Some years ago as a youth pastor I hiked with some of my high schoolers to the top of Mt. Whitney in California, the highest spot in the continental United States (14,495 feet). We exulted over the wonderful panorama of the Sierra Nevadas and the Mojave Desert. What a spot, with its rarefied, crystal-clear air, its indigo and turquoise lakes—vista giving way to vista as far as one could see. As we gazed together from what seemed to be the top of the world, one of our party pointed out that only eighty miles to the southeast was Death Valley, the lowest spot in the United States at 280 feet below sea level and the hottest place in the country with a record 134 degrees in the shade!
What a contrast! One place is the top of the world, the other the bottom. One place is perpetually cool, the other relentlessly hot. From Mt. Whitney you look down on all of life. From Death Valley you can only look up to the rest of the world.
In Ephesians 2 Paul takes us down to the Death Valley of the Soul (vv. 1–3) and then up to “the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (vv. 4–7). His method is contrast: from death to life, from Hell to Heaven, from bondage to freedom, from pessimism to optimism. The journey’s contrast will enhance our appreciation for what we have in Christ and will influence the way we live.
Death Valley (vv.1–3)
Paul begins at the very bottom of Death Valley: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins” (v. 1). This is an absolute statement. He doesn’t mean that they were merely in danger of death, but that they were in a state of “real and present death.”1 Death is not a figure of speech. Paul means they were absolutely dead. Moreover, though Paul speaks of Gentiles in verse 1, he includes his fellow Jews in verse 3. This state of spiritual death is universal. He is not describing some decadent, drugged-out segment of society, but all humanity, from top to bottom. All people are dead apart from Christ.
The bottom line here is, when Paul says “dead” he means it to have universal and absolute application—no exceptions. I have in my file a photograph of the corpse of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, father of utilitarianism. The photo shows his body sitting in a chair, dressed and hatted in early nineteenth-century gentleman’s wear. The whole thing is a result of his dark humor, for when he died he gave orders that his entire estate be given to the University College Hospital in London on the condition that his body be preserved and placed in attendance at all the hospital’s board meetings. This was duly carried out, and every year to this day Bentham is wheeled up to the board table and the chairman says, “Jeremy Bentham, present but not voting.” This is, of course, a great joke on his utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham will never raise his hand in response, he will never submit a motion—because he has been dead for nearly a hundred and sixty years.
The fact is, dead people can’t do anything, and that is what Paul is talking to us about—the spiritual state of those apart from Christ.
How can this be, some wonder, when so many around us, unlike Jeremy Bentham, are so very much alive? Their bodies are virile and robust, they have quick, active intellects, they are brimming with personality. The answer is this: in the area that matters most, the soul, they have no life. They are blind to the reality, demands, and glory of Christ—and they do not love him. They are as deaf to the Holy Spirit as a corpse. “Abba, Father!” has no part in their vocabulary. Because of this, John Stott says, “We should not hesitate to reaffirm that a life without God (however physically fit and mentally alert the person may be) is a living death, and that those who live it are dead even while they are living.”2 Those without Christ are in Death Valley!
These are hard, hard words. How does Paul support his thesis? Those who are spiritually dead are under the sway of the world, the devil, and the flesh, and Paul names them in this order in verses 2, 3.
World. Regarding their domination by the world, he says in the first part of verse 2, “in which you once walked, following the course of this world.” The word translated “world” (kosmos) is used 186 times in the Greek New Testament, and virtually every instance has an evil connotation. Linked with the word “course” or age this phrase means, “the present evil age” (cf. Galatians 1:4). Those without Christ are captive to the social and value system of the present evil age, which is hostile to Christ. They are willing slaves to the pop culture of the media, the “group think” of the talk shows, post-Christian mores, and man-centered religious fads. The spiritually dead are dominated by the world!
The Devil. Paul describes the devil as “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (v. 2). Satan is described in Scripture as “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31), “the prince of demons” (Matthew 9:34), and, a sobering title, “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4). As “the prince of the power of the air,” he commands innumerable hosts in the unseen world and thus creates a spirit of the age, a cosmos diabolicus in which he knits just enough good with evil to achieve his purposes. This Devil dominates and energizes the spiritually dead!
The flesh. “... 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” (v. 3). The dead are corrupted from within too. Take, for example, the little girl who was disciplined by her mother for kicking her brother in the shins and then pulling his hair. “Sally,” said her mother, “why did you let the devil make you kick your little brother and pull his hair?” To which she answered, “The Devil made me kick him, but pulling his hair was my idea!” Yes, people sin under the devil’s influence, but they also sin on their own.
The dead, those without Christ, are dominated by the world, the devil, and the flesh. The world dominates from without, the flesh from within, and the devil from beyond. These are the terrible dynamics of spiritual death!
Paul concludes, “[We] were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (v. 3b). Everyone, Jews and Gentiles, were (and are) sinners “by nature.” They all sinned in and with Adam and are therefore guilty (Romans 5:12–14), objects of God’s settled wrath. As John the Baptist said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36).
It has been often noted that these verses in Ephesians are a three-verse summary of the first three chapters of the Book of Romans, which teach the total depravity and death of humankind. The Biblical doctrine of depravity means that every part of the human person is tainted by sin.3 It does not mean that all humans are equally depraved, for most do not go near the depths to which they could go. As John Gerstner says, there is always room for “deprovement.” Nor does it mean that humans are not capable of any good (cf. Luke 11:13), or that there is no dignity in man, for there certainly is—he is the imperfect bearer of the divine image (Genesis 1:27). Rather, the meaning is that no part of the human being (mind, emotions, heart, will) is unaffected by the fall. All of us are depraved—totally!
Because of this, apart from Christ we are totally lost. So profound is human depravity that near the end of his argument in Romans 3 Paul says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (vv. 10, 11; cf. Psalm 14:3, 53:1–3). We often hear people say, “Such and such a person is seeking after God.” Indeed, it may be true that he or she is seeking the peace or hope that salvation brings, but if we are to believe God’s Word and not our sentiment, it is the Holy Spirit who is prompting them. The Biblical doctrine of depravity demands an acceptance of man’s absolute spiritual death.
A pastor friend of mine once told me that when he was working in a mortuary (while attending college and seminary) one night he walked into the darkened mortuary chapel and saw an eerie sight—an open casket at the front of the chapel with a body lying in it. He crept slowly to the casket and then slowly elevated himself so he could see the tip of the corpse’s nose—and then shouted, “Boo!” It didn’t move an eyelash! The Jeremy Bentham principle is still intact. Dead men cannot respond.
The uniqueness of the Biblical position can be seen when we note that in the long history of the human race there have been (and are) three basic views of human nature: man is well, man is sick, or man is dead. Supporters of the first view argue that all he needs is a good diet, exercise, and some vitamins. ‘‘I’m alright and you’re alright” is their motto. Proponents of the second view agree that man is sick, maybe even mortally sick, but his situation is certainly not hopeless. The Biblical view is that man is not well or sick but dead—“dead in [his] trespasses and sins.” All man’s self-help will avail nothing!4 You can play reveille in the Arlington National Cemetery for a whole year, but you will get no response from the dead soldiers there.
Every soul outside of Christ is in the Death Valley of the Soul. This is a desolate image, almost exactly like that which Ezekiel gives in the thirty-seventh chapter of his prophecy:
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.” (Ezekiel 37:1–3)
Everyone without Christ is dead. Most people do not want to hear this today, and many pulpits are silent about this doctrine. But it is a crucial truth because Christ’s atoning death does not make any sense without it. A view of the Death Valley of the Soul is necessary for a proper view of the heavenlies.
The Heights of Life (vv. 4–7)
Resurrection. The journey from Death Valley to the spiritual heights of life is accomplished only by resurrection! “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” (vv. 4, 5). The eminent New Testament scholar Marcus Barth says that “in the majority of occurrences in the New Testament, the verb ‘to make alive’ is a synonym of ‘to raise’ from the dead.”5 Man is radically dead, and he can be saved only by the radicalness of resurrection!
If you are a Christian you have experienced resurrection power, for as Paul earlier said of God’s power in the believer in 1:19, 20: “[It is like] the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead.” Humanity is divided into two groups: those who are resurrected, and those who are dead. Self-help will not save those who are “dead in [their] trespasses and sins.” No one can crawl from the casket. He or she must be “made... alive together with Christ.”
When we were dead in our sins, we were depraved in every area. But having been made alive, his life now touches every area. Instead of deprovement, there has come improvement. The archives of the Billy Graham Center contain a letter that the soon-to-be-great evangelist Charles Fuller wrote to his wife the night of his conversion, July 16, 1916:
There has been a complete change in my life. Sunday I went up to Los Angeles and heard Paul Rader preach. I never heard such a sermon in all my life. Ephesians 1:18. Now my whole life and aims and ambitions are changed. I feel now that I want to serve God if he can use me instead of making the goal of life the making of money.6
Charles Fuller experienced a spiritual resurrection that warm July night, and the change was so radical that he became a mighty instrument of God.
Ascension. With spiritual resurrection comes ascension to the heights of Heaven: “And [God] raised us up with [Christ] and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (v. 6). Though not yet there physically, we Christians are already in the heavenlies by virtue of our union with Christ. Spiritually we are seated on the throne along with other believers. The powers of the spiritual realm have been brought to bear on our present life.
Riches. And what will be the end of all this? Actually there will be no end, because as verse 7 concludes, “that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” A Roman matron was once asked, “Where are your jewels?” She responded by calling her two sons and, pointing to them, said, “These are my jewels.”7 So it is with Christ and his Church. He is going to show the all-surpassing riches of his grace to his children in the “limitless future, as age succeeds age.”8 He will show his grace and kindness before his return, at his return, after his return, and in all ages.9
On that beautiful day as my friends and I stood on the pinnacle of Mt. Whitney rejoicing at the beauty of the scene, a navy jet buzzed over us, breaking the sound barrier as it crossed the summit about 100 feet over our heads. Then he did barrel rolls off into the horizon, only to come back from the opposite direction and do the same thing. He was having a good time, but his thrill didn’t compare to ours. He was just an observer passing by in a plastic bubble. We were there—standing on the summit, breathing alpine freshness, feeling God’s creation. Only one thing would have made it better—rising from Death Valley that very morning, from the lowest to the highest.
We Christians have done that very thing in Christ. We were all in the Death Valley of the Soul, in desolation, lost, hopeless. But through his resurrection we have been raised to the highest heaven! We are fully alive!
Where are our friends and loved ones right now—“dead in [their] trespasses and sins” or “made... alive together with Christ”? There is resurrection power available for all who are without life, even among the parched bones of Death Valley.
1. Calvin’s Commentaries: The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, Vol. II, trans. T. H. L. Parker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 139.
2. John R. W. Stott, God’s New Society (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), p.72.
3. See also Ford Lewis Battles, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), p. 251, who says: “Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls ‘works of the flesh’ [Gal. 5:19].”
4. James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), pp. 200, 201.
5. Marcus Barth, Ephesians, Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 1–3 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974), pp. 219, 220.
6. Illustration Cornucopia, Summer 1984, No. 1, Archives of the Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL.
7. William Hendriksen, Exposition of Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1970), p. 119.
8. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Ephesians (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1973), p. 51.
9. Hendriksen, Exposition of Ephesians, pp. 119, 120.
The Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is one of the most dynamic portions of all of Scripture. Called by one commentator “the crown and climax of Pauline theology,” it issues a clarion call to all who follow the Master. With its dual focus on Christ and the Church, as well as its careful presentation of doctrine and duty, Ephesians points the way to true Christian living and victory in a sin-embattled world.