Sunday, January 12, 2014

Can Corpses Believe?

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved). (Eph. 2:4-5)

Ezekiel, as depicted by Michelangelo
on the 
Sistine Chapel ceiling
Unregenerate persons are “dead.” All Christians can agree on that. But what does this language mean? For example, suppose I made the following argument:
Unregenerate persons cannot walk, because unregenerate persons are “dead,” and a corpse cannot walk. 
You would probably object that I am misusing Paul’s metaphor. The metaphor of death is meant to describe man’s spiritual state, not his physical state.

Very well. Now suppose I made this argument:
Unregenerate persons cannot disobey God, because unregenerate persons are “dead,” and a corpse cannot disobey God. 
Again, you would probably object that I am misusing Paul’s metaphor. Though Paul teaches that unregenerate persons are dead to God, he surely does not believe that they are incapable of disobeying God.

Now consider the following argument:
Unregenerate persons cannot believe the gospel, because unregenerate persons are “dead,” and a corpse cannot believe. 
I often hear this argument used in defense of the doctrine called “Total Inability” or “Total Depravity.” However, Paul never makes this argument. Paul states that unregenerate persons are “dead,” but he never explicitly argues from this metaphor that unregenerate persons are therefore incapable of believing the gospel, just as he never argues from this metaphor that they are incapable of walking or of disobeying God.

Furthermore, I believe it can be demonstrated that the argument expressed above is false.

The imagery of salvation as a movement from death to life occurs throughout the Bible. This transition is described as “regeneration” (Titus 3:5) or being “born again” (John 3:3) or being “made alive” (Ephesians 2:5). One of the most dramatic portrayals of this transformation occurs in Ezekiel 37:1-10:
The hand of the LORD came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry. And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” So I answered, “O Lord GOD, You know.” Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the LORD.”’” So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them. Also He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”’” So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army. 
As taught so explicitly in this passage, it is only God’s Spirit that effects this supernatural transition from death to life. Regeneration or new birth occurs when the Holy Spirit enters someone and makes them alive. But when does the Holy Spirit enter an unregenerate person? Does the Holy Spirit enter before belief or after belief? Do people believe because they are born again, or are they born again because they believe? Simply put, does faith precede regeneration or does regeneration precede faith? (Now of course the moment of faith and the moment of regeneration may be simultaneous. I am not asking which one is temporally prior; I am asking which one is logically prior.)

Here, the Scriptures are crystal clear:
And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:40) 
But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. (John 20:31) 
In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise. (Eph. 1:13) 
However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. (1 Tim. 1:15-16) 
I could list many more verses, but you get the point. If our theological system forces us to say that regeneration (i.e. receiving the Spirit of life) precedes faith, then our theological system forces us to stretch the text quite a bit.