What does it really mean to be “dead in trespasses and sins”?

eph26

Colossians 2:12-20
(12) Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.
(13) And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him [Christ], having forgiven you all trespasses
(20) …therefore…ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world…

Ephesians 2:1-6
(1) And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins
(5) Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)
(6) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus:

Romans 6:3-4 
Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

Romans 6:5
For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:

The goal of this essay is to determine what it means to be “dead in trespasses and sins.” I am concerned that the popular spiritual death explanation ascribed to this phrase by many Christian leaders is misleading. From Romans 6:5 emerges a rule which tethers the words death and resurrection to each other in such a way that both words must be taken in the same sense—they are either both literal or both figurative. No mixing of a figurative death and a literal resurrection is therefore permitted. This point is important because in the passages of Ephesians 2:1-6 and Colossians 2:13-20, both the Romans 6:5 rule and the force of logic compel us to conclude that the Author is using the terms dead and quickened symmetrically. This means that these terms are meant to correspond with one another in such a way that they reflect each other as opposites. As a result, the word dead cannot be used to convey both literal (i.e. physical) and figurative (i.e. spiritual) death within the same logical argument; otherwise, the Author would be guilty of equivocating on the word dead.

Another thing to point out is that some key propositions from Ephesians 2:1-6 and Colossians 2:13-20 form a good and necessary logical construct called a Sorites. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a Sorites is a “an argument consisting of propositions so arranged that the predicate of any one forms the subject of the next and the conclusion unites the subject of the first proposition with the predicate of the last.” The propositions that form the Sorites in question have been put into categorical form below so that the complete argument is clear and evident to the reader.

Sorites

  1. ALL [believers-who-were-dead-in-tresspasses-and-sin] ARE [persons-whom-God-has-raised-from-the-dead-together-with-Christ]
  2. ALL [persons-whom-God-has-raised-from-the-dead-together-with-Christ] ARE [persons whom God has made to sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus]
  3. ALL [persons whom God has made to sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus] ARE [persons-who-died-with-Christ-and-are-thus-freed-from-the-rudiments-of-this-world]
  4. ALL [believers-who-were-dead-in-tresspasses-and-sin] ARE
    [persons-who-died-with-Christ-and-are-freed-from-the-rudiments-of-this-world]

Identifying the source of the first three propositions should be straight forward and the fourth Proposition which is the Sorites’ conclusion is derived from Colossians 2:20. In order for this Sorites to refrain from committing the logical fallacy of equivocation, the word dead must be used univocally; meaning, the definition of dead must be consistent throughout all propositions in the Sorites. Since we all know that God does not commit logical fallacies (2 Timothy 2:13), it then follows that if the word quickened in Ephesians 2:5 is referring to having our “mortal bodies” raised from the dead (Romans 8:11), then the word dead must refer to physical death; the converse of the physical life which Christ received from the resurrection (Isaiah 26:19). For though Christ received a glorified body, it was still a physical body (Luke 24:39), though not a natural body (1 Corinthians 15:44). That this Sorites was derived from the Bible passages referenced above, means that the word dead when used therein, can only ever refer to physical death.

One might then ask: how can a man who is still physically alive also be physically dead in trespasses and sins? The answer is simple, the Author is employing a symmetrical illustration of two inevitabilities; that we are already dead in trespasses and sin is merely the first half. As we shall shortly see, the past tense employed in the first half begins to make sense once the reader also realizes that we are already “raised ..up” with Christ and seated “together in heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6). This is the second half of the “already” symmetry. Both the first and second half of the symmetry are spoken of in an anticipatory sense. This type of truth which describes individuals by using inevitabilities concerning them is sometimes referred to as “positional” truth. According to Dr. Henry Morris’ Defender Study Bible: “These great truths are so certain to be accomplished that they are expressed in the past tense.”[DSB Ephesians 2:6]

It is therefore really important for the reader to grasp this point above about which type of death is in view because my understanding of Calvinism, based upon the teachings of its popular adherents, is that when Ephesians 2:1-6 and Colossians 2:13 use the phrase “dead in sins” these verses are referring to spiritual death or the state of being unregenerate. Since the terms spiritual death and unregenerate are susceptible to a whole host of differing connotations, it is appropriate to further define what the Calvinist means.

When Calvinists employ the term unregenerate they are not merely referring to a person in the state of unbelief. Rather, the person to whom they refer is also considered to be spiritually dead which apparently means that the person’s will is in such bondage to sin that he (or she) is incapable of exercising any faith in Jesus Christ unless God makes him or her alive spiritually. The process of God making the unregenerate person spiritually alive is called sovereign regeneration. The unregenerate person, also called the natural man, is thus utterly unable to respond to the gospel. Though the phrase spiritually dead nor any of its variants are ever found anywhere in the bible, it is nonetheless and frequently used by the Calvinist to describe this person who can do everything else that is humanly possible except please God. This peculiar and non-intuitive understanding of the word unregenerate is often illustrated by evoking the picture of a corpse lying in the cemetery that is unable to reciprocate any attempt at communication. What is then said to follow is that a person who is “dead in trespasses and sin” will not obey the Gospel because he or she—like the corpse in the cemetery—is unable. Of course, this way of illustrating spiritual death leads to all sorts of absurdities if the analogy is used in a consistent manner. For example, the same spiritually dead person depicted in the Calvinist’s analogy of a corpse can’t disobey the Gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:8) or resist the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51). This definition also makes the formerly righteous man of Ezekiel 18:24-26 an impossibility since it is apparent that this condemned man at certain times was actually able to please God without sovereign regeneration. To show that I am not constructing a straw man or putting words in the mouth of the Calvinist, I have included some quotes below that reinforce what I am saying:

According to the prominent Calvinist apologist, James White:

All believers who are now alive in Jesus Christ were once dead in their trespasses and sins. But what does it mean to be “dead in sin“? It obviously does not mean that man’s spirit ceases to exist or that man’s will is no longer active. But given the Bible’s teaching that man is incapable of doing what is pleasing to God and that he is the enemy of God outside of Christ, we can see that spiritual death involves the inability to will and do what is good and pleasing in God’s sight.
As one is in rebellion against the source of all true life, the result is called spiritual death—a death that only the miracle of regeneration, being “born again,” can remedy. Those who are dead in sin can indeed understand the facts of the gospel message, but they will always respond in the same fashion: with rebellion, rejection, or suppression. Until God takes out the heart of stone and gives a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), or causes His Spirit to make those dead bones come together into living beings (Ezekiel 37:14), men are dead in their trespasses, incapable of doing what is pleasing to God. [Debating Calvinism : five points, two views / by Dave Hunt and James White. p.38]

Another Calvinist, Edwin Palmer states:

Man is dead in sins…unable to ask for help unless God…makes him alive spiritually (Ephesians 2:5). Then, once he is born again, he can for the first time turn to Jesus, expressing sorrow for his sins and asking Jesus to save him. [Edwin H. Palmer, the Five points of calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, enlarged ed. 20th prtg. 1980) p.18-19

In regards to being “dead in sins” the Amazing Grace documentary on the “History & Theology of Calvinism” states the following:

Because man is dead in his trespasses and sin, it is God, and God alone, who brings him back to life, sending His Spirit to revive, regenerate, and resurrect man from the hopeless condition of spiritual death. [Amazing Grace: The History & Theology of Calvinism Study Guide and Workbook, Page 27]

Now, it is one thing to ascribe to the phrase spiritually dead the notion that man is unable to respond. But, it is quite another thing to use Ephesians 2:5 and Colossians 2:13 as the basis for such an eccentric doctrine; yet, the three Calvinist quotes above do just that! We have already seen from the Sorites above that it is unreasonable to use these verses in such a manner. I think Calvinists really ought to just abandon the term spiritually dead since there is obviously no such idea in the Scriptures. Actually it’s a misnomer and an oxymoron.  The words spiritually and dead simply do not mix. Despite the near implication in Matthew 10:28, it is apparent by verses such as Daniel 12:2, Isaiah 66:24, Matthew 25:46, and Mark 9:44-48 that though the body perishes, the spirit does not die. Even James White says in the quote above that it is obvious that the man’s spirit doesn’t cease to exist in the state of spiritual death. So why then do Calvinist insist on using Ephesians 2:5 and Colossians 2:13 as a proof text for this misnomer of a phrase? After all, the believers who were spiritually dead in these verses are not being “born again”—a phrase which Calvinists esteem as regeneration. Instead, the Ephesians 2:5 and Colossians 2:13 believers are being resurrected, and in the same fashion as Christ (i.e. bodily). According to Ephesians 2:5-6, we were resurrected together with Christ and made to physically sit together in the heavenly places. Though we are not spiritually sitting with Christ in Heaven right now, soon we will physically sit with Him in heavenly places in our new glorified bodies (Revelation 3:21). What does any of this have to do with being spiritually resurrected?

Even the conventional (i.e. non-Calvinistic) meaning of spiritual death, which merely states that man is separated from God because of sin, is just as problematic. The idea that sinners are cut off from communion or fellowship from God in such a way as to warrant the phrase “spiritual death” has no real basis in the Scriptures. Was Jeremiah spiritually dead when God separated him for service in his mother’s womb (Jeremiah 1:5)? How can God be said to strive with those who are spiritually dead (Genesis 6:3)? One of the most popular proof-text for the notion of spiritual death is Genesis 2:17. From this verse, it is inferred that since Adam didn’t immediately die a physical death then God must have had another type of death in mind—spiritual death. However, a careful study of the actual Genesis 2:17 proposition and the common figure of speech employed therein renders the spiritual death inference unnecessary; therefore it is invalid. (See: What about Spiritual Death?)

The Bible (N.T.) uses the word spiritual (pneumatikos in the Greek) in four ways:

  • to describe things that are of God such as gifts, songs, the law or blessings (Rom 1:11, Rom 7:14, Rom 15:27, 1Co 9:11, 1Co 10:3-4, 1Co 12:1, 1Co 14:1 etc.)
  • to describe a type of body which is incorruptible (1Co 15:44, 1Co 15:46, 1Pe 2:5)
  • to describe a type of mind (1Co 2:13, 1Co 2:15, 1Co 3:1, 1Co 14:37, Gal 6:1, Col 1:9)
  • and to describe a type of non-human species such as wicked spirits (Eph 6:12).

Not even once does the bible use the word “spiritual” to refer to death of any sort. Furthermore, none of the entities in the four categories above are subject to death. To press the case further, if dead when used in Ephesians 2:1-6 and Colossians 2:13-20 refers to spiritual death and a spiritually dead person is primarily described as a person who is incapable of responding to the Gospel, then to be spiritually alive must primarily refer to a person who is capable of responding to the Gospel. What a myopic, confusing and inhibiting way of defining the term spiritual! Can you imagine importing this meaning into all those bible verses which refer to a person and contain the word spiritual! The other problem that I have with the Calvinist’s notion of being spiritually dead—other than the fact that is it not found at all in the scriptures—is that the natural man to whom it is said to apply, still has a spirit which is very much alive. How then can a man with a spirit that is alive be described as spiritually dead without causing confusion! Yes, the term spiritual can have more than meaning as we have seen above, but when the Calvinist conflates the conceptual notion of spiritual death with biblical notion of physical death, one wonders which meaning of the term spiritual (if any) is in view. On the other hand, the spiritual man of 1 Corinthians 2:15 is thus called not because he has a spirit, but because he, being born of the spirit of God, is able to discern things which pertain to the Spirit of God. Therefore, the word spiritual when used in the Scriptures to refer to a mind or person, is merely a synonym for someone who thinks in a godly manner. When the word spiritual is understood in this way, it becomes clear that the opposite of a spiritual man is not a spiritually dead man but rather, a carnally minded or natural man.

Furthermore, if the word dead in Ephesians 2:1-6 and Colossians 2:13-20 means spiritual death then this means that the Author is using dead in a figurative sense. That means that in order to avoid committing the logical fallacy of equivocation, the Author would also have to use the word “quickened” in a non-literal fashion as well. Since the Calvinist maintains that the only “remedy” for being “dead in sins” is to be sovereignly regenerated, this would then force us to embrace the heresy that Ephesians 2:6 is also speaking of Christ needing to be sovereignly regenerated. After all, it is said in these verses that believers and Christ are quickened “together.”

Moreover, when Ephesians 2:1-5 and Colossians 2:13 both use the word dead, this cannot refer to being unregenerate because the counter-phrase, “quickened together with him,” means that believers have been raised from the dead with Christ. Therefore, since we have been raised from the dead with Christ, then the first phrase “dead in your sins” must refer to the type of death which Christ endured. It cannot refer to being unregenerate or spiritually dead because that would then mean that Christ was also unregenerate and spiritually dead which again is heresy.

So w see that neither dead nor quickened can be taken figuratively without leading to a heretical consequence.

Both the natural man of 1 Corinthians 2:14 and the spiritual man of 1 Corinthians 2:15 have physical bodies that are irrevocably subject to physical death because of the Law. But then Christ nullified the Law’s mandate of death by fulfilling all the righteous requirements of the Law—including the requirement that there be shedding of blood for the remission of sins. God imputes this blood-bought-righteousness to anyone who believes in Christ and then promises to resurrect that believer as Christ was resurrected (John 14:19). God has thus raised both Christ and the spiritual man up from the dead and seated them in heavenly places.

Therefore, whatever the term dead in the phrase “dead in sins” means, it must have something to do with the state that Christ was in before He rose from the dead. We know that Christ died physically, meaning, his body died while His soul went to Sheol—which the KJV interprets as Hell (Psalm 16:10, Acts 2:27). This must mean that we too are physically dead but unlike Christ, our death is due the indwelling sin in our bodies and the “uncircumcision of our flesh.” That we are already “dead in sins” speaks to the inevitability of the death that we face. In the same way that believers are already “raised from the dead and seated in heavenly places” with Christ (Ephesians 2:6); the unbeliever, because of the “ministration of death” that has been pronounced upon him by the Law (2 Corinthians 3:5-12), cannot hazard being anything else but dead. This is why Paul speaks of the unbeliever as already being “dead in trespasses” even though the unsaved person reading Colossians 2:13 is still alive in the flesh. Thus the Law has made us dead men walking; or so we were until we obeyed the gospel and through the “faith of the operation of God” were made alive in Christ. This is why Paul says:

For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died (Romans 7:9).

Adam was physically alive before the Law and all non-raptured-men will eventually suffer physical death because of the Law.

This then demonstrates that Ephesians 2:1-5 and Colossians 2:13 can not refer to the spiritual death that the Calvinist conceives of when using the term unregenerate. Unbelievers are effectively dead because of the Law. Effectively dead means that even though we are still biologically alive, there is no possibility of anything other than physical death for all those who commit sin under the Law. If “dead in your sins” meant that believers were previously unregenerate, then to say that we have now been “quickened together with” Christ is to employ an incompatible counter-phrase that lacks the symmetry needed to complement what is meant by being unregenerate. Paul should have instead said that we have been made spiritually alive and should also have removed Christ from the “quickened” phrase since Christ was not “dead in trespasses and in sin.”

 

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