responsibility in spite of inability

John Bonar had a sermon on the text, ‘Unto you o men I call, and my voice is to the sons of man …’ Proverbs 8:4-5. When it was published in The Free Church Pulpit (vol 1) round about the 1840s it had a lengthy title which made the point that when the gospel was offered universally (to every sinner without exception, as it should be), this was completely consistent both with the reality of total depravity and the fact that God has elected some particular sinners to salvation and not others. (Yes, all this was conveyed in just the title.)

He doesn’t get long into his sermon before he tackles head on the objection that God can’t command sinners to do things they’re incapable of without his help – at least not without being unfair.

… they ask, is it not a mockery, unworthy of God, to call dead men to walk, and impotent men to rise – to do what he knows no man can do without his special grace?

Now, if the inability of man was the inability of “natural brute beasts”, as the apostle Peter speaks, and the call was to the service of rational creatures; or if the inability was the inability of men and the call was to such to yield to God the service of angels or of archangels; or if the inability was the physical inability of a lame man to walk and the call was that he should rise and walk – though we would wish, even then, to speak with more reverence – there would be more weight in the vaunting words of these objections.

But if the inability is the voluntary act of an intelligent being preferring the darkness to the light; if the inability is the inability of such a being to love his God, not with the love of an angel, but with all his heart and all his soul and all his strength; if the inability is that of a being who walks after the flesh, because he minds the things of the flesh and not the things of the spirit; if the inability is that of a man who cannot find it in his heart to love and to serve the blessed God, but can find it in that very heart to give that love and service to the creature; – then there is neither truth nor power in such statements, however vauntingly put forth as unanswerable.

This is the real state of man. There is utter inability in him to spiritual duty, but it is just because sin is preferred. This inability is hopeless, but it is just because this is the governing power of the mind. There is utter helplessness in man, but this is just because this power will always prevail if help does not come from God. There is in all this the deepest and darkest depravity, and that surely can never remove man from his obligation to serve God, or take away God’s right to deal with man as a responsible being.

Such being the true nature of man’s inability, it is evident that every hour of continuance in it is an hour of chosen rebellion, and therefore of deepest sin. And such being the true characteristics which God sees every hour, there is no inconsistency in God demanding obedience, and no injustice in His punishing those who are not subject to His law, and no mockery in His calling these men to turn from their sins.

He also makes the point later on that faith is the only possible acceptable response to the gospel – when God reveals himself as a Saviour, the only appropriate response from a sinner is to put their faith in him, just as he reveals himself, there and then.

God can and does demand of man, and cannot but demand of man – of sinful man, of man lost, undone, and dead, of man without strength and utterly impotent – repentance and conversion; for what is conversion but just the right state of such a creature towards the blessed God? What is the meaning of me not being able to convert myself but just that I am so utterly depraved that I cannot love the ever-blessed God, and that I love the sin which he hates? What is this but darkest and deepest sin?

The full sermon, with the abbreviated title ‘The universal calls of the gospel’ is available on the Banner of Truth site (part 1 and part 2).

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