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

Posted on May 18, 2013 by


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