As we approach Easter, the question Jesus asked His disciples is again a relevant one: “Who do you say that I am?” Many religious people accept Him as a great teacher, even a prophet. But neither of these make Him a Savior. The problem is, we not only didn’t know God without Jesus (Matt.11:27; John 1:18), we cannot save ourselves from ourselves. Only God can do this. And we’ll see why as we continue unpacking the first two chapters of Ephesians in order to see what the good news that brings great joy means to us.
Paul continues this gospel discourse (there were no chapter breaks in the original) by describing our human condition before Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection in Ephesians 2:1-5. We will focus in on verse 5. A lot has been said about this by Protestants since the Reformation. Some have gone so far as to use verses like the following as a proof-text for a doctrine called “total depravity.”
5 Even when we were dead and doomed in our many sins, he united us into the very life of Christ and saved us by his wonderful grace! (Eph.2:5 TPT)
Let’s briefly look at what Paul is trying to tell us here.
We moderns tend to view sin as a violation, or breaking a list of God’s rules that requires punishment. While this is superficially truly, it misses the fundamental issue underlying why we “fall short” to begin with. And this gets to Paul what saying to us.
“Dead in sin” cannot mean we’re incapable of doing good because in Romans (1:20; 2:14-15) Paul talks about us knowing what is right and having the law written in our hearts, being justified or condemned by our consciences. Besides, if we’re incapable of doing good, then we’re not culpable for being bad. That would not be justice.
Understand that this type of language (like “there is no one who understands, none righteous, none who does good…” Romans 3:10-12) is Semitic hyperbole, commonly employed to emphasize a point. Otherwise there’s a whole lot of the Bible that contradicts itself. This is why understanding the culture it was written to is just as important as the text itself.
The early church fathers understood this and did not teach total depravity; they called being “dead in sin” our damaged condition. But this damage is systemic. We sin because there’s something fundamentally broken in us as human beings that needs fixing, and only God can fix it. (Refer to “Missing the Mark” and “The Tragic Flaw” for further background on this point.)
Most of the early church fathers saw the incarnation of Christ as the unveiling of God and the restoration of man’s true self in Him (see my post “Incarnation is about Restoration.”)
This is why the hypostatic union of Christ was a non-negotiable. Sadly, the average modern Christian has an abysmal understanding of this, thus, has a confused and weakened understanding of Christology. Here’s what Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389 AD) said about why this is critically important for us:
For that which He [Christ] has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole (Ep. CI, To Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius; NPNF Series 2 Vol. VII p. 440).
I know this is all foreign to our Catholic/Protestant ears so I will translate. Mankind was damaged through sin. Christ came to assume the entirety of that condition, healing our broken condition by fusing it to divinity. (From post, “Did God Kill Jesus? Part One.”)
So, if Jesus is not fully God and fully man, we are not fully saved. But the good news is, “He united us into the very life of Christ and saved us by his wonderful grace!” (Eph.2:5b) Praise God!
To summarize, two points to consider from Ephesians 2:5.
First, on the Cross, Jesus fixed what was so fundamentally wrong with us because we were incapable of saving ourselves. Anything less than this is a powerless self-help gospel and not Christianity at all. I will say here that New Age teaching and some Eastern religions get it partly right when they say that our separation from God is an illusion. As Paul said, we were enemies of God in our mind (Col.1:21). (We’ve inherited a lot of Deism in our Western theology that feeds this illusion of separation.) Nonetheless, they miss and get wrong the fundamental problem with sin.
Second, we cannot be like Christ without Him living in us. Christ’s teachings are our example to follow, but without His life in us we have no life in Him. His resurrection life is our continuing identity. In other words, HE is our way and our life, and our relationship with the Father (John 14:6).
Jesus came to interpose Himself for our darkness and brokenness and rescue us from the self-destructive nature of sin and our sense of estrangement. And He gave us His indwelling Spirit so that He could empower us with His life, changing us from the inside-out, from glory to glory. That’s what being alive in Christ means. That’s what makes us Christians. And that’s good news that brings great joy!