How Dead is Dead?

I was reminded yesterday of the importance of the doctrine of total depravity and specifically the Bible’s teaching about natural man’s moral inability. There are various metaphors that the Bible uses to describe man’s sinfully depraved condition. For instance, in his natural state, man is spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1, 5). This condition of spiritual death means that unregenerate man is unable to respond positively to God. He lacks the ability to repent of sin and believe in Jesus. Saving faith is a gift from God because sinful man cannot create it in himself (Eph. 2:9). This is because his heart is only free to follow the desires of his nature (Eph. 2:2-3). It is only because of God’s free mercy, great love an immeasureable grace toward us in Christ Jesus that we are made alive (Eph. 2:5) and recreated in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:10) being given the gift of saving faith (Eph. 2:8). This is important to understand that salvation is entirely a work of God’s grace, because if we had a part in it we would have reason to boast (Eph. 2:9).

Often times today this doctrine is neglected, downplayed, misunderstood or outright compromised. The common belief is that man is not totally dead but that there is a little spark of life or goodness or some other thing in him that is able to respond to God. This is a serious misunderstanding of man’s condition and seriously undermines the gospel of grace.

Consider a representative survey of biblical teaching on man’s inability to come to Christ for salvation on his own.

“To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold, their ears are closed [uncircumcised – ESV] and they cannot listen. Behold, the word of the Lord has become a reproach to them; they have no delight in it.” (Jer. 6:10)

  “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13; cf. Matt. 11:27)

 No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44)

 “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” (John 6:65)

 “Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:43-44)

 “There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God.” (Rom. 3:11)

 “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient to that form of teaching to which you were committed.” (Rom. 6:17)

 “because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.” (Rom. 8:7)

 “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually appraised.” (1 Cor. 2:14)

For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” (Rom. 9:15-16)

I mentioned to someone yesterday that I have heard many protests against this doctrine but I have yet to hear a strong biblical argument against this doctrine. The protests inevitably amount to a belief that something good in man is what gains God’s favor. In this flawed view, unsaved man is not totally dead in sin, just mostly dead, which actually is slightly alive, which…you get the picture. But, if not, maybe this will help (sorry, I couldn’t resist!):

HT: Andy Naselli


5 responses to “How Dead is Dead?

  1. oh Billy, you crack me up! 🙂 great movie by the way. I need to get Tori to read this post as well!! Thanks so much.
    Let me ask you this(and I ask on your blog hoping it may be helpful to someone else)…This word “dead” used to describe us before we’re saved as being “dead in our sins”…is it the same use of the word “dead” that is used after salvation when it is said that we are now “dead to sin”? I hope my question is clear…the answer will clear my mind on something that was also discussed over the weekend which I had meant to ask you about.
    If we are dead IN our sins completely and totally before we’re saved, then once we are saved and dead TO sin then shouldn’t we be totally and completely dead to sin…i suppose the question would be this: how can we sin if we are dead to sin once we are in Christ? (a bit confusing perhaps…but i ask b/c it has been said that dead is the same use of the word for both so in that sense then being totally depraved is not possible b/c once we’re saved we still sin so therefore we aren’t totally dead TO sin so how can we be totally dead IN sin beforehand…sorry to be speaking in circles but it is helpful to me more than anything to understand my question and then be able to understand your answer. :-)) thanks!!
    Grace to you,

    • tractsandtreatises


      Good question! This question points out the importance of method. The meaning of biblical terminology is not static and must always be understood in its particular context. Terms are used different ways in different places. I mentioned spiritual deadness in the context of Ephesians 2. The first question must be: What does “dead” mean in this context? In this context, man is dead in his life toward God. This condition of deadness is only remedied by being made alive in Christ (2:5), by being re-created in Christ (2:10). What prompts God to recreate us and make us alive in this context? Is it our faith, our repentance, or some other thing in us? No, it is pure grace (2:5, 7, 8). If saving faith came from ourselves instead of being a gift from God then we would have reason to boast (Eph. 2:9).

      There is no mention of being “dead to sin” here in Ephesians. So to address that question we would have to look at other passages and see how the metaphor of “deadness” is being used in the context there.


      • tractsandtreatises


        I will try to put this as briefly as I can in light of this blog format.

        Regarding the question: “If we are dead IN our sins completely and totally before we’re saved, then once we are saved and dead TO sin then shouldn’t we be totally and completely dead to sin?”

        Regarding Rom. 6:
        The word “death” also occurs in Romans 6:1 but has a meaning and function that is different than in Ephesians. Here it says Christians have “died to sin.” In order to understand this we have to understand the context. Contextually, Romans teaches that we are saved in union with Christ (5:15-21). So in Christ we die to sin and live to God.

        Romans does not argue that this application of Christ’s death is a completed event at the moment of conversion, however. The issue here is a case of tension between already/not yet aspects of our salvation. At our conversion, we are already dead to sin in that we are decisively separated from its power. This is what Paul means when he asks, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” If sin no longer has power over a person, a lifestyle of sin is not to be expected. One the other hand, the same passage teaches that we are NOT decisively separated from the presence sin. In fact, we must regularly kill sin by mentally mortifying it (6:11-12). Chapters 6-8 go one to show how the application of Christ’s death and resurrection life are applied to believers.

        So, in Ephesians 2:1, 5, the word “death” pertains to man’s entire Godward disposition. Whereas, in Romans 6:1, “death” pertains specifically to our decisive separation from sins power (but not its presence).

        Illustration of the fallacy:
        The assumption behind the question seems to be that if the same word is used in different places it must mean the same thing. This reflects a basic misunderstanding of how language works.

        Here is an illustration using the word “day”: “In my father’s day, he would go to bed early Sunday evening and rise early in the morning of the following day, and spend the next six days traveling, during the day, to cross the whole country.” (Jonathan Sarfati, “Refuting Compromise” p. 69)

        Here day is used in 3 different ways: (1) an era, (2) a 24 hour period, (3) a daylight cycle. We understand this instinctively. Words have meaning in contexts so we must interpret them that way. Here is a biblical example of the same word meaning different things (using the word “salvation”):

        Are Christians saved (past), being saved (present), or to be saved in a time yet to come (future)?
        • “you have been saved” (Eph. 2:8)
        • “us who are being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18)
        • “now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed” (Rom. 13:11)

        The person who assumes a word can only be used one way will never be able to interpret these passages rightly. If we assume that the word “salvation” can only be used one way in Scripture, then we will end up forcing it to mean the particular meaning that we like best in every occurrence of the word. But this violates the context of the passages and it ignores how human language works.

        Hope this helps!


  2. Oh and p.s. check out my recent post here on my blog…it’s a Shai Linne song about how all these “famous” people are dead but JESUS IS ALIVE. You’ll love it!! 🙂

  3. Very very helpful Billy!
    Thank you so much! 🙂
    I meant to speak with you today, but it’s hard to do with so many to fellowship with! 🙂
    Either way, this was quite helpful and you should know that I have begun the book you gave me last Sunday evening. It has also been helpful! God is good to bring people and even “topics of discussion” into our lives at just the right time!
    Praying for you this week.

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