The Bible affirms that God is the Sustainer (or, Upholder) of all things (Hebrews 1:2-3). God literally holds all things together—from whatever is smaller than subatomic particles to whatever is greater than galactic superclusters. By his own power and in accordance with his own will, God is preventing everything falling back into nothing.
God is still, even now, giving us every heartbeat, the air that we breathe, our food, our health, the ground on which we walk, the environment around us, and everything in it. In his providence, he makes use of the material world in order to sustain our material bodies. It is entirely due to God’s sustaining providence that we “live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28; see also Psalms 104:10-30).
As with us today, our first parents were utterly dependent upon God for everything—for “life, and breath, and all things” (Acts 17:25). Adam and Eve’s original God-given ability to glorify God and to enjoy him (an ability that would have lasted forever1) was likewise sustained by the spiritual life-giving God.
Spiritual, physical and eternal death
Human death is not merely caused by a person’s body or brain or DNA ceasing to function. Nor is it merely the breaking of the connection between a person’s body and soul—as though the human soul is the sustainer of the body, or as though the functioning body was the prison cell of the soul (as some ancient Greeks believed).
According to the Bible, human death occurs through the withdrawal of God’s providential blessings and their replacement with curses—God’s just punishment of sinners for their sins.
Since humans are both spiritual and physical beings, human death includes:
The severance of spiritual communion with God (Genesis 3:8, 19, 22-24; Habakkuk 1:13);
The withdrawal of all the spiritual blessings which that entails;
The eventual removal of material blessings, including all sustaining providences in this earthly life; and
The outpouring of God’s wrath upon body and soul forever (John 5:28-29).
That is, unless we are saved.
Adam and Eve’s sins so offended and grieved God that he immediately withdrew from them both. God withdrew from them because they had rebelled against him.
God has “purer eyes than to behold evil” (Habakkuk 1:13). “For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with thee.” (Psalms 5:4).
The apostle Paul teaches us: “Through the offence of one [i.e. Adam] many be dead…by the offence of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation” (Romans 5:15, 18).
Note the past tense of those awful pronouncements. Because of the broken law of God in the covenant of life, the sentence of condemnation has already been passed upon the human race represented by Adam (i.e. except for Christ2)—even though the eternal death punishment is delayed so long as we remain physically alive in this world.
If it were not that God spared our first parents for a time, then they would have “surely died”—then and there, in full, immediately after they sinned (Genesis 2:16-17). But God continued to sustain them in a state of spiritual death3 while temporarily refraining from pouring out all the deserved punishment of manifold spiritual, physical and eternal death upon them.
As things stand now, the human race (all mankind in Adam) is being temporarily spared from the full outworking of God’s solemn threat of death upon the breaking of the covenant of life. The question is, why?
It is not that God has changed his mind. It is not that God has become unjust. And it is not that God has lost the will or the power to bring this solemnly threatened death upon any sinner. So, why is fallen mankind being temporarily spared from God’s just condemnation?
The answer the Bible gives to this question is that it is God’s will to call a people to himself from among the entire human family and to save them from this death (see Genesis 3:15; 12:1-3; 15:1-6; Romans 9:22-24; Galatians 3:16; Ephesians 1:3-6).
God is, at the present time, enduring “with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction,” sustaining in their spiritually dead state all those whom he will not save. But it remains true that God is “willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known” (Romans 9:22). So, we must take it as a given, that “It is appointed unto men once to die [the physical heath], but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
God’s reason for enduring sinners for a little while (i.e. for their physical life on earth) is this: “that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory” (Romans 9:23).
It is God’s sovereign prerogative to bestow grace (i.e. undeserved favour) and mercy and compassion upon those on whom he wills to bestow it (Exodus 34:6-7; Romans 9:15). As God himself says: “I…will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy” (Exodus 33:19).
Even when we were dead in sins
We Christians know how our sins have manifested our own state of enmity4 against God (Romans 8:7). And we all, sooner or later, come to admit that before we were “born again” (John 3:3-8), we were spiritually dead. That is how things were with us—this was our fallen nature. We will accept what the Bible says of us:
“But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved)” (Ephesians 2:4-5).
“And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Ephesians 2:1-3).
We also remember how, even while we were being upheld by God in that spiritually dead state, each of us heaped up great mountains of our own sins! Our un-Christian rejection of God, before we were converted, was an abuse of all the good things that was God giving in this earthly life.
All we ever did was, as it were, bite the Hand that feeds us5.
- See the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question and answer 1.↩
- See footnote 3 in chapter 1, Death Passed upon All Men.↩
- In the state of spiritual death, human beings are cut off from communion with God and from every spiritual blessing which he bestows through that communion.↩
- The word enmity means the state of hostility against another person—and having a deliberate attitude of hatred and committing active hostility against that other person. (The word is also used about nations at war).↩
- Christians still sin (1 John 1:8). We still possess what is called “the body of this death” or “the flesh” or “the old man” (Romans 7:24-25; Ephesians 4:22). These phrases refer to what remains of our depraved nature still within our souls, as long as we still live in this world. We will turn our attention to that serious matter in chapters 31, Dead to Sin and Alive to God and following ff.).↩