Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Wrath, Rulers of the Air, and Salvation - Reflections on Ephesians 2:1-10

Note: This reflection is an excerpt of my Ephesians Participatory Study Guide (Energion Publications). Ephesians 2:1-10 is the epistle reading for the 4th Sunday of Lent. Perhaps this might be of help. Perhaps this excerpt will stimulate interest in using it as a Bible Study resource.

The Children of Wrath

The central message of this chapter is the contrast between the old life before Christ and the new life in Christ. Readers are reminded that before they were in Christ they were dead in their sins and trespasses, because they had lived in a world ruled by the “power of the air.” As Gentiles they had lived in darkness, beholden to false religious practices and beliefs. They were, therefore, “children of wrath.” It is clear from the opening lines of this chapter that the audience is Gentile. As such, they had lived apart from God, alienated from their creator. Their former state was one of disobedience marked by doing that which is wrong, though the nature of these offenses are not yet revealed to the reader. The offenses themselves, however, flowed forth from their status as children of wrath. It was their nature, so that they lived their lives driven by passions and desires of the flesh.

The phrase “children of wrath” is problematic, for it gives off a sense of children who suffer the wrath of a divine tyrant who angrily lashes out against those who disobey. In Christian history, this passage has been used as the basis of teachings on original guilt, whereby humans are seen as having been born as sinners and thus needing to be baptized so as to erase this guilt. Or in a more descriptive sense, humans are to pick up on the title of a famous Jonathan Edwards sermon of the eighteenth century, “sinners in the hands of an angry God.”

It is difficult to reconcile images of wrath with the idea of a God of love, so this text requires careful attention. A more responsible way of interpreting this phrase might be to read “children of wrath” in parallel to the assertion that the readers had been disobedient — or more literally in the Greek “sons of disobedience.” It is a reminder that in their previous life, they had lived in disobedience to God’s wisdom and commandments. To say that they are “children of wrath” means that it is their nature to live in ways that are opposed to the things of God. This sense is reflective of Jewish understandings of Gentiles—assuming here that while the audience is Gentile, the author is Jewish, and therefore brings that Jewish predisposition toward Gentiles into the conversation. Thus, the reader is reminded that once they had lived according to their nature, which was prone toward disobedience. Now that they are living in Christ, that nature no longer holds sway.


Present in this letter are mythological concepts or cosmological ideas that may seem foreign to the modern world view. Reference to the “Ruler of the Power of the Air” is a good example of this pre-modern world view or metaphysical understanding of the universe. According to the Greek/Hellenistic “cosmology,” the “Power of the Air” was that space existing between the moon and the earth, which served as the realm of demonic activity (demons can be seen neutrally as spiritual beings). Perhaps the best way to understand this is to look at in terms of astrology; for first century Gentiles/Greeks it was understood that one’s life was affected by the phases of the moon. Indeed, references to spirit here should also be read in astrological ways —for that would have been the context that the earliest readers would have encountered it. As Pheme Perkins puts it, “popular Stoic defenses of astrology used the all-pervading ‘spirit’ as an explanation of how astrological influences are transmitted” (Perkins, 391 ).

We will return to this concept of cosmology in chapter six when we discuss the directive to put on the armor of God, with which the believer will engage the devil, who is the ruler of the cosmic spaces (Eph. 6:10ff). At this point in the discussion, the author is making the claim that prior to redemption in Christ Gentile Christians had lived under the influence of the demonic forces led by the devil that inhabited this region of the universe.

It is easy to dismiss these statements as fragments of a superstitious/non-scientific age (although astrology is quite popular even in the 21st century), but while the cosmology that lies behind the conversation may have been abandoned, it does raise important questions about the kinds of spiritual realities that modern Christians wrestle with in daily life. If we understand the powers and principalities to describe real expressions of evil, then we may have a way of understanding why things happen as they do. Perhaps one of the most helpful ways of translating the message contained in this perspective would be in terms of what Walter Wink calls the “Domination System.” Wink writes that “the Powers are simultaneously an outer, visible structure and an inner, spiritual reality” (Wink, 24). The “Domination System” is a system or institution that has betrayed its divine vocation and has taken on idolatrous values. As for the idea of Satan/the Devil, this represents the personification of the “world-encompassing spirit of the Domination System” (Wink, 26-27).

In trying to understand the meaning of this text, we must be careful that we don’t import a dualism that would have been foreign to the early Christian understandings of reality. The text doesn’t require the existence of a personal being of evil intent that seeks to lead individuals into committing evil. Neither does it mean that these forces are equal to God. There may be a battle, but the forces arrayed against each other are not equal nor are they equivalent.


Standing at the heart of Reformation Christianity—that set of faith traditions that issue forth from Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin—is the affirmation that salvation comes to a person as a gift of grace that is received by faith. No verse of the New Testament states this principle any clearer than does verse 8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God.” In the previous verses, the author, seemingly speaking as if this process is now accomplished, speaks of God being rich in mercy and love, and even though we were dead in our sins, having saved us by raising us with Christ into the heavenly places, where we might sit with Christ in the presence of God (vs. 4-6).

In reading this passage, which makes the case for grace so strongly, one should not think that grace rules out any ethical context or responsibility. Salvation is not something that can be merited, that is, being based upon our “works,” lest we be able to boast. Our place in the kingdom of God comes as a result of grace. That said, those who have been saved—made whole and reconciled with God and with creation in Christ—now may take up the good works prepared for them before the creation of the world. The issue here is not one of rejecting moral or ethical responsibility, but rather understanding what comes first—grace, not meritorious works.

Excerpted from Robert D. Cornwall, Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, (Energion Publications, 2011), pp. 24-27

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