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The Most Difficult Truth in the Bible

A Sermon on Ephesians 2:1-3 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 6/22/97


What is the most difficult truth in all Scriptures for us to believe?

Some might suggest the incarnation, an infinite, all-powerful God becoming a finite man. Some others might suggest the trinity: God is one, but there are three distinct persons in the Godhead. Both of these truths challenge our understanding; they are far beyond our ability to comprehend. But I would like to contend that the most difficult truth in all Scriptures for us to believe is the one we are considering this morning: You were dead in your transgressions and sins. You are by nature objects of wrath.

If your goal is to win friends and influence people, you are unlikely to go around making such statements. But as difficult as this truth may be, as unpopular as it surely is, this truth is absolutely fundamental if we are to gain:

You cannot grasp who God is, you cannot worship God for who he is, unless you understand who you are, unless you understand the true depravity of the human race. But once we accept this most difficult teaching, once we understand that there is absolutely no basis on which we can approach a perfectly holy God, then we can begin to understand the breadth and length and height and depth of God's love, we can begin to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge. This most difficult truth is also one of the most important truths in all Scripture. So prepare your heart!

But to understand this passage we first need to remind ourselves of where we are in this letter. Remember that Paul writes this letter to Gentile believers in Ephesus and other towns in Asia Minor. In his opening, masterful statement in verses 3-14 of chapter 1, Paul praises God for the spiritual blessings he has lavished on all believers, both Jews and Gentiles. Throughout this sentence, Paul presents God as the actor:

God the Father does all this by means of, through, because of, or in Christ Jesus, and then He seals us with the Holy Spirit.

If we are chosen, redeemed, and sealed, what more could we hope for? Paul tells us this in the prayer he offers for the Ephesians in the latter half of chapter 1. We may be sealed, we may be chosen, we may be guaranteed to have a part of the summing up of all things in Christ, yet we may not know God intimately. So Paul prays that the eyes of our hearts might be enlightened so that we might know our hope, the riches of God's inheritance in us, and the resurrection power of God that is OURS now, today.

So chapter 1 identifies these blessings of God, and tells of our glorious privileges as Christians to be a part of this body of Christ. Chapter 2 lays out two reasons why this is so amazing: First, in verses 1-10, the people chosen to receive these blessings and privileges, all of them, are by nature objects of God's wrath, deserving punishment, not blessings. That is amazing, isn't it? God chooses to bless in this incredible way the very men and women who deserve his condemnation. Second, in verses 11 and following, God chooses to bless not only the wayward Jews, to whom he had promised blessings centuries ago, but also the Gentiles, those previously thought to be without hope.

Spiritually Dead

This, then, is the context for these first 3 verses of Ephesians chapter 2 that we consider today. Look with me now at verse 1:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins

You were dead! The very persons who are now recipients of these tremendous spiritual blessings, the very ones who now receive resurrection power, YOU were DEAD, dead in trespasses and sins.

Tell me, now, what are the characteristics of those who are dead? There are many characteristics we might mention; today I will deal with only two.

First, those who are dead do not respond to stimulus. Indeed, they cannot respond to stimulus. You can poke them and yell at them and flash bright lights at them, but they will not, they cannot respond.

Second, those who are dead are subject to corruption. The body deteriorates over time, until dust has returned to dust. Remember when Jesus tells those gathered around Lazarus' tomb to open it four days after Lazarus died? Remember Martha's reaction? To quote her in the elegant Elizabethan English of the King James, Martha says, "Lord, by this time he stinketh!" A dead body gets worse and worse over time, until, eventually, we cannot even tell that it was once human.

So our being spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins means just this: Spiritually we are unable to respond, and spiritually we are getting worse and worse.

Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians:

The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him and he CANNOT understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.

Unable to understand, unable to respond. Looking less and less like a human every day. Stinking more and more, becoming more and more corrupt. That is our natural state, my friends; that is our spiritual condition without God.

Trespasses and Sins

Paul goes on to say that we are dead in our trespasses and sins. These words encompass the whole range of our errors. First, they include our mistakes: the times when we may have good intentions, but blow it; the times we have grand plans to do some good work, but never carry them out; the times we know what is right, we intend to do what is right -- but then we fall on our faces and fail. We are dead in our mistakes.

But when we examine our hearts, we must also acknowledge that our failure before God goes far beyond our mistakes. We are also by nature actively in rebellion against God. We may know God's law, we may even acknowledge that the law is good, but then say, "I don't care, I'll break it anyway." Or we may make Nietzche's statement: "Yes, that law holds for the common people, but not for me! I'm above that!" Rebellion is characteristic of our race, from the two-year old who sticks out his jaw and proclaims, "I NOT going to bed," to the husband or wife who walks out of a marriage, saying "I don't care what God says, I don't care what the Bible says, I'm out of here." We make mistakes, yes, and we are dead in our mistakes; but we also rebel actively against God's authority. We are dead in our rebellion.

The Causes of Death

Continue reading with me in verses 2 and 3:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh, and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.

Paul here lays out the causes and consequences of our being dead in trespasses and sin. He gives us three causes and one consequence. The first cause:

The Course of this World

Paul says we are dead in the trespasses and sins in which we formerly walked according to, or in accordance with, the course of the world. The Greek word translated "course" is the same word from which we get the word "eon." Literally, Paul says "according to the age of this world." We walk in the sins of our times, we conform to the prevalent sins of those around us. So here, "world" refers not to the natural world, God's creation, but to life on this planet without God. Indeed we might think of Ephesians 2:2 as the flip side of Romans 12:2. Here Paul is telling us that one cause of our spiritual death is our conforming to the world around us. In Romans 12:2 Paul says, "Do not be conformed to this world! Don't let the world squeeze you into its mold!"

When we are dead in trespasses and sins, we are conformed to world. The world exerts pressure on us to conform -- peer pressure. We usually link peer pressure with young people, and certainly this is a special challenge for the youth among us. Clothes, speech, and actions are all influenced by our desire to belong, by our desire to be one of the guys. But peer pressure exerts a powerful influence on adults also, as we try to keep up with our neighbors in what we buy, what we do, what we think we need -- indeed, even how we think, our ideas of right and wrong.

So the world around us influences us, pressures us to conform. And this is the first cause of our spiritual death.

The Prince of the Power of the Air

A second external cause of our spiritual death is Satan himself, and the spiritual forces which are opposed to God. Paul will elaborate on this theme in chapter six, telling us that our battle is not against other people -- even though they may hurt us and negatively influence us. The battle in this world is a spiritual battle, and Satan himself is at work in those who are opposed to the gospel. Elsewhere in the Scriptures, Satan is referred to as a murderer and a deceiver who masquerades as an angel of light. Satan does not announce himself as the force of evil, but tries to persuade us that he has our good at heart -- just as he persuaded Eve.

So the world and Satan tempt us to sin, leading to the spiritual death of every member of our race. These two causes of our death are external to us. If all sin resulted from these two causes, Paul could not conclude these verses by saying that we by nature are objects of wrath -- rather, we would be objects of wrath because of our actions. But the third cause of our spiritual death is indeed internal to us:

Lusts of the Flesh

Paul uses a very curious phrase here to describe this internal cause. Consider verse 3 again:

Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh, and of the mind,

It almost sounds as if Paul is repeating himself here, doesn't it? We lived in the lusts of the flesh, and we indulged in the desires of the flesh. When we realize that the word translated "lusts" does not necessarily have a sexual connotation, but simply means "strong desire," the statement looks yet more confusing.

The key to understanding this verse is to realize that Paul is using the word "flesh" in two different ways, both of which are common in Scripture. "Flesh" can mean man in his natural condition, apart from the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. In this sense, "flesh" includes the entire nature of man: body, soul and spirit. Paul uses "flesh" in this sense in, for example, Galatians 5:17:

The flesh sets its desire against the spirit; these are in opposition to one another

Paul continues in the Galatians passage to contrast the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit. So flesh in this sense is a very broad term, encompassing all that we are without God.

But Scripture also uses "flesh" in its basic sense, meaning the body itself. "All flesh is like grass."

In Ephesians 2:3, I suggest that Paul's first use of "flesh" should be interpreted in the broad sense, while the second use of the term should be interpreted in the narrow sense. The "lusts of the flesh" are inclusive, then; the desires of the flesh and of the mind are subsets of the lusts of the flesh. So we might paraphrase this verse:

Among them we too all formerly lived, following the strong desires inherent in our nature. We indulged in two types of sinful desires: the desires of our body, and the desires of our mind.

Let's now consider these two types of desires. First, the desires of the body. What is included here?

Our bodies have a range of desires that are not wrong in and of themselves. We desire to eat, to sleep, to have a satisfying sexual relationship. There is nothing wrong with those desires. As one pastor put it when preaching on this passage, "What is wrong with sleeping? Nothing! Some of you are catching up on it right now!"

But the desire to eat can become the sin of gluttony; the desire to sleep can become the sin of laziness; the desire for sex can become the sin of lust, or fornication, or adultery. The problem in each case is a lack of control, a lack of discipline. When we allow our bodily desires to control us, we fall into sin.

What about desires of the mind? Here are the most basic sins, the sins characteristic of Satan himself: jealousy, envy, malice, pride, hatred, wrath, bitterness; the desire to be clever, the desire to accomplish great things (ambition), the desire for something new; the desire for excitement, the desire for learning. All these are desires of the mind -- desires of our natural self, but of the mind rather than of the body.

Unlike the desires of the body, some of these desires of the mind are inherently wrong: jealousy, malice, pride, hatred. But, as with the bodily desires, there is nothing inherently wrong with some of these. Certainly the desires for learning, for excitement, for accomplishment are not wrong in and of themselves. But these too can come to dominate and control us, so that we indulge ourselves in satisfying these desires in ways that violate God's commands.

And remember that these desires of the mind may be invisible to all others. If I indulge in lustful thoughts, or bitter thoughts, no one else may know. But Jesus says that lust and bitterness are the moral equivalents of adultery and murder. God's standard of perfection includes all of our thought life. So I ask you now, are you righteous by that standard? Have you ever had lustful thoughts, angry thoughts, greedy thoughts? When we truly examine ourselves by this standard of perfection, every one of us must acknowledge that we have indulged in the desires of the mind if not the desires of the body. Not one of us is righteous by God's standard.

So the three causes of sin that Paul details are the world and Satan from outside us, and the desires of the body and desires of the mind run amok inside us. These causes, then, have a consequence:

Children of Wrath

Paul says that, in consequence, we are "by nature children of wrath." This sounds terrible -- and it is terrible! But there is considerable confusion concerning this term, "wrath." Let's clear that up first.

What is wrath? When you hear the word "wrath," what image comes to mind? For most of us, the image is of seething, uncontrollable anger. And the Bible does use the word in this sense. For example, in Ephesians 4:31 Paul tells us to put off wrath, that those chosen by God to receive these tremendous spiritual blessings must not indulge themselves in satisfying the desire to be angry.

Now, many people think of God's wrath in that way. They picture a vindictive God, a God who says, "Cut that out or I'll zap you!" But God's wrath is not seething, uncontrollable anger. God's wrath is the logical consequence, the just consequence of sin. God is the head of the moral order in the universe, and he always deals with sin as it deserves.

Consider Timothy McVeigh, a man responsible for the deaths of over 100 people, a man responsible for pain, suffering, and heartache for hundreds more. Should we just wink at this action, forgive him and forget? Should we simply release him and ask him not to do such a thing in the future? By no means. An action such as this deserves punishment. That is justice.

God is just. By his very nature, God has decreed that every sin will be paid for, a just punishment will be meted out for every hurt, every sorrow, every cruelty.
Indeed, God's justice is the flip side of his love. Consider the best-known verse in the Bible, John 3:16. How does it go?

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

"Should not perish!" That's God's justice! This summary verse of the gospel shows not only God's love, but also God's justice. Unless God gave his son for us, we all would perish. John makes this perfectly clear 20 verses later in 3:36:

He who believes in the son has eternal life, but he who does not obey the son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.

Without Jesus, the wrath of God abides on every one of us. We will not see life. So, man without God is dead in sins -- unresponsive, corrupt, and getting worse. The cause of this condition is both outside us -- the sinful world and its influences on us, Satan and his attempts to deceive us and tempt us -- and inside us -- the desires of the body, the desires of the mind. We subject ourselves to these desires, allowing them to control us, so that we become slaves to sin. We therefore deserve the just punishment, the wrath of God.

Note this carefully: Every one of us, Jew and Gentile, educated and uneducated, those involved in gross and obvious sins and those whose sins are primarily of the mind and invisible to most of the rest of us, every one of us deserves God's punishment.

What's our reaction upon hearing this? Well, the usual reaction is rather like that of Joel, my 2-year old, when he has a messy diaper. Over the last 14 years my wife Beth and I have changed at least 36,000 diapers. And, while those of you who have never changed a diaper might find this hard to believe, most of those experiences are not at all unpleasant. But lately Joel has been a real challenge. When we get the first wafts of fragrance from a full diaper, we'll ask, "Joel, are you messy?" Joel responds, ""No, I not messy. Don't change my diaper, Daddy, I not messy." But as time goes on the evidence that he is messy becomes more and more convincing. Finally, I simply have to pick him up, kicking and screaming, and take him to the changing table. All the while he is shouting, "I not messy, don't change me!" At these times I'm thankful that all our neighbors know us and we don't have to worry about them calling social services. So he fights, screams, and kicks -- until the minute that I tape shut the last tab. Then he stops fighting, smiles at me and says, "Can I go play now?"

Don't we act in the same way? We are spiritually dead, we are slaves of sin, we are corrupt, we indulge in desires of the body and of the mind -- yet we try to maintain that we are clean and innocent. We stink, and if we're honest we would have to admit that we can smell the telltale aroma, but we deny it, shouting out to God, "I not messy! Don't change me!"

If the story ended there, with us dead in our trespasses and sins, perhaps this state of denial would be the only response we could make and still manage to function. But the story doesn't stop there. Look at the first two words of verse 4: BUT GOD.

We are dead in our transgressions and sins: BUT GOD.

We are unresponsive and becoming more and more corrupt: BUT GOD.

Our best efforts result in failures and mistakes: BUT GOD.

We are controlled by the world around us, by evil spiritual forces, by our inner drives and desires: BUT GOD.

We deserve eternal judgment: BUT GOD.

So do you acknowledge this sinfulness? Don't be like Joel, messy and stinking but denying it. Acknowledge what you know is true when you examine your thoughts, when you look deep within yourself.

Those of you who know Christ, who have received the great spiritual blessings highlighted in chapter 1: In chapters 4 and 5 of this letter, Paul will tell us to put off all these deeds of darkness. When God makes us his children, he accepts us stinky diapers and all. But he is not content to leave us wallowing in our mess -- even though many of us would like him too. God is perfecting us, making us like him, making us fit for heaven, where no one stinks. So God gives us his resurrection power, so that we are freed from the bondage to sin. So let God change you; acknowledge your sinfulness, and discipline yourself by his strength. Then worship God for his accepting you despite your being by nature an object of his wrath. Trust God to complete this good work in you, and devote yourself to prayer and sharing gospel to others lost in this state of sin.

Those of you who don't know Christ, listen carefully. Nothing in life is more important than your acknowledging your own sinfulness. Examine your heart. Examine your actions. Examine your thoughts. Read this passage again and again. Let its truths seep into you. The author of Hebrews says "everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account" (4:13). God knows everything you have ever done, everything you have every thought. You, like me, are both by nature and by actions an object of God's wrath. There is nothing you can do on your own -- no good works, no great accomplishments -- that will pay the price for your sins. Judgment is certain.

But God provides a way out! God has accepted the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as sufficient punishment for all my sins, and he will accept that sacrifice as sufficient punishment for your sins too. "He who believes in the Son has eternal life!" "Whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life!" Believe this most difficult truth -- and then throw yourself at the mercy of God based on the shed blood of Jesus. He will make you his son, clean you and perfect you, so that we all together might praise him for eternity. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved!


This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 6/22/97. The sermons of Ray Stedman and Martyn Lloyd-Jones were particularly influential in assisting my understanding of this passage.

Copyright © 1998, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

This data file may not be copied in part, edited, revised, copied for resale or incorporated in any commercial publications, recordings, broadcasts, performances, displays or other products offered for sale, without the written permission of Thomas C. Pinckney, tpinckney@williams.edu, c/o Community Bible Church, Harrison Ave, Williamstown, MA 01267.

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