Human Inability to come to God

“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 good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.”

Westminster Confession

Paul, Augustine, and Calvin have as their starting point the fact that all mankind sinned in Adam and that all men are without excuse (Rom 2:1). Time and again Paul tells us that we are dead in trespasses and sins, estranged from God, and helpless. In writing to the Ephesian Christians, he reminded them that before they received the gospel they were “without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). There we notice the fivefold emphasis as he piles phrase on top of phrase to stress this truth.

The extent and effects of original sin: This doctrine of total inability, which declares that men are dead in sin, does not mean that all men are equally bad, nor that any man is as bad as he could be, nor that anyone is entirely destitute of virtue, nor that human nature is evil in itself, nor that man’s spirit is inactive, and much less does it mean that the body is dead. What it does mean is that since the Fall, man rests under the curse of sin, that he is actuated by wrong principles, and that he is wholly unable to love God or to do anything meriting salvation…

It is in this sense that man since the Fall “is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil.” He possesses a fixed bias of the will against God, and instinctively and willingly turns to evil. He is an alien by birth, and a sinner by choice. The inability under which he labors is not an inability to exercise volitions, but an inability to be willing to exercise holy volitions. And it is this phase of it that led Luther to declare that “free choice is an empty phrase, of which the reality has been lost. Lost liberty, according to my grammar, is no liberty at all.” In matters pertaining to his salvation, the unregenerate man is not at liberty to choose between good and evil, but only to choose between greater and lesser evil, which is not properly free will. The fact that fallen man still has ability to do certain acts morally good in themselves does not prove that he can do acts meriting salvation, for his motives may be wholly wrong.

Man is a free agent, but he cannot originate the love of God in his heart. His will is free in the sense that it is not controlled by any force outside of himself. As the bird with a broken wing is “free” to fly but not able, so the natural man is free to come to God but not able. How can he repent of his sin when he loves it? How can he come to God when he hates Him? This is the inability of the will under which man labors. Jesus said, “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (Joh 3:19); and again, “And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life” (Joh 5:40). Man’s ruin lies mainly in his own perverse will. He cannot come because he will not. Help enough is provided if he were only willing to accept it. Paul tells us, “The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Rom 8:7).

To assume that because man has ability to love he therefore has ability to love God is about as wise as to assume that since water has the ability to flow, it therefore has the ability to flow up hill; or to reason that because a man has power to cast himself from the top of a precipice to the bottom, he therefore has equal power to transport himself from the bottom to the top.

Fallen man sees nothing desirable in the One Who is “altogether lovely…the chiefest among ten thousand” (Song 5:16, 10). He may admire Jesus as a man, but he wants nothing to do with Him as God; and he resists the outward holy influences of the Spirit with all his power. Sin, and not righteousness, has become his natural element so that he has no desire for salvation.

Man’s fallen nature gives rise to a most obdurate blindness, stupidity, and opposition concerning the things of God. His will is under the control of a darkened understanding, which puts sweet for bitter and bitter for sweet, good for evil and evil for good (Isa 5:20). So far as his relations with God are concerned, he wills only that which is evil, although he wills it freely. Spontaneity and enslavement actually exist together.

In other words, fallen man is so morally blind that he uniformly prefers and chooses evil instead of good, as do the fallen angels or demons. When the Christian is completely sanctified, he reaches a state in which he uniformly prefers and chooses good, as do the holy angels. Both of these states are consistent with freedom and responsibility of moral agents.

Yet while fallen man acts thus uniformly, he is never compelled to sin, but does it freely and delights in it. His dispositions and desires are so inclined, and he acts knowingly and willingly from the spontaneous motion of the heart. This natural bias or appetite for that which is evil is characteristic of man’s fallen and corrupt nature, so that, as Job says, he “drinketh iniquity like water” (Job 15:16).

We read that “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1Co 2:14). We are at a loss to understand how anyone can take a plain, common sense view of this passage of Scripture and yet contend for the doctrine of human ability. Man in his natural state cannot even see the kingdom of God, much less can he get into it. An uncultured person may see a beautiful work of art as an object of vision, but he has no appreciation of its excellence. He may see the figures of a complex mathematical equation, but they have no meaning for him. Horses and cattle may see the same beautiful sunset or other phenomenon in nature that men see, but they are blind to all of the artistic beauty. So it is when the gospel of the cross is presented to the unregenerate man. He may have an intellectual knowledge of the facts and doctrines of the Bible, but he lacks all spiritual discernment of their excellence and finds no delight in them. The same Christ is to one man without form or comeliness that he should desire Him; to another He is the Prince of life and the Savior of the world, God manifest in the flesh, Whom it is impossible not to adore, love, and obey.

This total inability, however, arises not merely from a perverted moral nature, but also from ignorance. Paul wrote that the Gentiles “walk, in the vanity of their mind, Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (Eph 4:17-18). And again: “The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1Co 1:18). When he wrote of things that “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1Co 2:9), he had reference, not to the glories of the heavenly state as is commonly supposed, but to the spiritual realities in this life that cannot be seen by the unregenerate mind, as is made plain by the words of the following verse: “But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit” (1Co 2:10). On one occasion Jesus said, “No man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him” (Mat 11:27). Here we are plainly told that man in his unregenerate, unenlightened nature does not know God in any sense worthy [of] the name, and that the Son is sovereign in choosing who shall come into this saving knowledge of God.

Fallen man, then, lacks the power of spiritual discernment. His reason or understanding is blinded, and the taste and feelings are perverted. And since this state of mind is innate, as a condition of man’s nature, it is beyond the power of the will to change it. Rather, it controls both the affections and volitions. The effect of regeneration is clearly taught in the divine commission that Paul received at his conversion when he was told that he was to be sent to the Gentiles “to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God” (Act 26:18).

Jesus taught the same truth under a different figure when He said to the Pharisees, “Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do” (Joh 8:43-44). They could not understand nor even hear His words in any intelligible way. To them His words were only foolishness, madness; and they accused Him of being demon possessed (8:48, 52). Only His disciples could know the truth (8:31-32); the Pharisees were children of the devil (8:42, 44), and bondservants of sin (8:34), although they thought themselves free (8:33).

At another time, Jesus taught that a good tree could not bring forth evil fruit, nor an evil tree good fruit. And since in this similitude the good and evil trees represent good and evil men, what does it mean but that one class of men is governed by one set of basic principles, while the other class is governed by another set of basic principles? The fruits of these two trees are acts, words, thoughts, which, if good, proceed from a good nature and, if evil, proceed from an evil nature. It is impossible, then, for the same root to bring forth fruit of different kinds. Hence, we deny the existence in man of a power that may act either way on the logical ground that both virtue and vice cannot come out of the same moral condition of the agent. And we affirm that human actions that relate to God proceed either out of a moral condition that necessarily produces good actions or out of a moral condition that necessarily produces evil actions.

“In the Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul declares that prior to the quickening of the Spirit of God, each individual soul lies dead in trespasses and sins. Now, it will surely be admitted that to be dead, and to be dead in sin, is clear and positive evidence that there is neither aptitude nor power remaining for the performance of any spiritual action. If a man were dead, in a natural and physical sense, it would at once be readily granted that there is no further possibility of that man being able to perform any physical actions. A corpse cannot act in any way whatever, and that man would be reckoned to have taken leave of his senses who asserted that it could. If a man is dead spiritually, therefore, it is surely equally as evident that he is unable to perform any spiritual actions, and thus the doctrine of man’s moral inability rests upon strong scriptural evidence.”

On the principle that no clean thing can come out of what is unclean (Job 14:4), all that are born of woman are declared ‘abominable and filthy,’ to whose nature iniquity alone is attractive (Job 15:14-16). Accordingly, to become sinful, men do not wait until the age of accountable action arrives. Rather, they are apostate from the womb, and as soon as they are born go astray, speaking lies (Psa 58:3); they are even shapen in iniquity and conceived in sin (Psa 51:5). The propensity of their heart is evil from their youth (Gen 8:21), and it is out of the heart that all the issues of life proceed (Pro 4:23; 20:11). Acts of sin are, therefore, but the expression of the natural heart, which is deceitful above all things and desperately sick (Jer 17:9).”

Ezekiel presents this same truth in graphic language and gives us the picture of the helpless infant that was cast out in its blood and left to die, but which the Lord graciously found and cared for (Eze 16).

This doctrine of original sin supposes that fallen men have the same kind and degree of liberty in sinning under the influence of a corrupt nature as have the devil and the demons, or that the saints in glory and the holy angels have in acting rightly under the influence of a holy nature. That is, men and angels act according to their natures. As the saints and angels are confirmed in holiness, that is, possessed of a nature that is wholly inclined to righteousness and adverse to sin, so the nature of fallen men and of demons is such that they cannot perform a single act with right motives toward God. Hence the necessity that God shall sovereignly change the person’s character in regeneration.

The Old Testament ceremonies of circumcision of the newborn child and of purification of the mother were designed to teach that man comes into the world sinful, that since the fall, human nature is corrupt in its very origin.

Paul stated this truth in another and, if possible, even stronger way in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4: “But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world [by which he means the devil] hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.” In a word, then, fallen men without the operations of the Spirit of God are under the rule of Satan. They are led captive by him at his will (2Ti 2:26). So long as this fully armed strong man is not molested by the “stronger than he,” he keeps his kingdom in peace and his captives willingly do his bidding. But the “stronger than he” has overcome him, has taken his armor from him, and has liberated part of his captives (Luk 11:21-22; Mat 12:29-30; Mar 3:27-28). God now exercises the right of releasing whom He will; and all born again Christians are ransomed sinners from that kingdom.

The Scriptures declare that fallen man is a captive, a willing slave to sin, and entirely unable to deliver himself from its bondage and corruption. He is incapable of understanding and much less of doing the things of God. There is what we might term “the freedom of slavery”—a state in which the subject is free only to do the will of his master, which in this case is sin. It was this to which Jesus referred when He said, “Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin” (Joh 8:34).

And such being the depth of man’s corruption, it is wholly beyond his own power to cleanse himself. His only hope of an amendment of life lies accordingly in a change of heart, which change is brought about by the sovereign re-creative power of the Holy Spirit, Who works when and where and how He pleases (Joh 3:8). One might as well attempt to pump a leaking ship while the leak is still unmended, as to reform the unregenerate without this inward change. Or as well might the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots, as he who is accustomed to do evil correct his ways (Jer 13:23). This transfer from spiritual death to spiritual life we call regeneration. It is referred to in Scripture by various terms: “regeneration,” a making alive, a calling out of darkness into light, a quickening, a “renewing,” a taking away of the heart of stone and giving the heart of flesh, etc., which work is exclusively that of the Holy Spirit (Ti 3:5; Eph 2:5; 1Pe 2:9; Eze 36:26). As a result of this change, a man comes to see the truth and gladly accepts it. His very instincts and intimate impulses are transferred to the side of Law, obedience to which becomes but the spontaneous expression of his nature. Regeneration is said to be wrought by that same supernatural power that God wrought in Christ when He raised Him from the dead (Eph 1:18-20). Man does not possess the power of self-regeneration; and until this inward change takes place, he cannot be convinced of the truth of the gospel by any amount of external testimony. “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luk 16:31).

From The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, 61-80; P&R Publishing Co, P. O. Box 817, Phillipsburg, NJ 08865,


Loraine Boettner (1901-1990): American Presbyterian theologian; born in Linden, MO, USA.

It is the glory of Christ’s salvation that it is perfectly adapted to every condition of our fallen and helpless humanity. Christianity is the only religion that fully recognizes the natural and utter depravity of our nature and our consequent impotence to save ourselves. Jesus, therefore, is the Savior of sinners. He has undertaken to save us just as we are. He finds us a ruin and recreates us; He finds us fallen and raises us up; He finds us guilty and cleanses us; He finds us condemned and justifies us—all our salvation is in Him.—Octavius Winslow

Categories: Theology

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