Do you remember the first time you discovered what “dead” was? I was about ten, I suppose. I had a Red Ryder BB gun (complete with solid wood stock and leather tassel hanging from a ring). I was a pretty good shot. Too good sometimes. One afternoon at my grandmother’s house in Salisbury I took aim at a bird and fired. To my surprise, it came tumbling out of the tree and fell to the ground. It was dead. I killed it. I couldn’t get it to move, though I tried a quite a while. That day, I think I learned what it meant to be dead.
Most of us who consider ourselves rational do not need to be reminded of the quality of death. It surrounds us everyday and has touched our lives in very close and personal ways. If there’s one thing we know as human beings is this: dead means dead.
However, we easily forget that when we enter the world of the Bible. The Bible uses that word “dead” to describe humanity on more than a few occasions. Our heads tell us that “dead=dead” but our hearts object and begin to question our rationality. Consider a common approach to a very familiar passage: Ephesians 2:1-5:
1And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.
Paul basically repeats these words in his letter to Colossians. He wrote, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” (Col 2:13).
In this passage, we see the following:
The sinner is “dead in . . . transgressions and sins.” The text is pretty clear here. The Greek word is “nekros” which is the same word used for physical death. Unbelievers are obviously alive physically, emotionally, intellectually, but, at the same time, they are dead. As Paul puts it, they were dead, even while, in the next verse they lived and followed the ways of this world. In out attempt to ease the meaning, we have come up with three optional definitions:
- Man is well: Some say sin is a quaint yet old-fashioned way of seeing things, believing that we have evolved past such notions. It is hard to find one in the church today who believes such.
- Man is sick: Perhaps, man is even mortally sick. Realists rightly observe that if people are as healthy as the former believe, then how do we explain all that is happening around us? Realists believe that something is basically wrong with man. Still, the situation is not hopeless - bad or even desperate maybe – but not hopeless.
- Man is dead: Man is dead, at least as far as his relationship with God is concerned. Like a corpse, man is unable to make the first move toward life. In the same way, a man dead spiritually cannot make the first move toward LIFE - God. The dead man will never think the first thought toward God or even respond to God – UNLESS God brings the spiritually dead corpse back to life. Just as the blind man needs new eyes to see, the dead man needs life. The Apostle Paul says this is EXACTLY what God does (see verse 5).
The sinner is “enslaved.” We follow the “ruler of the kingdom of the air.” We are enslaved to our own fleshly desires – SIN. Peter wrote that “a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him” (2 Peter 2:19).
The sinner “actively practices evil.” The nonbeliever is spiritually dead but is also physically alive, walking around in sinful rebellion against God. Paul says we “followed the ways of this world ... gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.” A reasonable image would be a ZOMBIE from bad horror-movies.
The sinner is “by nature an object of God’s wrath.” Most people hardly take this seriously, instead saying things like “I can’t believe in an all-loving God who would …” But if sin is as bad as the Bible says it is, the most natural thing in the world is for the wrath of a holy God to rise up against it.
Unregenerate man is neither sick nor ailing. He is dead, desiccated, rotting. The typical evangelistic understanding is that man is floating in the ocean, almost drowning. He is just about ready to "go down for the third time." But, you the witness, if you can just toss the life preserver in the right direction, he might be able to put just a finger on it, grab on and be saved.
The only problem with that illustration is that it does not square with the Bible's description of man. He is not drowning; he is dead! He is not struggling on the surface waiting for someone to toss a life preserver his way. He is laying on the ocean floor - dead. He does not need a life vest - he needs to be brought back to life.
Therefore, the preacher and the witness must see himself or herself as speaking in a graveyard, not making visits in a hospital. Is the witness preaching to people who can reason their way into the kingdom? Then salvation is ultimately up to the preacher and the listener. Is he preaching to people who can initiate their salvation? Then he better make a good show of it – a man’s eternity is at stake. Or, is he preaching to dead men? Then, his confidence will rest squarely on the work of God and nothing else. Our audience is spiritually dead and only God can bring life as He works through the power of His Word.