It can do no harm to briefly restate the aim of the apostle in these verses. Thus doing we can pick up the thread of thought of our former article, which will facilitate understanding the thought as here developed by Paul in this letter.
The point Paul here has in mind in this entire section from through is, to make clear to the believing and enlightened saints, what the exceeding greatness of goodness, love and grace of God is to them in Christ Jesus. Only when they see the exceeding greatness of this love of God in Christ to them will their hearts be filled with abundant thanksgiving and shall their mouth overflow with His praises.
It must then stand out perfectly clear that God has saved them, the Ephesian church, and also us with them, from out of the depths of sin and death. We must, therefore, see that formerly we were “dead in trespasses and sins”; that as far as we were “by nature” there is not one wit of difference between us and the world that perishes in their sins; that we, too, are by nature “children of wrath even as the others”.
The picture that Paul here sketches of our former state and walk is not at all flattering to the flesh. Here Paul deals the death-blow to all of our self- righteousness, to all our pretended goodness and virtue, to all hypocrisy and phariseeism. We were all harlots, murderers and thieves before the grace of God in Christ delivered us.
So it was with the saints in Ephesus before they heard the gospel and believed it; before they were sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise to that day, the day of the final deliverance from sin and the revelation of the Son of God.
Since we are so slow to learn it cannot be counted superfluous to call attention to the fact, that we must not here think of “fallen man” in a rather abstract way. It is so very easy to face this description of fallen man when we think of this fallen man in a hazy way. We then say: that’s right, the human race fell; mankind surely is in a terrible plight. But let us not forget, when we speak of the human race, to remember, yea, to be deeply convicted in our own soul, that we are a part of that human race—by nature! As that natural man walks, thinks and acts, so we were once, we the believers in Christ. Paul is not speaking here of the human race without having reference to the individual man and woman as they actually were. Oh, to be sure, there is such a reality as the solidarity of the human race, a common responsibility and guilt. But this solidarity must not so be conceived of, must not so be abstracted and rationalized that the individual sinner is lost in the whole of the race. I can speak of the human race, but in my life I meet that human race as individual men and women and children. And in this human race I too live as an individual man.
Thus it is here in this Scripture passage. Paul is here very really speaking of individual men as they lived, moved, thought and acted in their own place in life; as their own individual life was again intertwined with that of their neighbor. Paul here no more speaks of a mere abstract “man-kind” than what he speaks of the abstract idea of God, but, on the contrary, even as he is speaking of the living God before the eyes of Whom all things are naked and open, so he also speaks here of man as he concretely lives. The Dutch language has a saying, which is here applicable: de mensch zooals hij reilt and zeilt. Hence, the whole of actual men, mankind, as the sum- total of men is here pictured to us as they actually are before God by nature, as they move, live and act and make history.
But if Paul is here speaking of the individual man when speaking of all men, so he too is speaking of the individual saint when speaking of the Church. If such is the case then I too say with all the saints in Christ: Once we were such as Paul here describes, we “were dead by reason of our trespasses and sins”. But such we are now no more! We have the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus, and, since we are accounted righteous before God in Christ by faith, we are no longer dead by reason of our trespasses and sins. And this blessed faith and assurance too is a matter of the whole church, but it is that only as the sum-total of the believers ordained to life in Christ, and, therefore, engrafted into Christ by faith, and so receiving and appropriating personally all the riches in Christ together with all the saints.
God does not overlook me as I am by nature in the human race. But, thanks be to God, neither does He in His saving love in Christ. For in faith I do not merely believe that Christ died for others, but I have a hearty confidence that he also died for me!
We shall have opportunity to point this out in our further study of this passage from Holy Writ.
Now I look once more at this word of God which pictures me as I was by nature, and in faith and obedience to the gospel I say: that is not how I look now, but that is the way I was by nature; I was “dead by reason of my trespasses and sins”. Now I am alive in the Lord and with Him in His saving love!
But let us then look once more at what we once were, children of wrath even as the others, as we were “dead by reason of our trespasses and sins.”
We need not enter into a detailed discussion of the implication of this statement. If the reader wishes to see our interpretation of this we refer him to the former article from our hand . It is sufficient here to say, that it is the awful guilt of our original sin as well as of our actual sins and transgressions that constitutes the essence of this our being dead. Because we are guilty in Adam we are perverse in will and darkened in understanding! For this same reason of our perversity, due to the just judgment of God, we increase our guilt by our sins. Under the just judgment of God we can, by nature only work ourselves deeper into the abyss of eternal estrangement from the life of God, and, thus, into the everlasting misery of hell!
Such is the general statement of Paul concerning the depths of our sinful fallen state and condition.
To this Paul adds a few particulars to complete the portrait of our former state and condition. And what is the actual condition of not merely fallen mankind, but also of us the believers as we “were by nature”?
It is this: Willing slaves we were of sin!
“Willing slaves”, you probably ask? Yes, that is it, dear brother and sister. We were willing slaves of sin, willing doers of sin, as Jesus says: “he that doeth sin is a slave of sin”. ()
That this was really the case with the Ephesian believers prior to their faith in Christ and their love to all the saints, Paul states when he says: “In which (sins and trespasses) ye walked according to the age of this world, according to the prince of the power (authority) of the air, of the spirit that now worketh (energizes) in the sons of disobedience”.
Now what is the first thing that strikes our attention here in this bondage–walk, this death-walk, that is, of this walking in death toward death?
It is this: Paul sketches this former life as walking in trespasses and sins.
He who has become a little bit familiar with the language of the church, of the saints in Christ in the bosom of the Reformed churches, will know the difference between “walking in sin” and “falling into sin from weakness”. Now Paul says not: in which ye formerly sometimes fell, but in which ye formerly walked! The picture is not that of an unwilling slave doomed to serfdom, of one, who is a helpless victim and is being forced to do what he is not willing to do; one, who, if only it were in his power, would cease sinning and never do so again! It is here not the picture of the child of God who longs to be delivered from the body of this death; the believer who is “taken captive” against his will by sin and lusts.
No, the picture is far more humiliating. It is not that of a free-man in his soul, tugging at the chains of sin’s serfdom, but it is that of one who is a slave at heart, a slave of sin, and (o, horror!) who loves it! It is a walking in sin with delight, with sinful delight. The picture is that of men and women who enjoy the pleasures of sin, not merely in the more sensuous form, but even in the more spiritual form of hatred, backbiting, etc.—the pleasure of sin for a season. The term “walking” gives us the picture of the sinner as he walks in all sin in dapper self-indulgence, one who gaily strolls under the lights of sin’s pleasures, imagining that he is happy, saying: this is the life! But all the while not knowing that he, the sinner, is wretched, pitiable, poor, naked and blind! For the darkness of sin has blinded his eyes and he knows not whither he goes. Such is the picture suggested to us by the term “walking”. It is the estrangement from the life of God under the wrath of God!
Such is the death–walk of the sin-slave!
That such is, indeed, the picture of our former state, as it was of the former state of the Ephesian saints, and that this interpretation of the term “walking” is not overdone, is evident from the addition “according to the age of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that now works in the sons of disobedience.”
Let us try to understand what this latter quotation implies.
In so doing we would consider three questions of an exegetical nature. They are:
1. What is the “age of this world”, and what does it mean to “walk according to it”?
2. Who is the “prince of the power (authority) of the air”, and how is it that he is thus designated, and how are we to concretely conceive of our walking according to him?
3. What are we to understand by this “spirit that now works (energizes) in the sons of disobedience?” Is this merely an indirect or direct influence of this prince, or is here spoken of created demon-beings? Where and how are we to recognize this “spirit”?
As to question number 1 we would remark that it is quite evident from the letter of Paul to the Ephesians that there are two ages, to wit, the present age and the future (coming) age; the present age extends from Paradise to the return of Christ, while the future age is the eternal state after the renewal of all things. In so speaking of the two ages the Bible presents us the works of God under the aspect of God’s eternal counsel as it unfolds itself in time, in the things that must speedily come to pass.
But the matter is not so simple as to merely be a distinction of time. It is not so that we merely have a present and a future age, without saying more. In this present age we must distinguish between the twofold seed, the Seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent; the children of grace, and the children of wrath. There is a twofold people, due to the fact, that the Son of God gathers to Himself a church out of this present evil world, elect unto eternal life—gathers this church by His Word and Spirit and so forms for Himself a new communion, the communion of saints. Over against this there is the world of unbelief and sin, the world reprobate in mind and heart, left to “lie in sin”, and that world in Scripture is called “this world”, and also “this present evil world”. A comparison of such Scripture passages as and and other passages will bear this out.
When the Word of God speaks of “this world” it has in mind the evil world of men. Thus we read the fine distinction between the church and the world, given in : “We know that we are out of God”, and “the whole world lies in the Evil one”, that is, lies under the dominion and inspired control of Satan, the Prince of this world. This is the “present evil world” from which we have been “plucked out by the will of God, our Father”.
And so we have: “this world’ ‘and “we who are born out of God”, we who have the forgiveness of sins. Only the latter enter into the ages to come to see God’s great love in Jesus. We enter into the ages to come. Unto this age we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise.