Do God's Commands to the Unregenerate
Imply Moral Ability?
by John Hendryx
Question: I was on a recent campling trip for our churches' junior high kids with one of the elders of our church. We had a frank discussion about the doctrine of election and were up very late every night talking about it. He said election just didn't seem right and that God's commands for us to believe and repent prove that in the end it is our own choice. What do you say about this?
Response: We must not presuppose that what we ought to do is the same thing as what we are able to do. God's commands to us do not presuppose the moral ability to obey them. A simple example for this is the existence of the Ten Commandments, which are God's unchanging laws for living in community with one another. God did not give fallen humanity these commands presupposing that any of us had the moral capacity to perfectly live them out. In fact, God's perfect holy standard only reveals our sin. If we love him with all our heart could obey His commands then we could theoretically save ourselves and would have no need of a Savior like Jesus. But our need for a Savior (all of us) us is due to the fact that none of us is able to obey God's commands. That is because we are morally important to do so. So, in this case, what we "ought" to do does not imply "can" do. The intended effect of God's commands is actually the opposite. What we ought to do (as commanded by God) is given to reveal to us that we cannot do it and are utterly dependent on God for our salvation. The purpose of the Law is to expose and lay bare our spirutal bankruptcy. Divine imperatives, according to Paul in Romans 3 are put there to undo us (See Rom 3:19, 20), not to give us hope in ourselves that we can obey them. It is the law which brings knowledge of sin. So may I suggest that the elder who is telling you that God would only command us to do something we are able to do is way off the mark and has actually misapprehended the core meaning of the gospel, however sincere his faith may be. Of course, God does not save us because we have perfect understanding of these things ... no doubt this brother loves the Lord. But he may be confused at some very fundamental levels about the gospel. The Scripture says that to believe the gospel is a command of God. 1 John 3:23 says "And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ." Elsewhere he says, "God commands eveyone everywhere to repent..." Obedience to this command cannot be accomplished apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Faith and works are equally difficult apart from renewal of heart. So those who say that the unregenerate can obey the commands of God, apart from the Spirit, with our "free will" are teaching the dangerously perilous doctrine of Semi-pelagianism. As soon as one admits the need of the Holy Spirit to obey the gospel then he concedes that God's commands are impossible for the natural man to obey and thereby admits that God's command does not imply ability. John Owen once said:
“To say that we are able by our own efforts to think good thoughts or give God spiritual obedience before we are spiritually regenerate is to overthrow the gospel and the faith of the universal church in all ages.”