Having praised God extensively for His power toward believers (Eph. 1:3–23), Paul in today’s passage begins reminding us of the profound change this power has wrought in us. To do so, the apostle draws a contrast between life before Christ and life after Christ in Ephesians 2:1–10. Verse 1 begins the description of our life before salvation, explaining that we once “were dead in the trespasses and sins.”
In using the terms trespasses and sins, Paul emphasizes the totality of sin’s dominion over Adam’s naturally-conceived-and-born children. Jew and Gentile alike are born in Adam (Rom. 1:18–3:20); wickedness pervades our thoughts, actions, and emotions as we reflect the character of our first parents. Though no person commits every possible sin, we emerge from the womb wholly inclined to break God’s law. From Adam we inherit guilt for his sin because, in a real sense, we were there with him in the garden when he ate the forbidden fruit — since he was the representative of humanity, when he sinned, we sinned. As his progeny, we also receive a nature that makes it all too easy for us to transgress the Lord’s law, for mankind suffers the degenerating effects of this primal sin (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:22). In sum, we are dead upon arrival into this world, spiritually speaking, and we hate God, the Lord and giver of true life.
We must understand our deadness in sin in order to understand regeneration — the work of the Holy Spirit to make us alive spiritually, giving us a love for God, God’s law, and God’s people. Most evangelicals today believe that we are actually alive before the Spirit gives us life, assuming that in salvation we first have a desire for Jesus, then we believe in Him, and then the Spirit makes us new creatures. But, as today’s passage reveals, we are born dead. We can have no desire to love God before regeneration, for Jesus alone saves us; being dead, we cannot resurrect in ourselves this desire. Apart from the Spirit’s gracious initiative, we stay dead. Dr. R.C. Sproul comments, “Even though we have the power to choose, we are dead to the things of God, and as a result we have no desire for the things of God. Rather, we follow a different course. We follow it willfully; we follow it freely, in the sense of doing what we want to do. But with respect to spiritual things, we are dead” (PGE, p. 47). We do not believe in order to come alive — the Spirit makes us alive in order that we would believe.