What does it mean to be dead? (1)

Paul said we are dead. Specifically, he said we are dead “in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1a).

The typical Calvinist interpretation of that passage suggests that prior to our conversion, we are completely devoid of any good or godly inclinations, or to say it another way, we are totally depraved.

As one author asserts:

[We] “are totally corrupt, in every part, in all [our] faculties, and all the principles of [our] nature, [our] understandings, and wills; and in all [our] dispositions and affections. [Our] heads, [our] hearts, are totally depraved; all the members of [our] bodies are only instruments of sin; and all [our] senses, seeing, hearing, tasting, etc. are only inlets and outlets of sin, channels of corruption. There is nothing but sin, no good at all.” /1

John Calvin parroted these thoughts when he wrote:

“The whole man, from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot, is so deluged, as it were, that no part remains exempt from sin, and therefore, everything which proceeds from him is imputed as sin.” /2

Now think about it. Is an individual outside of Christ, prior to conversion, incapable of any good whatsoever as these men suggest? If not, then how can we account for many of the people we read about in the New Testament?

For example:

  • Devout men in Jerusalem for Pentecost: “And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). If man is totally depraved and thus incapable of any good, then how could these individuals be described as “devout” in verse 5, when their conversion didn’t take place until verse 41? The Greek word translated devout is eulabeis and means pious. How is it possible to be totally depraved and pious at the same time?
  • The Ethiopian eunuch: “And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, as returning. And sitting in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah the prophet” (Acts 8:27-28). If a man prior to conversion incapable of any good, then how can we account for the fact that the eunuch had travelled a great distance to worship and was engaged in studying the Old Testament Scriptures? According to Calvinists, an individual who is totally depraved is an inlet and outlet of sin, a channel of corruption, and there is no good in him at all. He therefore isn’t capable of homage to the Father much less in learning his word.
  • Cornelius: Luke describes him as “a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always” (Acts 10:2). It is difficult to find anyone who is more highly spoken of in Scripture than this Roman soldier (v. 1).  Cornelius was devout, believed in Jehovah and embraced the moral and ethical standards of the Law, was generous to those in need, was prayerful,  held in high regard by the Jews, and described later in the chapter as a “just” man (v. 22). Proponents of Calvinist theology insist that a person outside of Christ is totally depraved and therefore incapable of even the slightest aptitude for goodness until the Holy Spirit acts upon him. If this doctrine is true, how can we account for Cornelius’ behavior?

1/ Jonathan Edwards, The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners, 8-9.
2/ John Calvin, Institutes of The Christian Religion, 302.

2 thoughts on “What does it mean to be dead? (1)

  1. You are picking a really interesting period to make an obscure point. The NT documents a transitional period for the people of God. Do you preach to foreigners in their language without having learned it? Do you consider that a normative expectation for the modern church?

    The NT teaches that Moses was a Christian, right? Saved by grace through faith?

    Heb11:26 He thought that the abuses he suffered for Christ were more valuable than the treasures of Egypt, since he was looking forward to the reward.

    Same with Abraham, right?

    John8:56Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

    So if these OT men of faith only saw God’s promises “from a distance” but were credited as righteous for looking forward to Christ, what’s the big deal about other people like that living in the 1st century? Of course believing jews in the 1st century recognized their Messiah, and accepted him and were baptized. They had the scriptures that spoke of Jesus (along with the faithful gentiles like the eunuch and Cornelius) and had real faith that naturally extended to belief in Jesus once they were told of Him. They didn’t need to be converted from unbelief, they just needed the clearer picture of Jesus that was provided in the Incarnation.

    If you are trying to make the case that Cornelius and company were just smarter or more spiritual than their unbelieving neighbors, that would be an interesting case study…

    You said: “Is an individual outside of Christ, prior to conversion, incapable of any good whatsoever as these men suggest?”

    Calvinists believe that those outside of Christ can absolutely send cards to their moms on mother’s day and walk little old ladies across the street. But if they are not attached to the Vine, they will not produce good fruit.

    1Cor14:23…Everything that isn’t based on faith is sin.

    Matt19:17 Jesus said, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There’s only one who is good.”

    You said: “The typical Calvinist interpretation of that passage suggests that prior to our conversion, we are completely devoid of any good or godly inclinations…”

    Before the flood, God said “every intent of the thoughts of (man’s) heart was only evil continually” (Gen6:5) and that continued after the flood: “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen8:21) Calvinists affirm the Genesis accounts as an accurate account of our fallen, natural state…which is enslaved to sin.

  2. So while it is possible to do “good” from a human standpoint, calvinists agree with Heb11:6 that “it’s impossible to please God without faith.”

    Rom3:10There is no righteous person, not even one.
    11 There is no one who understands.
    There is no one who looks for God.
    12 They all turned away.
    They have become worthless together.
    There is no one who shows kindness.
    There is not even one.

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