An Arminian Response to John Hendryx on the Meaning and Implications of Spiritual Death Part 1: What Does it Mean to be “Dead in Sin?”

, posted by Ben Henshaw

Calvinist John Hendryx takes a “synergist” to task in an article entitled Can We Make an Exact Analogy Between Unbelievers’ who are “Dead in Sin” and Believers who are “Dead to Sin”?(Excerpts From Debate in Which Synergist Attempts to Overthrow Doctrine of Total Depravity).  We will use this exchange as a basis for interacting with Hendryx’s main arguments concerning the unique Calvinist understanding of what it means to be “dead in sin” and the theological implications thereof.  The portions of John’s article will be marked by block quotes.  My interactions will follow.

Synergists often claim that since believers are “dead to sin” but can still commit sin that we can draw a direct corresponding analogy which says unbelievers who are “dead in sin” are thus morally able to believe the gospel, apart from the grace of God alone. The following are excerpts from a debate when we “rabbit trailed” on to this issue. The synergist I was debating brought this up as an attempt to prove that when the Bible speaks of a [sic.] those who are “dead in sin” it does not mean “dead” to the same extent that the Reformed view believes it to. In other words it is an attempt to debunk the doctrine of total depravity (That is, to disprove the doctrine that by his fall, man has made himself incapable of obedience unto life since he cannot convert Himself without the transforming work of the Holy Spirit):

John is off to a bad start here.  First, it is not primarily an issue of “dead” being to the “same extent” as Calvinists believe, but what “dead in sin” is actually supposed to mean in the Biblical record.  So it is not so much the extent, but the proper meaning of the phrase “dead in sin” that is at issue here.  John Hendryx assumes the standard Calvinist line that “dead in sin” has specific reference to the inability of a physical corpse.  Unfortunately for Hendryx, the Bible nowhere draws such a correlation.  The Bible never speaks of deadness in sin in the context of inability.  So from the start, Hendryx is question begging in an unbiblical manner, relying on Calvinist definitions rather than Biblical ones.

Secondly, challenging the Calvinist meaning of “dead in sin” does not necessarily equate to “an attempt to debunk the doctrine of total depravity.”  Nor does it amount to the claim that “unbelievers who are “dead in sin” are thus morally able to believe the gospel, apart from the grace of God alone.”  Arminians (like myself) fully affirm the doctrine of total depravity and the need for God’s preceding (prevenient) grace while rejecting the Calvinist insistence that regeneration precedes faith.  That is the issue at stake here.  The Calvinist understanding of “dead in sin” is the fundamental basis for their claim that regeneration must precede faith.  This is based on the belief that to be dead in sin means that one is as incapable of performing any action as a physical corpse.  Just as a corpse cannot see, hear or respond to anything, those who are dead in sin supposedly cannot hear the gospel, see Christ or respond to the gospel in faith until they are first resurrected to new life (regenerated).  Only after this spiritual resurrection can the person respond to the gospel in faith (and in Calvinism this response of faith is guaranteed and caused by regeneration).

While Arminians affirm inability to respond to the gospel outside of God’s enabling power and grace, we do not see that enabling power as regeneration for two important reasons.  First, the Bible clearly places faith before regeneration in the order of salvation (the ordo salutis).  Second, Calvinists have inaccurately portrayed the implications and meanings of the Biblical phrase and concept of deadness in sin (or spiritual death).  It is this second issue that is being addressed by the visitor.

The call for Biblical accuracy with regards to the meaning of the phrase does not mean that one is challenging total depravity or inability, nor does it mean that one denies the necessity of God’s grace in enabling sinners to believe the gospel.  Rather, it is only challenging the Calvinist understanding of “dead in sin” and the implication that total depravity can therefore only be overcome through regeneration (raising the “dead” to life).  Hendryx seems to fail to grasp this distinction throughout his response, wrongly conflating any challenge to the Calvinist understanding of deadness in sin with a denial of total depravity and the corresponding necessity for God’s enabling grace.

OK now I wanted to make just a few comments on your missive on the analogy between unbelievers who are “dead in sin” and believers who are “dead to sin”

First the visitors comments are within the dotted lines and my answer follows:


{The] unbeliever’s death in sin is somehow more complete than the believer’s death to sin (which, I think, you’d be hard-pressed to prove).
Dead is dead, right? “How do men “dead to sin” choose pornography, marital infidelity, etc.? In other words, I think monergists take the “dead in sin” phrase too far. The unregenerate man is helpless, hopeless, and hostile, to be sure.

The main point here is that “dead” can be understood in ways other than the inability of a corpse to see, hear or respond to anything.  The fact that those who are dead to sin are still able to sin illustrates this.

I propose that “dead in sin” means something less than living “as a walking cadaver in a spiritual graveyard” whose “ear is deaf to any word from heaven” (Sproul). I’ve read monergistic articles that say things like man is no more capable of responding to God’s offer of salvation than a corpse is of responding to an offer of a fine meal. I am saying that this is “extreme.” Yes, “Paul provides a graphic description of our spiritual impotence prior to regeneration” (Sproul) in Ephesians 2. But what does “dead in sin” really mean?

The visitor starts out discussing the extent of this death but ends up where the discussion really needs to take place, the actual meaning of the Biblical phrase and concept.  Even his comments on the extent seem to have the intent of properly defining the meaning of the Biblical phrase (in pointing out that the inability of a corpse doesn’t really fit with the similar phrase of being “dead to sin”, pointing us towards a different way of understanding “dead” in both phrases).

In the context of a series of verses that sounds much like Ephesians 2:1-3, Paul says that the Gentiles are “excluded from the life of God” (Ephesians 4:18). “Excluded” could also be translated “alienated.” I propose that “dead to sin” means that man is alienated, hostile, separated from God, powerless to save himself, and void of eternal life. As the apostle John wrote, “He who has the Son has the life; he who has not the Son has not the life” (I John 5:12). To be dead in sin means to be separated from God (and, thus, His life).

This is a solid Biblical description of being dead in sin.  The Biblical testimony could be extended to demonstrate that separation is the key feature of being dead in sin, and that being joined to Christ (the source of life) is the only solution.  Consider Colossians 2:11-13,

In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.  When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ [i.e. in union with Christ].” (Emphasis mine)

There are several important things to note in this passage that directly contradict Hendryx’s understanding of deadness in sin and uphold the “visitor’s” definition of a state of separation from God and Christ.

It is “in him” that we are circumcised in the putting off of the sinful nature.  Only in Christ do we have His blood applied which is the basis of our forgiveness and right standing with God (Col. 1:14; Eph. 1:7).  Only “in Christ” do we become a new person, a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:10).  Notice how Paul correlates our uncircumcised sinful nature with being dead in sin.  The solution is the same for both, to be joined to Christ (“in him”) and “raised” with Him (cf. Eph. 2:5).

How does this resurrection to new life that remedies our deadness in sin take place?  It takes place “through faith in the power of God.”  Here we have a very plain scripture describing both the deadness of sin and the solution to that deadness being the result of the faith that joins us to Christ (cf. Eph. 1:13, where the Spirit seals us in Christ through faith).  This is “death” to John Hendryx’s interpretation.  Hendryx wants to maintain that regeneration precedes faith and is necessary for faith to take place in accordance with his correlating deadness in sin with the inability of a corpse to do anything.  However, the text before us plainly teaches that our spiritual resurrection is the result of being joined to Christ and His resurrection, and this all results from our “faith in the power of God.”  Look at Eph. 2:4-10,

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions- it is by grace you have been saved.  And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus…for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith- and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast .  For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared beforehand for us to do (emphasis mine).

Even in the Ephesians passage, the only other text that uses “dead in sin” terminology, it is clear that we are raised up with Christ in new life through being joined to Him (“alive with”, “raised up with”), and all of this is “by grace…through faith”.  This parallels what we already saw in Colossians where we were said to transition from being dead in sins to attaining the new life in Christ by being raised with Christ “through faith in the power of God.”  Likewise, in Ephesians, we see that we are made alive and raised up “with Christ.”  We are also “created in Christ Jesus” just as we are new creations “in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17), and all of this is the result of being joined to Christ, which is, again, by faith (Eph. 1:13).

We will leave this for now, but Hendryx’s interpretation is continually contradicted by Scripture while the Arminian interpretation is upheld.  Hendryx’s understanding of “dead in sin” is simply not in harmony with the Biblical record.  That is big trouble for the Calvinist ordo salutis.

(The visitor continues) Death is separation. Not simply a termination or cessation of life. Physical death is the separation of spirit from body. The body ceases to live and decay begins, but the spirit continues to exist.

When Paul says, “The wages of sin is death,” he is not simply referring to the cessation of corporeal existence, is he? Therefore, spiritual death is better understood as separation from God and not in terms like, “spiritual cadaver” or “spiritual corpse.” If you use terms like that, then you have to refer to a “walking cadaver.” In other words, you’ve got to have a cadaver who still functions somehow. It’s better to just go with “separation from God.”

Separation from God and the resulting spiritual state.  Since God is the source of spiritual life, our alienation from Him both results in spiritual death and describes spiritual death.  Being dead in sin would seem to have reference to both the absence of relationship (like Paul being dead to the world and the world being dead to him, and the severed relationship between the prodigal and his father who considered his son to be “dead” during that time of separation), and the resulting state of spiritual death that naturally results from that relational separation and alienation (since our spirits can only truly live “in Him”).  As noted above, the solution to spiritual death is to be joined to the source of spiritual life (Christ), which comes by faith.

(Visitor) If unregenerate man is cadaver-like and incapable of hearing from God and believing in Him, then why aren’t regenerate men cadaver-like with
respect to sin, Satan, and this world?

Here the parallel is drawn.  The point of the parallel is primarily to show that there is something fishy about the Calvinist understanding of the word “dead” in “dead in sin.”  But John Hendryx seems to think that there is a fatal flaw in the visitor’s reasoning with regards to the illustrative comparison between “dead in sin” and “dead to sin.”  That will be the focus of our next post.

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