Category Archives: faith

How Can a Dead Person Believe Unless God Makes Him Alive?

How can a dead person believe unless God first makes him alive? This is a question that is asked by Calvinists. Ephesians 2:1-9 states that we are dead in sin, that we are saved by grace, and that we are made alive in Christ. And there are many other passages that state we are dead in sin. Given that a physically dead corpse can’t do anything, how can a spiritually dead person do anything like believe? Could Lazarus raise himself from the dead? Of course not!

The implication here is that a corpse can’t do anything. A corpse can’t consent to being made alive, and so therefore it must be God who makes us believe. So says the Calvinist.

How does the Arminian come to a different conclusion? It’s important to start by noting that we strongly agree with what scripture teaches. Humanity is dead in sin. We are saved by grace. We are made alive in Christ. We can not believe in Christ unless God first gives us the grace to enable us to believe.

The disagreement is over the Biblical definition of what spiritual death entails, as it relates to our relationship with God. Being spiritually dead does not mean that we are corpses that have no spirit and make no decisions, as the Calvinist implies. Instead, being spiritually dead means that our sins have hardened our hearts and have separated us from God. To “be dead” in this sense is to be separated from Christ, and to not desire to be reconciled with Him. To be alive in Christ is to love Him and to be in relationship with Him. Our sins keep us separated from God and we are dependent on Him to initiate the reconciliation that enables us to believe.

The Calvinist mixes a non-religious understanding of physical death with the Bible’s definition of spiritual death. The Calvinist is defining spiritual death as a corpse with no spirit, like Lazarus was before Jesus raised him from the dead. But a spiritually dead person is not the same as a physically dead one. Prior to God’s grace, a non-believer does not seek God, but he is still physically alive, still has a spirit, and still makes decisions. After God begins to draw the non-believer through grace (and He draws everyone), then the non-believer is enabled to believe.

This kind of death (separation) first took place after the fall of Adam and Eve. After they sinned they did not immediately die physically, but they were immediately separated from God. The first thing they tried to do was to hide themselves from God (Genesis 3:8).

Speaking of non-believers, Paul describes spiritual death in Ephesians 4:18-19:

They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

Notice that in this passage the non-believer is not a corpse unable to make decisions. Non-believers are “darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.”

Jesus also describes death this way twice in the parable of the Prodigal son (Luke 15). Speaking to the servants the father says “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” To his older son the father says “we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

In the parable the son was not a corpse. He was able to make decisions, including the decision to go home. Yet, the father still said he was dead! That’s because the son was separated from relationship with his father, and was dependent on the generosity of his father in order to be reconciled. The same is true of us in our spiritual death and separation from our Father.

Jesus describes the concept of separation and its effects in John 15:5-8

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

We are alive in Christ. Separated from him we can do nothing. When we are spiritually dead, it means that we are hardened against God, and are not in relationship with Him. We are dependent on His drawing grace that enables us to believe.

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Filed under Arminianism, Calvinism, Calvinist proof texts, faith, grace, hardening

Pursuing Righteousness by Faith

What is pursuing righteousness by faith? In Romans 9, Paul speaks of pursuing righteousness by faith rather than works:

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone. –Romans 9:30-32 ESV

First, it is helpful to be familiar with the Biblical definition of righteousness. In English we often define righteousness as being moral and upright. This is something that a person must do himself. However, Paul had a different understanding than the English context. Biblically speaking, righteousness means to have a right standing before God. While righteousness also carries a sense of being moral, it is secondary and based not on ourselves, but our standing with God. Understanding this context helps to explain the problem that Israel had. Israel was trying to earn the right to stand before God by working for it with their self righteousness. In this they failed. It is impossible to earn a right standing before God by one’s self righteousness.

One might reasonably ask, how then can righteousness (right relationship) be pursued at all, given that we cannot work towards it? It is possible through faith in Jesus. Paul goes on to explain:

Romans 10:8-13: The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

We learn in this passage that a right standing before God is possible. Not by works, but by faith in Jesus Christ. The Lord saves those who call on his name. The faith described here is ongoing. It is available to everyone who believes and confesses Jesus Christ. Faith is possible for all! Not because of our goodness, but because God desires to be in right relationship with us, and is already at work in us. His word is near to us and in us.

Pursing righteousness by faith is to pursue Jesus Christ himself. We are promised that everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.

Faith is not something that a person intellectually assents to once and is then is finished with. Rather, faith is an ongoing dependence on the Lord Jesus Christ. What distinguishes faith from works? It is trust in Jesus instead of ourselves. Faith by definition is Christ centered. We trust in Jesus to keep us in right standing with the Father. We trust in Jesus to conform us to his own image.

Moses under the inspiration of the Spirit wrote about this kind of faith in Deuteronomy 30. Paul had this passage in mind and quoted parts of it in Romans 10. In Deut 30 we learn that:

  • Faith is not too difficult or beyond our reach
  • It is very near to us, in our mouth and heart so that we may obey.
  • It is set before us.
  • It is God (Christ) centered. We are to love God, walk in his ways, and to keep his decrees.
  • It is something that we can forfeit, by turning our dependence away from God or allowing ourselves to be drawn from him.
  • It is a choice. We are admonished to chose life, for the LORD is our life.

What is striking about Romans 10 and Deut 30 is that the faith described in these chapters is precisely the Arminian definition of faith. Faith is not given to a few and hidden from most. Instead, faith is possible for all, because God wants to be in a right relationship with all of his creation. Faith in Jesus is not beyond our reach because God has made it possible through his work in us. It is genuinely available to all.

Pursuing righteousness by faith is a choice to trust Jesus Christ instead of ourselves. Not because of who we are, but because of what Jesus Christ has done. He will never fail us.

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Filed under Deuteronomy 30, faith, Romans 10, Romans 9