HAVE MEN THE POWER
TO DO WHAT GOD REQUIRES?
© 2008 John H Mattox
The importance of this question cannot be overstated.
If men are unable, in the sense that they have not the ability,
or power, to respond positively to God's demands, then the
irresistible conclusion is that man is made as a sort of biological
robot, divinely programmed to do nothing but evil. No one
denies that man has the power, or ability, to do evil, but many
so-called theologians maintain that he has no ability to do good.
According to this theology, man is required to do that which is
good; but having no power to do so he naturally fails, and is
then dealt with as a sinner, or spiritual criminal, of the worst
We will examine this matter in some detail and attempt
to answer the question raised in our subject. We will begin
with the consideration of what God requires of men, especially
as exemplified by his Law.
The word dikaioma is used by Paul in several passages;
two of which, Rom 1:32, and Rom 8:2-4, are pertinent to our
present discussion. In the first passage dikaioma is translated
judgment and in the second, righteousness. While dikaioma is
certainly related to the idea of righteousness, it is not the word
which is used to denote righteousness as an abstract quality.
That word is dikaiosune. In its discussion of dikaioma the
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. II, Page 221,
"That the sense of statute, requirement or ordinance is the
most common in the NT accords with the close link between
the language of the NT and the LXX."
The one sense which seems to fit most if not all of the passages
where it is used is that of righteous requirement. Thus, Romans
1:32 would read:
"Who, knowing the righteous requirement of God that they
which commit such things are worthy of death...",
while Romans 8:4 would be rendered:
"That the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled
in us, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit."
It is the belief of this writer that the righteous requirement
of God, especially as embodied in the Law, is two-fold. First,
God requires that men live lives of righteousness and full
obedience to his law. Second, those who fail to render such
obedience are required to die. It is the writer's firm conviction
that the law was given to be kept, not to be broken. The fact
that no one was willing to keep it does not nullify the intent for
which it was given. It is only when the law is rejected as a way
of life that it becomes an instrument of death.
The following Scriptures indicate that the law was given
to be kept as a way of life and that God's primary requirement
is that man be righteous. The reader is invited to read these
excerpts in the light of their full contexts.
- "Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my
covenant..." Exodus 19:5. Such a proposal makes
sense only if the people had the power to keep
the covenant and if God truly was sincere in his
proposal for them to do so.
- "But if thou wilt enter into life, keep the
commandments." Matt. 19:17. This would certainly
have been an evasive and deceitful answer to the
rich young ruler if no possibility of his keeping
the commandments existed.
- "He hath shewed thee, 0 man, what is good; and what doth
the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love
mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"
- "For I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in
the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt,
concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices: But this thing
commanded I them, saying, Obey my voice, and I will be
your God." Jer. 7:22-27. In other words, the
primary requirement of the law was not sacrifice,
- "And the commandment which was ordained to life, I found
to be unto death." Rom 7:10.
The following scriptures show that the secondary
requirement of the law, that which comes into view when the
primary requirement has not been fulfilled, is that the person
who has thus failed, or disobeyed God, must die as a result.
- "For in the day that thou eatest threrof, thou shalt surely
die." Gen. 2:16-17.
- "The soul that sinneth, it (he) shall die." Eze. 18:4.
- "Who knowing the judgment (righteous requirement) of
God, that they which commit (practice) such things are
worthy of death..." Rom. 1:32.
- "For the wages of sin is death." Rom. 6:23.
- "And the commandment which was ordained unto life, I
found to be unto death." Rom. 7:10.
- "For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through
the flesh, God sending his own Son into the likeness of sinful
flesh, and for sin (as a sin-offering) condemned sin in the
flesh that the righteousness (righteous requirement) of the law
might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh but
after the Spirit." Rom. 8:3-4. Christ, in our stead
has fulfilled both the primary and secondary
requirements of the law: that we be righteous in order to be
acceptable to God and that we die for being sinners.
- The Difference Between Power and Willingness.
- The nature of power and will.
- Power (or ability) denotes the capacity to perform
given acts. Will denotes the willingness of the
individual to perform given acts.
- Without external coercion, an individual will
exercise his power (or ability) to perform a given
act only if he wills to do so.
- The difference between power and will is well
illustrated by the leper who said to Jesus:
"If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean."
Notice that the leper did not doubt the power, or
the ability of Jesus to cleanse him, but questioned
his willingness to do so.
- In the Bible, and especially in the O.T., power or
ability to perform a given act is symbolized by the
organ of the body which be used to perform such
an act. The hand, the foot, the ear, the mouth
are used as symbols of the power to act, to work,
to walk, to hear, to speak, etc.
- On the other hand, purpose, will (or volition) and
motivation are symbolized usually by the heart.
- The consistent teaching of Scripture is that a
man's heart is so evil that he will not comply with
the will of God.
- While some passages appear to teach that a man
does not have the power to comply with God's
will, it will be shown that such inability stems
from the lack of willingness.
- Importance of the Distinction Between Power and
- If a man lacked the power to respond positively
to God's will, such a condition would not be his
fault. He has only the power that God has seen
fit to give him. Not even God can justly hold a
man accountable for failing to do what he had no
power to do.
- This truth is illustrated by the conversation
between Moses and God in Exodus 4:10-16:
"And Moses said unto the LORD, I am not eloquent, neither
heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but
I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue. And the LORD
said unto him, who hath made man's mouth? or who maketh
the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? Have not I,
the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with thy
mouth, and teach thee what thou shall say. And he said, 0
my Lord, send I pray thee, by the hand of him whom thou
wilt send. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against
Here, Moses displayed his unwillingness to go as
God's spokesman to Pharaoh, claiming a lack of
ability. God then reminded Moses that he was
the author both of ability and inability. This
reminder, in the form of a series of rhetorical
questions was equivalent to saying to Moses:
"Since I am the one who gives or withholds ability, you are
charging me with sending man to do a task to whom I have
not given power to do the task." Moses' answer in vs.
13 is a continued attempt to evade the mission.
His words have the sense of:"Send anyone you wish so
long as it isn't I." It was because of Moses'
unwillingness, rather than his supposed lack of
ability, that the anger of the Lord was kindled
against him. Moses was implying that God was
calling upon him to do something that he did not
have the power to do. God emphatically denied
that this was the case, saying in verse 12a: "Now
therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth."
- Now, if a man has the power to obey God, but is
unwilling to do so, the fault lies in him, not in
- It is often the case that cannot is used when the
meaning is clearly will not. This usage is found in
the Bible as well as in our colloquial speech.
The word dunamai which is used in John 6:44
does, in fact, denote ability or power. However,
the identical word is used in the following N.T.
passages where the meaning is unquestionably
not power (or ability) but willingness. The word
dunamai is given a two-fold definition in the
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol.
II, p. 284: "a. To be able, to be capable of. It is
mostly used in a very weak sense... b. To be able,
with specific reference to the subjective spiritual
or moral attitude which either makes able or not.
In this sense it may even mean to will or not to
will." Another Greek word ischuo means to be
able in a more nearly absolute sense. If Jesus, in
John 6:44 had wished to state the objective
impossibility of one's coming to him he could
have done so by using the word ischuo with the
negative which would have denoted objective
impossibility. Using dunamai with the negative
indicates that the impossibility is subjective (i.e.
of the will) rather than objective (not having the
capacity). Note these examples:
- Matt. 9:15 - "Can the children of the bride
- Mark 2:19 - "Can the children of the bride
- Mark 6:4-5 - "And he could there do no
- Mark 9:38-39 - "No man...can lightly speak
evil of me."
- Luke 11:7 - "I cannot rise and give thee."
- Luke 14:20 - "I have married a wife and
therefore I cannot come."
- John 6:60 - "This is an hard saying, who
can hear it?"
- John 7:7 - "The world cannot hate you."
- John 8:43 - "... ye cannot hear my word."
- Acts 10:47 - "Can any man forbid water?"
- Heb. 3:19 - "They could not enter in
because of unbelief."
- The failure of the Jews to come to Jesus, which
in John 6:44 is attributed to inability, is
attributed to unwillingness in John 5:39-40.
These passages and similar ones can be
harmonized only if it be understood that the
inability in John 6:44 is not a matter of incapacity
or lack of power, but a basic unwillingness on the
part of the individual.
- Jesus, in John 7:16-17 asserts:
"My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man
will do his will (is willing to do his will) he shall know of the
doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.
continued at top of next column
Have Men The Power To Do What God Requires? (cont)
- The Nature of Sin.
- Sin originated in the universe when Satan said, "I will."
"How are thou fallen from heaven, 0 Lucifer, son of the
morning! How thou art cut down to the ground which didst
weaken the nations. For thou hast said in thine heart, I will
ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of
God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in
the sides of the North: I will ascend above the heights of
the clouds: I will be like the most High." Isa. 14:12-14.
- This description of Lucifer's sin shows that it was
essentially a matter of asserting his own will in
opposition to the will of God.
- Other passages from both the Old and New Testament
show that sin is still a matter of saying "I will" when God
says "thou shalt not", and of saying "I will not" when God
says "thou shalt". As an outward expression of that
inward intent sin is a matter of walking, speaking, acting,
etc., after one's own heart.
- Proverbs 4:23 - "Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out
of it are the issues of life."
- Jeremiah 6:16-17 - "Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in
the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the
good way, and walk therein, and ye shall fmd rest for your
souls. But they said, we will not walk therein. Also I set
watchmen over you, saying. Hearken to the sound of the
trumpet: But they said, we will not hearken."
- Jeremiah 9:13-14 - "And the LORD saith. Because they
have forsaken my law which I set before them, and have not
obeyed my voice, neither walked therein; but have walked
after the imagination of their own heart..."
- Jeremiah 13:10 - "This evil people which refuse to hear
my words, which walk in the imagination of their heart, and
walk after other gods to serve them, and to worship them,
shall even be as this girdle, which is good for nothing."
- Matthew 15:19 - "For out of the heart proceed evil
thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false
- Matthew 22:2-3 - "The kingdom of heaven is like unto a
certain king which made a marriage for his son, and sent
forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the
wedding; and they would not come.
- Matthew 23:37 - "0 Jerusalem, ..how often would I have
gathered thy children together...and ye would not."
- Luke 6:45 - "A good man out of the good treasure of his
heart bringeth forth that which is good: and an evil man out
of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is
evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth
- Luke 19:14 - "But his citizens hated him and sent a
message after him, saying, We will not have this man to
reign over us."
- Sin is written upon a man's heart, and he is responsible
for that writing. He is also responsible for removing his
heart (himself) from God so as to bring about a
separation between himself and God.
- Jeremiah 17:1 - "The sin of Judah is written with a pen
of iron, and with the point of a diamond it is graven upon
the table of their hearts..."
- Proverbs 3:1-3 - "My son, forget not my law; but let thine
heart keep my commandments: For length of days, and long
life, and peace, shall they add unto thee. Let not mercy and
truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them
upon the tables of thine heart."
- Genesis 6:12 - "And God looked upon the earth, and
behold it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted his way
upon the earth."
- Isaiah 29:13 - "Wherefore the LORD said, forasmuch as
this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their
lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from
- Isaiah 50:1 - "Thus saith the LORD, where is the bill of
your mother's divorcement, whom I have put away? Or to
which of my creditors have I sold you? Behold, for your
iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your
transgressions is your mother put away."
- Isaiah 52:3 - "For thus saith the LORD, Ye have sold
yourselves for naught; and ye shall be redeemed without
- Isaiah 59:1-2 - "Behold the LORD'S hand is not
shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy that it
cannot hear: but your iniquities have separated between you
and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you,
that he will not hear."
- The present state of the natural man is declared by Paul
to be the result, not of inheritance of a sinful nature
from Adam, but of a series of selfish and rebellious acts
of his own doing. He details the steps men have
followed from the knowledge of God to their present
evil condition for the purpose of proving that "they are
- Romans 1:18-32:
- God's wrath is revealed against those who
hold down (suppress) the truth in
unrighteousness, vs. 18.
- "That which may be known of God is
manifest in (or among) them, for God
hath shewed it unto them." vs. 19. His
eternal power and godhead, vs. 20.
- They once knew God. vs. 21.
- They glorified him not as God. vs. 21.
- They were not thankful, vs. 21.
- They became vain in their imaginations.
- Their foolish heart was darkened, vs. 21.
- They professed themselves to be wise but
became fools, vs. 22.
- They changed the glory of God into an
image of some creature, vs. 23.
- Wherefore God gave them up. vss. 24,26,
- Their present evil condition, vss. 29-32.
- Their inexcusability. Rom. 2:1-5.
- Paul further asserts that God will render to every man,
not according to his nature, but according to his deeds.
See Romans 2:6.
- The Age of Accountability
- There are a few passages of Scripture, which if separated
from the rest of the Bible, would appear to teach that an
infant, as soon as it is born, is considered to be an
accountable sinner. In order to use those passages
to demonstrate that people are born sinners, we have to ignore
the fact that children, by definition, do not understand as adults
do the difference between right and wrong. We also have to
ignore the words that Jesus spoke just before he held infants in
his arms and blessed them.
- There are far more passages which teach that
an individual is considered to be a responsible sinner
only from his youth up, and that a person was normally
expected to display devotion to God and to the law only
from his youth up.
- Genesis 8:21 - "And the LORD smelled a sweet savour
and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the
ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of
man's heart is evil from his youth..."
- Jeremiah 22:21 - "I spoke unto thee in thy prosperity; but
thou saidst, I will not hear. This hath been thy manner from
thy youth, that thou obeyedst not my voice."
- Jeremiah 32:30 - "For the children of Israel and the
children of Judah have only done evil before me from their
- I Kings 18:12 (last Clause) - "But I thy servant fear the
LORD from my youth."
- Ezekiel 4:14 - "Thou said I, ah, LORD God! behold my
soul hath not been polluted; for from my youth up, even till
now, have I not eaten of that which dieth of itself..."
- Matthew 19:20 - "The young man saith unto him, all
these things have I kept from my youth up; what lack I
- The arrival of a child at the age where he knows to
reject the evil and choose the good is referred to in
"For before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the
good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her
- The teaching of a generally recognized age of
accountability is further reinforced by passages which
show that the Israelites were recognized as responsible
members of the congregation from twenty years old and
- Exodus 30:14 - "Every one that passeth among them that
are numbered, from twenty years old and above, shall give
an offering to the LORD."
- Exodus 38:26 - "A bekah, that is, half a shekel, after the
shekel of the sanctuary, for every one that went to be
numbered, from twenty years old and upward..."
- Numbers 14:29 - "Your carcases shall fall in this
wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to
your whole number, from twenty years old and upward,
which have murmured against me."
- It thus appears that the few passages (of paragraph 1)
must be interpreted in the light of the many passages of
which only a representative number have been cited.
- Man Has the Power to Choose Between
Good and Evil -- To Obey God or Not to
- Genesis 2:16-17 - "And the LORD God commanded the man
saying, of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the
tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for
in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die."
- It is freely admitted by all commentators and
theologians that in his unfallen state, Adam had
the power either to obey the above
commandment, or to disobey it. Yet there is no
statement made to the effect that Adam was able
to obey; theologians merely infer his ability from
the simple fact that God put the choice before
him and thereby implied his ability either to obey
or disobey. The same implication was made
when the law was given to Israel, yet many
theologians deny that Israel truly had the ability
to keep the law.
- After Adam's fall, there is no evidence to show that he,
personally, had lost that power. The evidence is rather
to the contrary. Instead of losing a power which he
already had, he had gained an additional one, the power
to distinguish between good and evil. Adam, after his
fall, obviously had the power and the will to put forth his
hand and take of the fruit of the tree of life and so live
forever. To avoid this outcome. God deprived him of
the opportunity to do so, by expelling him from the
Garden of Eden.
- That Adam's son, Cain, was also possessed of the power
to choose either to do good or not to do it, is clearly
implied by God's words to him in Genesis 4:6-7:
"And the LORD said unto Cain, why art thou wroth, and why is thy
countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?
And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall
be his desire and thou shalt rule over him."
The last clause, "And unto thee shall be his desire," etc.
is identical, except for the difference in person, with
God's statement to Eve, "And thy desire shall be unto
thy husband, and he shall rule over thee." The natural
inference is that as the husband has the power to rule
over the wife, so an individual has the power to rule over
the sin that crouches at his own door.
- But did not both Jesus and Paul state that men are the
bondslaves (douloi) of sin? We would have to answer
that question with a qualified affirmative. Neither Jesus
nor Paul asserted that a man is a bondslave of sin by
nature or by some other means beyond his control.
"Whosoever committeth (Greek present tense, denoting habitual
action - therefore practices) sin is the bondslave (doulos) of sin."
Thus a man becomes a bondslave of sin by yielding to
the practice of it. This statement is in full accord with
Paul's teaching on the subject in Romans 6:19:
"For as ye have yielded your members servants (doula) to
uncleanness and to righteousness unto holiness."
Yielding, when it denotes surrender rather than fruit-
bearing, is an act of the will.
- According to many passages of Scripture, man has the
power to choose whether he will walk in an evil way or
whether he will be obedient to God. It is made clear in
such passages that a man's failure to obey God is due to
his stubborn and rebellious will; not because he is of
such a nature that he cannot do otherwise.
- Jeremiah 18:11-12 - "Now therefore, go to, speak to the
men of Judah and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying,
Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I frame evil against you, and
devise a device against you: return ye now every one from
his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good.
And they said, there is no hope: but we will walk after our
own devices, and we will every one do the imagination of his
- Jeremiah 23:21 - "I have not sent these prophets
(referring to false prophets - see context), yet they ran: I
have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied."
- Jeremiah 44:15-17 - "Then all the men which knew that
their wives had burned incense unto other gods, and all the
women that stood by, a great multitude, even all the people
that dwelt in the land of Egypt, in Pathros, answered
Jeremiah, saying. As for the word that thou hast spoken unto
us in the name of the LORD, we will not hearken unto thee.
But we will certainly do whatsoever thing goeth forth out of
our own mouth, to burn incense unto the queen of heaven,
and to pour out drink offerings unto her, as we have done,
we and our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities
of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem: for then had we
plenty of victuals and were well, and saw no evil."
- The covenant of the Mosaic law was presented to Israel
with the clear implication that they had the power either
to keep it or to transgress it.
- Exodus 19:5 - "Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice
indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar
treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is
- The power of Israel to keep the Mosaic covenant and
thereby bring forth good fruit is undeniably asserted in
"Now will I sing to my well-beloved a song of my beloved touching
his vineyard. My well-beloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill:
and he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it
with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also
made a winepress therein, and he looked that it should bring forth
grapes and it brought forth wild grapes. And now, 0 inhabitants of
Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my
vineyard. What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I
have not done in it? Wherefore, when I looked that it should bring
forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?...For the vineyard of the
LORD of Hosts is the house of Israel and the men of Judah his
pleasant plant: and he looked for judgement (justice), but behold
oppression; for righteousness, and behold a cry."
Note that Israel had both ability
(the choicest vine) and
(a very fruitful hill) to bring forth good fruit. It
was obviously the will
which must be blamed for the bringing
forth of worthless fruit!
John H Mattox
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