Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology

The Comfort of Irresistible Grace

by Dr. Kevin Hartley

      In the eleventh chapter of John’s gospel, where we read that Christ spoke to His disciples about Lazarus’ sickness and subsequent sleep, John notes that the disciples misunderstood the Lord, thinking Lazarus was merely asleep. It was then that John noted that Christ said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” Even then the disciples would have no awareness of the true power of Christ, concluding as Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Upon Christ’s arrival at Bethany, there was further evidence of the dullness of men. When Martha met Christ, He declared Himself to be the Resurrection and the life, only to have her debate with Him theologically in her own skewed awareness, concluding that the Lord could only be speaking of the final resurrection alone. She would have no thought of the Lord’s power to raise the dead immediately, even though Jesus said to her plainly, “Thy brother shall rise again.” The theology made sense to her, but not the true power and nature of Christ. When the dullards of Bethany gathered at Lazarus’ tomb to debate with Christ about rolling back Lazarus’s tombstone, it is said that the fury of Christ was as groaning. The unbelief of all those present at Lazarus’ tomb led to that most succinct of verses, “Jesus wept,” not out of pity, but out of sorrow at the prevailing disbelief of all. So let all today consider, does not the Lord still weep over the insipidness of unbelief?

Consider how long this truth about the Lord’s power to raise the dead has been disputed by men. From the beginning men have failed to believe the simplest declaration of God. Consider God’s first affirmation of death; for the Hebrew reader it can be stated no clearer by God, when He said to Adam the first, מֹ֥ות תָּמֽוּת, dying you die. In the Hebrew these are two verbs, one an infinitive, the other the imperfect, together they are as absolute an expression as can be written. It is a declaration that cannot be mistaken. When Adam ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he and all those in his loins died; they did not sleep nor were they merely wounded or sickened, they died. Death is absolute as an end to all evidence of life. It is fascinating that men have to continuously be reminded that death is the complete absence of all life. Adam’s transgression and subsequent state are evidenced by two subsequent facts; one, he died physically, and second, as evidenced by his actions, he died spiritually; for now he hid in fear of God and knew the naked nature of his fallen and disparate resulting condition. Thus, while men try and continue to debate with God that they are not dead, their actions and eventual extinguished life speak of the reality of man’s estate. It can be said as plainly as Christ said, men are dead.

So let us query; what can a dead man do? Can he move? Can he summon physical strength at all? Can he arrest the rot of death and decay? Can he desire to live? Can he reason well enough to devise a scheme to overcome death? Can he live well enough, good enough, healthy enough, to escape death? God forbid. Yet more, what can men do for the dead? Can eloquence of speech and persuasion of life raise the dead? Can a good argument suffice? Can assistance to a corpse to rise give any life to the lifeless? Can energy, science, medicine, or the schemes of men, ever do anything more than what men now do for the dead? All men can do today, despite all of his supposed advances, is to paint the dead and attempt to give them the appearance of life. Yet, all know that a corpse is a corpse and death cannot be conquered by men; flesh will decay and a corpse shall by man’s impotence never live again. One truth that did not need to be disputed at Lazarus’ tomb was that known to all present; Lazarus was dead, it had been beyond three days, and dying he was truly dead. From the disciples to the sisters of Lazarus, along with the multitude gathered, all understood this one truth; death is conclusive and beyond contestation.

Death is self evident. Ezekiel understood death. When he was shown a valley of bones, they were so long in decay and rot that they were said to be dry. Yet, they were not simply dry, but the text notes the startling nature of their decay, saying, וְהִנֵּ֖ה יְבֵשֹׁ֥ות מְאֹֽד, that is, “behold, they were exceedingly dry.” When the LORD asks Ezekiel if the bones could live again, all Ezekiel could say was, “O Lord GOD, thou knowest (Ezek. 37: 3).” The Lord would then demonstrate His power over death; for He alone could rattle the bones, bring them together, craft sinews and flesh upon them, and even then, breathe life into the lifeless corpses. Sin has brought death; not sickness only, not weakness, not faulty reasoning alone, but the wretched state of lifelessness and decay. Death is never pleasant; its stench is putrid, its sight repulsive, and its lifelessness is terrifying to all men.

How many have lived in certainty of their conquest over death? How many of those who were so deluded, at the moment of their last breath, when the grip of death strangled their final muster of strength, left them aghast at their demise? Death ends all arguments against its conquest. Death puts an end to all disputes or imaginations of men’s success. Death is the final death knell that silences all the boasting of men. Never has a dead man needed convincing that he is dead, since the dead cannot be convinced of anything. Why then is it so difficult to convince dead men that they are dead?

It should come as no surprise that unbelief is as prevalent in our day as it was in Bethany that day. However, consider this one fact; the one argument no one made that day was that Lazarus was not really dead. Once at the tomb, Christ’s disciples, Lazarus’ sisters, the crowd, and Lazarus himself, had one certain truth; the one thing evident to all was that Lazarus was truly dead; so dead was he that by the fourth day the stench of decay was undeniable. Imagine how foolish one would have been to dispute with anyone that day regarding Lazarus’ death. Surely the crowd would have risen up in great anger and fury at any that would deny the undeniable; Lazarus was dead. Thus only a fool would have attempted to convince anyone in the crowd that Lazarus was not truly dead, let alone could live again.

How much more stupefied then would a man be to argue with the Son of God Himself? Would one dare to say to the Lord, “you are mistaken, Lazarus is merely asleep, or he is in need of coaxing, or in a coma and needs recitation, or simply in need of help as he is weak.” How could anyone so argue with Christ, when He plainly said, “Lazarus is dead?” Perhaps men in their own ignorance would dare pose such an argument; however, the one person that could never present such an argument that day was Lazarus; being dead, he could neither think nor desire to say anything to the contrary. Dead men simply lie and life is not found in them.

It is startling then that so many stand outside the tomb of Adam and dare argue with our Lord, saying, “Death is not really death.” While they will not say it outright, so many that claim the name of Christ argue that Adam did not die nor did we die in him, neither was Lazarus really dead. The dispute continues over the fact of death. How can men be so misguided? In our day, as in all days since Adam’s transgression, such feverish ignorance prevails among men; men continue to believe that sin has merely left men slumbering or sickly, not dead. Death is peculiarly denied by multitudes standing outside Adam’s tomb. How can we begin to dispute with the crowd that is so misguided? Can we convince the crowd that the dead are truly dead?

Let us begin with the undeniable declaration of God that in Adam we are dead. Adam surely died, this is certainly undeniable as Adam not only was cast out of Eden but was also buried at an old age. Lazarus as well died; not just once, but twice. So then, let us join with all those in Bethany, agreeing with Christ that Lazarus was surely dead, just as Adam surely is dead. Then let us agree with the true gospel that in Adam all of us were rendered dead, as Paul wrote, Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned (Rom. 5: 12). Let us then along with those gathered at Dordrecht agree:
“This election was not founded upon foreseen faith and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause, or condition of which it depended; but men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc. Therefore election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects, according to the testimony of the apostle: "For he chose us (not because we were, but) in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight." (Eph 1:4). Canons of Dort: First Head Article 9.”
Simply, if we agree that we are dead in Adam then we can only conclude that we can only be made alive by God’s power alone. Death is truly death and life only comes to those called by the power of God. How foolish would anyone in Bethany that day have been to argue with Christ that Lazarus willed himself alive, or aided in his resurrection, or had to concur with Christ before he would arise? Surely everyone there knew that Lazarus was dead. How foolish then seems the argument that men are born again because they choose life?

Salvation is solely God’s work in Christ. Only Christ can call the dead to life. When Christ said, “Lazarus arise;” he arose. Christ did not posture an option for Lazarus, as though to say, “Lazarus, if you want to live, then make it so, live; want it, take it, believe it, you can live.” This is not the Christ of scripture, for when Christ says arise, the dead rise. Dead men cannot live or attempt anything resembling life; a dead man cannot breathe, he cannot eat, he cannot think, he cannot desire, he cannot move; he is dead. Only the living live and when alive they do those things living men do; they breathe, they are nourished, they think, and they labor. The true gospel is really as simple as this premise; the dead are dead and the living are alive, and the only thing that distinguishes one from the other is that Christ said to one, “Arise,” and the dead arose. Then the living came forth from the tomb of death. Everyone at Lazarus’ tomb understood the dead do not live, why then is it so difficult for men to believe this undeniable truth today? The denial that in Adam all sinned and died and cannot live unless they are raised by the power of God alone is a rejection of the truth of the gospel itself. Salvation is accomplished by the power of God alone that declares life where there was but death. It is time the dead were taught they were dead rather than striving to convince the dead that they can live if they truly seek it. Can it be said any simpler than Christ said it, when He said, no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father (Jn. 6. 65).

Published May 2014 by Dr. Kevin Hartley

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