The knee is a wonderful joint, as are the finger joints and elbows but they are naturally designed, by God, to bend in one direction and in one direction only. Woe to those who bend their knee in the wrong direction. It hurts, and it can take a while to heal, depending on how far it gets forced the wrong way.
We can do the same thing with biblical metaphors. We can hyper-extend them beyond their intended use. This is one of the more conspicuous errors in the defense of the Calvinistic / Reformed teaching of irresistible salvation and irresistible damnation. If we interpreted Jesus’ words, “This is my body” like Calvinists interpret the phrase “dead in trespasses and sins” we would be teaching transubstantiation; that is, teaching that the substance of the bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper would literally be changed into the substance of Christ’s body and blood, as per Roman Catholicism. It would be a serious mis-interpretation of the metaphor.
This error is, no doubt, part of what Paul had in mind when he instructed Timothy to rightly handle (or rightly divide) the word of truth. Instead of understanding the term “dead in sin” like the Prodigal’s father described his wayward son (when he was squandering his life and money in the far country) Calvinists apply a much more “literal” definition to the phrase. Calvinists insist that prodigal sinners are so dead that they “cannot repent with godly sorrow or exercise that faith which is unto salvation” unless they are irresistibly born again (or somehow irresistibly enabled) first. (See James P Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, pg245.) Nevertheless, in the parable, Jesus said the prodigal “came to himself.” Of course, a literally dead person could not do that. Jesus said nothing of the young man being born again, given a new heart, or being irresistibly called before he could repent. He wasn’t dead in the sense of being some kind of spiritual corpse or zombie that did not have a functioning conscience. He wasn’t said to be incapable of responding to the Holy Spirit’s urging to go back home and plead for mercy.
It is certainly true, in one sense, that no one seeks after God but the Bible never says that we can’t respond, in humble faith, to God’s seeking of us.
Examples of this kind of exaggerated use of the metaphor “dead in sin” are ubiquitous among Calvinist writers and preachers. I will only quote a couple of favorites from Spurgeon. In his sermon entitled The Necessity of the Spirit’s Work he says,
Holy Scripture tells us that man by nature is dead in trespasses and sins. It does not say that he is sick, that he is faint, that he has grown callous, and hardened, and seared: it says he is absolutely dead…
Spurgeon then goes on to say that when we see dead men raising themselves from their graves, removing their sheets, opening their own coffin lids, and walking down the streets, then perhaps we may believe that souls who are dead in sin may turn to God, recreate their own nature, and make themselves heirs of heaven. But not until then.
Then there is this preacher-esque gem: “What can a dead man do? Nothing but stink.” (You may not agree, entirely, with Spurgeon’s convictions, but you have to admire the way he made them!)
Please note that Scripture does tell us that man by nature is sick, hardened, lost, and enslaved in sin. Spurgeon is incorrect at this point. “Dead” is not the only metaphor that is used to describe our condition as unbelievers. Isa 1; 53:6; 61:1/Luke 4:18; 1 Pet 2:24; Mt 13:15; Rom 6:6 Mt.18:11
Please note also, that it is not the contention of any Traditionalists (or other non-Calvinists), which I know of, to suggest that we can repent and believe the truth apart from the Holy Spirit’s working in our heart. This is clear in the Traditional Statement. (Articles 2 & 5) I don’t think I have ever heard anyone suggest that prodigal sinners can recreate their own nature any more than the Ethiopian can change his skin or the leopard his spots. Jesus makes the atonement, the law does its job by leading us to Christ, God applies the cross to our account when we humbly believe, and the Holy Spirit gives us the “washing of regeneration.” There are no biblical texts that clearly teach (or necessarily infer) that guilty sinners can’t repent without God working some kind of irresistible miracle on their wills, first. This inference would contradict the very definition of repentance, as a self-imposed turning. An irresistible repentance would be no real repentance.
The term dead in sin is better understood as culpable for our own sin and unforgiven before God; (Col 2:13) thus under the sentence of eternal death until we are justified by faith. Unbelievers are dead to the eternal life that is in God.
Make no mistake, in the Calvinist system there is no essential aspect of salvation that could be resisted by those born elect; likewise, there is no aspect of damnation that could be resisted by those born reprobate. (No real Calvinist will deny this, in spite of the obviously fatalistic implications.)
So the next time a Calvinist insists that unbelievers are totally unable to repent because they are “dead in sin” ask them to show you a text which would clearly explain that those who are dead in sin can’t repent and believe the Gospel without a supernatural miracle being performed on their wills; also, direct them to the 3 parables on repentance in Luke 15.
Perhaps, another time we can look at some examples of the spiritual capabilities of those who would be considered “dead in trespasses and sins.” We will see that unbelievers can do many things that someone dead in sin, by the Calvinistic definition, could not possibly do. They can even “do by nature the things contained in the law” and the law is spiritual. Rom 2:14; Rom 7:14