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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
J. L. Dagg
From the book, Manual of Theology: A Treatise on Christian Doctrine, 1859
The inability of men to save themselves respects both their condemnation and their depravity.
1. Men are unable to free themselves from condemnation.
Jer. 13:23 Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.
John 3:3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
John 6:44 No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.
Rom. 8:7, 8 Because 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.
Heb. 10:4 For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.
Heb. 12:14 Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.
The justice by which we are all condemned is immutable. It is an attribute in the nature of God, who is not only the first cause of all things, but the very standard of all perfection. When we inquire whether God's ways are right, we have only to ask whether they correspond with his own perfections, for there is no higher standard by which they may be tried. As the perfections a God are immutable, the standard of right is immutable.
A change in the law by which we are condemned is therefore impossible. God has sometimes, from regard to the peculiar circumstances of some men, given special commands to them, which have not been obligatory on all; but the obligation to obey him, whatever his commands may be, is universal and perpetual, and no act of disobedience can ever be justified under his righteous government.
The sentence of condemnation has been duly pronounced. It was not a rash decision, needing to be revised. The Omniscient Judge knew well all the facts in the case, all the circumstances which may be pleaded in extenuation, all the effects of his decision on us, and all the bearings of it on his own character and government. His determination to create the world was not made with greater deliberation, or on surer ground; and we may as soon expect him to annihilate all the creatures that he has made, as to reverse the sentence by which we are condemned.
The Scriptures affirm that by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified. “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Rom 3:20) The law requires perfect and perpetual obedience, and can be satisfied with nothing less. Law is converted into mere advice, when its requirements are not obligatory.
To claim the privilege of violating the law, or coming short of its requirements, is to claim, so far, exemption from its authority, and therefore from the moral government of God. Such exemption divine justice will not allow. Its language is, "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them." (Gal. 3:10) "What things the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God." (Rom. 3:19)
The view which is here presented of man's condition, relates not merely to his transgressions, but to his natural state. Hence it is said, "And were by nature the children of wrath." (Eph. 2:3) So much has God the maintenance of his law at heart that he who was in the bosom of the Father, and well understood all his counsels, has with solemnity assured us: "Verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled."(Matt. 5:18)
There is a method of rescue from condemnation; but it is not one of man's devising or executing. To effect it required a display of wisdom, power and love, infinitely beyond the highest efforts of man. It is God's work, challenging the admiration of angels, and demanding gratitude, praise, and joyful acceptance from every human being.
2. Men are unable to free themselves from depravity.
The first element of this inability is seen in the fact that men lack the necessary disposition. By nature we love darkness rather than light, sin rather than holiness. To be free from depravity is to be holy, and no man can desire holiness or perfect conformity to the law of God, who does not delight in that law.
But experience and Scripture unite in teaching us that the carnal mind is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. (Rom 8:7) The cause of this exists in the fact, that the carnal mind is enmity against God. Men love the ways of transgression, and desire not the knowledge of God's ways; and, therefore, they lack the disposition necessary to free themselves from depravity, and render themselves strictly conformed to the law of God.
Another element which renders the inability complete, is, that if men had the disposition, they have not the power. Men have the power to perform such external acts as the law of God requires of them. If they were wholly disposed to perform such acts, and failed through mere physical inability, that inability would be a valid excuse. God accepteth according to what a man hath. (II Cor. 8:12) We are commanded not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together; but the man who is fastened to his bed by palsy is not require to meet in the house of God.
Depravity does not consist in external acts, but belongs to the heart; and the affections of the heart are not subject to volition, as the motions of the limbs are. Hence the Apostle says, "…ye cannot do the things that ye would."(Gal. 5:17)
Every converted man knows the meaning of this language. The current of depraved affections in our hearts, which has been flowing in the wrong direction from the beginning of our being, and gathering strength by the power of habit, does not stop at our bidding. A volition cannot stop it with as much ease as when it moves a finger. If any man thinks he has the power to be holy at will, let him try it, and he will find his mistake.
The inability last described, which is usually called moral, must be distinguished carefully from that physical inability which excuses outward acts. Physical inability would prevent the action, even if the whole heart were bent on performing it. It excuses the failure to act; but it will not excuse a corrupt or a divided heart. The paralytic may be excused for not attending at the house of God; but he is not excused for preferring to be absent, or for possessing no longing for the courts of the Lord.
The moral inability of men consists in having either a divided heart, or a heart fully set in them to do evil. The former every converted man laments, and blames himself for; and the latter is descriptive of unconverted or natural men. This includes the lack, both of disposition and power, and renders the inability complete. This inability is not an excuse for the depravity, but is the depravity itself, in its full influence over all the powers of the soul.
The Scripture representations of men's inability are exceedingly strong. They are said to be without strength (Rom. 5:6); captives (II Tim. 2:26); in bond age (II Pet. 2:19; Rom. 6:16, 17); asleep (I Thess. 5:6); dead (Eph. 5:14; Col. 2:13); &c. The act by which they are delivered from their natural state, is called regeneration, quickening or giving life, renewing, resurrection, translation, creation; and it is directly ascribed to the power of God, the power that called light out of dark-ness, and raised up Christ from the dead.
Our views concerning our character and condition by nature are wholly incorrect, if we imagine that a little work, which we can effect at pleasure, will set all right. Thousands postpone the concerns of the soul from this vain imagination. A true sense of our inability would drive us to Him who is able to save.