And you he made alive, when 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 these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
"You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."—Matthew 1:21
We are talking in these Advent sermons about our need for a Savior. There are three reasons mentioned in Ephesians 2:1–3. We need a Savior according to verse 1 because we are dead in sin. We need a Savior according to verse 2 because we are captive to an alien power. And we need a Savior according to verse 3 because we are children of wrath.
If it helps your memory, we could say there are three "S's":
- we were sick unto death with sin;
- we were sabotaged by Satan;
- and we were sentenced to hell.
Therefore we were in desperate need of a great Savior.
Hearing What You Won't Hear Anywhere Else
The first thing I want to stress today is that these three things are not what you will find out about yourself in the newspaper or TIME or NEWSWEEK. They are not part of our cultural assumptions about mankind. Virtually no one, outside a fairly small group of evangelicals, seriously believes
- that without a Savior all people are dead in sin and incapable of any spiritual good; and
- that without a Savior all people are captured and blinded by an evil, supernatural person named Satan; and
- that without a Savior all people are under the wrath of God and sentenced to eternal torment in hell.
There are two fundamental reasons why these things are not believed:
- because they are unflattering to human nature, and
- because they have to be learned from God not man.
Starting with the Word of God
If there is going to be any salvation at all, there must be a divine revelation. God must reveal these things to us or we perish. We can't find them out from television or radio or medicine or psychology or art. We learn the truth about ourselves from the Word of God. And once our eyes are opened to the truth that God reveals, then we can see confirmations of it in virtually all the sciences and arts.
Santa Claus and Religion
But if we don't start with God's interpretation of who we are, we will be like blind people who go on developing elaborate theories to prove that there really is no such thing as vision, and that color and light and perspective are the inventions pious imaginations projecting onto reality their own dissatisfaction with the dark. "Religion is the opiate of the people."
That statement is not simply classic Marxism. It is classic American materialism. The difference is that American materialism doesn't outlaw religion; it imitates it and then uses it. That is the real meaning of Santa Claus.
The true meaning of Christmas—that God sent his Son into the world to save us from our evil hearts of sin (Matthew 1:21), and to destroy the works of the devil in our habits and homes and schools and workplaces (1 John 3:8), and to rescue us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10)—that meaning of Christmas is unacceptable to the spirit of this world. But the impact of the truth of the incarnation is so undeniable after 2,000 years of influence, that the god of this world behind American materialism cannot oppose it outright, but simply imitates it with Santa Claus and a hundred other trappings in order to direct the religious impulses of the masses into economically profitable channels.
The Way Out of Cultural Slavery
The only way out of this cultural slavery is to listen to the witness of God about ourselves. Not the witness of John Piper, or the editorial page, or the evening news, or the Atlantic Monthly. God has spoken. His word is preserved for us in the Bible. If you let this book interpret your condition, to be sure, you will be an alien and an exile in this fallen age. But that is a small price to pay to be in step with God. I urge you to consider seriously today the truth of Ephesians 2:2—that without a Savior we are captive to an alien prince; and the truth of Ephesians 2:3—that without a Savior we are children of wrath.
Captive to an Alien Prince: Three Explanations
Let's look first at verse 2. Literally verses 1 and 2 go like this:
And you, being dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the age of this world, according to the ruler of the authority of the air, the spirit now at work in the sons of disobedience . . .
There are at least three things in this verse we need to understand:
- there is a being who rules over the authority of the air (middle of the verse: "according to the ruler of the authority of the air");
- this being is a spirit who works in the hearts and lives of people who have no Savior (end of the verse: "the spirit now at work in the sons of disobedience");
- the result is that people without a Savior walk, or live, in tune with this evil age (beginning of the verse: "you once walked according to the age of this world").
Let's look at these one at a time.
1. Prince of the Power of the Air
What does it mean to say that there is a prince of the power of the air? Or: a ruler of the authority of the air?
Air Is Everywhere
Air is where we live. Between heaven above and the earth beneath is the realm of air, and that is the habitation of man. Sometimes we say things like, "There's excitement in the air." What we mean is that excitement seems to be gripping everybody. Its influence is so widespread that it must simply be in the air.
That is Paul's point. The influence of the power spoken of in verse 2 is so pervasive, that it can be called the power of the air. Man has to have air to live. The power of the air is therefore a power that can get at man everywhere. The whole inhabited world is the domain and the subject of this power.
Fourfold Description of Demonic Forces
But what is this authority or power of the air? The term probably refers to all those beings named in 6:12—"For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers (same word as in verse 2), against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places."
Demonic forces are given four different descriptions. Paul says that we contend with them. That is, they are not far away. They are as close as the air we breathe. Then he calls some of them "world rulers." Their sphere of activity is not just hell or heaven. It is the world, the place where people live.
When you put all these together, what you have is the "authority of the air" mentioned in 2:2. In other words demonic powers and authorities rule the air, the inhabited world of mankind.
The Prince of Demonic Forces
And there is a prince or ruler over them all. This no doubt refers to Satan. He is called the "prince of demons" in Matthew 12:24. In 2 Corinthians 4:4 Paul calls him the "god of this world." Jesus calls him the "ruler of this world" (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). And Satan himself in Luke 4:6 tempts Jesus with world rule by saying, "To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will."
The Norm of This World Is Evil
Now what does this mean? It means that the norm of the world in which we live is evil. During the age in which we live, God permits that the dominant themes and motifs and moods are under the control of Satan.
So Paul says in Galatians 1:3, "Christ gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age."
And in Colossians 1:13 he says that "God has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son."
And John says in 1 John 5:19, "We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in the [power of] the evil one."
So God has indeed begun to save people from the power of darkness. At the cross the decisive death blow was struck against Satan (Colossians 2:15; Hebrews 2:14). "He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world" (1 John 4:4). Nevertheless, the way of the cross is narrow and few there be that find it, and the way of Satan is broad and many there be that find it. By and large the world rejects the Savior. And without a Savior the prince of the power of the air reigns over the sons of disobedience. And people who were made for God are captive to an alien power.
2. At Work in People Without a Savior
That leads to the second part of verse 2. How does Satan exert his rule in the world? At the end of the verse he is called "the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience, among whom we all once lived"—that is, before we had a Savior! So the answer is that Satan exercises his rule by working in the hearts and lives of people without a Savior. He has easy access to their will because all ability to resist him in faith is dead in sin.
In other words we need a Savior not just because we were dead in sin, but also because Satan stood watch to keep us dead.
Moral Corruption and Its Promotion in the World
You can see this all through our culture—the teaming up of individual moral corruption with the promoters and supporters of that corruption which make escape from that corruption harder and harder. For example,
- the moral corruption of drug addiction is supported and encouraged and made more hopeless by pushers;
- the moral corruption of gambling is supported and encouraged and made more hopeless by legislators who legalize and institutionalize lotteries and para-mutual betting;
- the moral corruption of prostitution is supported and encouraged and made more hopeless by pimps;
- the moral corruption of habitual sexual fantasizing is supported and encouraged and made more hopeless by the exploitation of bodies in advertising and videos and movies and magazines.
2 Corinthian 4:3–4
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God.
In other words the way Satan compounds the hopelessness of people who are dead in sin is to keep them from seeing anything glorious in the gospel of Christ. The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18) for two reasons:
- "The natural man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14). So he is blind to the true significance of the gospel because he is spiritually dead—natural.
- The other reason the gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing is that Satan works around the clock to prevent the Word of God from having any effect on the unbeliever's heart. For example, in the parable of the four soils, he is pictured as a bird that snatches away seed before it can produce life. "When any one hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart" (Matthew 13:19).
In other words, without a Savior, we were blinded by our own disease of sin AND by the work of Satan. So we were doubly blind and doubly in need of a Savior.
But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?"
In other words Satan works in the sons of disobedience not only by blinding them to the glory of the gospel, but also by filling their hearts with extraordinary desires to for evil. Luke 22:3 says that "Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot . . . he went away and conferred with the chief priests and captains how he might betray [Jesus]."
Our Hopeless Condition Without a Savior
We were not only dead in sin. We were captive to an alien power. Jesus said in John 8:44, "You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires." We were dead to God and enslaved to Satan. There was only one hope, and it was not in ourselves.
Paul put it like this in 2 Timothy 2:25–26—When the ministry of the Word is applied in love to an unbeliever, "God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will."
We were captive to an alien power. We were dead to God and fully in support of the wishes of Satan. There was only one hope—a Savior: "God may perhaps grant that we repent and escape . . . "
How Satan Works in the Sons of Disobedience
So the answer to the question how Satan works in the sons of disobedience is, at least partly, that he blinds them to the glory of Christ in the gospel so that all they see is foolishness, and he fills their hearts with overpowering desires to do his will. In this way we were all once held captive to an alien power and in desperate need of a Savior.
3. Following the Course of This World
That leaves room for just a brief comment about the first part of Ephesians 2:2. We have seen that there is a ruler over the evil authority of the air. This ruler is Satan. He works in all those who are without a Savior. The result is that we all once walked "following the course of this world." Or literally, we once walked "according to the age of this world."
Walking According to the Age of This World
The "age of this world" refers to the period of time appointed by God for this fallen world order to endure. During this age (which Paul calls an "evil age"—Galatians 1:3) the spirit of the times is by and large given into the authority of Satan (Luke 4:6). So when the text says that we once walked according to this age, it simply means that we were in step with the times. We were not aliens and exiles. We were natives. We felt right at home with the spirit of the age. Satan ruled the world. Satan ruled us. And so there was harmony, and we fit right in. As far as we were concerned, all was well.
This, then, is the witness of God concerning our condition without a Savior. It is not the witness of "eye-witness news" or national commentators or cinema or journalism. It is God's testimony. This is the way God sees the world—ruled by an alien prince, blinding the minds of unbelievers, filling them with ungodly desires, holding them captive to do his will, and then causing them to think all is well because they are right in step with the times.
That was the condition of every one of us until we were made alive and rescued from Satan by the Savior.
Children of Wrath
But there remains one more thing to say concerning our condition without a Savior. At the end of verse 3 Paul says that "we were by nature children of wrath."
Ephesians 5:5–6 puts it like this:
Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.
So it is God's wrath that is coming. We were "by nature children of the wrath OF GOD." Which means that we naturally did those things which God hates. By nature we rejected the knowledge of God (Romans 2:28), and by nature we refused the gospel (1 Corinthians 2:14), and by nature we were filled with desires that amounted to idolatry (Colossians 3:5).
And what we learn from Scripture is that God would be unrighteous if he looked with indifference on our sin, because our sin dishonors him so much. Therefore 2 Thessalonians 1:7–9 says,
The Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.
There will be a division of sheep and goats in that awful day. And the Lord Jesus will say, "Depart from me, you cursed, into eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41, 46). As you followed the prince of the power of the air in this life, you will follow him into the next—into "everlasting punishment."
The Wrath of the Lamb
John calls it the "wrath of the Lamb" (Revelation 6:16) to show the indignation of the Son of God against those who spurned his lamb-like meekness and his offers of forgiveness. Soon the age of meekness will be over:
His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matthew 3:12)
The Son of man will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. (Matthew 13:41–42)
If any one's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:15)
He shall drink the wine of God's wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever. (Revelation 14:10–11; cf. Matthew 5:29–30; 18:33; 7:13; 8:12; 10:28; 13:42; 22:13; 25:30; Mark 9:43ff.)
"Jesus Delivers from the Wrath to Come"
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones died in 1981. He was a great preacher at the Westminster Chapel in London for 40 years. The year before his death when he was 81 years old, Christianity Today asked him, "Do you have any final word for our generation?" He answered simply by quoting 1 Thessalonians 1:10, "Jesus delivers us from the wrath to come."
For behold, the Lord will come in fire,
and his chariots like the storm wind,
to render his anger in fury,
and his rebuke with flames of fire.
For by fire will the Lord execute judgment,
and by his sword, upon all flesh;
and those slain by the Lord shall be many.
But for now he is a Savior. Turn to him and be saved—from the sickness of sin, the captivity of Satan, and the sentence of hell. He alone is the way, the truth, and the life. There is no other name given among men by which you can be saved.