Study Guide Prepared by: John McVay
Key Texts: Eph 2:1-10
- Paul describes the conversion story of pagans who have become Christians. Does every conversion story track on the same basic steps he discloses here in Ephesians 2:1-10?
- Paul writes that the believers “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph 2:3). What does that mean? How does the phrase relate to concepts of “original sin”? (See the “Excursus” that concludes this study guide)
- In what sense is the believer called to track on the trajectory of Jesus from death to exaltation/enthronement? (Eph 2:4-6) How does one actually practice this?
- Just where are “the heavenly places” and what goes on there?
Which segment of Ephesians 2:1-10 do you like the best? Why? Our text exhibits three parts: (1) The sad, pre-conversion existence of those who are now believers (Eph 2:1-3); (2) God’s intervention to redeem them and His plans for them (Eph 2:4-7); (3) A celebration of the gospel as exhibited in their story (Eph 2:8-10).
How challenging was the plight in which believers in Ephesus were once enmeshed? In Eph 2:1-3, Paul underlines the sad reality of the pre-conversion existence of the addressees by noting that they were spiritually dead, practicing trespasses and sins as their regular pattern of life (Eph 2:1), dominated by a daunting mix of forces, both external (Eph 2:2) and internal (Eph 2:3), and destined to receive God’s wrath (Eph 2:3). Note that Paul uses the phrase “the course of this world” (Eph 2:2), to describe how the customs and behavior that hold sway in this world misshape human life into rebellion against God.
Just how much transformative love is packed into that brief phrase, “But God . . .” (Eph 2:4)? In a dramatic shift, Paul turns to God’s merciful and love-motivated initiative (Eph 2:4) to rescue the once lost addressees. They become participants in the resurrection, ascension, and exaltation of Jesus Himself (Eph 2:5–6) and the showcase of God’s grace (Eph 2:7). Paul turns from the existence of the addressees (and all humankind) before conversion (Eph 2:1–3) to their lives and identity after the intervention of God (Eph 2:4–8). The hinge between the two is the all-transforming phrase, “But God …” (Eph 2:4; cf. 2:13).
“The story shifts with a striking suddenness to the stupendous intervention of God on behalf of his enemies with the greatest short statement in the history of human language: ‘But God, because he is rich in mercy …’” “The grim, plodding hopeless, long-syllabled announcement of human lostness—dead in trespasses and sins, children of wrath by nature—is shattered by a lightning bolt from heaven; not in judgment but with intervening mercy—and love beyond all reckoning” (S. M. Baugh, Ephesians [Lexham, 2016], pp. 141, 153).
Paul drenches Eph 2:4–8 in mentions of the mercy, love and grace of God. Before he describes any action God has taken, he identifies central elements of God’s character—His mercy (eleos) and love (agapē) —as the origin of those gracious actions. He expands on those elements as “rich in mercy” and “great love,” personalizing this last characteristic by adding “with which he loved us.”
To what specific events in the story of Jesus does Paul refer in Eph 2:6-7? Paul refers to three salvation history events that the Father performs for Christ, ones in which believers somehow participate. The identity of the first and third seem quite obvious. The phrase “made us alive together with Christ” refers to Christ’s resurrection from death and the phrase “seated us with him [Christ] in the heavenly places” describes Christ’s exaltation/enthronement (cf. Eph 1:20-23). But what does “and raised us up with him” mean? Given its placement between the other two, it seems best to take it as a description of the ascension of Jesus to heaven. With head-shaking amazement, we learn that believers track on the cosmic trajectory of Jesus—resurrected from death, ascended to heaven, exalted to the throne of the cosmos.
Where are “the heavenly places” (Eph 2:6) and what goes on there? Reviewing the occurrences of the phrase in Ephesians (Eph 1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12) and answering that question is challenging work. We will not be far off if we think of “the heavenly places” as “heaven,” the place of the throne of God where all important decisions about the future of humankind are made, a place “decisively marked by Christ’s redemptive work” (Stephen Fowl, Ephesians, p. 38), and where the exaltation of Christ is instituted. However, this is with an important proviso: Since it is in some sense the habitation of the “powers of darkness,” “It is also a place whose final transformation into a place fully under Christ’s rule has yet to be accomplished” (Fowl, p. 38, again), a place of conflict and war, of cosmic conflict. It is just the sort of place that we see reflected in another document oriented toward the Roman province of Asia, Revelation: “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon . . .” (Rev 12:7).
Consider this quotation from Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Ephesians (Baker, 2017), p. 91: “Clearly Paul thinks about this ‘above’ [the heavenly places] as a battlefield: on one side is Christ the field marshal, standing at the king’s right hand [cf. Eph 1:20-22], and we with him; on the other side are the principalities and powers [cf. Eph 6:12], which are alienated from God and opposed to him, in their utter disarray, exercising their limited influence.”
If this line of thinking is correct, being in “the heavenly places” is less about finding a place of utter peace and safety than about participating in the unfolding of the plan of redemption in all its wonder and conflict. In “the heavenly places” believers do not so much experience peace as they gain perspective, understanding that their stories are part of the grandest story of all.
Just how grand is God’s grace? Eph 2:8–10 represent one of the most famous summaries of Paul’s gospel (cf. Rom 1:16–17). At its heart is the term grace (charis), already employed repeatedly by Paul (Eph 1:7; 2:5, 7), which we often define as “unmerited favor.” However, God’s grace is offered to those who are “children of wrath,” under a death sentence (Eph 2:3). It is not just that we do not merit God’s grace or gift (dōron); we deserve just the opposite. So, our usual definition fails to grasp the profound depths of divine grace: “Grace is that reality in God that moves Him because of His own character to do good to those who are not only undeserving, but who deserve exactly the opposite. … God bestows the best of His goodness on those who deserve the worst of His wrath” (Tom Pennington, “All the World’s a Stage: Understanding the Ultimate Purpose of Our Salvation (Eph 2:7)”, The Master’s Seminary Journal 22.1 [Spring 2011]: 104).
Excursus: Ephesians 2:3, Seventh-day Adventists and Original Sin
While still bearers of the image of God, we have come to understand that there is something deeply awry in us. Living the Christian life, then, is not just a matter of conquering a pesky, bad habit or overcoming whatever “transgressions and sins” (Eph 2:1) are currently threatening. We do not just contend with sins but with sin. We are bent toward rebellion against God and toward self-destruction. In theological terms, this is referred to as “original sin” or “original corruption,” the inherited disposition to sin. There is no more succinct and poignant depiction of this bent than Paul’s description in Ephesians 2:1–3 (though for a longer treatment by Paul see Rom 1:18–3:20). Humans, by default, are caught in a pattern of self-destructive, sinful behavior, following the dictates of Satan (Eph 2:2) and our own innate, sinful desires. Believers once were “by nature children of wrath.”
It is important to note that in offering this description Paul employs a past tense—we “were by nature children of wrath” (Eph 2:3). This does not mean that an inherent bent toward evil is no longer a reality for believers. Paul spends a considerable portion of his letter, Eph 4:17–5:21, warning that sinful acts, rooted in a sinful nature, remain a threat for Christians. It does mean, though, that this “old self” need no longer dominate the believer, who through the power of Christ can “put off your old self” and “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:22–24 ESV).
In reflecting on the topic of “original sin,” it is helpful to understand how the theme has been understood in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In the early decades of the church, Seventh-day Adventists accented sins as acts, not sin as an inherited bent toward evil. Sinful behavior was understood to be adopted more by imitation than through a fallen, sinful nature. In this view, infants do not need a Savior since they have not reached the age of moral consciousness and have not sinned.
Ellen White treated the matter differently, arguing: “Children are the lawful prey of the enemy, because they are not subjects of grace, have not experienced the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus.”1Ellen G. White, “The Duty of Parents to Their Children,” RH 6:6 (Sept. 19, 1854): 46. She believed: “The sin of Adam and Eve caused a fearful separation between God and man. And here Christ steps in between fallen man and God, and says to man, You may yet come to the Father; there is a plan devised through which God can be reconciled to man, and man to God; and through a mediator you can approach God.”2Ellen G. White, “Christian Recreation,” RH 35:24 (May 31, 1870): 185–86. She wrote of “the natural depravity of the heart” and argued that “because of sin his [Adam’s] posterity was born with inherent propensities of disobedience.”3Letter 26d, 1887, ibid., 195 and Letter 8, 1895, reprinted in Nichol, ed. SDA Bible Commentary, 5:1128. Even more forcefully, she states: “At its very source human nature was corrupted. And ever since then sin has continued its hateful work, reaching from mind to mind. Every sin committed awakens the echoes of the original sin.”4“The Warfare between Good and Evil,” RH 78:16 (April 16, 1901): 241. For her, “there is in his [man’s] nature a bent to evil, a force which, unaided, he cannot resist.”5Ellen G. White, Education, 29.
Under the influence of passages such as Ephesians 2:1–3 and through the guidance of Ellen White, Seventh-day Adventists believe that “we inherit our basic sinfulness. The universal sinfulness of humanity is evidence that by nature we tend toward evil, not good.”6Seventh-day Adventists Believe: A Biblical Exposition of Fundamental Doctrines, 2nd ed. (Boise, ID: Pacific Press, 2005), 104. And we reach out to accept the salvation offered in Christ as One who personifies the comprehensive salvation that we need.7For more on this topic, see Gerhard Pfandl, “Some Thoughts on Original Sin.” https://adventistbiblicalresearch.org/sites/default/files/pdf/sinoriginal-web.pdf. I am summarizing Pfandl’s essay in this excursus, which is drawn from the Seventh-day Adventist International Biblical Commentary volume on Ephesians.