NATURAL AND SPIRITUAL INABILITY – THE DIFFERENCE.
“NO MAN CAN come to Me, except the Father which bath sent Me draw him”. The heart of the natural man (every man) is so “desperately wicked” that if he is left to himself he will never ‘come to Christ.’ “No man can COME TO ME”—cf. John 5:40, “Ye will not COME TO ME that ye might have life.”
Quite a number of Scriptures set forth the moral and spiritual INABILITY of the natural man. In Joshua 24:19 we read, “And Joshua said unto the people, YE CANNOT SERVE THE LORD: for He is a holy God.” To the Pharisees Christ said, “Why do ye not understand My speech? Even because YE CANNOT HEAR My word” (John 8:43). And again: “The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, NEITHER INDEED CAN BE. So then they that are in the flesh CANNOT please God” (Rom. 8:7, 8).
But now the question returns, HOW can God hold the sinner responsible for failing to do what he is UNABLE to do? This necessitates a careful definition of terms. Just what is meant by “unable” and “cannot”?
Now let it be clearly understood that, when we speak of the sinner’s INABILITY, we do not mean that IF men DESIRED to come to Christ they lack the necessary power to carry out their desire. No; the fact is that the sinner’s inability or absence of power is itself DUE to LACK OF WILLINGNESS to come to Christ, and this lack of willingness is the fruit of a depraved heart.
It is of first importance that we DISTINGUISH between NATURAL inability and MORAL AND SPIRITUAL INABILITY. For example, we read, “But Abijah COULD NOT SEE; for his eyes were set by reason of his age” (1 Kings 14:4); and again, “The men rowed hard to bring it to the land; but THEY COULD NOT: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them” (Jonah 1:13). In both of these passages the words “could not” refer to NATURAL INABILITY. But when we read, “And when his brethren saw that their father loved him (Joseph) more than all his brethren, they hated him, AND COULD NOT speak peaceably unto him” (Gen. 37:4), it is clearly MORAL INABILITY that is in view. They did not lack the NATURAL ability to “speak peaceably unto him”, for they were not DUMB. Why then was it that they “could not speak peaceably unto him”? The answer is given in the same verse: it was because “they HATED him.”
Again; in 2 Peter 2:14 we read of a certain class of wicked men “having eyes full of adultery, and that CANNOT CEASE FROM SIN.” Here again it is MORAL INABILITY that is in view. Why is it that these men “cannot cease from sin”? The answer is, Because their eyes were full of adultery. So of Romans 8:8.—”They that are in the flesh CANNOT please God”: here it is SPIRITUAL INABILITY. Why is it that the natural man “cannot please God”? Because he is “ALIENATED from the life of God” (Eph. 4:18). No man can choose that from which his heart is AVERSE—”O generation of vipers HOW CAN YE, being evil, speak good things?” (Matt. 12:34). “No man CAN COME TO ME, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him” (John 6:44). Here again it is MORAL AND SPIRITUAL INABILITY which is before us. Why is it the sinner cannot come to Christ unless he is “drawn”? The answer is, Because his wicked heart LOVES SIN and HATES CHRIST.
We trust we have made it clear that the Scriptures distinguish sharply between natural inability and moral and spiritual inability. Surely all can see the DIFFERENCE between the blindness of Bartimeus, who was ardently desirous of receiving his sight, and the Pharisees, whose eyes were closed, “lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted” (Matt. 13:15). But should it be said, The natural man COULD come to Christ if he WISHED to do so, we answer, Ah! but in that IF lies the hinge of the whole matter. The inability of the sinner consists of THE WANT of moral power TO WISH and will so as to actually perform.
What we have contended for above is of first importance. Upon the distinction between the sinner’s natural Ability, and his moral and spiritual Inability, rests his RESPONSIBILITY. The depravity of the human heart does not destroy man s accountability to God; so far from this being the case the very moral inability of the sinner only serves to INCREASE HIS GUILT. This is easily proven by a reference to the scriptures cited above. We read that Joseph’s brethren “could not speak peaceably unto him,” and why? It was because they “hated” Him. But was this moral inability of theirs any excuse? Surely not: in this very moral inability consisted the greatness of their sin. So of those concerning whom it is said, “They cannot cease from sin” (2 Pet. 2:14), and why? Because “their eyes were full of adultery,” but that only made their case worse. It was a real fact that they could not cease from sin, yet this did not excuse them—it only made their sin the greater.
Should some sinner here object, I cannot help being born into this world with a depraved heart, and therefore I am not responsible for my moral and spiritual inability which accrue from it, the reply would be, Responsibility and Culpability lie in the INDULGENCE of the depraved propensities, the FREE indulgence, for God does not force any TO SIN. Men might pity me, but they certainly would not excuse me if I gave vent to a fiery temper, and then sought to extenuate myself on the ground of having INHERITED that temper from my parents. Their own common sense is sufficient to guide their judgment in such a case as this. They would argue I was responsible to restrain my temper. Why then cavil against this same principle in the case supposed above?
“Out of THINE OWN MOUTH will I judge thee thou wicked servant” surely applies here! What would the reader say to a man who had robbed him, and who later argued in defence, “I cannot help being a thief, that is my nature”? Surely the reply would be, Then the penitentiary is the proper place for that man. What then shall be said to the one who argues that he cannot help following the bent of his sinful heart? Surely, that the Lake of Fire is where SUCH AN ONE must go. Did ever murderer plead that he hated his victim so much that he COULD NOT go near him WITHOUT slaying him. Would not that only magnify the enormity of his crime! Then what of the one who loves sin so much that he is “at enmity against GOD”!
The FACT of man’s responsibility is almost universally acknowledged. It is inherent in man’s moral nature. It is not only taught in Scripture but witnessed to by the natural conscience. The BASIS or ground of human responsibility is human ABILITY. What is implied by this general term “ability” must now be defined. Perhaps a concrete example will be more easily grasped by the average reader than an abstract argument.
Suppose a man owed me $100 and could find plenty of money for his own pleasures but none for me, yet pleaded that he was UNABLE to pay me. What would I say? I would say that the only ability that was lacking was AN HONEST HEART. But would it not be an unfair construction of my words if a friend of my dishonest debtor should say I had stated that an honest heart was that which CONSTITUTED THE ABILITY to pay the debt? No; I would reply: the ability of my debtor lies in the power of his hand to write me a check, AND THIS HE HAS, but what is lacking is AN HONEST PRINCIPLE. It is his power to write me a check which makes him responsible to do so, and the fact that he lacks an honest heart does not destroy his accountability.
Now, in like manner, the sinner while altogether lacking in moral and spiritual ability DOES, nevertheless, possess NATURAL ability, and this it is which renders him accountable unto God. Men have the same NATURAL faculties to love God with as they have to hate Him with, the same hearts to believe with which they disbelieve, and it is THEIR FAILURE to love and believe which constitutes their guilt. An idiot or an infant is not personally responsible to God, because LACKING in NATURAL ability. But the normal man who is endowed with rationality, who is gifted with a conscience that is capable of distinguishing between right and wrong, WHO IS ABLE TO WEIGH ETERNAL ISSUES is a responsible being, and it is because he DOES possess these very faculties that he will yet have to “give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12).
We say again that the above distinction between the natural ability and the moral and spiritual inability of the sinner is of prime importance. By nature he possesses natural ability but LACKS moral and spiritual ability. The fact that he DOES NOT POSSESS the latter, does not DESTROY his responsibility, because his responsibility rests upon the fact that he DOES possess the former. Let me illustrate again. Here are two men guilty of theft: the first is an idiot, the second perfectly sane but the offspring of criminal parents. No just judge would sentence the former; but every right-minded judge would the latter. Even though the second of these thieves possessed a vitiated moral nature inherited from criminal parents, that would not EXCUSE him, providing he was a normal RATIONAL being. Here then is THE GROUND OF HUMAN ACCOUNTABILITY—THE Possession of rationality plus the gift of conscience. It is because the sinner IS ENDOWED with these natural faculties that he is a RESPONSIBLE creature; because he DOES NOT USE his natural powers for God’s glory, constitutes his GUILT.
How can it remain consistent with His mercy that God should require the debt of obedience from him that is not able to pay? In addition to what has been said above, it should be pointed out that God has not lost His RIGHT, even though man has lost his POWER. The creature’s impotence does not cancel his obligation. A drunken servant is a servant still, and it is contrary to all sound reasoning to argue that his master loses his rights through his servant’s default. Moreover, it is of first importance that we should ever bear in mind that God contracted with us in Adam, who was our federal head and representative, and in him, God gave us a power which we lost through our first parent’s fall; but though our power be gone, nevertheless, God may justly demand His due of obedience and of service.