Sin, after all, is lawlessness. The state in which humans are born either corresponds to God’s law or deviates from it; it is good or evil, sinful or not sinful. There is no third category. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics III, p. 91.)
One of the “great debates” in Christian theology is over the nature of man’s sinfulness. I call it great because while not continual throughout history, it continually resurfaces. I call it great not because it is valuable, but because it is essential. As Calvin wrote at the beginning of his Institutes,
“We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves. For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, so long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is contented with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him” (I.1).
We cannot begin to know God rightly if we have not begun to know ourselves rightly.
The core of the debate is an answer to the simple question, “Is the unconverted sinner spiritually dead.” At one end of the spectrum are those who simply answer “no.” Man is born into the world in the same condition as Adam, completely able to choose the good and forsake the evil. At the other end of the debate are those who answer, “yes.” Man is born in a state of deadness and is able to do nothing to lift himself up to God. Occupying the vast middle are those—a la Miracle Max in The Princess Bride—who assert that man is only mostly dead, or partially dead. Sin has afflicted man, warped him, inhibited him, but he still has the strength and ability to overcome it on his own power and come to God.
What does the Bible say?
The teaching of Jesus concerning the new birth seems to assume it. Jesus told Nicodemus that man must be “born again,” or born from above. Jesus strengthened this metaphor by saying it “must” happen. The statement that man must be born again seems to correspond with the teaching that man is spiritually dead. In line with this would be Peter’s 2 references to being born again (1 Peter 1:3, 23); and Paul’s statements regarding new life (2 Cor. 3:6) and new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15).
Even more clear is the teaching of Jesus in John 5:21-24:
For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever 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.
The one who believes has new life, not just an improved life. He has not passed from good to better. He has not passed from sick to well. He has passed from death to life. So it comes as no surprise to hear Jesus teach at the conclusion of the parable of the Prodigal Son, “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24,32).
Apparently the apostle John was paying attention to this teaching for he repeated it in 1 John 3:14, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.” The state of spiritual deadness is not so much taught as it is assumed. John takes it for granted that his readers accept the fact that the state of those who do not believe is “death.” Those who do not love the brothers demonstrate their continued life of death.
Paul weighs in on the subject in Ephesians 2:1-5:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 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– 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. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved…
So, to paraphrase the quote at the beginning just a bit, man is either dead or he is not. God either gives “new” life or he does not.
There is no third category.