Toward Southern Baptist Unity, Part 5: Unifying Propositions on the Inability of Sinners

See all the posts in the series, Toward Southern Baptist Unity»

At every point of doctrinal disagreement between Calvinists and Libertarians (both Traditionalists and Arminians), there are Biblical propositions that can pull the two sides closer together without leaving the moorings of their particular theology. For those who have not already adopted these propositions, it might challenge their objectivity and require an adjustment in their thinking, but the results are well worth the consideration. The first of these propositions has to do with the inability of sinners and the enablement of the will.

Calvinists and Libertarians agree on a total inability of sinners. The Libertarian sees this inability as counteracted in a universal way by prevenient grace, while the Calvinist sees this inability as counteracted by the saving grace that God gives only to the elect. This inability is most often portrayed by both sides as complete and total, such that the sinner is not able to even understand the spiritual truths of the gospel, not able to will (or do) any good, and not able to will (or want) to come to God. However, in the Libertarian scheme, this is not given much emphasis, since prevenient grace nullifies this inability in every man. On the other hand, Calvinists do emphasize this total inability. The divisiveness of this issue can be found in the erroneous extreme to which the underlying principle is taken—an extreme on which both sides actually agree. In short, the division is caused by what is agreed on. This will be evident as we discover the unifying characteristics of a less extreme (and more Biblical) inability—one that is a moral inability and not a natural inability (the distinction pointed out long ago by Andrew Fuller and Jonathan Edwards).

In the natural use of the term, ability, as viewed with disregard to will, it’s meaning is simple and clear—one is either able or unable. But in the moral use of the term, as mingled with the idea of will, the utmost care must be used in understanding the meaning. It is a manner of expression common to language to imply the nature of the inability by the context. Both Calvinists and Libertarians, when speaking of total depravity, confuse the natural use with the moral use. This confusion results in an inherent contradiction that is easily brought to light with the following question about depravity: Are sinners unable to come to Christ no matter how much they might want to come, or could they come to Christ if they really wanted to? Neither Calvinists nor Libertarians can squarely address this question. In other words, does the inability consist only in the unwillingness, or is the inability of a nature such that the will is irrelevant to the inability? If the former, then they are simply unwilling and are without excuse; but if the latter, then the inability is independent of the will, and does offer an excuse. When Scripture speaks of such inability, it speaks of it in only a moral sense. The great Baptist centrist, Andrew Fuller, in “The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation,” [The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle, 1988)], explains it this way:

…It is just as impossible, no doubt, for any person to do that which he has no mind to do, as to perform that which surpasses his natural powers; and hence it is that the same terms are used in the one case as in the other. Those who were under the dominion of envy and malignity “could not speak peaceably;” and those who have “eyes full of adultery cannot cease from sin.” Hence, also, the following language, “How can ye, being evil, speak good things?”

In Gen. 37:4, it is said that Joseph’s brothers “could not speak peaceably unto him.” Here a moral inability is spoken of. Why is it that they could not speak peaceably unto him? When the ideas of will and ability are wrapped up together, then the meaning gains a complexity and nuance that the natural, ordinary use does not have. It is true that they were unable to speak peaceably, but only because their hateful hearts refused to speak peaceably to him. It is not true in the simple, natural sense of the word, that they could not speak peaceably no matter how much they might want to. That is the difference between a volitional freedom and a moral freedom. Volitionally, there was nothing to stop Joseph’s brothers from speaking peaceably except their own willful refusal; but in the moral sense, their sinful hatred made their continuing refusal certain. There are other examples of this expression, but it is commonly understood, anyway—take your taxes for example. If you hate what the government is doing with your money, and you tell them that you are angry and unable to pay your taxes, they will still put you in jail. Why is that? If you are unable, then you are unable—right? The problem is that they will immediately understand the implied distinction between an inability that consists in want of natural powers and an inability that consists only in want of will, and they will arrest you for having no excuse.

A natural inability is like a man born blind, who cannot see no matter how much he might want to. Natural inability provides an excuse. A moral inability is like a rebellious child who holds his hands over his eyes and refuses to see. The inability in both cases is just as debilitating — both will fall into the ditch if they try to walk — but the latter inability provides no excuse. Fuller explains:

…To whatever degree [natural inability] exists, let it arise from what cause it may, it excuses its subject of blame, in the account of both God and man. The law of God itself requires no creature to love him, or obey him, beyond his “strength,” or with more than all the powers which he possesses. If the inability of sinners to believe in Christ, or to do things spiritually good, were of this nature, it would undoubtedly form an excuse in their favour; and it must be as absurd to exhort them to such duties as to exhort the blind to look, the deaf to hear, or the dead to walk. But the inability of sinners is not such as to induce the Judge of all the earth (who cannot do other than right) to abate in his demands. It is a fact that he does require them, and that without paying any regard to their inability, to love him, and to fear him, and to do all his commandments always. The blind are admonished to look, the deaf to hear, and the dead to arise, Isa. xlii. 18; Eph. v. 14. If there were no other proof than what is afforded by this single fact, it ought to satisfy us that the blindness, deafness, and death of sinners, to that which is spiritually good is of a different nature from that which furnishes an excuse. This, however, is not the only ground of proof. The thing speaks for itself. There is an essential difference between an ability which is independent of the inclination, and one that is owing to nothing else…

Although the sinner’s inability consists only in his unwillingness, it is still, in Biblical terms, an inability. Fuller continues:

…It is just as impossible, no doubt, for any person to do that which he has no mind to do, as to perform that which surpasses his natural powers; and hence it is that the same terms are used in the one case as in the other. Those who were under the dominion of envy and malignity “could not speak peaceably;” and those who have “eyes full of adultery cannot cease from sin.” Hence, also, the following language, “How can ye, being evil, speak good things?”—”The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, neither can he know them.”—”The carnal mind is enmity against God; and is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.”—”They that are in the flesh cannot please God.”—”No man can come to me, except the Father, which hath sent me, draw him.”

Some argue that the nature of the inability is irrelevant. Fuller answers:

It is also true that many have affected to treat the distinction between natural and moral inability as more curious than solid. “If we be unable,” say they, “we are unable. As to the nature of the inability, it is a matter of no account. Such distinctions are perplexing to plain Christians, and beyond their capacity.”—But surely the plainest and weakest Christian, in reading his Bible, if he pay any regard to what he reads, must perceive a manifest difference between the blindness of Bartimeus, who was ardently desirous that “he might receive his sight,” and that of the unbelieving Jews, who “closed their eyes, lest they should see, and be converted, and be healed;” and between the want of the natural sense of hearing, and the state of those who “have ears, but hear not.”

Some argue that the inability is of both kinds, as the sinner is both unwilling and unable. Fuller answers:

…These two kinds of inability cannot consist with each other, so as both to exist in the same subject and towards the same thing. A moral inability supposes a natural ability. He who never, in any state, was possessed of the power of seeing, cannot be said to shut his eyes against the light… A total physical inability must, of necessity, supersede a moral one. To suppose, therefore, that the phrase, “No man can come to me,” is meant to describe the former; and, “Ye will not come to me that ye may have life,” the latter; is to suppose that our Saviour taught what is self-contradictory.

Sinners are unable to come to God as long as they are in rebellion against Him and His truth, but they remain accountable for that freely chosen rebellion. The Father must draw them, with the influences and persuasions of the Holy Spirit, the preaching of the gospel, and the orchestration of events in their lives. The inability that sinners are under neither provides them an excuse nor provides ground for objection that God is unjust. A moral inability is owing to nothing other than the sinfulness of heart.

If sinners were under a natural inability, then it would be true that they could not come to God in faith no matter how much they might want to. But, clearly, this is not the case in Scripture or reality. The fact is that none want to come to God, and that is the only reason why they cannot come to Him unless the Father draw them. Christ is not out of reach of their natural powers, so that they cannot find Him if they truly wanted Him; but He has been banished from the desires of their heart so that they will not ever want Him of their own accord.

Sinners are kept from salvation by their own sinful aversion to God and to the truth. Rather than it being completely impossible for them to come to God in faith, it is utterly certain that they will not choose to accept what God genuinely offers.

Volitionally, men are not unable to choose between God and self, since they continually make that decision and daily choose self over God. They are volitionally free in their natural ability. But they are not morally free until they have escaped sin and chosen to embrace God, forsaking self, sin and the world. Libertarians confuse moral freedom with volitional freedom, thinking that God “enables” a sinner to make a choice to either accept or reject God’s offer of salvation. But this takes moral freedom and superimposes it on the framework of volitional freedom, as if there could be a point of moral indifference. However, it is not moral freedom but volitional freedom that can entail a point of indifference. Morally, indifference does not exist, as one is either rebelling against God or embracing Him. The mythical point of moral neutrality in which one is “morally free” but not yet decided does not exist. If one has not yet decided to accept God, then one is not yet morally free and is still enslaved to sin. Volitional freedom may be the lack of impediments to deciding, but not moral freedom. Moral freedom is embracing God. Therefore, sinners do not need to be volitionally freed—enabled to make the decision between rejecting and accepting God; but rather, they need to be morally freed—enabled to embrace God. The former is the provision of natural ability that they already have, while the latter is the provision of moral ability that they lack. They are averse to God; and until God overcomes that aversion to the point that they embrace Him, they remain morally enslaved.

Together, these two propositions, the one on moral inability and the other on moral freedom, can help pull the two ends of the spectrum together. And even though the latter one will certainly be rejected by the Libertarians, any Calvinist who adopts both propositions will be less repugnant to the opposition.

Continue to Part 6: Unifying Propositions on Regeneration»

Ken Hamrick, 2013

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5 thoughts on “Toward Southern Baptist Unity, Part 5: Unifying Propositions on the Inability of Sinners

  1. Wouldn’t 1 Corinthians 2:14 point to a natural inability .. an inability based upon the limitations of the nature of man .. which would negate the possibility of saving faith apart from some supernatural change in man’s nature?

  2. Bob,
    It just mucks up the understanding when one uses the terms natural and moral. Thus Fuller says [as quoted from the post], “It is just as impossible, no doubt, for any person to do that which he has no mind to do, as to perform that which surpasses his natural powers;”
    So according to Fuller it is just as impossible for the sinner to desire to come to God as it is for me to run 26 miles without breathing.
    So the question {[a] as noted}, “Are sinners unable to come to Christ no matter how much they might want to come[a], or could they come to Christ if they really wanted to[b]?”, is really a non-sequitur. Since they really don’t want to come and as Fuller says, it is impossible for them to do what they have no mind to do, so that whatever you call their inability it remains an impossibility for them to come. While the second question {noted [b]} is answered the same by all, “yes if they want to come, they can come.” The C’s say they can come only by the grace of God while the L’s or A’s say that yes God’s grace is necessary [prevenient grace], but the final step must be man-will based. Likewise the C’s say that they have no mind to do so because they are fallen into sin both by their inherited nature and their own willful sinful rebellious choice.
    The Scripture reads:
    For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. [Roamns 1]

    By choosing to sin, they are suppressing the truth and as a consequence, God allows their foolish heart to be darkened, their thinking on God to become futile, and their wisdom so corrupted that they are really fools. So we read from 1st Cor, 1 that even when they hear the Gospel truth they think it foolishness:
    For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

    And in another place we are told:
    So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.[Eph. 4]

    These along with the excellent passage you brought up:
    But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.

    These passages of Scripture, and many others, for example: Jer. 17:9, Titus 1:15-126, Prov. 28:26, 2nd peter 2:19, Titus 3:3, Eph. 2:1-3, Prov. 21:10, Jer. 13:23, Gen. 6:5 &8;21, Romans 8:7-8, Is. 64:7, and many others, show us that the unsaved man has no mind for the word of the cross and thus it is impossible for any person to be saved unless God draws them and saves them.

    That these truths are harsh to the Libertarian/Arminian ears does not mean we should abandon them as the price of unity.

  3. Bob,
    You said,
    “Wouldn’t 1 Corinthians 2:14 point to a natural inability .. an inability based upon the limitations of the nature of man .. which would negate the possibility of saving faith apart from some supernatural change in man’s nature?”

    The passage:
    But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.

    In the passage Paul uses the word natural but he does not mean the same thing as what Fuller and Ken mean when they say natural ability. Natural ability as used by Fuller and Ken means physical and of the body. Whilst Paul means it as un-spiritual as you see it contrasted in the passage:
    But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.

    But the problem is when they contrast the physical/natural with the moral. Coming to Christ is not a moral decision, Moral decisions are of the law, of right and wrong, of sin and obedience. Coming to Christ is not a moral decision. We don’t come to Christ by making a moral decision as if we want to do the right thing and because we choose the right thing, God saves us. Faith is not law keeping. Now we seek to obey God because we believe but our faith and trust in Him is not of the law or of morals. It is of relationship for we do not believe [have faith] by mental decision but rather because we believe [have faith/trust] we seek to obey and thus decide to obey whom we trust.
    -mike

  4. But having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed, therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore we also speak, knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you. [2nd Cor. 4]

    But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. [Romans 10]

    The willful action of man is salvation is shown to us by the Scriptures. It is the speaking or confessing and it is done because the person has faith. In another place the Lord tells us that out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. Likewise when our hearts are filed with awe and faith and reverence for the Lord, we confess Him. This willful act of ours is also attributed to God:

    Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is accursed”; and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. [1st Cor. 12]

    We don’t make a mental decision or moral decision to believe or to have faith, but rather we react to the faith that is granted to us by confessing Jesus is Lord. Those who proclaim Jesus is their Lord but do so without faith will wither and die on the vine, so to speak, because they are still dead in their sins, and are lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power. [from 2nd Tim. 3]

    These have made a mental/moral decision to become ‘Christians’ but have made no submission to the Lord. Faith on the other hand begins with: so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God so that by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

    -mike

  5. Bob,

    The context has several interesting points. In 1 Cor. 1:18, it tells us, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Clearly, at some point prior to salvation, the one who will eventually believe stops seeing the cross as folly and starts seeing it as wisdom. But the thing that makes this difference is what is the sticking point. It is plausible that an uninvited, monergistic change in nature (prior to faith) causes the difference in understanding toward the cross; but another possibility is that the difference in understanding is brought about by a change in attitude toward spiritual truth and the witness of the Holy Spirit toward that truth. The former explanation assumes that a change in nature is required, while the latter assumes that God, through communicating with the sinner from outside the sinner, can effect enough of a change in attitude to enable understanding. The latter also assumes that the understanding of the spiritual truth of the gospel is merely a matter of whether one is spiritually rebelling against that truth or willing to embrace that truth.

    In verses 6 and 7 of chapter 2, we are told, “Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God…” Here, Paul seems to put the focus onto more than the fundamental truth of the gospel, as he speaks of a wisdom that is imparted only “among the mature” (as verse 11 says, “even the deep things of God”). As we will be reminded further into this passage, those believers to whom Paul was writing were not mature—not “spiritual”—and Paul is explaining their failure to understand him.

    Verse 14: “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.” Check out the Greek and the commentaries and I think you’ll find that the contrast here is not between people with different natures but between people with different attitudes toward the Spirit of God and His truths. The “natural person” is one who is naturally minded, not embracing the spiritual wisdom offered by the Spirit of God. What makes the things of the Spirit of God to be folly to him is his inner spiritual rebellion that is manifested in a natural-mindedness that focuses only on what is not spiritual. Even regenerated believers can suffer from this malady. The “spiritual person” is one who is willing to be taught wisdom (and influenced) by the Spirit of God.

    In 3:1-3, Paul tells them, “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” Here, we have believers who are not “spiritual people,” and who were not ready to be taught the solid food of the things of the Spirit of God, but were only fit for milk. Did they understand the gospel truth? Obviously, they did, since they were saved. But the gospel is the “milk” fit for newborn babes.

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