Dead on Arrival
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins…(Ephesians 2:1)
A comatose patient with a heart rate of 20 and a respiratory rate of 4 is rolled into the ICU; the patient is blue. The intensivist in the unit is called to examine and treat the patient; this physician is a specialist in critical care, the one who cares for patients in life and death crises every day. He arrives at the bedside, looks at the patient and says, “this is not serious. It’s just a cold. Send this patient home.”
Or, he says,”quick, get me a special Snoopy band-aid. That will treat this patient’s problem.”
Or, he says to the patient, “let me direct you to a really good website on how to treat yourself in the ICU.”
Or, he might say, “I recommend that you go out and buy the book, Self-Actualization: Getting Control of Your Life.”
Or, he might send the patient for counseling because the patient has low self-esteem or a poor self-image; a course on death management might do the trick.
Of course, every one of these responses by an intensivist is utterly ludicrous, and no one would ever say or do any of these things. How much more ridiculous would they be if the patient were actually dead! Yet, this is what many of us do for our spiritual deadness. We are not just sick, or even in need of critical care, but according to the apostle Paul, we are spiritually dead . We need far more than intensive care, or any of the lesser treatments mentioned above.
The apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:1 that before a person knows Christ, he is dead in his sins. Now, Paul is not exaggerating, and he is not engaging in hyperbole. He is not being dramatic, nor is he using poetic license. He is telling the truth about every person who does not know Jesus Christ as Savior. The word he uses is nekros, the same root word from which we derive necrosis, a medical term for dying or dead human tissue that is blackened, foul-smelling, and often with little or no sensation. Paul is not describing us in very attractive terms. He does not say we were merely sick, disabled, acutely ill, or in need of a little help. He does not say that we were neurotic, dysfunctional, insane, maladjusted, or just having a bad day. We were all of these things, but they are nothing compared to his diagnosis: he says we were dead. Because of our trespasses, our active crossing of a boundary which we should not have stepped over, we were dead. And, because of our sins, missing the mark or failing to measure up to God’s standard, we were dead. So, our failures in active commission, doing what we should not have done, and passive omission, failing to do what we should have done, resulted in our death, and we were stuck there. Paul says here that anyone without Jesus Christ is dead. Therefore, counseling, self-help gurus or books, will power, sin management, education, or choosing not to be dead will never handle our problem. Even intensive spiritual care will not bring us to life.
Death is repulsive to us, and we recoil from it: we hate death and we fear it. Death is painful, it is hideous, and it is not natural; we innately realize that we are not the way God intended us to be, and that we were made to live forever. A dead person is hopeless, lifeless, and helpless. A dead person is unresponsive to any stimulus or therapy. A dead person is unable to do, say, or think anything. A dead person is cold, stiff, and rigid. A dead person cannot will himself alive, and cannot choose anything. He cannot help himself. A dead person is totally unable to do anything to make himself alive.
Without Jesus Christ, we are in a desperate condition: we are spiritually dead. Theologians call this deadness “total depravity” or “total inability.” We are tainted and corrupted by sin at every level of our beings; we are not as sinful as we could be, but we are radically depraved, depraved in every aspect of our lives. This depravity renders us totally unable to do anything to help our spiritual deadness. We cannot choose God; unless God makes us desire him, we do not even want him. We cannot make ourselves ready for God to choose us, or force him to choose us because we in some way deserve it, as if prayers, good works, and spiritual exercises somehow could make us worthy: he is absolutely sovereign, he does as he wills without consulting men, and we can never deserve his goodness and grace. We cannot make ourselves alive spiritually by will power, for our wills are dead also. We cannot help ourselves in even the smallest spiritual matter, for dead men are helpless. We need more than a little help from God. We need more than ethics or good moral values. We need more than good education or training. And, we need more than counseling or self-help books; our problem is far deeper than just being neurotic or dysfunctional. We need God to make us alive. God regenerates us, or makes us alive, so we are able to desire him, choose him, and respond to his love and promises.
In Ephesians 2:4 and 5, Paul tells us: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)…” Paul blasts through this desperate hopelessness of death by saying, “but God.” When we were dead in our sins, God loved us and made us alive with Jesus Christ. God is rich in mercy, and he is generous with his wealth. He is great in love, and demonstrated his love for us by giving Jesus up to bear our sins and the penalty for our sins on the cross. He has saved us through his grace, giving us what we do not deserve and cannot deserve, giving us his favor as a free gift. Because he makes us alive, we can and do respond to him in gratitude and love. We are able to love God, choose him, trust his character and promises, and obey him. We are no longer dead.
As we receive God’s gift of life, we are united with Jesus Christ (alive together with him). By his resurrection, he was made alive, and the same resurrection power makes us alive. If we are united to Jesus, nothing can ever separate us from him. We are alive forevermore, just as he is.
We access God and his promises by faith. Ephesians 2:8 and 9 further rip away any delusions we may have about our ability to save ourselves, and they offer the only possible hope for our doomed condition: For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. Our salvation, all of it, from start to finish, is of God. His grace, his undeserved gift to us, saves us. Our salvation from sin, death, and hell required and was purchased at the price of the death of his Son, Jesus, so it was infinitely costly for God, but it is free to us. We receive this gift by simply accepting it. We say to God, “please save me for the sake of Jesus” and he does. Even our faith does not make us worthy of God and his gift, for he even gives us the faith that we need. We do not work for or earn our salvation in any way. It is all of God.
Paul’s clear and unvarnished presentation of our awful and desperate condition of death without Jesus, and our utter and total inability to help ourselves should impact us in at least several ways.
1. We should be grateful for Paul’s reality treatment. He shows us what we really are without Jesus. Our condition is dire, and it shocks us and terrifies us. We are profoundly needy, deeply helpless, and totally unable to save ourselves or even to contribute to our salvation.
2. Our total inability and radical depravity require a radical solution outside of ourselves. God provided this solution in the person and death of Jesus Christ. His blood is able to cleanse us from all our guilt, both moral and emotional. God chooses us because we cannot choose him, he makes us alive because we are dead, he enables us to respond to him and to love and trust him, and he joins us to Jesus Christ in an inseparable way forever. And, we are left to wonder at the richness of his love, mercy, and grace.
3. As undeserving people who have been shown such love, mercy, and grace, we should have no trouble extending love, mercy, and grace to other humans, who in our minds, may not deserve it.
4. As we comprehend God’s love for us even while we were dead in sin, it is absolutely humbling, and should strike a death blow to pride.
5. We can understand how Paul felt he was a debtor to all men. His view of himself, and his view of us as dead without God’s intervention, should awaken within us a debtor mentality to others, and should cause our demanding ways to disappear.
6. We see that we can trust in nothing else for salvation and eternal life except Jesus and the grace of God. We must trust in him completely to save us, not at all in our own efforts, not even in the strength of our faith. We must cast ourselves on him and his mercy, and “venture on him, venture wholly”, as Joseph Hart says in his hymn. This total trust in Jesus to save us is freeing, and knowing he loves us even though we are unworthy is deeply assuring. Total trust in Jesus to give us total salvation from our total depravity and in the face of our total inability gives us confidence, humility, courage, peace and joy. We trust and rest in Jesus alone.
So, our moving from spiritual death to life requires far more than we can ever do, for we are dead. We need more than just a little help from God until we can handle things ourselves, and we need more than intensive spiritual care. We need a miracle of God to make us alive. He freely gives that miracle.
For a fuller explanation of how we can receive God’s gift of life, go to “The Ultimate Solution”.