Inability: The Free Slave of Sin

Only the sovereign grace of God can overcome our innate inability to love God, choose righteousness, and behold the glory of Christ

This paper on Inability was originally submitted for the ECC Pastoral Residency, an eighteen-month training program for men discerning a call to gospel ministry. It has been slightly modified for purposes of this blog.

I still recall having a conversation, which may have even been a conversation with myself. Certain facts escape me (which by the way is a wonderful safety net for someone like me in the “over 60 “ crowd). And yet, the one piercing remembrance I have from that conversation was the phrase “I’m a good person.” After growing up Roman Catholic I spent almost 20 years of my life as a Mormon, steadily “working” my way to paradise to live with God. I believed in God, lived the “do unto” others life, loved “most of mankind”, thinking I was “for sure” going to heaven. The day God convicted me that I needed to repent of what I had done throughout my life, I suddenly realized that the choices I had made were all about me. They were all about making me feel better about myself. They made me think I must have been “good” in God’s eyes. What I failed to realize was my total inability to truly please or even desire God.

Inability: Free and Enslaved

In J. I. Packer’s Concise Theology there are 94 sections outlining the essentials of Christian belief. However, the section that resonated the most for me was the section on Inability. The subtitle Packer gives really explains it all: “ Fallen human beings are both free and enslaved.” One aspect of our human condition that Packer defines so well here is the distinction between free agency and free will.

Packer uses free agency as a mark of all humans.  “All humans are free agents in the sense that they make their own decisions as to what they will do, choosing as they please in the light of their sense of right and wrong and the inclinations they feel” (Concise Theology, 85) So there you have “me “ in a nutshell. Being the “good” free agent that I was, I made decisions based on what I thought was right. I was the final authority! I was in control. Of course, I was using what I thought was God’s blueprint of being a “good, moral” person. I phrase it differently now, knowing the true gospel, I did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (Judges 2:11) and “right in my own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

He then moves to free will. He characterizes it as Augustine did; “we have no natural ability to discern and choose God’s way because we have no natural inclination Godward; our hearts are in bondage to sin, and only the grace of regeneration can free us from that slavery” (Concise Theology, 86). This is the inability Paul writes about when he says, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:7-8; cf. 1 Cor 2:14).

The Bondage of the Will 

This connotation of “bondage” is something John Piper related to when he spoke regarding Martin Luther’s work The Bondage Of The Will. In his sermon, Piper brings out five descriptions for our bondage:

  1. The bondage of legal guilt and divine condemnation (Rom 3:9-10, 19).
  2. The bondage of love for the darkness of self-glorification (John 3:19-20).
  3. The bondage of hatred for the supremacy of God (Rom 8:6-8).
  4. The bondage of spiritual death (Eph 2:1-3).
  5. The bondage of blindness to the glory of Christ (2 Cor 4:4)! This one really became etched in my mind and heart.

Piper explains that we are all naturally blind! “The ‘natural’ person. Ordinary person. Every person—minus the spirit of God.” “In their case the God of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4).

So what is our hope of sight? What is humanity’s only hope of beholding the glory of Christ? Piper explains, “No human beings, apart from the omnipotent grace of God overcoming this blindness, can see that glory” (cf. 2 Cor 4:6). It’s only through the work of the Holy Spirit and the miracle of regeneration that our hearts of stone are turned to hearts of flesh.

Free from Sin, Slaves to Righteousness

As Paul taught in Romans 6:16-23, having been set free from sin, we now can choose righteousness. Filled with the Spirit, we can finally desire God and desire to please him. This is the beauty and power of the gospel! Packer concludes, “only the freed will (Paul says, the freed person) freely and heartily chooses righteousness. A permanent love of righteousness—that is, an inclination of heart to the way of living that pleases God—is one aspect of the freedom that Christ gives (John 8:34–36; Gal. 5:1, 13)” (Concise Theology, 86). It was this idea of inability overcome by the gospel that led Charles Wesley to write these words:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth and followed Thee

—Charles Wesley