In Ephesians 1, Paul wrote of God enacting a plan for the world’s salvation in and through Jesus of Nazareth: by raising Jesus from the dead and glorifying him, God has placed him in a position of authority over all kinds of spiritual forces. All this, Paul writes, is for the benefit and blessing of those of us who are ‘in Christ’, that is, who are bonded to this Jesus through faith. But, where exactly do we fit into all of this? Paul connects the dots in the passage we’ll be exploring today, Ephesians 2.1-10.
The text reads:
(2.1) And you were dead in your transgressions and the sins (2) in which you once walked in accordance with the age of this world, in accordance with the ruler of the authority of the air, of the spirit that even now is at work in the children of faithlessness, (3) in which we too all once stewed in the cravings of our flesh, following the appetites of the flesh and our rationalizations — we too were by nature children of wrath just like the rest of them. (4) But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which God has loved us, (5) brought us, who were dead in in our transgressions, back to life with Christ — you have been saved by grace — (6) and raised us up with him and and sat us down with him in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus, (7) so that, in the ages to come, God might demonstrate the all-surpassing wealth of his grace in his kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. (8) For by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from you, but is God’s gift; (9) not from what we have done, so that no one might boast. (10) For we are his creations, crafted in Christ Jesus for good works for which God has prepared us, so that we might walk in them.
This text is both wonderful and weird. It’s wonderful because it reminds us the amazing saving love of God; it is weird because it’s hard at first glance to see how it connects to the previous section, and it expresses its message of grace only after describing the flip side of things in some pretty dramatic (and at times curious) language. While I’ll spend most of today’s post focusing on the larger message of grace, it will also be important to to touch on some of the curious details:
- Why does the passage start with a strong link to the previous section when it seems to represent a wholly new thought?
- What are the implications for Paul’s negative assessment of humanity, especially in a passage about God’s grace?
- How does this passage interact with Paul’s participationist, ‘in Christ’ theology?
I’ll also write a follow-up post on the discussion in the text of what draws us away from God.
Form and Grammar
The most glaring thing about how this section is written is the way it begins, “And you…”. This links it back to the previous thought, but while chapter 1 ends with a statement about Christ’s power over everything, chapter 2 starts with a statement about human sinfulness (”And you, being dead in your sins…”). The two don’t seem to follow at all. What’s going on here?
The grammar of the Greek is helpful in sorting this out. 2.1-7 is yet another of Ephesians’ incredibly long sentences, but unlike the last two sections, this one has a normal grammatical structure. What our translations — including my own — hide (simply because English grammar can’t really do what the Greek is doing here) is that all of 2.1-3 forms the direct object of a verb in verse 5, whose subject is in verse 4. In its most basic form, the sentence reads: “And God also brought you back to life with [him].” Thus we don’t have a disjointed logical flow at all: At the end of chapter 1, God has raised and glorified Jesus, placing him in authority over all things; now at the start of chapter 2, Paul is saying that God has brought us back to life with him. The parallel is made explicit in verse 6: he brought us back to life again with Christ by raising us with him and seating us with him. What God has done for Christ God, has done for us. (Yet again we have a New Testament warrant for the the ancient Christian maxim: We become by grace all that Christ is by nature.) So then, the logical connection between the two sections is clear — and pretty wonderful. There’s just a lot of supplementary material — important in its own right — that hides this flow from us English speakers unless we dig deeper into the grammar.
Another intriguing suggestion about the form of 2.1-10 has been proposed by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, who sees a chiastic structure to this section.* Chiasmus is a rhetorical device, common in storytelling and poetry in the Ancient Near East, wherein information is provided in a symmetrical fashion with the main point found in the middle (e.g., ABCC’B’A’, where ‘C’ marks the climax). Shüssler Fiozena’s proposes that Ephesians 2.1-10 is chiastic, with the focus being on God’s mercy and love in 2.4. I’m not convinced this proposal works, since it requires the sections to be rather imbalanced in length. However, it helpfully points out that God’s loving character is at the heart of this section. It’s easy to to get lost in questions about the spiritual forces at play and the language Paul uses to talk about life ‘outside of’ Christ and miss this crucial fact. But, whether we focus on the main verb being ‘he brought us back to life with [him]’ in verse 5, or on God’s love being at the rhetorical centre of the passage, either way it’s clear that the most important things the author is trying to get across are about God’s character and saving activities, which include us alongside Christ.
Spiritually Dead & Destined for Wrath?
While we can’t forget that the focus of 2.1-10 is on how God has lovingly included us in salvation, we also can’t simply skip over the ways the text talks about life outside of Christ. We’ve already seen how Paul insisted that Christ has been placed in authority over all kinds of spiritual powers. And yet, from 2.1-3 it’s clear that these powers can still inflict a lot of damage. Paul doesn’t mince words in describing this; in these three verses he describes his readers’ state before they were ‘in Christ’ as “dead in [their] transgressions and sins,” “children of faithlessness,” and “children of wrath.” What does Paul mean by these expressions?
Here, and elsewhere in the Epistles, death is understood to be primarily not about the end of life but about alienation from the Giver of Life. So, because we demonstrate this alienation through our sins, we are spiritually ‘as good as’ dead. Paul ascribes this tendency to sin to the continued influence of three types of spiritual force. We’ll look at these more closely in the next post, but for now, we can summarize these influences as: 1. The way of the world as we know it, or the ‘status quo’; 2. The devil and other malevolent spirits who traffic in half-truths and twisted logic; and 3. ‘The flesh’, Paul’s favorite expression for the ways we get attached to fulfilling our body’s appetites. Together these influences make it almost impossible for us to do the right thing, and even harder to do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons. The path of least resistance is always going to lead us to sin.
Thus, left to our own devices, we humans can be called “children of faithlessness.” This construction is one Paul borrows from Hebrew (via the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament). In it, ‘children’ (literally, ‘sons’), means something like ‘those who come from, follow in the footsteps of, and are heirs to’ whatever the noun is that follows. Here, this shared family trait is our faithlessness. Again, this doesn’t refer to an inability to believe the right things, but rather our inability to show up for our true selves, for God, and for one another. And this in turn makes us “by nature children of wrath.” Grammatically, this could mean either that we follow in the path of our own wrath, or God’s wrath. Though we certainly can all get easily carried away by our wrath, in the logic of the passage, the second option seems most likely: Our inability to stand in good faith with God and neighbour makes us subject to God’s wrath.
Paul says that this state is ours “by nature (physei).” This is a tricky word, though the meaning here is clear. He’s saying that, in Snodgrass’s words, this is “by constitution rather than from experience or circumstance.” This is simply the way we are. But we have to be careful not to read too much into this, since Paul is writing about humanity in our present, fallen state, not as God created us to be. Our true human nature is to bear God’s gracious and loving image in the world. There is therefore an essential contradiction within human nature; here Paul is only addressing half the picture. We see the other half of this in Romans 2.14, Paul writes of Gentiles doing what is right “by nature (physei),” so this distinction is found even in how Paul himself uses the word.
The wrath of God is an unpopular concept these days, and this is not without reason. It is an idea that has been horribly abused within Christianity to perpetuate a false image of an unhinged and violent God who does not resemble the loving Father of Jesus Christ. But this does not mean the only alternative to this is to reject the idea of divine wrath altogether. Wrath, or anger, is the natural emotional response to injustice; so to say there is no divine wrath is to say that God doesn’t care about injustice. And that is also not how the loving Father of Jesus Christ operates. God’s love longs for justice among God’s creatures, and so our perpetual state of injustice means God is angry. (And, if we care about justice, we should be too!) Anger is not a bad thing — the question is what we do about it. And as the following verses make clear, God’s anger, born out of love for sinner and sinned-against alike, inspired God to take drastic action to reconcile the world.
Ephesians 2.1-3 paints a pretty grim picture of the state of humanity. But thankfully, this is just the context Paul lays down for the true message he’s trying to get across: That God, acting out of mercy and love for humanity, “brought us back to life with Christ,” “raised us up with him and sat us down with him in the heavenlies” (2.4-6). For those of us who are ‘in Christ’, what God has done to, for, and through Jesus, God has also done for us, with Jesus. We are included in the saving work. Thus we have in this passage a wonderful example of the participationist theology we looked at a few posts ago.
This sets up what is essentially a metaphysical solution to the problem of sin. Paul follows the biblical Wisdom tradition of ‘two spheres’: Whether we think of Moses’ insistence that the Hebrews choose between ways of life and death before they enter the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 30.19), the two ways of Psalm 1, or the heart of stone and heart of flesh (Ezekiel 11.14ff), there’s a long tradition in Wisdom literature of boiling human experience into two options. For Paul, these are to be ‘in sin’ or ‘in Christ’; faithfulness to Christ is presented as transferring us out of the path of death and into the path of life.
This metaphysical solution is all God’s doing: It is God’s plan (Ephesians 1.4-5) and grounded in God’s activity (1.20-23, 2.4-5), and motivated by God’s mercy, love, grace and kindness towards us (2.4, 7). Because of this, there is no room for anyone to ‘boast’; it’s all God’s doing. “By grace you have been saved, through faith.” In Romans and Galatians, when Paul writes in these terms, he mentions “works of the Law,” and how these cannot save us. Here, he just writes about “works,” which is further evidence that his audience here were mostly of non-Jewish origin. But whether we’re thinking of fulfilling God’s Law, or of manifesting the virtues of Greek philosophy, or of the ritual and magical activities associated with religious life in Asia Minor, it’s all the same for Paul; nothing we can do will ‘save us’; that is God’s work. This doesn’t mean, of course, that doing good is bad or unhelpful — we were created for ‘good works’. It just means that those works do nothing to ‘save us’.
What can we say about this? Dichotomies of the kind we see here, and in the Wisdom passages I mentioned above, are helpful rhetorical strategies. They heighten the stakes and seek to clarify the choices before us. They force us to ask questions like “Where will this path take me?” “Will this action bring me closer or further away from where (and who) I want to go (be)?” And in a complicated world, clarity is really helpful. And so I’m sympathetic to what Paul is doing here.
But, we also have to remember when facing passages like this, that rhetorical strategies are just that — rhetorical strategies — and not full statements about reality. We need clarity because the world is a messy and complicated place. It can’t really be narrowed down to two paths, a right and wrong answer. Moreover, none of us are fully on one side or the other; we are all complex mixtures of good and bad — even the person most alienated from God is capable of goodness and the person most committed to faithfulness has blind spots and areas of continued struggle. The whole reason Paul wrote most of his letters was precisely because people who were following the Jesus path were also acting as though they were on the path of spiritual death!
This is important to remember because, when such biblical dichotomies are taken too far, they can easily create ‘us’/’them’ divisions in which one group contemptuously writes off another. Rather than being a tool to encourage us down the road to reconciliation, the ‘two spheres’ strategy can exacerbate divisions within communities and the world at large. We see this with the legacy of antisemitism across the ‘Christian’ world throughout history, in the Inquisitions, in the sectarian violence precipitated by the Reformation, in the Doctrine of Discovery, and in our current fractious moment of social and political polarization. Since as Christians we must judge everything by the quality of its fruit, it seems clear that we have to receive such teachings as this one with humility and love, and a big grain of salt.
It’s sadly ironic that we have to reinforce this constantly in our communities, because Paul uses the two spheres strategy not to mark the ‘in Christ’ group as ‘better than’ others, but precisely to remind his readers that all of us in the human condition are in the same boat!
This consideration is not meant to constrain the teaching of today’s passage, but to free it to mean what it is supposed to mean. The point of Ephesians 2.1-10 is that human goodness is an uphill climb for all of us, but God has acted once and for all to provide us with a fresh opportunity and powerful new tools to do it. The question before Paul’s readers, and before us today, is how will we choose to use that opportunity? Will we use those God-given tools to help us live faithfully before God and each other, or will we continue to live as we did before, weary from the heavy weight of the status quo, confounded by those who twist the truth to lure us away from the path, and distracted by the appetites of embodied life?
* See the bibliography for the series for details.