Making Sense of the Inability of Sinners

Posted on February 22, 2013 by


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