Calvinists love to point out that we are dead in sin. That we are dead in sin prior to conversion cannot be denied (Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13); the question has to do with what it means to be dead in sin.
Calvinist are fond of comparing spiritual death to physical death. This gives them the framework with which to press their theological conviction that regeneration precedes faith. If being dead in sin means that we are as helpless as physical corpses then we are told that we certainly can no more “hear” the gospel or “see” our need for Christ than a physical corpse can hear or see. But is there any justification for such a strict parallel between the spiritual and the physical?
Nowhere in Scripture is such a strict parallel drawn. To be dead in sins means that we are cut off from the relationship with God that is necessary for spiritual life. Our sin separates us from a holy God and causes spiritual death. This is both actual and potential. The sinner is presently “dead” because, in the absence of faith, he is not enjoying life giving union with Christ. The sinner is potentially dead because if he continues in this state he will be forever cut off from the presence of the Lord in Hell (2 Thess. 1:9).
Calvinists will often mock Arminians by saying that it is as useless to expect the dead in sin to respond to the gospel as it is to expect a bunch of corpses in the morgue to respond to the gospel. The only way that corpses could hear such preaching is for them to first be given life. In like manner, we are told, the only way that someone who is “dead” in sin could respond to the gospel would be if they are first raised to spiritual life. This supposedly proves the need for regeneration before faith.
But this leads to absurdities and demonstrates that pressing this parallel between those who are spiritually dead and physically dead is unwise and without Scriptural support. If the analogy is accurate then spiritually dead people should not be able to do anything more than corpses can do, which is plainly absurd. A single example will suffice.
The Bible plainly teaches that those who are dead in sin resist the Holy Spirit. Now have you ever seen a corpse resist something? Of course not. So if we adopt the implications of the Calvinistic definition of “dead in sin” then we must deny that anyone who is dead in sin can resist the Holy Spirit or reject the gospel (Acts 7:51; 2 Thess. 2:10; 1 John 4:10; Rom. 10:21). Corpses can’t resist or reject anything any more than they can see or hear anything. This, of course, should tell us something about the Cavinistic understanding of dead in sin. It is not Biblical.
“You’re pushing it too far” says the Calvinist. Really? And how is it that you determine how far the analogy should be pressed? We are either as spiritually useless as a physical corpse or we need to abandon the parallel. You can’t just draw from the illustration what suits your fancy and ignore the rest. That is special pleading.
Now it is important to remember that Arminians do not deny the need for God’s gracious enabling before a sinner can believe and embrace the gospel. Without divine initiative and enabling no one would ever come to God in faith. We are confident, however, that God is powerful enough to overcome our depravity and there is no need for the priority of regeneration since there is no strict parallel between the inability of a physical corpse and the inability of those dead in sin. We can therefore accept the Biblical teaching of depravity and God’s prevenient grace without needing to turn the Bible on its ear in an effort to put spiritual life before faith.
For a more detailed defense of the Arminian ordo salutis see the following posts: