Bring Out Your Dead (A look at Death in Ephesians 2)

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)

Eric-Idle-Monty-Python-Holy-Grail-bring-out-deadPaul 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

Physical Death?

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.

Spiritual Death?

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).

Made alive!

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

9 thoughts on “Bring Out Your Dead (A look at Death in Ephesians 2)

  1. As a short takeaway/clarification, you would see reasoning about the nature/order of regeneration as being incorrectly based on the view that in Eph 2 death is inability?

    I’ve always felt like the argument that “a dead body can’t bring itself to life” was overextending Paul’s metaphor to support a specific doctrinal position.

    • True. I don’t really see Paul trying to teach or even allude to inability here – even though I do accept that doctrine in general. So I would see attempts to build a doctrine about the order of salvation, or whether grace is or is not resistible based on the opening of Eph 2 (and its implied inability) as using the wrong passage to make that case.

      I agree with your assessment that the “dead people can’t” analogy used to support the idea that regeneration must precede faith is rather weak. The standard reply to this (since it is often used) is – “a dead body can’t sin either”. 😉

  2. When I think of this passage from Ephesians I automatically connect it to the story of the Prodigal Son as the Father describes his son as being “dead” and now “alive”. To my mind this suggests that (at least part of) what it means to be alive means to be in loving communion with the Father, having the covenantal, family bonds restored.

    • Connecting the Eph 2 passage to the one in parable Luke is a good observation. The idea of the Prodigal who was lost/dead and without God until he returned certainly meshes with what Paul is saying here.

      I would agree with you that part of being alive is reconciliation with God. This, in my understanding, would primarily fall under the “already” aspect of salvation, with a greater fulfillment @ Christ’s return.

  3. Good thoughts. What do I think? I think there’s another way to see it that is perhaps more likely to be correct, which is this:

    “Death” and “life” are best understood as simply death and life, in the way that all humans know about death and life.

    As the early-Christian Didache says, there is a way of life and there is a way of death. The wicked are on the way of death (or that leads to certain death), and the righteous in Christ are on the way of life (leading on to certain/eternal life).

    Jesus and Paul (and we) can speak of those on the way of death as being dead, which may mean “as good as dead” or “practically dead” or “destined for death”. For example, Paul wrote that “the body is dead because of sin” (Rom 8:10ff), but he surely meant that the body is certain to one day die. It’s a form of prolepsis (“the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished”).

    So we were dead (or destined for death) in sin (or because of sin), but when we put our faith in God and Christ, we are moved by God to “the way” (Jesus) of/to life, such that we pass from death to life.

    There is “an already but not yet aspect” to this way of looking at it too such that we can say that the wicked are dead, and are perishing, and finally will actually perish/die (the “the second death” of Rev 20).

    I prefer this view, since it’s not necessary to introduce the phrase/idea of “spiritual death”. Paul wrote about spiritual songs, persons, food, blessings, and gifts (etc.), but he did not write about “spiritual death” to my knowledge, so it’s not clear to me that he had that concept in mind. (It actually strikes me that it might have seemed like an oxymoron to him.)

  4. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

    I have read through your comment a few times. Other than your objection to the term “spiritual death”, I am not quite sure I understand the difference between your observations and what I wrote.

    I agree with you that unbelievers are “destined to death”. That was Paul’s main point. The Ephesians were on the path to death (ie condemnation, perishing, the 2nd death of Rev). And now that the Ephesians were in Christ they were on the path of life and “destined to eternal life”.

    However, I don’t see this future death and life as the same as the physical death and life we experience now. That is what allowed Paul to write in 1 Tim 5:6

    [we are] (destined to be) dead even while [we] physically live

    And Jesus could say (John 11:25)

    he who believes in Me will be destined to live even if he physically dies,

    Perhaps you can elaborate more on your view and what I may be missing.

    • Hi, and thanks for the response.

      I think you stated our difference better than I was able to, which is this: I think that the future death and life (post-resurrection/judgment, I mean) will probably be the same sort of life and death that we experience now. It will, I’m pretty sure, be different in degree but probably not in kind. (The verses you reference do not seem to contradict this notion.)

      Anyway, I agree that there’s not a great deal of difference, certainly not in any practical way. I agree that Paul didn’t likely intend dead in sins to mean an inability to do good or respond to the gospel. That seems to me like an unnecessary and overly-complex opinion.

      I like to keep it as simple as I can when possible. 🙂

      I intend to check back from time to time. God bless!

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