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Judgmentalism. It’s a bigger problem than we think. Let me prove it to you. Imagine someone who’s judgmental. It wasn’t that hard, was it? Now, how do you feel about that judgmental person (you can probably see where I’m going with this)? Chances are, the person you were thinking of was somebody other than yourself. And chances are, you probably felt quite judgmental towards them. You might even have enjoyed that brief warm glow of superiority that comes whenever you remember how different you are to all those self-righteous judgmental people out there. Especially the ones on the internet. I’m glad I’m not like all those judgmental people on the internet. Oh, wait…
Judgmentalism is certainly a danger for God’s people. That’s because God’s people have God’s word. God’s word helps God’s people to see how wonderful God is, and how terrible humanity is in comparison. In Ephesians 2:1–2, Paul talks about what the world is like: people are “dead” because of their guilt through “offenses” and “sins”, and enslaved to “the spirit who is now acting in those who are disobedient.” It’s not a pretty picture. But when we read those verses, we have a strong tendency to think it’s not talking about us. It’s about other people. After all, we belong to God. God has given us his word. He’s taught us how to live. So naturally we’re not in the same category as those dead, guilty, enslaved people out there.
But what Paul says next makes us think again. It turns the tables, and stops us in our tracks:
Among those who were disobedient, we too—all of us—once lived our lives in our fleshly desires, carrying out the cravings of that flesh and its ways of thinking. And we were, by nature, children of wrath, just as the rest of people were too.Ephesians 2:3
Ephesians 2:3 contains two highly significant, emphatic words: “we too”. “Among those who were disobedient, we too—all of us—once lived our lives”. We too, says Paul, were the offenders. We, too, were the disobedient. These words aren’t talking about all those horrible people “out there”. They’re talking about God’s ancient people. And it’s also something we, too, need to hear. These words tell us something incredibly important—something that we ignore at our peril.
To start with, it’s important to come to grips with who Paul was originally talking about when he used these words “we too”. The word “we” is here referring to God’s ancient people Israel. Paul was an Israelite himself. He is here describing the history of Israel, as it is laid out in the Old Testament. The Old Testament describes how Israel was God’s special people, chosen by God to belong to him out of all the nations round about. God had given Israel his law: his good word which taught them how to live and obey him. But as the story of the Old Testament goes on, we see again and again how Israel had not obeyed God’s law. And we see how God judged Israel for their disobedience. We can see this especially in the books of the Old Testament we call the “prophets”. The prophet Ezekiel, for example, describes how God sent his people into exile. Because Israel had disobeyed God, God allowed foreign armies to come in and take them away from their land to live among all the surrounding nations, captive and enslaved. This exile was God’s judgment against them. Because they were just like the rest of humanity, God was angry against them and judged them by sending them to live among the rest of humanity.
Paul’s description here in Ephesians 2:3 actually sounds like a very brief summary of Ezekiel. Ezekiel chapter 5, for example, describes the reason for the exile this way:
Thus says the Lord GOD: This is Jerusalem. I have set her in the centre of the nations, with countries all around her. And she has rebelled against my rules by doing wickedness more than the nations,… therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, even I, am against you. And I will execute judgments in your midst in the sight of the nations.… Thus shall my anger spend itself, and I will vent my fury upon them and satisfy myself. And they shall know that I am the LORD—that I have spoken in my jealousy—when I spend my fury upon them.Ezekiel 5:5–13 ESV
The point is this: it wasn’t just the nations (or “gentiles”) round about who were living in rebellion against God. Israel, too, had done wrong and was subject to God’s judgment. This is what Paul is talking about when he says: “Among those who were disobedient, we too—all of us—once lived our lives”.
Now this isn’t the end of the story. Later in Ezekiel, in chapter 37, the prophet holds out a great hope for Israel in exile. He tells them that even though they were “dead”, God would make them alive again. Israel couldn’t save themselves by their own goodness. They needed resurrection. And when Israel is raised, there is hope for all the world—because the same God who raised Israel is the one who rules all creation. That was the ultimate message of the prophet Ezekiel. In Ephesians, Paul picks up this prophetic hope and runs with it to the try line. In the following verses in Ephesians 2 (verses 4–7), Paul says that resurrection has come. Christ has risen from the dead—and we have been raised with him. This prophetic hope of resurrection and life has actually been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It’s a message of great hope and encouragement.
But let’s not move on too quickly. Those words “we too” are important. They were written for a reason. So for the moment, let’s go back and look in a little more detail about what Paul says in this verse.
Doing what we want
What were “we too” doing? We were living lives “in our fleshly desires, carrying out the cravings of that flesh and its ways of thinking.” This is a graphic way of describing doing whatever you feel like whenever you want to do it. You might ask: What’s wrong with that? After all, the idea of “doing what you want” seems like a picture of happiness and freedom, doesn’t it? Isn’t it the great dream of retirees—to live a life where you just do whatever you feel like, whenever you want to do it? Actually, no. Doing whatever you feel like whenever you want to do it doesn’t ultimately bring freedom. It’s the opposite. It brings slavery.
That’s because the things you feel like doing, and the things you want to do, aren’t always good or right, for yourself or for others. If you only ever follow your desires or your wants, you’re following something in you that’s not always right. Paul calls it the “flesh”: the aspect of our lives that is opposed to God and what is good and right. If you always just do exactly what you feel like, you’re not free. You’re enslaved. That’s what toddlers have to learn as they grow up, isn’t it? Naturally, toddlers try to do precisely what they feel like whenever they want to. When they’re thwarted in their plans, the frustration builds, and tantrums erupt. Toddlers need to be taught not to follow their feelings all the time. They need to grow up and (eventually) become adults. Doing exactly what we feel like whenever we want to is not a recipe for happiness and freedom.
But the point here is that this is what human beings do. We naturally just do whatever we feel like, whenever we want to. That’s a real problem. And it’s not just a problem for others “out there”. Paul’s point is this: “we too” were like this as well.
“Children” of wrath
Paul says something else about the state of “we too”: “we were, by nature, children of wrath, just as the rest of people were too.”
The phrase “children of wrath” isn’t a reference to age or maturity. It’s actually another reference to the Old Testament. In Ezekiel 16, God says that Israel isn’t acting like his own holy people. They’re not fit to be called “children of God”. Instead, Israel is acting like all the nations round about. So, according to God, Israel is basically the children of those nations whom God will judge. This is how Paul expresses it here: “we too” were “children of wrath”.
What does God’s “wrath” mean? It means “anger”, but we need to be very careful not to think of God’s anger as being the same as the kind of anger we so often experience in our relationships. It’s not about God being vindictive or spiteful. It’s not about God having outbursts of uncontrolled, passionate violence. Yet it it’s not just an impersonal principle of cause and effect. It’s personal, but it’s holy. God’s wrath is the reality of what happens when a wonderful and holy God confronts human beings who have done wrong and rebelled against him. And outside of Christ, this is what we face too, now and forever.
By itself, this verse is terrible news, isn’t it? God’s people, like the rest of humanity, were also enslaved to their own desires, and facing God’s wrath. That’s why those words, “we were” and “once” are such a lifeline. This isn’t the present state of those who are in Christ; it’s their past. Because of Christ, we have been forgiven, raised to life, and are secure in him. This is what Paul goes on to say in the following verses.
But still, Paul wants to remind us of the past. It is still worth dwelling on the truth of these words for a moment. These words are still applicable to us. Everybody, even “we too”, is included in this.
Why is it important to remember this truth? Because although we’ve been raised with Christ, the battle isn’t over. As Paul says later in Ephesians, we still need to keep being renewed (see e.g. Ephesians 4:23) and keeping fighting that spiritual battle, struggling to do what is right and true (see e.g. Ephesians 6:14). “We too” still live in this world. If we’re naïve and think that God’s people are OK and that this kind of disobedience doesn’t happen to us, we’re going to become complacent about identifying sin in ourselves and repenting. That’s true for us as individuals, and true for us as churches too. If we don’t remember those words “we too”, we’re going to continue to be tragically surprised when Christians do the wrong thing. Or we’re going to end up going into denial when it happens. But it really does happen, doesn’t it? We too, collectively, have hurt and abused and caused pain and grief to others. This isn’t something new; it’s not some 21st century revelation. This is God’s ancient word to us. We too.
This is why we need things like proper safe ministry practices. It’s why we need good governance of churches. It’s why we need proper accountability. It’s why we can’t simply trust our leaders to do what is right all the time. It’s why we can’t just assume that we’re all going to be OK because we’re God’s people. It’s why we can—we should—own up to our sin and the sin of Christians. Yes, we are forgiven and raised in Christ. But until he returns, we, too, need to take sin seriously. We too.
And even more than that, we can’t ever, ever, feel superior to others, can we? Yes, we have been raised with Christ, and been given his Holy Spirit, and been given his good word. Yes, we can and should point out what is wrong in our world, for the sake of saving the lost. But as we do, let’s never forget that we, too, were dead, guilty, transgressors, and slaves to our own desires. It’s all by God’s grace—for us too, all of us. There is no place for superiority or for complacency. To truly see the riches of God’s grace, we need to see where we have come from. We were dead in sin. We too.
When you think about human sin and God’s judgment, do you tend to think of others and exclude yourself? How do these verses help you to gain a right perspective on these things?
Are there areas in your life, or your church’s life, where you need to take the reality of sin more seriously?
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, 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.