The Lord's Day Morning
October 2, 2005
“Dead in Sin”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Ephesians, chapter two, as we continue to work our way through this great letter of the Apostle Paul.
In Ephesians 2, having praised God in Ephesians 1 for the greatness of God's mercy to us in Jesus Christ, having interceded in the second half of Ephesians 1 to God to enlighten our eyes to appreciate, to understand, to come to a greater comprehension of God's mercy to us in Jesus Christ, Paul now sets the mercy of God against the backdrop of our predicament. In Ephesians 2, verses 1-3 in particular, Paul is going to tell us in the starkest terms the human plight. He will describe to us the state of our hearts, the state of ourselves apart from Christ, apart from His grace, apart from His mercy as human beings in this fallen world — and it's not a pretty picture.
Paul isn't telling us this to depress us, even as Dr. Stott reminded us in that beautiful section from his commentary, read before the service. The Apostle Paul wants us first of all to be realistic about human nature. All around us today, even in this world of trouble, people continue to say that the answer to the problems of this world is found in the human heart. The Apostle Paul wants to say to us, ‘No, my friends. All of the problems in this fallen world are found in the human heart, but the answer is not found there, but somewhere else.’ And it is that ‘somewhere else’ from which we get our Christian optimism even in the midst of this dark and depressing, sinful world, and that's what Paul wants to point us to this day. So let's prepare to hear God's word in Ephesians 2 by going to Him in prayer. Let's pray.
Lord God, thank You for Your word. As different an assessment as is Yours revealed here in Paul's words of this world and of the people who dwell in it, than we hear from voices all around us, we pray nevertheless that we would believe Your assessment of the world and not the world's assessment of the world, and that in seeing Your assessment of our hearts, ourselves, our community, our nation, our world, that we would also see the glory of Your grace, and we would go to the only hope of salvation, which is in Jesus Christ. Open our eyes, O God, to behold wonderful things from Your word. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God.
“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
I. We are dead in sin.
The Apostle Paul has a bleak but realistic message to share with us in this great passage, and the message is this: The natural state of all human beings is spiritual death. Apart from the mercy of God, apart from the grace of God shed abroad in our hearts by Jesus Christ received by faith, we are spiritually dead.
Now what does Paul mean by that when he says that we're spiritually dead? Because again, not only does the world say to us otherwise, but perhaps there are things in our own experience that say to us otherwise in estimation of our spiritual condition. Perhaps you’re here this morning and you haven't trusted in Jesus Christ. Perhaps you find the claims of Christianity and Christ very strange, and you say ‘I am very much alive. I choose, I speak, I will, and I do. I am very much alive.’ And the Apostle Paul says to you, ‘No, you are dead.’ What does he mean by that? Well, the Apostle Paul means a number of things.
First of all, when Paul says that you are dead he means that you are in a state of spiritual alienation from God. Life is communion with God, and apart from communion with God there is no real life. You can be breathing, you can be doing what you want to do, you can be choosing what you want to do, and yet, if you are a human being created in the image of God and you are not in saving fellowship with the God who created you for eternal fellowship with Himself, you are not experiencing life. Jesus came to give life, not because we already had it, but because we had forfeited it in our sin. And so the Apostle is saying, ‘Here is the status of all humanity apart from the grace of Christ: spiritual alienation from God, and that means to be dead even if we're walking and breathing and choosing and saying and doing. It means spiritual death.
But the Apostle Paul explains here also from whence this state of death has come, and notice what he says: our trespasses and sins. “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” Sin is the root of this spiritual death. This death has been brought about by sin, and Paul uses this term trespasses indicating a transgression against the law of God, going across a boundary that God has set; but he also uses that term sin, which means to miss the mark, in which Paul's emphasis is not just that we missed the goal by an itty-bitty bit like we miss the bull's eye on a target practicing site, but he means that we failed to meet the purpose for which God created us. It's a horrible thing, and the Apostle Paul says this is the source of the spiritual death in which all humanity apart from Christ finds itself. This alienation Paul calls death. We are dead.
Now this, my friends, is utterly alien to what the world tells us about ourselves as humans. The world tells us that we are basically good and if we just make ourselves determined we can do anything. And in the realm of salvation those two propositions are utterly lethal. And the Apostle Paul is there to tell us that with regard to our salvation there is no help in us, there is no good in us, that can make us right with God. And furthermore, there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. Now, that's vitally important for us to hear. Paul understands that what he is saying is out of step with the world of his day even as it is out of step with the world today.
So many people tell us, “Here is the Christian message: “Be confident with yourself. You can do it. That's the Christian message,” they say. And the Apostle Paul says, “Here's the beginning of the Christian message: you are dead.” Now, you couldn't find a more complete opposite to what we often hear pawned off as Christianity today and the truth, than what Paul says here.
Now Paul, in making this general statement tells us five more things that I want to consider with you today, and the first thing he says is this: Everybody — everybody — apart from Christ is in this condition. Everybody apart from Christ is dead, spiritually dead. Everybody.
You know, maybe you grew up looking at those “B” horror movies like Night of the Living Dead, in which zombies come back and terrorize the community, and you think that's gross and a little bit scary, but the Apostle Paul is saying that humanity apart from Christ is really living the life of the living dead. We think we have life. We think that we are alive, and yet we are dead. And the Apostle Paul is asserting here when he says (notice in verse 1), “You were dead…” and then again in verse  “…we too all were by nature children of wrath….” He is asserting that the spiritual condition of spiritual death is universal. Both Gentiles (verse 2) and Jews (verse 3) are by nature children of wrath. Every human being apart from Christ is in this spiritual condition.
Again, you may have met unbelievers who are delightful to be with. They are alive intellectually, they are smart, they’re brilliant, they’re fun. They may be kind, they may be generous, and yet the Apostle Paul is saying no matter how kind and smart and intelligent a person is, apart from Christ that person is spiritually dead. Because whatever (Paul says elsewhere) “…whatever is not from faith is sin.” Those who are living not for the glory of their Creator, no matter what good things they are doing, are not producing those good things from life deep in the depths of their soul, and so the Apostle Paul is speaking of a predicament that is universal here. Everyone is dead in sin.
II. We are in active rebellion against God.
Secondly, he goes on to say this: We are not only dead in sin, we are in active rebellion against God. Look at verse 1: “…your trespasses and sins.” He speaks of breaking God's law and missing the point, missing the mark, missing the goal, the purpose for which we have been made. Look at verse 2: “…in which you formerly walked….” That's a term that is often used to express the whole tendency of our lives. “You walk in the way” is a way of saying that you follow the truth, but when you say that you walk in darkness, it's a way of expressing that the whole of your life is bent toward the darkness, toward that which is not God's will. And so he goes on to say in verse 3, “…we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind….” Paul is saying that our spiritual condition of deadness is not just some theoretical thing that preachers speak about in order to manipulate you to respond to their message, but it is something that is evidenced in our outward life. It can be seen in our actions and in our choices, and the Apostle Paul says this: What we see then, apart from Christ, is that men and women rebel against God. They live lives which are evidenced by living in the “lusts of the flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind.” They are lives of active rebellion against God.
One of the things that is so striking about what Paul says here is that we live in a generation that tells us if you desire to do it, it could not possibly be wrong. And the Apostle Paul is saying ‘My friend, that is an evidence that you are spiritually dead when you think that way.’ When you think that if you desire it, it must be good, it must be something that adds to your life, and therefore no one can tell you that you can't do what you desire, you are simply giving irrefutable proof to the truth that you are spiritually dead. Because these desires, though they may be alive and burning in us, these desires which are according to the flesh are not desires that are begotten of life, but they are begotten of death and they lead to death. And the Apostle Paul says there's your proof. And this generation around you says ‘We will do what we want to do, and it is wrong for anyone to tell us that we can't do what we want to do.’ They are simply proving the Apostle Paul's point.
III. Those who are spiritually dead are dominated by the world.
But he's not done. He goes on to say, thirdly, and you’ll see this especially in verse 2, that the lives of those who are apart from Christ reflect the dominion not of God, not of life, but of what? The world, the flesh, and the devil. The lives of those who are apart from Christ reflect the dominion of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Listen to Paul's words:
“You formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind….”
In other words, the Apostle Paul is saying that those who are spiritually dead are dominated and directed by the urgings and the desires and the instincts of the world, the flesh, and the devil. They’re not getting their marching orders from God; they’re getting their marching orders from the world, from the sinful desires of the flesh, and from Satan himself. This is the spiritual condition in which everyone apart from Jesus Christ finds him- or herself.
IV. We are totally unable to help ourselves.
And Paul's still not done with the bad news. He goes on to say — again, you see it in verses 1-3 — that we are totally unable to do anything about this situation. We are absolutely enslaved. We have been captivated by this dominion, this direction, these influences of the world and the flesh and the devil. Notice again those stark words: “You were dead in your trespasses and sins…”; you “…lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and mind.” The Apostle Paul is saying that we are in a state in which we cannot rescue ourselves, because we like this dominion. We like to indulge these desires.
Do you remember…was it 1984?…in which people were controlled by inflicting not pain, but pleasure? We like being dominated by the world, the flesh, and the devil. We don't sense any need for liberation, and we are in fact spiritually dead to all that is really alive. This is what we call, for shorthand, the doctrine of total depravity; that is, that every part of every human being apart from the saving and restraining grace of God, is morally corrupt. We are corrupt in our mind, in our will, and in our affections. We don't think straight about these spiritual things. We don't long “straight” about these spiritual things, in the sense of not … we don't desire “straight”…our desires are messed up. And we don't will “straight.” We don't choose the right thing, we don't want to do the right thing, we are not inclined to the right thing. It's not that the Apostle Paul is saying that we are in God's spiritual doghouse; the Apostle Paul is saying ‘No, you’re in the morgue!’ You’re not in the doghouse. There's nothing that you can do to make up for this and you wouldn't even if you could, apart from the grace of Christ. You are dead in trespasses and sin.
This is the doctrine of total depravity, and the importance of it is this: The Apostle Paul is saying that the answer to our spiritual condition is not in any way found in ourselves. The source of our redemption cannot in any way come from ourselves; it must come from somewhere else because the source of our problems comes from ourselves.
I know that that is a pessimistic estimation of human beings, but the only way that you can get hope in the Scriptures is not to look deep within your own heart, but to get out of those hearts and out of the labyrinth of sin there and look up to God in His saving faith and grace and mercy and love. And that's what the Apostle Paul is doing. He's painting a grim picture, a true picture, a realistic picture, of the human predicament.
We've seen it displayed, haven't we, in Technicolor® in the last month and a week, what humans are capable of doing? How they can allow self-interest to remove all restraints from normal human decency and decorum: to gouge those who are in need, in grief; to pillage and loot because there is no law and order. We have seen what the human heart is capable of. And the Apostle Paul says because that is the true picture of the human heart, hope is not found in here. Hope is not found in us. Salvation is not found in us. We are dead in sin.
Now, many people object to this. They say, ‘Well, if that's the case, then we can't do anything about it. It just is the way it is. We’re hopeless and helpless and all we have to do is just recognize that unless God does something we can't exercise faith, we can't repent? That's a contradictory preaching. It just doesn't make sense. You say on the one hand to repent and believe, and on the other hand you’re spiritually dead and you can do nothing. That's contradictory; it doesn't make sense.’ That's not a new objection, by the way, to the Apostle Paul's teaching. It's been around for a long time.
One of my favorite stories of this in found in the life of Benjamin Morgan Palmer, who was for a period of time the minister of First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. When he was in Savannah in the 1840's, there was a great revival sweeping across that city and he had been preaching this doctrine in revival services. Now, that doesn't seem to make sense, does it? You know, people are gathered, and they’re there to respond to the saving word of the gospel and he's been preaching total depravity in those revival services! And it really got one man's dander up, and he came to visit Dr. Palmer in his office, and Dr. Palmer records the encounter. He says,
“A young man came to me to complain about my Calvinism. “You preachers are the most contradictory men in the world,” he said. “Why, in your sermon you said that sinners were perfectly helpless in themselves, utterly unable to repent or believe, and then you turn around and said that we would all be damned if we did not.”
Palmer sensed that this visitor was wrestling with the great issues of life and of death, and so to make sure that the man really dealt with the gospel, he gave him a very indifferent response: “Well, my dear sir, there is no use in quarrelling. Either you can, or you cannot. If you can repent and believe all I have to say to you is I hope you will just go and do it.” Palmer describes what happened next:
“As I did not raise my eyes from writing, I had no means of marking the effect of these words until, after a moment's silence, with a choking utterance the reply came back. “I have been trying my best for three whole days and cannot!” “Ah!” I responded, raising my eyes and putting down my pen. “That puts a different face on it. We will go and tell this difficulty straight to God.”
“We knelt down, and I prayed as though this were the first time in human history that this trouble had ever arisen: that here was a soul in the most desperate extremity, which must believe or perish, and hopelessly unable of itself to do it, and that consequently it was just the case for divine intervention. Upon rising, I offered not one single word of comfort or advice, and so I left my friend in his powerlessness in the hands of God as his only helper.
“In a short time, he came through the struggle rejoicing in the hope of eternal life. Why? Because he had finally been brought to the end of himself, and he realized there was no help in him, and hence his eyes had to be directed to the only place from whence help can come, and then comes the hope, and then comes the grace, and then comes the mercy, and then comes the triumph.”
V. We are justly under the judgment of God.
We are dead in sins. And Paul's still not done. He says, and you’ll notice it again in verse 3, that we are “…by nature children of wrath….” In other words, we are justly under the judgment of God. He is right to condemn us in our sins.
Until we understand our plight, we are not in a position to appreciate God's grace. I don't say that every true believer at the moment of his conversion has a full appreciation for his own sin and for the Savior's grace, but I do say this: Unless we study to know our sin and to see it for what it is, and unless those of us who have come to faith in Christ remember what we were apart from the grace of Christ, then we will never ever appreciate the magnificence of God's saving grace to us in Jesus Christ.
It is a desperate world, and our hearts are desperately wicked, but God's grace is greater than all our sin. May God grant you to know and believe that truth, and believe on Jesus Christ.
Let us pray.
Our Lord and our God, show us our sin, and then show us the Savior. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.