Lecture 4, Man's Radical Fallenness:

How far did man fall in the Garden? How has sin penetrated into our souls? What did Jesus teach about man’s fallenness? While we may question some of the greatest teachers in the History of the Church about this topic, we must always look to the Lord Himself for truth as found in Scripture. In this message entitled “Man’s Radical Fallenness,” Dr. Sproul considers Jesus’ own words regarding man’s ability or lack thereof to achieve salvation.

Message Transcript

In the last session in our study of predestination, we looked at the concept of free will. At the end of that lecture, I set forth some ideas that were originally presented by Jonathan Edwards, as well as St. Augustine, and made some references to Luther and John Calvin. But as much respect as we may or may not have for these great teachers in the history of the church, we would all recognize that none of them individually, nor all of them collectively, are to be regarded as infallible teaching authorities.

We need to go to the next step as we examine the question of man’s moral ability, or lack of it, and listen to what our Lord Himself teaches. Though we may be prone to disagree with Augustine, Luther, Calvin, or any other great teacher, far be it from us to stand in opposition to the teaching of Christ Himself.

So, in this session, I want us to give our attention to some very crucial statements Jesus made regarding man’s ability, or the lack of it.  

No One Can

I’ll turn our attention, first of all, to the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. There Jesus says, “For this reason I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it is given to him by the Father” (John 6:65). Let’s look at that verse.

“No one can come to Me unless it is given to him by the Father.” If we apply the categories of logic and the laws of immediate inference and so on to the first two words in this statement, “no one” (some translations read “no man” or “no person”), we see that this statement is what we call a universal negative. That is, it is all-inclusive. Jesus is saying that, without exception, there is no human being who can come to Him unless it is given to him of the Father. This is an absolute—a negative absolute—and we have to understand that.

The next word is also crucial to our understanding. It is the word can: “No one can.” The word can, or at least the word used in the Greek text, is less ambiguous than the word can in our language. This is because, in our language, the word can is often mistaken for what other word? May.

We have all been corrected about this at some point. I remember when we were children going to school and we’d put our hands up and say, “Teacher, can I sharpen my pencil?” And she would always say, “I’m sure you can, and you also may.” She would then take that opportunity to teach us the lesson that seems so difficult for us to learn concerning the difference between the word may, which suggests permission, and the word can, which has to do with ability.

So, in John 6:65, to say that no man “can” is to say that no one has the ability to do something. If I say that no one can run thirty miles per hour, this means no one has the ability to run thirty miles per hour (or 300 miles per hour—I don’t know how fast people can run).

What is it that Jesus is talking about that no one has the ability to do? No one has the ability to “come to Me,” He says. Now let me ask this question: According to Jesus, does man in and of himself have the ability to come to Jesus? No. Do some men have the ability to come to Jesus in and of themselves? No. No man can come to Jesus. He says, “No man can come to Me, unless …” Now we see a clause that follows which we call an exceptive clause. “Unless” introduces an exception and points to what we call in philosophy a necessary condition.

A Necessary Condition

What is a necessary condition? It is a prerequisite—something that has to happen before something else can possibly happen. So Jesus is saying that there is a necessary condition that must be met before anyone can come to Him.

What does He identify in this verse as the necessary condition for anyone to be able to come to Him? He says, “Unless the Father gives it to him.” Another translation says, “Unless it is granted by the Father.” One other translation reads, “Unless the Father enables him.” Those words don’t all mean the same thing. “To grant” means to give permission. “To give” means to give a gift. And “to enable” means to empower. There is a certain ambiguity about what that necessary condition is.

There is another question still hanging out here: If a necessary condition is provided—not talking about coming to Jesus, but in any situation—does a necessary condition being provided guarantee that the result you want will in fact take place? No. That’s why we make a distinction between necessary conditions and sufficient conditions.

A sufficient condition is a condition that, if it is met, guarantees the result—it suffices. An example of a necessary condition would be the case of fire. If you want to build a fire, oxygen is a necessary condition, but the mere presence of oxygen does not guarantee a fire. Now, if you have a dry piece of paper and plenty of oxygen, and you light a match and touch that match to the piece of paper, then you’ll have a fire. This is because the burning match is a sufficient condition to ignite the dry piece of paper under those conditions, granted that the other necessary conditions have been fulfilled.

So, all this verse is teaching is that none of us has the natural ability in and of ourselves to come to Christ unless God does something. We’re still not sure exactly what it is that God does. And we’re still not sure that if God does it, it will guarantee that people will come. All we know is that whatever it is God does, it is a necessary condition—a prerequisite.

The Father Must Draw

Some have jumped to another verse here in John 6 where Jesus says, “All whom the Father gives to Me, come to Me” (John 6:37). This suggests that everybody who gets this necessary condition does indeed come, but that’s not exactly how those two verses are related to each other. Let’s see if we are sharp enough to see the difference.

Jesus says, “All whom the Father gives to Me, come to Me. No one can come to Me unless the Father gives it to him.” It almost sounds like everybody who is given to Him to come are those who are included in the ones the Father gives to the Son. But remember, in the one case the giving is to us and in the other case the giving is to Jesus. So we can’t equate those two statements, even though I believe they are, in fact, parallel. Linguistically, however, we can’t prove they are parallel. So we are still left with this ambiguity as to what must happen.

What is the nature of this necessary condition? Notice that Jesus says He had already told them what it was. He is indicating that this is a repetition. He says, “For this reason, I have said to you” (John 6:65). He is now repeating Himself, so let’s see if we can find the earlier statement that is either identical or close enough to be the statement Jesus is referring to.

If we look earlier in the chapter, we have another universal negative, as well as another statement about necessary conditions and about man’s moral ability. We find it in John 6:44: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws Him.” This is not quite as ambiguous. Here, the necessary condition Jesus spells out is that the Father draws somebody.

So, can we say categorically, without any fear of being contradicted, that our Lord Jesus taught that it is impossible for a human being to come to Him unless that person is drawn by the Father? I might add at this point that both those of an Augustinian persuasion and of a semi-Pelagian persuasion agree that there is some kind of necessary condition God must supply. God must draw people. But there’s still a debate: What does it mean that God draws?

Wooed into Court

The classical Arminian approach, or semi-Pelagian approach, is that nobody can come to Jesus unless the Father entices or woos him. That is usually tied into some notion of prevenient grace, or the influence of the Holy Spirit to woo and entice. The word “draw” in John 6:44 is interpreted to mean “to woo” or “to attract,” just as honey draws bees and lights draw moths. The idea is that the drawing God does is still resistible. According to Arminianism, those who respond to the enticement—to being wooed—are redeemed, and those who do not respond to being drawn are subsequently lost.

The Augustinian interpretation of the verse is that the word “to draw” means more than simply “to entice or to woo.”

Let’s see how this Greek word is used elsewhere in the New Testament. If we turn our Bibles to James 2:6, we will find this same Greek word. The verse says: “But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?” This verse uses the exact same Greek word that is translated by the word “draw” in John 6. Do you have a guess as to which word that might be? It’s the word “drag.” Now let’s supply the semi-Pelagian interpretation: “But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally woo you into court?”

Let’s look at another one. Acts 16:19 says, “But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.” Can you guess which word in this text is the same Greek word used in John 6? Again it’s the word “dragged.” Let’s again substitute “wooed”: “They seized Paul and Silas and wooed them into the marketplace before the authorities.” This text clearly indicates an act of force in dragging Paul and Silas into the marketplace.

This all makes you wonder why the translators used the word “draw” rather than the word “drag” in John 6:44. I can only guess, and I’ll try to guess in a moment, but first let me go further.

Unless the Father Compels Him

Whenever we have doubt as to the precise meaning of a word in the Scriptures, the first thing we do is go to the Greek. But even after we go to the Greek, we are still dependent upon the sciences of linguistics and lexicography in order to have an understanding of the meaning of a term at the time it was used in the writing of the documents. I think it’s safe to say that, in the academic world, the most highly respected linguistic and lexicographical source the church has ever had for the meaning of Greek words is Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.

In Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, the word being translated as “draw” in John 6:44 is defined as, “To compel by irresistible superiority.” I might add that the framers of the dictionary were anything but Calvinistic, but they recognized that the meaning of this verb in the Greek language is “to compel.”

If that is the case—if the linguistic and lexicographical evidence is so heavily weighted to mean something that is “compelling”—why would translators in various translations use this term “draw” when they translate the same word “drag” elsewhere?

When you have a word like this, oftentimes how you choose to translate it will be determined by the context. It will also be determined somewhat by your theology. And maybe (I’m just guessing) it could be that the translators felt it would be offensive to English readers to read, “No one can come to Me unless the Father drags him,” or “unless the Father compels him.” That may be the reason why they chose not to do it.

But most translators and teams of translators are not that arbitrary when they’re working on translations of the Bible. They try to be as honest and as careful as possible in rendering the Greek into English. I’ve puzzled about this for a long time, and I think I have found the answer. I’ll tell you a story to illustrate it.

“Here Water, Water, Water”

I was invited to debate the subject of predestination at an Arminian seminary. That is, the seminary was self-consciously and by its own doctrinal standards Arminian. We had a warm and friendly relationship with that seminary, and they knew that I did not advocate Arminian theology. They thought it would be a good thing to have a debate in front of the whole student body and faculty because they wanted their students to be exposed to the other side, which I represented. And my opponent, friendly opponent I should say, in this particular debate happened to be the head of the New Testament department.

As we were discussing this question, he cited this verse, “No man can come to Me unless the Father draw him” (John 6:44), and He was interpreting it to mean “attract or woo.” And I quickly pointed to his attention something that I really didn’t think I needed to, since he was the New Testament scholar, and I’m not. I said, “What about the use of it in James 2 and Acts 16?” He granted that those texts did indeed use the more forcible interpretation of the verb and that the verb was capable of being translated “to drag.”

So I asked the question, “Then why are you insisting that ‘draw’ is less compelling than ‘drag’?” He said, “Because we have an instance of where this verb is used in the classical Greek language in a play by Euripides,” or something I had never heard of, and he said, “This is the verb the Greeks used when they ‘drew’ water out of a well.”

I was completely nonplussed—I had no idea of that particular usage. He said to me, “So you see, Professor Sproul, it’s perfectly legitimate to use the word ‘draw’ because nobody ‘drags’ water out of a well.” And the place broke up, you know, and I was embarrassed because I didn’t even know that occurred.

Then I said, “I grant that you don’t drag water out of a well, but sir, how do you get water out of a well? Do you stand up at the top of the well and say, ‘Here, water, water, water’? Do you woo water out of a well? Do you entice water out of a well, or must you do something that will compel that water to go against gravity and get it up there where you can use it?” And now they laughed at the other side, and we went on to another verse.

But even this obscure reference in the Greek language underlines that the force of this verb is the force of divine compulsion. And if that is true, then I would say that verse and that verse alone is sufficient to end the debate forever with respect to man’s ability, or lack of it, to incline himself to choose Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself says that no man can do it unless the Father compels him to do it. That is pure Augustinianism, only stated much earlier than St. Augustine.

Regeneration Precedes Faith

If that isn’t sufficient with respect to man’s ability, let’s look earlier in John’s Gospel where John describes the encounter that Jesus has with the Pharisee, the theologian, Nicodemus: “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, unless (remember that “unless” indicates a necessary condition) one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’” (John 3:3).

According to Jesus, what has to happen before a person can see the kingdom of God? He has to be born again. Regeneration precedes seeing the kingdom of God. In fact, nobody can see it at all unless they are first born again—regenerate.

John goes on to say that Nicodemus is puzzled: “Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He can’t enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born, can he?’ Jesus said, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God’” (John 3:4–5). Regeneration is a prerequisite for entering and seeing the kingdom of God.

Semi-Pelagians have people choosing Christ before they are regenerate. Semi-Pelagians have people in their human nature cooperating with prevenient grace, responding to this wooing, enticing, or attracting of God when the Holy Spirit is not yet in them and has not yet regenerated them. The bottom line is that the Arminian position has people who are not yet born again seeing and choosing the King of the kingdom of God. Boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

That is why the axiom of Augustinian theology is this: regeneration precedes faith. Regeneration is seen as a necessary condition for faith, as Paul teaches in Ephesians 2:4–5. He says that, while we were dead in sin and trespasses, God quickened us, that is, made us alive in Christ—when we were dead!

Paul then tells us, “Therefore it is by grace you are saved, through faith, and that is not of yourselves, but is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). So we see that faith is the gift of God which is the result of the Spirit’s work of regeneration within us. God Himself supplies the necessary condition to come to Jesus. That’s why it is sola gratia, by grace alone, that we are saved.

The Flesh Profits Nothing

Next, Jesus says: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you that you must be born again” (John 3:6–7). Jesus is saying: “Why should this surprise you? You’re a theologian, Nicodemus. Don’t you understand the fundamental point of man’s fallen nature? That which is born of the flesh is flesh.”

Elsewhere He tells us that the flesh profits nothing (John 6:63). But if we believe that God entices us to Christ and all we have to do in the flesh prior to our regeneration is cooperate or assent—if we can in fact cooperate and assent to prevenient grace—to the end that we enter into the kingdom of God and are redeemed forever, and we’re doing that while we’re still in the flesh, then I ask you: What would the flesh profit? Not just something, but everything—your eternal salvation.

Paul speaks about this in Romans: “For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace because the mind set on the flesh is hostile towards God. For it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do it” (Romans 8:5–7).

Here the Apostle tells us something about man’s moral inability in the flesh. He says that man in his fallen state, in the flesh, is hostile to the law of God. He does not obey the law of God, he is not subject to the law of God, and neither indeed can he be. The Apostle is saying that fallen man cannot obey the law of God and “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8).

I might add that if God only wooed us to Christ and left it to us to make the final decision, I can’t think of anything that would please Him more than that we would respond positively to that enticement and wooing. But the Apostle tells us that, in the flesh, there is nothing man can do to please God.

The Crucial Prerequisite

But now comes the crucial point in verse nine: “However, you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit”—how do we know if somebody is in the flesh or in the Spirit? The next word is crucial: “If.” “If” indicates a necessary condition—“if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Rom. 8:9).

How many regenerate people have the Spirit of God dwelling in them? All of them. If you are regenerate then you are no longer in the flesh. If you are in the flesh, you are not regenerate. So when he speaks about those in the flesh, he is speaking of unregenerate people. It is unregenerate people who cannot please God, who cannot obey God, who cannot be subject to God, and who experience this dreadful situation of moral inability about which we have been speaking.

“But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him” (Rom. 8:9). He goes on to say, however, that if anyone does have the Spirit of Christ, then he belongs to Christ, so that the crucial prerequisite for salvation is a work of the Holy Spirit. That is the necessary condition, the prerequisite, for faith to be present. That is why we insist that the first step of our justification, that which quickens us from spiritual death and enables us to come to Jesus at all, is the gracious work of God the Holy Spirit. It is never the fruit of the flesh.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.