I recently wrote a blog entitled, “Where Did Chafer Say We Don’t Have a Sin Problem; We Have a Son Problem?” See here. Joseph wrote this follow-up question:
Would you give a definition for what dead in sin means? If one is dead, how can he believe? It seems to me that this means I’m separated from God, but I can still believe with the help of the Holy Spirit. Your response is appreciated.
I agree with Joseph’s understanding of spiritual deadness.
Biblical interpretation should be done by examining the text. However, often it is done by tradition. The Calvinist tradition says that to be “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1) means that one cannot believe anything in God’s Word since dead people are dead.
Gotquestions.org says concerning Eph 2:1, “Just as a corpse cannot do anything to help himself, so we cannot save ourselves or make a move to cleanse our sins. We cannot even produce the desire to obey God. We were dead because of our sin.”
Calvinists like to say that the spiritually dead are like corpses at the bottom of a well. You can throw them a rope and shout for them to put it around their waist and hold on, but they are dead, and they cannot hear you or respond to what you are saying. According to Calvinists, God simply gives the unbeliever everlasting life and then later he gives that born-again unbeliever the gift of faith in Christ.i
At their website, Ligonier ministries has an article on Eph 2:1 entitled “Total Moral Inability.” In it they say,
Before our Creator makes us alive spiritually, we are dead in our trespasses and sin, and we cannot help but serve the world, the flesh, and the devil. Dead bodies are incapable of doing anything but remaining in the state of death. If they are to come alive again, they must be acted upon by an outside being, even God Himself at the resurrection. Spiritually dead people cannot do anything but remain in the state of spiritual death. They require an outside being—the sovereign Lord—to restore them to spiritual life. This is what God does for His people in making them spiritually alive. We see the greatness of God’s grace and power in that He intervenes and changes us before we are even able to ask Him to do so, granting us the faith by which we are saved (Eph. 2:1–10).
That is, however, an interpretation. The text of Eph 2:1-10 does not say that. There is another way to interpret the text that better fits the context and the rest of the New Testament.
The word dead in Eph 2:1 refers to lacking everlasting life. Of course, Calvinists agree with that. But it does not refer to total moral inability. If the Calvinist interpretation were correct, then 100% of the unregenerate would be unable to understand or believe a thing that the Bible says. But the unregenerate are capable of believing that God exists, that Jesus is the Son of God, that He died on the cross for our sins, the He rose bodily from the dead, that the Bible is God’s Word, that Jesus is coming again, and so forth.
It is true that God must intervene in order for the spiritually dead to believe in Christ. Compare 2 Cor 4:4 and Acts 16:14. However, that intervention is not the new birth. It is opening the heart. That is, God at some point allows the light of the gospel to shine on people. Until that point, the unbeliever does not view the promise of everlasting life as true. But once his eyes are opened, he sees it is true and believes it and is instantly born again.
If the Calvinist position were true, then faith is not the condition for the new birth. Calvinists actually teach that. The new birth would be the condition for faith. Calvinists teach that too.
In that case, the Lord Jesus had it backwards when He spoke to the woman at the well about the living water. He told her that she needed to drink the living water (= believe in Jesus, see John 6:35) in order for that water to spring up in her into everlasting life (John 4:14). He should have said the opposite. She needed God to give her everlasting life so that the life would spring up into living water.
John 3:14, 15, 16, 17, and 18 are all backwards too. Backwards also are Gen 15:6; Acts 16:31; Rom 3:21-31; 4:1-8; Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9; 1 Tim 1:16; Rev 22:17; and scores of other verses in the Bible.
Have you ever shared your faith with an unbeliever? Why? Because you know that the person can hear and understand and believe what you are saying.
I once heard Pastor Adrian Rogers say in chapel at DTS: “If the Calvinist position were true, then the evangelist would just need to stand in front of the congregation and whistle the tune to Just as I Am. The elect would recognize the tune and come forward.”
The Lord said that the problem with the legalistic Jews was not that they could not believe in Him, but that they were not willing to believe in Him (John 5:39-40; see also Matt 23:37-39).
Cornelius was spiritually dead when an angel appeared to him and told him to send for Simon Peter who would tell him what he must do to be saved (Acts 11:14; compare Acts 10:1-8). If spiritual deadness meant spiritual inability, then he would not have understood the angel, would not have sent for Peter, and then would not have understood Peter. Cornelius and his household believed Peter’s message (see Acts 15:7-11) and then were born again.
Think back to the time before you believed in Christ for everlasting life. Did you believe that God existed? Did you believe that the Bible is God’s Word? How could you believe anything God said if you were spiritually dead? The answer is because spiritual deadness does not mean total inability. That is a man-made doctrine. It is well intentioned. But it is dead wrong.
i Most Calvinists say that the new birth and faith in Christ occur simultaneously, but that logically the new birth has to precede faith by a nanosecond. However, some Calvinists say that faith can come years or even decades after the new birth.