(Eph. 2:1, 5) Does this verse support the Calvinist doctrine of total inability?

CLAIM: Paul writes, “You were dead in your trespasses and sins… even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Eph. 2:1, 5). Calvinists sometimes argue that our human condition is “dead” in the sense of having a total inability to respond to God. Like Lazarus in the cave (Jn. 11), we needed God to impart spiritual life and call us from this corpse-like, dead state. Calvinists often argue, “Is a dead person able to respond to God or make himself alive? No! Therefore, God had to give us spiritual life before we could believe and respond to him.” John Calvin stated that this is “a real and present death.”[1] Wood states that this expression for death is not “merely figurative… The most vital part of man’s personality—the spirit—is dead to the most important factor in life—God.”[2] Is this the case?

RESPONSE: This cannot refer to corpse-like death or total inability. Instead, this refers to alienation and separation from God and total depravity. There are a number of reasons for holding this view:

First, the IMMEDIATE CONTEXT demonstrates that Paul is thinking of death in terms of SEPARATION. In the subsequent verses, Paul describes these “dead” believers as being separated or alienated from God: “Remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:12-13). Later, Paul writes, “[The Gentiles were] being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (Eph. 4:18). All of these terms describe separation—not corpse-like death.

Second, the GREATER CONTEXT of the NT uses the term “dead” for people who can still do certain things. For instance, Jesus told a man to “allow the dead to bury their dead” (Mt. 8:22; cf. Lk. 9:60). If “death” means total inability, then how can they do anything (including burying physically dead people)? Paul spoke of widows who were “dead even while [they] live” (1 Tim. 5:6). Jesus used the term “dead” to refer to the believers at Sardis (Rev. 3:1).

Third, the GREATER CONTEXT of the NT uses the term dead to refer to SEPARATION. In the parable of the prodigal son, the father says, “This son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found” (Lk. 15:24). A number of observations can be made regarding this passage: (1) This is a soteriological passage; (2) the father in the parable uses the term “dead” in a metaphorical sense—not a literal sense; and (3) the father parallels being “dead” with being “lost” or separated from himself.

Fourth, even some Reformed authors agree that being “dead” refers to SEPARATION. For instance, F.F. Bruce understands the term death to refer to the sinner being “severed and alienated from God, the source of true life.”[3]

Finally, are we really to believe that non-Christians are so corpse-like dead that they cannot respond to God’s own call in the gospel? After all, the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). Are people so dead that they cannot even respond to “the power of God” himself? Humans do not seek God on their own (Rom. 3:11), but can they seek a God who is presently calling and seeking after them? Adam and Eve could hear God’s words in the Garden (Gen. 3:9) and responded to him (Gen. 3:10). How much more should non-Christians respond to God’s call through the gospel message?

For more on this subject, see our earlier article, “Calvinism and Arminianism.”

[1] John Calvin, Ephesians 2:1 (in location).

[2] Wood, A. S. (1981). Ephesians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 33). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[3] Emphasis mine. Bruce, F. F. (1984). The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (p. 280). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.