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Leon Morris (1914-2006) on Ephesians 2:3

May 4, 2009

Morris:

Children of Wrath

Paul now turns from the evil one and his miserable works to the plight of his dupes. Here the apostle does not take up some superior stance but classes himself with his readers. We all, he says, “formerly had our manner of life in the lusts of our flesh.” “Formerly” looks back to pre-Christian days–before he came to know the saving power of Christ, Paul was just as much entangled in sin as anyone else. He makes it clear that the Ephesians to whom he writes were in the same condemnation. He is not leaving open the possibility that there might be some people who escaped the bondage of which he writes. We were “all” in this position.

The apostle is not referring to occasional lapses but to a way of life. His verb (which, interestingly, in some contexts has meanings like “turn back,” Acts 5:22; 15:16) came to have the meaning “behave,” a meaning that is well attested in the papyri. This earlier manner of life, Paul says, was lived “in the lusts of our flesh.” The word for “lusts” is neutral in Greek generally, and it simply refers to strong desires, good or bad. We occasionally find the term used in a good sense in the New Testament, as when Paul speaks of his strong desire to see the Thessalonians again (1 Thess. 2:17). But in the overwhelming majority of cases the strong desire is for something evil, as here. Although the expression “the lusts of the flesh” quite often means sexual desire, it can also signify other strong longings.

Paul goes on to bring out his meaning by saying that the lusts of which he was speaking were “willed by [more literally, “doing the wills of”] the flesh and the minds.” Paul recognizes that there are some lusts that refer specifically to bodily functions, and it is possible for us to sin by giving way to such lusts. But if we think we are in control of ourselves in respect to lusts like this, that does not mean that we are safe from the temptation to lust. There are lusts of the mind, intellectual lusts, perfectly respectable lusts in the eyes of our community (and perhaps of ourselves, too). The word for “minds” is usually in the singular (this is the only occurrence of the plural in the New Testament). The plural may be meant here in the sense of “thoughts,” or the plurality of “minds” may come from the fact that there is a plurality of people, each of whom has a mind. But after the singular “the flesh we would certainly have expected “the mind.” Whatever the reason, Paul is saying that any strong desire that leads us away from God is to be reckoned as a lust; and when we constantly are found “doing the things willed by the flesh and the minds,” we are falling below the level that is demanded of us and are sinning against God.

That puts us into the class of “children of wrath” (cf. “sons of disobedience” 2:2; 56) and this “by nature” (Paul puts “by nature” between “children” and “of wrath,” an unexpected order of words, putting some emphasis on “by nature”). Those who so naturally yield to the lusts of the flesh and of the mind must expect the consequences of what they do. Paul is saying that they necessarily become the objects of the divine wrath.

There is a tendency in recent times to play down the idea of the wrath of God. C. H. Dodd is often quoted for his view that in the teaching of Jesus, “anger as an attitude of God to men disappears, and His love and mercy become all-embracing” and that Paul takes up much the same position. The apostle uses the concept of the wrath of God, according to Dodd, “not to describe the attitude of God to man, but to describe an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe” (Mofatt New Testament Commentary on Romans, p. 23). But this is the way a modern

scholar understand things, not the way the New Testament writers, and specifically Paul, think of God’s attitude to evil. When Paul says that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against every impiety and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18), he is not referring to an impersonal process, but to the well-known divine hostility to every evil (cf. Rom. 35; 9:22; etc.). In the present passage he is making it clear that sinners are in a no-good situation. Because, being sinners, they can expect nothing but the divine wrath, Paul can speak of them as “children of wrath.” Their sinful lives and the divine wrath go so closely together that the link between them may be likened to the tie that binds a family together.

The reference to the plight of “the rest of the people” is a reminder of the universality of sin. It is not a matter afflicting the occasional person here and there but something in which we are all involved. There is a story told of a small boy who on his first day at school handed a black-edged envelope to his teacher. She opened it and found it contained a card with the printed words: “A Message of Sympathy-to tell you that my thoughts and heartfelt sympathy are with you.” The boy’s mother had then written, “Thank you and good luck!” No doubt she loved the

lad, but she knew what he was capable of. And, somewhat like that mother, but in a far broader sense, Paul is pointing out that wrongdoing is universal in the human race.

Leon Morris, Expository reflections on the Letter to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1994), 44-46.

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