Total Depravity: Theological Finesse Needed, Part 3
September 17, 2013 Kurt Jaros

Total Depravity: Theological Finesse Needed, Part 3

Posted in Forum Post

In my last post I presented some reasons for thinking why Romans 3 does not support the idea of Inability—that humans are unable to do anything toward their own salvation apart from an act of superadded grace from God. In this post I’ll be taking a look at Ephesians 2 and present a couple reasons why the Presuppositionalist view of this text is lacking in merit. (I have used the term Presuppositionalist since I’m phrasing this discussion in terms of apologetic methodology; however, other terms would adequately describe different theological camps that ascribe to the same view (Calvinist or even Arminian, for instance).)

Presups (the short-hand version) and others would have you believe that prior to becoming a Christian, you were spiritually dead, D-E-A-D. After all, that is what Paul writes in Ephesians 2:1: “you were dead in your transgressions and sins.” And the only way you can bring a dead person back to life is through some external cause; that cause is God. So it’s only God who can bring dead people back to life and that’s why he is the efficient cause of all believers. End of story. Right?

Not so fast. I think there are at least two difficulties with thinking that Paul means we are literally spiritually dead.

1. Literally spiritually dead beings cannot perform actions. Not only does this appear to be contrary to Paul’s following statements that we “once walked” and “followed the ways of this world” (v2), “gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires” (v3) but it’s simply nonsensical. Literally spiritually dead beings can’t perform wicked behavior or even be under God’s wrath.

2. Literally spiritually dead beings cannot be blind or slaves. These two other metaphorical analogies are used by Paul elsewhere (Ephesians 4:18 & Romans 6). It simply doesn’t make sense to say that we are both literally spiritually dead and literally spiritually blind. We don’t say that dead persons are blind, nor do we say that dead persons are slaves. They can’t be either blind or slaves; they’re dead!

So how ought we to understand the meaning of ‘spiritually dead’? That’s the question we really should be asking ourselves. I get frustrated sometimes when people just quote verses to you and assume that the verse means what they think it means. That doesn’t help people understand; that’s just assuming your interpretation is correct. Since Paul can’t be referring to literally spiritually dead beings (since it conflicts both with these literally spiritually dead beings performing spiritual actions and with the other metaphorical analogies), he must mean something else. Here is my hypothesis:

First, it is important to consider the qualifier: “in trespasses and sins.” Qualifiers are quite important. Consider the different meanings to the following phrases and how their qualifiers give a different meaning:

A. “You’re dead.”
B. “You’re dead to me.”
C. “You’re dead in the water.”

A. gives us the meaning that a person is physically dead. B. gives us the meaning that a person is rejected from the speaker, perhaps even so much so that the speaker will act as if the person was physically dead. C. gives us the meaning that something has stalled or immobile, or even ‘without any chance for success.’ It appears to be the case that “dead” has multiple usages (more than I’ve mentioned here), and the Presups need to do a better job to argue that their interpretation of Paul’s usage is, ‘literally spiritually dead.’

Second, it is important to consider the fact that this is metaphorical language. That’s not to say that we can just dismiss Paul’s point. We can’t. But we need to understand the point he is making, and not push the point farther than the author intended.

Those two things considered, it seems to me that Paul was saying something similar to: ‘You were on the way/path of the dead in trespasses and sin,’ or ‘You were on the path to eternal death because of your trespasses and sin.’ Whatever he did mean, there doesn’t seem to be good support for the Presup interpretation (per my points above). I’m open to suggestions you may have; use the comment box below.

Comments (7)

  1. wtspa 4 years ago

    Who told you that the interpretation meant dead in the sense that they can’t do or be anything?

    To be dead in trespasses and sins makes one a slave to sin. That is what I’ve always understood about that passage. I don’t see any disagreement other than that first interpretation. I’ve never heard anyone teach that.

    The LORD’s grace is needed to be free from sin and become a slave to righteousness.

    1. Anthony,

      John MacArthur did: “Dead to God? The best way to see it is in reference to physical death. Physical death is an inability to respond, no matter what the stimulus is. Physical death means you can’t react. You’ve been to enough funerals and so have I to know what physical death is. It doesn’t matter what the stimulus is, no…no physically dead individual ever reacts to any stimulus.” http://www.gty.org/Resources/Sermons/1908

      “dead in trespasses and sins makes one a slave to sin. ”
      Interestingly enough, I take it to mean more than that. I think Paul means to say here that we cannot save ourselves and we need Christ’s atoning work. Left to ourselves, we are dead in our sins and trespasses.

  2. wtspa 4 years ago

    After listening to John MacArthur’s sermon, I didn’t hear him deny the qualifier of being dead in sins and trespasses.

    1. I didn’t say MacArthur denied the qualifier.

  3. wtspa 4 years ago

    His sermon didn’t have an interpretation that the person dead in their sins couldn’t do or be anything. It was an understanding that all that they do is sinful. I don’t see any problem with that. In that state wrath does abide on them and they are slaves to sin.

    They are on the wrong path as you stated.

    1. MacArthur clearly states (from the transcript): ” Physical death is an inability to respond, no matter what the stimulus is. Physical death means you can’t react.” and “It doesn’t matter what the stimulus is, no…no physically dead individual ever reacts to any stimulus.”

      So I take it that he is saying “dead in their sins couldn’t do or be anything.”

      I’m happy to grant that a couple paragraphs later (after the anecdote of the dead infant) that MacArthur presents the more palatable view. However, that clearly contradicts his previous statements.

      He’s clearly using an argument from analogy. But it’s a weak analogy.

  4. wtspa 4 years ago

    I found what you are referring to in the transcript and agree that a better analogy could have been used. Maybe something along the lines of slavery, like the bondage the Hebrews were under in Egypt and how it takes the power of God to be freed. Its hard to find a perfect analogy.

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