June 17, 2021

If “No One Seeks for God,” Why Did Paul Call His Listeners to Seek God?

Nathan W. Bingham & R.C. Sproul
If “No One Seeks for God,” Why Did Paul Call His Listeners to Seek God?

The Apostle Paul teaches that “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). Why, then, did he call the men of Athens to seek the Lord in Acts 17:27? Today, listen to how R.C. Sproul explained these passages in context when he was asked.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: If no one seeks for God, as Paul says in Romans 3, why did Paul also call his listeners to seek God? This week we go back into the archives where during one of our live Q&A sessions, Dr. Sproul was asked why Paul calls his listeners to seek God when he also states that no one seeks for God.

DR. R.C. SPROUL: In the first place, we're talking about what we ought to do as distinguished from what we actually do. Now, 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 issue between the monk Pelagius and Augustine over the question of whether we as fallen human beings have the ability, the moral ability, to lead perfect lives.

Augustine had made a prayer where he had said words to this effect: "O Lord, command what Thou wouldst and grant what thou Dost command." And Pelagius took umbrage at that, when he was saying: "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, no, no, no, no. Before the fall we could do it, but after the fall we don't have the moral capacity or the moral ability to do what God commands." Now, even though we have fallen into that 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. Yet at the same time we're told, as you've already indicated from Romans, that no man seeks after God. And we could add to that, "No, not one."

We're living in a cultural revolution of worship in our country where we had a whole new model on the basis of what's called seeker-sensitive worship, where worship is designed to reach out to the unregenerate and unsaved person who is seeking for God. And I'm saying, well, in that case, you're designing your worship for no one. Because no unregenerate person actually seeks after God if we understand what Paul is saying there in Romans.

On the other hand, it looks from our perspective again and again that 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's not hiding, and the imagery and the metaphor of the Scripture is not that of seeking in the unbeliever's case but of fleeing. The fallen man is a fugitive. He's not seeking after God. It may appear to us that he's seeking after God. Thomas Aquinas answered this question this way: he said the reason why we think that people are seeking after God when in fact 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. And from our perspective as Christians, we say, "Well, they're seeking the benefits that only God can give them; 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. So, Paul quoting the Psalms makes it very clear that our fallen condition is such that, left to ourselves, we never seek after God.

Edwards, picking up on"I'm talking about Jonathan Edwards"picking up on Paul's statement there at Mars Hill that you also quoted from Acts about seeking in hope that maybe you will find Him. Edwards, who was a strict Augustinian, as you would find, had this doctrine, this strange doctrine, of seeking in his teaching. He would say to people: "You have no desire for God. You have no inclination to come to Him. You are morally, in and of yourself, incapable of coming to Him. You will never seek Him until first the Holy Spirit 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's another kind of seeking you can have, even out of enlightened self-interest to avoid hell. You don't know whether you're going to be redeemed or not be redeemed, you're not in a state of grace right now, but you're afraid to go to hell. Well, the best thing you can do to hedge your bets is to be in church on Sunday, every Sunday; put yourselves where the means of grace are concentrated." And Edwards put this statement that peradventure God will save you. Now, Edwards did not believe that that person could make somebody elect who wasn't already elect, but he could at least have secondary benefits with that kind of searching through enlightened self-interest.

But again, Paul, like we mentioned earlier, called people to do something that in and of themselves they would never be inclined to do. And that's the same kind of thing we mentioned earlier about God commanding us to do things that we morally are not able to do but are still responsible to do.