Fletcher on Being “Dead in Sin” Part 2

Fletcher demonstrated that the Scriptures use the word “dead” in more than one way, and to understand the term “dead” with regards to spiritual issues as meaning dead as a physical corpse renders many of these passages, like Rev. 3:1-4, nonsensical. Fletcher also demonstrates the inconsistency in Calvinist thought between what it means to be “dead in sin” and “dead to sin”. He states:

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.

I believe this to be Fletcher’s most significant argument. Calvinists will often appeal to Eph. 2:1, “you were dead in your trespasses and sins”, and Col. 2:13 which also speaks of being “dead in your transgressions”. From these passages the Calvinist deduces that one can no more respond to God’s grace than a dead corpse can respond to outside stimuli. It is said that there must first be a resurrection [spiritual regeneration] before one can respond to God’s gracious offer of salvation. We are then told that the regenerated person will “freely” choose Christ according to this new nature. There are several problems with this Calvinist argument.

1) When the Scripture speaks of death it is speaking of the separation of the spirit from the body. To be “dead in sin” is to be separated from a holy God who cannot tolerate sin. Our sin has caused separation from God and has effected our spiritual death (Rom. 6:21; James 1:14, 15). The only cure for our pitiful state is to come into vital union with the only source of life: Jesus Christ (Jn. 15).

2) The Scripture speaks of the believer as being “dead to sin” and a “slave to righteousness” while acknowledging that those who are so dead are still capable of sinning. Paul draws a strict parallel between being “slaves to sin” and “slaves to righteousness” and being “dead in sin” and “dead to sin” in Rom. 6:12-23. Since the believer who is “dead to sin” and a “slave to righteousness” can still yield to the influences of the sinful nature, the world, and Satan, there is no reason to believe that one who is “dead in sin” and a “slave to sin” is incapable of responding to the gracious working of the Holy Spirit without first being regenerated. The Spirit of God bridges the gap of deathly separation and enables the sinner to yield to Christ.

3) There is only one way that a sinner can experience the new life, and that is by union with Jesus Christ. Just as surely as separation from God caused spiritual death, union with Christ is the only way that the sinner can experience new life. It is impossible to have life outside of Jesus Christ. This poses a serious problem with Calvinist doctrine. Calvinism has sinners being regenerated before coming to be in union with Christ. We can only experience the benefits of the cross, however, through union with Christ. Through that union His death becomes our death, His life becomes our life, and His blood cleanses us from all unrighteousness. None of this can happen prior to union with Him. The Bible is clear that we come to be in union with Christ through faith. Consider the following passages:

But God being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no man may boast. (Eph. 2:4-9)

Many Calvinists like to quote portions of the above text because they believe it supports their conclusions that regeneration precedes faith and that faith is a “gift” that God irresistibly gives to the elect. When one reads these passages together such a conclusion cannot be drawn. All of the gracious spiritual benefits of verses 4-7, including the spiritual resurrection described in verse 6, are “through faith” (verse 8). The grammar of verses 8 and 9 do not allow for the interpretation Calvinists often assign to them. The “gift” of God does not refer to “faith” but to the gracious gift of God’s salvation. To interpret the gift as faith would render verse 9 nonsensical. It would essentially say that “faith” is not “of works” which would be a meaningless statement of the obvious.

All of these spiritual blessings are said to be “with” and “in” Christ [verses 5-7] which is a recurrent theme in Ephesians and in all Pauline writings. It is especially prominent in Ephesians Chapters 1 and 2. Ephesians 1:13 explains how one comes to be in union with Christ and Ephesians 3:17 tells us how Christ comes to dwell in our hearts. In both cases this union is by faith.

This same thought is paralleled in Col. 2:9-12:

For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. (see also Rom. 6:4)

Again the theme of union with Christ is obvious. We can also see that our spiritual resurrection is “through faith” in the working [or power] of God, who raised [Christ] from the dead”.

It is undeniable that the unregenerate need a spiritual resurrection. It is also undeniable that this resurrection comes by the faith that brings us into saving union with Christ, whereby we can experience all the benefits of His death and resurrection.

Conclusion:

There is no Biblical reason to accept the Calvinist understanding that being “dead in sin” means that one must first be regenerated before being capable of exercising saving faith. This does not discount the need for a powerful working of the Holy Spirit on the unregenerate, but demonstrates that this working does not result in regeneration until the sinner first meets the condition of faith. When the sinner responds in faith to the gracious working and enabling of the Holy Spirit, he or she is immediately grafted into Christ and receives all the benefits of His atonement, which includes regeneration.

I would also like to point out a problem with the Calvinist insistence that one who is regenerated will “freely” choose to put faith in Christ. I believe that it would be more honest for the Calvinist to say that God “causes” the regenerate to put faith in Christ. To say that one freely chooses is misleading. Most Calvinists understand such “freedom” in a compatiblist sense in which we “freely” do what God causes us to do [whether directly or indirectly through circumstances, etc.]. If the Calvinist wants to insist that one freely chooses to put faith in Christ in a libertarian sense [without being caused of necessity], then it quickly becomes apparent that one could not guarantee that the newly regenerated individual would choose to put faith in Christ.

The Calvinist wants us to believe that once a person is regenerate he or she will naturally choose according to the new regenerated nature. The problem with this explanation is that Calvinists also affirm that one is never completely free of the sinful nature until after death. If this is the case then the newly regenerated person can now choose to either yield to the new nature or the old sinful nature. This would mean that there would be no way to be sure that a regenerated person would choose to follow Christ if one is free in a libertarian sense. He or she could choose instead to yield to the sinful nature which still dwells within. The only way to be certain that the regenerate person would choose Christ is to admit that God must irresistibly cause him or her to do so. If that is the case then Calvinist should be honest enough to drop the “freely choose” rhetoric.

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)