A Closer Look at Spiritual Death

Before I left for preaching school, I remember going back to my high school and having a frank conversation with one of my teachers about faith. He was from a denominational group that followed the teachings of John Calvin, a 16th century Reformation theologian whose beliefs helped define both my teacher’s denomination and much of the broader Protestant movement. In keeping with Calvinistic theology, my teacher believed that mankind was totally and hereditarily depraved and thus was incapable of responding to God. However, as Calvin taught, he believed that a select few had been chosen and miraculously empowered by God to be able to respond to salvation and become Christians. So, for him, salvation wasn’t about man’s choice but about God’s.

I can’t remember how, but our conversation got on to the topic of salvation. I remember comparing God’s plan of salvation to a lifeline thrown to a man on the sea who was in danger of drowning. If God had not cast out the lifeline of the Gospel, sinners in need of salvation would be helpless, just like a person alone in the middle of an ocean. Still, sinners must respond to and claim the opportunity God has given them through the Gospel, just as a struggling swimmer must grab ahold of a lifeline to avoid drowning.

“Your illustration doesn’t work,” my teacher said. “You believe that sin brings about spiritual death, right?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Well, there you go. A lost person isn’t in danger of drowning; he’s already at the bottom of the sea! He can’t do anything to save himself.”

I remember being pretty frustrated with the way my illustration was totally coopted by my teacher to prove his point instead of mine, but I didn’t really know how to respond other than to say that he wasn’t right. I knew that the Bible taught that “the wages of sin is death” and that when you sin “your iniquities have separated you from God” (Romans 6:23). I had been taught that God’s warning to Adam regarding eating from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” namely, “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die,” referenced spiritual death (Genesis 2:17). On top of all this, Paul said that the Ephesians “were dead in trespasses and sins” prior to becoming Christians (Ephesians 2:1). It all seemed to paint a picture that supported my teacher’s beliefs.

Sometime after that conversation, a dear older brother in Christ pointed out something that hadn’t occurred to me that day. You see, the Bible uses pretty clear language to describe death. James said, “The body without the spirit is dead,” speaking about physical death, or, for the sake of this discussion, the first death (James 2:26; cf. Hebrews 9:27). What does the Bible say about a spiritual or second death? It says, “But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8). Like the first (physical) death, the second (spiritual) death involves a separation, but instead of the body and the spirit being separated, what is separated is the spirit and God. The important thing to realize though in light of Revelation 21:8 is that this death only occurs when a person finds himself/herself in Hell.  

How can we make sense of Revelation 21:8 in light of the earlier texts that I mentioned regarding sin and death? In the texts I mentioned before and several others, the Bible helps us to see the seriousness of sin and its concrete connection to death. Without God, a person truly is as good as dead and can even be thought of as being dead (as in Ephesians 2:1), because, in such a state, there is no hope (Ephesians 2:12). However, as the Bible makes abundantly clear, this hopeless state is not a final one. To return to my illustration, a person isn’t at the bottom of the sea if he/she is alive; the situation really is more like a person in real danger of drowning than of one already dead. Adam wasn’t eternally separated from God when he ate the forbidden fruit; in fact, it was God who sought him out and made provision for mankind’s salvation (Genesis 3:9, 15).

All of this probably isn’t a “silver bullet” to Calvinistic theology and those persuaded by it like my teacher was, but it is helpful to know that the Bible’s teaching on spiritual death is not at variance with concepts like free will and an individual’s responsibility to respond to God’s gracious invitation of salvation. In fact, unlike Calvinistic theology, it’s totally in harmony with an abundance of Bible verses that presume that we can and must individually choose to serve God. Salvation is about God’s choosing in that He paid its price and set its terms, but it is also about man’s choosing in that man can and must respond to receive it. Until Jesus returns, the Gospel offers man the same opportunity Moses offered the Israelites over 3000 years ago: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org

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