Salvation: Doctrine of Inability – Part 3

How can we know if we’re really saved? Can we really know? The apostle John wrote in his first letter: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (I John 5:13). So, yes, it is definitely possible to know for sure.

Two weeks ago, we talked about the fact that before we can be saved, we need to know that we’re lost—hopelessly lost. Lost because of Adam and Eve’s original sin in the garden—a sin that has infected every single one of their descendants throughout all of human history.

Even you—even me.

We’re lost—and we need to be found. So often we think that we’re looking for God—not true. We think we’re searching for Him, we wonder where He is and why He doesn’t answer us. We think we’re doing all the right things to find Him: we’re praying, we’re reading our Bible, we’re going to church—and yet we hear nothing, we experience nothing. We wonder why He won’t reveal Himself, why He won’t answer our cries?

We’ve all been in this place—maybe you’re there right now.  Our problem is sin—not just original sin, but our own personal sin. This is what the Lord is telling the prophet Isaiah 2700 years ago. The nation of Israel was in a state of rapid moral and spiritual decline. Isaiah was prophesying the coming deportation to Babylon as punishment for the nation’s sin. The people knew they needed to be saved—but they thought that what they needed to be saved from were enemy nations who were stronger and more powerful than they. They wondered where God was. “We hope … for salvation, but it is far from us” we read in Isaiah 59:11. They know they need God—what they don’t know is why they need God. And when He doesn’t show up and do what they want Him to do, they’re trying to decide whether the Lord is incapable of saving them or if He just can’t hear them as they cry out.  

Because, like us, when they’re not sure where God is or why He’s not doing what we think He should be doing, they blamed Him. Isn’t that our default position? If there’s trouble and God’s not acting on our behalf, it must be all His fault.


Isaiah tells the Israelites that God’s not the problem—they are. Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear” (Isaiah 59:2).

Maybe you, like Isaiah, have heard God speak to you during one of those times of trouble in your life. Maybe you’ve heard Him say, “I’m not hiding from you. You’ve been hiding from me. And before you can come into My presence, before you can be in fellowship with Me, you must dig down deep into your heart and confess the sins of your past.”

It’s not really that hard to understand that we’re lost and need a savior. It’s not even that hard to understand that our sins require God’s judgment, as we talked about last week. After all, we’re not even responsible for original sin. That’s all Adam’s fault—right? And we know we’re not perfect. We know that we’ve done some things wrong. But if we’re being really honest with ourselves, we might admit that we still wonder:

Isn’t God making kind of a big deal out of this? I’m not really that bad—after all, there are lots of people out there who are a lot worse that I am—aren’t there?

This morning we’re going to talk about the doctrine of inability—which means that every single one of us really is that bad. That every single one of us is completely unable to save ourselves. And not only to save ourselves, but we’re completely unable to contribute even the smallest thing to our salvation.

Because we’re all dirty rotten sinners—every one. Like Adam and Eve, like the Israelite people of Isaiah’s day, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we try to cover up our sin in the hopes that God won’t notice our bad habits and attitudes, our unkind words and thoughts, our failure to love Him more than our spouse or children or grandchildren.

“Our iniquities, our sins, have made a separation between us and God.”  We’ve become so good at hiding that most of the time we don’t even realize we’re doing it. We’ve buried all those wrong thoughts and actions so deep that we’ve managed either to forget them or to convince ourselves that they weren’t really that important. We’ve convinced ourselves that “God isn’t going to worry about my little sins when there are so many people committing really big ones all the time—is He?”

Maybe we think that because we pray and read our Bibles and go to church, that these spiritual activities will cancel out those bad things—or at least cause God to overlook them.

We live in a world where, even in the church, sin often seems to be no big deal. After all, we know we’re all sinners. And, sure, if someone commits murder, if some crazy person breaks in here this morning and starts killing people, they need to be punished. They need to be held accountable. If somebody robs a bank or sells a child into human slavery or pays half a million dollars to get their son or daughter into college … Well, those things are just wrong. We all know that.

But that little lie I told the other day—it didn’t really hurt anybody. It just made me look better than I really am. That mean thing I said about somebody? It wasn’t really a sin. That ream of paper or those stamps that I “borrowed” from my workplace, the time that I spent checking Facebook when I was getting paid to work—everybody does that. I’m pretty sure God’s too busy dealing with really big sins to worry about my little ones.

Well … He wasn’t too busy to strike Ananias and Sapphira dead on the spot because they told what many of us would consider to be just a little white lie. Apparently the fact that they were deceiving their fellows brothers and sisters in the body of Christ was a pretty big deal to Him—even if it might not seem like it to you and me.

But aren’t there some sins that God sees as worse than others? Several of you have asked me this question since last Sunday. Some of you have mentioned the Roman Catholic understanding that sins can be divided into categories of either venial or mortal. Nowhere in Scripture do we find the idea that there are small sins. And nowhere do we find the idea that God is willing to overlook any sin—even those that we consider to be so small as to not really matter.

Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden because of what many of us would see as a very small sin.

We’re all sinners. The apostle John writes in his first letter that “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Butif we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:8-9).

We’re all sinners—God knows this. But if we confess our sins, He’ll forgive us. Confess—admit that we’re sinners who need a savior. When we do that, we’re in agreement with God.

But if confession is agreement with God, then sin is disagreement with God. It’s choosing to live our lives by our values instead of God’s, by our wills instead of God’s, by our plans instead of God’s. Confession is admitting that our behavior wasn’t just the result of bad parenting, poor genes, jealous friends, somebody out to get us, or a chemical imbalance. Any of those factors may be involved—but confession is saying that somewhere in the mix was a choice—a choice made by us—and that it doesn’t need to be excused, explained, or even understood. The choice needs to be forgiven. And it’s forgiven when we admit to our dishonesty in trying to live on our terms instead of God’s.

Confession always begins with God and it’s always about God. And part of what we must confess is that we’re guilty of thinking that confession begins with people—that we’re like that Pharisee who stood in the temple thanking God that he wasn’t like everybody else. When we compare ourselves to others, we can always find someone who’s not as good as me. If other people are the standard by which I judge myself, I’m always going to think that I’m better than I really am.

When I compare myself to the absolute holiness of God, however, it is immediately clear just how much I fall miserably short every single day.

Paul wants us to view sin as God views it. God never measures our sin against someone else. When we sin, it is God’s law that is broken, God’s authority that is rejected, God’s government that is set wrong. It’s not the size of the sin but the majesty and holiness of God that makes our sin so grievous in His sight.

This is the issue that Paul is addressing in our passage from the third chapter of Romans. He wants us to understand that we’re all under sin. This doesn’t mean that every person is as sinful as every other person. It means that our legal condition is the same—we’ve all been judged and found guilty. We’re all lost, and there are no degrees of lostness.

Imagine that three people decided to swim from California to Hawaii. One of them can swim but not very well; she makes it maybe half a mile before she drowns. The next is an average swimmer—he swims a couple of miles before he starts to flounder and soon he drowns. The third is an Olympic gold medalist—the best swimmer on the planet. Still, after about thirty miles she’s struggling, after fifty mile she’s really struggling, and by around sixty miles she drowns.

Is one more drowned than another? Of course not. It doesn’t matter at all how far they got; none of them were anywhere near Hawaii, and in the end they’re all equally dead. In the same way, no matter how much we might trust in our spirituality, in our Bible reading and prayer and coming to church, we’re all still sinners.

The doctrine of inability: we’re all unable to save ourselves—or even contribute to our salvation. This is the reality of our sinfulness. “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). Not a single one of us is legally righteous and nothing we can do can change that. We are guilty and condemned.

Furthermore, “no one understands” (3:11). As Paul writes in Ephesians 4:18, we are “darkened in [our] understanding, alienated from the life of God because of [our] ignorance that is in [us] due to the hardening of [our] hearts.” We’re ignorant, but that’s not what causes our hard heartedness—it’s not that we don’t love God because we don’t know about Him. Instead, it’s hard heartedness that causes lack of understanding. That’s because our self-centeredness leads us to filter out a lot of reality. We’re in denial about our own sinfulness, even to ourselves.

And “no one seeks for God” (3:11). This is because none of us really want to find Him. Instead, we’re running and hiding from Him in all that we do, even in our religion and morality.

“All have turned aside”—not many, not most, but all. Isaiah 53:6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.” We want to be in charge of our own life, we’ve convinced ourselves that we have a right to decide for ourselves what we’ll do and where we’ll go and how we’ll do it. We have a right to do it our way.

“No one seeks for God”—to seek God is to desire to know the one true God, to find and enjoy Him, to worship and appreciate and rejoice in Him for who He is.

Some of you might be thinking: “Wait just a minute. I know God—I know lots of people who know Him. Maybe they’re not Christians and maybe they don’t go to church, but they pray, they’re seeking God.”

Paul’s not saying that no one seeks spiritual blessings; he’s not saying that no one seeks God to answer their prayers. He’s not saying that no one is seeking spiritual peace or power or experience. He knows that many, many people seek God for these things. What he is saying is that no one, prompted by their own decision and acting in their own ability, wants to find God.

Someone might really want to know about God or even be convinced that there must be a God. But that’s not a real passion to meet God. Or someone might have a problem in their lives and realize that they need forgiveness to deal with their guilt; or spiritual peace to deal with their anxiety; or power or wisdom to be able to know how to move forward in life; or a spiritual experience to deal with the emptiness they’re feeling. But none of these things are seeking God. None of these are seeking to know, and be known by, the holy, living, almighty, personal God. It’s seeking what God can give us, what He can do for us—it’s not seeking Him for Himself.

The gospels show us that Jesus struggled with this throughout all of His earthly ministry. Huge crowds followed Him for what He could do for them—they loved it when He healed their illnesses, when He fed them when they hungry, when He provided gallons of wine for their party. When He wanted them to love Him for who He was.

Paul wants us to understand that our spiritual searching is really about sinful self-centeredness—we’re want to receive blessings from God while at the same time we hang on tightly to control of our lives. We’re expecting God to serve us, to be and do whatever He needs to be and do to meet our needs.

Just like those ancient Israelites of Isaiah’s day and those first century Jews of Jesus’ day, we refuse to bow down before the living God, we refuse to give Him control of our lives and futures—we want the benefits of a relationship with Him but we don’t want to serve Him.

Some of you may now be feeling completely discouraged by the truth of this doctrine of inability—but there is some good news. Actually, there’s great and wonderful news. Because what this means is that if we are seeking God, then what’s really happening is that God is seeking us. If our sinful human nature is only wanting to hide from God, then something in us must have changed. Something outside of us must have caused us to want to seek God—that something, of course, is God’s Holy Spirit.

Jesus said, in our gospel passage, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). This is why, when Peter declared Jesus to be the Christ, Jesus told him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).  Peter is blessed not because he’s so smart and has managed to figure this out on his own, but because God has chosen to reveal the truth about Jesus to him.

Turning to God and understanding the truth about who He is and who we are—that He is Lord and we are not—isn’t something that we do. It’s something that God works in us so that we can find Him. So when we think about how it is that we came to find God, we need to realize that it wasn’t about what we were doing—we didn’t seek Him out, He drew us to Him. We decided to put our faith in Him only because He had decided to give us faith.

So what difference does this make? When we understand that it is God who was looking for us, who was seeking us, we rejoice in the knowledge that He’s not trying to hide from us, that all the things we know about Him are things that He has chosen to reveal to us. We’re humbled by the truth that there’s nothing in us that’s better or smarter than what’s it anyone else, that we’re not somehow more perceptive or spiritual than unbelievers; that there’s nothing at all in us that we weren’t given by God. (I Corinthians 4:7).

When we know and love God for Himself, we can be certain that we’re saved. And as we struggle to truly believe that we’re saved, we can be comforted and confident that, according to Paul in Philippians 1:6, “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

God is not going to start His good work in you and then just go off an abandon you. It is the will of the Father, according to Jesus Himself, that He “should lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39).

And this is true for every one of us. Paul said that it’s true for “both Jews and Greeks” (Romans 3:9)—today we might say “churchgoers and non-churchgoers.” Or even, “good church-going people and mass murders, child molesters, abortion doctors, worshipers of Satan. To those who rob the weak and the aged. To the cheat and the liar. To war criminals and drug lords and terrorists.”

In Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, he gives a list of those who, if they continue in their evil, cannot “inherit the kingdom of God: the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who practice homosexuality, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers or swindlers” (I Corinthians 6:10). And then he says, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (I Corinthians 6:11).

Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is the amazing good news of the gospel. And when we know that if I, as a recovering sinner myself, can accept Jesus’ good news—then I can go to even a mass murderer and say, “There is, in the kingdom of God, forgiveness that knows no limit.” Repent, allow God to wash you clean, and know that you have been forgiven.

Let us praise God with greater gratitude because we know that everything about our salvation comes from Him, from beginning to end. Salvation didn’t begin with us deciding to seek God—with us making a decision for Christ—salvation began with Him choosing to seek you and me.

Let us pray.