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I had a serious problem. It was deep in the root of my tooth. The problem actually started a while back. I hadn’t visited the dentist for years. Then I felt a tiny amount of pain in one of my teeth. But I ignored it. I didn’t want to bother with a dentist. Anyway, I had my own solution: I’d always brushed my teeth quite thoroughly, and was proud of it. So I just kept brushing. To start with, my thorough brushing solution seemed to work. I felt better. But after a while, the pain came back. This time, it was worse. So I finally visited the dentist. That was painful, too. It was painful to admit that I should have seen a dentist ages ago. It was painful when the dentist took great delight in comparing the huge hole in my tooth to a breaking news story from that day about a road tunnel construction in Sydney that had just undermined and collapsed an apartment block (he must have decided I could take a joke). And it was painful because the root had become so infected that I needed root canal surgery. That was a while ago. But last year, it flared up again, as these things apparently do. And yet I chose to visit the dentist again, even though I knew it might be painful. Why? Because I’d learnt something. I’ve learnt that if I have a problem that goes to the root, and if I know someone who has the solution to the problem, I shouldn’t ignore it or try to fix it myself. I should face up to the root problem, and get help. So I got help. Now, I don’t have a tooth in that spot at all.
But we all know that there are far more tragic and painful problems in our world than tooth pain. Recently, several university campuses in Australia have sought to identify and address the appalling problem of sexual assault among students, which in places seems to have reached plague proportions (if you’re affected personally by this issue you can find help at www.1800respect.org.au). One response to this problem has been an annual campaign run by student unions called “Radical Sex and Consent Week”. According to organisers, there are two aims for the campaign. The first aim, “radical sex”, is “about embracing everyone’s right to sexual autonomy and expression—their right to have sex as much, or as little, as they want.” The second aim, “consent”, is to “educate students on the much more rigid definition of consent, and what constitutes active consent.” That’s because, say the organisers, “[i]n a university environment, the idea of ‘consent’ can get confused or misunderstood”. Promoting consent is, of course, absolutely right and necessary. But it raises a question, doesn’t it? Why has the concept of consent, which should be so blindingly obvious, become something that needs to be turned into an educational campaign? What’s confusing about it? And why is it especially confusing in places of enlightenment and education like universities? Why don’t supposedly intelligent students, many of whom are going to be future leaders of our country, just realise that violating the rights of others in this area is plain wrong?
Perhaps some of the confusion comes from the very idea of embracing everyone’s right to have sex as much as they want. After all, just because someone wants to do something as much as they want doesn’t mean they have a right to do it, does it? Perpetrators of assault certainly don’t have a right to do what they want, as often as they want. So this message of the right to sexual autonomy and expression is a two-edged sword: it’s one of those messages that might be designed to empower potential victims, but it can also encourage potential perpetrators. An environment is being created where students are encouraged to be “radical”—to embrace their individual rights to do whatever they feel like as often (and yes, as little) as they want to, without the rigid norms of society and institutions telling them what to do. Yet, at the very same time, they’re being told they must rigidly conform: society is telling them precisely what to do; there are norms they must not transgress; they must learn a “rigid definition of consent” for the good of others in society. And yes, so they should! But do you see the confusion? So what if the problem isn’t something that can be solved by a student-run educational campaign designed to instil social norms and uphold rigid social definitions? What if the root problem is something deeper?
Let’s go further, then. What if the root problem isn’t just a problem with some people in society (e.g. university students), or a problem in one area of life (e.g. sex)? What if it’s something that affects all of us, in different ways? And what if it’s deeper than we ever like to admit?
This is, in fact, what Paul says in Ephesians 2:1–2. Paul here seeks to go deep, to the root of the problem. The problem Paul talks about here is incredibly serious. It can be very painful to admit. But Paul can and does admit it—because he also knows the person with the solution. According to Paul, this isn’t a problem to ignore or try to fix ourselves. It’s not something we can educate ourselves out of. This is a problem to face up to, and get help.
And as for you, you were dead because of your offenses and sins, in which you once walked, according to the age of this world, according to the ruler of the authority of the air, the spirit who is now acting in those who are disobedient.Ephesians 2:1–2
The root problem is this: without Christ, we’re dead. Spiritually dead. That’s because we’re guilty, and because we’re enslaved. That sounds serious, doesn’t it? What does it mean for us?
Paul begins: “as for you, you were dead”. This is stark and confronting! Being “dead” means being a corpse. A corpse is powerless. It certainly can’t fix its own problems. Obviously, Paul isn’t saying that we were once physically corpses. But he is saying that in a real, spiritual, sense, without Christ, we were dead. The Bible elsewhere describes death as God’s judgment against us for rejecting him. This not only involves physical death, but also the state of death and powerlessness that comes when we don’t have a true relationship with our creator. In the end, it leads to everlasting judgment and separation from him. That’s what Paul has in mind here. In the next verse, Paul talks about God’s “wrath” against us. No God, no life. Without Christ, we’re dead.
Guilty: Offenses and sins
Why are we dead? Our state of death comes because we were guilty before God: “you were dead because of your offenses and sins, in which you once walked.” The word “offenses” means doing the wrong thing, violating the good and right laws that God the creator has set up in the world. God’s law in the Old Testament gives some examples: stealing, murder, theft, lying, cheating on your spouse, etc. Jesus’ attitude was even more radical than the Old Testament law, and identified the things that lie behind our law-breaking, like hatred, contempt, and lust. If we take the time to think and admit it, we’ll realise there are all sorts of things we’ve done wrong. We can’t just excuse ourselves as victims of circumstances every time. We are guilty; our “transgressions and sins” have caused our “death” before God—it’s put us out of relationship with him, we’re facing his “wrath” (verse 3), and that means that we can’t save ourselves.
Enslaved: Powers beyond us
But it gets worse. Paul goes on to give us another perspective on our state before God: we’re enslaved. We haven’t just walked along a path we laid out for ourselves. When we’ve done wrong, we’ve actually been walking along a path laid out by others: “you once walked according to the age of this world, according to the ruler of the authority of the air, the spirit who is now acting in those who are disobedient.”
“The age of this world” is the world we live in. The world around us affects us, doesn’t it? On the one hand, we live in a world that is amazing and wonderful, created by God and full of beauty and love. On the other hand, the world is a sad and tragic place, full of pain and evil. And you and I aren’t separate from all this. We can’t stand outside the world and condemn it. We’re born into it, and so we’re part of it. And because we’re part of it, again, we’re living in a world under death and condemnation. We can’t save ourselves.
Paul goes even further. He talks about a spiritual power at work in all of this: Satan or the devil. Paul talks quite a lot about spiritual powers in Ephesians. This might be because the people living in and around Ephesus were particularly afraid of spiritual forces. But whether that’s true or not, Paul certainly wants to remind his readers that their problem is a spiritual problem. Paul isn’t talking about particular cases of demon-possession here. He’s talking about Satan’s more general power over everyone who belongs to the world. But Satan’s power isn’t an absolute or ultimate power. Paul calls him the “ruler of the authority of the air”, which is a way of saying Satan has intermediate power (the “air” is above the earth, where we live, but under heaven, where Christ rules). Satan is real, but his main power is in lies and temptation. Yet lies and temptation can be incredibly powerful. Without Christ, we will believe the lies and give into temptation. We can’t save ourselves.
So without Christ, we’re not just guilty. We’re enslaved. We’re not simply living in a world full of people exercising their autonomy and freedom. We’re living in a world full of people walking according to a path laid out for them. And without Christ, we’re part of it too.
But did you notice that word “once”? For Christians, this state of death and guilt and slavery was, in an important sense, something in the past. We “once” walked this way. The word “once” points forward to a solution. It’s a solution which Paul has already described in the previous chapter (Ephesians 1), and also spells out more in the following verses (Ephesians 2:4–10).
This solution is something only God can give. That’s why it’s called God’s “grace”—his gift to us. That grace comes from being “in Christ”. It involves forgiveness, and resurrection. Paul has already talked about the “forgiveness of transgressions” we have in Christ (Ephesians 1:7). God forgives us because Jesus died in our place on the cross. As Paul goes on in this chapter, he talks about how we’ve been “raised with Christ”—raised from our dead state—and “seated with Christ”—above the things that otherwise would exercise power over us. This isn’t something we can do ourselves. So our job is not to work our way out of it, but to trust him and live the new life he’s given us.
Without Christ, we have a major problem. But we don’t have to bury our heads in the sand, and we don’t have to try to fix it ourselves. We know the person who has the solution. We were dead, but we were raised with Christ. We were guilty, but we are forgiven through Christ. We were living according to the world and Satan, but now in Christ, we’re above those powers. So we can face up to the root problem of death, guilt, and slavery.
Don’t ignore the root of the problem
But even though we have the solution, we can’t just ignore this problem. It’s not so far in the past that it has nothing to do with us. After all, Paul has gone into quite a lot of detail here. He must have done it for a reason. Why do we need to remember the root of the problem?
Firstly, we need to remember the root of the problem so that we keep praising and thanking God for the solution. God’s gift to us in Christ is truly “amazing grace”. The more we see how deep the problem is, the more we’ll see how wonderful God’s grace is.
Secondly, we need to remember the root of the problem so that we’re not naïve about ourselves. Until Jesus returns, these things still affect us. We still transgress and sin. We still live in this world. And, as Paul says in chapter 6, we are still fighting a spiritual battle. We need to keep remembering that we are dead without Christ. So we need to be on guard, take sin seriously, stand firm, and constantly look to Christ, not ourselves, for the answer.
Thirdly, we need to remember the root of the problem so that we can relate rightly to the world around us. According to these verses, the world isn’t some utopian place full of free, rational people doing good things and living happy lives. Yes, there is life and goodness and beauty and freedom and wonder in our world. But it’s also a world in which people are dead, guilty, and enslaved when it comes to God. And when we face up to it, we can see it. The world is still a tragic place. You might feel that things aren’t that bad. You might think Christians can change and transform the world, for example, if only we can run our own educational campaign to persuade everyone how good Christianity is for them. But the root of the problem is deeper than that. It’s something we can’t fix ourselves. Yes, let’s do good and love our neighbour, but let’s not be naïve about our ability to save ourselves, or to save the world. We have a root problem, and we need a radical solution. We need resurrection, forgiveness, and rescue. We need, in other words, the gospel of God’s grace in Christ. And as we will see in the following verses in Ephesians, this is exactly what he has given us.
How do these verses help you to be honest about problems in the world and in yourself?
How do these verses help you to appreciate even more what God has done for you in Christ?
This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.