Several years ago while visiting a missionary in Mexico I learned an important distinction between two meanings for the word “lost.” It was my habit to go for a five mile jog every morning, and I did not want my exercise regimen to be interrupted while I was away from home. Since my knowledge of the Spanish language was virtually non-existent, I asked my friend to tell me how to say in Spanish “I am lost. Can you help me?” He said to me, “There are two ways of expressing that idea, and the one you use will depend on how lost you are. One way, “Estoy desorientado,” means I am disoriented and I need to be pointed in the right direction so that I can get to my destination. The other, “Estoy perdido,” means I am hopelessly and helplessly lost, and unless you take me in hand and deliver me to my destination, I will wander endlessly.” One of the questions we need to answer before we engage in evangelism concerns what we mean when we say that sinners are “lost.” Do we mean they are a few degrees off course and need a gentle nudge to set them in the right direction, or do we mean they are hopelessly and helplessly lost, and unless the only Savior of sinners rescues them, they will wander in darkness and despair for eternity?
It should be clear from the title of this chapter that I have made certain assumptions. One assumption is that people are sinners. We do not become sinners when we sin; we sin because we are sinners by nature. Ours is a fallen “condition.” Additionally, it is my assumption, based on biblical teaching, that what may be said about one sinner, may be said about every sinner as to his nature and his guilty standing before God. Though some may have received a greater measure of God’s restraining mercy than others so that they do not act out their natural depravity as fully as others who have sinned infamously, in their inmost beings, all are the same. Paul wrote, “. . .and are by nature [by birth] children of wrath [the deserving objects of God’s wrath] just like the rest” (Eph. 2:3).
Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagians, Arminians and Calvinists
It is not my purpose in this chapter to discuss the merits or demerits of the Pelagian view. That view is that every individual is born in the same state in which Adam and Eve were created in the garden. According to the Pelagians, the sole effect of Adam’s sin on the race is the effect of his bad example. Though the word translated “nature” in Ephesians 2:3 does not tell us whether the nature spoken of is upright or fallen [that must be derived from the context and not from the meaning of the word itself], it does indicate that sinners are what we are by “nature,” i.e., by birth, and our standing before God does not result from our observing and following a bad example or by personal transgression. Pelagians also believe sinners have the full ability either to sin or repent and obey as they will. In their view, their responsibility is in exact proportion to their ability. I will not spend time refuting this heresy since it is, both in the light of Scripture and in the light of human experience, so patently false. According to this view, grace and salvation are truly unnecessary. Man can be his own savior.
The question I want to examine in this chapter concerns the extent of man’s fall from that state of original righteousness in which God created Adam and Eve. Additionally, I want to discuss what we mean and what we do not mean when we speak of the sinner’s natural depravity or spiritual inability.
I should mention at the outset that in the original formulations, the views of Calvinists and Arminians did not disagree as to the extent of human depravity. The Arminians even stated that nothing short of being born again could remedy the sinner’s plight. This is what they wrote:
That man does not posses saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as in his state of apostasy and sin he can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do any thing that is truly good (such as saving Faith eminently is); but that it is necessary that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, and will, and all his faculties, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the Word of Christ, John 15:5, “Without me you can do nothing” [Emphasis Mine].
That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to the extent that the regenerate man himself, without prevenient or assisting, awakening, following and cooperative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements that can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But with respect to the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, since it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7, and elsewhere in many places) (Schaff, 1996, 545).
The issue seems to have been whether whatever they meant by “being born again of God in Christ” was an act of God’s grace that sinners thus renewed are able to resist. In reality, it seems that the modern day opponents of Calvinism would fall more into the category of either Semi-Pelagianism or Wesleyanism. Given the modern day propensity toward vagueness and theological imprecision, it is often difficult to ascertain where many who advocate a doctrine of autonomous free will, prompted by prevenient grace, would fall along a theological continuum. This matter is complicated by the fact that many pastors are so inept theologically they cannot even articulate what they believe about such issues. I suspect there would be very few “non-Calvinists” in our day who would agree with the Arminian statement on human depravity as it is stated in the Five Points of the Remonstrants. Many would not even understand the term “prevenient grace” or understand how it supposedly enables a sinner to “decide for Christ” without infallibly and invariably bringing him to faith in Christ.
The modern issue seems to boil down to this. Does the sinner merely need a nudge in the right direction (moral suasion) or does he need the Shepherd to find him, put him on his shoulders, and carry him back to the fold? I will discuss the doctrine of prevenient grace vs. the doctrine of effectual calling in a later chapter.
The Results of Adam’s Transgression
In the “Baptist Faith and Message” of the Southern Baptist Convention, there has been a conscious softening of the language relative to the imputation of Adam’s sin. Instead of the clear statement of the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, for example, the framers of the BF&.M have substituted language that is destructive of the gospel message. Consider the differences in several statements of their doctrine.
They [Our first parents] being the root, and, by God’s appointment, standing in the room and stead of all mankind, the guilt of the sin was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation, being now conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, the servants of sin, the subjects of death, and all other miseries, spiritual, temporal and eternal, unless the Lord Jesus set them free. (Philadelphia Confession of faith of 1742).
“. . . he [Adam] transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original holiness and righteousness; whereby his posterity inherit a nature corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors” (The Abstract of Principles 1858).
“. . .man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence; whereas his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.” (Baptist Faith and Message 1925, 1963, and 2000).
This should be a shock to all those who love God’s truth. Instead of speaking of Adam being created in “original righteousness” (Philadelphia Confession of Faith) or “in holiness” (New Hampshire Confession of Faith 1853), “in His own image” (The Abstract of Principles 1858 and the BF&.M 1925), the BF&.M now states, “Man was innocent of sin.” According to these latest statements, Adam was not created upright or righteous, but merely “innocent.”
Additionally, according to these statements [BF&.M], sinners are not condemned as a result of Adam’s transgression, bound in sin having received a corrupt nature, and wholly opposed to God and his law.” Now they “inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.”
Admittedly, this enables those who subscribe to these doctrines to more easily answer those emotionally charged questions about the destiny of infants who die in infancy. If infants are not “under condemnation” until “they are capable of moral action” and “become transgressors,” there would be no reason that they would not go to heaven. In such a case, infants would not be saved by the mercy and grace of God but by virtue of their innocence.
One of the problems in taking this view is that it simply does not square with what the apostles taught on this matter. As we shall see when we consider Romans five, there is a divinely ordained correspondence [a typical correspondence] between Adam and Christ and between Adam’s disobedience and Christ’s obedience. If we should conclude that Adam’s posterity are only under condemnation because they have received a nature that is “inclined” toward sin so that they “become transgressors,” then we must conclude that Christ’s spiritual posterity are justified because we have received a nature that is inclined toward holiness enabling us to become actually righteous so that God can justify us. As we shall see, nothing could be farther removed from Paul’s teaching in Romans five.
In the Ephesians two passage I mentioned briefly above, there are at least three important truths concerning the sinner’s guilt to which we would do well to pay attention. Paul wrote concerning the former state of those who, by God’s grace, have now become believers, “. . .and were by nature children of wrath, just like the rest.”
- We were what we were by nature [by birth]. We did not become what we were “as soon as we were capable of moral action.” We were sinners as soon as we were conceived and were dead on arrival.
- We need to remember that though Paul wrote in Greek, he thought in Hebrew. When he used phrases like “children of wrath,” he was expressing Hebrew patterns of speech. Consider Deuteronomy 25:2– “son of stripes” means one who deserves to be beaten; 2 Samuel 12:5 “son of death” means one who deserves to die. “Children of wrath” simply means those who are deserving of wrath.
- What Paul described here applies to everyone in the human race. There is no difference between one human being and all the others in the world in terms of our condemnation before God. “You were, from birth, deserving of condemnation just like the rest of mankind (Eph. 2:3).” This seems to have been a clear implication of Jesus’ words in Luke 13:4-5 “. . .do you think they were sinners above all that dwell in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” We must never forget that it is “of the same lump” that the potter makes one vessel for honor and another for dishonor (See—Rom. 9:21).
1 Corinthians 15:22-23; 47
It should be clear to anyone who reads the Bible seriously that God has appointed two representative heads to act for those who are in them by divine appointment. The one is Adam; the other is Christ. Paul referred to Adam as “The first man” and to Christ as “The second man [“the last Adam”] who is from heaven” (see-1 Cor. 15:47). When we consider the word “all” in relationship to these two men, we must always bear in mind that Paul is viewing them in relationship to those they represent so that the “all” in one group is not co-extensive with the “all” in the other group. For example, Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 15:22, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” He did not mean that all who have died in Adam will be raised in Christ. That is to say he is not referring to the resurrection of the lost to everlasting damnation, but to the resurrection of all believers to a blissful eternity with him. The “all” who are made alive in Christ are those and only those who have been united to him. The following verse makes that plain— “But every man in his own order, Christ the first-fruits, and after that those who are Christ’s at his coming” (v. 23). The “all” of verse twenty-two refers to “those who are Christ’s” in verse twenty-three. Paul does not mean that all without exception will be raised, but that all who are Christ’s will be raised because they are part of the same resurrection as Christ who is the first-fruits of that resurrection.
Romans Five, Twelve through Nineteen
It is not my purpose here to engage in a detailed exposition of this passage. I would suggest that if you are interested in such a discussion, you read the comments of Charles Hodge and John Murray. I simply want to provide a sketch of Paul’s argument in these verses.
The Structure of the Passage
First, I would ask you to consider the structure of this passage. Paul’s main argument is found in verses twelve, eighteen and nineteen. He introduced the first clause of the comparison between Adam and Christ with the words “Just as” but does not complete that comparison until verse eighteen where he repeats “Just as” and then completes the comparison with the clause that begins with the words “even so.”
Verses thirteen through seventeen are parenthetical. The purpose of verses thirteen and fourteen is to explain the reason why death reigned during the period between Adam and Moses. It could not have been because of personal transgression since during that period there was no codified law and where there is no law, there can be no transgression [Some have taken the position that Paul was referring to infants who had not personally transgressed any law. Though this would certainly demonstrate Paul’s point, it does not explain the reference to the period between Adam and Moses. The inability of infants to become involved in personal transgression would be the same during any period of human history. Why would Paul single out that particular period in history?]. It would seem more likely that he mentioned this period because personal sin was not imputed because codified law did not exist, and sin did not have the character of transgression, the personal overstepping of a clearly defined boundary. Paul’s argument was that transgression must have been imputed during that period since death reigned from Adam to Moses. If it was not because of personal transgression, for whose transgression was it? The only conclusion one could draw is that it must have been because of the one man’s transgression through whom sin entered the world.
At the very end of verse fourteen, Paul introduced the thought that Adam was a type of the one who was to come, i.e., Christ. This prompted a parenthesis within the parenthesis to explain the ways in which Adam’s transgression and its results differ from Christ’s obedience and its results. He, then, resumes his main argument and concludes that just as because of one man’s transgression God treats all his offspring, all whom he represented, as guilty and condemned, even so because of one man’s obedience, God treats all who are represented by him as righteous in his sight.
The Argument of the Larger Context
Before we attempt to understand the details of a passage like this one, it is important that we understand how it fits into the general argument the apostle is making. Any view that does not comport with and support that argument. The apostle did not simply introduce this passage to give theologians something to argue about. This passage is an integral part of his overall argument that began in Romans five, verse one and continues to the end of chapter eight. His purpose is to show that since believers have been freely justified in Christ, God will certainly glorify them. He wrote, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God, . . .and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1-2). The hope about which he speaks in verse two is no fond but unfounded wish. Instead, it is a confident assurance that finds its foundation in God’s solemn promise and his sovereign and saving work. It is the apostle’s purpose to show that the confident assurance that we will behold God’s glory and be glorified with him rests on a firm foundation.
His argument in chapter five, one through eleven is that the believer’s final salvation is secure because he has a new relationship with God. God is no longer his enemy and he is no longer God’s enemy. He now has peace with God. He reasons that if God loved us and Jesus died for us while we were enemies, he is certainly not going to cast us away now that we have been reconciled to him.
In verses twelve through nineteen, his argument is that our final salvation is certain because we have a new representative before God. His argument is that there is a typical correspondence that exists by divine arrangement between Adam and Christ. Adam was a type (τύπος) of the coming one (Christ). Notice the “Just as”/“even so” language that Paul uses in verses twelve, eighteen and nineteen. Failure to recognize this relationship will invariably lead to a misinterpretation of these verses. It is important in any study of biblical types that we recognize that a type is intended to prefigure one central aspect of the antitype or fulfillment. There may be other points in which the type and its fulfillment are dissimilar as is true in this case (see verse fifteen). There may also be other incidental points of correspondence between the type and the antitype but it is the one central point of correspondence that we must identify if we are to understand the typical arrangement. (If you are interested in studying the nature of types in the Scripture, I would refer you to Appendix B in the author’s book, “In These Last Days.” It is available at www.amazon.com (Kindle books)). Our task in seeking to understand these verses is to identify the central point of typical correspondence between Adam and Christ.
The Meaning of the Passage Itself
The language Paul uses plainly speaks of one person representing and acting in the place of another. It is “the one” acting for “the many” (see verses seventeen through nineteen). His point is that just as Adam represented all who by divine appointment were in him as their representative head, so Christ represented all who are in him. His point is not that Christ made all people without exception savable so that justification is now offered to all without exception, but that his obedience and death have secured justification for all who are united to him, just as Adam’s disobedience brought certain condemnation on all his posterity.
The question we need to ask is how it would further Paul’s argument to suggest that because of Jesus’ obedience and death, God has given everyone a holy nature that is inclined toward righteousness so that we may become personally righteous. Yet, that would be the point of correspondence if we adopted the view that Adam’s disobedience merely resulted in his posterity receiving a “nature that is inclined toward sin” so that when we become capable of moral action, we become transgressors and are under condemnation. The correspondence between Adam and Christ must be maintained and that correspondence rests on the representative character of these two divinely appointed men. Paul’s point is that believers are secure because just as Adam’s one act of disobedience condemned all who are in him, so Christ’s obedience unto death secured justification and ultimately glorification for all those he represents. Jesus did not die for us merely to incline us toward righteousness. He lived and died so that God might treat us as righteous in his sight on the basis of his representation of us. Conversely, Adam’s representation of those in him, i.e., the entire human race descending from him by ordinary generation, did not merely result in the communication of a nature that was inclined toward sin, but his transgression guaranteed the condemnation of all in him.
In truth, the outcome would have been the same if only Adam’s sinful nature and not his guilt had been communicated to all his offspring. As soon as they were confronted with temptation, they would all have fallen into sin. That is not the issue. The issue is, that is simply not what Paul taught in this chapter. What he taught is that all are treated as sinners [under condemnation] because of Adam’s act of disobedience and transgression.
The more important issue relative to Paul’s teaching in this chapter is the effect a wrong view of the relationship between Adam’s sin and its effects on his posterity will have on our understanding of Christ’s redemptive work relative to all who are united to him by faith. Paul did not mean that because of Jesus’ death for all without exception, justification may now be offered to all. He meant that just as Adam’s transgression guaranteed the condemnation of all who continue in him, so Christ’s obedience guarantees the justification of all who are in him through faith.
David was not simply demonstrating a literary flourish when he wrote, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin my mother conceived me” (Psa. 51:5), nor was he speaking hyperbolically when he wrote, “The wicked are estranged from the womb. They go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies” (Psa. 58:3). That these words may have been directed at a specific group of people and not at mankind in general does not diminish their significance for the rest of Adam’s descendants. What may be said of one man’s heart may be said of every man’s heart. If there is any difference in one man’s outward conduct and another’s, it is due to God’s restraining grace and mercy and not to any distinguishing traits in inherent nature.
Even if the testimony of the Word of God were unclear, experience itself would be sufficient to teach us that nature does not incline us to good and to God. It is unnecessary to teach a child to lie, cheat, steal, and be selfish and self-centered. We must give our full effort to lead them in the opposite direction, and even then, apart from the mighty operation of God’s grace in their hearts, our best efforts will prove futile.
I want to consider this matter of sinful corruption under two heading. First, I want to consider what is called “total depravity” and then what is called “total inability.”
I want to begin by trying to clarify what Calvinist’s mean when we talk about the total depravity of the sinner. To some extent, the term is unfortunate because it tends to lead people to faulty conclusions about its intended meaning. Let me first list several ideas that we do not intend to express by using this term.
- We do not mean that every sinner acts as badly as he is capable of acting. Every sinner does not become a child molester, a wife beater or murder.
- We do not mean that sinners in a state of sinful nature cannot act morally and in a way that us pleasing to other human beings. It does not speak of sinners as other sinners see them but as God sees them (see–Gen. 6:5).
- We do not mean that unregenerate sinners are incapable of recognizing that God has created everything they see around them or that they are unable to deduce from what they see that God exists. Additionally, we do not mean that unregenerate sinners have no ability to understand anything about God from his created universe (See Romans 1:19-20).
- We do not mean that unregenerate sinners have no knowledge of good and evil or that they cannot be taught what their duties toward God actually are (See-Romans 2:14-15).
- We do not mean that unregenerate sinners cannot know God’s will and actually teach others what God requires of them (See—Romans 2:18-20).
- We do not mean that unregenerate sinners are unable to understand the facts of the gospel.
- We do not mean that unregenerate sinners are unable to recognize their guilt and even tremble at the thought of facing God in judgment (see Acts 24:25).
- We do not mean that unregenerate sinners lack any component of human personality. They are able to reason, feel, and choose whatever they may wish.
When we speak of “total depravity,” we primarily have two biblical ideas in mind. One is that sin has pervaded every part of the sinner’s nature. The intellect, affections and will have all been turned away from God. As a result of the transmission of the sinful corruption that resulted from Adam’s transgression, the sinner cannot think right thoughts about God, he cannot feel right emotions about God, and he cannot make right choices in spiritual matters. Every sinner acts as Adam acted after he fell into sin. Instead of reckoning on the merciful and gracious nature of God character, he reasoned that he could not run to God to beg for mercy and forgiveness. He reasoned that his only course of action was to run away and make a futile attempt to hide himself and his act of high treason. Michael Horton has written,
The accused are discovered fleeing the scene of the crime, covering up the evidence. After this, all human beings will be born into the world “dead in . . .trespasses and sins” and “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1, 3). Instead of representing the interest of the Great King in the world, the ambassador has defected to the enemy (Horton).
Adam walked no longer in sweet communion with God. He no longer sought God as the chief object of his love and delight and as his highest good. He ceased to be God-centered in his heart and God-honoring in his thoughts. He had become the center of his own universe. Though he knew God as his sovereign creator, he did not glorify him as God and was not thankful. So twisted where his thoughts and feelings about God that he became unable to desire him. No facet of his being was left untouched by sin’s corruption.
The second idea that is expressed by the term “total depravity” is that there is no spiritual good in the sinner but only perversion. By “spiritual good” we mean good as to his relationship with God. Paul describes sinners as “dead in trespasses and in sins” (Eph. 2:1).
Moses wrote, “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart were only evil continually.” (Gen. 6:5). This verse teaches 1. That depravity concerns the sinner as God sees him, 2. That his thoughts are only evil because “God is not in all his thoughts” (Psa. 10:4), “All his thoughts are, “There is no God” (ESV), 3. That the sinner persists in his godless thoughts—his thoughts are only evil continually.
Synergists often object to the Calvinists’ insistence that the sinner’s deadness implies his inability and suggests that “dead” only means separated from God. They cite passages such as Luke 15:24 to show that “dead” merely meant “separated from.” In saying this, they fail to reckon on the fact that this ungrateful son was separated from the father not only by geographical distance, but also by alienated affections. He would sooner have sought to satisfy his hunger by dining on pig slop than to have returned to the father’s house. The concept of death also involves insensibility and inability.
In reality, it would be better if the sinner were dead in every sense of the word. That which exacerbates his situation is that he is quite alive in his hostility against God. Paul wrote, “. . .the mind of the flesh is hostile toward God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed is it able to be” (Rom. 8:7). As we shall see when we consider the idea of prevenient grace, there is no evidence that this hostility is assuaged as long as a person continues in union with Adam, i.e., as long as he is “in the flesh.” Certainly faith in God and in the dependability of his promises would be pleasing to him, but Paul wrote, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8). The issue is not whether sinners are able to perform acts that are pleasing to other people, but whether we are able to please God. Paul’s answer is we they are not. From this, we must conclude that faith does not grow in the soil of corrupt nature.
If there is any doubt that the other characteristics of death, i.e., insensibility and inability, were intended in Paul’s usage of that term, that doubt should be removed by a clear understanding of Ephesians 4: 17-19. In these verses, he wrote about unconverted Gentiles in contrast to those who are in Christ. He exhorted believers to continue to put off that life-style that characterizes the unconverted. In describing that life-style, he wrote not only about how the unregenerate live but also about why they live in the way they do. In that description he includes every facet of the sinner’s personality, intellect, emotions, and volition. He wrote,
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. -They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. – They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. (Ephesians 4:17-19).
His exhortation not only concerned their outward behavior but also the inward disposition from which their outward behavior resulted. He describes this behavior in terms of the emptiness, worthlessness and aimlessness of their minds. By minds, he intends more than intellectual capacity; he refers to their emotional being as well. The “vanity” about which he wrote refers to every facet of the sinner’s being.
The participles explain why sinners walk in the futility of their minds. They live in moral and spiritual darkness because their understanding has been darkened and they have been alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them and the consequent obduracy of their hearts. Not only are they separated from the life of God, but they wander in spiritual darkness and ignorance. We must not think that this ignorance results from a lack of revelation or a lack of information. It is not as if this ignorance will be remedied by a mere proclamation of the truth. Instead, Paul indicates that it is due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous. It is no wonder Jehovah refers to the unregenerate heart as a “stony” heart. The sinner is insensitive toward God and toward spiritual realities. Additionally, they “have given themselves up. . .” This is an act of the will. Unregenerate sinners choose what they do, because that is what they truly desire. They are greedy to practice every kind of impurity. Sinners continue to reach for more and more, but can never be satisfied with that which cannot satisfy. Jehovah brought this charge–“. . .they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and have hewn out for themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). This is what we mean by total depravity.
Total depravity manifests itself in the sinner’s total inability in the spiritual realm. He is unable to think right thoughts about God; he is unable to feel proper emotions toward God; he is unable to make right decisions about God and spiritual matters. The Scriptures do not describe sinner’s as those who are in possession of libertarian free will, but as those who are the bond slaves of sin (see–John 8:34; Rom. 6:16; Tit. 3:3; 2 Pet. 2:19). As we shall see when we discuss the Arminian notion of “prevenient grace,” there is no biblical evidence that sinners are inclined to welcome spiritual truth even when they have heard the gospel and are under the powerful conviction of the Holy Spirit. The issue is not whether sinners who are reproved by the Spirit are able to resist him; it is whether they, in a state of sinful nature, are able to do anything else.
Paul describes the unregenerate as “natural men” (1 Cor. 2:14), and as “those who are in the flesh,” (Rom. 8:8). Jesus said those who are not united to him, [“without me” or “severed from me”] “can do nothing” (John 15:5). These are “alienated from the life of God,” i.e., from the life God gives by his life giving Spirit. No one is able to truly say that Jesus is Lord apart from the Spirit (See 1 Cor. 12:3).
It is not legitimate to superimpose one’s philosophical assumptions about “free will” on the Scriptures and then retreat to “mystery” when someone asks for exegetical proof. That God calls on sinners to make choices between life and death or between good and evil is no proof they are able to make right choices. It is simply untrue that God would not require sinners to perform deeds they are unable to perform, yet an entire philosophy of “free will” has been built on that faulty presupposition. I suspect few would question that God commands his creatures to obey his laws, yet Paul stated unequivocally that those who have the mind of the flesh do not subject themselves to the law, indeed they cannot do so (see Rom. 8:7). Who, in his right mind, would reason that Lazarus must have been able to come out of the tomb because Jesus commanded him to do so?
The truth is that apart from “free will offerings,” one cannot find either the term “free will” or the concept as expressed by Semi-Pelagians and Arminians in the Scriptures. A “free will offering” was one that was voluntary as opposed to one that was required by the law. Whether sinners act voluntarily in coming to Christ is not an issue in this debate. Whether sinners have the ability to choose other than they have chosen is also not in question. For example, a person who loves both shrimp and steak is able to choose either of these from a menu, but that is not the issue. The question is whether a person has the ability to choose that which is repugnant to him. Calvin wrote concerning free will, “In this way, then, man is said to have free will, not because he has a free choice of good and evil, but because he acts voluntarily, and not by compulsion. This is perfectly true: but why should so small a matter have been dignified with so proud a title?”
The Scripture nowhere states that a person hates the light until, at some undefined point, he receives a “grace” to hate the light less but leaves him in his state of unbelief. So-called prevenient grace cannot restore to sinners the ability to choose whatever they wish since that ability was never lost. What sinners lack is not the ability to choose but the ability to choose what they ought to choose but cannot choose because they hate it.
Please understand that I am not suggesting that sinners have no ability to feel “religious” emotions. They are able to walk into an evangelistic meeting and experience the atmosphere that has been created just for them. They can just feel the presence of the Spirit. In truth, what they are feeling is a sloppy sense of euphoria that has been manufactured by the lounge music they began to hear as soon as they entered the building. Perhaps they have entered a Roman Catholic cathedral and been overawed by the magnificence of the stained glass and exquisite statuary, the beauty of the ethereal music etc.; there is no question that they may feel deeply “religious.” They can be enthralled by the beauty of liturgy and by the pomp and circumstance of vapid and vacuous religion. Sinners have the ability to walk to the front of a building or coliseum after being moved by an emotional sob story. They can give mental assent to a list of biblical propositions that make intellectual sense to them. They have the ability to want to go to heaven when they die [a place they imagine to be like “the big rock candy mountain” where all their sensual desires will be met and they will escape all the pain and trouble their sin has caused] and escape the torments of hell. They can even seek to make themselves right with God by pursuing an intricate system of works religion in which they are either the chief players or the pivotal and decisive participants. What they cannot do is love God for his own sake, seek his glory as their chief purpose and greatest delight, or order every facet of their lives including their quest for divine acceptance according to his will as revealed in Holy Scripture.
The sinner’s condition presents two major debilitating problems that require the sovereign, regenerating work of God to overcome. One is his inability to desire what he ought to choose; the other is his inability to do what he ought to do even if he could desire it. To use Wesley’s words, he is “fast bound in sin and nature’s night.” J
The Lack of Desire
Jesus attributed the sinner’s inability to come to him to his unwillingness to do so. He said, “. . .and they [the Scriptures] testify of me, and you wish not to come to me that you might have life (John 5:39-40). The sinner cannot come because he will not come, not because God holds him at arm’s length because he is not among the elect. Unscrupulous believers in the “free will” doctrine have misrepresented the Calvinistic view by suggesting that we believe there are sinners who truly wish to come to Christ in saving faith but cannot do so because God has not chosen them or called them. God’s decree of election and his work of calling sinners effectually are never incapacitating. The sinner has been disabled by sin and must bear the burden of his own guilt.
The Lack of Ability
Even if the sinner wanted to offer something pleasing to God, he would be unable to do because he has been twisted by sin.
Consider the biblical teaching about the sinner’s inability. He is unable to:
- Be Saved— “who, then, can be saved? . . .with men it is impossible. . .”–Mark 10:27nsert
- See [catch a glimpse of] the kingdom of Heaven–John 3:3
- Enter the kingdom of Heaven–John 3:5
- Receive anything of a spiritual nature–John 3:27
- Come to Jesus–John 5:44; 65
- Hear Jesus’ words with acceptance–John 8:43
- Bear spiritual fruit–John 15:4
- Be subject to God’s law–Romans 8:7
- Welcome and know spiritual truth–1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 4:18a. Paul does not say that sinners cannot understand spiritual truth but that they cannot “welcome” it. He elsewhere states that sinners are damned because they do not receive “the love of the truth” that they might be saved (2 Thess. 2:10). The problem is not intellectual, but moral and spiritual.
- Feel right emotions toward God–Ephesians 4:18b-19.
It is important that we understand what constitutes a good work in God’s sight if we are to appreciate the sinner’s inability to please him. Perhaps the most basic characteristic of works that please God is that such works are the fruit of faith. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews made it clear that without faith it is impossible to please him (Heb. 11:6). For this reason, it should be clear that those who are without Christ lack the ability to produce works that are pleasing to God. It follows that such people will fail to do works that bear the other necessary characteristics that qualify them as “good” in God’s sight. Good works are those that are performed according to the right rule, for the proper motive, and with the right end in view. The Scriptures make it clear that good works are those that are performed in obedience to God’s Word. The wise man wrote, “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination” (Prov. 28:9). We cannot expect that God will be pleased with those works that are not in conformity to his revealed will. Since God’s greatest commandment is that we love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, a work that is motivated by any other consideration than love for him cannot be acceptable to him. Finally, since God created us for the manifestation of his own glory, no work that does not have his glory as our ultimate goal cannot be acceptable in his sight. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Whether therefore you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). It is no wonder that the biblical writers conclude that there is no one who does good, not even one (See Psalms 14:3; Rom. 3:12).
There are several practical applications of this doctrine that we must not overlook. If we understand the biblical teaching concerning the devastating depth of the sinner’s fallen condition, we will be delivered from the delusional idea that we can produce saving faith by superficial means. Our evangelistic methods, however cleverly contrived, will not be effectual to deliver sinners from the power of darkness. Exciting emotions to a fever pitch cannot produce genuine faith. We must never trust our gospel proclamation to bring about the regenerating work that only God can accomplish. Only he can remove the sinner’s heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. Once we have come to understand that sinners are hostile toward God and that we are completely unable to please him with our very best obedience, this understanding will drive us to our knees.
Additionally, we should be humbled by the knowledge that nothing but the grace of God distinguishes us from the vilest sinner who has ever lived. This should radically affect our attitude toward sinners. Instead of feeling a sense of pride that we are superior to them, we will understand that we were, like them, deserving of God’s wrath.
Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, Chapter II, # 7
Horton, Michael, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 2011.
Schaff, Phillip, The Creeds of Christendom, Volume 3, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1996, pp 545ff.