Dead Men Can't Dance

Scott E. Churnock
Tuesday, January 3rd 2012
Jan/Feb 2012

On the first day of class, my seminary English Bible professor announced that he was a "Calminian." As he explained, there are certain passages in the Bible that are "Calvinistic" and others that are "Arminian." Throughout the semester he peppered his lectures with phrases such as "this is a Cal passage" or "this is a Minian text."

Since I was a theological novice, this via media made sense to me. Armed with my "Calminian" theology, I graduated seminary and settled into the pastoral ministry. It wasn't long before common pastoral experiences began to put my "Calminianism" to the test. At the same time, my commitment to systematic expository preaching was also making my theological life difficult. Preaching through books of the Bible verse by verse made it impossible to skip the hard places. There were too many verses where "Calminianism" simply would not hold up.

I began to look at the biblical text more deeply and in a more systematic way. I also began to study theology out of a sense of hunger and desperation. When I read Loraine Boettner's book The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, the pieces fell into place. My "Calminianism" was merely the old Arminianism in a new suit.

As my preaching began to reflect a Calvinistic emphasis, questions began to come my way that expressed the underlying Arminianism of evangelicalism. In one way or another, these questions touched upon the issue of man's "free will" in salvation. The presupposition behind the questions was that each person has the ability to believe. The mere call to believe on Christ implies the ability to believe.

The questions also revealed a basic truth about run-of-the-mill evangelical Arminianism: it is as much a philosophical position as it is a theological one. Arminianism affirms that all people have "free will." To be truly "free," a person's will cannot be constrained in any way. "Free will" is the freedom to choose apart from any influence other than a person's will. This libertarian view of freedom is necessary in order to be morally responsible. If the exercise of my will is conditioned upon anything, then I am not really "free" and, therefore, cannot be morally responsible. God cannot predetermine or foreordain anything that impinges upon a man's "free will." This philosophical definition of freedom forms the lens through which Scripture is viewed. There is still a place for grace, at least in classic Wesleyan Arminianism, but the popular Arminianism of contemporary evangelicalism is in fact semi- or even full-blown Pelagianism. I'll call this "pop Arminianism."

As I discussed the issue of "free will" with people, I gradually began to realize that we were beginning at the wrong place. We needed to back up a step or two and first understand the biblical teaching on the nature of man. When tested against the biblical standard, pop Arminianism displays a faulty anthropology. It frequently attributes to unbelievers spiritual abilities they do not possess.

It is here that Ephesians 2:1-10 is helpful. In this passage, Paul describes our condition as fallen creatures with three monosyllables, "you were dead" (Eph. 1:1). Pop Arminianism affirms that the Fall grievously corrupted the human constitution, dealing a mortal blow to humanity. After all, everyone dies! But even in this seriously corrupted condition, fallen people still have the ability to "freely" believe on Christ for salvation. For pop Arminians, "dead" doesn't really mean dead! It's much like a scene in the movie The Princess Bride. When friends of the movie's hero, Wesley, bring his lifeless body to Miracle Max for a "cure," Max asks the unresponsive Wesley a question. His friend says, "He's dead. He can't talk." Max replies, "It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there's usually only one thing you can do: go through his clothes and look for loose change." Arminians tell us that "dead" in Ephesians 2:1 means "dead," but then when it comes to the acceptance or resistance to grace, it turns out that humans are only "mostly dead," or "slightly alive." There is still a hint of life in fallen people, still enough ability to choose to believe the gospel.

This "mostly dead" view is the predominant theology of evangelicalism: all people are able to believe on Christ. We just need the right persuasion, the right motivation, the right atmosphere, the right environment, and so forth. Classic Arminianism calls this "prevenient grace" that is given and then enables one to choose or not choose regeneration. As the old praise and worship song puts it, "The Savior is waiting to enter your heart. Why don't you let him come in?" You are not so dead that you cannot "open the door of your heart."

The Bible has a different view of fallen humanity. In Ephesians 2, when Paul says we were "dead," he means all dead, not mostly dead. We have no spiritual ability for salvation at all. Sin has killed us spiritually. We are completely unresponsive to spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14). To understand the biblical doctrine of salvation, we must first understand our true condition as fallen people.

Ephesians opens with one of the most majestic descriptions of our great salvation found anywhere in the Bible. As the apostle Paul outlines the work of the entire Trinity in redemption, over and over he repeats that it is all "to the praise of his glorious grace" (Eph. 1:6, 7, 12, 14). Our salvation is all by grace. Nothing is mentioned about our works, our faith, or our choosing. There are no imperatives for us to do anything, just the indicatives of sovereign grace. As the apostle expounds the wonder of our great salvation, he makes it clear that God does it all. "How do sinners come into possession of all these glorious blessings of salvation?" Paul replies that we were dead, but God made us alive (Eph. 2:5).

The first seven verses of Ephesians 2 are one long sentence in the original Greek. The subject of the sentence is "God" (v. 4), the objects of the sentence are "you" (v. 1) and "us" (vv. 5, 6), and the verbs are "made alive" (v. 5), "raised" (v. 6), and "seated" (v. 7). The thrust of the message is: "God made alive, raised up, and seated you/us who were dead." As in Ephesians 1, the emphasis is that God has done it all.

Ephesians 2 begins with a graphic description of our spiritual "deadness" into which we are all born. In verses 1 through 3, Paul describes the universal condition of mankind by using the words "you," "we," and "the rest." Everyone is included in this description. This is what we are by nature. We are dead.

This is what Reformed theology calls "total depravity." Sin has permeated the totality of our being: body, mind, intellect, emotions, and will. Every aspect of human personhood has been corrupted radically by sin. This corruption reaches to the very core of our being so that everything about us is polluted by sin. Isaiah alluded to this when he said, "All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment" (Isa. 64:6). Sin has so radically corrupted us that we are "dead" to spiritual things.

This is why salvation is described as being brought from death unto life (John 5:24). Someone dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1) doesn't need education, assistance, persuasion, or opportunity. He needs life! Until we have life, we have no desire for the things of God, no ability to make ourselves right with God, and, in fact, we don't even seek after God (Rom. 3:10-12). By nature we are fallen creatures, no one is righteous, no one understands the things of God, and no one seeks God. After Adam and Eve sinned, they did not go seeking God. God came to them (Gen. 3:8, 9). That's the way it always works. Sinners never seek out the holy, true, and living God. He seeks them.

Because of our spiritual "deadness," our former pattern of life fit with this fallen world system (Eph. 2:2). We were "at home" in this present evil age. This fallen world fit with our nature. We willingly bowed our knees in allegiance to the "prince of the power of the air" who is the spirit working behind the scenes of this fallen world. The totality of our spiritual corruption was displayed in every aspect of our existence, "the body and the mind" (Eph. 2:3). By nature, we want nothing to do with a holy and righteous God. This fallen, sinful world is our natural environment and we fit right in. We have no interest in the things of the Spirit and see no need for anything that God has to offer.

Calvinism takes spiritual death seriously. When Paul says "dead," he means dead. Dead people can do nothing. Arminians assert that people are only "mostly dead." There is still a glimmer of spiritual life that can be fanned into the flame of faith. Sometimes our condition is likened to that of a person who is drowning and is thrown a lifeline (the gospel). All we need to do is reach out and grab the line (faith). According to Ephesians 2, we are not drowning; we are a lifeless corpse on the ocean floor. We don't need God to throw us a lifeline; we need him to jump into the water, dive to the bottom, pull us to the surface, and breathe life into us. This is exactly what God does. Ephesians 4:4-7 describes God's life-saving activity on the part of his people. When we were dead, when we could do nothing toward our salvation, God did something!

One of the most glorious phrases in the entire Bible is found in Ephesians 2:4: "But God." When we were hopelessly dead, God brought us to life. This is the doctrine of "regeneration." God does what we could never do: he made us alive. Salvation begins with our gracious God.

To emphasize our deadness and the fact that we contribute nothing to our salvation, Paul repeats it in verse 5. God made us alive. When? When we believed on Christ? No, when we were dead. Dead people can do nothing, not even believe. When the Lord Jesus called Lazarus out of death to life, he didn't first ask Lazarus if he had faith. Jesus issued a sovereign call to life and Lazarus responded by walking out of the tomb. I doubt that Lazarus felt that his "free will" had been violated when Jesus issued the life-giving call to leave the realm of the dead!

One sentence summarizes the difference between Reformed theology (Calvinism) and Arminianism. If you get this right, you get everything right: Regeneration precedes faith. Every other theological system says that faith precedes regeneration. God's work is made to be contingent upon ours. Paul says twice that we were dead. When did God make us alive? When we were dead. Dead people can't "hold out the empty hands of faith." God must first make them alive and then they can do something.

What is the first act of someone who is made spiritually alive? Faith! For the first time we see our need of a Savior, the loveliness of Christ, the glory of the gospel, and the wonder of grace. We now long to run to the Savior. Like Lazarus, having been freed from death, we come to Christ who strips off our grave clothes and dresses us with the robe of his righteousness. The first cry of new life is faith in Christ. Even this cry of faith is by grace (Eph. 2:8-9).

Salvation is not merely "making a decision," "giving your heart to Jesus," or "committing your life to Christ." Salvation is being brought from death to life by the sovereign, regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. When we understand our natural "deadness," we can see that election cannot be conditioned upon some foreseen faith that all are able to profess through the exercise of their "free will." Dead people have no ability to believe. Their "free will" is bound by their deadness. If anyone believes in Christ for salvation, it is only because God has first sovereignly brought him from death to life.

A proper biblical anthropology that affirms the natural "deadness" of all people keeps us from the simplistic approach of many evangelical forms of Arminianism, which asserts that obligation implies ability. It also keeps us from a knee-jerk Calvinism that wants always to limit "all" to just the elect. We don't have to be afraid to say that sometimes "all people" without exception are in view, but this does not imply ability to believe. No one can believe apart from the regenerating grace and power of the Holy Spirit.

A good deal of popular Arminian theology strives to maintain human freedom at all costs. This "freedom" is defined as being free from any constraint apart from one's own will. But when we truly understand that we are by nature spiritually dead, and that we can will nothing apart from that deadness, the Pelagianizing notion of "freedom" becomes the cruelest bondage of all. It leaves us bound to our deadness. On our own, we will never willingly come to Christ for salvation. We have no desire to come.

When God graciously and sovereignly brings us from death to life, for the first time we are truly free! "For freedom Christ has set us free" (Gal. 5:1). We are free to believe on Christ, free to love God, free to hunger and thirst for righteousness, free to hate our sin and long for holiness, and free to reach God's highest design for us as his children who have been redeemed from the curse of the Fall.

These glorious words of the apostle Paul to the Ephesians tell us that sin has so thoroughly permeated us, so totally corrupted us, so completely blinded us, so hopelessly alienated us from God, so decisively killed us, that God's sovereign grace alone can rescue us. We don't need instruction; we need life. We don't need healing; we need resurrection. We were dead in our trespasses and sins, but God made us alive. Sovereign grace changes everything and makes us truly free.

When the Lord Jesus rebuked the unbelieving generation to whom he preached the good news of the kingdom of God, he said, "'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance'" (Matt. 11:17). The sweet melody of the gospel fell on deaf ears and dead hearts. Those in the Lord's audience "freely" chose not to believe. It was a choice that all spiritually dead people make. Dead men can't dance. They don't want to dance to the joyous music of the gospel. They hate it. Only when God graciously makes us alive are we able to hear the glorious gospel symphony. We can't keep from dancing. We don't want to stop. Every believer sings with King David in Psalm 30:11, 12:

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!
Tuesday, January 3rd 2012

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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