What Does it Mean to be Dead in Trespasses and Sins?

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins. – Ephesians 2:1

One of my favorite sections of scripture is found in the first half of Ephesians chapter two. It beautifully explains the grace of God that was so freely given to us in Christ. After so vividly explaining the great hopelessness of our lost condition, Paul famously pens, “BUT GOD…,” and gives a rich description of the love and grace that God has so abundantly lavished upon those that believe. It’s beautiful. 

But grace won’t be my focus today. Instead I want to clear up some misconceptions regarding the darkness we have been pulled out of, a darkness that is often referred to as spiritual death. In Ephesians 2:1, Paul refers to our condition outside of Christ as ‘dead in trespasses and sins.’ But what does he mean by this? 

Paul’s writing style

Before I give my explanation of this verse, I first want to talk a bit about Paul’s writings. In case you are not aware, the apostle Paul wrote much of the New Testament. He was an absolutely brilliant man who was probably the greatest missionary that ever lived. He was well educated; from his youth he studied the scriptures and other writings of the Jews, sitting under the teaching of a very famous rabbi. He was also trained in Greek literature to some extant (See Acts 17:28). He was well known for his writings even in his own time, with his contemporaries calling his letters ‘weighty and powerful’ (2 Cor 10:10). And, of course, we know that his writings continue to be read all over the world. 

However, we must also understand that his writings are not always easy reading. Theologians have argued back and forth for centuries regarding some of things he has written. Even the great apostle Peter admitted that some of the things which Paul had written were hard to understand. As a result, some people twisted and distorted those words (2 Peter 3:16). 

One of the reasons that some of the things Paul has written are ‘hard to understand’ is because he uses so much imagery and figurative language. He constantly uses metaphors and analogies. It is obvious what he means in some places, but in other places, not so much. The passage in question is one of those places. 

Now don’t be confused. Metaphors are powerful purveyors of truth. Just because something is not literally true does not mean that it’s not true. If I were to say to my wife, “You’re a fox,” you would understand that I don’t mean that my wife is literally a fox, but that she is very beautiful. Even though the phrase ‘you are a fox’ is not literally true, doesn’t mean that the message is not true. The message is that my wife is beautiful. That is literally true even though a literal reading of the sentence is not true. This is important to understand. This happens all throughout the Bible. 

You might be saying, “no, duh.” However, imagine if someone read one of my writings 2000 years into the future and after it was translated from English into Chinese. It’s certainly possible that in 2000 years people would question what it meant in calling my wife a fox. “Perhaps,” they might say, “his wife was a redhead, since foxes are red. Or perhaps she was sneaky and sly. Or perhaps she was a pest, for foxes can be a pest.”

It is important that we seek to be careful when we look at Biblical texts because of this very reason. It’s possible that our interpretation is not what was meant by the author. This is exactly why every truth must be established on the basis of two or three witnesses. No doctrinal truth should be built upon Paul alone! Every doctrine should stand on the shoulders of AT LEAST two Biblical authors. And if it is especially controversial, it should be based on passages from three or more. 

With all this in mind, lets look at the passage at hand. What does Paul mean when he says, “dead in trespasses and sin?”

Dead in Trespasses and Sins

When coming across passages like this, we can use deduction to help us eliminate possibilities. 

Let’s consider some possibilities. Paul could mean:

  • Physical, literal death.

Does Paul means that we were physically, literally dead? Since we know we were not physically, literally dead, we can axe this one. 

  • That our spirit is literally dead.

Another possibility is that our spiritual person, which is housed by our body, is literally dead. That is, our spirit is lifeless in the sense that it cannot function as a dead body cannot function. 

This one does not makes sense either, for we see from scriptures that the condemned are conscious in hell. They feel and see and talk (Luke 16). If the condemned are alive and conscious then, they must be in the body, as well. 

Since these are the only possibilities of any kind of literal death, we must assume that Paul is using a figure of speech to portray an important idea. This being the case, we can look to other passages of scripture which use ‘death’ in a figurative fashion to give us clues as to what Paul is saying. 

For example, in Romans 4:19, Paul said that Abraham did not consider that his own body was ‘now dead.’ This is very forceful language, and if it weren’t so obvious that it is figurative speech, it would likely be misinterpreted. However, we know that Paul simply meant that Abraham’s body was old and certain parts not working, and that he was nigh unto literal death. 

In another place, Paul says that those who live in pleasure are ‘dead while they live’ (1 Tim 5:6). This passage is a great clue to how Paul uses the word death. The implication from the passage is that judgment will come upon those who live in pleasure. And, of course, we know this is true. Those who engage in fleshly lusts will not inherit the kingdom of God. The obvious interpretation is that those who give themselves to pleasure are under the judgment of God (1 Cor 6:9, James 5:5, 2 Tim 3:4).

This same idea can be found in Revelation 3:1. Here Jesus is speaking to the church in Sardis. He says, “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” He calls the church ‘dead.’ What does He mean? In the following verses He commands them to hang on to the few good things that they have and to repent of the others. If not, judgment would come upon them. Thus the implication is that they are in a state of judgment. If they did not repent, judgment was coming. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “you are dead.”

These passages give us a good clue of what Paul meant when he wrote that the unsaved are ‘dead in trespasses and sins.’ And when we combine these passages with Colossians 2:3, we can come to a solid conclusion to what Paul was communicating.

Colossians 2:13 is a parallel passage to Ephesians 2:1. They both say almost the same thing.

And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses – Colossians 2:13

This passage indicates that the solution to our problem of being ‘dead in trespasses’ is found in the forgiveness of the same. Paul here equates ‘being made alive’ to ‘having forgiven you.’ Thus when we consider this along with the other passages we have considered, it is plain that Paul uses the word death to indicate that before our salvation we were under the judgment of God. 

I’m persuaded that this is exactly what Paul was thinking when he penned those verses and nothing else. Death in the Bible very often refers to judgment.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whosoever believes would not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16

The wages of sin is death – Romans 6:23

But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” – Rev 21:8 

And we see that this sentence of death lies upon the unsaved while they yet live, just as it does a man on death row, whose only hope is in pardon. 

He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. – John 3:36

He who does not love his brother abides in death. – 1 John 3:14

Paul uses the word ‘death’ in a similar manner as we do today. If you angered someone and they replied by saying, “You’re a dead man,” you would understand that they were intent on killing you or else hurting you badly. Likewise, because of our sin, we were under the judgment of God, carrying the sentence of death, with just a breath separating us from eternal torment. Paul’s use of the present tense hammers this home. 

What a sentence of death that we were under! At any moment we could have plunged into hell! Thank God for His grace!

Other interpretations

Some interpret Ephesians 2:1 as if this ‘death’ meant that we were dead in some sense that rendered it impossible to respond to the grace of God. They will say, “what can a dead man do to save himself? What can a dead man do to make himself alive?” Those that say these things present the idea that man has no place in his own conversion. They say that man does not choose to be saved, nor does he play any part in his salvation, just as a literal dead man could play no part in his own resurrection. 

But this idea is entirely based on too literal an interpretation of figurative speech. If one takes the Bible as a whole, the general message is of God stretching out His hands to a disobedient and gainsaying people. The wicked are constantly blamed for their refusal to repent and the righteous are praised for their righteousness. This is precisely why the Bible teaches that we will be judged according to what we have done, both good and bad (2 Cor 5:10). The wicked will be judged according to their deeds (Rom 2:6-8). Why? Because they were dead and incapable of doing good unless God supernaturally brought them to life? No, but because they refused the grace of God in favor of their sin, as Jesus testified in John 3:20:

For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. – John 3:20

It’s really sad that so many people miss this. And not only do they miss this obvious fact, but they, like the Pharisees, call everyone a heretic who speaks the truth. 

It’s is absolutely true that we can do nothing if not for God. We can’t even lift our left hand without God. But to say that we are unable to lift our arm without God supernaturally doing it for us is silliness. In the same way, we need God for salvation. He’s the author of our salvation. He has provided the sacrifice for our sins and the Holy Spirit to draw is to Himself. But He has also given us the capacity to accept or reject Him. If we reject or neglect his salvation, our blood is upon our own head. But if we listen, we have saved ourselves (Acts 2:40). 

When isolated verses are strung together, sometimes a incorrect understanding of the scripture will emerge. But when the Bible is taken as a whole, the truth is plain. What is that truth? He who believes will be saved, whoever does not will be damned (Mark 16:16). It’s just as simple as that. 

A Lesson Learned

There is an important side lesson to be learned here: be aware of figurative speech in the Bible. It’s EVERYWHERE. And it’s really beautiful. It’s written the way it is because it’s powerful and it’s the common way that people speak. We use figurative language constantly in everyday life. We understand intuitively that it is figurative. We use it because it drives home a point. The Bible uses it for the same reason. Be aware of it. Look for doctrine in plain words and then for the allegories and metaphors that help explain it. Remember that allegories aren’t meant to be one for one examples of truth, but to drive home certain points. Keep these things in mind when you read both Old and New Testaments and the Bible will be much more clear for you.

Photo by Gábor Molnár on Unsplash