John Fletcher on Being “Dead in Sin”

In my interactions with Calvinists the conversation always seems to go back to their conception of being dead in sin. I can show them in Scripture where it plainly teaches that faith must precede regeneration but such efforts often amount to nothing as they will ignore the Biblical evidence and fall back on the unregenerate being “dead in sin” and hence the necessity of regeneration before faith. The question I have always wanted answered is why we must understand “dead in sin” as meaning impossible to respond to God’s grace without first being regenerated. The Calvinist will then draw the analogy of the inability of a dead corpse. A corpse cannot hear or see; therefore, one who is dead in sin cannot hear the gospel or see their need for Christ until they first experience a resurrection [i.e. regeneration]. We will soon discover that there are several problems with this approach.

John Fletcher was an early Methodist preacher and theologian. He was close friends with John Wesley. John Fletcher’s character mirrored the doctrines of holiness he preached and wrote about. He wrote one of the strongest polemics against Calvinism ever written called “Checks to Antinomianism“. To my knowledge no Calvinist has ever tried to refute the strong arguments he put forth in “Checks”. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to get your hands on this book today, and if you do you will pay a high price. Ages Digital Library has provided his entire “Works” on The Wesleyan Heritage Collection CD. There is a link to this CD-Rom in the right column of this blog. Below is a small excerpt regarding the Calvinist conception of being “dead in sins” which plainly controls their thinking with regards to the necessity of regeneration preceding faith. In my next post I will make some further comments on this subject and carefully consider what I believe to be Fletcher’s most significant argument. He writes,

I. Availing yourself of St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians and Colossians, “You hath He quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; and you, being dead in your sins, hath he quickened together with him;” you dwell upon the absurdity of “expecting living actions from a dead corpse,” or living works from a dead soul.

1. I wonder at the partiality of some persons. If we assert, that “strong believers are dead TO sin,” they tell us very properly that such are not so dead, but they may commit sin if they please, or if they are off their watch. But if we say, that “many who are dead IN sin, are not so dead, but in the strength imparted, together with the Light that enlightens every man, they may leave off some of their sins if they please,” we are exclaimed against as using metaphysical distinctions. and dead must absolutely mean impotent as a corpse.

2. The word dead, &c, is frequently used in the Scriptures to denote a particular degree of helplessness and inactivity, very short of the total helplessness of a corpse. We read of the deadness of Sarah’s womb, and of Abraham’s body being dead; and he must be a strong Calvinist indeed, who, from such expressions, peremptorily asserts, that Sarah’s dead womb was as unfit for conception, and Abraham’s dead body for generation, as if they both had been “dead corpses.” Christ writes to the Church of Sardis, “I know thy works; thou hast a name to live, and art dead.” But it is evident, that dead as they were, something remained alive in them, though like the smoking flax, it was “ready to die.” Witness the words that follow: “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die.” Now, sir, if the dead Sardians could work for life, by “strengthening the things” belonging to the Christian “which remained” in them’ is it modest to decide è cathedra, that the dead Ephesians and Colossians could not as well work for life, by “strengthening the things that remained and were ready to die,” under their own dispensation? Is it not evident that a beam of “the Light of the world” still shone in their hearts, or that the Spirit still strove with them? If they had absolutely quenched him, would he have helped them to believe? And if they had not, was not there something of “the Light which enlightens every man” remaining in them; with which they both could, and did work for life, as well as the dead Sardians?

3. The absurdity of always measuring the meaning of the word dead, by the idea of a dead corpse, appears from several other scriptures St. Paul, speaking of one who grows wanton against Christ, says, “She that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.” Now, if this means that she is entirely devoid of every degree of spiritual life, what becomes of Calvinism? Suppose all that live in pleasure are as dead to God as corpses, what became of the everlasting life of Lot, when he lived in pleasure with his daughters? of David with Bathsheba, and Solomon with his idolatrous wives? When the same apostle observes to the Romans, that their “body was dead because of sin,” did he really mean they were already dead corpses? And when he adds, “Sin revived and I died,” did Calvinian death really pass upon him? Dead as he was, could not he complain like the dry bones, and ask, “Who shall deliver me from this body of death?”

Again: when our Lord says to Martha, “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,” does he not intimate, that there is a work consistent with the degree of death of which he speaks? A believing out of death into life? A doing the work of God for life, yea, for eternal life?

4. From these and the like scriptures, it is evident, that there are different degrees of spiritual death, which you perpetually confound.

(1.) Total death, or a full departure of the Holy Spirit. This passed upon Adam, and all mankind in him, when he lost God’s moral image, fell into selfish nature, and was buried in sin, guilt, shame, and horror.

(2.) Death freely visited with a seed of life in our fallen representative, and of course in all his posterity, during the day of their visitation.

(3.) Death oppressing this living seed, and holding it “in unrighteousness,” which was the death of the Ephesians and Colossians.

(4.) Death prevailing again over the living seed, after it had been powerfully quickened, and burying it in sin and wickedness. This was the death of David during his apostasy, and is still that of all who once believed, but now live in Laodicean ease or Sardian pleasure. And,

(5.) The death of confirmed apostates, who, by absolutely quenching “the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus,” the second Adam, are fallen into the miserable state of nature and total helplessness, in which the first Adam was when God preached to him the Gospel of his quickening grace. These are said by St. Jude to be twice dead; dead by Adam’s total apostasy from God, and dead by their own personal and final apostasy from “the Light of the world.” (Fletcher’s Works, Vol.1 pp. 199-201, The Wesleyan Heritage Collection)

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15 Responses

  1. Question:

    “A Check to Antinomianism” was four volumes long. Which one dealt with Calvinism? Also, there are copies available on http://www.abebooks.com

  2. The four volume set is called “Checks to Antinomianism”. From what I have read so far every volume deals with Calvinism to some extant. Ages Library divides Flether’s “Works” into four volumes which include more of his writings than just his “Checks”.

    Thanks for the resource. Many of the volumes at http://www.abebooks.com that are affordable are in poor condition.

    I recommend the Wesleyan Heritage Collection because it has Fletchers “Works”, Wesley’s “Works”, and the “Works” of James Arminius. It also has numerous commentaries by early Methodist writers like Adam Clarke, as well as excellent theology volumes by Richard Watson and Thomas Ralston. All for what you would probably pay for a beat up set of “Checks to Antinomianism” somewhere else. The only criticism I have is some poor editing in some of the works [spelling errors etc.].

  3. You can download, for free, the whole works of John Fletcher on Internet Archive.

    http://www.archive.org/details/fletchersworks01fletuoft

    http://www.archive.org/details/fletchersworks02fletuoft

    http://www.archive.org/details/fletchersworks03fletuoft

    http://www.archive.org/details/fletchersworks04fletuoft

    Nos just Fletcher’s works, but 3 volumes of Christian Theology, of William Burt Pope, some volumes of the whole works of Richard Watson, including Theologica Institutes, Discourses on the Five Points of Daniel Whitby, seven volumes of the works of Wesley, etc.

    Hope you enjoy them!

  4. pca,

    Thanks for the links.

  5. To assert that other verses have different meanings for the word “dead” (which, even before reading this article I would admit is correct) does not in-and-of-itself prove that “death” in Ephesians 2:1 is speaking about a certain degree of inability. I’d like to read part 2 of this blog article to see if Fletcher can assert his interpretation credibly.

    Remember, it’s not enough to cast doubt on your opponent’s views, you must also strongly defend your own if you want to convince a reader. From this blog article all I can see that Fletcher has done is cast doubt, not defend his own interpretation of Ephesians 2:1.

    I’ll have to read part 2 later.

  6. On the other hand, Christopher, how can you be so certain that your interpretation of the word “dead” in Ephesians 2:1 is correct?

    A good point, Christopher. I’ll be thinking about it some more.

  7. Hey Chris,

    You said,

    Remember, it’s not enough to cast doubt on your opponent’s views, you must also strongly defend your own if you want to convince a reader.

    You might also like to check out my posts “Does Regeneration Precede Faith?”, and “Does Jesus teach that Regeneration Precedes Faith in John 3:3,6” as well as my two posts on John 6:44. I think you will find the positive arguments you are looking for there, and I would love to here what you think of them.

  8. By the way, kangaroodort, that’s a very witty nickname 😉 I can appreciate why Arminianistic Christians would consider the Synod of Dordt a kangaroo court.

  9. You might also like to check out my posts “Does Regeneration Precede Faith?”, and “Does Jesus teach that Regeneration Precedes Faith in John 3:3,6” as well as my two posts on John 6:44. I think you will find the positive arguments you are looking for there, and I would love to here what you think of them.

    Yeah I’ve been trying to think very critically about regeneration preceding faith; it seems impossible to think that the Scriptures say it comes after faith and impossible to think that they say it comes before. Simultaneous? I’m thinking it out, praying about it, working through it.

  10. Chris,

    I think it should be noted that neither Arminians nor Calvinists generally view the order in a temporal fasion. I believe that temporally, faith and regeneration do occur simultaneously. The issue is the logical order, which is still very important. So without any temporal consideration we could state the opposing views as follows:

    Arminianism:

    The moment someone believes [as a necessary condition] he or she is both justified and regenerated.

    Calvinism:

    The moment someone is regenerated he or she believes [as a necessary “effect” of regeneration] and is justified.

  11. […] Fletcher on Being “Dead in Sin” […]

  12. […] John Fletcher on Being “Dead in Sin” […]

  13. Faith MUST precede regeneration. Faith is the exercise, the response, of the creature, to the truth presented by the Spirit of God. Regeneration is the change that takes place in the creature upon de condition of true, unfeigned faith. All this hair splitting of theologians is so confusing. The fact that man can hear, understand, and respond to the overtures of grace, shows that all this mumbo-jumbo about being ‘dead like a corpse’ is nothing but mystical smoke. Whether you are ‘dead’ or ‘alive’ no creature can attain to the knowledge of God unles He Himself takes the initiative. So it is not a matter of ‘being dead like a corpse’ or not, but simply of the absolute dependence we have on our Creator taking the initiative to reveal Himsel to us, without that divine action no creature, dead or alive would ever get a single glimpse of Him who lives forever.

  14. I am a novice to theses discussions, but have found the exchange here interesting and helpful. It seems to me that the question of whether faith or regeneration precedes is probably God’s business more than ours. I am quite content to know that the simple message of the Gospel gives dead men life, just as the dry bones in the valley heard the Word of the Lord and rose up. Whether one is “dead like a corpse” or dead by spiritual separation from God, he remains lost unless someone speaks the Word of the Lord to him. And whether one has life and then faith or faith and then life, both are inseparable from the story of the cross. May the good news be preached everywhere, and may the Spirit enable and empower whom He will.

  15. “I believe that temporally, faith and regeneration do occur simultaneously. ” It can’t be. As per John 1:12 believers receive the “power to become sons of God” at the point of faith. They do not become sons of God at the point of faith, but only receive the power to do so. When do they use this power? See Galatians 3:26-27, where Paul says We are sons of God by faith in Christ Jesus because as many of us as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. The power that is received at the point of faith is unused until baptism, wherein a man is born “of water and of the Spirit,” of water because he is baptized into water in the name of the Trinity, and of the Spirit because he therein receives the Holy Spirit as a gift, as Peter says in Acts 2:38 “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, every one of you, for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit….” That combo of water and Spirit is only found in baptism, and the power for baptism to regenerate is only found in one who has already believed and thereby received (as John 1:12 says) power to become a son of God.

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