Forum Class September 28, 2003, Romans 3

An Indictment of the Moral and Religious

No Excuses: In Chapter 1 we saw that all of us are without excuse with respect to God. We do not start from a place of ignorance but from some knowledge of God. Our guilt before God, and God's holy displeasure directed against us, comes from our ignoring and repressing what we do know about God instead of responding to Him. Historically, Adam and Eve knew God fully. Noah, his sons and their families all knew God well when they began to repopulate the world after the Flood. Down through the ages, nations and peoples have been given fresh knowledge and experience with God. Evidence about God is clear from nature and from conscience and natural law. (Psalm 19, Job 38-39) This week Romans 2.

 Wrath Poured Out

Where is that salvation to be found? If God's wrath is deserved by us, proportionate to our sin, as certain as the calendar, just, and even partially disclosed in the natural unfolding of the effects of sin in our lives, how can it possibly be avoided-since we are sinners? The only place is in Christ, who bore the full measure of the wrath of God in our place. Do we doubt that God's wrath is real and threatening? If we do, we need only look at Jesus in the hours preceding his crucifixion. He was not like Socrates who calmly quaffed the hemlock that was to end his life. Jesus' soul was "troubled" (John 12:27), and he agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking that the "cup" God had prepared for him might be taken away (Matt. 26:36-44). Jesus was not afraid of death. He had as much courage in that respect as Socrates. The reason Jesus trembled before death is that his death was not to be like the death of mere mortals. Jesus was not going to die for himself. He was going to die for others. He was going to take upon himself the full measure of the wrath of God that they deserved. He was to drink the cup of wrath to the very dregs in order that the justice of God might be satisfied and sinners might be spared. And so it was! The time came when Jesus was led away to be crucified. He was hung on the cross, midway between earth and heaven, a bridge between sinful man and a holy God. There he, who knew no sin, was made sin for us. There God's wrath was poured out.

For centuries the wrath that men and women had been storing up had been accumulating-like coins in the attic or water behind a great dam. Oh, here and there a little of the flood of God's judgment had sloshed out over the top as God reached the end of his patience in some small area, and a Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed or a Jerusalem was overthrown. But, for the most part, the wrath of God merely accumulated, growing higher and broader and deeper and increasingly more turbulent. Then Jesus died! When he died the dam was opened, and the great weight of the accumulated wrath of God was poured out upon him. He took God's wrath for us. He bore its impounded fury in our place. No wonder his righteous soul shrank back from the atonement. He had never committed a single sin. He was spotless and without blame. Yet because he was blameless and because he was God, he was able to stand in the breech for us and secure our salvation.

God demonstrated clearly that he had! In Jerusalem there was a temple the central feature of which was a room called the Most Holy Place. God was understood to dwell symbolically in that place. Before it hung a thick curtain, symbolizing the barrier that sin has raised between God in his holiness and ourselves in our sin. For anyone to penetrate beyond that barrier meant instant death, as occasionally happened, for the wrath of God must flame out against any sin that would intrude upon holiness. That curtain was torn in two when Jesus died. For centuries it had hung there, proclaiming that God was holy, that man was sinful, and that the way to God was therefore strictly barred. But now that Jesus had died for sin, taking the place of any who would trust him and receive the benefit of his sacrifice, the wrath of God was expended, the way was open, and there was nothing left but God's great love and kindness.

This is the gospel. It is what is open to you if you will approach God, not on the basis of your own good deeds or works, which can only condemn you, but on the basis of Christ's having borne the wrath of God in your place. That wrath is thundering down the chasm of history toward the day of final judgment, and one day it must break upon you unless you stand before God in Jesus Christ. Martin Luther began his spiritual pilgrimage by fearing God's wrath and then came to find peace in Christ. But he never forgot the reality of the final judgment, and he always warned his hearers to flee from it to Christ. He said in one place, "The Last Day is called the day of wrath and of mercy, the day of trouble and of peace, the day of destruction and of glory." Luther was right. It must be one or the other. If it is to be a day of mercy and peace for you, rather than a day of wrath and trouble, it must because you are trusting in Christ. (J. M. Boice)

In Romans chapter 2 we are introduced to the "stored up" aspect of the wrath of God. In Chapter One we had the active, constant wrath of God "revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who repress the truth in unrighteousness." "He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him." (John 3:36)

When we judge and condemn others we are playing God. We have neither the knowledge nor the right to sit in judgment on others. Therefore our judgmental attitudes are serious sin. (Judging others in order to make ourselves look good is not the same as discernment which we need in order to help and encourage others.)

Motives matter. "Man looks upon the outward appearance, God looks upon the heart." At the judgment of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31ff men are evaluated, basically, on the basis of loving their neighbor in practical ways. The Sermon on the Mount intensifies the demands of the Law of Moses by showing that the motives of the heart are as important as outward conduct. Also, "Whoever keeps the whole Law and fails in any one point, is guilty of all of it."

The Standards of God are very high. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." One of the definitions of sin is compared to shooting an arrow at a target and missing the mark. Trying hard is not good enough. Who among us actually lives out the Golden Rule (Mt. 7:12) in daily life?

What is the standard for acceptable human conduct? The standard is Jesus Himself. That Jesus is God's righteousness shows up in the three-fold work of the Holy Spirit in the world:

"Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I [Jesus] go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged."

Life Styles: People who live outwardly moral and decent lives are usually pursuing goals in life that run contrary to the will of God because they are most likely selfish and self-seeking. From whence comes the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or the freedom to have an abortion, or the right to choose one's sexual preferences?

Hypocrisy is actually worse than open immorality.

"These six things the LORD hates, Yes, seven are an abomination to Him: A proud look, A lying tongue, Hands that shed innocent blood, A heart that devises wicked plans, Feet that are swift in running to evil, A false witness who speaks lies, And one who sows discord among brethren." (Proverbs 6:16-19)

The Worst Sins

"Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither." (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).

Providence and Common Grace: God is kind to all men, "He makes his rain fall on the just and the unjust." His kindness, patience and love to all mankind is for the purpose of bringing us to repentance. The proper response to God's grace is thanksgiving, worship, and commitment.

God's judgment is utterly fair and impartial. He judges us on our actual conduct based on what we do know about Him. God judges according to truth and He takes our motives into account.

Doing good occasionally is not enough. A consistent good life marks the path of the righteous.

 Two Different Paths in Life

People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, "If you keep a lot of rules, I'll reward you; and if you don't, I'll do the other thing." I do not think that's the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part that chooses, into something a little different than what it was before. And, taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature; either into a creature that is in harmony with God and with other creatures and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God and with its fellow creatures and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heavenly, i.e., it is joy and peace and knowledge and power; to be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us, at each moment, is progressing to the one state or the other. (C.S. Lewis,)

Hiding from God has been our lot since the Fall. (Psalm 139) No one goes looking for God. God has to come and seek us out one by one. "Religion" is not a legitimate place for us to escape from God. Knowing about God does not save. Membership in a church does not earn us God's acceptance. Religious symbols (confirmation, circumcision, baptism, liturgy) are useful only if we see through the reality behind the shadows. We are accountable for what we do know, not for what we do not know.

James Montgomery Boice on Romans 3:13-18

Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit."
"The poison of vipers is on their lips."
"Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness."
"Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know."
"There is no fear of God before their eyes." (Romans 3:13-18)

"The difference between this and the passage in Romans 1 is that each of these sentences is a quotation from the Old Testament, whereas the earlier passage was made up merely of the apostle's own descriptive terminology. In other words, the verses in Romans 1 are a description of the world as Paul saw it, though he is also writing as an apostle and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The verses in Romans 3 are more specifically and obviously God's own description of the race's depravity.

Wicked Words from Wicked Men: Verses 13 and 14 are made up of three quotations from the Old Testament: Psalm 5:9, Psalm 140:3, and Psalm 10:7, though there are other passages that are similar. What is striking about them is that they all refer to the organs of speech: throat, tongue, lips, and mouth. And they describe how the words spoken by these organs are used to harm others. In the previous verses we have been shown how people harm themselves by turning away from God. Here we learn how they also harm others by the organs of speech that God gave them.

What do you think of first when you read these verses? If you are like me, you notice the words cursing and bitterness and think, first of all, of harsh speech, which is meant to wound another person. Perhaps when you were a child and other children said hurtful things to you, you were taught this little saying by a parent or a family friend: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."

Unfortunately, I am sure you also learned--if you thought about it--that this little saying is not really true. It is a way of bolstering our egos to help us get through some difficult times, but it is not true that words do not hurt us. Words do hurt; they hurt deeply. In fact, they often hurt permanently. When I think back on my childhood I can remember times when I suffered some physical injury. I broke my collarbone, damaged two teeth, tore the cartilage in my left leg, and suffered scores of bumps, bangs, and bruises. But, although I can sometimes recall the incidents, I cannot remember even one bit of the pain. Yet I remember the pain of words. I remember harsh things other people said, and I still hurt when I recall them. Sticks and stones do hurt our bones--temporarily. But words wound forever.

Yet, I think that what Paul is saying here goes deeper. Indeed, it is clear that it does, because the words that describe the outcome of the harmful words of the ungodly all have to do, not with psychological injury, but with death. Martin Luther has written the most penetrating study of this passage of any commentator I have studied, and he, with characteristic insight and brilliance, relates these evil words not just to hurtful things someone may say to us, but to false teachings or heresy, which are able to kill the soul. Luther suggests that those who teach falsely do three things:

(1) They devour the dead. This means that they devour those who are spiritually dead already. Here he writes vividly: "Their teaching...swallows up the dead, who have gone from faith to unbelief, and swallows them up in such a way that there is no hope of returning from the death of this unbelief, unless they can be recalled by the most wonderful power of God before they descend to hell, as the Lord showed in the case of Lazarus who had been dead for four days. He says, moreover, that the grave is 'open' because they devour and seduce many people." Luther quotes Psalm 14:4 ("Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread?"), then continues: 'That is, just as there is squeamishness about eating bread, even though it is eaten more frequently than other foods, so also they do not cease to devour their dead, and their disciples are never satisfied." Luther concludes, "Heresy, or faithless teaching, is nothing else than a kind of disease or plague which infects and kills many people, just as is the case with the physical plague."

And, of course, this is precisely the business the world's purveyors of words are engaged in, even those who are highly regarded by our society. I was once talking with josh D. McDowell, the popular Christian apologist who speaks widely on college campuses for Campus Crusade for Christ and is author of the best-selling books Evidence That Demands a Verdict and More Evidence That Demands a Verdict. McDowell was in the process of launching a nationwide campaign called "Why Wait?" whose purpose was to encourage today's teens to reject sexual experience before marriage. We were discussing this campaign and some of the pressures on today's young people. He mentioned television, pointing out that the average young person today will have seen more than ninety thousand explicit sexual encounters on television before he or she reaches the age of nineteen. Whenever anyone on television says, "I love you" to another person, the two always end up in bed. This is all "love" is allowed to mean. Moreover, the young person will probably not see even one example of anyone contracting a sexual disease as the result of such open sex practices. Nor will the TV screen show the pain or psychological damage that promiscuous sex brings. As we were talking about these things, McDowell said, "On television immorality has become morality. Sin is the norm."

But immorality kills! That is the thrust of the first three chapters of Romans and the point of Paul's specific quotations from the Old Testament. Can you see this? If you can, you need to start thinking differently about the contemporary media-television, newspapers, magazines, and movies. Their messages are not harmless entertainment, as we sometimes think. They are a death machine. They are killing our young people and many older people as well. They are an open grave for the unwary.

(2) They teach deceitfully. The second thing Luther noticed about those who disseminate false teaching is that they teach deceitfully, which is what Paul says. "Their tongues practice deceit" (v. 13).

Luther notices the difference between the mouth, which has teeth and chews--it is referred to later ("Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness")--and the tongue, which is soft. He says: "To teach deceitfully' is to teach a pleasing and wanton doctrine, as if it were holy, salutary, and from God, so that people who have been thus deceived hear this doctrine as if from God and believe that they are hearing him. For the message appears good to them and truthful and godly ....The tongue is soft, it has no bones, and it licks softly. Thus their every speech only softens the heart of men to be pleased with themselves in their own wisdom, their own righteousness, their own word or work. As it says in Isaiah 30:10: 'Speak to us smooth things. Prophesy not to us what is right.

Isn't this what we hear in the words of the world around us? The world generally does not speak warnings-except as threats to other people. Or the contrary, we are encouraged to think that everything is all right with us--that we can do anything we wish, satisfy any desire, avoid any responsibility, above all, never express true repentance for anything-and ever). thing will come out right in the end. This is damnable heresy in the literal sense! It is false teaching that will transport many to hell.

(3) They kill those who have been taught such things. In the third of his three points Luther comes to the end result of false teaching, showing that it lead to death. "Thissame flattering and pleasing doctrine...not only does not make alive those who believe it but [it] actually kills them. And it kills them in such a way that they are beyond recovery." Paul has already said the same thing himself in Romans 2: "But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger...trouble and distress" (w. 8-9). He says it even more clearly later: "For the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23a).

Violent Acts from Violent Men: We are not to think that this grim description is limited to mere words, however, still less to charming (though deceptive) words. In verse 14 the deceitful and poisonous speech of verse 13 boils over into harsh "cursing and bitterness" on those who refuse to be deceived. And in verses 15-17 those who teach falsehood move from words to violent actions. These verses, quoted from Isaiah 59:7-8, describe three acts of violent men, beginning with the end result of these acts. To see the progression, we need to take them in reverse order.

(1) "The way of peace they do not know' (v. 17). This relates to people as they are in themselves apart from God. They know no personal peace-". ..the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud' (Isa. 57:20). But this also describes the effects such persons have upon others. Having no peace themselves, they disrupt the peace of other people. Commentator Haldane says rightly, "Such is a just description of man's ferocity, which fills the world with animosities, quarrels and hatred in the private connections of families and neighborhoods; and with revolution, wars and murders among nations. The most savage animals do not destroy so many of their own species to appease their hunger, as man destroys of his fellows to satiate his ambition, revenge or cupidity."

There are three ways in which men and women lack peace apart from God. First, they are not at peace with God; they are at war with him. Second, they are not at peace with one another; they hate and attack one another. Third, they are not at peace in themselves; they are restless and distressed. The only way we can find peace is by coming to the cross of Christ, where God has himself bridged the gap to man and has made peace. There sinners find peace with God and within themselves. And they are drawn together into fellowship with those who have likewise found peace and who are therefore able to live in peace with one another.

(2) "Ruin and misery mark their ways" (v. 16). Again, this is something wicked persons experience themselves; their way is misery and ruin. But it is also something they bring on others. In other words, this verse has an active and not just a passive sense. Without a changed nature, human beings naturally labor to destroy and ruin one another, as Paul has already shown earlier.

(3) "Their feet are swift to shed blood" (v. 15). Working backward, we come to the last of these deceitful actions. Their end is death-and not just physical death, though that would be bad enough in itself-but spiritual death, which is the death of the soul and spirit in hell. Death means separation. Physical death is the separation of the soul and spirit from the body. Spiritual death is the separation of the soul and spirit from God. It is forever.

No Fear of God: The last phrase of this great summary of the human race in ruin is from Psalm 36:1, and it is an apt conclusion. It tells why all these other violent and wicked acts have happened: "There is no fear of God before their eyes. "

You know, I am sure, that the word fear in this sentence does not mean exactly what we usually mean by the word. We mean "fright" or "terror," but in the Bible the word fear, when used of God, denotes a right and reverential frame of mind before him. It has to do with worshiping him, obeying him, and departing from evil. That is why we read in Proverbs 9:10: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding." This means that if we approach God rightly, all other things will fall into their proper places. When Romans 3:18 declares that the human race has not done this, it is saying what Paul has been stating all along. Because men and women will not know God, choosing rather to suppress the truth about him, their minds are darkened and they become fools. They claimed to be wise but "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles" (Rom. 1:22).

One commentator says, "To be destitute of the fear of God is to be godless, and no indictment could be more inclusive and decisive than the charge here made." I find it interesting, however, that Paul here also refers to "eyes." This is the sixth of the specific body references Paul makes in these verses in order to make his accusations vivid. He has referred to throats, tongues, lips, mouths, and feet. Now he mentions eyes.

Since eyes are our organs of vision, to have the fear of God before our eyes means that we have God constantly in our thoughts and in a central position in everything that concerns us. It means that we are ever looking toward him. Here I remind you of what we see in Psalm 8:5, where man is described as being "a little lower than the heavenly beings." Earlier I pointed out, in discussing man's downward path, that it is our destiny as those made in God's image to look up to the heavenly beings and beyond them to God and thus become increasingly like God. To have the "fear of God before [our] eyes" is to do just that. It is the way of all blessing, growth, and knowledge. But if we will not do that, we will inevitably look down and become like the beasts who are below us.

I began this section with a reminder that "fear" in regard to God does not mean "fright" or "terror," but rather a right and reverential frame of mind before him. But I need to add that if we will not come to God as he presents himself to us in Jesus Christ (as Savior), it is not inappropriate to be actually afraid of the Almighty. God's wrath hangs over us. His terrible judgment awaits us as the proper recompense for our unatoned sins.

Tice irony of the state of human beings in our sin, however, is that we do not fear the one, holy, and judging God. Instead, we fear lesser entities. The pagan of Paul's day feared the vast pantheon of Babylonian, Greek, Roman, and an assortment of other gods. The pagan in the distant jungle fears the rivers, rocks, and trees. He fears the sky, the thunder, the spirits of the night. The "civilized" pagan--that is, a contemporary man or woman--fears the future, hostile neighbors, disease, technological breakdown, and a host of other dangers.

Above all, everyone fears death.

What irony: To fear these things, all of which pass away eventually, and yet not fear God, to whom all of us must one day give an accounting. God spoke through the prophet Isaiah: "you fear mortal men, the sons of men, who are but grass, [but] you forget the Loan your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth, [and] you live in constant terror every day because of the wrath of the oppressor. (Isa. 51:12-13). No wonder the psalmist says, "Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways" (Ps. 128:1).

Mercy Alone: As we near the end of our studies of this first and most important section of Romans, it is helpful to note what others have written in summary about these words. One man who has written wisely is John Calvin:

"In his conclusion [Paul] again repeats, in different words, what we stated at the beginning, namely, that all wickedness flows from a disregard of God. When we have forsaken the fear of God, which is the essential part of wisdom, there is no right or purity left. In short, since the fear of God is the bridle by which our wickedness is held back, its removal frees us to indulge in every kind of licentious conduct.

David, in Psalm 14:3, says that there was such perversity in men that God, when looking on them all in succession, could not find even one righteous man. It therefore follows that this infection had spread into the whole human race, since nothing is hidden from the sight of God ....In other psalms he complains of the wickedness of his enemies, foreshadowing in himself and his descendants a type of the kingdom of Christ. In his adversaries, therefore, are represented all those who, being estranged from Christ, are not led by his Spirit. Isaiah expressly mentions Israel, and his accusation therefore applies still more to the Gentiles. There is no doubt that human nature is described in these words, in order that we may see what man is when left to himself, since Scripture testifies that all who are not regenerated by the grace of God are in this state. The condition of the saints would be not better unless this depravity were amended in them. That they may still, however, remember that they are not different from others by nature, they find in what remains of their carnal nature, from which they can never escape, the seeds of those evils which would continually produce their effect in them, if they were not prevented by being mortified. For this they are indebted to the mercy of God and not to their own nature."

How could our salvation be due to anything but mercy if we really are as ruined as Paul describes us? Ruined? Yes! But we may be saved from ruin by the glorious work of our divine Savior, Jesus Christ." (Romans, An Expositional Commentary, Baker Books, 2000).

The Bondage of the Will

James M. Boice

"there is no one who understands, no one seeks God." (Romans 3:11)

Early in my study of Paul's letter to the Romans, I had an opportunity to teach this book to two separate groups of people for a week at a time. I covered a large number of Bible doctrines, touching on everything from election to glorification. But in both of those settings the point the listeners kept coming back to in question periods was the matter of the human will and its freedom or bondage.

I had said that if we are as desperately lost in sin as Romans 1:18-3:20 says we are, then, unaided by the Spirit of God, no one can come to God, choose God, or even believe on Jesus Christ and be saved--unless God first makes that person alive in Christ and draws him or her. But this is what troubled many. It did not seem consistent with what they knew of their ability to choose what they wanted to choose or reject what they wanted to reject. What is more, it seemed inconsistent with the many free offers of the gospel found throughout Scripture. What does the Bible mean when it says that we are "dead in [our] transgressions and sins" (Eph. 2:1)? Does that mean that we are really unable to respond to God in any way, even when the gospel is proclaimed to us? Or do we still have at least that ability? If we can respond, what did Jesus mean when he said, 'No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (John 6:44a), or 'No one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him" (John 6:65)? On the other hand, if we cannot respond, what is the meaning of those passages in which the gospel is offered to fallen men and women? For example, the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah, 'Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat" (Isaiah 55:1). What about such invitations? Furthermore, how can a person be held responsible for failing to believe in Jesus if he or she is unable to do so?

These questions come to us from Romans 3:10-11 because of the words with which Paul sums up man's spiritual condition. He has said that we are all unrighteous: "There is no one righteous, not even one." Now he adds: 'There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God." The way we interpret this verse has a lot to do with how we regard man's rock-bottom inability (or ability) where spiritual things are concerned.

The Debate in Church History

We might suspect, even if we knew nothing of the past, that a question as important as this must have been discussed often in church history, and this is indeed the case. In fact, the very best way of approaching the subject is through the debates that took place between the theological giants of past days.

The first important debate was between Pelagius and Saint Augustine toward the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century. Pelagius argued for free will. He did not want to deny the universality of sin, at least at the beginning. He knew that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23a), and in this he wanted to remain orthodox. But Pelagius could not see how we can be responsible for something if we do not have free will in that matter. If there is an obligation to do something, there must be an ability to do it, he argued. Pelagius believed that the will, rather than being bound by sin, is actually neutral--so that at any moment or in any given situation it is free to choose either good or evil.

This worked itself out in several ways. For one thing, it led to a view of sin as only those deliberate and unrelated acts in which the will actually chooses to do evil. Thus any necessary connection between sins or any hereditary principle of sin within the race was forgotten. Pelagius argued further that: (1) The sin of Adam affected no one but himself, and (2) Those born since Adam have been born into the same condition Adam was in before his fall, that is, into a position of neutrality so far as sin is concerned, and (3) Today human beings are able to live free from sin if they want to.

This: is probably the root view of most people today, including many Christians. But it is faulty, because it limits the nature and scope of sin and because it leads to denial of the necessity for 'the unmerited grace of God in salvation. More over, even when the gospel is preached to a fallen sinner (according to this view), 'what ultimately determines whether he or she will be saved is not the supernatural working of God through the Holy Spirit, but rather the person's will, which either receives or rejects the Savior--and this gives human beings glory that ought to go to God.

In his early life Augustine had thought along the same lines But when he became a Christian and as he studied the Bible, Augustine came to see that Pelagianism does not do justice to either the biblical doctrine of sin or the grace of God in salvation.

Augustine saw that the Bible always speaks of sin as more than mere isolated and individual acts. It speaks of an inherited depravity as a result of which it is simply not possible for the individual to stop sinning. Augustine had a phrase for this fundamental. human inability: non posse non peccare. It means "not able not to sin." That is, unaided by God, a person is just not able to stop sinning and choose God Augustine said, that man, having used his free will badly in the fall, lost both himself and his will. He said; that the will is free of righteousness, but it is enslaved to sin. It is free to turn from God, but not to come to him

As far as grace is concerned, Augustine saw that apart from grace no one can be saved Moreover, it is a matter of grace from beginning to end, not just of 'prevenient" grace or partial grace to which the sinner adds his of her efforts Otherwise, salvation would not be entirely of God, God's honor would be diminished, and human beings would be able to boast in heaven. Any view that leads to such consequences must be wrong, for God has declared: 'It is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast" (Eph. 2:8-9).

In defending his views, Augustine won the day, and the church supported him. But Christianity gradually drifted back in the direction of Pelagianism during the Middle Ages.

At the time of the Reformation: the battle erupted again, first between Martin Luther and a Dutch humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and then between Jacob Arminius and the followers of John Calvin.

The most interesting debate was between Luther and Erasmus The latter had been sympathetic to the Reformation in its early stages because, like most wise people of the time, he saw that the church badly needed to be reformed. But Erasmus did not have Luther's spiritual undergirdings, and at last he was prevailed upon to challenge the reformer. Erasmus chose to write on the freedom of the will. He said that the will must be free--for reasons very much like those given by Pelagius. Still, the subject did not mean a great deal to Erasmus, and he counseled moderation, no doubt hoping that Luther would do likewise.

It was no small matter to Luther, however, and he did not approach the subject with detached moderation. Luther approached the matter zealously, viewing it as an issue upon which the very truth of God depended. In one place, in the midst of demolishing the Dutch humanist's views, Luther wrote: "I give you hearty praise and commendation on this account--that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the central issue."

In this work, The Bondage of the Will, which Luther considered his greatest theological writing, the reformer did not deny the psychological fact that men and women do make choices. This is so obvious that no one can really deny it. What Luther affirmed was that in the specific area of an individual's choice of God or failure to choose God, the will is impotent. In this area Luther was as determined to deny the will's freedom as Erasmus was determined to affirm it. We are wholly given over to sin, said Luther. Therefore, our only proper role is humbly to acknowledge our sin, confess our blindness, and admit that we can no more choose God by our enslaved wills than we can please him by our sullied moral acts. All we can do is call on God for mercy, knowing even as we seek to do so that we cannot even call for mercy unless God is first active to convict us of sin and lead us to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation.

In trying to convey Luther's thought, I used to say that although we have free will in many areas, we do not have free will in all areas. That is, we can choose what we want in some things--little things like what we will select from a menu, what color tie we will put on, what job we will take. But we do not have free will in the important areas. If I have an intelligence quotient of 120, I cannot make it 140 just by the exercise of my free will. Unless I am an Olympic-class athlete, I cannot choose to run a mile in four minutes or the hundred-yard dash in nine seconds. I used to say that in exactly the same way, none of us can choose God by the mere exercise of our will.

Edwards's "Freedom of the Will"

I do not present the matter that way anymore, however, and the reason I do not is that in the meantime I have read Jonathan Edwards's treatise on the freedom of the will and now think differently. Not on the basic issue or in my conclusions-but in the way I define the will. Let me explain.

It can hardly escape anyone who looks at Edwards's treatise that at least on the surface Edwards seemed to be saying the exact opposite of what Saint Augustine and Martin Luther had said. Luther titled his study The Bondage of the Will, in opposition to Erasmus's Freedom of the Will, whereas Jonathan Edwards's treatise is titled "A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Prevailing Notions of the Freedom of the Will." The title does not specifically state that Edwards was asserting the will's "freedom," only that he was going to investigate the prevailing ideas about it, but, it is not by chance that Edwards used words opposite to Luther's. In the end, Edwards came out on the same side as Luther and of all the great biblical theologians before him. But along the way he made a unique contribution to the subject for which the idea of the "freedom" of the will was appropriate.

In this important work the first thing Edwards did was to define the will.

Strangely, no one had done this previously. Everyone had operated on the assumption that we all know what the will is. We call the will that mechanism in us that makes choices. Edwards saw that this was not accurate and instead defined the will as "that by which the mind chooses anything." That may not seem to be much of a difference, but it is a major one. It means, according to Edwards, that what we choose is not determined by the will itself (as if it were an entity to itself) but by the mind, which means that our choices are determined by what we think is the most desirable course of action.

Edwards's second important contribution was in the treatment of what he termed "motives." He asked, "Why is it that the mind chooses one thing rather than another?" His answer: The mind chooses as it does because of
motives. That is, the mind is not neutral. It thinks some things are better than other things, and because it thinks that way it always chooses the "better" things. If a person thought one course of action was better than another and yet chose the less desirable alternative, the person would be acting irrationally or, to use other language, he would be insane.

Does this mean that the will is bound, then? Quite the contrary. It means that the will is free. It is always free. That is, it is free to choose (and always will choose) what the mind thinks is best.

But what does the mind think is best? Here we get to the heart of the problem as it involves choosing God. When confronted with God, the mind of a sinner never thinks that the way of God is a good course. The will is free to choose God; nothing is stopping it. But the mind does not regard submission to God and serving God as being desirable. Therefore, it turns from God, even when the gospel is most winsomely presented. It turns from God because of what we saw in Romans 1. The mind does not want God to be sovereign. It does not consider the righteousness of God to be the way to personal fulfillment or happiness. It does not want its true sinful nature exposed. The mind is wrong in its judgments, of course. The way it chooses is actually the way of alienation and misery, the end of which is death. But human beings think sin to be the best way. Therefore, unless God changes the way we think--which he does in some by the miracle of the new birth--our minds always tell us to turn from God. And so we do turn from him.

Moral Inability

The third great contribution Edwards made to understanding why the will never chooses God, although it is free, concerns responsibility, the matter that had troubled Pelagius so profoundly. Here Edwards wisely distinguished between what he called "natural" inability and what he termed "moral" inability. Let me give a simple illustration.

In the natural world there are animals that eat nothing but meat. They are called carnivores from caro, carnis, which means "meat." There are other animals that eat nothing but grass or plants. They, are called herbivores from herba, which means vegetation. Imagine that we have captured a lion, a carnivore, and that we place a bundle of hay or a trough of oats before him. He will not eat the hay or oats. Why not? Is it because he is physically, or naturally, unable to eat them? No. Physically he could munch on the oats and swallow them. But he does not and will not, because it is not in his nature to eat this kind of food. Moreover, if we could ask why he will not eat the herbivore's meal and the lion could answer, he would say, "I cannot eat this food, because I hate it. I will only eat meat."

Now think of the verse that says, "Taste and see that the Lord is good" (Ps. 34:8a) or of Jesus' saying, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If a man eats of this bread, he will live forever (John 6:51).

Why will a sinful man or woman not "taste and see that the Lord is good" or feed upon Jesus as "the living bread"? To use the lion's words, it is because that person "hates" such food. The sinner will not come to Christ-because he does not want to. It is not because he cannot come physically.

Someone who does not hold to this teaching (there are many today) might say, "But surely the Bible says that anyone who will come to Christ may come to him. Didn't Jesus invite us to come? Didn't he say, "Whoever comes to me I will never drive away" (John 6:37b)? The answer is yes, that is exactly what Jesus said. But it is beside the point. Certainly anyone who wants to come to Christ may come to him. That is why Jonathan Edwards insisted that the will is not bound. The fact that we may come is what makes our refusal to seek God so unreasonable and increases our guilt. But who is it who wills to come? The answer is: No one, except those in whom the Holy Spirit has already performed the entirely irresistible work of the new birth so that, as a result of this miracle, the spiritually blind eyes of the natural man are opened to see God's truth, and the totally depraved mind of the sinner, which in itself has no spiritual understanding, is renewed to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior. 

Old and Practical Doctrine

This is not new teaching, of course, although it seems new to many who hear it in our own quite superficial age. It is merely the purest and most basic form of the doctrine of man embraced by most Protestants and even (privately) by many Catholics. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England say: "The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself by his own natural strength and good works to faith, and calling upon God; wherefore we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us [that is, being present beforehand to motivate us], that we may have a good will, and working with us when we have that will" (Article 10).

In the same way the Westminster Larger Catechism states, "The sinfulness of that state whereinto man fell, consisteth in the guilt of Adam's first sin, the want of that righteousness wherein he was created, and the corruption of his nature, whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually" (Answer to Question 25).

I suppose that at this point there are people who are willing to agree, somewhat reluctantly, that the inability of the will to choose God or believe on Christ is the prevailing doctrine of the church and perhaps even the teaching of the Bible. But they are still not certain of this teaching's value and may even consider it harmful. They ask, "If we teach that men and women cannot choose God (even if this is true), don't we destroy the main impetus to evangelism and undercut the missionary enterprise? Isn't it better just to keep quiet about it?"

It should be a sufficient answer to this worry to say that the very person who gave us the Great Commission said, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him."

But let me answer instead by saying that, contrary to this doctrine being a hindrance to evangelism, it is actually the greatest possible motivation for spreading the gospel. If it is true that the sinner, left alone, never naturally seeks out God, how is that individual ever going to find God unless other people, sent by God, carry the gospel to him (or her). "Ah, but even then the person cannot respond," says the objector. True enough. Not by himself. But it is through the preaching and teaching of the gospel that God chooses to call people to faith, and anyone who obeys God and takes the gospel to the lost can be encouraged to know that God will work through this means. Moreover, the evangelist will pray for the sinner, since nothing but the work of God-certainly not the eloquence or charm of man--can save him.

"But surely you must not tell the sinner that he cannot respond unless God first does a work of regeneration in him?" argues a skeptic. On the contrary, that is exactly what the sinner needs to know. For it is only in such understanding that sinful human beings learn how desperate their situation is and how absolutely essential is God's grace. If we are hanging on to some confidence in our own spiritual ability, no matter how small, we will never seriously worry about our condition. There will be no sense of urgency.

"Life is long. There will be time to believe later," we say, as if we can bring ourselves to believe when we want to, perhaps on our deathbed after we have done what we wish with our lives. At least we are ready to take a chance on it. But if we are truly dead in sin, as Paul says we are, and if that involves our will as well as all other parts of our psychological and spiritual
makeup, we will find ourselves in near despair. We will see our state as hopeless apart from the supernatural and totally unmerited workings of the grace of God.

And that is what God wants! He will not have us boasting of even the smallest human contribution to salvation. It is only as we renounce all such vain possibilities that he will show us the way of salvation through Christ and lead us to him. (Boice, Chapter 35, Romans, Volume 1, Baker Books 2000)

Highly Recommended: James Montgomery Boice, Romans: An Expositional Commentary, 4 volumes, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2000. Available from PBC Bookroom ($18.50 per volume plus shipping)

Romans Class Notes:   Index  |  1  | 2  |  3  |  4  | 5  |  6  |   |  8  |  9  | 10  |  11  | 12  | 13  |  14  |  15  |  16  |  17  |  18

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