Making Sense of the Inability of Sinners

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 Arminians, when speaking of total depravity, confuse the natural use with the moral use, and lead to the absurdity of men not being able to come to Christ no matter how much they might want to come to Him. Of course, they would not agree. It is a confusion of ideas that they implicitly hold but would explicitly deny. But regardless of denials, the 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 Arminians 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, 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? Or, is it even true that they could not? Since Scripture says it this way, then it must be true… but in what way? You see, 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. And this distinction is not limited to this single passage, either. There are some 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.

Ken Hamrick, 2013

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4 Responses to Making Sense of the Inability of Sinners

  1. parsonsmike says:


    As to this:
    “Both Calvinists and Arminians, when speaking of total depravity, confuse the natural use with the moral use, and lead to the absurdity of men not being able to come to Christ no matter how much they might want to come to Him.”

    The absurdity is in the thinking that any person would want to come to God unless drawn by Him to Himself. The inability does not reside in the will but in the nature of both God and man. In man, the nature of man is to self and there is no room for God as God. In God, the nature is to God, and there is no room for man who does not see God as God. God is not prostrating Himself before fallen man waiting on repentance. When man turns from God and toward self, God cuts the man off, We see this in Romans 1:

    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.
    Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen…
    For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions …
    And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil…

    What then can we gather from this?
    We read:
    For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

    We might say that of course it can not do so since, as Mr. Fuller is apt to say, “It is just as impossible, no doubt, for any person to do that which he has no mind to do.”
    But the problem is beyond the will, if the will is subject to the mind. If the man has a mind set on the flesh, can he change his mind to set it on the Spirit? If he can, then the problem is in his will. But if he cannot, certainly we can not say that the doctrines we speak about are promoting the possibility that men couldn’t come to Christ even if they wanted. The whole point is that they are ‘stuck’ in an anti-God mindset they can’t change.

    But then one might ask, if they can’t change, how are they guilty?
    But what are they guilty of but the sin they do! And that sin, they choose freely!

    The problem is when law and grace are conflated and conclusions drawn.

    The Scriptures that speak of man coming to God are not speaking of law but salvation, which is not in the realm of law.
    Thus we read: For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But judgment is based on the Law.

    We also read: What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.
    Salvation [coming to God] is not will-of-man based. And good thing that is since if it were, none would be saved.

    Thus there is no chance a person could want to come to Christ and be unable. Coming to Christ is not a function of man’s will. Just as salvation is not a function of Law.

  2. I wonder if the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30 has any bearing on the discussion of inability. A straightforward reading of the text certainly seems to relay earnest desire on the part of the woman (she wanted to come to Him – I get that it was to ask for a miracle and not salvation per se but she had to recognize who He was to ask for what He could do – yet it seems that Jesus did not want her to come.)

    Certainly who He was and what He did attested to what He could do for her which she could not do for herself, and certainly through these acts and perhaps a presentation of the Gospel (since she was there surely she had heard Jesus speak to the “Jews”) drew her to Him – just as today a presentation of the Gospel and the attestation of the Spirit of God draws men to the Savior because they recognize in Him someone who has done what they cannot; reconcile them to God.

    I think a lot of difficulty is introduced by insisting that to be “spiritually dead” means that our spirit is unable to respond to God, rather by dead (as the Jewish understanding of death is separation) we are to understand that man is separated from God and is unable to save Himself or repair the separation. That seems to me to be an altogether different thing than an inability to RESPOND to God’s saving effort. Even a dumb animal can respond to a man’s overtures of kindness. Surely a man, made in God’s image, can respond to the gracious overtures of God’s kindness?!

    Another question along these lines. Why would Paul say, “… I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Co 9:22)” unless the unregenerate human will is involved in the individual coming to Christ …persuasion is necessary only if a real choice is involved.

    Blessings, David

  3. Ken Hamrick says:

    Brother David,

    Good points about the Syrophoenician woman. You are right that spiritual death is not spiritual inanimation. Much of the misunderstanding seems to be built on excessive metaphors and false conclusions.

    Thanks for your comments, and welome to the Open Forum!

  4. Ken,

    Thanks for inviting me! I am looking forward to being a part of the discussion and growing in the process.

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