Man’s Moral Inability

In the first article of this series, we examined some of the aspects of man’s radical corruption in sin. We observed that man is dead in sin (Eph. 2:1-3; Col. 2:13), represses the knowledge of God and creates idols (Rom. 1:18-25), does not do good according to God’s law, and does not seek for God apart from the work of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 3:9-12). Because of the nature of man’s sin, for a person to come to Jesus for salvation, God must take the initiative; God’s divine initiative is the first step in anyone’s salvation. The Bible’s strong statements about the degree of man’s corruption in sin and God’s initiative in our salvation magnify the grace of God in salvation. This article continues this examination of man’s corruption in sin which is classically called total depravity (meaning that sin affects man’s total being) and God’s divine initiative in our salvation.

In John 6:44, 45, Jesus proclaimed man’s inability to come to him apart from God’s initiative: “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to me.” This statement begins with a universal negative, “No one can come to Me. . . .” It is universal because the phrase, “No one” refers to all people. The word, “can” in this phrase refers to ability. I remember early grammar lessons that taught the difference between “can” and “may.” “Can” refers to ability while “may” refers to permission. Perhaps you had the experience in first grade of asking your teacher, “Can I sharpen my pencil.” The standard reply was, “I’m sure you can and you may.” Jesus said that no one has the ability to come to Him on their own.

Jonathan Edwards made a distinction that is helpful in thinking about this issue. He distinguished between natural ability and moral ability. God provides certain natural abilities to members of his creation. For example, he provides the birds with the ability to fly. Fish have the ability to live under water and extract oxygen from the water through their gills. God provides the fish with fins and gills and the birds with feathers and wings. Human beings do not naturally have that equipment. Human beings, however, are given the natural ability to make choices. God gave people minds that can receive and analyze information. Man’s corruption in sin does not strip from him the ability to choose what he wants. In the fall, however, man did lose his desire for God and his inclination toward the good. In this regard, a person can intellectually understand the law of God and its obligations and he can understand the content of the gospel. The unregenerate person, however, does not want to obey God or to come to Christ. He could choose Christ and the things of God if he wanted them, but he has no desire for them. This is where Edwards makes the distinction between natural and moral ability. Man has the natural ability to choose God, but he does not have the moral ability to do it. The things of God and the gospel are foolishness to him (1 Cor. 2:14) and he has no desire for Christ. This is what Jesus was addressing when He said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. . . .” Fallen man may look at Jesus and be impressed with his moral teaching; he may think that Jesus is interesting, but, apart from God’s divine initiative, he will never come to Christ for salvation. He has no desire to submit to God or to believe the gospel; he lacks the moral ability to come to Christ.

After Jesus said that no one has the ability to come to him, he gave an exception clause, “unless the Father draws him.”

What does the word “draw” mean? Some have proposed that it simply means “to woo” or “to entice.” Using this meaning, Jesus would have been saying that God’s action in salvation is merely that he encourages a person to come to Christ. This is a necessary encouragement for a person to come, but it is not an effectual action; it does not guarantee that a person will come. This explanation is incorrect. First of all, in John 6:45, Jesus said, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to me.” Jesus saw this drawing of the Father as not only a necessary condition for someone to come to salvation, but also as a sufficient condition. Everyone that is drawn by the Father will come. It was not merely an enticement or encouragement to come. Second, the Greek word translated as “draw” is elko. Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines elko as “to compel by irresistible superiority. The linguistic and lexicographical meaning of elko is “to compel (Kittel, Vol. 2, p. 503).

Elko is a forceful verb. To see the force of this verb, let’s consider two other passages in the New Testament where the word is used. In Acts 16:19, Paul and Silas are attacked by the owners of a slave girl after Paul cast a demon out of her: “But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the authorities.” In this verse, elko is translated as “dragged.” Certainly, Paul and Silas were not enticed or wooed into the market place. They were forcibly seized and compelled to come. Another passage where elko is used is James 2:6. James is addressing the problem of favoritism in the church. He is rebuking his readers for honoring the wealthy and disparaging the poor. He writes in verse 6: “But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?” Again, elko is translated as “drag.” In both of these verses, the linguistic meaning of elko as “to compel” is reflected in the translation and the context of the verse. Jesus was not saying that the Father merely woos or entices a person to come, but that there is an effectual action that compels a person to come.

This same idea is set forth just a few verses later in John 6:63-65: “‘It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, ‘For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to me, unless it has been granted him from the Father.'” Jesus said that the Spirit gives life and the flesh profits nothing. Martin Luther commented that when Jesus said that the flesh profits nothing that doesn’t mean a little bit. Jesus emphasized that it is the Holy Spirit that brings spiritual life to a person. In verse 65, he again speaks of man’s moral inability to come to Him unless it has been granted by the Father. For a person to come to Christ, the ability to come must be granted or given by the Father. No one can come to Christ in the flesh. Without God’s divine initiative, no one can come. The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes these points: “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 (Chapter 9, Art. 3).”

This is the pattern that is set forth in Ephesians 2:1-5. Verses 1-3 declare that man is dead in sin and lives out that sinful condition. Verses 4 and 5 declare” But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved). . . .” Paul sets forth in Ephesians the same idea that Jesus declared: Man does not have the moral ability to come to Christ in his flesh; a divine initiative is the necessary first condition for salvation.

The action of being drawn to Christ is coupled closely with the Holy Spirit’s work of making a person alive in Christ or regenerating him. Once a person is made alive in Christ, he has the desire for Christ and he comes to Jesus. That moral ability to come to Christ, however, is the result of the Spirit giving life. The Westminster Confession declares: “When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He freeth him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by His grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so, that by reason of his remaining corruption, he doth not perfectly, nor only, will that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil. The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to do good alone in the state of glory only (Chapter 9, art. 4 and 5).”

Understanding this strips all boasting and claims of self-righteousness from man. If you are in Christ, it is because God has shown you mercy and initiated your salvation. Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th century preacher said, “If God requires of the sinner, dead in sin, that he should take the first step, then he requires just that which renders salvation as impossible under the gospel as it was under the law, since man is as unable to believe as he is to obey.” He also said, “I take it that the highest proof of Christ’s power is not that he offers salvation, not that he bids you take it if you will, but that when you reject it, when you hate it, when you despise it, he has a power whereby he can change your mind, make you think differently from your former thoughts, and turn you from the error of your ways.”

The second stanza of the hymn Amazing Grace reflects these points: “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed!” When you see real faith in your life, you are also seeing a manifestation of God’s grace operating in your life.

This truth is described in a poem that was discovered in the pocket of Major John Andre after his execution during the Revolutionary War. It was written in his death cell, so these words are literally a dying man’s testimony:

“Hail, Sovereign Love, which first began the scheme to rescue fallen man! Hail, matchless, free, eternal grace, which gave my soul a Hiding Place! Against the God who built the sky I fought with hands uplifted high– Despite the mention of His grace– too proud to seek a Hiding Place Enrapt in thick Egyptian night, and fond of darkness more than light, I madly ran the sinful race, secure, I thought, without God’s grace. But the eternal counsel ran: “Almighty Love, arrest that man!” I felt the arrows of distress, and found I had no Hiding Place. Indignant Justice stood in view; to Sinai’s fiery mount I flew; But Justice cried with frowning face, “This mountain is no Hiding Place!” Ere long a heavenly voice I heard, and mercy’s angel soon appeared; He led me, with a beaming face, to Jesus as my Hiding Place! On Him almighty vengeance fell, which would have sunk a world to Hell; He bore it for a sinful race, and thus became their Hiding Place!”

If you are in Christ now, it is because God has taken the first step in your salvation and drawn you to Jesus. This eliminates all claims of self-righteousness, boasting, or spiritual pride. Understanding these truths should move our hearts to giving God all glory and honor for the work he has performed in our lives and the mercy we have received.

Next article in this series: Effectual Calling and Regeneration

About the author

Dr. Van Lees

Dr. Van Lees is the pastor/teacher of Covenant of Grace Church. He has been the pastor of the church since 1985 when it started. Dr. Lees has a M. Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary, a D. Min. from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Whitefield Theological Seminary.