“Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else” (Eph. 2:1-3).
“Well, I’m afraid I have some bad news.” Never words we want to hear from a doctor — especially an oncologist looking over our latest test results. “I’m afraid its terminal,” is even worse.
The Apostle Paul is a trained spiritual doctor, and Ephesians is in many ways humanity’s lab results he’s now trying to explain to us. As much as we try to wish it away, or reinvent a more digestible version of Christian faith, if we are willing to trust the Bible and the Great Physician’s word, our diagnosis begins with some devastating news. And it’s terminal. Our condition, according to this passage, was leading us to our eventual death. “What is it, doc? Cancer?” we ask. “No, even worse,” he replies. “Worse? What could possibly be worse than terminal cancer?” we protest.
“I’m afraid it’s SIN,” Dr. Paul says.
Well, in this passage he is speaking in past-tense, already celebrating the life-saving remedy he’ll spend most of the letter celebrating — and urging us to embrace and trust!
Without Christ’s regenerating Spirit at work in us, Paul would say we are dead in our sins! We may appear to be walking, talking, raising a family and carrying on just fine in our lives, but Paul would say there’s still a core part of us that is unresponsive, comatose, dead. We may be physically alive and well; but is that deeper part of our being — spirit, soul — alive and receptive to the things of God? Jesus said something similar to a well-meaning but misguided religious leader in John 3: You cannot “see the kingdom of God”, that is, grasp or understand the things of God unless you are “born from above/again,” and that requires a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.
This is extremely offensive to our self-determined egos. This pulls the rug out from under all attempts at a merely moralistic religion of good deeds, and the popular notion that God just wants us to live good, honest lives and do good to others. No, people need a heart transplant. People need to experience the “new birth.” Without a supernatural awakening whereby our fallen, fleshly nature begins to be regenerated by God’s Spirit, we are all still under the influence of the Devil, enduring the toxicity of the sin-cancer eating away our souls, and fighting the relentless pressures of the unregenerate powers of the fallen world’s systems.
Next, we see in verse 3 that our default setting as human beings is prone toward unhealthy desires and cravings. Left to our own devices, we will typically choose to gratify our fallen nature, rather than choose what is good, selfless, holy and God-honoring. This view of human nature again is extremely countercultural. We live in a society that assumes that we should “be true to ourselves” and if “I was born this way” it must be ok with God.
I’m afraid the Bible paints a gloomier picture of human nature and God’s creation. Something went wrong. Everything is marred by the pervasive presence of sin. Things are not as God originally intended — from nature, to the animal kingdom, genetic codes, and our heart’s desires.
Tom Petty may sing approvingly that “She’s gonna listen to her heart, its gonna tell her what to do,” but the Bible sings, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9) and so we should certainly not listen to it and let it tell us what to do. That would be to continue “following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature” (v. 3) and heeding the influence “the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God” (v. 2a).
Will we believe the Bible’s diagnosis of the human condition? Or continue hoping things are not quite as bad as Paul says?
Hang in there! There is very good news coming around the corner in the next verse!
Read previous posts in this verse-by-verse devotional study of Ephesians HERE.