Monday, June 11, 2012

Dead Man Walking

The soteriology wars are heating up as Southern Baptists react to the document released May 31 titled: “A Statement of the TraditionalSouthern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”.  It’s been interesting to watch the back and forth.  It was one of these discussions that prompted this post.  One commenter on a blog asked an honest and insightful question of Calvinists:  Is there one lynch-pin that you see for your soteriology that is critical and upon which the system would fall if it were removed?  There were various answers, but I think there is at least one lynch-pin to Calvinism that I want to talk about in this post.

I believe the understanding of exactly how the word "dead" is to be interpreted in Scripture is a core concept in Calvinism.  How you understand particularly Paul’s usage of “dead” impacts your view of sin and atonement.  How many times have I heard a Calvinist brother say to me, "Paul tells us we are completely, spiritually dead.  Dead men don't give themselves life!  Dead men don't do anything!"  What did Paul mean in Ephesians 2:1 when he said, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world…”?  I believe there is a risk in Calvinistic interpretation to dive right in to understanding certain words – like “dead” – in light of their systematic theology rather than stepping back and seriously looking at the context.

How much can really be said about what Paul intended about being dead in Ephesians 2?  What did Paul mean?  Who was he writing to and what was he trying to say?  He was writing to Ephesians, gentiles most of whom had come from a pagan background.  But these gentile believers were also influenced by the Jewish converts around them.  That was the occasion of his writing.  In Chapter 1, Paul is explaining to them that it is no accident that God is accepting gentiles – on the contrary, it was a part of God’s plan from the beginning of the world!

Paul continues on in Chapter 2 to give them more understanding of how and why they have been saved.   I find it interesting that he said “…And you were dead in the trespasses and sins  in which you once walked, following the course of this world.”  How could they be dead while they walked (translated "lived" in some versions)?  I believe, as in other places, he’s using death to speak metaphorically to describe the effects of their sin and transgressions on their life. 

What can be said confidently about this verse?  Only that Paul is drawing a sharp distinction between the condition of being a believer as opposed to being separated from God.  He’s saying that before they were in Christ, they did not have real life.  What did that entail?  Paul does not tell us.  We get no details of what he means by the use of “dead” in 2:1.  From this point, each of us has to build our Biblical case for what Paul meant.  Paul does tell us that we are raised up with Christ and he talks about being saved - implying that while we are still dead in trespasses and sins we are lost.  That's obvious enough, but I see no hint of the Calvinist idea of total depravity. The Calvinist fits this verse within his system and states that there was no God-given spark, no ability to sense God’s drawing, no spiritual capacity whatsoever prior to regeneration.  The Calvinist excludes metaphor altogether here, and appears to fit the verse to a systematic theology.

Why?  Why do Calvinists ascribe elements of “death” to this verse that Paul never delineates?  Why do they not do the same in Romans 6:2 where Paul tells us we are dead to sin?  Why not use the same characteristics?  These would necessarily include the inability to respond to sin, a life of sinless perfection to be consistent with a Calvinist view of death as used in Ephesians – why isn’t this interpretation correct?  Maybe because it is clear that Paul uses death as a metaphor there to show a truth.  Why cannot Calvinists even fathom that death as a metaphor may apply in Ephesians 2?   It appears that it’s because metaphor doesn’t fit the system.  If Total Depravity means not one molecule of our being has any goodness remaining due to the fall, then “dead” must mean complete lack of any spiritual content whatsoever.  It’s proscribed, not derived.  I know, I know – the Calvinist will flip to Romans 5 and show me we are all born guilty because of Adam’s sin. 

But is that what Romans 5 says?  Not when I read it.  All I can say for certain is that sin entered the world with Adam and the result is that we all now participate in it.  That’s all the Scripture says.  Doesn’t say I’m born guilty.  Doesn’t say every thought, action and motive is wholly, completely depraved.  All this passage tells us without question is that we are all sinners, we are all guilty, and it all started with Adam.  In fact, if you are going to take these verses in a Calvinistic understanding of total depravity, you’ll have to wind up as a Universalist!  That should make some Calvinist heads explode about now! 

In Romans 5:15, Paul says “But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.”  To be consistent, if “many died” here means every single human being is automatically guilty of Adam’s sin by lineage (not by action), then why wouldn’t “abounded for many” in the latter part of the verse mean every human being as well?  There is no basis to make a distinction here defining “many” as “all” in the first part of the verse and as “some” in the latter.  In context, it seems clear to me that we are on shaky ground when we go beyond three things in these verses:

1) Adam brought sin into the world,
2) We are all guilty of it and
3) Christ has paid for it! 

I see clear unlimited atonement here – Paul is making the case for sufficiency of Christ’s death in these verses.  Anything more is extrapolation.

So what does Paul mean when he says we are “dead” in our sins and trespasses without Christ?  What we can say with confidence is that we are like the proverbial death row inmates.  We are “dead men walking” in that though we are alive, a certain fate awaits us if we don’t find someone to pardon us.  Paul is telling us we are ultimately dead without Christ.  If the Calvinist interpretation of what Paul means by "dead" falls, then their concept of total depravity falls.  If total depravity falls, then the whole system falls.  Is the Calvinist wrong?  Only God knows, but I would certainly hold those views tentatively in light of what Scripture actually says.  There are too many blanks that have been filled in by the "system" from my standpoint.


  1. Great post!

    I think when we look at the totality of related Scripture we see a view of man that is not very flattering.

    Jesus tells us what he thinks in many places. With Nicodemus, Jesus says that this (being born again) can't be done by him (Nicodemus) but that it has to come from above.

    And he tells the Jews that "no man CAN come to me, except he be drawn ('compelled' is the more accurate translation) by the Father."

    The Gospel of John tells us that "...we are NOT born of the will of man...but of God."

    Jesus saud, "you did not choose me, but I chose you."

    He tells Simon Peter (after Simon Peter correctly answered Jesus' question of "who do you say that I am?") "Blessed are you...for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you but my Father in Heaven."

    Look at Paul. The great de-bunker of "free-will", decision theology, ought be the Apostle Paul himself. He was on his way to bump off a few Christians (more than likely) when the Lord knocked him on his keester and said, 'you're mine'...end of discussion'.

    Anyway...I just wanted to share that with you, friend.

    1. Steve, Though we disagree on some points of theology, I appreciate the tone of your reply. I would agree with you that Scripture does not have a very flattering view of man. It would take me a blog post each to even scratch the surface of your references to John 3, John 6, John 15, Acts 9 and Matthew 16, so I will not try to do it in this comment thread. I do plan to address aspects of each of these in successive posts as time permits. Let me just say that I view each of the passages in full context as best I understand that context, and I arrive at different conclusions. Your reply does , in a way, buttress part of the point that I am making. You moved from the total depravity discussed in the post to irresistible grace and unconditional election, and rightly so. They are logically connected in a Calvinistic theology. My point is that if total depravity falls, the system falls. I believe the Scriptures clearly teach universal depravity, but I am at a loss to see total depravity as defined by Calvinism. Thanks for your brotherly exchange.

    2. SBC L.,

      I am not an advocate of the 'doctrine of total depravity'(I'm not a Calvinist). Mankind is capable of a great deal of good. So we are not 'TOTALLY depraved'.

      But when it comes to our ability to choose God when our wills are bound to sin, that is another story. I do believe Jesus Himself made that quite clear.

      But it's not a problem...because He wants us to believe. He freely gives us the forgiveness of sins. He died for the "ungodly". That's me! So, for me (anyway)...that is good news.

      Thank you.