DEAD PEOPLE WALKING - How does God save people?
Updated: Oct 27, 2022
HOW GOD SAVES PEOPLE
Are people neutral in their nature? Evil? Good? How does God save people? Why do some turn to Christ and others stay resistant? Who did Jesus die for? What is predestination? Who is predestined? What does God predestine? What does ‘dead in sin’ ‘alive in Christ’ mean? What about people who have never heard the Gospel? What about people before Jesus that were not Jews? How does God choose people? Can people who are saved ‘lose’ their salvation? Over this series, we will cover these questions and more.
CHAPTER ONE… THE WALKING DEAD
The scene is set, the preacher steps forward, a commanding voice, passionately citing the text of Scripture with conviction (probably using the ESV translation). Let’s call him John Matthew Caldrisper. Ephesians 2:1 tells us “you were dead in your transgressions and sins”. DID YOU HEAR THAT!!! You were dead! Dead IN your transgressions, Dead IN sin! Ephesians 2:4 continues… “4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is RICH IN MERCY..” hear that! Not because of you but because he is RICH in MERCY “… MADE US ALIVE in CHRIST even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.” YOU WERE DEAD BUT GOD HAS MADE YOU ALIVE! (decreasing the pace, reflective tone) People outside Christ are dead… (pause before picking up pace) THEY ARE DEAD!!! They have no life, they are unable to respond. They are spiritual corpses, the walking dead, they are zombies (pause for slightly awkward laughing – are you allowed to laugh at this?) PEOPLE DEAD IN SIN NO MORE COME ALIVE OR REPENT THAN A PHYSICALLY DEAD PERSON CAN CALL THEMSELVES FROM THE GRAVE! Did Lazarus call himself from the grave, make a decision to turn to Christ so he might not live? NO!!! Christ must enliven a person before they repent…
God clearly chooses some for life, they come alive through his call. God is merciful, so merciful that he raises some up that would otherwise have no choice, no ability but death itself”
…and so goes the preacher trying to convince people of something that is ultimately superficial and foundationally faulty. The assumption in the above rhetoric is that ‘dead’ as spoken in Ephesian’s 2 is the same as dead physically but that is not how the word is used in Ephesians nor elsewhere in Scripture, even Jesus himself makes it clear that ‘dead’ does not mean unable to repent or respond but something else entirely.
First before you make a wrong assumption about where I am going with this, I think Scripture is CLEAR that the Holy Spirit is and MUST BE active in the drawing and conviction of a person otherwise they are unable and certainly unwilling in their own broken nature to come to Christ and repent BUT the misapplication of the word “DEAD” in this context steps far beyond what the text is actually saying.
Why does this matter? Because the foundation of everything that we believe is the character of God. God is infinitely Holy, he must judge impartially and entirely. Secondly, he is infinitely loving, merciful in every way. The idea of spiritual ‘deadness’ being the absolute inability to respond to the Gospel is the foundation stone of the broader idea that God chooses some to be saved wholly and entirely apart from repentance and some for destruction simply ‘because’. It is the foundation for what is usually called ‘Calvinism’. This requires another blog but many try to make ‘Reformed’ and ‘Calvinism’ synonymous when they are not. I would happily call myself a ‘Reformed Classical Arminian with a corporate election twist’ ;) but more of that later. So WHY DO I HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THIS INTERPRETATION OF THE IDEA OF “DEAD”
WORD LOADING One of the easy mistakes all of us make in interpretation is ‘loading’ the literal meaning of a word in one context ‘onto’ that word in a different context. For instance, if I were to say “John fell head over heels in love with the one who would become his wife” we would understand ‘fell’ not in a literalistic sense but rather allow the context to shape our understanding of ‘fell’. When we say “that man fell into adultery” there is no literal falling, it is figurative. It is trying to create a picture, a loss of moral position but one cannot take that metaphor too far, the man did not actually fall literally. Also note, though a rock is not alive, it is also not dead, literal death assumes pre-existing life. Being spiritually dead cannot be understood literally because it would need the assumption that one had previously been ‘alive’. The same is the case when we deal with “dead in sin”. Paul is using a term firstly understood in a physical context but also used in a different context to establish an idea, a feeling and we must allow that context to determine its meaning.
CONTEXT Nowhere in Ephesians does it suggest that these dead people are anything except caught in sin, separated from a relationship with God. Ephesians 2:8 makes it clear that this grace and life therein is accessed through faith. Faith that precedes being ‘enlivened or regenerated’.
Paul’s intent with the image of death is also clear when he says “wake up sleeper, rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14). Not only is death used side by side with sleeping but waking up, rising, causes the light of Christ to shine on you not vice versa.
The usage of ‘dead’ in Romans 6 (also written by Paul) does not allow for a literal use.
Those claiming ‘dead’ means unable to respond to Christ because one is ‘dead’ should then consistently understand being ‘dead TO sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 6:11) as being unable to sin. In the same way that a person dead IN sin was apparently unable to respond to Grace because they are ‘dead’ so too a person that counts themselves dead TO sin and alive IN Christ should not be able to respond to the drawing of sin. That simply is not the case as is clear in Romans 6:12 – 14
“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13 Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. 14 For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.
Romans 7:15 – 20 reinforces this when Paul makes it clear that there is still sin raging in him because he STILL has a sin nature that is battling against the Spirit.
"So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” Romans 7:25b
Just as there is a real struggle within the life of one ‘alive in Christ’ not to submit to ‘sin’ so the person ‘dead in sin’ has a real struggle between the drawing of the Spirit and the desire of radically corrupted flesh.
Jesus also made it clear that the dead in sin can in actual fact hear and respond to his word. “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes in who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24) and he continues “I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live” (John 5:25) It is a false dichotomy and implication to state that being a ‘slave to sin’ or ‘dead in sin’ means unable to respond to grace. It merely means that relational separation is clear in that place.
I am at pains to emphasise as we start this journey that grace is from God from first to last, it is his offer, his ability (and we will address the nature of faith and grace in more detail at a later point) but the simple reality is that the way from death to life, the bridge to grace is faith. It is not being ‘made alive’ apart from faith so one might then believe.
This issue of ‘regeneration preceding faith’ should concern those who anchor their faith in the grace of God. Allowing such functionally makes the cross, the and resurrection of Jesus, incidental not central. A person, alive in Christ is saved, placing life before confession places salvation before repentance and faith. Alarm bells should sound when any idea makes the cross an afterthought to not the catalyst.
One of the crucial mistakes people with a Western mindset make is to view things through a literalistic view but Eastern Culture is frequently centred on a relational dynamic. A son betrays his father and it is exclaimed ‘YOU ARE DEAD TO ME!’ In actual fact in some eastern families, funerals occur when a son betrays the family. He is considered dead but not literally, rather dead relationally. We see this idea clearly used when Jesus himself tells the Parable of the Prodigal Son (or Lost Son). The son betrays his father’s legacy, leaves the family to live in sin with a different people. On returning we see the response of the father.
For a little context, lets go to Luke 15:21 – 24 where the son is returning to the father. ‘The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” (note relational separation)
22 ‘But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate.
“For this son of mine
was dead and is alive again;
he was lost and is found.”
Jesus again emphasises this in verse 31
“because this brother of yours
was dead and is alive again;
he was lost and is found” (31)
BEING ‘DEAD TO…” IS SIMPLY THE SAME AS LOST, DISTANT FROM GOD
For a little extra emphasis without turning this into a thesis, the very foundational effect of sin is ‘death’. That death is not being ‘unable to respond to grace without the need to be made alive before repentance’ rather as we see in Genesis with the very first sin, it was separation from relationship with God. That is all. We must be careful not to take the intent of a passage beyond its meaning.
“…you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’ Gen 2:17 After sinning, the curse came into effect, the effect? Separation from God and life.
“So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side[e] of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” Gen 3:23 - 24
Conclusion The interpretation of ‘dead’ as being unable to respond to God without first being raised to life is a forced interpretation to lay a platform for a wider belief that is ultimately inconsistent with the Word and character of God.
Dead does not mean one is unable to respond repentantly, it does not mean the ‘spirit’ of a person is literally dead. Romans, Ephesians, John and clearly the Parable of the Lost son make it clear, it simply means ‘lost’, to be ‘alive’ is ‘found’. CHECK out THIS NEXT POST IN THIS SERIES - WHY DID JESUS HAVE TO DIE?