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.