And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—-among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (vv. 1–3 ESV).
In the previous post about believing Gentiles, I left out one especially famous instance: Cornelius the Centurion and his household (Acts 10:1-11:18). Cornelius was a believer. God was pleased to accept his good work and hear his prayers before he ever heard the Gospel preached by the Apostle Peter.
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:1–4 ESV).
The angel did not say, “Your prayers and your alms are useless because you are alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” Nor did the angel say “Your prayers and your alms are useless because you are dead in the trespasses and sins.” Cornelius had yet to hear the Gospel and had yet to receive the Holy Spirit and be baptized. But his prayers were already a pleasing aroma to God. He was not an unregenerate person as that term is defined in Evangelical theology.
From what Paul says in Ephesians there was a real sense in which Cornelius was indeed “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” and in which he was even “dead in the trespasses and sins.” But that didn’t mean that was God’s enemy headed for Hell as an unbeliever. God accepted him, his works, and his prayers. Thus, Peter says, before preaching about Jesus: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 11:4b-5). God was never the God of the Jews only.
So, like Zacharias and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-6), Simeon (Luke 2:25-35), and Anna (Luke 2:36-38), Cornelius needed a savior. But also, like those faithful Jewish believers, he was already (in the sense that modern Protestants use the term) right with God. Just as Zacharias and Elizabeth “were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord (1:6), so Cornelius was “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.” If we think of evangelism as preaching to those who are rebels against God, then what Peter did for Cornelius and his household was not evangelism.
(But since Peter shared the Gospel with Cornelius and his house, resulting in them believing the Gospel, a Pentecost-like gift of the Spirit, and baptism, maybe we should start using the term “evangelism” less narrowly and more Biblically.)
The same must be said about much of the ministry of the Apostle Paul in Acts. When Paul came to Philippi and preached to Lydia, the text says that “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). Many assume that this is as instance of regeneration. But Lydia had already had her heart turned from idols to the true God. Lydia was in a group that the Apostle Paul sought out in order to worship God. They weren’t pagans but God-fearers and possibly Jews.
And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us (Acts 16:13–15 ESV).
Paul was looking for people with whom he could pray. He obviously wouldn’t go to a pagan temple. But apparently there was no synagogue in the city. So he looked for a Sabbath gathering place of people who feared God and met to pray. Clearly, these people were believers, like Abraham or Melchizedek and many others we read in the Old Testament. Lydia is called “a worshiper of God.”
And this seems to be the majority of Paul’s work in Acts. He preaches in synagogues where he is preaching to Jews and Gentiles whom he regards as “brothers” (Acts 13:26; 15:23). When we seem Paul preaching to pagans, the reaction doesn’t seem as positive (Acts 14:8-18; 15:22-34).
Undoubtedly, the news about the great change and conflict that Paul’s message was eliciting gained the attention of many pagans. The god-fearing Gentiles probably had a network of relationships that eventually brought many pagans into the Kingdom. Paul began at synagogues but the did not stay there. Presumably, over time and in many different situations, his work became the means of converting many pagans (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10; I Corinthians 12:2), either personally or through the god-fearing Gentile Christians. In Ephesus, idol makers suffered an economic and moral panic as a result of Paul’s work (Acts 19:21-41).
But the idea that Ephesians 2:1 is referring to the general audience as “unregenerate” before their conversions, as defined in Evangelical systematic theology needs to be proven, not assumed. Much less should “dead in trespasses and sins” be treated as some kind of precise and scientific description that has a self-evident meaning that does not require any background knowledge of other books of the Bible.
While Paul writes about the Ephesians believing the Gospel (1:13), the preaching of the Gospel to them (2:17), and the essential role of faith in salvation (2:8, 9), I do not see how Ephesians 2:1-7 can be describing their stories about their personal conversions. Paul does not say that Ephesian believers were raised up TO Christ when they believed. Rather, he says they were given new life “together with Christ” (2:5), and that we were “raised up with him” (not “to him”). This is referring not to anyone’s conversion experience, but to what Christ did in history and it’s significance for the Church.
Furthermore, 2:1-10 and 2:11-22 are rehearsing the same history. In the second of the two passages, Paul writes of Jew and Gentile being united as one people through Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. Obviously, the blessings Paul enumerates (being built up into a Temple, etc) will not be experienced by those who reject Paul’s message. But just as obviously, the message is not about what happens when one is converted. The message is that Jesus, by submitting to death and rising to new life enthroned in the heavens has changed the cosmos, in public history, including changing human society.
How can the obvious parallel passage (vv. 1-10) be about something else? How do we go from Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension (1:19-23) to a reference to personal conversion experiences that many Ephesian Christians never experienced (a problem that is still felt today by many Christian readers) and then back to the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ (2:11-22). It makes more sense to read it as a declaration of the same event in history. Paul is not saying the Ephesians were raised when they heard the Gospel. He is saying that Jesus’s resurrection was also the resurrection of the people of God.
Paul established from the beginning of his letter that the ascension of Christ was a blessing to his readers (1:3). He declares that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavens. He is talking about Jesus. Jesus was raised up to the heavens and given the Holy Spirit for his people (Acts 2:33).
Having begun with Jesus ascended and enthroned, he eventually recaps what Jesus had to go through to reach that destination as our head and representative. He declares that God raising Christ from the dead was the beginning of an ongoing exercise of salvific power toward believers (1:19-20). Then he reiterates that Christ was given to the Church as the head of a body (1:22-23).
But why did Jesus have to die? Because “you were dead in the trespasses and sins.”
We know that there were many believers before Christ died. But when Christ died and rose again and ascended to the heavens, they entered a new creation that they had not encountered before. Satan, who ruled the nations and had access to God’s throne (Job 1), was ejected (Luke 10:18; John 12:31). Jesus’ work changed history and brought the blessings of the Spirit to everyone who believed. If they had believed in the true God long before Jesus died, they were still brought into a new life by Christ. If they were unregenerate pagans, or zealous haters like Saul of Tarsus, they were brought into the same new life upon repentance and faith in Christ. Christ’s new life was an objective reality that entered creation on Easter Sunday as the new creation. His death was the condemnation of the world and his resurrection was not for himself alone but as the representative of the new humanity. Thus, the Father blessing him with the Spirit in the heavens was our reception of every Spiritual blessing in the heavens.
When we ask about individuals and their conversions stories and their place on the timeline in relation to Christ’s work, it gets complicated. But using a collective pronouns simplifies things. For Americans, we declared our independence from Britain in 1776. I can say that as an American citizen without fear of inaccuracy even if all my ancestors immigrated to the United States long after the War for Independence.
And all Christians should learn from Ephesians 2:1ff to say that we were dead in the trespasses and sins in which we once walked, but God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
(Again, see how Ephesians 2:4-7 is a restatement of 1:20-23, which is restated in 2:15b-22. Paul is teaching about Christ’s work in history and its significance.)
Is there precedent for Paul’s use of language? I wrote in my critique of John Stott (Did John Stott Understand What a “Figure of Speech” Is?):
Jesus’ words about the Prodigal Son were not an ad hoc figure of speech. As N. T. Wright reminded us some time ago, the Prodigal went to and returned from “a far country” (Luke 15:13). So the claim that the son, on returning, was back from the dead has Biblical precedent. The Prodigal is Israel.
The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live (Ezekiel 37:1–5 ESV).
And what did this prophetic vision mean? God spoke to Ezekiel more “literally” about it:
Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD” (Ezekiel 37:11–14 ESV).
And this was not an ad hoc figure either. Ultimately it goes back to God’s command and warning to Adam:
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:15–17 ESV).
So what happened the same day that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit? They were were driven out of the Garden and barred from the Tree of Life. They were exiled. That was their “death.” It was a death that all experienced, whether Cain or Abel, Nimrod or Abraham.
Note that, being given new life, for Paul in Ephesians, means being enthroned in God’s presence in the heavens (2:4–6). The salvation we have in Christ is the ultimate return from exile into God’s presence and a reversal of the death humanity suffered as a consequence of the Fall. Thus, Christ’s literal resurrection and ascension is our ultimate resurrection (even now, long before our personal and literal resurrections from our graves).
By the way, the vision of the valley of dry bones becoming a living army in Ezekiel 37:1-14 in followed by a prophecy that, at the return from exile, all the tribes will be united on one single kingdom:
The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, take a stick and write on it, ‘For Judah, and the people of Israel associated with him’; then take another stick and write on it, ‘For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with him.’ And join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand. And when your people say to you, ‘Will you not tell us what you mean by these?’ say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I am about to take the stick of Joseph (that is in the hand of Ephraim) and the tribes of Israel associated with him. And I will join with it the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, that they may be one in my hand. When the sticks on which you write are in your hand before their eyes, then say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children shall dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore” (Ezekiel 37:15-28 ESV)
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians follows the same path, only to a much grander destination. Instead of the resurrection from exile leading to the reunion of the tribes of Israel under one Davidic king gathered around one sanctuary, Christ’s death and resurrection leads to much more for all the Gentiles with Israel. They are transformed in Christ into God’s Temple (Ephesians 2:11-22).
I should add to what I wrote that the actual return from exile was fulfilled through a representative action that was declared to most Jews as good news (Isaiah 40:9; 52:7). Only a portion of Israelites returned to Judah and rebuilt the city of Jerusalem and the Temple there. The news of that new entry into the Promised Land, which God said was life from death, was something that occurred outside the lives of most of the scattered Jews throughout the nations. They had to hear the message and trust that God was doing through the return all that He had promised. They had been dead but now they were alive.
Additional support can be found in the common view cross-referencing Romans with Paul’s statement that “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…” (Ephesians 2:4-5). The ESV connects Romans 5:6, 8, and 10 to the phrase “even when we were dead…”
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life (Romans 5:6–10 ESV).
I agree that these two passages are parallels. Paul’s concern that Christ died “at the right time” is one he mentions in the beginning of Ephesians “…making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth…” (Ephesians 1:9–10 ESV). But Romans makes Paul’s meaning even more unmistakable.
In Romans 5, Paul is not talking about when anyone was converted or individually regenerated. He is talking about when Christ died in history. “At the right time” refers back to the “now” Romans 3:21 that reveals that God used the spiral of sin in world history, both Jewish and Gentile depravity, to build up his wrath so that Jesus could offer up himself as a propitiation.
God did not save us at our best. He was willing to do it when we were at our worst. According to Romans, there could have been no propitiation otherwise.
In my previous post claiming that Gentiles were not automatically damned before Christ, I pointed out Paul’s description of Gentiles in Ephesians 2:12. Similarly, Paul describes the Ephesians before Christ death, resurrection, and ascension in dire terms:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—-among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2:1-3).
This certainly sounds like the mind and actions of an unregenerate person. I can see why it would lead readers to try to make the passage about personal conversion from unbelief. But I don’t see how the context leaves that possibility open for us. On the other hand, Satan did dominate Israel and the nations before Christ defeated him. The power of the Holy Spirit in sanctification was not yet manifested with the power that was given to the Church at Pentecost. And, while believers trusted God to rescue them from wrath, they still knew they deserved it and had no explanation for how God would save them from it. Again, Paul is describing a relative difference as an absolute difference:
For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it (2 Corinthians 3:9–10 ESV).
Mark Horne is a member of the Civitas group, and holds an M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, and is the executive director of Logo Sapiens Communications and writes at www.SolomonSays.net. He is the author, most recently, of “Solomon Says: Directives for Young Men” from Athanasius Press.
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