One area of theology that needs to be rethought is the doctrine of total depravity, particularly the ability or inability of the unregenerate to respond in faith to God. Often, Calvinist and Lutheran theologians will appeal to the use of the word “dead” to prove that someone is unable to respond. After all, how can dead people respond to anything?
But in Greek, as in English, the word dead (nekros) can be used in a variety of metaphorical ways.
For example, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the younger son goes off to the far country, spends all his inheritance on prodigal living, leaving him destitute and working for pig scraps. Eventually, he returns to his father who then says, “for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24, cf. v 32).
The son was dead. What does that mean?
Obviously, he was not literally dead. The son was very much alive. The father is using the term metaphorically. Does calling his son dead mean, then, that he was totally unable to respond? Does deadness imply the doctrine of total inability?
Not in this case:
But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you’” (Luke 15:17-18).
The son came to his senses (“he came to himself”)! Even in his deadness (whatever that means), he eventually realized he had made a terrible mistake, had betrayed his father, and in light of that, he resolved to leave the trough behind and go back home. And the son did all that while being “dead.” (For an interpretation of what this means see here.)
Clearly, being “dead” does not mean being unable to think, deliberate, repent, or choose to change directions in your life. It does not necessarily imply total inability. It’s time to revisit the Biblical teaching about human sinfulness.