by The Rt. Rev. Daniel R. Morse
In the first three verses of Ephesians 2, Paul tells us what the human condition is. He tells us how sinful we are, and he does that to set the stage for describing the inestimable grace of God. Let us look at the human condition, and in the next sermon we will look at the grace of God in contrast with that.
There are many reasons for people today to be very depressed. In some senses the world we live in is a very depressing world. Our human condition, in some ways, is very, very depressing. I do not mean to put you under a cloud of doom and gloom, but we do need to be realistic about our situation. We have to say that there are truly many reasons to be discouraged and depressed. Jesus Christ does not make us into those who act as if everything is a bed of roses. No, we are realistic. Jesus Christ opens our minds and our eyes to the reality of our situation.
But while we say that there are many reasons to be depressed, we also know that everyone wants to be happy. I have never met anyone who says that he really wants to be sad and depressed, and that he is doing everything he can to make himself that way. People want to be happy.
We look at inflation, and unemployment, and we say that those things are bad. But we try to construct some way of looking at economics that will make us happy and will enable us to see rosy days ahead economically. That may not be true, but we like to make up stories that will make us hopeful.
Or we think of social conflict and see that there is racism, disintegration of the family, an absence of moral guidelines, and other elements of social conflict. We say that the situation is very depressing. But every now and then you can read an article in the newspaper that says things are really better than they ever were. Don’t long for the good old days, because the good old days really were not so good after all.
Some people look at the Bible and say, “That is what the Bible is. The Bible is just stories that make up a cheery atmosphere, but the world really isn’t that way at all. The Bible would lead you to believe that every bit of life is a bowl of cherries and that if you would only come to Jesus you would be happy all the time. The Bible really isn’t very realistic,” they say.
But right here in this passage, St. Paul is more realistic than most people would like for him to be. Paul tells us in the first three verses of Ephesians 2 that we have to go down into the deepest depths of the human condition before we are prepared to have a true picture of what is good. We must look directly into the face of the horror of the human condition and of ourselves as sinners before we are ready to appreciate the grace of God.
This applies to every single person. When St. Paul describes the human condition, he is not talking about those people “out there somewhere” who are not quite as religious and not quite as educated as we are. What Paul says in Ephesians 2:1-3 applies to every single one of us. He says in verse 3, “We were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.” St. Paul is painting a very dark backdrop against which he is going to show the beauty of God’s grace in all its shining brilliance.
First of all, consider that Paul tells us that we were dead. Secondly, he says that we were slaves. We were not only dead, we were dead slaves. And then thirdly, Paul tells us that we were not only dead, and we were not only dead slaves, but we were condemned dead slaves.
I. We Were Dead
This is a statement of fact regarding everyone who is not a Christian. Paul is not trying to find some very insulting words so he can make everybody feel bad. He is giving a statement of fact. And first of all, he traces this statement of fact to our trespasses. In verse 1 he says, “You were dead in trespasses.” The word trespass means “a false step; to go in the wrong direction; to step off of the right way; to cross over a known boundary.”
Here is the picture: You are going down a road, and you come to a sign that says “No Trespassing, Violators will be prosecuted.” You stand there and read the sign, and then you take your wire cutters and cut the fence. You walk right past the sign and start hunting or fishing on the other person’s property. It is not that you just made a mistake without knowing about it. The sign told you which way to go, and you took a false step and went across a known boundary. You said, “I will purposely violate the law.”
Now that is a negative concept. The Word of God tells you the way that you are to go, but instead of going in that direction you say, “I will go in the other direction. I commit myself to a pathway of violating the known commands of God.”
Paul also traces our deadness in sin to the sins that we have committed. Technically speaking, there is a difference between trespass and sin. When Paul uses the word sin here, what he has in mind is “missing the mark.” An example might help to show the difference: You are on an archery range with a bow and arrow. You are trying to hit the target, but the arrow does not even come close. That is what sin is: missing the mark. But what if you are not looking at the target? What if you see the sign that says “Shoot downrange only,” and you turn around and shoot the nearest woman that you can find? That is a trespass. When you turn around and do the opposite of what the law says, you are trespassing. Sin is when you try to do what is right, but you miss the mark.
The Bible is covering the whole human condition. It is not just that we openly violate the Law of God. There are some people who say, “I’m trying as best I can. I’m trying to go in the right direction.” But the Bible says that even when we try to do our best, we miss the mark. That is pretty bad.
Before God we are both rebels against his Law and failures at doing what is right. That is what St. Paul means when he says that we are dead. We are completely alienated from God.
But non-Christians do not seem to be dead. In fact, they appear to be very lively. They win sporting events. They have lots of money. They seem to be very smart people. Some are movie stars. Are these people dead? They are breathing.
The Bible says that they are dead because they are blind to the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and they are deaf to the voice of Jesus Christ. They have no love for God, and no desire to please him. They have no longing for fellowship with his people and could not care less about the Church. For all intents and purposes they are as unresponsive to God and to his concerns as a corpse would be. You might as well walk into a morgue and offer free ice cream to the first ten who will get up and ask for it.
And the tragedy of it all is that those who were created specifically by God and for God’s glory are now trying to live without him. They are trying to live as if God makes no difference whatsoever. They are dead to God.
II. We Were Slaves
We might think that being dead is bad enough. And it IS bad. I remind you that my purpose is not to depress you, nor was that St. Paul’s purpose. The purpose is to give us a realistic view of ourselves so that we will have a greater appreciation of the grace of God. In response to the question isn’t that bad enough? the answer is no, because it is not realistic yet. It is still too optimistic to say that we are dead in our sins and trespasses.
St. Paul goes on to tell us that we were enslaved to our sin. Paul says in verse two, “In which”— that is, in your trespasses and sin— “you once walked.” That is, it was the manner of your life to live in that way. You were enslaved to those things. St. Paul does not want us to have the idea that without Jesus Christ we are just on a pleasant stroll through life, a walk. No, he wants us to understand that we were in bondage beyond our control. We were enslaved to our sin.
He says first of all that we walked, according to the course of this world, this evil age in contrast with the age that Jesus Christ introduced. That is the Kingdom of Light, the Kingdom of the Son of God. He ushers his dear children into that Kingdom of freedom— freedom from sin, freedom from guilt, freedom from the power of sin, freedom and ability to do what pleases God, and what makes us happy. In contrast to that way of life, Paul says, “You were enslaved to the course of this world.” Paul wants us to think of the whole value system of the world that is built up without any reference to God.
Then he goes on to say that our walk was “According to the prince of the power of the air.” We lived according to the mandates and the desires of the prince of the power of the air. Now who is that? It is none other than Satan. It is not fashionable to say that you believe in a personal devil, but of course it is the Devil himself who makes it unfashionable to believe in him. That is his way of dominating the spirit of non-Christians.
Then St. Paul says that we also walked according to the lusts of the flesh. The rule for our society has become “If it feels good, do it” or “If it feels right, It must be right.” So we are told to follow our feelings, the passions of our sinful flesh.
Now there is nothing wrong with your bodily desires. There is nothing wrong with enjoying good food. There is nothing wrong with having enough sleep and enjoying your sleep or with lying in bed half awake in the morning and reveling in the fact that you still have another hour to go before you have to get up. But there is something wrong with gluttony, there is something wrong with sloth and laziness, and there is something wrong with lust. Sin causes us to take things that are good and make them bad.
In this phrase St. Paul also includes the passions of the mind: pride, ambition, rejection of God’s truth, and malicious and vengeful thoughts. There are many, many ways in which we can sin, not only in the sinful passions of our bodies, but also in the sinful passions of our minds as we reject God and his truth over and over again in many ways. So Paul says that we were dead and we were dead slaves.
III. We Were Condemned
St. Paul says that we were by nature children of wrath. Now who is the one who has this wrath? It is not Satan. Satan is not the Lord of punishment. It is God who is the Lord of punishment. It is God who brings his just judgment upon those who reject mercy. St. Paul say’s that we were dead slaves who were condemned as children of wrath. It is very important for us to understand that when Paul speaks in this way he is not going off into a fit of dramatic: fire and brimstone. Paul is not saying these things just to scare people. Paul is giving statements of fact, and he says that as a matter of fact those dead slaves are under the wrath of God.
God’s wrath is not a bad temper. God does not have a problem with a bad temper. I may have a problem with that, and you may have a problem with that, but God does not. When God’s wrath is poured out upon the world and upon wicked human beings, it is not because God is succumbing to the temptation of a bad temper. But that makes this even worse. If God just for a moment gave in to a fit of bad temper and apologized later, then we could say that things are not so bad.
But Paul wants us to understand that the wrath of God is God’s settled, determined, reasoned hatred for everything that is contrary to his nature and his Word. And God never changes his settled, determined opinion about that.
When we understand that, we begin to understand what an awful condition we are in. The problem is not just that sinners hate God and are rebelling against God. The remedy is not just for sinners to change their minds and come back to God and decide to love Jesus. That is not the point. The point is that God has deep-seated hatred against sin, and that is what needs to be changed. That is what needs to be removed from sinners. Until that is dealt with, there is no hope for you and me. We are under God’s condemnation.
The wrath of God is entirely predictable. It is not the whim of a moment. It is entirely personal. It is not just some deterministic machine that operates at random. It is God’s personal, righteous, and constant hostility to everything that is evil. It is God’s settled refusal to compromise. It is God’s resolve to condemn evil in every form.
Now you might say, “That doesn’t sound like the God of the Bible, at least the God of the New Testament. The God I worship is a God of love, and what you are talking about is incompatible with God’s love.” But as a matter of fact, it is very compatible with God’s love because God loves righteousness. God is perfectly and positively righteous. There is no wickedness in God. He hates wickedness, and he loves righteousness. And it is just because God loves righteousness so intensely, so infinitely, that he has such a settled hatred against all wickedness. It was God’s love of righteousness that caused him to send his Son Jesus Christ into the world to make us righteous. He hated our sins so much that he poured out his wrath upon his own Son to make us righteous. God so loved the sinful world that he gave his only begotten Son to bear the punishment deserved by us.
He says in verse five: “When we were dead in trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ. (By grace you have been saved.)” Paul makes this contrast, and he wants to make the contrast as extreme as he can. He wants us to understand how far down in sin we are and how great our condemnation is. By nature we are children of wrath. But by the grace of God we have been made alive and we have been made children of God.
In the next sermon we will look at the grace of God, but in preparation for that I want you to understand what a hopeless condition we were in until God went forth in all his power and grace to redeem us from that terrible condition, to draw us up out of that pit, and to set our feet on the solid ground of the Rock, Jesus Christ our Savior.