Pastor John, in episode 307 you said humans do not have free will — that is, ultimate self-determination — to choose Christ. If people don’t possess free will in that sense and God ultimately decides their choice of Christ, then how are sinners held accountable for what they cannot do?
Last time, we saw we don’t have the moral ability to grasp and submit to God’s will in Christ. We don’t have the ability to see him as beautiful. He is not compelling to us. We are spiritually blind, dead (Romans 8:7; 1 Corinthians 2:14). Now our question is this: Can we then be held accountable?
The Bible tells us we are accountable for what we can’t do in this regard. So, what we are really asking is this: Is there a way to understand that? If we are clearly accountable, yet we clearly can’t come up with the kind of freedom we need to embrace Christ, then how do we think about that? I think the Bible offers some help to understand how this works.
Romans 1:18–21 goes like this: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” We suppress the truth. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” Everybody knows God. Everybody has seen God. “So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.” So much theology hangs from that word so: “So they are without excuse.” So they are responsible for suppressing the truth. The Bible does address accountability.
There is something before that so. What comes before? Access to knowledge. Look at the text. Since they have knowledge of God, therefore they are without excuse. If you didn’t have the knowledge, evidently you would have an excuse. Because they know about God, they are without excuse when they don’t worship him.
I think you must also have the mental ability to know God. If you don’t have a brain, it wouldn’t make any sense to say you are responsible to know him. An infant, for example, would seem not to fit these criteria. He doesn’t have the mental capacity to meet the criteria of being without excuse — namely, seeing and knowing God.
“We need God’s precious grace to overcome our blindness and hardness of heart that keeps us from seeing Jesus as beautiful.”
From this and other texts, Jonathan Edwards and others pointed out that some have a kind of inability that excuses them, and some have a kind of inability that doesn’t excuse them. He called the one that excuses people “natural inability” and the other “moral inability.” Let me try to unpack that.
Natural inability means you can’t do what you most deeply want to do. If that happens, you are not responsible to do it. If you are a quadriplegic lying on the floor and are told to get up with no help, you are not responsible to. But if you are lying on the floor because you love lying on the floor so much — you love it so much that you can’t even want to stand up — then you are responsible. In other words, there is a real “can’t,” a real moral “can’t” that leaves you still responsible. Disliking something so much we can’t do it leaves us responsible.
When the Bible says we can’t come to Christ, it refers to that. We can’t submit to Christ. We can’t receive him as our treasure, not because we are chained physically, but because we are morally corrupt, dark, and rebellious. We love darkness rather than light, so that we can’t come to the light. So, we need God’s precious, necessary grace to overcome our blindness and hardness of heart that keeps us from seeing Jesus as beautiful.
When God overcomes our blindness, we are born again. In the new birth, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). You don’t make the new birth happen. The Holy Spirit blows over you, and suddenly you are rational. You see. Christ looks beautiful. Heaven looks bright. Hell looks horrible. The way of salvation looks glorious, and you believe. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). We need Jesus to overcome the bondage to sin we have been in all our lives.
“In our new birth, when God said, ‘Let there be light,’ we saw Christ for the first time in a compelling way.”
We were blind, but “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). In our new birth, when God said, “Let there be light,” we saw Christ for the first time in a compelling way. Thus, we could freely act rationally for the first time in our lives and embrace the one who is infinitely glorious.
Maybe next time we could turn to what this freedom is like. But the point here is this: Yes, we are responsible, and yes, we are in bondage. But our bondage is a moral bondage, not a physical one.