Yes, a person outside of Christ is, in fact, dead (Ephesians 2:1). However, this doesn’t mean he is totally depraved.
The word “dead” does not refer to an unsaved person’s inability to engage in any positive behavior; it refers to his spiritual status before a holy God (cf. Isaiah 6:5). He is dead and therefore separated from God, because he chooses to commit sin (Luke 15:24, 13).
“A sinner in his pre-Christian state is ‘dead in sin;’ but that deadness is not something he inherits, but comes about through the guilt of the sins he commits.”/2
Consider the following passages:
“And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we once conducted ourselves in the lusts of the flesh and mind…” (Ephesians 2:1-3a)
“Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear you.” (Isaiah 59:1-2)
Watch it carefully.
An individual is dead “in trespasses and sins” and therefore separated from God. But how so, Paul?
He is dead because (a) he walks according to the course of this world, and (b) he conducts himself in the lusts of the flesh and mind (cf. 1 John 3:4). In essence, he lives his life in conformity to the thoughts and pursuits of this present evil age (cf. Romans 12:2; Colossians 3:7).
He is born pure and sinless (cf. Ezekiel 18:20; Matthew 19:14), as are all infants, but when he sins, he dies spiritually. Later, if and when he comes in contact with the life-giving blood (cf. Ephesians 1:7) of Christ at baptism (Revelation 1:5; Acts 22:16), he is–notice Paul’s words–“made alive” and therefore no longer separated from God.
In fact, quite the opposite-he is “brought near” to God via the blood of Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:13).
Is a man dead prior to his conversion? Yes, but that doesn’t mean he’s incapable of any of any admirable conduct; it means he’s separated from God.
Make these notes in the margin of your Bible at Ephesians 2:1:
- Dead = separated from God by personal sin.
- Alive = brought near to God by Christ’s blood.
1/ T=total hereditary depravity, U=unconditional election, L=limited atonement, I=irresistible grace, P=perseverance of the saints.
2/ James Burton Coffman, “Commentary on Ephesians,” Commentary on Galatians, Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, 152.