John Fletcher on Being “Dead in Sin”

, posted by Patron

The content of this post was authored by Ben Henshaw and is posted on his behalf.

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]

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