Friday, February 18

Inability

This post is in response to Dueling with Dead Men: A Look at Total Depravity at The Bible Archive. I haven't gone through Rey's points one by one. If you've ever done a point by point response to something, you know that it takes loads of work and lots of space, and I'm just not up to it. Instead, I've given a short (well, shortish!) defense of the inability part of the doctrine of total depravity, concentrating in particular on one aspect of that inability and one passage of scripture.

The word total in the term total depravity means that the depravity that came to all human beings as a result of the fall mars every part of their being. It's a comprehensive problem, and nothing is working for post-fall beings exactly the way it was intended to work in the world before the fall. Our bodies have faults: they have corruptions that work their way out in our physical lives. Our minds are imperfect, leaving our thinking powers warped. Our emotions run amuck, too. This depravity also extends to our wills, leaving us with desires that have also been corrupted.

This corruption of our desires--of our will--puts us in a bit of a pickle when it comes to the demands God makes on his creatures. He commands that people obey him, but in their natural state, people don't much care to--at least they don't want to always obey him--and even when they do make an attempt at obeying his commands, they don't do it for the right reasons. Ephesians 2 tells us that natural people--those who remain dead in trespasses and sins--are living out their lives in the cravings of their flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind. They don't care about pleasing God; rather, they care about pleasing their own flesh. Ephesians 2 also tells us that this problem of constantly improper desires is universal--those who are not yet believers remain in that state, and those who are believers were once in that state.

God, of course, does nothing to keep people from obeying him, and his commandments are nothing more than what people ought to be doing; but the corruptions that came to every human being through the fall makes the pull of their fleshly desires such that they just keep on indulging them instead of doing what God asks of them. Human beings are so intransigent in this disobedient stance that scripture tells us that the natural person--as they are born and without any supernatural intervention--is unable to submit to God's commands (Romans 8:7,8).

This is one aspect of the inability that is part of our depravity. We just can't keep God's commands. Not that any of them are too hard for us--they aren't. We ought to be able to keep them; they aren't burdensome. Our problem is that we consistently choose to please our flesh rather than God. It's a character flaw, a character flaw that we all have been born with, and it results in our inability in this area.

Some people have difficulty with the words "unable" or "cannot" being used to describe a condition that involves continued refusal, but those are the scriptural words. Then, too, it's not using those words in a way we don't already use it. If I told you that a certain woman was so proud that she was unable to go out in public without heavy makeup, a fur coat, and all her jewelry, you'd understand that the source of her inability to go out unadorned was a character flaw within the woman herself. You'd understand that if that woman woke up one morning and decided to go do her grocery shopping before she applied the paint, and wearing a pair of ripped sweat pants, she certainly could. No one would stop her from doing it. But because she is so proud, she never will decide go grocery shopping looking like that. She has a character trait that results in a consistant action that she can't not do as long as that character trait exists.

And natural (or fleshly) people are just like that. If they willed above all else to submit to God, nothing would stand in their way. They are unable to keep God's commands because they have a character flaw that makes them want to do the opposite of submitting to God. This character flaw makes them always want to fulfill the desires of their flesh and of their mind more than they want to obey God. Yes, it's a pickle, but it's a pickle that arises from stubborn hearts. Our stubborness makes us unable to do what God commands us to do: submit to his righteous demands of us.

On this particular point--that natural humans are unable to submit to God's law--there isn't nearly as much disagreement as there is on the other aspect of inability--that natural humans are unable to come to Christ or savingly believe on him.* However, Jesus himself makes statements that affirm this inability to believe in John 6:
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.... (verse 44).

But there are some of you who do not believe.... Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father (verses 64,65).**
It's the same word of ability--or rather inability--used here as is used above in Romans 8 when we are told that natural people can't submit to God's law, but this time it's used in regards to coming to Christ, which you can see from verses 64 and 65 is used synonymously with believing. In these snippets of verses we're told that this inability exists in everyone--no one is excluded--unless God takes action on their behalf. This action by God is described as drawing or granting or giving or permitting, depending on which verse you look at (see verse 37, too) and which version you use. Whatever it is that these words mean exactly, it is an action taken by God that is required before anyone can believe on Christ or come to him. As we stand naturally, without God's intervention, we are unable to believe. Our natural state is one of inability--inability to submit to God and inability to believe in him.

Some argue that this intervening action of God is taken on behalf of every single natural person, so that no person remains in this state of inability. The problem with this idea is that this doesn't fit the context of these statements unless Jesus is teaching universalism in this passage, for the person who is drawn by the Father--or given by the Father--is the raised up on the last day, and being raised on the last day in this particular context is the same as being given eternal life (verse 40). Furthermore, if you read verses 64 and 65, you will see that "no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father" is given as the reason for the unbelievers that remain among his followers--like Judas, and the disciples who walk away from Jesus in verse 66. The explanation Jesus gives for why these people don't believe is that it has not been granted them by the Father. The drawing, the giving, the granting cannot be universal, for Jesus gives examples of people for whom it did not happen, and ties their unbelief to it not being given to them by the Father.

John 12:32 ("And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to myself.") is often brought in as a lense through which to interpret this passage. If you do that, and you make the draw of John 12 extend to every single person, and make the draw of this passage have exactly the same meaning, then this passage become unintelligible. Either the draw of John 12 means something different than it does in John 6, or the "all" of John 12:32 means something different than every single person who has ever lived (or both). If you read John 12:32 into John 6, and you make the "all" of John 12:32 universal without exception, then John 6 is teaching us that eternal life is universal. However, it's always the immediate context that gives the strongest clue to what the word means in any particular usage of it, rather than what it means somewhere else.

I could add more from other passages that speak to the issue of the natural person's inability to believe, but this seems like enough to show that we are, without intervention by God, unable to believe. I've never seen exegesis of these comments from Jesus that is able to convincingly get around this. I've seen attempts, but they involved twisting Jesus' statements in improbable ways, not because the text itself warrants it, but because taking his statements at face value as they appear in the context causes problems with one's soteriological system. In other words, a presupposed system is the filter through which this chapter is interpreted, and this passage is not allowed to speak for itself, or be interpreted from the inside out without a filter.

*In my opinion, these two things--inability to obey and inability to believe--are really part of one whole inability problem, but since many who accept the first but not the second see them as separate things, I'm treating them as if they were separate things in this post.

**I've taken out the portions of these two verses that are John's commentary rather than Jesus's actual quote. I've done this so it's easier to follow the flow of his statement and see how "therefore" connects back to the previous sentence.


[Update: Rey responds here.

I respond to a comment on this post here.]
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