You…hath he quickened, who were dead.—Ephesians 2:1
First, then, let me tell you what we all are by nature—we are dead! Dead is a strong word, but it is not my own coining and invention. I did not choose it. The Holy Spirit told Paul to write it down about the Ephesians: “You hath he quickened who were dead” (Eph 2:1). The Lord Jesus Christ made use of it in the parable of the prodigal son: “This my son was dead, and is alive again” (Luk 15:24, 32). You will read it also in the Epistle to the Corinthians: “One died for all, then were all dead” (2Co 5:14). Shall a mortal man be wise above that which is written? Must I not take heed to speak that which I find in the Bible, and neither less nor more?
Dead is an awful idea, and one that man is most unwilling to receive. He does not like to allow the whole extent of his soul’s disease. He shuts his eyes to the real amount of his danger. Many a one will allow me to say that naturally most people “are not quite what they ought to be—they are thoughtless, they are unsteady, they are [carefree], they are wild, they are not serious enough.” But dead? Oh, no! I must not mention it. It is going too far to say that. The idea is a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence.
My dear Reader, what we like in religion is of very little consequence. The only question is, “What is written?” What saith the Lord? God’s thoughts are not man’s thoughts, and God’s words are not man’s words (Isa 55:8). God says of every living person who is not a decided Christian—be he high or low, rich or poor, old or young—he is dead.
In this, as in everything else, God’s words are right. Nothing could be said more correct, nothing more accurate, nothing more faithful, nothing more true. Stay a little and let me reason this out with you. Come and see.
What should you have said if you had seen Joseph weeping over his father Jacob? “He fell upon his face, and wept upon him, and kissed him” (Gen 50:1). But there was no reply to his affection. All about that aged countenance was unmoved, silent, and still. Doubtless you would have guessed the reason. Jacob was dead…
What would you have thought, if you had seen the Amalekite stripping Saul of his royal ornaments in Mount Gilboa? He “took from him the crown that was upon his head, and the bracelet that was on his arm” (2Sa 1:10). There was no resistance. Not a muscle moved in that proud face. Not a finger was raised to prevent him. And why? Saul was dead.
What should you have thought if you had met the widow’s son in the gate of Nain, lying on a bier, wrapped about with grave-clothes, followed by his weeping mother, carried slowly towards the tomb? (Luk 7:12). Doubtless it would have been all clear to you. It would have needed no explanation. The young man was dead.
Now, I say this is just the condition of every man by nature in the matter of his soul. I say this is just the state of the vast majority of people around us in spiritual things. God calls to them continually by mercies, by afflictions, by ministers, by His Word; but they do not hear His voice…The crown and glory of their being—that precious jewel, their immortal soul—is being seized, plundered, and taken away; and they are utterly unconcerned. The devil is carrying them away, day after day, along the broad road that leads to destruction; and they allow him to make them his captives without a struggle. And this is going on everywhere—all around you, among all classes, through the length and breadth of the land. You know it in your own conscience, while you read this paper. You must be aware of it. You cannot deny it. And what then, I ask you, can be said more perfectly true than that which God says: we are all by nature spiritually dead?
Yes! When a man’s heart is cold and unconcerned about religion, when his hands are never employed in doing God’s work, when his feet are not familiar with God’s ways, when his tongue is seldom or never used in prayer and praise, when his ears are deaf to the voice of Christ in the gospel, when his eyes are blind to the beauty of the kingdom of heaven, when his mind is full of the world and has no room for spiritual things—when these marks are to be found in a man, the word of the Bible is the right word to use about him, and that word is dead.
Perhaps we may not like this. We may shut our eyes both to facts in the world and texts in the Word. But God’s truth must be spoken, and to keep it back does positive harm. Truth must be spoken, however condemning it may be. So long as man does not serve God with body, soul, and spirit, he is not really alive. So long as he puts the first things last and the last first, buries his talent like an unprofitable servant, and brings the Lord no revenue of honor, so long in God’s sight he is dead. He is not filling the place in creation for which he was intended. He is not using his powers and faculties as God meant them to be used…
This is the true explanation of sin not felt, sermons not believed, good advice not followed, the gospel not embraced, the world not forsaken, the cross not taken up, self-will not mortified, evil habits not laid aside, the Bible seldom read, and the knee never bent in prayer. Why is all this on every side? The answer is simple. Men are dead.
This is the true account of that host of excuses for neglect of religion, which so many make with one consent. Some have no learning, and some have no time. Some are oppressed with business, and some with poverty. Some have difficulties in their own families, and some in their own health. Some have peculiar obstacles in their calling, which others, we are told, cannot understand; and others have peculiar drawbacks at home, and they wait to have them removed. But God has a shorter word in the Bible, which describes all these people at once. He says they are dead.
This is the true explanation of many things that wring a faithful minister’s heart. Many around him never attend a place of worship at all. Many attend so irregularly that it is clear they think it of no importance. Many attend once on a Sunday, who might just as easily attend twice. Many never come to the Lord’s Table—never appear at a weekday means of grace of any kind. And why is all this? Often, far too often, there can only be one reply about these people. They are dead.
See now, dear Reader, how all professing Christians should examine themselves and try their own state. It is not in churchyards alone where the dead are to be found. There are only too many inside our churches and close to our pulpits, too many on the benches, and too many in the pews. The land is like the valley in Ezekiel’s vision—full of bones, and those very dry. There are dead souls in all our parishes, and dead souls in all our streets. There is hardly a family in which all live to God. There is hardly a house in which there is not someone dead. O search and look at home! Prove your own self.
See too how sad the condition is of all who have gone through no spiritual change, whose hearts are still the same as in the day they were born. There is a mountain of division between them and heaven. They have yet to pass from death to life. O that they did but see and know their danger! Alas! It is one fearful mark of spiritual death that, like natural death, it is not felt. We lay our beloved ones tenderly and gently in their narrow beds, but they feel nothing of what we do. “The dead,” says the wise man, “know not anything” (Ecc 9:5). And this is just the case with dead souls.
See too what reason ministers have to be anxious about their congregations. We feel that time is short, and life is uncertain. We know that spiritual death is the highroad that leads to eternal death. We fear lest any of those we preach to should die in their sins, unprepared, unrenewed, impenitent, unchanged. O marvel not if we often speak strongly and plead with you warmly! We dare not give you flattering titles, amuse you with trifles, say smooth things, and cry peace, peace, when life and death are at stake and nothing less. The plague is among you. We feel that we stand between the living and the dead. We must and will use great plainness of speech. “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (1Co 14:8).
Let me tell you…in what way alone this quickening can be brought about, by what means a dead soul can be made alive. Surely, if I did not tell you this, it would be cruelty to write what I have written. Surely, it would be leading you into a dreary wilderness, and then leaving you without bread and water. It would be like marching you down to the Red Sea and then bidding you walk over. It would be commanding you to make brick, like Pharaoh, and yet refusing to provide you with straw. It would be like tying your hands and feet and then desiring you to war a good warfare, and so run as to obtain the prize! I will not do so…By God’s help, I will set before you the full provision there is made for dead souls. Listen to me a little longer, and I will once more show you what is written in the Scripture of truth.
One thing is very clear: we cannot work this mighty change ourselves. It is not in us. We have no strength or power to do it. We may change our sins, but we cannot change our hearts. We may take up a new way, but not a new nature. We may make considerable reforms and alterations. We may lay aside many outward bad habits and begin many outward duties. But we cannot create a new principle within us. We cannot bring something out of nothing. The Ethiopian cannot change his skin, nor the leopard his spots; no more can we put life into our own souls (Jer 13:23).
Another thing is equally clear: no man can do it for us. Ministers may preach to you and pray with you, receive you…in baptism, admit you at the Lord’s Table and give you the bread and wine; but they cannot bestow spiritual life. They may bring in regularity in the place of disorder and outward decency in the place of open sin. But they cannot go below the surface. They cannot reach your hearts. Paul may plant and Apollos water, but God alone can give the increase (1Co 3:6).
Who, then, can make a dead soul alive? No one can do it but God. He only Who breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life can ever make a dead sinner a living Christian. He only Who formed the world out of nothing in the day of creation can make man a new creature. He only Who said, “Let there be light: and there was light” (Gen 1:3) can cause spiritual light to shine into man’s heart. He only Who formed man out of the dust and gave life to his body can ever give life to his soul. His is the special office to do it by His Spirit, and His also is the power.
Reader, the glorious gospel contains provision for your spiritual as well as your eternal life. The dead must come to Christ, and He will give them life as well as peace. He is able to do everything that sinners need. He cleanses them by His blood. He makes them alive by His Spirit. The Lord Jesus is a complete Savior. That mighty living Head has no dead members. His people are not only justified and pardoned but quickened together with Him and made partakers of His resurrection. To Him, the Spirit joins the sinner and raises him by that union from death to life. In Him, the sinner lives after he has believed. The spring of all his vitality is the union between Christ and his soul, which the Spirit begins and keeps up. Christ is the appointed fountain of all spiritual life, and the Holy Ghost the appointed agent Who conveys that life to our souls.
From Alive or Dead? available from Chapel Library.
J. C. Ryle (1816-1900): Bishop of the Anglican Church; born at Macclesfield, Cheshire County, England, UK.