The Lord Jesus Proclaims the Inability of Man
Luke 6:43-45 ‘No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognised by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn-bushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.’
The Lord Jesus has been speaking of the extraordinary changes that God works in those who become his disciples. He tells us that they are given grace enabling them to love even their enemies, and that a harsh, critical, judgmental spirit that they once displayed fades away. They love those they once hated and they’re no longer censorious people. Once they were bad trees and inevitably they couldn’t produce good fruit, but now they’ve become good trees, and so the extraordinary reverse is true, they cannot bear bad fruit. They cannot go on treasuring up grudges, being mean-spirited and hyper-critical people. When they find themselves drifting into such attitudes they’re convicted of that sin and repent and they keep on loving their enemies. They are increasingly merciful and self-controlled people. No good tree bears bad fruit. That is the background to the words of our text. So God changes people from within, and in this way the fruit of God grows in our lives.
Every religion is focused on change. The Pharisees attempted to deal with change by law; in other words, by hundreds of stipulations and regulations dealing with every action that people did by day and night. Their programme was, ‘Transformation by Keeping Rules.’ Did they succeed? No. Jesus compared religious Pharisees to coffins that had been painted white, glistening brightly in the sun, yet inside they were full of stinking, putrefying flesh and bones. Rules fail when they come up against the human heart; the law cannot make the heart love what it’s been hating and hate what it’s been loving. That is what Israel painfully learned in the Old Covenant. Change first has to come inwardly, and the change effected by the Spirit of God is one of incredible dimensions; the very natures of men and women have to be changed. That is the huge problem confronting the human race; what individual has the ability or the inclination to turn around by 180 degrees the whole direction of his life as God requires? Instead of serving self he denies it; instead of loving self he loves God with all his heart. Instead of thinking what he has done will gain entry into heaven he ventures everything on the dying love of Jesus Christ on the cross, the Lamb of God who has taken away his sin. Who can believe that and live by it, a change of such life-transforming dimensions, by a mere human decision?
Jesus is describing here the incurable problem of the human heart. It is summed up in the word ‘inability’. A bad tree is unable to produce good fruit. If you are a crab apple tree you are unable to produce Gala apples. A thorn bush is unable to produce a crop of figs. No clusters of grapes are able to hang from the branches of briers. So it is with each one of you. Your life can only reflect what’s in your heart, and a bad heart is unable to produce good fruit. The heart itself has to be changed, but men naturally have no desire to change their hearts. They become very defensive and restless when they hear that their hearts need to change, because their hearts are their real selves. Yet there can be no Christ-likeness in your daily life if there is no Christ reigning over your own heart. You see how insistent the Lord Jesus is, ‘No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognised by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn-bushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks’ (vv.43-45). Two kinds of hearts, and two only. One is bad and the other is good; the one produces bad fruit and the other produces good fruit. The picture could not be simpler.
I am saying that our Lord is teaching here the most unpopular of all his doctrines, even more so than his teaching on eternal punishment. He is not simply talking about man’s depravity but he is teaching the inability of the unregenerate man – the non-believer – to produce, all by himself and unaided by God, the good fruit of salvation, deliverance from guilt and condemnation, a display of gospel repentance for his sins, godliness, love for Jesus Christ, cross-bearing, and trust in the Lord through tough testing times. Men have no ability to create such attitudes without the omnipotence of God. In other words, Jesus is saying in our text that men can in no way save themselves. Men’s hearts and souls must first be changed by God. By nature they are bad trees and they can only produce bad fruit. Their lives reflect what’s in their hearts. The need first of all is a new heart; to be made a new creation and then there will be new fruit, only then. They need life from heaven, life from the dead, a new birth. Let me explain this important teaching to each one of you and let me begin by showing you what Jesus does not mean.
What the inability of man does not mean
i] Inability does not mean that Adam and Eve were created with an inability to love God and serve him.
Our first parents were created ‘very good.’ They were created in knowledge, righteousness and holiness. Whatever God asked of Adam that man could do it immediately, from the heart, with complete sincerity. Adam lived to the glory of God in everything he did as he replenished the garden and subdued the world. He honoured the Lord in everything. He loved God with all his heart and soul and mind. He loved Eve as himself, while she would have been prepared to have laid down her life for her husband. At first their meat and drink was to do God’s will day and night. There were no external or internal pressures being brought to bear on Adam saying, ‘Listen to the serpent! Defy God!’ There was no inability at all. To take the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in defiance of God was a totally free choice that Adam and Eve themselves made. They were under no internal or external or divine necessity of sinning. They were not tempted by God to sin. They had the ability to say no to the devil and yes to God, but then they made that fatal choice of saying yes to the devil and no to God. So originally Adam had a glorious ability. Inability came with the fall.
ii] Inability does not mean that a person has some constitutional elements in his personality which prevent him from becoming a child of God.
It is not that there are physical or psychological barriers that make it impossible for anyone to become a Christian. Such barriers do exist, preventing changes in other areas of our lives. If you commanded me to change the colour of my skin, or my eyes, or my hair, then – apart from some superficial cosmetic alterations – I’d be unable to work such changes. I can’t choose blue eyes and blond hair for a summer makeover. I couldn’t become shorter if you ordered me to shrink, while all my worrying, Jesus says, couldn’t make me an inch taller. I’ll never have the ability to sing like Pavarotti or run a three minute mile or think like an Einstein or compose like Mozart. Physically and psychologically and intellectually and musically I have no ability to change myself in such ways.
However, a sinner’s inability to trust in Jesus Christ has nothing to do with any failure in his brain or his psyche or his body. It has nothing to do with being a creature and having to live within the parameters of his own finite limitations. Total inability is not a physical or psychological failing. We are physically and mentally able to read all the gospels and display historical faith in him. The devils have such faith in Christ. They are not unable to believe in him any more than any man or woman, but the inability of man is a moral inability. It is an inability to glorify God. It is an inability for which we are culpable, for which we have to give an answer to God. It is an inability rooted in a personal sinful rejection of God as our own Lord and Saviour. This inability cannot be used as an excuse. It is our very own personal and spiritual problem, and it is desperately real.
This is James Montgomery Boice’s illustration of what I am saying:
In the animal world there are animals which eat nothing but meat: carnivores. There are other animals which eat nothing but grass or plants: herbivores. Imagine then that we have a lion, who is a carnivore, and we place a beautiful bundle of hay or a trough of oats before him. He won’t eat the hay or the oats. Why not? Is it because he is physically unable? No. Physically, he could easily begin to munch on this food and swallow it. Then why doesn’t eat it? The answer is that it is not in his nature to do so. Moreover, if it were possible to ask the lion why he won’t eat the herbivore’s meal, if he could answer he’d say, ‘I can’t eat this food; I hate it; I’ll eat nothing but meat.’1
Similarly we’re affirming that the natural man can’t naturally respond to his own guilt with the repentance of Psalm 51; that’s the fruit of the Spirit, and he cannot cast himself on God alone for salvation; that’s a gift of God. Intellectually he might understand what he has to do; physically he can respond, for example, his larynx can form certain words, or he can walk to the front at the appeal of an evangelist, he can enter a baptismal tank, but spiritually he has no ability just by himself to respond to God. His problem is not that he won’t but that he can’t. He cannot come in sorrow for his sin trusting in the blood of Christ alone for salvation; he cannot do that without grace from God. So he refuses to come but in truth he cannot come, and he can’t come because he really hates God. He is a bad tree and he will only produce bad fruit. That is what Jesus is saying. Do you understand why I am saying that these words of Jesus are his most rejected teaching?
Let me bring you two little illustrations from the Old Testament (they originally came from Arthur Pink). First, let me read to you concerning a man called Ahijah: ‘Ahijah could not see; his sight was gone because of his age’ (1 Kings 14:4). We understand that; Ahijah had no ability to see, his sight was gone. That was not some choice that he made to go blind; that was simply his natural inability; no guilt at all was attached to Ahijah’s blindness. Then, secondly, let me tell you how Joseph’s brothers behaved; ‘When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him’ (Gen. 37:4). Ahijah could not see; Joseph’s brothers could not speak. The problem sounds the same, but what a great difference is displayed in those two inabilities. The brothers couldn’t say one decent word about Joseph because they hated him. None of them was able to express one kind comment about him. They were so resentful at how much their father loved Joseph. That silence of theirs reflected a spiritual and a moral inability. You all understand that no such guilt was attached to Ahijah’s failure to see, but that it was a terrible thing for these brothers to fail to treat their brother lovingly. So it is with sinners who cannot speak a worshipful, believing, loving word about Jesus Christ. How terrible! Their inability comes out of their hearts and the personal sin that dominates their hearts. Every imagination of the thoughts of our hearts is only evil continually.
iii] Inability does not mean that everyone is as bad as they can be or will be.
In other words the fruit produced in bad trees is not all poisonous and rotten fruit. Everyone in the world, all 6,000 million people, are made in the image and likeness of God and amongst them are millions who do really outstanding righteous works. They shine above their peers, and we applaud all that they accomplish in society – though they don’t claim to be Christians. They are grand people. They daily choose to do much that is fine. They work in the caring professions and give themselves tirelessly to serving and helping people. They go way beyond the call of duty. They have a name for self-denial and compassion. They are good Samaritans. If a person falls in the street they will stop and go out of their way to help and get that person back home. They keep their marriage vows and raise their children to work hard and to respect others. They do things together as a family and we look at their homes with the greatest respect and wish some Christian homes were like theirs. We believe that such people are the beneficiaries of an earlier grace in the world. They are living on the capital of that influence which has built up over the centuries from the truth of the Bible and the presence of gospel Christians in the nation. In order for the evangel to spread, God restrains sin and encourages graciousness in people who are spiritually unsympathetic to the claims of Jesus Christ. So you have some terrific folk who are not Christians. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet,
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! . . . this quintessence of dust.
Do you understand what I am explaining to you? Although we affirm that each man in his totality as body and soul has lost any natural ability to trust in God we certainly don’t say that everyone is as evil as they can possibly be. There are natural virtues which all men have, and some non-Christians seem to display them supremely ““ a man will lay down his life for his friends. He will act in that way because the things of the law are written in his heart. He has a conscience – as all men do – and it rebukes him when he does wrong and urges him to do right. All men have a creativity, a sense of the dignity of labour, an awareness that cowardice is wrong, and they possess an aesthetic sense – a sense of beauty in the arts and in keeping their own homes. All men know God and yet they are clamping down on the consequences of having that knowledge in their rebellion.
Then let’s remember that there’s a love in God’s heart for all his creatures, but especially for men and women. He sends sunshine and rain, culture and knowledge on everyone; he is longsuffering with them, waiting for them to turn from their unbelief to him. He gives them a measure of enlightenment, a taste of the heavenly gift; they share in the Holy Spirit; they taste the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the world to come. Furthermore God has established in every state some authorities and powers like the police and magistrates that protect the vulnerable and punish the evil doer. They are God’s servants. So everybody in the world has an ability to do much that is grand. There were unbelieving men in Israel at the time of King David who were utterly faithful to their wives. Their homes were much better ordered than that of the man who wrote the 23rd Psalm, but they weren’t doing it to the glory of Jehovah. They were in love with their wives and they also knew that keeping a happy peaceful home is the best policy.
iv] Inability does not mean that the natural man lacks true responsibility and liberty.
All the people on the globe make voluntary choices, in other words, they decide what they are going to wear, and cook, and read, and how they are going to spend their evenings. We insist on this ‘freedom’ that everyone possesses. We live in a civilization which is being gripped by a philosophy of determinism, that claims we are all prisoners of our heredity and genes and that we are being dictated to by our environment. ‘None of us is free,’ it says. It is vital that Christians stress a real liberty that all men have whereby they can break free from the alleged limits of their genetic code; they needn’t choose to become drunkards or practicing homosexuals or drug addicts – no matter what their molecular code might be. They can choose to be freed from their heredity and from their environment and they can make wise choices. When we speak of total inability we mean that unbelievers who are rejecting the salvation of Jesus Christ are showing that they are slaves of sin. They are rebels against God and they are exercising this real liberty of theirs within the confines of their slavery and rebellion. I am saying that sinners lack the freedom to do completely by themselves the most important thing anyone can do, and that is to choose the blood of Christ as the fountain where their guilt will be washed away, and to choose to love God with all their hearts. They cannot make such choices without divine grace. They need a birth from above to do that.
What the inability of man does mean
See the world around us. This week (w/e 5 July 2008) we have been stunned to read of the murders of two French research students attending Imperial College, London. One of them had been stabbed over 200 times and then the boys’ bodies had been set on fire. Violent murders with knives seem increasingly common, and they are an evidence of the depravity of man in his fallen state at the most wealthy and peaceful epoch in its entire history. Man’s depravity has affected his entire totality as a person, his heart and soul and imagination and mind and spirit and affections and will. There is no part of him that has not been touched by his depravity. That is what is meant by man’s total depravity, and because of this people are incapable – all by themselves, unaided by God – of changing their characters or of acting in a way that contradicts their fundamental hostility to God. In other words, left to their own devices they are unable to discern, or love, or choose the things that are pleasing to God and contrary to self. As Jeremiah says, ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to do evil’ (Jer. 13:23).
The Bible specifically affirms some humiliating ‘cannots’, and these ‘cannots’ utterly destroy any hope sinners may have in their ability of one day deciding to do God a favour and choosing to believe in him. I want to read to you ten verses which contain these formidable words ‘can not.’ But before I do that let me tell you of one of the greatest Welsh preachers, a man called John Jones of Talsarn. There was one occasion when, as an old man, he was preaching in Holywell. Between the meetings a theological student named Cynhafal Jones came to him to talk to him about sermons. This is one of the things that the old man from Talsarn told him:
When you enter the pulpit, be thoroughly self-possessed; and whatever you do, be sure to have six or seven bombs in every sermon, and after you have had them, take them with you into the pulpit. Then begin quietly and calmly, and pave the way slowly and gradually for the firing of your first shell. When the time comes, off with it! Mark the effect; it may be nil. However, don’t be dismayed in any way, and don’t for a moment let the people think you are. As before, prepare the way silently for the second, and when you think the time has come light it with a match! It is quite possible that this, again, will seem to have no effect. Nevertheless, you be as cool and unconcerned as possible about the lack of effect; don’t let the people in any way think that you are disappointed. Prepare the way again for the third, and light that. This may glance off like the others, doing no execution at all. Never mind; light the fourth, and you may be perfectly sure that if you have six or seven, some of them will at last batter down the walls.2
So I have ten ‘bombs’ from Scripture, ten ‘cannots’, and my purpose in lobbing them into the congregation is to destroy the walls of confidence in human ability and free will behind which a number of you are hiding, which are preventing you at this moment crying, ‘Give me new life, Saviour, or I die!’, and clinging to the thought that later, very much later, when you are older, when you have had all your questions answered satisfactorily, when you have tasted the world’s pleasures fully and exhaustively, then you might think of choosing my Saviour. I tell you, you have no ability to make that choice, and you have no knowledge that you will ever be closer to the Lord than you are at this moment.
I was reading this week from a book which I enjoy very much. It was written by a Dutchman, J. Fraanje in a place called Barneveld in 1936 but it was translated about thirty years ago. He was writing about his pastoral visits and he said,
I was visiting a man on his death bed. He was 75 years old. It was very evident that death was approaching and he realized it too. In his fading voice he said to the family gathered around his bed, ‘Don’t wait until you become old. O, don’t delay because it will fare poorly with you. When I was a boy nearly twenty years old my soul was exercised in heavy convictions of guilt. I remember the places in church very well where I silently wept about my lost condition. I often sought out solitary places to pray. But I overruled my conscience and wouldn’t listen to its warnings. Now I lay here, an old man, without hope for eternity and I know where I shall go. O, people, don’t trample over the warnings of your conscience.’ That is the admonition this old man gave in broken and hesitant speech with long intervals between words just before he passed away.3
Do you understand? If God is giving you a yearning, a desire to trust in Christ, then do not be casual about it! Do not harden your heart. Such a desire for God is not something that naturally waxes and wanes. It is a supernatural mark of God’s favour to you. It is the prompting of the Holy Ghost. You cannot guarantee it will come again or last for ever. Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your heart!
Where then are these ‘bombs’ I’ve spoken about, these ten ‘cannots’? May they come to my assistance now! First our text:
1. Luke 6:43-45: ‘No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognised by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn-bushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.’ When Matthew records these words he phrases it like this: ‘A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit’ (Matt. 7:18). What have you produced all your life? What’s come out of your lips? Doubts . . . questions . . . unbelief . . . procrastination. Bad fruit. What reason do we have for believing that it will be any different in fifty years’ time when you’re lying on your death bed . . . or that may be in fifty days?
2. John 3:3, 5: ‘Unless a man is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God . . . unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ You are utterly incapable of seeing the kingdom of God without the new birth.
3. John 6:44, 65: ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him . . . no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.’ You cannot even take the first step towards Christ without God drawing you.
4. John 14:17: ‘The world cannot accept [the Spirit of truth], because it neither sees him nor knows him.’ You talk of receiving the life-giving Spirit into your life one day, but you cannot do that because you do not see him or know him.
5. John 15:4, 5: ‘No [branch] can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine . . . apart from me you can do nothing.’ Nothing means nothing and you have nothing to offer to God because you have been out of the vine and without Christ all your life.
6. Romans 8:7, 8: ‘The sinful mind . . . does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.’
7. 1 Corinthians 2:14: ‘The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.’ So there are two devastating words from Christ’s apostle, that you cannot please God and you cannot understand his gospel. You are totally lacking in ability to do this.
8. 1 Corinthians 12:3: ‘No one can say, “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.’ You can mouth those words, like you sing the great hymns of ardour and love for the Lord, but to say them from your heart and to God’s glory you need the Spirit.
9. James 3:8: ‘No man can tame the tongue.’ It is making excuses for unbelief now and will go on making excuses and you cannot tame it. What a plight to be in!
10. Revelation 14:3: ‘No one could learn the song except [those] who had been redeemed from the earth.’ Grace must teach you to sing the song of the redeemed before you reach heaven.
What are we left with after those ten bombs have destroyed our pride? We are left with the indispensable necessity of efficacious grace, something that comes into us from outside us, from heaven, and it changes our hearts and natures, and makes everything new. Even the most elementary demands of the gospel, of coming to Christ or saying that Jesus is Lord, we are incapable of doing without redeeming grace. It is a moral impossibility; it is a spiritual impossibility; it is a religious impossibility apart from the work of God in our lives. Is there in all the Bible any other so rudimentary and radical indictment that can be brought against human nature? How foolish is the evangelist who says that God can do nothing until man first does something. Those ten ‘cannots’ blow such fancies to the four winds.
We are so set against God that when the offer of the gospel is presented to us we don’t receive it, not because in a natural sense we cannot receive it but because the motives that operate in us are hostile to God. When Jesus says, ‘Come unto me,’ we remain rooted to our sin. Why is that? Is there a better god than Jesus? Are we better than him?
As we judge the matter, coming to a God like the one presented in the Bible is the very thing natural unconverted men don’t want to do. That God is a sovereign God; if we come to him, we must acknowledge his sovereignty over our lives. We don’t want to do that. Coming to a God like the one presented in the Bible means coming to one who is holy; if we come to a holy God, we must acknowledge his holiness and confess our sin. We don’t want to do that either. Again, if we come to God, we must admit his omniscience – that he knows every single thing about us, and we don’t want to do that. If we would come to God, we must acknowledge his immutability, because any God worthy of the name doesn’t change in any of his attributes. God is sovereign, and he will always be sovereign. God is holy, and he will always be holy. God is omniscient, and he will always be omniscient. That is the very God the natural man doesn’t want. So we won’t come. Indeed, we can’t come until God by grace does what can only properly be described as a miracle in our sinful lives.
Someone who does not hold to this teaching might protest, ‘But surely the Bible teaches that anyone who will come to Christ may come to him? Jesus himself said that if we come he will not cast us out’ The answer is that that, of course, is true. But that is not the point. Certainly, anyone who wills may come and it is that that makes our refusal to come so unreasonable and increases our guilt. 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 the 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 is renewed to embrace Jesus Christ as Saviour.4
The two major objections to man’s inability answered
i] Inability is incompatible with the demands God makes upon man.
‘Man must have some modicum of ability,’ sinners protest, ‘or there is no point in God commanding us to do what we cannot do.’ Not at all! God deals with you and me according to our obligation not according to the measure of our ability. When our father Adam fell he lost the ability to please God but he didn’t lose his obligation to please him. Our obligation to glorify and enjoy God remains intact for ever. What God commands us to do reflects his own absolute perfection, not our ability to obey. He doesn’t lower his demands to what we might be able to attain. He doesn’t say, ‘Well . . . go for 80% . . . do your best . . . have a go.’ No. He says, ‘Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. Be ye holy as I am holy.’ God must require total conformity to his will. Think of God running heaven on any less a standard than perfect love and perfect righteousness. Imagine his saying to the angels ‘See what you can attain.’ What chaos, what sinful discord there’d be in heaven. The obligation is glorious; the obligation is total. The responsibility resting on the man Christ Jesus was comprehensive towards God and man and Jesus’ accomplishment was as comprehensive as his obligation. He is all our hope and all our salvation. God deals with you and me according to our obligation not according to the measure of our ability.
Our sinning has not cancelled his claims upon us. Let me use this example. There was a landowner who asked an unemployed labourer whether he would like to work in his garden and whether he’d got the ability to do it. He was setting up a marquee for the wedding of his daughter the following week. ‘Yes,’ answered the labourer, ‘I’m healthy and I’ve got strong arms. The only problem is I’ve got no tools and nowhere to live.’ ‘That doesn’t matter,’ said the businessman, ‘I’ve got all the tools you’ll need.’ So he gave the tools to him and a cottage and instructed him what to do. The labourer accepted all the conditions set out by the rich man and he went to work, trimming, mowing, pruning. That landowner could reasonably expect that the work would be done well. The labourer had the strength and the tools, and he was delighted in the agreement they’d made.
It went quite well for a few days, but then what happened was this; the workman got drunk, and so he was unable to do his work. Inability came into the situation. Did the businessman, because the man had got drunk, lose the right of having his garden worked on? No. He still had the authority to request that their agreement be honoured and his overgrown garden be weeded and the ground prepared for the marquee; for all of this he had provided the tools, the home and a good wage. The workman had made himself unfit to continue gardening by his own choice but he was still under obligation to work for his boss. His obligation to his employer has not ceased because of his drunken inability. Absolutely not! He still owes it to his boss to be working for him. His boss deals with him by his obligation not by the measure of his ability to work.
In this way, too, the Creator’s demands to his creatures to whom he has given life, who live and move and have their being in him, don’t get annulled whenever we are lying in a ditch of our own making and turning our bloodshot eyes up to heaven and saying with a drunken breath, ‘Today I cannot do what you want.’ Whether you can or not you must! Our God holds us responsible always to fulfil his requirements. If it were not for a Saviour we would be lost men and women.
ii] Inability is incompatible with preaching the gospel.
Why preach if men are not able to come to Christ? One answer is very clear, that it is essential that you who are dead in trespasses and sins be told of your condition and be confronted with the demands of God and your own impotence in the face of those demands. If our problem is loneliness, then our message must be the friend we have in Jesus. If our problem is that we are sick, then our message will focus on the Great Physician. If our problem is ignorance, then we are going to study Jesus the teacher. Many go no further than that, but if our problem is far more serious, that we are dead in trespasses and sins, and we are unable to do the most basic things God requires, even to come to Jesus Christ for salvation, then our message needs to be commensurate with our plight. We are dead – we need life. We have hearts of stone – we need hearts of flesh. We are unwilling to come to Christ – we must be made willing. We are unable to please God – we must be made able! If sinners are sealed from such a divine diagnosis then they will be removed from the means of awakening them from the stupor of sin. The preaching of the whole counsel of God is the great channel through which the gospel comes and it is operative to the salvation of favoured sinners. There is a remedy for human helplessness, but there were times when Jesus had to ask people whether they wished to get better. Do you want to be delivered?
Some people complain that the truth of man’s inability is a counsel of despair and so it must be inimical to the interests of evangelism, but there is a prior consideration and it is this, whether this doctrine is true. Are men dead in sins? Can men come to Christ only if God draws them? How could it be against the interests of evangelism if the truth of their condition is hidden from them? The only gospel there is is the one that assumes man’s total helplessness, and it is therefore that truth that lays the foundation for the proclamation of the gospel of grace. Nothing is more inimical to the interests of evangelism than some vestige of hope or trust in one’s own resources.
Experience will demonstrate that being convinced of one’s utter helplessness is the very condition of appreciating the gospel of grace. When I see that, then I give up all hope in myself and my decisions, and my ‘wonderful free will’ and my ability to make up my own mind and choose when and how I am going to be saved. Then finally I can appreciate the gospel of grace. I cast myself on the mercy of the living God; ‘Thou must save and Thou alone!’ The great verses that says ‘you cannot’ result in my despairing of myself, and then it is that I appreciate the provisions of God’s grace. ‘Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert’ (Isa. 35:5-6).
- James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith (IVP, 1986), p.213.
- Owen Jones, Some of the Great Preachers of Wales (1885), pp.534-5.
- J. Fraanje, Striving Together in the Divine Truths of Scripture (USA, 1979), pp.206-7.
- Boice, op. cit., pp. 214-5
‘Christianity is Taught Not Caught’ July 19, 2019
Today more than ever attention focusses on young people. Newspaper headlines of their activities feature everything from revolution to drugs, student sit-ins to the generation gap, hooliganism to hijacking. Not that the news media are unfair or disproportionate: in a year or two the average age in America will be twenty-four. Most of these young […]
On Doctrine and Practice July 16, 2019
A charge that is made repeatedly against historic Christianity is that its stress on doctrine makes it authoritarian, theoretical, and cold. The Christian religion is a practical affair; putting the faith in terms of truth to be believed alienates or repels many who would otherwise be sympathetic. As John Robinson puts it, ‘the effect of […]