by nature we are children of wrath. What we are in Christ, we are by new nature, and thus we become the children of righteousness and life.
If this were all the apostle had to say, it would be bad news indeed. Thank God therefore for the next two words: “but God.” There is the gospel, and there is our hope. Let all who see the desperateness of their condition come to Christ for healing and forgiveness. God’s wrath is not the whole story, for in the very next verse the apostle announces the love of God that has come to rescue the perishing. Let us all therefore look to him. In him there is fullness of grace to break the power of every enslaving lust, to give us life where we had none, and to free us from condemnation and give us instead righteousness and life.
 See Charles Hodge, A Commentary on Ephesians, p. 58; also John Stott, The Message of Ephesians, p. 71-78.
 Hodge, p. 68.