Understanding Ephesians 2
Previously, in our Understanding Series we have examined passages and concepts which have been misunderstood or those interpretations based upon a faulty premise, while seeking to reveal the clear meaning of Scripture. As we read Scripture it is critical we do so with clear eyes, not reading a presupposition into the text but letting the text speak for itself.
Today, we will continue this effort as we examine the second chapter of Paul's epistle to the Ephesians, with an emphasis on some often misunderstood verses.
“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.” Ephesians 2:1-3
As Viewed Through Roman Tradition
If you come to Christ by way of Roman Catholicism or the Protestant movement which sprung from it, then it is almost a certainty that you approach this passage in a very specific way. That is, given your particular church tradition you begin with an extra-Biblical Augustinian presupposition and assume this passage is addressing Original Sin or Total Depravity, allowing no room for any alternative understanding.
So it is this premise you take to the text and this doctrine you begin with, rather than beginning with Scripture itself.
This is a difficult thing to perceive and is akin to being raised believing red is blue, so every time you see the color red you call it blue. When a friend questions you or seeks to correct you they are initially regarded as insane. So too are those of us who base our beliefs on classic orthodox Christianity, pre-Augustine – we are often regarded as being in error, insane, unsaved and promptly dismissed. However, if you are willing to consider such passages exegetically, you will find red is red and Scripture often says something very different than what you have been taught to read into it.
The Wrong Understanding
If you come to Christ from such a Western tradition then you read Ephesians 2:1-3 as this:
As a result of Adam’s sin all mankind is born stained by sin and doomed from the womb. Depending on whether you affirm Original Sin or Total Depravity you may elaborate more on this point – but regardless, it is here you begin.
Consequently, you and everyone else are born with a nature deserving wrath.
It is this nature which causes you to live according to the passions of the flesh and desires of the body.
You are evil, a rebellious child of the devil.
You are dead as a result of Adam’s sin and trespasses.
It is this presupposition which causes you to read the passage, but understand it out of order, reading a doctrine into the text and thus misunderstand it in its entirety.
In nearly every case, those of us who have come from Roman Catholicism or Protestantism have been guilty of this erroneous understanding. Like Scripture says, you raise a child in the way it should go and when it is older it will not depart. We likewise have been indoctrinated to approach this text in such a way so it is very difficult to let the text speak for itself.
What Does it Mean to be Dead?
It is often asserted that when Scripture says we are dead in sin that this “spiritual death” is exactly like being physically dead. During such discussions it is not unusual to hear a reference being made to our total inability and the example of Lazarus in the tomb - and internet religious forums are abounding in such memes. However, contextually it is clear this is NOT like physical death. So the question then is what sort of death is this and what does this mean for our understanding of God, man, sin and righteousness?
Translated in verse 1 as “dead”, the term νεκροὺς certainly can be literal and refer to a dead body, but we also see in passages such as Luke 15:32 that it can figuratively refer to the death of relationship with God, that is to say a path that if not abandoned will inevitably end in physical death and judgment.
“It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” Luke 15:32
We see in the example given by Jesus that the son was dead in relationship to his father, and had he never repented he would have died without ever being restored. Yet, in Luke 15:17 this rebellious and “dead” son came to his senses and determined to return to his father. In verses 18 and 19 we see exactly how repentant this headstrong son is and the story concludes with the Father graciously restoring his once wayward son in love.
Such a view of God is not unique to the New Testament, as in Isaiah 55:7 we see God call to the wicked and unrighteous to repent and return to Him as He promises to freely forgive them and in Ezekiel 18 we are given an example of the two ways – one of life and one of death with a call to choose the way of life, a sentiment echoed in the Didache.
Letting Scripture Speak
Rather than beginning with the assumption that the text is teaching Original Sin and/or Total Depravity, look what happens when we simply let the text speak for itself:
You, a believer in Christ, were dead in your own trespasses and sins – not like physical death, but dead relationally just as the Prodigal Son was dead to his Father after his departure into rebellion.
You, a believer in Christ, once walked away following the course of this world – following the devil himself into disobedience.
You, a believer in Christ, once lived like the rest of the world, serving the appetites of the body and developing a nature deserving wrath.
The Passions of Our Flesh
This phrase found in verse 3 is often assumed to be a reference to an inherited sinful nature all mankind receives courtesy of Adam. However, if we again consider the matter exegetically we see this to be something else altogether.
In Ephesians 2:3 we read of the desires of the flesh, ἐπιθυμίαις τῆς σαρκὸς, that is to say the appetites of the body, those things willed of the flesh, θελήματα τῆς σαρκὸς. This is not a reference or nod to Original Sin and Total Depravity but rather speaking of those who have given themselves over solely to gratifying their God given appetites... To hunger is not sin, but to be driven by hunger into gluttony is – to experience sexual desire is not sin, but to lust and engage in sex outside of marriage is. Here we see Scripture speaking to those who have given themselves over to gratifying such appetites.
Children of Wrath by Nature
Hebraistically, and metaphorically, one is called a τέκνα (son, child, inhabitant) of anything they are addicted to, or possessed by an affection for.
The Greek term φύσει translated as “by nature” can refer to the natural order, as well as our origin, but in this context we see that this is a mode of feeling and acting which by long habit has become our nature.
This passage is commonly assumed (presupposed) to be a reference to Original Sin and Total Depravity, however contextually we see this is a nature developed by gratifying the appetites of the body – not an inherited sinful nature, but one nurtured by the one engaged in trespasses.
The Greek term ὀργῆς, translated as wrath, comes from ὀργάω and denotes an internal motion, especially that of plants and fruits swelling with juice. So here we see that wrath is not the natural state of these sinners, but that by their sin and trespasses they are swelling up wrath – the fruit of their sin.
Conviction of Sin
Yes, Ephesians 2 says it is YOU who committed trespasses and sins - Adam is not being addressed in this passage – YOU are the one who sinned and the one who developed your sin nature and YOU who by your sin were bearing fruit deserving wrath.
The writer of Ephesians is not making an excuse for our sins and seeking to blame Adam, but rather rightly attribute your sins to you.
The Merciful God
“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.” Ephesians 2:4-7
We see God is rich in mercy, loving us, even when we were dead in our trespasses. The incarnation did not enable God’s love for us, nor did it enable God’s ability to forgive us. No, the incarnation was the very embodiment of God’s love and forgiveness!
Another Misunderstood Passage
As we continue onward through Chapter 2 we encounter yet another passage which is often misunderstood.
“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.” Ephesians 2:8-9
In a certain sense it can be said that faith is a gift in that had God not come in the flesh, like us in every respect to live, die and rise – thus redeeming us, we would have no Lord to effectively believe in and trust for forgiveness of sin or a future resurrection.
However, various arguments have been invented over the years stating that faith – that is the ability itself to believe in God - is the gift of God, given exclusively to those few elect whom He predestined to salvation before the foundation of the world. This interpretation of the passage is intended to keep the extra-Biblical presuppositions espoused in Calvinism while still holding on to Scripture. The problem then becomes what do you do with Scripture to ensure it stays in harmony with your philosophy? Either Scripture will straighten out your philosophical presuppositions or your philosophy will distort Scripture to better resemble itself, and thus Scripture is reduced to mere window dressing intended to give the appearance of legitimacy.
Such a deterministic interpretation is taught from Reformed pulpits and in Calvinist seminaries, books, radio and television programs and is impossible to avoid. Consequently, even those who do not consider themselves to be Calvinist have to varying degree been exposed to and potentially incorporate such an understanding into their own views on God.
This approach is rooted in fatalism, sometimes referred to as determinism. For under such a philosophy the adherent cannot fathom that God is God unless He causes all things. We recently addressed this error in our Article What is God’s Sovereignty? Interestingly enough, even John Calvin would be in disagreement with such an interpretation of this passage as he himself understood the “gift” to be “salvation”.
Considering the grammar employed here in Ephesians 2:8, faith (πίστεως) is a feminine form, whereas gift (δῶρον) is neuter – so the gift cannot in this context be a reference to faith. The way the passage is constructed requires that salvation (σεσῳσμένοι) is the gift being referred to. Thus the gift of salvation is by God’s grace (χάριτί) through our faith, our fidelity (πίστεως).
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” 1 Corinthians 9:24
This is why we see the phrase “so that no one may boast.” Our fidelity, our trust in God does not save us in that we are effectively saving ourselves by some work of faithfulness, but our persistent trust – running the race - is the condition God graciously gave by which He extends the gift of salvation.
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:10
One in Christ
“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands - remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Ephesians 2:11-22
We see that the author of Ephesians is stressing the origins of the Christian Church within the history of the people of Israel. Such statements are intended to demonstrate that the Christian faith is a fulfillment of the Old Testament.
These Gentiles by birth are recipients of the peace which God brought into the world through Christ. There is no longer a dividing wall between the Hebrews and Gentiles because through His incarnation, death and resurrection Christ abolished the law of commandments expressed in ordinances. Such a reference to the law is not God’s law of love (Matthew 5:17-20) – which is to Love God and love others, but rather addressing all the Levitical ordinances intended to reveal the Israelites as God’s peculiar people through which the redemption of mankind would come.
Although Ephesians 2 is often misunderstood, an honest and exegetical examination of this passage of Scripture reveals that it is addressing our own personal sins and our self-developed natures in bondage to our sins which condemn us - not some mythical inherited condition. While this realization should serve to convict us of our sins and need for forgiveness, the passage continues on to address that wonderful truth of Scripture - God loves us and in His mercy has made us one in Christ, promising eternal life for all who return and remain in Him.