The Bible does teach that people are dead in sin, but this does not mean that unregenerate people can do nothing.
Understanding what it means to be “dead in sin” requires looking at what the Bible teaches about how God put human beings together and how sin has affected these various parts. The most common view among people from all theological perspectives is that each person consists of three parts: a body (or flesh), soul (or mind), and spirit. The area of disagreement centers on what happened to Adam and Eve (and all humans after them) when they sinned. There is also a big debate about whether or not sin is imputed to subsequent generations of humans, but we are not going to delve into that debate here.
Most Calvinists believe that when Adam and Eve sinned, their entire beings became completely corrupted and depraved. This is what they mean by “Total Depravity.” Whether Calvinists believe in three parts (body, soul, and spirit) or two (body and soul/spirit), they believe that every part in its entirety was affected by sin and became incapable of responding in any meaningful way to God. We will see in just a bit, however, that although this is what Calvinist’s teach, such an idea is impossible to apply biblically or evangelistically. Along with God, even Calvinists call upon unregenerate people to respond to God.
Is the Soul Dead?
One alternative view to Calvinism (which has been presented in previous posts) is that when Adam sinned, death came upon both the flesh and the spirit. The soul, which is the life of the person, is immortal and does not die. One cannot speak of “soulish death” any more than one can speak of “life death.” The two words are, by definition, logically incompatible and mutually exclusive.
So while we can say that since the soul operates through the body and the spirit and depends upon the proper functioning of the brain, the soul too was affected by sin, it is not theologically accurate to say that the soul is “dead” or “dying.” The soul is not “dead in sin” in the same way as the human body and human spirit.
Nevertheless, due to the deadness of the human body and human spirit, the soul is severely handicapped and limited in what it can do.
The Soul is Handicapped
The soul is where the will resides and as such, the soul (or mind) makes the decisions about what a person believes and how a person acts. It can choose to act through two realms or spheres: the fleshly sphere or the spiritual sphere. Due to spiritual deadness, or separation, the soul is unable to act through the human spirit.
The soul can, however, function through the body, but since death and corruption has also entered the body as a result of sin, everything the soul does through the body is tainted and depraved. As a result, the soul can do nothing but sin through the body. This does not mean that every action or behavior is as evil as it possibly can be, but rather, that everything a person does is polluted, stained, and corrupted by sin. Such actions, as good as they might be, have no merit or righteousness before God. On this, Calvinists are absolutely correct.
But to say that all works are tainted and blemished by sin is not the same thing as saying that people are unable to believe what God says about sin, righteousness, judgment, and the free offer of eternal life. Faith is not an act of the either the flesh or the spirit, but is something that happens within the mind (or soul). Faith, therefore, is not disabled by sin. The human soul can believe. Since faith is not a work, but is the opposite of works (Rom 4:5), the soul can respond to the revelation which it has received from God. And since God offers eternal life to any person who believes in Jesus for it, the soul of a person is able to believe in Jesus for eternal life.
The Soul Can Believe in Jesus
So while being “dead in sin” does mean that people are unable to obey God, reform their lives, or do anything meritorious regarding salvation, it does not mean that they cannot believe in Jesus for eternal life, for faith, being an aspect of the will which resides in the human soul, is the opposite of works and is the means by which humans received the free gift of eternal life from God.
Spiritual 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 (Geisler, Chosen But Free, 63).
This is exactly what was seen earlier when it was suggested that the word “dead” is best understood in Scripture as referring to “separation.” Those who are dead in sin are not unable to act; they are simply separated from God, from each other, and from being whole human beings.
Furthermore, the Bible speaks frequently of what those who are dead in sin are able to do. Along with some of the sinful tendencies—such as walking in trespasses and sins, following the course of this world and the prince of the power of the air, living in the passions of the flesh, and carrying out the desires of the body and mind (Eph 2:2-3)—unbelievers can also do some positive things—such as act in accordance with their conscience, hear and respond to God (Gen 3:5-13), know the truth about God and understand his invisible attributes (Rom 1:18-20), repent of sins (Luke 15:18-19), seek God (John 3), fear God (Acts 10:2), and even pray to God (Acts 10:2).
None of these positive behaviors are meritorious, of course, but they are good actions which can be committed by unregenerate people, and some of these actions may even be used by God to bring the person to the place where they can believe in Jesus for eternal life.
What Must I Do to Receive Eternal Life?
Calvinists, of course, still want to say that if faith is something we “do” or is the human “response” to God’s free offer of eternal life, then humans are still contributing to their eternal life. They argue further that to be dead in sin means that humans cannot do anything to move themselves closer to God (which I agree with), including believe in God or God’s offer of eternal life.
I understand the concern, but if we remove “faith” as the proper response of humans to God’s offer of eternal life, what then are we left with when people ask, “What must I do to receive eternal life? In other words, since, according to Calvinists an unregenerate person cannot respond to God in any meaningful way, and cannot even believe in Jesus for eternal life, how then do Calvinists go about presenting the offer of eternal life to those who want to receive it?
Surprisingly, the Calvinist will often give people a whole host of good works to participate in, none of which involve belief! Calvinists typically do not call upon unbelievers to believe in Jesus for eternal life, for according to the Calvinistic teachings on total inability, the unregenerate person is unable to believe.
So instead, the Calvinists invites the unbeliever to wait upon God for the gift of faith, and as they wait, the unregenerate person is invited to participate in a wide variety of religious activities. William Shedd, for example, writes that since sinners cannot believe the gospel, they should engage in other religious activities while they wait for God to grant them the gift of faith. These spiritual activities include reading the Bible, giving serious application to the truth, and praying for the conviction and regeneration of the Holy Spirit (W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 472, 512, 513).
Calvinistic author J. I. Packer writes in the same vein:
And to the further question still “How am I to go about believing on Christ and repenting, if I have no natural ability to do these things?” it answers: look to Christ, speak to Christ, cry to Christ, just as you are; confess your sin, your impenitence, your unbelief, and cast yourself on His mercy; ask Him to give you a new heart, working in you true repentance and firm faith; ask Him to take away your evil heart of unbelief and to write His law within you, that you may never henceforth stray from Him. Turn to Him and trust Him as best you can, and pray for grace to turn and trust more thoroughly; use the means of grace expectantly, looking to Christ to draw near to you as you seek to draw near to Him; watch, pray, read, and hear God’s Word, worship and commune with God’s people, and so continue till you know in yourself beyond doubt that you are indeed a changed being, a penitent believer, and the new heart which you desired has been put within you (J. I. Packer, The Quest for Godliness, 144. A nearly identical statement is found in J. I. Packer, Introductory Essay to John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ).
So while the Calvinist criticizes the non-Calvinist for calling people to “contribute to their own salvation” by believing in Jesus for eternal life, they then turn around and tell people that if they want eternal life, they need to look to Christ, speak to Christ, cry out to Christ, confess their sin, cast themselves upon the mercy of Christ, ask Him to grant a new heart, true repentance, firm faith, pray for grace, read the Scripture, worship with God’s people, and continue in such actions and behaviors until God grants “the gift of faith”?
In such a scenario, who really has “contributed” to their salvation?
Is it the person who simply and only believes that Jesus has given them eternal life as an absolutely free and gracious gift? Or is it the person who engages in a whole host of spiritual and religious activities in the hopes of gaining the so-called “gift of faith”?
To put it another way, the Calvinist criticizes the non-Calvinist by saying, “If you can believe in Jesus, you are working for eternal life,” but meanwhile, in answer the question, “How can I receive eternal life?” the Calvinist answers, “I prayed, I pled, I read, I turned, I trusted, I repented, I confessed, I worshiped, and I continued in all these actions until God granted me the faith to believe.” Who truly is undermining the free gift of eternal life by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone?
I agree with Roy Aldrich who wrote:
A doctrine of total depravity that excludes the possibility of faith must also exclude the possibilities of ‘hearing the word,’ ‘giving serious application to divine truth,’ and ‘praying for the Holy Spirit for conviction and regeneration.’ The extreme Calvinist deals with a rather lively spiritual corpse after all (Roy L. Aldrich, July, 1965 issue of Bibliotheca Sacra “The Gift of God” 248–253).
How did Jesus invite people to receive eternal life?
Maybe the better question is to ask how Jesus invited people to receive the free gift of eternal life? The Gospel of John was written with the purpose of informing people how they might receive eternal life (John 20:31), and over and over in this Gospel, Jesus says that whosoever believes in Him has everlasting life (cf. John 3:16; 5:24; 6:47, etc.).
The same message is also found in the preaching and teaching of the Apostles in the Book of Acts, and throughout the Pauline Epistles and General Letters. Nowhere is any person ever told that in order to receive eternal life, they must pray, trust, wait, cry out, confess, worship, commune, and hope. Instead, the clear and consistent invitation is that whoever wants eternal life may receive it by believing in Jesus Christ for it.
Though people truly are “dead in sin,” this condition does not stop them or hinder them from believing in Jesus.
Quite to the contrary, believing in Jesus is the only proper response to hearing the gospel, and is the only response which an unregenerate person is able to have, and thankfully, is the only response which God looks for and desires. Those who are dead in sin cannot do anything to merit or earn eternal life, but they can believe in Jesus, which is the exact opposite of meritorious works, and which enables God to raise the person up so that they are no longer dead in sin, but alive in Jesus Christ.If you want to read more about Calvinism, check out other posts in this blog series: Words of Calvinism and the Word of God.