Something we don’t always like to talk about, as Christians, is spiritual death, damnation, the second death, etc. It’s not very exciting, it doesn’t sound positive, and most of us today have a cultural abhorrence of the prospect of scaring someone into believing the Gospel. After all, the Gospel is good news, it should be a message of joy and relief, not of fearful doom and gloom.
But of course, the existence of “good news” presupposes a situation of bad news. And that’s what spiritual death is. I recently came across a quote from Philoxenus of Mabbug, a Syrian Christian from the late 400’s and early 500’s. He was known as something of a controversialist in his day, particularly as the fourth ecumenical council slammed down, causing the Oriental Orthodox Christians to begin to separate from the rest of Church. Nevertheless, Philoxenus was a respected bishop and scholar who translated much of the Bible into Syriac and wrote a great deal of practical devotional material that has been valued by his supporters and critics alike. In one of his sermons, he wrote:
Anyone who is assiduous in reading the Word of God but does not put it into practice would be bound to hear himself accused by the reading itself. So he would necessarily deserve an even more serious condemnation for despising and dishonoring what he was reading every day. Sadly he is like a dead person, like a soulless corpse.
Even if a thousand trumpets were to sound in the ears of the dead, they would never hear them. That is how it is with a soul that is dead in sin, a soul that has lost all memory of God, a soul that never thinks of God all day: it does not hear the sound of the Word that is calling it. The trumpet of the Word does not wake it. It is sunk in the sleep of death and this sleep is pleasant to it.
Being a dead soul, it is not conscious of its state and is not moved to ask for life. It is like one who has died of natural causes, or who on the level of practical obedience to the Word of God has committed suicide. It does not suffer as a result of its death and the idea of asking for a return to life does not enter its head.
The soul is dead when it never thinks of God, when it has lost all memory of God. Its powers of discernment are dead. Its desires for the things of heaven are dead. Its nature is alive, but its will is dead and its freedom has disappeared.
This forms an apt description of what is called the doctrine of Total Depravity – the sad reality that we human beings are so dead in our sin that nothing in our entire being is left unaffected. Without God’s intervention we are dead, we’re “not conscious” of our condition and therefore are never “moved to ask for life.” That is, we don’t have the ability even to ask Christ to save us, much less choose Christ as our Lord and Savior.
This is an important reminder for us today because the way we often talk about salvation and evangelism makes it sound as though that all we have to do is present the good news of Jesus Christ to an unbeliever and challenge them to make a choice. This is an unbiblical oversimplification; there is more going on behind the scenes that we all-too-easily overlook. No one comes to Jesus unless he or she is first drawn by the Father. This is because we are dead in our sins, and need the intervention of God’s grace in order to recognize our condition and believe in Jesus and be saved.
Now, a Calvinist will explain that this happens by the decree of God the Father in eternity past, is made possible by the atonement of Christ on the Cross, and brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit on the person to be saved. Meanwhile an Arminian will explain that this happens by God’s initiative of granting prevenient grace. In either case, the human being starts out in a condition of utter death and helplessness without God taking the first step.
Additionally, this also helps to explain the often-uncomfortable reality of hell and damnation. We are all spiritually dead to begin with. Unless we are moved to new life, we stay spiritually dead. God doesn’t have to “send” anyone to hell on Judgement Day, they’ll in effect already be there. So as we go about our teaching and preaching concerning salvation, and our work of evangelization, we should remember the reality of spiritual death and pray earnestly that God will go before us in all our doings, and that His Spirit will enable others to see and respond to Him. For, as a thousand trumpets cannot wake the dead, neither can a thousand evangelists convert the non-Christian. It is the work of God, through and through, so that none may boast in his own works, but in the grace of God.