“Dead in Sin”

Ephesians 2:1-5

October 14, 2001

Text Comment

v.1       Here is one of many places in the Bible in which the spiritual condition of those who are without faith in Christ is represented as death.  Unbelievers are obviously alive physically, emotionally, intellectually, but, at the same time, they are dead. As Paul puts it, they were dead, even while, in the next verse they lived and followed the ways of this world.  These are dead people who are alive and active.   It is a powerful way of describing their spiritual situation, their situation before God, of course, precisely because of the nature of death as separation, disintegration, and hopeless finality.  Already in Eden, God had told Adam that if he ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil he would die.  And he did die, even thought he did not cease to be physically alive in the world.  And from that point onward “life” in the Bible is not understood as existence, pure and simple, and “death” is not understood as annihilation or destruction.  “To be dead” in the Bible is not non-existence but, rather, a condition of inner disintegration, of thorough brokenness as a human being, an existence characterized by a failure to attain to the true purpose, character, and fulfillment of human life, made, as it is, in the image of God.  It is this understanding of death, side by side with the more ordinary meaning of the term, that accounts for countless expressions in the Bible, expressions like Paul’s speaking of the “life worthy to be called life” or the Lord saying to a seeker, “Let the dead bury their dead,” or the sinister sound of the phrase “the second death” in Rev. 20:14.  In none of these cases is death used of the literal passing from physical life, still less of complete destruction and annihilation.   Instead the term is used of a miserable and benighted condition of existence.  “The wages of sin is death…” the Scripture says, and that death is already with people and in people while they remain existing in this world.  In this sense it is possible for the dead, the truly and profoundly dead, to be full of life and activity.  But their existence must lead to ruin and not to the life that is worthy to be called life – that is, it must, unless the grace of God intervenes.  Later on, in 4:18, the same idea is expressed without the use of the term “death.”  Speaking of the unbelieving world, Paul says, “they are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God…”  That is what death means in 2:1.

            This death is both brought about by and characterized by “transgressions and sins.”  It is a moral condition and a moral judgment.

v.3       Unbelievers have a ruler whose will they submit to most willingly.  The reference is to the Devil who reappears by name in 4:27, 6:11, and 6:16.

            “the kingdom of the air” is unusual.  It seems to indicate the lower reaches of the kingdom of the Devil – perhaps as a way of emphasizing the nearness of these evil spirits to us – because elsewhere in the letter, in 3:10 and 6:12 they are also found in the heavenly realms.

            “sinful nature” is the NIV’s characteristic translation for “flesh” which, in Paul, refers to the fallen, the corrupted, the sin-controlled nature of man.   Man in his flesh is displeasing to God and, what is more, cannot please God.

            “objects of wrath” means they were deserving of God’s wrath and subject to it.  In v. 2 they are described as “disobedient” and here as “objects of wrath.”  In 5:6 we read:  “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.”

Paul begins this section by reminding these Christians of what they once were.  This is a community of mostly Gentile believers and they were, virtually to the man, converted to Christ out of a life of unbelief.  These were not people who were raised in godly, believing homes, and trusted the Lord from their earliest days.  These were people who could recollect very easily what their lives were like before they were Christians.  And Paul begins by saying that, at that time, before they became acquainted with Jesus Christ, they were dead in transgressions and sins.  Now that is a statement of fact on Paul’s part, but a highly controversial one to anyone who is not already a Christian.  I would say, in fact, that it is disagreement with Paul at this point that keeps the largest part of the human race from a greater interest in Christianity.  They do not believe that they are dead in their sins and so do not think Jesus Christ nearly so important to their hopes of happiness as Paul thinks he is.  As Joseph Hart has it in one of his poems:

            “What comfort can a Savior bring,

                        To those who never felt their woe.”

Or, as an old early American preacher put the same point,  “Men have need of storms in their hearts, before they will betake themselves to Christ for refuge.”  [Solomon Stoddard in Evans, Daniel Rowland, 36]

And history has demonstrated times without number that once a man realizes, once a woman admits that he or she is dead in transgressions and sins, suddenly Jesus Christ becomes the supremely important and interesting person in all of life.

But, it is not an easy thing to persuade men and women to think this way about their condition, their situation before God.  They are averse to thinking themselves that bad, so bad that they can be described in spiritual terms as dead already.  Many of you have discovered this yourself.  You have perhaps tried to tip-toe around the point, to put it as disarmingly as you could, but still to persuade your friend or neighbor or seat-mate that he or she is dead in sins, and they have not liked you for saying it.  They have resented you, perhaps have even accused you.  “Who are you” they may have asked, “to accuse me of being a sinner, of being evil, of being dead in transgressions and sins?”  Churches that make a point of emphasizing this message tend to be smaller than churches that either conceal it or minimize it.

You know that a hero of mine is the Scottish pastor, Alexander Whyte, who died in 1921.  Whyte’s ministry spanned the period in which Christianity was widely being reconfigured to make it more acceptable to modern tastes.  Sin and the death that sin visits upon human life were increasingly viewed as too negative and depressing topics for the Christian pulpit.  But Whyte, all his ministry long, had wanted to be and considered himself to be a specialist in the study of sin.  And he is a master at exposing us as the sinners that we are, at unmasking the deceit that feeds our pride, and at turning the withering light of God’s law upon the illusions that we maintain about ourselves and our behavior.  In a typical Whyte sermon there are always to be found the haunting strains of the De Profundis and the Miserere

Well, it was becoming obvious to Whyte as his ministry came near to its end – he was at Free St. George’s in Edinburgh for nearly 50 years – that the people who were coming to church were not as interested in hearing about sin and salvation from sin and death as they once were.  They were modern people more and more.  They felt much better about themselves than Christians had in previous days.  They resented the judgments that were always being passed upon their lives from that pulpit.  They wanted to be cheered up, not discouraged with another terrible analysis of human nature in its sinfulness.

And so it was that as one summer holiday drew to its close, Dr. Whyte found himself on long walks wrestling with the question whether he ought to tone down the emphasis on sin and salvation from sin and, instead, concentrate on the happier breezier parts of the Bible’s teaching.  When he returned to his pulpit that early Autumn, he mentioned this mental struggle through which he passed, and in his sermon that morning, he said this:

            “…what seemed to me to be a Divine Voice spoke with all-commanding power in my conscience, and said to me as clear as clear could be: ‘No! Go on, and flinch not!  Go back and boldly finish the work that has been given you to do.  Speak out and fear not.  Make them at any cost to see themselves in God’s holy law as in a glass.  Do you that, for no one else will do it.  No one else will so risk his life and his reputation as to do it.  And you have not much of either left to risk.  Go home and spend what is left of your life in your appointed task of showing My people their sin and their need of My salvation.’  I shall never forget, [Whyte went on] the exact spot where that clear command came to me, and where I got fresh authority and fresh encouragement to finish this part of my work.”  [Barbour, Life of Alexander Whyte, 532]

Whyte’s biographer tells us that people reacted to his sermon in different ways.  One wrote of this “powerful but gloomy sermons on…sin.”  Another said later, “My heart sank as I listened to these words.”  Another, however, before going to bed that night wrote a note thanking her minister for a message that met her most urgent need and which no other preacher could give.”

Whyte, of course, knew himself to be a doctor, responsible for the healing, the life of his patients.  He hated to bring bad news, he never, like some smaller men who have found themselves in the Christian ministry, reveled in preaching sin and the death that comes from sin.  He never had a lurid interest in the sinfulness of human beings.  But no doctor is faithful who, for fear of hurting his patient’s feelings, for fear of depressing him or her, fails to report that the tests have revealed a serious disease that must be treated at once.  Death is in the body and  something must be done.  There are patients who dislike, even hate their doctors for telling them bad news, but rightly we recognize that, in such a case, the doctor was faithful and the patient foolish.

But, that leaves us with the all-important question:  is Paul right when he says that those without Christ are dead in transgressions and sins?  Is his so negative and baleful verdict on human beings accurate?  Has he perhaps overstated the problem for the sake of persuading men and women to take the action that he desires them to take?  Is he guilty of literary hyperbole, a figure of speech run amuck?  Are we really dead if we do not have the righteousness of Jesus Christ?

Well, in some ways, it is very interesting that this doctrine of all the doctrines taught in Holy Scripture and confessed by the Christian church should be so controversial.  For, in truth, it is the only doctrine of the Christian faith that can be verified by simple observation.

The fact is, people are sinful, profoundly, constantly, variously sinful.  People may mock and attack the idea of sin as a holdover from some primitive, pre-scientific age, but it doesn’t make sin any less commonplace or, what is even more important, any less essential to explain what we all see and encounter in human life every day.  People, of course, do not deny the existence of sin per se.  They are even willing to acknowledge its reality in war crimes or social injustice or in particularly perverse instances of human misbehavior.  But they remain largely unwilling to see it in their own lives.  They imagine themselves, not entirely without sin to be sure, but without any dangerous or deadly measure of it.  This is true of almost everyone.  We must remember that the men who built the concentration camps were men who sat enthralled before the music of Wagner and, in many cases, loved their own families tenderly.

People hear the results of the surveys and know that they speak the truth, they just cannot seem to face the facts as they bear on themselves.  Whether we are talking about the 70% of American high school seniors who rated themselves above average in terms of their leadership and the 2% who rated themselves below average; or the 25% who thought themselves in the top 1% in terms of getting along with people while zero per cent rated themselves in the bottom 50%, we know that people have a seriously overrated view of themselves, that they exaggerate what they perceive to be their virtues and strengths and minimize almost to the point of denial their defects and their weaknesses.  This is why 90% of divorced Americans think that their divorce was their spouse’s fault, and 90% of business managers rate their performance above average, and 86% of American workers rate themselves better than average.  Long ago, the Apostle Paul put his finger on this human problem of a wildly inaccurate and self-serving self-evaluation, when he wrote that “They who measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves to themselves are not wise.”

And the further the concept of moral rectitude and ethical absolutes recedes in the public mind, the worse it gets.  While 86% admit to lying regularly to their parents, 75% to a friend, 73% to a sibling, and 73% to a lover, only 11% admit that all of this lying had produced in them any serious level of guilt or embarrassment, what used to be called “shame.”  While 74% now admit that they would steal under the right circumstances, only 9% are bothered by any moral qualms.  Of course, it is no surprise, that only 17% any longer in our country view sin as a violation of God’s will.

But, of course, you don’t have to believe in God to prove sin.  As Paul is quick to point out, the behavior people tolerate in themselves is deeply offensive to the same people when it is committed against them!  They know sin when they see it, unless it happens to be their own.  Which is why, of course, it is one of the most obvious facts of human behavior that people have a higher view of themselves than anyone else does.  Is that not true?  Must we not admit that we are much more in love with ourselves and think ourselves far better people than the people around us do?  And is it not also true that we are constantly, all of us, every human being, constantly hiding the things we think, the desires we have, our past behavior, and often our present behavior, from the view of others, precisely because we know full well that if they were to read our thoughts, or know what we have done in the past, or, even, know what we are doing right now, they would think poorly of us.  They would judge us.  They would condemn us.  We know it, so we keep secrets about ourselves.

The reality of sin is simple realism.  Without it you cannot explain the world in which you live:  the world at large – whether terrorism or broken homes; whether drunkenness or crime; whether alienation or indifference to other human beings – all the behavior that people find in themselves and deeply resent in others.  And it begins at the very beginning.  As the great Augustine observed, no creature is more selfish than the baby in the cot.  “If infants do no injury, it is for lack of strength, not for lack of will.” [Confessions, i, 11]  “To comprehend the antics of adults negotiating a hard-nosed commercial transaction, one need only watch tiny children at play.”  [Henry Chadwick, Augustine, 69]  John Donne only spoke the truth when he spoke of “that spiritual death in which my parents buried me when they conceived me.” 

But we are only beginning the argument, the demonstration that human beings are as profoundly sinful as Paul here says they are.  Is it not also the fact, the undeniable and universally demonstrable fact, that the better someone is, the wiser, the purer, the more loving, the greater his or her disquiet with his or her own life.  The best people know themselves very sinful, selfish, impure, lazy, indifferent toward others, and all the rest.  The fact is, the strongest saints and the strongest skeptics took as their starting point the fact of human evil.  [Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Works, i, 217]  It is simple people, people who are easily satisfied with comforting nostrums, who think people are basically good.

But, important as that observation is, the far more important fact is that God and Jesus Christ paint the same picture of human nature that Paul does and the prophets did before him.  As C.S. Lewis famously put it,

“Christ takes it for granted that men are bad.  Until we really feel this assumption of his to be true, though we are part of the world he came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom his words are addressed.”  [Problem of Pain, 57]

Time after time this fact is stated in Holy Scripture so baldly that it is impossible to mistake the point.  When Paul wants to remind his readers of the fact of human sin and guilt, he simply strings together a representative selection of such statements:

“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God; All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.  Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.  The poison of vipers is on their lips.  Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness… ruin and misery mark their ways…”  [Rom. 3:13-18]

And, truth be told, when Jesus reaffirmed this teaching, he was directing himself most of the time to the most “moral” and the most “religious” part of the population.  According to the Lord Jesus, the people who might be thought to have the most reason to look down on others are even more sinful than those whose sins are crude and obvious and who haven’t the skill to hide them like the religious hypocrites do.  He said on a number of occasions that he had come to heal not the whole but the sick and that he had come to save not the righteous but the unrighteous, by which he meant, of course, not that there were righteous people who didn’t need saving, but that so long as one thought of himself as righteous and able to save himself, Jesus Christ would be of no use to him.  It is to the weary and heavy-laden that he addressed his call, and those were people who had been made weary and been burdened precisely by the recognition that they were bad, that there was so much in them that was wrong, and they couldn’t escape their inner bondage to evil.  They were vain, selfish, impure, and they couldn’t do anything about it!  That is weariness and burden indeed!

And, really, it is even worse than that.  It is not just that they have found themselves sinful, that they recognize that they are in many ways and all the time so much less than they ought to be.  That they don’t even begin to rise to their own standards, the standards by which they judge the behavior of others.  No, even more than that, they have finally come to admit about themselves that they are willfully sinners, they love sin.  They may hate its consequences, like the drunk hates his hangover or the criminal hates jail.  But they love the sin.  They give themselves to it, they run to it, they think about the next time they can commit it, they recollect it with pleasure in their minds.  And in all of this they do not care about God or God’s will or God’s righteous judgment.

And we are still not done.   The crowning argument in this demonstration of the sinfulness of human beings is that Jesus Christ came into the world solely, for no other reason than to rescue human beings from the death and doom into which they had pitched themselves by their sins.  The angel, in announcing his birth, said “He shall save his people from their sins.”  He himself said later, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give himself a ransom for many.”  A ransom is the price that has to be paid to buy someone out of bondage.  That is what human beings are:  bondslaves and their slavery is to sin as Paul says so often and Jesus before him.

You cannot make sense, any sense, of the greatest thing in the world, the love of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ – his suffering, death, and resurrection – unless you accept that human beings could be saved in no other way, they could rise to eternal life in no other way, than by someone becoming sin for them, someone bearing their sins in his own body on the cross, someone taking away the guilt of their sins by bearing the punishment of those sins in their place.  That was the errand of the Lord Jesus in this world.

Are people without Christ dead in sins?  Of course they are!  But, remember my friends, Paul is not out to depress you about yourself.  That isn’t his purpose at all.  He is reminding these Christians how great and wonderful is the salvation that they received as a free gift from God through Jesus Christ.  How utterly different is their situation now than what it was.  How beautiful their future in comparison to their past!  Nothing is more important than that Christians should understand how great is the power and the love that brought life to them.  His reminding them of their situation in sin is designed to lead them to a joyful appreciation of how far they have been brought and how they could never and would never have taken this journey if left to themselves.  Verses 4 and 5 and those that follow are proof positive that Paul is the furthest thing from pessimistic or morbid.  He mentions their previous situation, their death in sin, because he wants them to remember how great was the power that lifted them up so high from down so deep.

Christian teaching is not only realistic it is the only truly hopeful teaching there is.  It tells the truth about the human situation when almost no one else will; it faces squarely the real facts of the situation, the real problem that human beings all share.  But it also tells us how that problem is solved, wonderfully, eternally, beautifully solved.  Here is the truth and here is the truth that sets men free.  However bad you may be in yourself, and you are bad – there can be no evading that fact – Jesus Christ is greater than your sin.

Or, as the 17th century Puritan, Richard Sibbes, put it, “There is more mercy in Christ than sin in us.”  For that reason, “there can be no danger in thorough dealing [with ourselves].  It is better to go bruised to heaven than sound to hell.”  So, he went on to say, let’s not be unwilling to face the unhappy truth about ourselves and to keep facing it, “until sin be the sourest, and Christ the sweetest, of all things.”  [Works, i, 47-48]