Dwelling on past sins in order to wallow in guilt or to revel in nostalgia is never a good idea, but Paul intends neither of these things when reminding readers of their condition before knowing Jesus (Eph. 2:1). Instead, the apostle wants to draw a contrast between life apart from Christ and life in Christ so as to magnify the power and grace of God in salvation. Laying the foundation for this contrast, the apostle continues describing life outside of Jesus in Ephesians 2:2–3, painting the bleakest of pictures for unredeemed sinners.
We were dead apart from Christ indeed (v. 1), but it was a state of spiritual death that did not render us incapable of action. We were all too capable of transgressing that which is holy, “following the course of this world . . . the prince of the power of the air . . . the passions of our flesh” (vv. 2–3). Here Paul reveals the three great powers that enslaved us completely before we knew Jesus and which we must continually rebel against in the course of our growth in holiness — the world, the flesh, and the Devil.
“The course of this world” (v. 2) refers to the ways of culture and society that oppose the Lord. There are ungodly trends in the world — materialism, naturalism, desire for instant gratification, and more — that once ruled all of our passions but are now defeated in Christ (John 16:33; 1 John 5:5). No longer our ruler, the world still appeals to our remaining sin, so we must maintain our guard lest we fall back into bondage.
In ancient times, the term air often referred to the spiritual realm of angels and demons; thus, “the prince of the power of the air” is Satan (Eph. 2:2). This leader of all that opposes God stirs up trouble all over the world, and he even endeavors to infiltrate and disturb the church (4:26–27). The Devil is fierce but easily put to flight when we resist him by the Spirit, as Jesus has triumphed over him (James 4:7; Col. 2:15).
Finally, “the passions of our flesh” and “desires of the body” (Eph. 2:3) refer not to our physical bodies, as if our corporeal form is in itself wicked. After all, God created all things good, including our bodies (Gen. 1:31). The apostle is speaking of our fallen nature, which Christ has subdued. It is a resilient foe, however, that remains until our glorification. We must therefore seek daily to mortify it and deny the sins that seem the most appealing to us (Rom. 6:12–14).