A Commentary by John Stott
Paul is not content to say simply that we *once walked in trespasses and sins*. The expression is a Hebraism, indicating our former behaviour or lifestyle. But a ‘walk’ suggests (at least in western minds) a pleasant promenade in the countryside, with leisured freedom to enjoy the beauties of our surroundings. Very different, however, was our former ‘walk in trespasses and sins’. There was no true freedom there, but rather a fearful bondage to forces over which we had no control. What were they? If behind death lies sin, what lies behind sin that we are held in such captivity? Paul’s answer, when put into later ecclesiastical terminology, is ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’. For he refers to these three influences as controlling and directing our pre-Christian existence.
First, he declares us as *following the course of this world*. The Greek phrase is ‘according the age of this world’. It brings together the two concepts of ‘this age’ of evil and darkness (in contrast to ‘the age to come’ which Jesus introduced) and of ‘this world’, society organized without reference to God or – as we might say – ‘secularism’ (in contrast to God’s kingdom, which is his new society under his rule). So both words ‘age’ and ‘world’ express a whole social value-system which is alien to God. It permeates, indeed dominates, non-Christian society and holds people in captivity. Wherever human beings are being dehumanised – by political oppression or bureaucratic tyranny, by an outlook that is secular (repudiating God), amoral (repudiating absolutes) or materialistic (glorifying the consumer market), by poverty, hunger or unemployment, by racial discrimination, or by any form of injustice – there we can detect the sub-human values of ‘this age’ and ‘this world’. Their influence is pervasive. People tend not to have a mind of their own, but to surrender to the pop-culture of television and the glossy magazines. It is a culture bondage. We were all the same until Jesus liberated us. We ‘drifted along the stream of this world’s ideas of living’ (JBP).
Our second captivity is to the devil, who is here named *the prince of the power of the air* or (AG) ‘the ruler of the kingdom of the air’. The word for ‘air’ could be translated ‘foggy atmosphere’, indicating the darkness which the devil prefers to light. But the whole phrase need mean no more than that he has command of those ‘principalities and powers’ already mentioned, who operate in the unseen world. It is unfashionable nowadays in the church (even while satanism flourishes outside it) to believe either in a personal devil or in personal demonic intelligences under his command. But there is no obvious reason why church fashion should be the director of theology, whereas the plain teaching of Jesus and his apostles (not to mention the church of the subsequent centuries) endorsed their malevolent existence.
A further phrase is *the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience*. Since the words *the spirit* are in the genitive, they are not in apposition to *the prince* (accusative). We must rather understand that ‘the ruler of the kingdom of the air’ is also ‘the ruler of the spirit which works in disobedient people’. ‘Spirit’ then becomes an impersonal force or mood which is actively at work in non-Christian people. Since Scripture identifies the devil not only as the source of temptations to sin, but also as a ‘lion’ and a ‘murderer’, we may safely trace all evil, error and violence back to him in the end. When he and the mood he inspires are said to be at work in human beings, the verb (*energeo*) is the same as that used of God’s power (1:20) which raised Jesus from the dead. Only that divine energy or action could have rescued us from the devil.
The third influence which holds us in bondage is *the passions of the flesh* (verse 3a), where ‘flesh’ means not the living fabric which covers our bony skeleton but our fallen, self-centred human nature. Its ‘passions’ are further defined as *the desires of body and mind*. This addition is particularly important because it shows the error of equating ‘the passions of the flesh’ with what are popularly called ‘the sins of the flesh’. Two clarifications are needed. First, there is nothing wrong with natural bodily desires, whether for food, sleep or sex. For God has made the human body that way. It is only when the appetite for food becomes gluttony, for sleep sloth and for sex lust, that natural desires have been perverted into sinful desires. Secondly, ‘the passions of the flesh’ include the wrong desires of the *mind* as well as of the *body*, namely such sins as intellectual pride, false ambition, rejection of known truth, and malicious or vengeful thoughts. Indeed, according to Paul’s exposition in Philippians 3:3-6, ‘the flesh’ covers all forms of self-indulgence, even pride of ancestry, parentage, race, religion and righteousness. Wherever ‘self’ rears its ugly head against God or man, there is ‘the flesh’. As F.F.Bruce justly comments, it ‘can manifest itself in respectable forms as well as in the disreputable pursuits of first-century paganism’. And, however respectable the public guise (or disguise) it adopts, our ingrained self-centredness is a horrible bondage.
So then, before Jesus Christ set us free, we were subject to oppressive influences from both within and without. Outside was ‘the world’ (the prevailing secular culture); inside was ‘the flesh’ (our fallen nature twisted with self-centredness); and beyond both, actively working through both, was that evil spirit, the devil, ‘the ruler of the kingdom of darkness’, who held us in captivity. Not that we can now conveniently shift all the blame for our slavery on to ‘the world, the flesh and he devil’, and accept no responsibility for it ourselves. On the contrary, it is significant that in these verses ‘you’ and ‘we’ are not identified with these forces but distinguished from them, although enslaved by them. We ourselves, however, are termed *sons of disobedience* (verse 2b), that is, ‘God’s rebel subjects’ (NEB). We had rebelled, knowingly and voluntarily, against the loving authority of God and so had fallen under the dominion of Satan.