Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
Dead in Sin
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins
Question 25 of the Larger Catechism asks, “Wherein consisteth the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?” It gives the answer, “The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consisteth in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of that righteousness wherein he was created, and the corruption of his nature, whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually; which is commonly called Original Sin, and from which do proceed all actual transgressions.”
Back when we looked at Question 17, we saw how the Westminster divines delineated the image of God, which man is, into its broad and narrow aspects. There we noted that when man fell into sin, though he entirely lost the narrow aspects of God’s image: pure knowledge, perfect righteousness and holiness; he retained the broad aspects of having reasonable souls (see also WLC 17, 27, 37), though in his fallen state he uses all of his rational powers for sin and self and not for God. We also noted how important it is with respect to human dignity and morality that Christian theology maintain and affirm that fallen human beings still bear God’s image and so are rightly held responsible by God each time they violate that image by every successive sin. Otherwise, if man is no longer in any sense the image of God then he cannot be held accountable to God’s commandments any more than animals. One man killing another would be like a lion killing a zebra. In fact there would be only one sin chargeable to the entire fallen race: the sin of Adam; for after that, man being no more made in the image of God in any way, would cease to be responsible to keep the moral law of God. Sin would thus have fully destroyed and defeated mankind, but Scripture shows that such is not the case. Thus, the Westminster divines assert not the destruction of man’s nature but its corruption. We are “dead in sins” but we are not dead!
So what does it mean to have a corrupt nature? The Catechism notes man is “utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good.” To be indisposed is to be unwilling. Fallen man still has a will but he has not the slightest inclination of will towards anything that is spiritually good. Many unconverted people have strong wills towards physical good: what is good or healthy for the body. Likewise, many unbelievers expend every effort and desire toward intellectual good, and become as learned or as skilled as they can in learning and knowing the things of this world. But not one of them has ever had even a single drop of will or desire for what would be good for their souls or glorifying to God. Any good that they desire is always for some ultimately rebellious end, it is never done in humble submission to God. Here fallen man has been “disabled.” A disabled vehicle cannot run at all. It cannot travel one inch under its own power. So also is fallen man with respect to spiritual goodness. He cannot take a single step towards the slightest aspect of it. In fact he is made opposite to all spiritual good. Rather than having a natural inclination to things like humility, selflessness, honesty, and generosity; all human beings are naturally proud, uncaring, deceptive, and greedy. Just spend ten minutes in a nursery with toddlers and you will see the fallen nature of man on full display. No child has ever had to be taught or forced to say “Mine!” “No!” or “Me first!” But every child must be repeatedly admonished to share, to wait their turn, or to obey the rules.
So to be dead in sins does not mean that we no longer have souls or that our souls are deceased, the unconverted soul is active and functioning. The powers of the soul remain, but they have no spiritually good focus or attraction. In fact the Westminster divines note that fallen man is “wholly inclined to all evil and that continually.” Here, they are asserting that there is no evil to which our souls will not tend towards and find desirable given the right conditions. Thus, we should never look down on someone else’s sin as if to think “Well, I would never do that.” The fact is, we would do any and every sin, the moment we found ourselves in a situation where we thought that particular sin would get us what we most desired. Individual sinful acts are merely the fruit of the corrupt tree of fallen man. Each one of us is that corrupt tree. We are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners. Having no inclination towards God but a penchant for every evil is what it means to be dead in sin. Praise God that as He pleases, “dead” sinners can be born again in Jesus Christ to a life towards God that will continue to grow even as we more and more die to our will to sin!