Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tullian Tchividjian on Pelagius, Jonathan Edwards, Free Will and the Gospel

Tullian Tchividjian, the grandson of Dr. Billy Graham, is pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church (the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida church founded by Dr. D. James Kennedy). Back in 2001, Tchividjian wrote a 5-page article titled, Reflections on Jonathan Edwards' View of Free Will. In the article, he shows how the unwillingness to accept a paradox led Pelagius into heresy, while thoughtful examination of the same paradox led Edwards to a satisfactory explanation of it. Edwards achieved this by skillfully distinguishing between two different types of "ability" to choose, and thereby showing man's will is (paradoxically) both free and bound by sin. Here's an excerpt from Tchividjian's essay . . .

“Natural Inability” and “Moral Inability”
We remember that what plagued Pelagius was the paradox of human responsibility to follow God’s holy commands and human inability. According to Pelagius, the fact that God commands us to obey him implies that we are able to obey him. If inability reigns, then God would be unjust to command our obedience. This problem, as we have seen, eventually led Pelagius to deny the universality of sin. He was unable to deal with the paradox. Edwards’ contribution to this issue is perhaps his most profound. Edwards distinguished between what he referred to as “natural inability” and “moral inability”. “We are said to be naturally unable to do a thing, when we can’t do it if we will, because what is most commonly called nature doesn’t allow it… Moral inability consists in the opposition or want of inclination”.4 In other words, I am said to be naturally unable to do a thing, no matter how hard I desire it, if nature doesn’t allow it, such as flying or walking on water. In this sense, we are all naturally able to do what is right. After all, we have all of the natural capacities to understand the law of God. We have a mouth that is physically capable of uttering praises to God. We have a will that enables us to choose to do what we want to do. Original sin does not eradicate our humanity or ability to make choices. The natural ability remains intact. God has endowed us with the natural ability to do what he requires of us. What we lack, however, is the moral ability. What was lost in the fall is the want or inclination to do that which is righteous. We have no desire to obey God. We have, in fact, no desire for God at all. Fallen man has the natural ability to choose God but he lacks the moral ability to do so. For this reason, God can justly command our obedience (because we have the necessary faculties of choice), and at the same time hold us responsible for the choices we make. A.W. Pink says, “By nature [man] possesses natural ability but lacks moral and spiritual ability. The fact that he does not possess the latter does not destroy his responsibility, because his responsibility rests upon the fact that he does possess the former”.5 Without a righteous inclination to do good, no one can choose good. Our decisions follow our inclinations. Sin has rendered us hopeless, according to Edwards, but this is precisely what makes the gospel so great.

The Greatness of the Gospel
“For Edwards, the greatness of the gospel is visible only when viewed against the backdrop of the greatness of the ruin into which we have been plunged by the fall. The greatness of the disease requires the greatness of the remedy”.6 As someone once said, “The worst word about us as sinners is not the last word”. It was the gospel that Edwards was interested in, not some theoretical debate. He knew that what made good news good was that it was preceded by bad news. Our fallen nature due to sin is bad news. Our natural inclination to sin is bad news. Our inability to incline ourselves godward is bad news. Our self-destruction as a result of our sin is bad news. The grace of God in redeeming man from this desperate state and changing his nature so that he will be free to serve God is not just good news, its great news.

4 Edwards, Freedom of the Will, pg.159 as quoted in Sproul, Willing to Believe, pg.162
5 A.W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984) pg. 154
6 R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will (Grand Rapids, MI: 1997) pg. 148

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