“…those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them…” (Eph. 2:2c-3a)
With these words, the Apostle Paul reminds the Ephesians of who they were and how they lived before they came to know Christ. But he is quick to emphasize that Jewish Christians were not any better off. Even though they were a part of the chosen people, even though theirs was “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises” (Rom. 9:4), they nevertheless lived “in the passions of the flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses” and were “by nature children of wrath, like everyone else” (Eph. 2:3). There is very much that can be said about this!
In the first place, Paul emphasizes the importance of personal conversion and encounter with God. It is not enough to be a Jew of Jews, of the tribe of Benjamin, a zealous member of the people of God, zealous for the traditions of one’s fathers. It is necessary to see Christ, to be blinded by Him and healed by Him, just as Paul was (cf. Acts 9). Even the Jew of Jews, Saul of Tarsus, must be converted to Christ and to love Him above everything. In the same way, we cannot take any pride in the fact of our having been born into Christian families, having attended church our entire lives, having read the Bible however many times over, if we are not converted to Christ and if we cannot say that we love Him above everything. All those things only point us to Christ; if we cling to them for their own sake, rather than going through them to Christ, then we have missed the point.
Put another way, one is not saved merely by being born into the right family or the right religious tradition. This is a blessing to be appreciated, but it is not enough. This is because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), irrespective of whether they are Jew or Gentile — or, to use more contemporary terms, irrespective of whether they are Christians or not. Even children born into Christian families are afflicted by sin and must be converted to the Lord personally, individually, of their own volition. As a professor of mine from seminary once said, God does not have grandchildren, but only sons and daughters.
The same truth ought to prevent any Christian from adopting an attitude of superiority or contempt towards sinners. If all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, then all are equally in need of God’s grace to be saved. And if we have anything to brag about at all, we must recognize that we received it from God by His grace (1 Cor. 4:17). Christians ought to do well to remember that God saved them from sin and death, they did not save themselves, and for this reason they must always approach sinners with an attitude of compassion and humility and mercy. When it comes to the question of sin, we are all on equal footing before God, from whom we need grace and mercy in order to go on for even a day.
It is also worth noting how Paul conceives of the sinful state in which Christians existed before they became Christians. As he clarifies in vv. 1-2 of this chapter, it is a state of death that consists in living in sin and trespass under the influence of dark forces. Here, Paul specifies the peculiarly bodily element of a state of death. Living in sin and trespass means following the desires of flesh and senses. It is a peculiarly bodily way of existing that consists in the satisfaction of bodily desires, presumably without regard for the Law of God.
It is all the rage these days to speak about embodiment in Christian theology. At the same time, Paul’s doctrine of sin seems clearly (to me, anyway) to emphasize that living in sin is a particular way of relating to the desires and impulses of one’s body. I admit that I have platonizing tendencies, but my inclination is understand Paul as maintaining that sinful existence consists in a kind of servile slavery to the random impulses of the body. To be dead in sin and trespass is to exist in a body without imposing a kind of rule and order on the body in accordance with God’s Law.
On the other hand, living in righteousness, as Paul will later describe in ch. 4, consists precisely in imposing a rule on the impulses of the body and not obeying them simply because they present themselves. It means not acting on anger, even if anger has arisen; it means not engaging in sexual immortality, even if desire has showed its face; and so on. While Christian theology does not reject bodily existence altogether, it does insist that a proper bodily existence is not one in which the impulses of the body are given free reign, but rather are brought into order and disciplined, according to the Law of God.