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Total Inability and Efficacious Grace in the Writings of R. A. Finlayson

Category Articles
Date August 9, 2013

Judged by the unqualified appeals in much modern ‘evangelism’ to the natural man’s unaided reason, emotions and will, one might conclude that ‘modern man’ is able to respond positively, and that he has no need of God’s efficacious grace. That such presumption is wholly groundless was the firm conviction of the late R. A. Finlayson, Professor of Systematic Theology in the old Free Church of Scotland College in Edinburgh. In this article we shall summarize his teaching on man’s total inability and God’s efficacious grace.

Man’s Total Inability

Finlayson rightly classifies man’s total inability to save himself, and even to do the least thing towards his salvation, under the heading ‘The Result of the Fall.’ In doing so, he asserts that the fall of mankind in Adam from God into sin is both a historical fact and ‘a great moral and spiritual reality.’ Through ‘the seduction of Satan,’the permissive will of God,’ and ‘man’s own wilful act’ of disobedience, Adam brought himself and all his natural posterity into a state in which recovery from man’s side is impossible. His resulting depravity extends to ‘all man’s faculties, moral and spiritual,’ and to every member of his body.

That being so, whenever man is confronted with the claims of God, he reacts as one both unable and unwilling to comply. ‘God approaches the sinner when he is dead in trespasses and sins.’ What, then, can he do? ‘Can he do anything at all?’ Clearly, the answer is ‘No’! As fallen, man exists in the state of ‘living death,’ the elements of which leave him without the least ‘power to heed God’s wooing call.’ True, he was originally ‘endowed with free will,’ but by sinning he ‘has put his will into the power of another, and it is now in bondage.’ Whatever freedom it retains is freedom ‘only to choose the evil and to refuse the good; certainly it is incapable of exercising its freedom to turn to God.’ It resembles a car ‘whose engine is fixed in reverse gear,’ so that whenever God approaches him, man chooses only to depart further and further from him. His inability to return to God is both wilful and total.

God’s Efficacious Grace

‘Thus it is,’ Finlayson continues, ‘that every movement God-wards is of grace from first to last.’ God takes the initiative and maintains that initiative in all his saving dealings with the elect.

By his ‘prevenient grace’ he ‘brought Zacchaeus into the sycamore tree to await the Saviour . . . Lydia to the riverside where she was to hear of the Saviour and have her heart opened,’ and ‘Onesimus to Rome to meet with the messenger of the cross that he might be free for ever.’

By his regenerating grace he creates ‘a God-ward response to the divine call,’ thereby enacting Ezekiel’s ‘divine surgery’ of removing the heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh (Ezek. 11:19) In this ‘first decisive and effective act of saving grace . . . the soul is endowed with spiritual life from God.’

The necessity for such a work of creative power is evident from man’s total inability to regenerate himself. The sin that has ‘invaded the whole of man’s nature,’ leaving no part immune from its paralyzing power, can be countered only by a superior ‘new governing principle that affects the entire man. This is tantamount to a new creation, for there is implanted a new life . . . animated by’ the very ‘life of God.’

This mysterious act ‘takes place instantaneously in the hidden depths of the soul,’ so that the new-born person himself ‘is not actually conscious of what has happened.’ How long this new life remains dormant we cannot say. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. Others are changed later in life, in God’s appointed time. In their case, ‘it is at that moment that the soul hears the call of God and responds to it,’ just as the new-born infant responds to its mother’s voice.

‘The response is made by faith, the active principle of the new life.’ Before efficacious grace made its inroads into the heart, ‘there was no ear to hear, no eye to see, no hand to accept.’ But when the regenerate soul believes on Christ crucified, placed before his mind’s eye in the gospel, it becomes conscious of having passed from death to life. This is the point that marks ‘the beginning of our Christian state.’

God’s efficacious grace now moves the new-born soul into conversion. This is ‘the outer expression of the inner life,’ the ‘act of God by which he causes the regenerate soul, in conscious life, to turn to him in new obedience.’ Conversion is therefore not a process, but a decisive, unrepeatable act. It is the God-given power to will and do his good pleasure.

‘Yet in a real sense man is’ now ‘enlisted on the side of God from the very centre of his being,’ and so begins to cooperate with the Spirit in every subsequent work of his.

‘The two elements in conversion that make room for man’s cooperation are repentance and faith.’ These are inseparable, for ‘there is faith in all true repentance, and there is repentance in all true faith.’ Being graces of the Spirit, they are ‘permanent elements [and not mere once-for-all acts] in the conscious experience of the converted one.’ Through their means, the mind is progressively informed, the conscience is regularly convinced, the feelings are repeatedly engaged, and the will makes sanctified decisions; ‘these four are exercised throughout the whole of the Christian’s life on earth.’


Although ‘conversion . . . is not an end in itself, as we so often seem to think,’ but is merely the commencement of an entire life devoted to God in which grace is constantly operative, it is over the great change — from unregeneracy through regeneracy to conversion — that confusion reigns in so many preachers and churches today. When will self-styled ‘evangelists’ learn that man really is unable to convert himself to God, and that he needs God’s efficacious grace to perform the work in him? Until they learn this, they will continue to rob God of the glory of his grace, and produce only spurious conversions that will leave their victims lost for eternity.

And when will their hearers learn that they can no more contribute to their salvation than a corpse lying in a grave can raise itself from death at the bidding of one standing on the turf above it? Oh, how essential is our need to discover that if we are to be saved at all, it will be by God’s efficacious grace alone! Salvation is of the Lord, from its inception to its consummation. Help, Lord, for vain is the help of man!

Taken with permission from Peace and Truth, 2013:3, the magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union.

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