Sinners Desperate Need for Sovereign Grace

By Brian Anderson

During the summer of 1991, my mind was arrested by the truths of sovereign grace. For a full year I could think of little else. I found myself delighting in God’s unconditional election, particular redemption, effectual calling, and final preservation of His people. However, these glorious truths would have little luster, and make no sense, if it were not for the Biblical teaching on the sinner’s desperate condition. It is not until we understand how serious the bad news actually is, that we are able to adequately appreciate how wonderful the good news is! Yet, when the truth of man’s total inability is understood rightly, the doctrines of God’s sovereign grace both satisfy the mind and inflame the heart of the believer. I pray that this article does exactly that for you!

The apostle Paul in Ephesians chapter 2 is showing us an old portrait of ourselves that we’d just as soon forget about. It’s our spiritual portrait taken before we became Christians. It’s a ghastly and embarrassing sight. A friend of mine carries an old picture of himself in his Bible which was taken a couple of weeks before he was saved. He’s wearing long, scraggly hair, wearing a t-shirt advertising an acid rock band, and looks like he’s stoned out of his tree. He carries this old photograph around with him so that he will never forget the hellish life that God saved him from. Likewise, in Ephesians 2, the apostle Paul is showing us the hellish life that God saved us from.

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. Ephesians 2:1-3

We Were Dead In Our Sins

Ephesians 2:1 says, "And you were dead in your trespasses and sins." What does that mean? Well it can’t possibly mean that we were dead to trespasses and sins. No, we were very much alive to them! The next verse tells us that we formerly walked in them. It also can’t mean that we were dead to the world, because verse two tells us that we walked according to the course of this world. Furthermore it can’t mean that we were dead to the flesh, because we formerly lived in the lusts of the flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind. Finally, it can’t mean that we were dead to the devil, because the passage tells us that we walked according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. When the apostle Paul says that we were dead in trespasses and sins, he does not mean that we were dead on those levels. No, the sad truth is that we were vibrantly alive to our sins, the world, the flesh, and the devil. In fact, we were very much alive on almost every level. We were biologically, socially, intellectually, religiously, and morally alive; but we were spiritually dead. We were alive in every way except for one -- we were dead to God. We were completely cut off from the life of God.

What does it mean to be dead in sins? A dead man has absolutely no power. He is helpless to do anything. If you were to go down to a mortuary you could yell at a corpse for hours, but the man could never hear you. You could command him to open his eyes, speak to you, or stand up. You could do this hour after hour, but you would never get a response from him. He can’t even flicker his eyelashes. He cannot respond because he lacks the one thing needful -- life! You can kick him or put a gun to his head and command that he speak to you, but the response will always be the same -- nothing! My friend, that is exactly the situation we were in before God saved us! The Bible categorically states that the man dead in sins cannot see (John 3:3), understand (1Cor.2:14), hear (John 8:43), receive (John 14:16), please (Romans 8:7-8), or come (John 6:44). He is absolutely impotent to do any of those things.

However, in spite of this clear teaching from God’s Word, there are a number of different opinions today about the lost man’s condition. Some, for example believe that man is spiritually well. According to this view, children are born neutral into the world, without a sinful nature. All men are basically good, they say, and given the proper environment and education, will live righteous lives. There are others who believe that the unsaved man is spiritually sick. Though they don’t believe that sinners are spiritually dead, they can’t believe that they are spiritually well either. They believe that Adam’s fall dealt a radical blow to the human race, but it did not leave him in a condition of total spiritual helplessness. In this system of thought, the sinner’s mind and heart are depraved, but his will has been left intact, so that when confronted with the person and work of Christ, he is able to make the choice to repent and believe in Him. Those with this view of man’s depravity understand the sinner to be like a man who is drowning in a river. God throws the life rope to him so that all he must do is to reach out and hold onto the rope and let God pull him in to safety. Nevertheless, the decision to grasp the rope or let it slip through his fingers is his alone; God will not interfere. Finally, there are others (myself included) who believe that man is not spiritually well, or spiritually sick, but in fact, spiritually dead. According to this view, sinners cannot cooperate with God in obtaining salvation, because every part of his being has been affected by the Fall, including his will. Thus, man is powerless to save himself or even cooperate with God in his salvation. Salvation in this scheme is not determined by whether or not a man will choose of his free will to grasp the life rope that God throws to him. The reason is obvious; man is not just in trouble, needing a life rope tossed to him. He is dead at the bottom of the river. He needs God to dive down, bring him to shore, and then breathe His very life into him. He doesn’t need resuscitation; he needs resurrection! Now, this may be very humbling to our natural pride, but it is exactly what the apostle Paul is teaching in Ephesians chapter two.

We Were Controlled By The World, The Flesh, And The Devil

Ephesians 2:2 tells us that we formerly walked "according to the course of this world." The phrase "according to" is from the Greek word "kata." According to Kenneth Wuest in his Word Studies In The Greek New Testament, its root meaning is "down" and came to have the meaning of "dominated by." Formerly, we were dominated by this evil world system. We were brainwashed by its propaganda. We had imbibed its philosophy of living for self and pleasure. Taking our cue from the world, we believed we could solve our problems; thus we didn’t need God and wouldn’t seek Him. Before God saved us we were unknowingly ruled by this present evil world.

Furthermore, we were dominated by the devil. Ephesians 2:2 tells us that we formerly walked "according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience." The word "prince" comes from the Greek word which means "ruler." Jesus referred to the devil as the ruler of this world (Jn.12:31; 14:30; 16:11) and the Pharisees called him the ruler of the demons (Mt.12:24). Paul referred to him as the "god" of this world (2Cor.4:4). He rules over the kingdom of darkness. Satan is the five-star general of the forces of wickedness who continually do his bidding. Furthermore we are told that "we formerly walked according to the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience." This does not mean that all lost men are possessed by demons, but it does mean that either knowingly or unknowingly they are subject to demonic influence. Unsaved men respond naturally to Satan’s leading. Imperceptibly to us, he was ruling us, influencing us, tempting us, and holding us captive to do his will. We were absolutely controlled by him!

What’s more, we were also controlled by our flesh. Ephesians 2:2-3 inform us that we formerly walked in trespasses and sins, and lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind. Just as a fish swims in water, and a bird flies in the air, so we walked in sins and carried out our lusts. They were the natural element in which we lived. Everything we did in the sight of God was sin. Our deeds may have looked good to other people, but they were sinful in the sight of God! Why? Our actions were not done out of faith, love to God, or for the glory of God. To illustrate, imagine that a doctor signs on with the United States Navy. While on board the ship, he decides to mutiny and leads a crew of men in capturing the ship. Eventually a United States destroyer comes after these pirates and a great gun battle ensues. When some men on the naval doctor’s ship are wounded, the doctor goes three days and nights without sleep in order to treat their injuries. Finally the ship is captured. What will the U.S. government do to that man who gave so unstintingly of his time and energy? Will they give him a medal of honor for his sacrifice? Of course not! They will hang him! Why? Because all the good he did, was done in rebellion. His very goodness was evil! So too, all our human goodness is evil in the sight of God, because it is all done in rebellion to Him. Until we surrender our lives to Christ in repentance and faith,

every intent of the thoughts of our heart is only evil continually. Genesis 6:5

We Were Under The Wrath Of God

In Ephesians 2:3 Paul declares,

and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.

When he says we were children of wrath "by nature", he means by physical birth. If that is true, then the ideas that babies are born into the world innocent or under some "age of accountability" are myths. The Bible declares that they are born under the wrath of God and apart from a miracle of regeneration will be lost forever. This text in Ephesians is not the only passage that teaches this truth. We are taught elsewhere that we sinned in Adam (Rom.5:12) were brought forth in iniquity (Ps.51:5) and are estranged from the womb (Ps.58:3). All men are born under condemnation with three strikes against them. In all actuality, they are born DOA -- dead on arrival!

The sobering truth of this passage is that all men are born objects of the wrath of God. God’s wrath is His holy response to sin. All sin is offensive and loathsome to His awesome purity and holiness. As long as we remain the sons of disobedience we must remain children of wrath. The only way, therefore, to escape the wrath of God is to cease being a son of disobedience. For that to happen, God must change his nature so that he becomes His own child.


Are you beginning to understand now the sinner’s desperate need for God’s sovereign grace?! We have seen from the Scriptures, that if we are Christians, a miracle has taken place! We were dead in our sins, controlled by the world, the devil, and our flesh, and under the wrath of God! Does this seem to agree with the popular teaching that God wants to save everyone, but must wait until someone of his own free will lets Him? It certainly doesn’t to me! The texts describe us as dead, enslaved, captive, controlled, blind, deaf, helpless, hopeless, and powerless.

The popular understanding of free will, is that all men possess the "ability" to repent of their sin and believe savingly on the Lord Jesus Christ at any time. I submit to you, that this idea has no basis in the Word of God. If I am a slave, am I free? If I am held captive, do I have the freedom to leave? If I am blind, am I free to see? If I am deaf, am I free to hear? If I am dead, am I free to live? Of course not! If what you mean by free will is that God has allowed man the freedom to make his own choices, then I heartily agree, but if you mean that all men possess the ability to come to Christ in saving faith, I strongly disagree. The sinner’s desperate problem is that he will never choose to repent and believe on Christ on his own. He is just too sinful! His mind is blinded (2Cor.4:4); thus he thinks wrong thoughts about God. His heart is hard (Eph.4:18); thus he feels wrong feelings about God. His will is corrupt (John 5:40); thus he chooses wrong actions in relation to God. His thinker, feeler, and willer are all broken! Thus, he will never choose Christ unless God of His own free grace sovereignly decides to grant him a new nature. Therefore, if you are a Christian today, it had nothing to do with you, and everything to do with your gracious heavenly Father!

Having seen the Biblical teaching on the total depravitiy of man I trust you understand more clearly the necessity of God’s sovereign grace. If the sinner is totally depraved and unable to come to Christ, then God’s election of man must be unconditional. If God chose only those sinners He knew would choose Christ, none would be saved. Moreover, the redemption of Christ must be particular and effective. If Christ in His death only made salvation possible to those who of their own free will would choose Christ, again none would be saved. Finally, if the Holy Spirit only draws those to Christ who are willing to be drawn, heaven would remain empty. Because the bad news is so bleak, the good news becomes all the more glorious!

Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Thy name give glory! Psalm 115:1