If “no one seeks for God,” why did Paul call his listeners to seek God?

3 Min Read

SPROUL: In the first place, we’re talking about what we ought to do as distinguished from what we actually do.

God commands us to seek after Him. God commands us to be perfect. God commands us to be obedient in all things. The assumption is that if God commands you to do something, you must have the ability to do it. This is what created the biggest theological issue in the first four centuries of Christendom—the debate between Pelagius and Augustine over the question of whether we, as fallen human beings, have the moral ability to lead perfect lives.

Augustine had made a prayer where he said words to this effect: “O Lord, command what thou wouldst and grant what thou dost command.” Pelagius took umbrage at that and said: “Why would you ask God to give you the ability to do something that He commands you to do? Obviously, if He commands you to do it, you can do it.” And Augustine said, “No, before the fall we could do it, but after the fall we don’t have the moral ability to do what God commands.”

So, even though we have fallen into a state of corruption and lost our moral ability to obey the command of God, that doesn’t excuse us. The command is still there.

When it comes to the question of seeking, Paul encourages people to seek after God with the hope that they might find Him (Acts 17:27). Yet at the same time, we’re told in Romans 3:10–12, “No man seeks after God, no, not one.”

We’re living in the midst of a cultural revolution of worship in our country. We have a whole new model called “seeker-sensitive worship,” where worship is designed to reach out to the unregenerate, unsaved person who is seeking for God. In that case, however, you’re designing your worship for no one because no unregenerate person actually seeks after God, if we understand what Paul is saying in Romans.

On the other hand, from our perspective, it looks like people are in fact seeking for God who have not yet come to faith. You hear it all the time: “My friend is not a believer, but he’s searching for God.” Well, God is not hiding. The imagery of Scripture in the unbeliever’s case is not that of seeking, but of fleeing. The fallen man is a fugitive; he’s not seeking after God.

Now, it may appear to us that he’s seeking after God. Thomas Aquinas answered the question this way: “The reason we think people are seeking after God when they’re not is that they are desperately and earnestly seeking for those things that only God can give them—happiness, meaning, freedom from guilt, peace—all of these benefits that accrue to those who put their faith in Christ.” From our perspective as Christians, we say, “They’re seeking the benefits that only God can give, therefore they must be seeking after God.” Aquinas said: “No, they’re not seeking after God. They want the benefits of God without God.” That’s the dilemma.

Paul, quoting the psalmist, makes it very clear that our fallen condition is such that, left to ourselves, we never seek after God. Jonathan Edwards, who was as strict an Augustinian as you would find, picked up on Paul’s other statement at Mars Hill in Acts 17:27 and developed a strange doctrine of seeking in his teaching.

Edwards would essentially say to people: “You have no desire for God. You have no inclination to come to Him. You are morally in and of yourselves incapable of coming to Him. You will never seek Him until the Holy Spirit first changes the disposition of your heart and puts a desire in your heart for Him. Then, and only then, will you seek Him. Yet, there is another kind of seeking you can have. Even out of enlightened self-interest, to avoid hell, when you don’t know whether you’re going to be redeemed or not be redeemed, the best thing you can do to hedge your bet is to be in church on Sunday every Sunday. Put yourself where the means of grace are concentrated, and peradventure God will save you.” Now, Edwards did not believe that being at church every Sunday could make somebody elect who was not already elect, but a person could at least have secondary benefits with that kind of searching through enlightened self-interest.

To return to Paul’s statements, Paul called people to do something that in and of themselves they would never be inclined to do. That’s the same kind of thing we mentioned earlier about God commanding us to do things that we are morally unable to do, but are still responsible to do.

WEBB: Didn’t Paul even mention that the unbeliever is not only failing to seek God, but he’s engaging in suppressing the truth (Rom. 1:18)?

SPROUL: Yes, and this is man’s natural inclination. He doesn’t want God in his thinking, and nobody seeks for what they don’t want. The seeker after God is the Christian. You don’t really begin to seek after God until you’re converted.

Once you’re converted, like Edwards said, “Seeking after God and seeking the kingdom of God is the main business of the Christian life.” That’s why worship on Sunday morning is to be designed chiefly and principally for the believer, not for the unbeliever. If an unbeliever happens to come, he’ll have the benefit of hearing the Word of God, but worship should be structured for the true seeker—the believer.

This transcript is from an Ask R.C. Live event with R.C. Sproul and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email ask@ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.