When Christians have debated an issue as important as this one for as long as we have (dating back to the fourth century), I become convinced not that one side is right and the other wrong, but rather that it is possible – in fact, probable – that we are asking the wrong questions in the first place.
I don’t pretend even for a moment that I am able to move the conversation along any (for who am I but a molecule in the ocean!). But I can at least move the conversation along in my own mind and sphere of influence. And though this issue has been debated by some of the greatest minds in church history, that fact doesn’t intimidate me since even great minds can get stuck in the muck of a certain crippling way of seeing things.
Using the Right Word the Wrong Way
I think that one of the fundamental impasses we face in the “Calvinist/Arminian” discussion revolves around the word “dead”. That word is critical to a Protestant (or, at least, Reformed) soteriology. Some use the phrase “Total Depravity” while others prefer “Original Sin” or “Imputed Transgression”. Paul the apostle preferred the phrase, “dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). As you should be able to see, all of the other phrases are interpretations of Paul’s word, dead. For the Calvinist/Arminian debate, Total Depravity is the big one, so it’s the one I’ll focus on in this article.
So here is the question that needs to be asked: when Paul uses the word “dead”, what does he mean?
At the base level I think everyone agrees that “dead” means that nobody can get to God on his or her own. This point is emphasized in our soteriology to ward off any hint of Pelagianism. It also happens to be a keynote in the standard gospel presentation. We are saved by the grace of God alone, not by works (Eph. 2:8-9). The proof in the pudding is the fact that we are dead, and dead people are well, dead. No breathing, no tasting, and most important of all, no decision-making. But the second part of that Ephesians stanza is the element of faith. The grace of God is appropriated through faith. And this is where the debate begins to heat up.
Let’s take the common analogy of the person drowning/drowned in the ocean. By the Arminian telling, the person is wholly unable to save him or herself. No amount of swimming, no amount of “work” can get him or her to safety. When the rescue helicopter arrives and a lifesaver is thrown down to the person with the words “Free Gift: The Grace Of God” written on it, the drowning individual has a choice, take hold of the lifesaver by faith, and live (since faith is how the grace of God is appropriated according to Eph. 2:8-9), or to not take hold of the lifesaver, and die.
By the Calvinist telling, the person in the ocean is not drowning, but has drowned. There is “no life in him; his lungs are filled with water; his heart has stopped; he is stone cold. His eyes are closed and his ears cannot hear. Fallen man is, in the words of the apostle Paul, ‘dead in trespasses and sin’” (here). So when the rescue helicopter arrives and throws out the lifesaver – the free saving grace of God – something else has to happen first. “Why? Because dead men can’t do anything… man is dead. His will is dead. He is, in the words of the Lord Jesus, a servant or slave to sin” (John 8:34).
For the Calvinist, the person must first be made alive before they can exercise faith and take hold of the life preserver, which is the grace of God.
The Arminian will then turn to prevenient grace and claim that the Spirit of God enables all men to have faith, but men need to exercise that faith in order to appropriate God’s saving grace. For Calvinists this amounts to a denial of Total Depravity. Rather than everyone being dead in their transgressions and sins, they are all alive in their transgressions and sins, able, at the very least, to choose God. They are drowning, but not drowned (semi-Pelagianism). The Arminian – if he is smart – will then spin the argument around and ask the Calvinist how it is that a “dead” person can “taste of the heavenly gifts” (Hebrews 6:4)? How can a dead person taste anything since there is, as Jerry Johnson so elegantly put it (here), “no life in him; his lungs are filled with water; his heart has stopped; he is stone cold. His eyes are closed and his ears cannot hear.” The person is “stone cold”. He cannot see or hear; presumably he cannot taste either. Now of course both sides have their counter arguments, and those counter arguments have counter arguments of their own. But the point is this:
The whole debate hinges on a particular understanding of the word “dead” and that particular understanding is, in my opinion, dead wrong!
Two Ways of Speaking of “Death”
As illustrated in the discussion above, “death” is clearly conceived of as the spiritual equivalent of physical death. As the person who is six feet under is unable to see, hear, taste or make any choices, so the person who is spiritually dead is also unable to do those things spiritually. This is obviously the most common way we talk about death and so it’s a natural assumption that Paul had this very analogy in mind. But did he? We need to go back and ask ourselves what Saint Paul really said.
Look up “dead” in any dictionary and you’ll see right away a myriad of definitions. But most of those definitions convey really only one of two basic concepts. First many of the definitions convey the idea of inanimate as illustrated in the idioms “He came to a dead stop” or “that town is dead”. Lifeless. When the Bible speaks of death in the natural sense that is simply what it means. It never explores questions about a person’s postmortem ability to taste or hear or see or choose. Even if we say that those things are implied in the natural inanimateness of a dead man, they are still questions we bring to the text that the Bible is not concerned about.
The second concept conveyed by the idea of “death” is separation. When a loved one dies we don’t mourn because of the person’s new state of inanimateness. We don’t grieve because the person can no longer taste or hear or see or touch or think or choose. We grieve – usually – because we sense a loss. There is a separation in the relationship. We say they are “gone” or that they have “departed”. Even while their physical body is still present – like say at the funeral – we still know that they are “gone” and that there is a relational separation. It’s not enough that they are simply with us physically; we need them to be alive with us. Some people try to deal with this separation by clinging to physical items that help “connect” them to the deceased person. Others may take a more extreme measure and seek mediums and other avenues by which they can reconnect with the spirit of the deceased person. A common idiom used convey this idea of death is when, for example, a father might yell at his rebellious daughter, “that’s it, you’re dead to me!” and the daughter might yell back as she storms out of the house for the last time, “I hate you, you’re dead to me!” The language of “death” in this common example is clearly a separation and a broken relationship.
Death as a Biblical Motif of Separation
The biblical metanarrative is told through certain motifs that drive the main plotline forward. Those main motifs include catchwords like “land” and “exile”, “blessing” and “curse” and “life” and “death” among others. Usually the context will tip us off as to whether the word is being used as metanarrative motif or not. Typically if the passage is a covenantal text or if it involves recreation, salvation, restoration or any related topics, those are good signs that the word – in our discussion, death – is a metanarrative motif.
Both “death” in the inanimate or natural sense and in the sense of separation are streams the run side by side and intertwined in the Bible. When Adam rebelled against God’s rule he first died spiritually and then physically, though the physical death entered as a sort of decay that affected not only humans, but also all of creation (Romans 8:22). Thus for the redeemed, as we died first spiritually so we will come to life first spiritually. And as we died second physically, so will we be resurrected second physically (Romans 8:23-25, cf. 1 Cor. 15). So then, our spiritual “life” should be contrasted with our spiritual “death”, not our physical “death” – for that is contrasted with our resurrection. The question then becomes which category does the spiritual death fall into, inanimate or separation? The answer, I believe, it quite obvious: separation!
When Adam died spiritually, his death was one of separation from God to which physical death – inanimate death – would follow: Adam was exiled from God’s presence and into the “curse” – there, see that, your three dominant negative motifs! (I should add, because I don’t want to get off on another long and fascinating subject, that of course God is “omnipresent”, but there is a clear sense in the scriptures of some being removed from God’s presence in a relational way, which, in the Old Testament, was illustrated by actual events. This comes out clearest in Adam’s exile from the garden and Israel’s exile from the Promised Land.) In the great covenantal passage of Deuteronomy 27-30 Israel was warned that if they remained faithful to God they would prosper in the “land”, they would “live” and be “blessed” (the three positive motifs), but if they did not remain faithful to God – i.e. if they were found to be ‘in Adam’ – they would be exiled from the land, fall under a curse, and die (cf. Deut. 30:19).
I rehash this simply to point out the fact that the motif of spiritual death is not conceived of as an inability to choose, to see, to hear or to taste. I think most Calvinists along with Arminians all qualify “death” at some point to allow for human choices. Calvinists say, for example, that humans cannot choose at all because they are “stone cold” as the Calvinist Jerry Johnson put it. But then he is quick to qualify the deadness of the human by saying that he can make choices, just not good ones. By formulating the argument this way that Calvinist sees the Arminian as having really only two options: 1) admit you’re a semi-Pelagian or 2) become a Calvinist. But we shouldn’t be afraid to remind the Calvinist that Paul’s categories and Calvin’s categories are not always the same (don’t even get me going on justification!). We should be Bible Christians, and when the biblical writers use different categories than our favorite traditions we shouldn’t be afraid to call that tradition out and take steps towards a corrective measure!
When Paul says, for example, in Ephesians 2 that we were dead in our transgressions and sins, he is not speaking of death in the physical “inanimate” sense transposed on to a spiritual reality. Rather he is speaking specifically of a spiritual death, which is a separation from God as a result of our “transgressions and sins” in which we were servants of the “ruler of the kingdom of the air” rather than God’s Kingdom. Because we were separated from God on merit of being “in Adam”, all we had was our lustful desires, our sin nature, our hostility toward the divine since – really when it comes down to it – the original sin (perhaps all sins) was idolatry, the great worship of self (which is another one of those major metanarrative motifs we discussed). We were – yes! – incapable of coming to God on our own – use the phrase Totally Depraved if you wish. But that is precisely why the means of redemption was by God becoming man, coming down – as it were – to be the second Adam and reverse the affects of the fall (see Phil. 2:5-11 resulting in Eph. 2:5-6). We were dead not in the sense of being “inanimate” and having no ability to choose one way or another, rather we were dead in the sense of having a severed relationship with God and no desire for a relationship with him. It is only by God exposing himself to us, by drawing us by his Spirit and by offering us “life in Christ” (“it is by grace you have been saved”) that we are able to appropriate that grace through faith, which is how God “made us alive in Christ” (Eph. 2:8, 5).
Given that the Bible speaks of salvation in terms of reconciliation having been united with Christ, being once friends with the world and now are aliens and strangers in it and having once been enemies to God, it’s mindboggling that we have taken for granted that “death” in Paul’s mind must mean “inanimateness” rather than “separation”!
We subtly and subconsciously interpret “dead” in Ephesians 2 to mean inanimateness rather than separation. We then ask questions about what kind of “will” the dead person might have, if any. We then make comments about them being “stone cold” and in some cases we jump to extreme conclusions that a person who is not a Christian cannot love. A mother who is not a Christian cannot love her child, a husband who is not a Christian cannot love his wife because a dead person can no more love than feel, taste or choose. All of this because we have assumed that when Paul says “dead” he means “spiritually inanimate”. And even if some of us in the Calvinist/Arminian tradition don’t take that extreme position, we still wrestle with the question of the human will in light of a person’s inanimateness prior to salvation.
The whole debate here – believed upon by many because it sounds so simple and true on the surface – can be avoided by placing Paul’s category of “dead” in it’s proper place.
When a person is said to be spiritually dead, it means that they are spiritually separated from God and unable – so long as they remain in their trespasses and sins – to reconcile that relationship (which is why God sent his son to do that and has given us the ministry of reconciliation according to 2 Corinthians 5). Thus – I believe according to Paul’s own category – spiritual death does not convey the idea that a person is unable to take hold of the life preserver (for that is to think of spiritual death according to the inanimate nature of physical death), but rather that a person is doomed below (and perhaps doesn’t know it and doesn’t want help – so our drowning man analogy falls short of conveying the current state of humanity, as all analogies fall short) unable to fly out of the ocean, but God comes from above and lowers the life preserve, Jesus Christ, at which point our doomed character who is dead to God may accept the command to be united and enter God’s Kingdom (obviously this is appropriated by faith), or reject God’s Kingdom and continue to wallow with the swine.
And by “accept” I don’t mean to imply that the person has made themselves alive. Remember that the other side of this coin is that whereas death conveyed separation life conveys reconciliation, a restoration of the broken relationship, which is something God does through Christ. That is, people are “made alive” by God (God brings them into right relationship with them) when they accept God’s grace by the appropriation of faith (as Ephesians 2:8-9 clear teaches).