John H. Niemelä
Message of Life Ministries
Dortian Calvinism is known by the acronym T-U-L-I-P. The first point is the T, which stands for total inability. The following sermon by Brian Anderson is typical of those who hold to this theological view. It deceives many into imagining that the unregenerate totally lack the ability to believe. They claim that regeneration must precede faith.
…the sinner is spiritually dead. He is not just very sick, and about to die. He is dead. The answer to his dilemma is not in using his free will to reach out and take the medicine [i.e., believe Jesus’ promise of life]. The answer is that God must breathe His life into him, and make him alive [before he can believe]! Now, what is the Biblical answer to this question? Is man well, sick, or dead?2
Yes, Eph 2:1 and 5 say that unbelievers are dead, but Dortians are dead wrong about what that means.
II. THE PREHISTORY OF THE BOOK BY NICHOLS
Timothy Nichols argues powerfully for faith preceding regeneration. Note his title: Dead Man’s Faith. Nichols (while my student) presented a paper on Eph 2:1-10 at a 2000 pastors’ conference. The evening before speaking, he asked me to evaluate his new observation on Eph 2:8. Then he spent the night preparing for any objections. Dortian Calvinists with Ph.D. degrees were oddly silent during the question and answer period. The paper was that powerful.
In 2001, Nichols reworked his paper into a journal article: “Reverse-Engineered Outlining: A Method for Epistolary Exegesis.”3 Then, in 2004, his Th.M. thesis refined that same argument. The title was, “Dead Man’s Faith: Spiritual Death, Faith, and Regeneration in Ephesians 2:1-10,” which title the book shares.4
He had hoped to shed the thesis format and to produce a regular book. However, ministry, family, and work encroached upon his time. Rather than delaying further, he published a word-for-word copy of his thesis.5
III. COMMENTARY, THE ARGUMENT, AND THE EXEGETICAL METHOD
Since the book began as a thesis, its format follows academic protocols. However, Nichols wishes to assist readers in finding what particularly ministers to them, rather than letting its thesis format intimidate them. He says,
This is a master’s thesis, so it’s not particularly designed for ease of use. But I’ve had some practice helping people use it over the years, and here’s [sic] the best directions I can give you:
- If you’re just interested in the passage, go to chapters 2 and 3.
- If you’re after the theological take-away, the core argument is all on page 74, and then you can work outward from there.
- If you’re more interested in the [exegetical] methodology, it might serve you to tackle the appendix on BAR6 outlining first, and then go back and see the method in action in the main text.7
The theological take-away appears as six syllogisms that are this review’s focal point.8 Hopefully, many readers will buy the book so they “can work outward from there” to the whole argument. The following streamlines the wording of the six interlocking syllogisms (p. 74). The six syllogisms show that Dortian Calvinists are dead wrong about dead in Ephesians 2:
Major Premise: All believers were once dead [2:1a, 5a].
Minor Premise: Dead refers to spiritual death.
Conclusion: Therefore, all believers were once spiritually dead.
Major Premise: All believers were made alive [2:5b].
Minor Premise: Made alive refers to spiritual life (regeneration).
Conclusion: Therefore, all believers received spiritual life (regeneration).
Major Premise: By grace you are saved (2:5) is parenthetical to made alive…
Minor Premise: The parenthetical relation…[equates] made alive…with…by grace you are saved.
Conclusion: Therefore, made alive…is equated with…saved (2:5).
Major Premise: Made alive…is equated with…saved (2:5).
Minor Premise: By grace you are saved (2:8) resumed the topic of discussion from 2:5.
Conclusion: Therefore, made alive…is equated with…saved (2:5).
Major Premise: Through faith indicates the instrumental cause of by grace you are saved (2:8).
Minor Premise: Made alive…is equated with…by grace you are saved (2:8).
Conclusion: Therefore, through faith is the instrumental cause of made alive.
Major Premise: Through faith is the instrumental cause of made alive.
Minor Premise: Instrumental cause necessarily precedes its effect.
Conclusion: Therefore, faith precedes being made alive (regeneration).9
The minor premise in the sixth syllogism is the crux of the argument, but may require explanation. The word through (dia) often introduces instrumental cause. The major premise in syllogism #6 can be restated: you were made alive (regenerated) through faith (2:8).
The following shows the logic that faith precedes its effect (being made alive):
The car was started through someone’s turning the key to the start position.
The word through introduces what must occur first. Paul’s grammar demands that faith precedes being made alive. The title says it all: Dead Man’s Faith. Dortians are dead wrong about the word dead!
What does dead really mean in 2:1 and 5? Ephesians 4:18 clarifies the meaning. It says that the rest of10 the Gentiles (i.e., Gentile unbelievers) have darkened understanding, because they “are alienated from the life of God.” That is, dead speaks of alienation (separation) from God and from the life that He gives. Unbelievers lack everlasting life. Someone who lacks life is dead. Paul calls unbelievers dead here, because they lack everlasting life.11 Dortians foist their total-inability theory onto this passage; Paul would be horrified by such a conclusion.
IV. THE REFERENT OF TOUTO (THAT) IN EPHESIANS 2:8
Ephesians 2:8 says, “For by grace have you been saved through faith, and that (touto) not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” [JHN translation]. Many Dortians take the referent of that to be faith. The resultant interpretation would be that the faith with which one believes is not his own, but God gave the faith as a gift. This meshes with the Dortian theory that dead signifies total inability for unbelievers to believe. That is dead wrong about the meaning of dead.
Nichols considered four options before proposing his own. Daniel Wallace states the first four options briefly, “The standard interpretations include: (1) ‘grace’ as antecedent, (2) ‘faith’ as antecedent, (3) the concept of a grace-by-faith salvation as antecedent, and (4) kai touto having an adverbial force with no antecedent (‘and especially’).”12
Regarding views 1–2, Nichols notes that grace and faith are both feminine, so (if either were the referent) Paul would have used a feminine form of this (hautē), not touto (a neuter form).13 Concerning view 4, Nichols offers a pioneering critique:
…Wallace’s case for this category is shaky at best. Three of his four examples [Rom 13:11; 1 Cor 6:6 and 8] have a clear conceptual referent [not a non-referent, as Wallace suggests], and [3 John 5] the last one (problematic, but very possibly adverbial) is outside of Paul.14
Many grace interpreters embrace Wallace’s third referent option—a grace-by-faith salvation, because neuter pronouns often refer to multiple word antecedents (phrases, clauses, sentences, or paragraphs). Wallace is almost right here. Nichols notes that the twice repeated “by grace you have been saved” clause (2:5 and 8) is the natural referent.15 He adopts this and calls it the fifth option. He establishes that through faith should be excluded from the referent. Making faith part of the gift confuses the means for receiving the gift with the gift itself.16 Also, making faith part of the gift presupposes that God needs to give faith to people with total inability. The antecedent for this (touto) should be the by grace salvation (of 2:5 and 8).
V. THE CORPORATE NATURE OF EPHESIANS 2:10
Typical translations of Eph 2:10 render poiēma as workmanship. Nichols prefers artifact.17 His objection is not because of a meaning change. Rather, the English rendering is unclear whether workmanship is singular or plural. (The Greek is singular.) Artifact is clearly singular; artifacts would be plural. In context, knowing that artifact (workmanship) is singular is vital.
|This sculpture is his workmanship.||These sculptures are his workmanship.|
|This sculpture is his artifact.||These sculptures are his artifacts.|
Why is this important? Ephesians 2:10 has a plural subject (we) and a singular predicate nominative (artifact).18 Usually, plural predicate nominatives go with plural subjects. The first column below has plural predicate nominatives with plural subjects, while the second has singular predicate nominatives:
|Individual Focus||Group Focus|
|We are Americans (plural).||We are a nation (singular).|
|We are relatives (plural).||We are family (singular).|
|We are worshippers (plural).||We are a church (singular).|
The point in Eph 2:10 is corporate: “We [the body of Christ] are His [corporate] artifact,19 created in Christ Jesus for good works which He prepared beforehand, so we [the body of Christ] should walk in them.” It gives no basis for fruit inspection. Ephesians 2:15 calls the body of Christ the created new man. Artifact is an excellent suggestion here.
The reader may wonder, “Are there any red flags at all in the book?” Unfortunately, there are. Tim Nichols has (since writing his thesis) gone in some directions that I cannot endorse. The preface to this book openly speaks to some of these, so I must respond. He says:
Since I wrote this [the thesis], I’ve been a pastor, teacher, author, bus driver, massage therapist—you know, the usual range of ministry jobs. I’ve been privileged to see demons leave, the sick healed, the poor fed, the wounded made whole. I’ve heard God speak to me and to others, from the wealthy and well-off to homeless guys holding cardboard signs—truth be told, sometimes a lot clearer to the latter. More significant still, I have come to know God’s good heart for His children, and for me in particular, a lesson that somehow eluded me for most of my life. I’ve come a long way from the green, self-serious feller that penned this thesis.20
Some directions that Nichols has gone after seminary concern me. I told him that my review would mention this. He said, “The disclaimer is not unexpected, and doesn’t disturb me at all. Theology is a contact sport; a little jostling comes with the territory.” The thesis/book was written before his theological shifts. Readers should not dismiss this book because of its preface.
How I have wanted the book to be in print. God opens eyes to Ephesians 2 when people read through the six syllogisms. No one expects to change long held views of a key proof text after reading approximately 300 words of the syllogisms. A few years ago, a Dortian Calvinist told me his response to the syllogisms: “For forty years, I have been taught wrong.” He now champions grace. This book is an eye-opener. The truth of God’s grace is liberating.
This review article opened with a recent quote by Brian Anderson, a California pastor. He asked, after pushing for a Dortian view of Eph 2:1-3, “Is man well, sick, or dead?”21 Of course, the unbeliever is dead. Only one of the following understandings can be right:
Dort: God must give a person life, so he can believe.
Paul: The person must believe, so God can give him life.
Dortians have it backwards. They are dead wrong about the meaning of dead.
As for me and my house, we will follow Scripture, not human theological systems. The Synod of Dort was dead wrong about what Paul means in Ephesians 2. The Lord privileged Tim Nichols to discover a long-hidden treasure in Eph 2:8. The treasure is that the deadness of unbelievers does not mean spiritual inability to respond to God, but instead the absence of God’s life. His title says it all: “Dead Man’s Faith.” Ephesians 4:18 defines dead as alienation from the life that God gives, not total inability. Upon believing Jesus’ message of life, one who, a moment before, was a dead unbeliever passes from death to life via faith.
1 Timothy R. Nichols, Dead Man’s Faith: Spiritual Death, Faith, and Regeneration in Ephesians 2:1-10 (N.p.: Headwaters Christian Resources, 2016). 116 pp. Paperback, $15.00.
2 Brian Anderson (Pastor of the Bridge Church, Rancho Cordova, CA), “Total Inability: Ephesians 2:1-3,” October 24, 2016. Transcript at http://www.thebridgeonline.net/sermons/total-inability/accessed January 23, 2017.
3 Timothy R. Nichols, “Reverse-Engineered Outlining: A Method for Epistolary Exegesis,” CTSJ 7 (April 2001): 16-58. The article’s interlinear format allows those not knowing Greek to understand the discussion. It appears at: http:// chafer.nextmeta.com/files/v7n2_2_reverse.pdf.
4 Timothy R. Nichols, “Dead Man’s Faith: Spiritual Death, Faith, and Regeneration in Ephesians 2:1-10” (Th.M. thesis: Chafer Theological Seminary, 2004).
5 The only changes are its use of both sides of pages and its absence of signatures from his thesis readers (this reviewer and George E. Meisinger). Occasional typos still survive and references to the work as a thesis remain. Double-sided pages helpfully place the diagrams of Eph 2:1-7 and 2:8-10 on facing pages (17-18). This also makes it a much thinner volume. Single spacing would have been welcome, as would a Scripture index and an index of cited authors.
6 As my one-time teaching assistant, Nichols coined the term BAR for the second aspect of epistolary exegesis. BAR stands for Boundary, Assertion, and Relation. See pp. 94-102. Later, I expanded the acronym beyond BAR, drawing upon the title Diagrammatic Analysis, by Lee L. Kantenwein (Winona Lake, IN: Grace Theological Seminary, 1976). The combined acronym is DABAR (DĀBĀR, a Hebrew term for word). Nichols explains and exemplifies Diagramatic Analysis plus Boundary, Assertion, and Relation. Pages 17f contain a grammatical diagram of the Majority Text of Eph 2:1-10 before applying BAR outlining. The book serves as a textbook in my seminary courses on exegetical methodology.
7 Nichols, “Preface” to Dead Man’s Faith.
8 The book as a whole leads to this set of six syllogisms. Applying the exegetical method (pp. 94-102) to the passage yields the commentary (pp. 5-69 and 76-91) and leads to the syllogisms (pp. 70-74). Thus, the rest of the book should deepen one’s grasp of this six syllogism argument.
9 Nichols, Dead Man’s Faith, 74. I omitted some optional words to save space. The full text is in his book.
10 The Majority Text of Eph 4:17 says, “the rest of the Gentiles.” The Critical Text omits “the rest of.”
11 Some may object that unbelievers have life: “Won’t unbelievers live forever in the lake of fire?” They will exist forever, but conscious existence should not be equated with life. Remember that Rev 20:14 calls their eternal existence the second death, not the second life. Unbelievers exist now; they are dead now. Unbelievers will have conscious existence forever, but that existence is called death, not life.
12 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 334.
13 Nichols, Dead Man’s Faith, 78-83.
14 Ibid., 84. He footnotes a preliminary exploration of referents for demonstrative pronouns in Paul’s writings that he co-authored: Ann Marshall and Timothy R. Nichols, “Neuter Uses of Houtos in Paul” (paper submitted for 305 Advanced Greek Grammar, Chafer Theological Seminary, Fall 2000).
15 Nichols, Dead Man’s Faith, 87f.
16 In a nutshell, the gift is the by-grace salvation, while faith is the instrumental means for receiving the gift. It does not make sense for the means for receiving a gift to be seen as part of the gift. If I hand someone a wrapped gift, he might request a pair of scissors. No one would view scissors as part of the gift (or it would be wrapped also), but as the means for opening the gift (which is inside the wrapping paper).
17 Nichols, Dead Man’s Faith, 34.
18 Ephesians 2:8-9 uses the second person plural (you). The shift to the first person plural in v 10 is dramatic, intentional, and often ignored by interpreters.
19 Note the created body of Christ (corporate) in Eph 2:14-16 (in this very chapter), especially 2:16.
20 Nichols, Dead Man’s Faith, “Preface.”
21 Brian Anderson, “Total Inability.”