Monday, February 11, 2008

How Can We Be Held Responsible for Our Own Inability?

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by Phil Johnson @

before I went on a two-week hiatus, I started a series on the doctrine of total depravity, in which I proposed to deal with these questions:

Today we'll take up the second of those questions.

The Westminster confession states the doctrine of total depravity in these terms: "Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto" (Chap. IX, sect. iii).

Every element of that statement is crucial. Note exactly what kind of inability is described here. It is not an inability to do good things. It is an inability for "any spiritual good accompanying salvation." In other words, sinners have no ability to do spiritual good that merits God's favor or forgiveness. They are completely antagonistic to real righteousness. They are hopelessly in thrall to sin. They cannot save themselves or even make themselves fit for God's salvation. They have no appetite for spiritual truth, no ability to understand it. Therefore, they cannot possibly believe the truth or appropriate salvation for themselves by any means.

In John 8:44, Jesus told the Pharisees, "You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father." Their desires were corrupt, and it was a corruption that emanated from the nucleus of their very nature. Jesus said they were like the devil. He went on to say, "[The Devil] does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies."

The implication is, You are in the same boat. He was telling those Pharisees, in effect, It is your nature to be evil. There is no way you could do otherwise. There is no way you can make yourself other than what you are. "Can the Ethiopian change his skin Or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil" (Jeremiah 13:23).

At this point, some readers will ask, "If this is so—if we are sinful by nature, totally unable to be any other way—how can a just God hold us responsible for that? It wouldn't be fair to command a paraplegic to run a marathon and then punish him because he was unable, would it?

But our inability isn't the inability of a paraplegic; it is an inability of the will. Our inability does not arise from a lack of physical, rational, or cognitive faculties. It arises from a wrong moral inclination—a will that is firmly set against the truth and has no inclination to will otherwise.

All our faculties—our minds, emotions, and wills—work just fine. That is, we can think and act and choose freely according to whatever our own desires and motives are. But that is precisely the problem: our desires and motives are the very thing sin has corrupted. Our desires are defective. So the will itself is therefore bent against righteousness. Our corruption is therefore a willful depravity. It is a moral defect, not the kind of inability that keeps a paraplegic from running a race.

Depravity inclines the will of a fallen sinner to love sin, so that God's righteousness becomes morally repugnant. The sinner is left unable to love Him, unable to choose obedience to His law. It is a moral defect, and therefore the sinner himself is morally culpable.

But isn't the human will free? In one sense it is, but in the sense normally meant by people who tend to make the most liberal use the expression "free will," the will is not free. It's in bondage to sin.

Our will is free to choose according to our desires, but it is not free to determine those desires. The will is free in the sense that our choices are not forced upon us or compelled by external pressure. But our will is not "free" in the sense of being sovereign over our moral nature. We cannot by an act of will change our character for the better. That is the whole point of Jeremiah 13:23: The sinner has exactly as much ability to turn his own heart to do good as a cheetah has to will his spots away.

In other words, depravity corrupts our heart and perverts all our appetites. It so inclines our nature that we love sin. Evil desires therefore govern the choices we make. Since we make those choices freely and with great delight, we are guilty for them.

So our inability is no excuse for our sinfulness. It is precisely the opposite. It is the very reason we are condemned. Sin flows from the very core of our souls. The heart of who we are is evil. We are "by nature children of wrath" (Ephesians 2:3). That is why we do evil things. Jesus said, "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man" (Mark 7:21-23).

In other words, we are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners. We were born sinful, and all our acts of sin proceed from that.

That brings up the third question, which we'll deal with next time.

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