The Bible says that before God saved us, we were dead in transgression and sins. Clearly it is not talking about physical death because we were all living our lives before we came to Christ. So we understand it to mean spiritual death. Still, what does it mean to be spiritually dead? While a lot can be said about the condition of being spiritual dead, the context actually describes it for us.
We walked according to the ways of this world (v. 2a)
Although our translation (TNIV) says “the ways of this world,” literally it is “the age of this world,”1 so there is a temporal sense here.2 It means our concerns, world view, and interests were oriented toward present age but not oriented toward the future with God. God was out of the picture in our daily living or planning.
The age/ways of this world could also mean we were heavily influenced by the standard of this world rather than by that from God: if our work place is full of gossip and complains, we also became a person full of gossip and complains; if our friends were materialistic, we became materialistic, and so on and so forth. We might think that we could be different, but the fact is, if we were in an environment, we could not even see the environment!
We walked according the ruler of the kingdom of the air (v. 2c)
Here “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” clearly means the evil spirit. While most probably did not think of themselves as following the evil spirit even before the came to Christ, this phrase says that the evil spirit had influence over us. It could influence us by the way it influenced the world, or it could tempt us in doing things which were hostile toward the will of God.
We lived a life gratifying the cravings of our flesh (v. 3)3
Beside following the ways of the world and the evil spirit, another force that we follow is our fleshly desire. While the word “flesh” (σάρξ) can mean physical flesh or body, here it means the “sensual desires tending toward sin.” The text further describes that we followed its desires and thoughts. In fact, our fleshly desires is a major force in driving us to sin.
Although “flesh” often remind us of sexual desires, the word itself is not limited only to that sense. Paul contrasts the works of the flesh against the works of the Holy Spirit, and what he lists under the works of the flesh include a wide range of things, thoughts or behaviors: “The acts of the sinful nature [the literal translation for “sinful nature” is “flesh”] are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” (Galatians 5:19-21)
It could mean anything general that is pleasing to us at the moment: a child could lie to his parents and did not do his homework during homework time but played games instead, but you would almost never see a child lying to his parents during his allowed game time but cleaned the basement instead. The reason is obvious: playing games is pleasing to him, but cleaning the basement is not. The reason for our sin is almost always related to things pleasing or benefitting us in some way. I am not saying that doing anything that we desire or please is always a sin, however.
So the condition of spiritual death is described in the context. Being dead spiritually means that we were powerless and had no control in spiritual matters which reflected in the way we used to live. Knowingly or unknowingly, we followed these forces described above.
Of course, the main message here is that God made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions (v. 5), but before we get to that message, it is worth reminding that although we have been made alive by God, it does not mean that we are completely removed from those forces. They are still here, and the Bible warns believers about them, so we need to be aware of their presence, but we are no longer dead and hopeless. With God’s grace and power, we can fight them!
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:1-10 TNIV)
- τὸν αἰῶνα τοῦ κόσμου τούτου. ↩
- Although some see a personal sense here as referring to god Aeon, it is never used in the NT this way, and it seems to be an unnatural switch as Paul just used the word aeon (τῷ αἰῶνι) to mean “the present age” in 1:21. ↩
- TNIV translates the word flesh (σάρξ) as “sinful nature.” Many theologians and scholars dislike the translation of this word in TNIV, but switching translations can be confusing, so I stay with the same translation and made this note here. ↩