Why We Need a Savior: Dead in Sins
By John Piper December 8, 1985
Feeling Our Need for a Savior During Advent
There are two reasons why during Advent we should remember our great need for a Savior.
The Preciousness of the Savior’s Coming
The first reason is that the more keenly we feel our need for a Savior, the more precious will be the coming of the Savior.
Picture two people in a car out for a drive along the north shore. The rider knows that there is a time bomb in the trunk and that any second might blow the car to pieces. The driver doesn’t believe there is one, and thinks that his rider is insane. The state patrol has been alerted that the car is indeed loaded with a bomb that will soon go off. They begin their search and pursuit.
The rider suddenly sees the State Patrol far in the distance to the rear racing toward the car. His heart leaps with hope for possible rescue! If you are the rider who knows that there is a bomb in the trunk, the flashing red lights in the distance are very precious, and the closer they get, the more precious they become. But if you are the driver and you don’t think that there is a bomb in the trunk, the flashing red lights are a threat.
I think that the most loving thing I can do for you this Advent season is to help you remember and feel your need for a Savior, so that as he approaches, your heart will leap for joy.
The Command of the Word of God
The second reason for remembering our great need for a Savior is that the Word of God commands us to. Ephesians 2:1-10 describes how God saved us by grace through faith when there was a time bomb of sin ticking in our soul. Verse 11 commands, “Therefore remember!” Remember what? Verse 12 tells us: “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” But the key word, practically speaking, is “Remember!”
Paul really believes that even after the State Patrol has caught your car and saved you, you shouldn’t forget that awful chase. You shouldn’t forget what it would have been like if they had not pursued you. You should remember what you were and would have become without a Savior. Part of our ongoing devotional life should be the obedience of Ephesians 2:12- Remember! Remember! Remember that once we were cut off from Christ, without any citizen-rights to heaven; no promises applied to us; we had no hope and no part in God.
We are commanded, “Remember this! Bring it to mind again and again” (v. 11, mnemoneuete: present tense, continuous action). And surely the reason is so that it will have a vigorous and lively role in causing us to love Jesus Christ, our Savior. It is a simple psychological fact: unless we feel a great need for a Savior, we do not feel that he is a great Savior.
An Advent Plan
So my plan for Advent this year is to help us see how great our need for a Savior is, and then, on the Sunday before Christmas, to display the greatness of his salvation. Today we will look at Ephesians 2:1 (“Dead in sins”); next Sunday, Ephesians 2:2-3 (“Captive to an Alien Prince, by Nature Children of Wrath”); and finally on the Sunday before Christmas, verse 4 (“But God . . . “).
In the Morgue, Not the Doghouse
The first reason we need a Savior is that without a Savior we are all dead in our trespasses and sins. Paul says this twice in the text. In verse 1 (literally): “You being dead in your trespasses and sins . . . ” Verse 5: “Even when we were dead in our trespasses . . . ”
If you were to ask most people why sin is a problem, and why we need a Savior from it, they would say that sin makes us guilty before God and brings us under condemnation; and so we need a Savior who can forgive our sins and take away our punishment. And that is absolutely right. But that is not the point of Ephesians 2:1 and 5. That is not all we need.
The reason we need a Savior is not just that we are in the doghouse with God and need to be forgiven for offending his glory. We need a Savior because we are in the morgue. In the doghouse you might whimper. You might say you are sorry. You might make some good resolutions. You might decide to cast yourself on the mercy of God. But what can you do if you are in the morgue?
What Does “Dead in Trespasses and Sins” Mean?
If this means what it looks like it means, we didn’t need just any ordinary Savior, we needed a great Savior. What does Paul mean when he says that we were dead in our trespasses and sins?
Sinners by Nature
Let’s look at the context first. There is a phrase in verse 3 that shows the seriousness of deadness. At the end it says, “We were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” In other words the things we have done to bring the wrath of God upon us we have done by nature. We need a Savior not just because we have sinned, but because we have sinned by nature. We are by nature sinners.
At the end of verse 2 it says that we are “sons of disobedience.” Which is another way of saying that disobedience is in our spiritual genes. Rebellion runs in the human family. It is part of our sinful nature.
Dead to Righteousness and Faith
Now what does that have to do with being dead? It sounds like we were very much alive and active in our rebellion and disobedience. Indeed we were. But in being alive to disobedience, we were dead to obedience. In being alive to rebellion, we were dead to submission. In being alive to unbelief, we were dead to faith. We had no living spiritual nature to incline us to do anything for the glory of God and in reliance on his power. And lacking that spiritual nature, we were dead: dead to righteousness, dead to holiness, dead to obedience, dead to faith.
Spiritually speaking I was dead. Without a Savior I had no spiritual inclinations at all. For there was no spiritual life at all. And therefore I needed a Savior not only to forgive me for my sins, but also to give me spiritual life so that my heart would incline to trust him and obey him.
In Need of a Savior to Raise Us and Create Us Anew
You can see this implied in verse 10 also. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” Note the word “created.” Do you see what that implies? The condition we were in before we had a Savior was so bad that we needed someone not only to forgive us but also to create us. This is an even more radical image than the one in verse 5. There we were only made alive out of our deadness. But in verse 10 we were created as though out of nothing. The point of both these images of conversion is that it took a miracle like resurrection or creation to give us spiritual life. It was non-existent, and had to be created. We were dead and had to be raised.
Our True Condition Without a Savior
So we weren’t just in the doghouse with God. We really were in the morgue. And whatever thoughts we thought or whatever feelings we felt or whatever deeds we did- they were not the thoughts and feelings and deeds of the Spirit but of the flesh. Nothing that we thought or felt or did was spiritual, because we were dead spiritually. Everything we thought and felt and did came from what we were by nature, and by nature we were children of wrath.
Do you begin to see how utterly horrible was our condition without a Savior? Since we had no spiritual life within us but only death, everything we did was sin. For what is sin but falling short of the glory of God, and who does anything for the glory of God when he is spiritually dead? And so before the Savior came, before he quickened us and made us alive, all we did was sin.
Everything We Do Without a Savior Is Sin
But someone will say, “This can’t be, because I know many unbelievers who do good deeds.” Ah, but when you say that, you do not have a view to God. When you judge what is sin and what is righteousness, don’t just think of man! Think of God. We were made for God! He is worthy of all our love and trust and honor and thanks and obedience and worship. We may well build our hospitals and feed the hungry and educate the ignorant, but if it doesn’t spring from trust in God, and if we don’t do it to give him glory, and if we don’t have a view to the salvation of others, all we do is sin with respect to God.
For whatsoever is not from faith is sin (Romans 14:23). And falling short of the glory of God is sin (Romans 3:23; 1 Corinthians 10:31). And therefore presuming to do good to men without pointing them to God is sin. All that any of us can do without a Savior is sin. For by nature we are spiritually dead. And until we are made alive by our Savior, nothing we do is spiritual, everything comes from the flesh. And therefore without a Savior all our so-called good deeds are rags and ashes.
The Mind of the Flesh Cannot Submit to God
In Romans 8:6-9 Paul spells out in more detail what this spiritual deadness means.
6) For the mind of the flesh is death, and the mind of the Spirit is life and peace; 7) because the mind of the flesh is enmity against God, for it does not submit to God’s law, for it cannot. 8) And those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9) And you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God dwells in you.
In other words, until the Savior comes and makes us alive by his Spirit, we are simply “in the flesh” (verse 9). That is, we simply have “the mind of the flesh”; and the mind of the flesh is in rebellion against God (verse 7). It is so much in rebellion against God, in fact, that it CANNOT submit to God’s law (verse 7), and it CANNOT please God (verse 8). Therefore, verse 6 says, “The mind of the flesh is death.” Spiritual death is the condition of being devoid of God’s Spirit and therefore being unable to submit ourselves to God (verse 7) or please God (verse 8). In other words, without a Savior, everything we do is insubordination against God and displeasing to God.
Other Passages Illustrating Spiritual Deadness
We could go on and on multiplying passages that make the condition of spiritual deadness more vivid and terrible. For example:
1 Corinthians 2:14
The natural [i.e., unspiritual] man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually assessed.
Without a Savior to quicken us and make us spiritually alive, we are so perverted in our values that when we hear the truth of the gospel, we will think it is foolishness. And so our perverse sense of values will make us unable to grasp the truth for ourselves and be saved.
What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all; for I have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one.
Without a Savior we are ruled by sin. We have no inclination to seek God. None of our deeds is good. All is the veiled expression of sin.
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
Until the Savior set us free, were slaves of sin.
Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.
Without a Savior, our hearts were so hard that they gave rise only to spiritual ignorance and futility and alienation. This hardness is the death spoken of in 2:1, 5.
Jesus’ Own Testimony
But let’s draw the message to a close by looking at a word from the Savior himself concerning our deadness in sin. Was this just Paul’s idea or did he learn it from Jesus?
Leave the Dead to Bury Their Own Dead
In Matthew 8:21 a disciple approached Jesus and said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” So Paul didn’t originate the idea that there are people who are alive and yet dead- spiritually dead. Leave the dead to bury their own dead.
But what did Jesus think of this deadness? Was it excusable? In Matthew 23:27-28 he said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”
So here is an example of the “righteous” dead man. A man clean and religious on the outside- like a whitewashed casket in the county morgue- and inside rotten bones and filthiness and death. No, our deadness is not excusable in God’s sight. It is abominable. Our inability to submit to God and please God does not excuse us. The reason we can’t submit without a Savior is because we don’t want to. The power of our CANNOT is the depth of our WILL NOT.
And Jesus gives us the most sober warning and the most encouraging hope as we close.
He warns here in Matthew 23:27 that you can have your life squeaky clean on the outside and still be dead on the inside. We need a Savior not just to cap off our good deeds, not just to forgive our sins. We need a Savior because we are spiritually dead and helpless without him, no matter how good we look on the outside.
And finally the Lord encourages you who are still dead in your sins, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:24-25).
If you have any spiritual life within you, you owe it to the sovereign voice of the Savior. And if you don’t yet have life in Christ, the voice says,
Let him who is thirsty come.
let him take of the water of life freely.
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