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.Ephesians 2:4-5, ESV
The Living Dead
When I was a kid, one of the most terrifying movies I ever saw was The Night of the Living Dead, the zombie apocalypse thriller. The plot is familiar: a few strangers are drawn together in an old boarded up house, as they try desperately to survive one terrible night in which the dead have inexplicably come to life. In literature and film, this old trope of the zombie apocalypse comes to life again and again (no pun intended), and the success of the recent The Walking Dead series phenomenon, now in something like its seventy-eighth season of production, bears witness to the public’s continued fascination with this concept. Even the CDC has a zombie preparedness page. (Yes really).
Technically though, the concept of the living dead is already a spiritual reality. Bear with me on this, and I will try to explain.
In the Garden of Eden, God warned Adam that should he fail the probationary test of the Covenant of Works, he would “surely die” (Gen. 2:17). No sooner did he and his wife Eve taste the forbidden fruit, but death indeed came into the world. This death was literal, and their bodies would soon succumb to physical mortality, returning to the dust whence Adam was drawn (Gen. 2:7). But they also died in another way first: they died spiritually. Their once vibrant relationship with God was destroyed. And the fact of the matter is that this apocalyptic nightmare only grew worse: not only did they themselves get contaminated with the sin-plague, they also passed it on to all their children through original sin. Cain and Abel, like their parents before them — and all their progeny who came after them — walk the earth in a state of quicked morbidity.
We are alive in one sense, but truly dead in another (see Ephesians 2:1, 5). Strangely, most do not even seem to be aware that they are among the walking dead.
Disease and Vaccination
COVID-19 has brought to our corporate attention the idea of “asymptomatic carriers,” in recent days. This is the idea that one can actually bear a disease and not even be conscious of its presence for lack of obvious symptoms. No doubt many are entirely unaware of the true danger of their spiritual condition. But unlike the novel coronavirus, there are no asymptomatic carriers with the disease of sin. None. Its telltale symptoms are all too apparent and manifest very early on. From the time we are born, we begin to show the obvious symptoms of infection: greed, lust, selfishness, and spiritual godlessness. We roam the earth aimlessly killing and consuming, illegitimately craving and desiring. We are entirely selfish and insensitive to both God and others. We live only for ourselves, startlingly unaware that we were created for a higher purpose: for God. Most tellingly of all, we often deny that we are even sick in the first place, returning charges of hypocrisy to anyone honest enough to alert us to our craven disposition.
Thankfully, now that several COVID-19 vaccines are available, the situation of the current pandemic has changed entirely. Our goal now is to expose as many people to the vaccine as are willing to take it. Vaccines work by introducing the virus itself into the body in such a way that the body is protected from the full malevolence of the disease. The Gospel, then, works something like this by way of analogy: Christ’s potent death must be introduced into our souls in order to save us from an even worse fate. In Scripture, it is the cross of Christ alone that can atone for our sin and cure us of our damnable disease. The Gospel is the vaccine; a ray of light and a glimmer of hope in a nightmare of apocalyptic proportions.
When Christ died on the cross, He provided for us not just one possible antidote to the disease of sin, but the only antidote that exists. The only thing that can reverse the symptoms of our depraved malady and bring about our entire salvation is faith in the person and work of Christ; that is to say, the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Throughout church history, many Christians have set apart this day, Good Friday — the day Christ’s death is memorialized — as a day of hope in which we dwell richly and meaningfully upon Christ’s cross. This is appropriate after all, since the death of Christ is the very central message of the Gospel, and the Gospel is the only possible cure for our contagion.
The cross saves us from the disease of sin, which left unchecked, will ultimately result in our spiritual death (our severed relationship with God), our physical mortality (biological death), but also what Scripture calls the “second death,” or the suffering of eternal punishment in Hell (cf. Rev. 20:14). The cross is a precious vial of hope. A life-saving remedy. An elixir of grace. A saving vaccine. And while there are many aspects or perspectives from which we can meditate on the cross of Christ, several receive prominent emphasis in Holy Scripture.
Let’s consider three:
First, the cross is an act of atonement. When Jesus died on the cross, He died to atone for our sins. He was a sacrifice brought forward by God Himself to bring about the forgiveness of our sins. The Old Testament is filled with offerings and sacrifices, but all of them had to be repeated over and over again. Ultimately, they were only efficacious inasmuch as they pointed forward to the one real sacrifice that was to come, the death of Christ. When Jesus died, He died as our sin-substitute, receiving willfully into His own body the punishment that we deserved. He took our punishment, and we received grace through faith in return. At the cross, Jesus suffered vicariously what we should have suffered for our sins, just as the ram of Genesis 21:13 died in the place of Isaac, as a direct and personal replacement. This death then, brings about the atonement of our relationship with God, and the restorative inoculation is introduced into us savingly by faith alone.
Second, the cross in an act of propitiation. This is not a commonly used word today, but the Bible does use it to describe the kind of death that Christ died. Romans 3:25 and 1 John 4:10 tell us that Christ’s death was propitiatory. That is to say, Christ’s death absorbed the wrath of God on our behalf. Though it is not popular to speak much of God’s wrath, the fact of the matter is that God’s fury burns hot against sin, and His righteous indignation is one of His proper personal attributes. (See Nahum 1:2, 6; 1 Thess 1:10; Eph 2:3). Christ’s death then, absorbs and quenches this wrath, shielding us from it as Christ died in our stead. This is why it was imperative that Christ died as a criminal, and not by any other method. Calvin says,
For, in order to remove our condemnation, it was not sufficient to endure any kind of death. To satisfy our ransom, it was necessary to select a mode of death in which he might deliver us, both by giving himself up to condemnations and undertaking our expiation. Had he been cut off by assassins, or slain in a seditious tumult, there could have been no kind of satisfaction in such a death. But when he is placed as a criminal at the bar, where witnesses are brought to give evidence against him, and the mouth of the judge condemns him to die, we see him sustaining the character of an offender and evil-doer. Here we must attend to two points which had both been foretold by the prophets, and tend admirably to comfort and confirm our faith. When we read that Christ was led away from the judgment-seat to execution, and was crucified between thieves, we have a fulfilment of the prophecy which is quoted by the Evangelist, “He was numbered with the transgressors,” (Is. 53:12; Mark 15:28).Institutes 2:16.5.
Third, the cross is an act of expiation. Here, we are drawn to think of the fact that the cross takes away our guilt and shame. Our record of sins has been wiped away, annulled by the cleansing power of the cross. In the language of Psalm 51, our sin record has been blotted out. In the great truth of justification by faith alone, we can rejoice and believe that we are no longer held as guilty parties before the righteous bar of God’s judgment. We can live as free people, honestly confessing our sins, and regularly rejoicing in the absolution that God has worked in and among us. We have now been accepted and received into the family of God as His own children. Like Christian in the great allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, we no longer must carry the heavy burden of our guilt and shame on our backs. We may live freely.
We who were once dead, are now made alive.
But none of these great truths will avail for us unless we receive them by grace through faith. It is of no help to us that a vaccine exists if we do not take it, or if we are not even aware that we need it. The saving blood of Jesus Christ has the power to save and to sanctify, but it must be “received” and “rested in” as the language of the Westminster Shorter Catechism suggests (WSC 86). The Gospel alone has the power to make us alive again, when we were once dead in our sins and trespasses (see Ephesians 3:1-5).
True to life, the sin-plague is real which makes all of the sons of Adam into spiritual zombies, the walking dead. This is no apocalyptic fiction, but a grave history. Spiritual zombies are everywhere. But praise be to God that a cure — the only cure — is available in the Gospel, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Gospel Fellowship PCA, just north of Pittsburgh. He is the author of several books, including Hold Fast the Faith: A Devotional Commentary on the Westminster Confession,Unknown: The Extraordinary Influence of Ordinary Christians and A Theology of Joy: Jonathan Edwards and Eternal Happiness in the Holy Trinity. He is currently writing a book on Edwards’s seventy Resolutions for Hendrickson Publications.