Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

Pastor John, is it compatible to say a) every man has a thirst in his soul for God he is trying to fill with sin and to also say b) every man is spiritually dead? Is it right to talk about a spiritual longing being filled by sin in a spiritually dead soul?

I have three kinds of responses to this.

What Does It Mean to Be Spiritually Dead?

1) Definitions are always crucial. The question is: Is it right to talk about a spiritual — underline the word spiritual — longing in a spiritually dead soul; that is, in the unregenerate? And if a person means by spiritual or spiritually dead persons, if a person means: Can a spiritually dead person have a religious longing? then the answer is yes. In fact, that is what religions are driven by: desires and longings that the spiritually dead people have, very deep desires and willings and choices and passions.

“Is it right to talk about a spiritual longing in a spiritually dead soul?”

But if we stick to the most relevant New Testament definition — Is it right to talk about a spiritual longing in a spiritually dead soul? — the most relevant definition in this regard is to take the term spiritual longing in the same way as spiritually dead, and that means spiritual is enlivened and prompted and shaped and guided by the Holy Spirit. That is what spiritual means.

The key text is 1 Corinthians 2:13–14. And the opposite of spiritual is not secular or non-religious; the opposite is natural or “minus God” — a human being minus God, a human being minus the Spirit. So, the text says, “We impart [these teachings] in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths,” — there is the phrase — “spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” And then he clarifies in verse 14: “The natural person,” — that is, the opposite of spiritual: what a person is by nature apart from God — “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

Now, the question is: Is it right to talk about a Holy Spirit-enlivened, prompted, shaped, guided, longing in a soul that has no Holy Spirit-given life? And the answer is no. Those souls don’t have any such longings. So, that is my first observation, which is basically to clarify the definition of spiritual. But there is more that needs to be said to help fill out the picture of what we mean by spiritually dead.

What the Spiritually Dead Can Do

“Religions are driven by the desires and longings that spiritually dead people have.”

2) This is my second observation. It does sound strange to lots of people to think of a dead soul with the incredible amount of activity that the dead soul has in the New Testament. If you just take the main text on deadness in Ephesians 2 — the deadness apart from Christ — this soul that is dead is amazingly energetic. Let’s just read it and listen. This is Ephesians 2:1–3: “And you were dead in trespasses and sins in which you once walked,” — so, you have a walker who is dead — “following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air,” — so, this soul is very responsive to the world and the devil — “among whom we all once lived” or conducted ourselves.

So, this soul is conducting itself. It is making choices. It is acting in ways that are appropriate to its nature “in the passions of our flesh.” And then it says, “carrying out [or doing] the desires of the body and the mind.” So, there are plenty of desires. There is plenty of doing. There is plenty of living. There is plenty of walking. This is an incredibly active soul.

And that is not unique to Ephesians 2. As Jesus said in John 3:6, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” In other words, our first birth makes us merely flesh, and our second birth makes us alive to the Holy Spirit — and our spirit comes alive. But when we are just flesh, when we are just natural, to use Paul’s language, there are lots of works of the flesh. He says, “The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19–21). In other words, a dead soul is a very active soul, which is strange. We must not confuse deadness of soul or spirit or heart with inactivity or having no powers at all. The dead, natural soul is filled with energy to desire and to do, which now leads to the third and last clarification that I wanted to make.

Can the Spiritually Dead Have Spiritual Longings?

“The dead soul does not want God for who he is.”

3) What the questioner, I think, asks is: Can a spiritually dead person have a thirst for God that he is trying to fill with sin and, in that sense, is it right to talk about a spiritual longing — that is, a real longing for the true God? I think he means, in a spiritually dead soul that is unregenerate. In other words, I think he is asking: Is there such a thing as a true seeker? A lot of churches are built around seeker-sensitive views of church. And here is Paul’s answer. But stay tuned. There is more. His answer is Romans 3:9–11, “Jews and Greeks are under sin, as it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” Now, that is a pretty strong statement. No one, apart from Christ, apart from the Holy Spirit, no dead soul seeks for God.

Now, what does he mean? Because we don’t want to say more here than we should. And I think Romans 8:7–8 and 1 Corinthians 2:14 are what he means. He says, “For mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7–8) Or 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person does not accept” or welcome — does not receive “the things of the Spirit of God,” that is, “who by their unrighteousness,” he says Romans 1:18, “suppress the truth.”

So, I think what Paul means by, No natural person, no unregenerate, un-born again person seeks for God, is: Yes, they have longings of heart and desiring hearts and yearning hearts and, yes, this longing, desiring, yearning heart was made by God and for God. And yes, this longing for something more than what is in this world is true. As C.S. Lewis said, it is a sign that we are “made for another world.” This hunger is evidence that we are the sort of people that were made for food. And this aching and longing for something we know not what seems to point to the fact that we were made for something else. And yes, this longing and desiring and yearning will only be satisfied by God. I think Paul would say all that. I think he would agree with all of that.

But then he would say: No, our longings and desires and yearnings are not for God in this sense; that is, we do not want the true God. We don’t want the true God. We don’t like the true God. We don’t admire the true God. We don’t respect the true God. We don’t trust the true God. We don’t delight in the true God. Our longings are for what we think this God might be or should be or could be. And that turns into rejection. As soon as the real God begins to make himself truly known, Romans 1:18 says, we suppress it. We hold it down — unless we are born again. Unless the Spirit gives us eyes to see that the true God is beautiful and desirable, we won’t seek him. We will seek and seek and seek and seek for what we know not, but we won’t seek the true God. And to the degree that the true God starts to be visible to us, we suppress that knowledge until the Holy Spirit is at work.

“Unless the Spirit gives us eyes to see that the true God is beautiful and desirable, we won’t seek him.”

So the final question again: Is it right to talk about a truly spiritual longing for the true God in a spiritually dead soul? No. Not if we mean that a spiritually dead soul can perceive the true God and want him for who he is. It can’t. It can’t see him. It can’t want him. It is hostile to him. And it can’t please God by embracing God or seeking God as the true God. The dead soul does not want God for who he is. The dead soul suppresses who God is and creates alternative gods.