Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 3/08/1998
"And you were dead in your trespasses and sins . . ."
As we enter into a new major section of Ephesians, it is well to back up and take stock of where we've come from, to back away from the trees for a moment and remind ourselves of the layout of the forest. The book's Theme is God's eternal purpose to glorify Jesus Christ by building the Church. Its Purpose is to replace our small and unworthy thoughts of God and the Church and our salvation with a grand, sweeping vision of the greatness of our position and calling, that we might be motivated and equipped to walk worthily of that calling. Chapter One is an Overview of what God has done to build his Church: Election, Predestination, Redemption, Adoption, Calling, Sealing. It concludes with a discussion of God's Power, which is adequate to achieve his purpose because it has already brought back Christ from the dead, exalted him to the right hand of the Throne, and put all things under his feet. Because God did this is Christ as our Representative and Head, our hope of present victory and ultimate salvation rests on solid ground indeed.
Now Chapter Two focuses in on this Redemption by considering the specific application of God's power to us who believe. We too, like Christ and in Christ, have been brought from death to life. 2:1-10 tells that story: the Death from which we are delivered (2:1-3), the Life to which we are delivered (2:4-7), and the Means and Results of that Deliverance (2:8-10). So now that we've made sure of our orientation to the forest, lets get back to the tree that is growing in verse one: "And you were dead in your trespasses and sins . . ."
Death is not just the absence of life. A stone is not living, but neither is it dead. Death is the deprivation, the cancellation, the corruption, and the negation of life. Only those who are supposed to be alive can be dead. To understand death, then, we must first understand life. From a spiritual standpoint, the most profound definition of life ever uttered comes from our Lord himself, who said, "This is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent" (Jn. 17:3). To live is to know God; to be dead is to be ignorant of him or estranged from him. For he is the one and only Source of life. "In him was life, and that life was the light of men" (Jn. 1:4). To be alive is to know the goodness, the awareness, the the creative energy and vitality, and the love that flow from him. To be deprived of these realitites, to substitute for them the twisted and perverted counterfeits palmed off by Satan, is to experience death. Spiritual life and death in Scripture then refer not so much to whether or not we exist as to the quality of that existence. To know God, and in him to know goodness, truth, and beauty, is to be alive. To be estranged from him and thereby to be trapped in the evil, the lie, and the ugliness of sin, is to know a living death. To know Christ is to live eternally, to experience every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (as foretastes even now). Not to know him is to die eternally; it is even in this life already to stand upon the threshhold of Hell. And that, this verse says, is where all of us began.
The time of death was the time of the Fall, when the prophecy of Gen. 2:17 that disobedience would lead to death was fulfilled in the estrangement and curse that came between us and God. The cessation of biological function was not the issue. Adam's body continued to function for almost a millenium. Alienation from God was the issue, the essence of death. Adam and Eve showed this by hiding from God at their first opportunity. Physical death follows as a kind of sacramental sign, an outward and visible sign of the lack of an inward and spiritual grace. It was preceded by many other signs: the lies they told, pain in childbirth, thorns and thistles, the strife between their children beginning with Cain and writing its latest chapters across the globe in nations, communities, and families as we speak. Truly we are dead in our trespasses and sins.
The extent of death is that it covers the whole human race (Rom. 1:12, 15, 17, etc). Paul's argument for the universality of death culminates in Rom. 3:10-12, 23. The wages of sin is death. And this applies to you. You were born into the human race with a body and even a mind somewhat functional. But your spirit, that part of you that is capable of responding to God, was dead. Not ill, not in danger of death, dead. It was like a useless appendage, an arm withered and necrotic. You did not realize this fact because you had never known anything else. Only those who can look back on spiritual death, who have been made alive again by Christ, can appreciate this truth.
What does it mean to be spiritually dead? Biologists struggle to define physical life, but they have come up with some insights that we can apply by analogy to spiritual life and death. Since Paul chose this metaphor to describe the reality of what sin has done to us, no doubt he meant to suggest at least the following.
Life is active, death impotent. All living things are active at some level. All process food into energy. The higher forms play. The highest engage in purposeful activity. Likewise, those who are spiritually alive love God, worship God, respond to God, trust God, serve God, desire God. The spirtually dead are not capable of the least motion in that direction. My grandfather was an avid fisherman. After he died, he never went fishing another single time. It wasn't just that he needed a little help. Suppose we dig him up and prop him in his old pickup truck. Nothing happens. We drive him to the lake. Still he just sits there. We stick the pole in his hand, bate the hook for him, and throw it in the water. The bobber goes down. Still he gives no response, no jerk to set the hook. He is dead. He doesn't need help; he needs a resurrection. So it is with those who are dead in their trespasses and sins.
Life is aware, death ignorant. Dead men, says the Pirate's proverb, tell no tales. All life responds to its environment. The higher mammals respond consciously. Man responds self consciously. A dog knows certain things; a man knows that he knows. The person who is spiritually alive knows God, knows goodness, truth, and beauty as God's gifts, connects them with him, and is aware of his gratitude for them. But the "natural man," being spiritually dead, does not receive the things of the Spirit, neither can he know them (1 Cor. 2:14). The person who is spiritually dead thinks that sola gratia and sola fide (salvation wrought by grace alone, received by faith alone, apart from works) is an excuse for moral laxity. The person who is spiritually alive knows that these doctrines could never be seen that way, because he is alive to Jesus Christ. The person who is spiritually dead actually believes that being a party animal or a yuppie is the key to the fulfillment of his nature. He is blind to anything higher because he is dead to it. But the believer has been made alive.
Life is creative, death sterile. All living things reproduce. The Christian, being spiritually alive, produces the fruit of the Spirit, which is conducive to life. From death comes only corruption, rottenness, and more death. Try to imagine a Mother Teresa being produced from Secular or Marxist or even Islamic seed. It is impossible. Why? Why are Christians the only major group opposed to abortion and the whole culture of death that is overtaking the West? Because they are the only ones who are not spiritually dead.
Life grows; death decays. When my son was younger I knew he was alive because his pants kept shrinking. I am no longer growing taller (we won't mention any other dimensions!) but I am hopefully growing wiser, growing in grace. The Christian will grow forever. He has unlimited horizons. He has all eternity to get to know an infinite God because that is how long it takes. The natural condition of mankind is barbarism. Civilization is a fragile thing, always trying to crumble and fall as soon as it is built. Remove the influence of Christianity and even in the great civilizations you quickly see the innocent and the weak victimized. Why" Because man without Christ is dead. He is not growing, he is not "evolving," he is only decaying. He is dead in trespasses and sins.
If we could fully realize what it means to say that Man is dead in his trespasses and sins apart from Christ, it would revitalize our understanding of Christian doctrine. We would never again be tempted to see Christian faith as some kind of pious little goody-two-shoes moralism. We would realize that while all the other religions are trying to make bad men good, Christianiy alone is trying to make dead men live. We would realize in more than theory that you can't make yourself acceptable to God by turning over a new leaf. It can only be by accepting what Christ has done. The person who says, "I am trying," does not understand the Gospel at all. Dead men cannot try to live. Only God can give life, and he gives it in Christ. We can only receive it by faith.
If we could fully realize what it means to say that Man is dead in his trespasses and sins apart from Christ, it would revitalize our approach to devotional life and worship. Do you not marvel at yourself? Do you realize that as a believer you are a walking miracle? Do you realize what God has done? When you know yourself as a dead man apart from Jesus Christ, then you will cling to him as you ought; then you will worship and praise him with a full heart for what he has given you: life, life, eternal life!
If we could fully realize what it means to say that Man is dead in his trespasses and sins apart from Christ, it would revitalize our approach to the Christian walk. For we would realize that Sin is a Cemetery, a place of death. We just escaped from there. We do not want to go back! We will want to be where life and light are, where living is happening, with God's people.
And finally, if we could fully realize what it means to say that Man is dead in his trespasses and sins apart from Christ, it would revitalize our approach to Evangelism. We are surrounded by dead people! They have no hope of life apart from Christ. Have we no compassion for them? We must share with them the only answer to their condition: nothing less than the living savior and Lord received by faith. We are not talking about our "religion," nor about our church (as they understand it). We must tell them about Jesus, the Lord of Life, the Son of the Living God, whom to know aright is life eternal for people who are dead in their trespasses and sins.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams