by Mike Ratliff
But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. (Joshua 24:19 ESV)
When my faith was young, Joshua’s statement in Joshua 24:19 seemed puzzling. Of course, I was a member in some churches that did their best to ignore anything resembling deep theological study. I remember a Q&A session with one of my former pastors in which this passage was read (not by me) then he was asked to explain it. The answer was that this was just an abstraction not to be taken literally and not to be applied to the Church age. Let’s take a closer look.
In answer to Joshua’s challenge, the people had said, in affect, “We will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” But Joshua knew them too well to trust them, and reminded them that they were undertaking, what they could not perform. They did not believe him, but cried, “No, but we will serve the LORD”; but their history after this proved the truth of Joshua’s warning. God’s word knows us better than we know ourselves. God’s omniscience sees each part of our being as an anatomist sees the various portions of the body, and he therefore knows our moral and spiritual nature most thoroughly. A watchmaker is the best judge of a watch; and he who made man has the best knowledge of his condition and capacity, which is that the unregenerate cannot serve God.
This inability is not physical but moral. The unregenerate nature is fallen. It is not of God, but of sin. This fallen nature blinds people for it is isolated from knowing God and His ways. Some may say that the unregenerate could serve God if they liked; but in that “if” lies the hinge of the whole question. Man’s inability lies in the complete lack of moral power so to both desire and will as actually to perform. Some may also say that since this is so then how can God hold them accountable? The Word of God states that moral inability is actually Man’s fault.
Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil. (Jeremiah 13:23 ESV)
God’s nature, His Holiness, renders perfect service impossible to depraved people as Joshua stated to the children of Israel. The best they could render as unrenewed men would lack heart and intent, and therefore must be unacceptable. Without love and faith men cannot please God. What are the prayers, alms, and worshippings of the unregenerate?
When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. (Isaiah 1:15 ESV)
Of course, in our day with the demand to be called Christian by people who refuse to submit to the Lordship of Christ, we must ask, “what of of their religiosity?” What about their “worship” and their “churchgoing?” The law of God is perfect, comprehensive, spiritual, far-reaching: who can hope to fulfill it? If a “look” may commit adultery, who shall in all points keep the law? The carnal mind is inclined to self-will, self-seeking, lust, enmity, pride, and all other evils.
For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. (Romans 8:7 ESV)
Let men try to be perfectly obedient. They will not try it. They argue for their ability, but they cannot bring themselves to exert it. I know that there are some reading this piece right now who are beginning to boil in anger because you see that proclaiming these truths discourages people and drives them to despair. They say that if we preach this then we will be discouraging people from being Christian. However, the truth is still the truth my friends. It is more likely that someone will invent a perpetual motion machine than it would be to find a fulfilled hope of perfect obedience by those who have already sinned. Expecting holiness from sinful people is foolishness. Therefore, we must proclaim these truths for in doing so the only ones who genuinely call upon the name of the Lord are those who have come to the end of themselves.
By preaching moral inability we are instruments in the hands of God to discourage people from seeking to be reconciled to God through self-righrteousness. It is a deadly thing to believe oneself to be a Christian because he or she is not as bad as other people. Self-righteousness is a proud refusal of mercy. It is a rebellion against grace. Self-confidence and self-reliance are the enemies of the Saviour.
We must preach the truth of moral inability because God works within these truths to discourage reliance upon ceremonies or any other outward religiousness. These truths bring assurance to the hearts of men that religiosity cannot suffice. It also discourages people from seeking every other way of self-salvation by shutting them up to the faith in the Lord Jesus, which is the best of things.
To those reading this who know not God, the unregenerate, I have a message for you. Before you can serve God you need a new nature. which only the Spirit of God can create in you. Your old nature, your sin nature, cannot serve the Lord. Think of the fouled water from a sewer. Can that water be pumped into a fountain and be drinkable? Of course not! Just the same with us. Unless God touches us by His grace unto regeneration, there is no new nature, and therefore, no salvation. This salvation brings reconciliation between you and God. God actually transforms you from being His enemy. In this will be forgiveness, friendship, and mutual delight. God and you must be made friends through the Mediator, who is Christ Jesus. If this does not happen then you cannot be the servant of God.
This reconciliation through the Lord Jesus Christ brings acceptance. Unless you are accepted then no matter how religious you are you cannot please God. Only a perfect righteousness can make you accepted by our Holy and jealous God. Only through Christ Jesus can one be justified in God’s eyes.
Once you have been accepted into the beloved, you will receive continual aid and comfort from God. We must have this to keep us in “the way.” None of us can remain in it on our own. We must be preserved by Him.
“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might shall a man prevail.” (1 Samuel 2:9 ESV)
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 1:24-25 ESV)
Despite what some accuse Christians of these days, the genuine believer knows that he or she cannot serve God just as they are. We trust Him as He manifests Himself in Christ Jesus. This keeps us from trying to serve God through “works” righteousness. It keeps us from neglecting service because of sin. Yes, we still sin and our enemy tells us that since we failed here and there that we should just give up trying to serve God. Nonsense! We come to Christ just as we are. Yes, we fail, but what we must do then is seek the throne of grace, confess our sins, and repent. Then we get back into serving Him. Doing it this way enables us to serve Him on better principles.
This new life in the new nature is effected by the Holy Spirit who indwells all regenerate believers. Unless He is in us then we will not only never be fit for heaven, we cannot enter in. His presence in us and His changes wrought in us enables us to serve our Lord, which we will do forever.
Soli Deo Gloria