On Spiritual Death

Calvinists are fond of drawing a parallel between spiritual death and physical death, and upon this comparison comes the theory that ‘regeneration precedes faith’.  For example, one Calvinist writes:

“Could the Word of God show more plainly than it does that the depravity is total? and that our inability to desire or procure salvation is also total? The picture is one of death — spiritual death. We are like Lazarus in his tomb; we are bound hand and foot; corruption has taken hold upon us. Just as there was no glimmer of life in the dead body of Lazarus, so there is no “inner receptive spark” in our hearts. But the Lord performs the miracle — both with the physically dead, and the spiritually dead; for “you hath he quickened — made alive — who were dead in trespasses and sins.” [Eph 2.1]. Salvation, by its very nature, must be “of the Lord.”” 1

Calvinist duo Boice and Ryken write:

“Abraham Kuyper observed that, prior to regeneration, a sinner ‘has all the passive properties belonging to a corpse … [Therefore] every effort to claim for the sinner the minutest co-operation in this first grace destroys the gospel, severs the artery of the Christian confession and is anti-scriptural in the highest degree.’  Like a spiritual corpse, he is unable to make a single move toward God, think a right thought about God, or even respond to God – unless God first brings this spiritually dead corpse to life.” 2

Edwin H. Palmer defines the issue graphically:

“[T]he Calvinist holds to the plain teaching of Scripture and says: ‘No; he is dead.  He cannot even open his mouth.  Nor does he have any desire to call a doctor to help him.  He is dead’ … The Calvinist … would compare man to one who jumps off the top of the Empire State Building and is spattered over the sidewalk.  Even if there were anything left of him when he landed, he could not know that he needed help, let alone cry out for it.  That man is dead – lifeless – and cannot even desire to be made whole … And that is the picture of the sinner.  He is dead in his sins and trespasses (Eph. 2:1, 5).  He does not want to be made whole, let alone even know that he should be made whole.  He is dead.  When Christ called to Lazarus to come out of the grave, Lazarus had no life in him so that he could hear, sit up, and emerge.  There was not a flicker of life in him.  If he was to be able to hear Jesus calling him and to go to Him, then Jesus would have to make him alive.  Jesus did resurrect him and then Lazarus could respond.” 3

It is undeniable that the unregenerate are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13).  In other words, Calvinists and Arminians both agree that unregenerate men are dead; that’s not the issue.  The issue is: what does it mean to be spiritually dead? 

As shown above, the Calvinist equates spiritual death with physical death, but the Arminian is not convinced about said comparison.  While the Calvinist defines spiritual death in terms of physical death, the Arminian defines death in general and spiritual death in particular, in terms of a separation, or a departure, namely, the separation/departure of the spirit from the body (physical death), the separation/departure of the spirit from God (spiritual death), or the eternal separation of the spirit and God (the second death). 

Ben Henshaw defines the terms thus: “To be dead in sins means that we are cut off from the relationship with God that is necessary for spiritual life.  Our sin separates us from a holy God and causes spiritual death.  This is both actual and potential. The sinner is presently ‘dead’ because, in the absence of faith, he is not enjoying life giving union with Christ.  The sinner is potentially dead because if he continues in this state he will be forever cut off from the presence of the Lord in Hell (2 Thess. 1:9).”4

Even ‘moderate Calvinist’ Norman Geisler rejects the standard Calvinist definition of spiritual death, and offers a much more Biblical one:

“[S]piritual death in the Bible means fallen people are totally separated from God, not completely obliterated by Him.  They lack spiritual life, but they’re still humans with all their God-given faculties.  Isaiah put it this way: ‘Your iniquities have separated you from your God’ (59:2).  In brief, it does not mean a total destruction of all ability to hear and respond to God but a complete separation of the whole person from God.” 5

As shown, the standard Calvinist definition of spiritual death is in terms of physical death, i.e., “… prior to regeneration, a sinner ‘has all the passive properties belonging to a corpse …’”6  The problem, however, is that such a comparison between spiritual death and physical death is unfounded. 

The Calvinist will object to that statement, and refer us to Ephesians chapter 2 and Colossians chapter 2.  The error of the Calvinist in doing this is assuming that the Calvinist definition of spiritual death is the same as the spiritual death spoken of in Ephesians and Colossians.  To put it another way, the Calvinist first assumes that his definition of spiritual death is the correct definition, and then proceeds to simply latch on to the word ‘dead’ in Ephesians and Colossians, and claim that his position is thus Scriptural.  The problem with this approach is evident: the Calvinist is making the Bible conform to his theology, when it should be our theology that conforms to Scripture. 

By simply reading the Bible (i.e., starting with the Bible rather than theology), the Calvinist definition of spiritual death is seen to be unfounded.  The passage in Colossians doesn’t add a great deal, though by what Paul says, it can be reasonably inferred that even though the Colossians were dead in trespasses and sins (2:13), they could still exercise faith in God (2:12).  In other words, their spiritual ‘deadness’ did not mean that they could not respond to the Gospel. 

The passage in Ephesians, however, is more enlightening.  Paul, after saying that the Ephesians were dead in trespasses and sins, describes what this meant.  While they were dead, they also walked (in trespasses and sins), they followed the course of this world, they followed the prince of the power of the air, they lived in the passions of the flesh, and they carried out the desires of the body and mind (Eph. 2:2-3).  Hardly a fitting description if the dead in sin do indeed have “all the passive properties belonging to a corpse”. 

That’s not all Paul has to say either.  He goes on to describe the state of spiritual death as being “separated from Christ,” “strangers to the covenants of promise,” “without God in the world,” “far off,” “strangers and aliens” (Eph. 2:12, 13, 19), and “alienated from the life of God” (Eph. 4:18).

So we see that although the Calvinist is not wrong to point to Ephesians (and Colossians) in order to show that the unregenerate are spiritually dead, they are wrong to assume that the passages support the standard Calvinistic definition of spiritual death.  The fact of the matter is: according to the passages in Ephesians, spiritual death is 1) a separation (Eph. 2:12, 13, 19; 4:18), and 2) spiritual death is not to have all the passive properties belonging to a corpse (Eph. 2:2-3). 

The fallacy of the Calvinist apologists is latching on to the single word ‘dead’ while ignoring the surrounding text, and then proceeding to draw un-Biblical analogies, from a man jumping off the Empire State Building to a man at the bottom of the ocean, whose heart has been eaten by sharks7.  Palmer even dares to call this “the Biblical picture,”8 yet for some strange reason, he can’t show from Scripture such an analogy.  

Funnily enough, it is typically those from the Reformed crowd that shout ‘Sola Scriptura’ (Scripture alone) the loudest, yet had they followed their own advice on this issue, they wouldn’t be able to escape the conclusion that there is nowhere in the pages of Scripture where mankind’s spiritual death is described in such terms as a man splattered on a sidewalk, or a man at the bottom of the ocean with his heart eaten out.  ‘Sola Scriptura’ indeed.

There is also more Scriptural proof that spiritual death cannot be equated with physical death.  For example, even though the unsaved are spiritually dead, they can still perceive the truth of God.  Irrespective of their spiritual state, they are still made in the image of God (Gen. 9:6; Jas. 3:9), which, as Geisler says, “was effaced but not erased by the Fall.”9

And fallen men still retain that which was gained from the Fall, namely, a conscience.  This means that, irrespective of their spiritual state, they can (and do) know, and thus discern between, the good and the evil.  When Paul was writing about unrighteous men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, he wrote that what can be known about God is plain to them, and that His invisible attributes have been clearly perceived, so that they are without excuse (Rom. 1:18-20).

As soon as Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, they died spiritually.  Yet this did not mean that they were incapable of hearing God, or even responding to God.  From the Scriptures, it is as clear as day that Adam and Eve both heard God, and responded to Him (Gen. 3:10-13).  Clearly, the burden of proof rests squarely on the Calvinist to show how the spiritually dead are incapable of hearing and responding to God.

Yet another Biblical example of death that contradicts Calvinism is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  After the prodigal son is restored, his father describes him thus: “… for this your brother (the prodigal son) was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”  (Luke 15:32)  Anyone remotely familiar with the parable will readily acknowledge the fact that even while the prodigal son was in the state of ‘deadness,’ he still made choices.  In other words, even while dead, he did not have all the passive properties belonging to a corpse, as the Calvinist would have us believe.  And what’s more, the prodigal son also recognized his sin and resolved to return to his father penitent, all while he was still ‘dead’ – hardly the picture we would expect to see, if indeed the standard Calvinistic doctrine is to be believed.

It would seem obvious that the Calvinist is in error with regards to what the Biblical picture of spiritual death is.  That is, the Calvinist defines spiritual death in terms of physical death, whether it simply be in terms of a corpse, or sometimes more graphic, as in the case of Palmer, who describes spiritual death in terms of a man jumping off the Empire State Building and being splattered, and also in terms of a man at the bottom of the ocean, whose heart has been eaten out by sharks, whereas the Bible paints a very different picture, namely, in terms of a separation, where the spiritually dead can still hear and respond to God, as in the case of Adam and Eve, or even the unrighteous men spoken of in the first chapter of Romans. 

That being said, there is yet another area where the Calvinist errs.  This time, it is not so much to do with how one defines death, but what the results of mankind’s depravity are.  The Calvinist will typically make a remark along the lines of: ‘man is not simply sick, he is dead.’  For example:

“Man is dead in sins and trespasses, not just sick or injured but nevertheless alive.  No, the unsaved, the unregenerate, is spiritually dead (Eph. 2).  He is unable to ask for help unless God changes his heart of stone into a heart of flesh, and makes him alive spiritually (Eph. 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.” 10

The issue that comments like these raise is not over what spiritual death means, but rather, whether man is indeed spiritually dead.  Of course, Palmer, the author of the above quote, is setting up a straw man, for no Bible-believing Christian, regardless of where he stands on the Calvinism/Arminianism issue, denies that man is spiritually dead. 

But that’s not all, for statements like the one above reveal that Palmer in particular, and Calvinists in general, employ what has sometimes been called ‘cafeteria hermeneutics.’  That is, the practice of picking what you like, and leaving what you don’t like.  In other words, the error of the Calvinists is latching on to particular ‘golden bullet’ passages, while ignoring other portions of Scripture, viz., the Calvinist errs by failing to take into account all the Biblical data. 

The simple truth is: in the Bible, the unsaved (i.e., the unregenerate or spiritually dead) are described as being sick, in spite of the Calvinist’s claims to the contrary.  None other than Jesus Christ Himself said, when questioned on why he stayed in the company of sinners: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Mat. 9:12). 

So, taking into account all the Biblical data, the unsaved are described as: Sick (Mat. 9:12); Dead (Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13); Perishing (1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15; 4:3; 2 Thess. 2:10; an interesting point, considering it shows that the death has not yet reached its completion); Separated from God (Isa. 59:2); Separated from Christ (Eph. 2:12); Strangers (Eph. 2:12); Without God (Eph. 2:12); Far off (Eph. 2:13, 17); Strangers and aliens (Eph. 2:19); Alienated from the life of God (Eph. 4:18).

And further taking into account all the Biblical data, the unsaved (i.e., the spiritually dead) have the ability to: Walk in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:2-3); Follow the course of this world (Eph. 2:2-3); Follow the prince of the power of the air (Eph. 2:2-3); Live in the passions of the flesh (Eph. 2:2-3); Carry out the desires of the body and mind (Eph. 2:2-3); Act in accordance with their conscience (e.g. Gen. 3:7); Hear God (Gen. 3:10-13); Respond to God (Gen. 3:10-13); Know the truth about God (Rom. 1:18-20); Clearly perceive God’s invisible attributes (Rom. 1:18-20); Repent of sins (Luke 15:18-19); Seek God (John 3); Fear God (Acts 10:2); Pray to God (Acts 10:2).

After taking the Biblical picture into account, it is clear that the spiritually dead do NOT have all the passive properties belonging to a corpse, nor are they viewed as corpses.  They also have the ability to hear and respond to God.  Clearly, Calvinism is weighed and found wanting. 

At this point, it should be re-stated that man does not naturally possess the ability to respond to God.  Indeed, it would be erroneous for anyone to believe that man possesses that natural ability apart from God’s grace, for it is only in God that we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).  It would therefore be terribly inconsistent to say on the one hand that man cannot even take a breath without God’s continued grace, and then on the other hand say that man can make the first move in the salvation process without Divine aid. 

The truth is: just as man needs God’s continued grace to even draw a breath, so he needs God’s continued grace to be convicted of sin, and to respond positively to the Gospel.  This grace: Draws men (John 6:44; 12:32); Is universal (John 1:9; 12:32; 16:7-11; Titus 2:11); Convicts men (John 16:7-11; Acts 16:14; 16:29-30; 24:25); Is designed to make us seek God (Acts 17:26-27); Is designed to lead us to repentance (Rom. 2:4); Encompasses the Holy Spirit’s work of convicting the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:7-11).


Notes

1 Seaton, W. J., The Five Points of Calvinism, available online at Monergism.com (<http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/fivepointsseaton.html>).  Retrieved 19 Sept. 2012

2 James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken, The Doctrines of Grace, (Crossway,Wheaton,IL, 2009), p. 74.

3 Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, pp. 17-18.

4 Ben Henshaw, What Can The Dead in Sin Do?  (<http://evangelicalarminians.org/node/178>) URL correct at 4th June, 2011.

5 Norman Geisler, Chosen But Free, (Bethany House Publishers, Third Edition, 2010), p. 63.

6 Boice and Ryken, The Doctrines of Grace, p. 74.

7 Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, p. 18.

8 Ibid.

9 Geisler, Chosen But Free, p. 63.

10 Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, p. 19.

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7 thoughts on “On Spiritual Death

  1. Jack Hanley February 2, 2013 / 6:56 am

    @Calvinists are fond of drawing a parallel between spiritual death and physical death,

    It seems the Apostle Paul was fond of this as well. In Eph. 2 Paul makes a parallel between Christ’s physical death, that he refers to in chapter 1, and the spiritual death of the Ephesians in chapter 2. In other words, Jesus was physically dead. It took a mighty power from God to raise Him to life. Paul contrasts the physical death of Jesus, to the Ephesians spiritual death by saying. “As for you, you were dead in trespasses and sin.” In other words, the same mighty power it took to raise Christ from physical death, is the same power it took to raise the Ephesians from spiritual death. Notice as well Paul says “God made you alive who were dead.” Also notice how what God did for Christ, like seating in heaven, is also accomplished by God for the Ephesians. All of these things were accomplished by God without any assistance. God raised Christ, the Ephesians were made alive.

    So then if Paul tells the Ephesians, “God made you alive, who were dead” did the dead Ephesians do anything to be made alive?

    There is so much more here I would love to respond to, however it would take up to much time and space, so allow me to simply point out one other thing here.

    @And further taking into account all the Biblical data, the unsaved (i.e., the spiritually dead) have the ability to: Walk in trespasses and sins

    Is this not what the physically alive, but spiritually dead do, “walk in trespasses and sins?” Being spiritually dead does not mean you are dead to the physical. The spiritually dead naturally walk in trespasses and sins.

    @ Follow the course of this world (Eph. 2:2-3); Follow the prince of the power of the air

    Again this is what the spiritually dead naturally do.

    @Live in the passions of the flesh (Eph. 2:2-3); Carry out the desires of the body and mind

    All of these things are carried out by the spiritually dead, naturally.

    The natural man cannot understand the things of the Spirit, nor can he, because they are Spiritually discerned. The reason he cannot discern them is because he is spiritually dead.

  2. Martin Thorley September 11, 2013 / 7:29 pm

    “Calvinism is weighed and found wanting”

    Actually, only the straw man you have set up is found wanting. The Calvinist position is more nuanced than you allow. See here for some examples: http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?page_id=7333

    Martin

  3. Arminian November 1, 2013 / 9:31 am

    I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware that quoting Calvinists and letting them speak for themselves qualifies as a ‘straw man’.

  4. muddybrain February 21, 2014 / 3:19 pm

    That’s not what I’m saying. The subject is far more complex and the positions on this issue far more diverse within historical mainstream Calvinism than either your post or the limited quotes from limited people holding unnecessarily limited views allows. The straw man then is to think that by rebutting these two you have defeated “Calvinism”

  5. Ando March 15, 2014 / 3:38 pm

    I commend you Arminian for taking on the issue of spiritual death and the Calvinist interpretation of it. After reading the article, however, I think the Calvinists have a stronger argument in this case. I’m sure I am biased on the issue (as we all are), but I am just not convinced. Jack Hanley’s comments were more convincing. Don’t be discouraged brother… Jesus loves Calvinists and Arminians.

  6. Arminian March 15, 2014 / 10:24 pm

    Thanks for the comment. Don’t worry, I don’t get discouraged when someone disagrees with me :)

  7. Douglas Barroso October 28, 2016 / 4:41 am

    Great post, i was a calvinist theologian for twenty years and this is really what Calvinism believes. Thank’s God, i am free from Calvinism bondage. Just God can make a calvinist to see how it is dangerous and wrong.

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