The passage in Ephesians 2 starts off highlighting our need for a Savior.
And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you formerly lived … and were by nature children of wrath … (Eph 2:1-3 NET)
Paul addresses the Ephesians as those who were dead. In doing so he leaves the reader hanging.
This chapter, as noted in the translation notes in the NET, starts off with an incomplete sentence. The participle finds its completion in verse 4 and 5 where we learn that we are “made alive together with Christ”.
What does Paul mean by the term “dead”?
Some possibilities include:
- physical death
- spiritual death
- the natural inability to do good or respond to the gospel
As we consider these possibilities we can eliminate physical death. Why? Because, like the man in the classic scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail, the readers, at the time of writing, are still physically alive.
Those Paul wrote this letter to had not been physically dead in the past and then later raised, like say Lazarus or the man who fell out of the window listening to Paul preach. Further, those addressed in this letter, as well as those who read it today, will physically die at some point. It doesn’t make much sense for Paul to say of these people – or of us – you were physically dead since we were not.
Inability to do good?
Some interpreters understand Paul to be referring to our fallen inability to do good. However, the passage reads that we are dead in our trespasses. It is not our sinning that results in our having an inability to do good. It is our fallen inability that results in our sinning. And the result of our sinning is our death.
After Paul lists a series of sins in Romans 1, he writes in verse 32:
those who practice such things deserve to die
Here we see that death is deserved by those who sin. Later in chapter 6 Paul probes his readers and asks if they know that sin results in death (6:16):
Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin resulting in death or obedience resulting in righteousness?
And, in a more well known passage in chapter 6, Paul writes again that all who sin earn death.
For the payoff (wages) of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 6:23)
It does not seem that Paul had in view here are fallen inability but rather the spiritual death that is due to all sinners.
When Paul says we are dead in our trespasses he is referring to our being spiritually dead. Even though we are physically alive, outside of Christ, we are considered spiritually dead (1 Tim 5:6).
[we are] dead even while [we] live
In Romans 6:23 we also see that “death” is being contrasted with “life”, specifically eternal life in Christ. In this contrast we should understand the death Paul means as being the opposite of having eternal life.
This contrast of death and life can also be seen in other Pauline passages (Rom 8:2; 2 Tim 1:10) as well as in our passage in Ephesians, where we find dead in trespasses being contrasted with being made alive in Christ (Eph 2:5).
Eternal life, according to John 17:3, is knowing the true God. Spiritual death then is not knowing God. It is being without God in this world (Eph 2:12). In John 5:24, we also see eternal life is the removal of condemnation.
When we describe someone as being spiritually dead we need to recognize there is both an already and a not yet aspect to it. We are already, as sinners outside of Christ, spiritually dead and considered an enemy of God (Eph 2:12; Rom 5:8-10). However, there is a future (not yet) aspect of spiritual death in which we will be condemned and the wrath of God will be poured out on all who are not in Christ (John 3:18, 36; Rom 2:5; Colossians 3:6; 1 Thess 1:10).
This is why the Scriptures can describe unbelievers as those who “are perishing” (2 Cor 2:15, 4:3) as well as those who “will perish” (Rom 2:12; John 3:16). In this sense we, as unbelievers, are like the man in the Monty Python scene. We can say, “I’m not dead”, but we “will be soon”.
When Paul describes people who are in Christ as those who were dead, he is reminding us that we are spiritually dead in neither the already nor the not yet sense. We are no longer (already) without God and without hope (Eph 2:12) and we will no longer (not yet) face condemnation (Rom 8:1).
We are either dead in trespasses or we are alive in Christ.
When we hear and believe the good news, we are placed in Christ. This transaction is described in John 5:24 as passing from death into life. That is why Paul can say to the Ephesians, and by extension all believers, you were dead but you are made alive.
There is an already but not yet aspect to being made alive as well. We, like in the example of perishing, can be considered as having been blessed with every spiritual blessing (Eph 1:3) and be reckoned as alive, raised, and seated with Christ (Eph 2:4-5) even though we still have not experienced these things yet. Why? Because God, who promised them, is faithful (Heb 10:23).
We are predestined to adoption as children of God in Christ (Eph 1:5). In an already sense it can be said that we are children of God (Rom 8:16) and at the same time (not yet) that we must wait for our adoption because we don’t have it yet (Rom 8:23-25; 2 Cor 5:2). We also see this in John 5:24 where we read that the believer “has eternal life” and yet in Titus 3:7 that we “have the hope of eternal life”.
When we are placed in Christ through faith, it is the Spirit that we receive. He indwells us and is our pledge of these and so many more great promises (Rom 8:15; 2 Cor 5:5; Eph 1:13-14). And it is the Spirit that will empower us to walk worthy of our calling, a major theme in the book of Ephesians, and not as we once did (Eph 4:1,17).
But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ … for by grace you are saved through faith