The Good News - Home

What is Spiritual Death?

(Examining the Calvinistic Doctrine of Total Depravity)

By David A. DePra

And you has he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.  (Eph 2:1)

      The first point of 5 Point Calvinism is, “The Total Depravity of Man.”  This is defined as man’s condition since Adam’s sin.  By “total depravity,” 5PC does not mean, “as bad as bad can be.”  Rather, “total depravity” means that the damage of sin has invaded the total person.

     Total depravity, in 5PC terms, equals spiritual death.  It is the condition of fallen man.  Fundamental to this condition is the claim that fallen man cannot respond to God – because he is, “dead to God.”  Thus, when Ephesians says we were “dead in trespasses and sins,” 5PC says this is describing total depravity, and shows that fallen man is DEAD – unable to make any move towards God; unable to even WANT to respond to God.


     Note that 5PC teaches that man cannot respond to God, but also teaches that man cannot WANT to respond to God.  Get that:  Man cannot WANT to respond to God.  We must understand what that means in 5PC terminology, or we won’t know where they are coming from.  It is one thing to say that man cannot respond to God.  But it is another to say that he cannot WANT to respond.


     So what does 5PC mean when it says, “Man cannot WANT to seek, or respond, to God?”  Simple.  5PC states that man DOES have a free will.  But because his total depravity has corrupted that free will, he cannot WANT to respond to God.  They would say, “Fallen man does have a free will.  But since he is dead in sin, he will never choose God.  Indeed, he will never WANT to choose God.” 


     Now, this definition of the condition of fallen man is a must if the 5PC is to hold together.  For once we establish as a premise the notion that fallen man cannot WANT to respond to God, then it must logically follow that any response to God by man is a response that God Himself put in that person.  And this is exactly what the other points of 5PC teach.  Unconditional Election says that man is saved, not by any response of faith to God, but solely by God’s sovereign election.  The response of faith, according to 5PC, comes along AFTER the person is born again, not before.  And of course, doing all of this work in a person is God’s “Irresistible Grace,” which is point four of the five point system.


     This brings us to the crux of the matter:  What is spiritual death, or total depravity?  What are the characteristics of spiritual death, according to the Bible?  Are those spiritually dead unable to want to respond to God – even if God initiates that person’s calling?  If we can prove that the spiritually dead in Adam CAN WANT to respond to God, then the entire 5PC system will fall. 


A Vital Distinction


     Before we continue, we need to make a distinction.  It is a distinction which is vital to establish, or we will never understand the Truth about spiritual death.  That distinction is this:  Being able to INITIATE, and being able to RESPOND, are two different things.  The Bible never says an unsaved man can INITIATE anything towards God.  But it does say an unsaved man can RESPOND to God, once God initiates.


     Get that.  The Bible agrees that someone, “dead in trespasses and sins,” cannot do anything about himself.  He cannot initiate his own salvation.  There is nothing in him to do that.  But the Bible DOES say that a spiritually dead person can RESPOND to God, once God initiates to give him light – yes, all the while that person remains spiritually dead.


     5PC denies both the possibility of a spiritually dead person initiating salvation, but also denies that a spiritually dead man can RESPOND to God’s initiation.  Rather, the 5PC system demands that man be completely saved (regenerated), by God’s sovereign election, before any response is possible.  This is why 5PC teaches, “regeneration BEFORE faith.”




     5PC tries to draw the analogy between physical death and spiritual death, in order to show the impossibility of a spiritually dead person being able to respond to God.  They say that just as a physically dead person cannot respond to the physically alive world, neither can a spiritually dead person respond to the spiritually alive world – in other words, to God.


     The question however, is this:  Is this an analogy the Bible teaches?  Is spiritual death able to be compared to physical death in that way?  The answer is NO.  The Bible does not describe spiritual death in terms which give us freedom to use such an analogy.  Spiritual death has a meaning all it’s own.  Comparisons to physical death simply do not hold.  They begin to break down quickly.


     First of all, let’s see if a spiritually dead person can respond – at all – to spiritual life.  Now remember:  We are using the term RESPOND.  We are not saying that a spiritually dead person can INITIATE life.


And you have not his word abiding in you: for whom he has sent, him you believe not.  You search the scriptures; for in them you think you have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.  And you will not come to me, that you might have life.   (John 5:38-40)


No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.   (John 6:44)


     In John 5, Jesus tells the Pharisees that they do not have God’s Word abiding in them.  He tells them that they do not believe.  So clearly, they are spiritually dead.  Yet He says to them, “You will not come to Me that you might have life.”  Jesus would not upbraid them for not coming to Him for life, if they already had life.  These Pharisees were clearly spiritually dead.


     Ok.  But now here’s the question:  Why would Jesus upbraid them for NOT coming to Him for life, unless they COULD come to Him for life?


     The 5PCer would point to our second scripture above, and say that it gives us the reason WHY.  They would say that no one can come to Jesus for life unless the Father chooses them to come to Jesus.  They would add that Jesus is just in condemning those who do not come to Him, even though He knew they could not come to Him – because it is always just to condemn those in sin. 


     Incidentally, the Bible is filled with commands to the sinner to repent, to turn to God, to seek God.  And despite the fact that 5PC teaches that none of us can obey those commands, it nevertheless holds to the notion that God is always just in condemning those who cannot obey what God tells them to obey.  This is one of the many anomalies in 5PC – and one which common sense tells us is nonsense.


     If I commanded a dead person to rise, and then condemned him for not doing so, you would think I was nuts.  If I commanded the blind to see, and then condemned them for not doing so, you would think I was terrible.  But this is the God of 5PC – One who continually demands that those who cannot obey Him do obey Him.  And then He condemns them for not doing what they were never able to do.


     The God of the Bible is not like that.  The key here is to understand that God never holds us responsible for being born in Adam.  We had nothing to do with that.  But He does hold us responsible for choosing Christ -- once we do see the Truth of the gospel.   And if we refuse Christ, God is just in condemning us.  This is the Truth of the Bible, and 5PC denies it outright.  We will discuss this in another chapter.


     Now back to John 6:44.  It does say that no one can come to Christ unless the Father draws Him.  But Jesus DID condemn the Pharisees for not coming to Him.  How do we explain this?  Is 5PC right in saying that God condemns those who cannot do what He commands they do?


     Not at all.  In fact, the explanation here is easy.  It actually supports the fact that fallen man CAN respond to God’s calling – and is indeed accountable for doing so.  Jesus DID say that no one can come to Him unless the Father initiates to DRAW them.  But once we understand that DRAWING a person is not saving them – but simply giving them light and Truth so they can choose – things become clear.  Jesus is telling them outright that God will do the “drawing,” but they must do the coming!


     God never saves anyone by election.  He draws them to Christ by election – by bringing them the Truth of salvation.  And once God does draw them, they will come to the place of choice – to the place where they must either, “come to Jesus,” or refuse to come.  Once we see this, all of the verses make perfect sense.


     Jesus said something else in chapter 6 which is often used to support 5PC, but which verifies the Biblical Truth that God does the drawing to Jesus, but once He does, we must respond by COMING.


All that the Father gives me shall come to me; and him that comes to me I will in no wise cast out.  (John 6:37)


     At first glance, this verse may seem to be saying that whoever God elects to come to Jesus will come to Jesus – and that, coupled with 6:44 – proves total depravity and unconditional election.  But a closer look says otherwise. 


     First of all, in the King James English, we have, “shall come to me,” and “he that comes to me.”  Two times the word, “come(s) is used.”  But in Greek, there are two different words.  This verse could be translated, “All that the Father gives me shall ARRIVE AT Me, and the one who COMES TO ME I will in no wise cast out.”  In other words, God does the drawing to Christ, and those He draws will reach the place of choice God intends:  They will then be able to COME.  In short, God draws us to the place where we see the Truth and are able to COME TO JESUS.


     Can we see that none of this means those God draws MUST come?  No.  That is why Jesus says, “He that comes to Me I will not cast out.”  Why would He need to comfort us in that way if all of this was happening by God’s election?  If it were happening by God’s election, then we are already saved by the time we come – for 5PC teaches “regeneration precedes faith.”  Being cast out is not a comfort we would need to hear.


     But no.  Jesus wants to assure us that when God draws us to the place where we can and must choose to put our faith in Christ, that if we do put our faith in Christ, that there are none of us He will refuse.  The entire passage is nonsense if, “the elect” MUST come, because they are already regenerated by election.


     So what we see here are UNSAVED people who are drawn to Christ, arrive at the place where they see the Truth, and who are then ABLE to, “come to Jesus.”  Once we interpret things this way, all the verses line up, make sense, and harmonize with the rest of the Bible.  Thus, spiritually dead people, while they cannot INITIATE this process of, “drawing,” to Christ, are nevertheless, once drawn by God, able to RESPOND by, “coming to Jesus.”


     One last passage.  Jesus said:


Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, has eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.  For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.  He that eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, dwells in me, and I in him.   (John 6:53-56)


     This is a good analogy, and one which dismantles 5PC.  Notice how Jesus compares faith in His Redemption to eating and drinking.  IF you eat and drink, THEN you have life.  IF you don’t eat and drink, THEN you don’t have life.  Now ask:  Is a hungry person able to eat and drink?  Of course.  Is there anything about the words of Jesus which allow us to impose upon them the idea that the person in need of life through Him is UNABLE to eat and drink as He is describing through this analogy?  No.


     The Truth is clear:  You must believe in order to be saved.  And just as a person who is hungry is able to eat and drink that which gives him life, so can the spiritually dead eat and drink of Jesus – that ability being contingent upon God drawing that person to Christ and showing them the Truth of the Redemption.


     God has indeed, “quickened those who were dead in trespasses and sins.”  (Eph 2:1)  But why?  Let Ephesians round out this Truth:


In whom you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after you believed, you were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.   (Eph 1:13-14)


The Phrase, “Dead TO”


     The issue here is the Biblical definition of spiritual DEATH.  Of course, spiritual death began for mankind once Adam sinned.  So let’s look at that.  The first mention of death was when God told Adam, “In the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die.”  Thus, when Adam did sin, we can be sure he did die.


     Adam’s “death” was obviously more than physical, because Adam did not physically die right then.  The death was spiritual.  It is further proven to be spiritual in nature by virtue of the fact that it is passed down through heredity in the human race. 


     Let’s pin this down.  What exactly is spiritual death?


     The answer is found by discovering what LIFE is.  Do you see why? Adam LOST life – resulting in death.  Death would therefore be the absence of life – the absence of what Adam lost.


    In the New Testament, LIFE is, “Christ in us.”  (Col. 1:27)


     Paul also writes:


And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  (Rom 8:10)


     Thus, eternal life, according to the Bible, is “Christ in us.”  And we get Christ in us by being raised in Christ:


Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dies no more; death hath no more dominion over him.  For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he lives, he lives unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.  (Rom 6:9-11)


     So if spiritual life is Christ in us, then spiritual death is the absence of Christ in us.  Likewise, if eternal life is the result of being raised with Christ, then spiritual death is the result of not having been raised with Christ.  All of this tells us that “spiritual death” is always the absence of the life of God in us.


     This goes back to the reality that God Himself IS life.  Thus, if we are one with God we are alive.  If we are independent of God, then we are spiritually dead.  Indeed, God never made man to live independent of union with Himself.  God was always to be the life of man.  Jesus said, “I am the Vine, and you are the branches.”  Nothing has ever changed this.  Union or oneness with God IS life.  Separation from God IS death.


     Again, this makes sense since GOD IS LIFE.  Get that.  GOD IS LIFE.  Jesus also said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and THE LIFE.”  (John 14:6)  Again -- LIFE is the result of being one with God.  DEATH is the result of being separated from God.


     Now, once we see that DEATH is the result of being separated from God, then we need to take the question to the next step:  Are people who are separated from God – spiritually dead – able to choose?  Do they retain freedom of will?  At all?  Is spiritual death the absence of free will – of the ability to WANT to choose God?


     The Bible shows that spiritual death doesn’t strip us of free will – despite the fact that every part of us is infected by spiritual death.  Unsaved people choose everyday.  Look around you.  Are people choosing?  At all?  On any level?  If people are choosing on any level, they may not be choosing God, or know Him.  But if they are choosing, then they HAVE free will. 


     What man needs is LIGHT.  Then he can choose with the free will he has always had.  And once God draws a person to see the Light Himself, then that person does have the ability to come to Jesus.


     God does not bring light and leave it to us to figure out what the light is revealing.  No.  The light God brings already carries with it the ability to understand.  That is why it is called light and revelation – it is premised on the fact that without it we can’t understand.


     What is the goal of God in bringing us the light of Jesus Christ?  Really, for the unsaved, only one goal:  If you have a free will, and God draws you to see the Truth, then you do have the power to do ONE THING.  Do you know what that is?  You have the power to surrender your will.  Sure.  By definition, if you have a will, you can surrender it.  And this is exactly what it means to surrender oneself to Jesus Christ.  It is all we can do and it is what we must to do be saved.


Dead to Sin


     5 Point Calvinism claims spiritual death is the complete inability to respond to God – just as a corpse cannot respond to anything.  Yet they say that God is just in condemning such “corpses” for not wanting to respond to God.  This is utter nonsense, and frankly, an abominable picture of God.


     But back to the definition of spiritual death.  5PC points to our verse, Ephesians 2:1, to try to prove that the spiritually dead cannot respond to God, and to show that God must FIRST completely regenerate the dead person before that person can put their faith in Christ.  But a look at a couple of other verses proves otherwise.


      First, there are these two verses in Romans.  What do they tell us about God’s use of the phrase, “dead to?”


How shall we that are dead to sin live any longer therein? (Rom 6:2)


 Likewise reckon you also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.  (Rom 6:11)


     If being “dead to” something, in Bible terms, means we cannot respond to it, then these verses are teaching that a saved person cannot sin!  Sure.  The saved are said to be, “dead to sin.”  But ask:  Can saved people sin?


     John tells us that, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”  (1 John 1:10)  Therefore, the phrase, “dead to sin” CANNOT mean an inability to respond to sin.  Otherwise, we would have a contradiction.


     Obviously, being, “dead to sin,” must mean we can still sin – can still respond to the pulls of sin.  But the use of the phrase, “dead to sin,” must likewise be intended to show that we are nevertheless able to NOT SIN – we are able to be “unresponsive” to sin.  That is clearly the meaning here, as substantiated by the rest of the Bible.


     We must see this.  In this same epistle of Romans, it also says, “Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwells in me.  I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.” (Rom 7:20-22)  Does anyone doubt that despite being saved that they are nevertheless capable of responding to sin? – just as was the apostle Paul?   No.  So clearly, to be, “dead to sin” cannot mean to be incapable of sinning.  A saved person can choose to sin, despite being, “dead to sin.”   Therefore, an unsaved person can choose to respond to God, despite being, “dead to God” – once God takes the initiative to bring them light.


     Can you see what this means?  If being, “dead to sin,” means you can still respond to sin, then, being, “dead to God” (unsaved), means you can still respond to God.  Thus, “spiritual death” does not mean you cannot respond to God, for “spiritual life” never means you cannot respond to sin!  


“Dead TO”


     If you read Romans 6, Paul makes it plain that to be, “dead to sin,” means that I no longer MUST sin.  But it does not mean that I cannot sin.  The choice is mine.  This is why Paul is able to say, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?  God forbid. How shall we that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?”  (Rom 6:1-2)  Likewise, Paul writes, “Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof.  Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. “  (Rom 6:11-13)


     Paul’s direction to LET NOT SIN REIGN is nonsense if being, “dead to sin” means we cannot sin.  Clearly, being, “dead to sin,” means that I don’t have to respond to sin, but can, if I choose.  In other words, through Christ, we have power NOT to sin.  And power to obey God.  But we must exercise that power.


     In the same way, being spiritually DEAD, in Biblical language, does not mean that I have no ability to want to respond to God.  Rather, it means that I don’t have God Himself – that is – I have no life in me.  But I retain a moral consciousness and free will – on a level which enables me to respond to God -- once I hear the Truth. 


     This is clearly stated by Paul elsewhere in Romans:


For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:  Which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)  In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.  (Rom 2:14-16)


     Man is indeed spiritually DEAD because of sin.  But all this means is that we are void of spiritual LIFE.  It does not mean we cannot choose.  Once we understand this, all of God’s commands for us to repent, and to seek Him, and His corresponding promise to initiate the process, begin to make sense.


The “Want to’s”


      5PC claims that it teaches the free will of man.  In fact, 5PC states that man has all the tools necessary to respond to God.  But then they say that the problem is that man is incapable of WANTING TO respond to God.  In other words, 5PC grants that man has a free will, but then says that he cannot want to use it to respond to God.  This inability to want to respond to God is at the core of, “total depravity,” in the 5PC system. 


     Here we see the routine which is common to 5PC.  They say man has a free will, and COULD respond to God.  But then they say that man is unable to WANT TO respond to God.  But somehow they fail to see that this isn’t free will at all.  In fact, it is the very definition of NOT having a free will.  A will that cannot “WANT TO” is a will that cannot WILL!  It is therefore not a free will at all.


     Can we see that “TO WANT TO” is precisely what a free will is, by definition?  Forget about whether we can execute what we WANT TO do.  The fact that we can WILL IT is what free will is all about.  5PC says that man cannot want to turn to God.  Ever.  In effect, 5PC teaches that man’s will is, by birth, set against God.


      All of this, however, is error.  First of all, if a person is incapable of WANTING TO respond to God – then that person doesn’t have a free will.  By definition, he doesn’t.  And if God must change a person’s will over to WANTING TO respond to Him, then God is actually doing this against that person’s will. 


     Do you see this?  If I cannot want to respond to God, and God acts upon me to cause me to want to respond to Him, God has changed my will from what it was – against Him – over to being for Him.  Thus, God has done a work in me which is, by definition, AGAINST my will.  So, in effect, I really have no free will.  I have only the will God plants in me.


Two Questions


     We must ask two questions:  First, do we see a free will functioning, on any level at all, in even the most wicked people?  Yes, we do.  Therefore, man does have a free will.  It may be in bondage on a number of different levels.  But there is some free will.


     If the worst person on the face of the earth can make a choice to do WANT TO DO ANYTHING, then that person has a free will – PERIOD.  We may not be able to actually do what we want, or be able to stop doing what we hate, but if we WANT TO do anything, no matter how good or evil our intent may be, we HAVE a free will.  And once we admit that we have a free will on any level, we cannot escape the conclusion that we can surrender that will to God – once God shows us the Truth.


     Again – this is not us initiating anything.  It is God bringing light into our darkness.  But once He does, in a way that is tailored to us, and which He knows we will understand, we are able to respond.  We are able to surrender our spiritually dead selves to Him.  We have that ability, while yet even dead in sins and trespasses.  The meaning of that phrase does not do away with a man’s free will or his conscience.


     Secondly, does unsaved man have a conscience – which carries some ability to discern moral right from wrong?  Yes.  In fact, the Bible says so:


For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:  Which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)  In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.  (Rom 2:14-16)


For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;  Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them.   (Rom 1:18-19)


     Man cannot save himself.  He cannot even muster the conscience necessary to convict himself of sin.  But because man does have free will, and does have a built-in conscience, there is something in him to which God can appeal – even while he is dead in sin.  Paul says that even the Gentiles have a conscience which bears witness to the righteousness of God.  Thus, when God brings the gospel and seeks to draw men to Christ, even fallen man has the ability to want to choose Christ.


     The Bible never suggests that man cannot want to respond to God – once God brings the light of the gospel.  Indeed, to “cannot want” means there is no free will!  THAT is the definition of it.  The opposite is actually all through scripture.  The sin which condemns us is our refusal to respond to the Truth once God shows it to us in Christ Jesus.


     Total Depravity, as defined by 5PC, is an erroneous teaching.  It is true that every part of us has been affected by spiritual death.  And it is true that we can do nothing to save ourselves, or even to initiate the process.  But man IS capable of choice, and is ACCOUNTABLE to choose, once God brings the light.  And all God wants is for us to bring our “totally depraved” selves to the foot of the Cross.  He will do the rest.

 The Good News - Home

Hit Counter