Are we sinners because we do bad things, or do we do bad things because we are sinners? A recent survey in the US found that a clear majority of professing evangelicals would say that we are born innocent. This optimistic view of human nature may well chime with what many would like to think, yet the Bible paints a much bleaker picture of fallen human nature, with Paul going so far as to say that by nature we are “children of wrath.” Without a clear picture of the seriousness and urgency of the problem of our sinfulness, we are unlikely to put much effort into how we can be saved from it. The God whose grace rescues us from our sin will also seem less glorious than He really is. In the following updated extract James Fergusson opens up Paul’s words of Ephesians 2:1–3. Fergusson’s comments show clearly how what we need saving from is not something superficial, and the salvation God provides is not only radically transformative for us but on His part impressively rich and generous.
Every one of us by nature, and before conversion, is dead, not to sin, but in sin. Paul addresses the Ephesians as, “You who were dead in sins” (Ephesians 2:1). That means we are wholly deprived of all ability and power to convert ourselves (Rom. 9:16), or to do any thing which is spiritually good (Rom. 8:7). While Paul says that the Ephesians were dead in sins before God quickened them, he is speaking of a thing common to them with others, which is why he includes himself and the other believing Jews with them (verse 3).
The fountain-cause of this spiritual death was Adam’s sin (in him all have sinned, Romans 5:12), and through the merit of his sin imputed to us, we are deprived of original righteousness (Romans 7:18), and a perverse inclination to all evil has come in its place (Genesis 6:5). Additionally, every individual’s own particular actual sins lay him lower under this state of death, and make it all the more difficult for him to be delivered from it (Jeremiah 13:23).
The evidence of spiritual deadness is sinful activity
The evidence that they were dead in sins and trespasses is their walking in and making a daily trade of sin, without striving against it, and without any thorough remorse for it. “Ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air …” (verse 2). Paul illustrates this woeful walk from the two guides which they followed, and which carried them on and encouraged them in their sinful course. The first was, the universal corrupt course and custom of “the world;” and the second guide was Satan, here called “the prince of the power of the air.”
Walking in sin is different from falling into sin
Although the regenerate still have a body of sin and death dwelling in them (Romans 7:24), and do sometimes actually fall in sin (indeed, even very gross sins, 2 Samuel 11:4, 12:9), yet they do not walk in sin. That is, to the child of God, sin is not like the way of the traveller, so as they make it their daily trade and employment (Psalm 1:1), or sin without any reluctancy flowing from a spiritual principle against what they know to be sin (Galatians 5:17), or walk after sin by making sin, and suggestions to sin, their guide whom they willingly follow (Romans 8:1). Sin may conquer the regenerate, and carry them as an unwilling captive (Romans 7:14, etc.), but they no longer “walk” in sin; for Paul says that for them it was “in time past ye walked.”
Such is the power of converting grace, that it causes people to change their former way and course, however deeply they were rooted in it and habituated to it. There is a change from how they walked in “time past,” such that they do not so walk in the time present.
The Lord is not at all moved by the merit or worth of those whom He doth convert, to bestow converting grace on them rather than on others whom He leaves in their unconverted state. In fact, He makes this grace of His to fall on those who are in no respect better than those whom He passes by. These Ephesians, before conversion, were second to none in sin and wickedness, yet He converted them.
The general corrupt custom and example of those with whom we live, or those who lived in the former times, is a strong incitement in the minds of many – and sufficient excuse – to follow them in doing evil, without further inquiry. But it is clear evidence that someone is still in an unrenewed state, when they make the example of others the highest rule according to which they walk, and when they labour to conform themselves more to other people than to the will of God.
We are all sinful by nature
Paul speaks in verse 3 of “the lusts of our flesh … the desires of the flesh and of the mind.” Our obstinate rebellion comes out in the fact that we follow the “lusts,” that is, the impulses and motions and sudden flashes, of our inbred corruption (here called “flesh”), which, flowing from Adam’s first sin, has infected his whole posterity (Christ alone excepted, 2 Corinthians 5:21) and seats itself in all the powers and faculties of our souls and bodies, even including the understanding and will (Romans 8:7; Colossians 2:18). All corruption and sin, even that which is in the mind, is called “flesh,” because it is conveyed by fleshly generation (John 3:6), the fleshly members of the body are the instruments by which all sin is carried out (Romans 6:19), and every sin draws the person away from God to earthly and fleshly things.
This inbred corruption of their natures Paul subdivides into two, the “flesh” and the “mind.” When the term “flesh” is contrasted with the “mind,” it is distinguished from the “flesh” beforementioned. Here it must mean the corruption which is seated in the sensual appetites of the soul, while the “mind” means the more noble faculties of the soul, i.e., the will and understanding, in so far as they are also corrupted. Then the “desires” of the flesh are the deliberate and fixed resolution to follow those lusts and suggestions of corrupt flesh, which, accordingly, Paul says they “fulfilled” and accomplished to the utmost.
Paul then points out the root and fountain-cause of this their miserable slavery and subjection to sin, that is, their natural sin and misery. “Ye were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (verse 3). We were all, from nature, that is, from the very cradle, birth, and conception, “children of wrath,” i.e., by reason of our original sin, liable to God’s eternal wrath.
By nature all of us are wholly sinful
Whatever differences may be among the unregenerate as to circumstances in life, externals in religion, or the particular sins to which they are enslaved, yet all of them are alike vile in God’s sight. Paul pronounces of himself and all of them, Jew and Gentile alike, that they were children of disobedience, because one way or other they followed the lusts of the flesh.
Those who lead a blameless life before the world in their unconverted estate (and therefore thought their condition abundantly good, Philippians 3:7) will, when converting grace comes, see themselves to have been as vile and wretched as any. They will not only see that nothing they did was truly good and acceptable to God, for it was not done in faith (Hebrews 11:6), but also that the root of all sin was in them, budding out without any check or restraint, except from respect to self-interest, reputation, pleasure, or advantage (Matthew 14:5). The more blameless they were before the world, the more their spiritual pride abounded (Philippians 2:7), and so they were all the more loathsome to God (James 4:6).
The whole person, both soul and body, is infected with sin by nature, so that not only the sensual part, but even our will and understanding, are corrupted by it. In the understanding there is not only ignorance but also mistakes about God and good (1 Corinthians 1:23). In the will there is a crooked perverseness and averseness from what is spiritually good (Romans 8:7).
Every unregenerate person is a slave to sin in all these ways. Paul affirms of us all that before conversion, not only flesh was in us, which lusted after unlawful things, but those lusts came the length of fixed resolutions and desires – and not only so, but we fulfilled and accomplish them. Respectable people do not wholly fulfil the lusts of the fleshly appetite, yet they fulfil the desires of the mind by their pride, vanity of spirit, self-seeking, and such like.
All are guilty of original sin by nature, and from the first moment of conception (Psalm 51:5), and therefore, in the course of divine justice, liable to the stroke of God’s wrath and anger, and this by nature also. So the misery of the unregenerate is never sufficiently seen until it is traced back to this bitter root and fountain, the sin and misery in which they were born. When Paul says we were “children of wrath by nature,” he implies that we were also sinners by nature, seeing wrath always follows sin, and sin is the root, fountain, and headstone of all our misery.
Seeing our sinfulness helps us to appreciate holiness
The apostle Paul is intending to establish the Ephesians in the doctrine of salvation by free grace in Christ. In order to do this, he sets out the happiness of the state in which free grace had placed them, by showing the misery of their previous state, before conversion. “You hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). That is, they had been dead – not naturally, but spiritually, for there was nothing in them of the spiritual life which consists in the union of the soul with God (John 5:40) – nothing of the power of the soul, flowing from this union, to do things which are spiritually good and acceptable to God (John 15:5). Natural life consists in the union of the soul with the body, whereby the person is enabled to move, speak, and do the actions which are competent to that life. Analogously, their spiritual deadness tells of their separation from God (Psalm 58:3), and their total inability to do any thing which is spiritually good (Romans 8:7).
Seeing our sinfulness helps us to appreciate God’s mercy
God is rich and overflowing in the exercise of His attribute of mercy. This is apparent when we consider that there is no creature towards which He does not exercise His mercy (Psalm 104:24), and that mercy is exercised, not only without, but also often contrary to, the deserving of those on whom it is exercised (Ezekiel 36:21–22). Yet there is nothing in which God does more to manifest the riches and abundance of His mercy, than in the work of bringing dead sinners to life, and of carrying on the work of grace in them until it is perfected in glory. Just think of the misery of the objects of His mercy (Ezekiel 16:3, etc.), and their bad deservings (Jeremiah 14:7), the greatness of the good things which He bestows on those miserable objects (Luke 12:32), the course He takes for satisfying divine justice, so that those good things can be given without wronging justice (John 3:16), and the multitude of sins which mercy covers in those objects, not only before their conversion (Isaiah 55:7), but also after it (Proverbs 24:16)! All these, and many considerations besides, manifest God to be rich in mercy in quickening dead sinners. “God, who is rich in mercy, hath quickened us.”
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