What does it mean to be dead in sin?

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My ESV Bible open to Ephesians

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3)

Our lives before Christ are characterized here by ugly words such as death, sin, disobedience, and wrath. There’s no use arguing with Paul about this point. He could not have used clearer language to describe the natural condition of all human beings. None is righteous, no, not one (Ro 3:10).

In Romans 6, Paul says, The wages of sin is death (Ro 6:23). To be clear, we do not become dead because we sin. We are dead. Therefore, we sin. The original sin of Adam condemned us long before we were born or had the first opportunity to sin. Paul makes this point in Romans 5 when he says, Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned (Ro 5:12). We sin because we are dead, and we are dead because we sin.

There is no escaping this reality. By that, I mean there is no reasonable way for us to claim that we were once anything less than spiritually dead. We were not sick. We were not dying. We were dead in our trespasses and sin. We were utterly incapable of responding to any spiritual stimulus or performing any act that might be pleasing to God.

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that spiritually dead people can’t do good works. I’m not implying that they can’t be religious or invoke the name of God, even the name of Jesus. Most of Israel during the first century is a testament to the fact that people can honor God with their lips and actions while their hearts are as hard as stone.

John said, Christ came to his own, the Jews, and his own people did not receive him (Jn 1:11). Why? He implies that they were not God’s children. They were not born of God’s Spirit. He says:

But to all who did receive Christ, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

My point is, a spiritually dead person can certainly behave as though he is a spiritual person. We can’t always judge a book by its cover. Jesus told the Pharisees, You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts” (Lk 16:15).

Religious people can fool us. Of course, the so-called sinners and tax collectors of this world can fool us too. God’s people begin in the same spiritual condition as everyone else. Plus, we’re capable of falling into sin. We may not be slaves to sin any longer, but our flesh still craves it as much as ever. It will always be a battle for us.

But Paul is not encouraging us to look outward at the people around us. He’s telling us to look back at our former selves. Remember who you were and from where you came. You were spiritually dead in the thick of sin and rebellion. Though you may say to yourself, I wasn’t that bad,” God has a far more accurate assessment of the situation. He says, You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked (Eph 2:1).

Dead is dead. Fifty corpses on a battlefield may be in various stages of decay, but dead is dead. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Ro 3:23). Sin may manifest itself in different degrees, but the result is the same: spiritual death, a complete absence of spiritual life.