What Does it Mean to be “Dead in Sin”?
I’ve often heard the argument, based on Ephesians 2:1-3 that since fallen man is dead in sin, he is incapable of seeking God, doing good, desiring God, responding to the call of God, or believing in Christ while in this dead state. The argument is that man must first be regenerated before he is able to respond to the gospel and believe. In the following points, I give my analysis of Ephesians 2:1-10 and its context and argue that Paul did not intend to use the “death” analogy in the sense of such total disability, and that indeed, men must believe in order to be made alive. I have also included a few other observations about the passage that are not particularly relevant to this subject.
1) “You” is referring to Gentile believers and “we” to Paul and his fellow Jewish believers. Throughout the first three chapters, Paul goes back and forth in addressing each group, but implies that what was and is true of one group was and is also true of the other.
The cause of the irregular syntax in vv. 1-3 is that the portrayal of former Gentiles as “dead in transgressions and sins” has been expanded into a generalized description of the human predicament apart from Christ.
2) Ephesians 2:1 is preceded by a glorious description of Christ’s resurrection from the dead in Ephesians 1:19-23 and by a description of the resurrection-like power that is at work in believers. The parallel passage in Colossians 2:13 is also preceded by mention of the resurrection of Christ and followed by the idea that we have been made alive with Christ, participating in His resurrection.
having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (Colossians 2:12-14, NASB95)
Ephesians 2:5-6 has this same thought of God giving us life in the resurrection by raising us up with Christ.
3) “Death” and “resurrected” are used metaphorically. It is clear that we were not physically dead and it is clear that we have not yet been physically resurrected. Neither is it certain that we were spiritually dead, since we followed a spirit–the prince of the power of the air. Presumably, our spirits interacted with this prince of spirits when we followed him.
4) The metaphor of death could have many implications in the author’s and reader’s minds. It could mean that unbelievers are—unable, insensible, cut off and separated, smelly, gross, hopeless, ugly, worthless, shunned, void of life (meaning life in the sense of the fulfillment of our God-given desires), etc.
5) We must be careful not to press a metaphor too far, just as we can get into trouble pressing every point of a parable. A metaphor is intended by the author for one main purpose and going beyond that purpose can miss and distort the author’s intention. For an example of how the metaphor of “death” can be pressed too far and lead to errant teaching from Romans 6, see The Message of Romans, by John Stott, p. 169-172.
6) The context of a metaphor will usually indicate the thrust of the author’s meaning in the use of the metaphor
7) Our resurrection from “death” includes being seated with Christ. Obviously, this has not actually occurred, but is positional. It describes our new standing and relationship with God. We are one with Christ and therefore enjoy the same standing and place of privilege in the presence of God as Christ does.
8) Since our resurrection and seating are positional and relational, it would seem most likely that our “death” was also, at least primarily, positional and relational.
9) Verses two and three seem to primarily describe the extent of our trespasses and sins rather than describe what it means to be “dead.” However, they may also reveal aspects of what it meant to be in a state of death. Either way, these verses describe our former condition and position. Our condition was 1) walking according to the course of the world and the devil, 2) living in (indiscriminately indulging) the lusts of the body and the mind. Our position before God is described in verse three as “children of (deserving) wrath.”
10) Verses 6-7 don’t seem to speak so much of our condition after we are made “alive,” as it speaks of our position as “raised up” and “seated” with Christ.
11) “Alive” seems to involve being brought into a relationship with God. This may parallel Romans 6, where we are to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ and, as Christ is doing, we ought to live our lives to God. Although we should not use Romans to interpret Ephesians, Paul’s thoughts in one epistle often parallel those in another and can therefore help to clarify them.
12) “Alive” and “raised” evidently include experiencing the immeasurable riches of God’s grace and kindness in Christ through the coming ages.
13) Throughout Ephesians, Paul’s focus is on the believer’s position in Christ. Particularly, he focuses on the Gentiles gaining a standing and relationship with God alongside the Jews.
14) Ephesians 4:18 gives a similar description of the sinful condition of the Gentiles
…being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; (Ephesians 4:18, NASB95)
If we view the analogy of death in Ephesians 2:1 as primarily referring to being cut off from a relationship with God, then this description “excluded from the life of God” would be consistent with the phrase “Dead in transgressions and sins.”
15) Throughout Paul’s writings, sin and death are tied together, death being the consequence of sin and the judgment of God upon us for our sin. This corresponds better with the idea that “death” in Ephesians 2:1 is primarily referring to judgment and separation from God and the absence of His favor and blessing than with the idea that death in Ephesians 2:1 refers to absolute inability or insensitivity.
16) Verses two and three argue against the idea that Paul has inability or insensitivity in mind when he speaks of death, since he says that those who are dead in their sins “walked” (verse 2) and “lived” (verse3). Dead men don’t walk or live. Since Paul says that unbelieving Gentiles walk and live, it seems obvious that he is not using the death metaphor to speak of absolute inability to do anything, but rather some other aspect of death, particularly separation from God, His favor, His blessing, and the life that flows from Him.
17) Helplessness and inability do seem to be secondary implications of the death metaphor. This is implied in verse 5, where Paul emphasizes God as the Rescuer, Savior, and Initiator. In His grace and kindness, He has initiated salvation, sent His Son, and drawn us to Himself. Yet this secondary sense of the death metaphor seems to refer to our total inability to save ourselves out of our hopeless situation, rather than an inability to do anything good whatsoever or to desire anything good or to desire to find God.
18) Paul’s description of an unbeliever’s condition would also seem to imply that, by and large, we did not want God or seek Him, being obsessed with sin and self. Yet this implication does not necessarily mean that unbelievers are totally incapable of shame, remorse, repentance, or responding to a call to change. Such a position would be pressing the point of the death metaphor too far and ignoring Paul’s primary point of the death analogy—alienation from God. Additionally, despite their fallen state, God is drawing men to Himself (John 6:44-45), convicting them through the work of the Spirit (John 16:8-11), wooing them through his kindness (Romans 2:4) and in other ways influencing them toward repentance and faith.
19) Ephesians 1:10 “this” is in the neuter gender and grammatically must refer back to the previous concept, not to “faith” or “grace,” both of which are feminine. “This” refers to this salvation (see Is Faith the Gift in Ephesians 2:8?).
20) Ephesians 2:8 says “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NASB95). When we read the word “saved” it is often instructive to ask, “Saved from what?” since the word “saved” is so broadly used in the scripture. In this passage, “been saved” surely alludes to the saving work of God that Paul has just described in the previous verses (1-7)—saving us from a life of death in sin, from following the world, the flesh, and the devil and from the wrath of God that we deserved as children of wrath. “Been saved” also refers back to God’s making us alive together with Christ, raising us up with Christ, and seating us in the heavenly places so that He can show us his kindness in future ages. Right in the middle of Paul’s statement that we were dead in transgressions and that He made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with Him, he states “by grace you have been saved. This certainly confirms that the salvation Paul has in view is regeneration–being raised from death to life. But how was this salvation accomplished? Paul says that we have been saved (brought from death to life) “by grace…through faith.” So, if indeed the word “saved” alludes to the salvation just described in verses 1-7 (as it most certainly does), it is crystal clear that Paul’s use of the death analogy was not intended to show that men are incapable of faith without first being resurrected, since faith is required in order for this resurrection to be accomplished. We were made alive “thorough faith.” For other verses that indicate that regeneration is by faith, see Is Regeneration by Faith or Faith by Regeneration?
21) The scriptural teaching that regeneration is through faith does not negate the possibility that God’s election of people to salvation is unconditional. Men will not believe unless drawn to Christ by the Father (John 6:44) and the scripture seems to teach that such an effectual calling precedes faith even if regeneration does not.
In Ephesians 2, Paul describes believers’ former condition as dead in sin. He describes the depth and extent of that sin and then describes God’s glorious work in raising believers from death and seating them with Christ. The context of Ephesians 2:1 indicates that we should understand Paul’s “dead” metaphor primarily as referring to separation from God and His favor, blessing, and life and resurrection as referring to our new standing before and relationship with God. Our inability to change or save ourselves is also implied by the death metaphor and by the need for God to raise us from death. However, using the “dead” metaphor to say that prior to this resurrection, believers had no ability whatsoever to discern their sin, seek God, or believe in Christ is reading more into the metaphor than Paul intended. There is no indication that Paul intended the metaphor to mean absolute inability to do anything whatsoever, especially when he says that such people do have the ability to “walk” and “live” in their dead state. Finally, Paul says that the salvation he just described (including our resurrection to life) was accomplished “through faith.” So, dead men (in the sense of death that Paul is using) can believe and, in fact, must believe in order to be made alive.
Mays, J. L., Harper & Row, P., & Society of Biblical Literature. (1996, c1988). Harper’s Bible commentary (Eph 2:1). San Francisco: Harper & Row.