An Objection to Total Inability: Joshua 24:15


As we have been examining the doctrine of total inability, or simply stated man’s inability in his natural state to choose God, or otherwise determine his own salvation, we have looked at several common objections.  First with Matthew 11:28-30, then Deuteronomy 30:19 and now with perhaps the most familiar verse of the objections, Joshua 24:15 the majority of which we hear summarized as, “choose this day whom you will serve… But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”   Just as we saw with the previous objections, there is more here for us to understand in context than simply a coffee mug or T-shirt passage divorced from its larger meaning in Scripture.  The entirety of verses 14 and 15 are below:

14 “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

As with the previous objections, we would be well served to look at this passage in it’s larger context, but there is a clue in verse 15 that weakens the Arminian usage of this verse as a passage defending man’s free will against God’s sovereignty.  Before examining that clue, allow me to again point out that man’s will is not free in the sense that it is so often used, but is instead corrupted by sin such that his desires would never lead him to choose God of his own volition.  He is not simply stuck neutral with regard to his desires and is waiting for the slightest push to get him rolling in the direction of God.  He is under the power and dominion of sin. God, in His sovereignty changes man’s desires by giving him a new heart thereby regenerating the will, severing the bondage to sin, and setting man’s desires now toward God.  Man then chooses to submit Himself to God through repentance and faith in Christ.

With that in mind, look again at Joshua 24:14-15, “14 “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Joshua says “now therefore” to show that what he is about to state is linked to what he has previously said, that occurs in verses 1-13 and in general, it is a summary of all that God has done for Israel extending to them redemption from Egypt and showing them kindness for years, despite the stiff-necked ways of their hearts.  Here in verse 14, we see that Israel is again tending towards idolatry, “Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.”  So they are already in a state of idolatry before Joshua says anything about choosing.  Next, he states, “And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord.”  This is key because Joshua is here shining a light on the spiritual condition of the Israelite hearts, as though what is right is wrong and what is wrong is right.  The clear distorting nature of sin.

Then we come to the famous choice, “choose this day whom you will serve.”  Following Joshua’s sermon, he has just told the people to put away the idolatry of their fathers; he has framed the choice by saying if you think it’s evil to serve the Lord, then choose.  Choose what?  God vs. Not God?  That is the common understanding of the passage, that Joshua has laid before them the choice to leave their idolatry and choose to serve God.  But that is NOT what the passage says.  The choice that is laid before the people is to choose whom they will serve, “whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.”  The choice is not between God and Not God, but between “Idol #1 and Idol #2”, i.e. Not God vs. Not God.  How then could this verse even begin to be championed as a defense for man’s free will to choose God out of his own free-will, apart from any divine enablement, when the choice that is laid before the people is between their various idolatries.  Joshua is the one, because he is a God-fearing, regenerate believer, who declares, “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”.  That should always be the declaration of the believer in Christ, regardless of the idolatrous decisions that others, even self-professed believers, might make.

Continuing on in the passage:

16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, 17 for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. 18 And the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

By way of the reminder of what Joshua had just spoken, the people now seem convinced that they will abandon their idolatry, not choosing between their idols but deciding to serve the Lord.  Now notice Joshua’s response.

19 But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.”

What would cause Joshua to say that they were unable to serve the Lord?  Simply put, this was a declaration stating that he knew the people were unable out of their own moral fortitude to serve the Lord.  He offers them a stark warning of their decision, lest out of haste they have decided to serve the Lord out of insincerity.

21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord. 22 Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23 He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24 And the people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.” 25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. 26 And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. 27 And Joshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us. Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.” 28 So Joshua sent the people away, every man to his inheritance.

As we conclude, verse 31 of this chapter tells us that the people actually did serve the Lord for the remainder of Joshua’s days.  However, immediately after his death, we read of apostasy and idolatry again on behalf of Israel, Judges 2:1-6.

The doctrine of total inability rightly stated does not deny man’s ability to make choices.  It does not deny that man is free, in the sense that his choices are his own.  However, it does assert that man is dead in his trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1).  That he is a slave to sin (Romans 6:16, 20), following after the prince of the power of the air (Eph. 2:2).  And that by living “in the passions of [the] flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (Eph. 2:3) those desires and affections are never, indeed cannot, be set on God apart from the divine enablement of His Spirit to remove the heart of stone with all of its evil, sinful, and worldly desires, and give man a heart of flesh with new desires to submit to God, love Him, and obey Him.  There is simply no other way.  Salvation is of the Lord and it is all a work of grace.  For that we should be ever thankful and worship our Great God.

Soli Deo Gloria

ebola and the supremacy of Christ

Ebola and the Supremacy of Christ


It isn’t difficult to find out what’s going on with the latest virus fear spreading around the world.  Several years ago, fears were being spread (via the media) about the Bird Flu, SARS, West Nile, Swine Flu, etc.  Now, it’s 24/7 coverage of Ebola and to a lesser yet significant extent the Enterovirus.  These are legitimate virus’ and there is a continual legitimacy to contracting them or any of those previously mentioned, or the common cold, or the flu, or rabies, or cancer, or even getting hit by a bus or struck by lightning.  While the odds may not be equal between those, there nevertheless remains a possibility.  The problem with turning to the news for information concerning the latest virus to spread is that they can only report and speculate, they cannot control.  We can turn to any major news station right now and get the latest headlines on the treatment of those who are stricken with Ebola, the strategies for how to contain it, the blame for not doing enough or doing the wrong things.  Watching this, it would be easy to reach the conclusion that Ebola was spinning out of control on its own self-wrought plan to bring civilization to a crippling halt and cease existence as we know it.  The problem with that…?  Ebola is not in control, nor has it ever been.  Neither is, nor has any other virus or for that matter molecule.  While we may be able to turn to the news to find out whether this latest virus is spreading to a neighborhood near us and perhaps even the precautions we can take to avoid getting it, we will not hear, dare I say never hear, that Christ reigns supreme over the entire universe, including the spread of Ebola and that it does not operate outside of His sovereign authority.  For that we turn not to the media, but to the pages of Scripture that magnify the supremacy of Christ. In that, and in that alone we can rest our fears.

Our sinful natures are naturally bent towards unbelief and one symptom of doubt is fear.  The over-information and speculation of the news media simply stokes the coals of doubt and fear that are already existent and causes us to lose focus on Who it is that is in control and upon Whom we should set our trust.

In Hebrews 1:3 we get a glimpse of the supremacy of Christ over the universe, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.  Of particular interest is the phrase, “He upholds the universe by the word of His power”.  What does this mean exactly?  I take it to mean that Christ “upholds the universe by the word of His power.”  Simple enough.  The universe is an all-encompassing statement, such that the extent of Christ’s power is unlimited.  Throughout the Gospels we get insight into the supremacy of Christ over nature, the spiritual realm, diseases, and even death.  In other words, His supremacy extends throughout the entirety of the universe.

Supremacy over Demons: Mark 1:21-28; 1:37-39; 5:1-20; 7:24-30; 9:14-29

Supremacy over Disease: Mark 1:29-31 (fever); 1:40-45 (leprosy); 2:1-5 (paralysis); 3:1-6 (withered hand); 5:25-34 (issue of blood); 6:53-56 (healings in Gennersaret); 7:31-37 (deafness); 8:22-26 (blindness); 10:46-52 (blindness- Bartimaeus)

Supremacy over Death: Mark 5:35-43 (Jairus’s daughter)

Supremacy over Nature: Mark 4:35-41 (calms the storm/seas); 6:30-44 (feeds the 5000); 6:45-52 (walks on water); 8:1-10 (feeds the 4000);

When we read these passages yet continue in fear, doubting the supremacy of Christ over any aspect of life, we are in sin.  Just yesterday I was contemplating the spread of Ebola in light of how God has used pestilence in Scripture and in history as well.  I came upon an article discussing the Bubonic Plague that ravished much of London in 1665-66.  Of note in this article was the Puritan Thomas Vincent whose congregation was suffering under the grip of the plague.  The article stated that 68,000 people had died in the city of London, including seven in Mr. Vincent’s own house as he cared for them and ministered alongside them as they suffered.  Yet in all his exposure, the Lord sovereignly protected him every step of the way.  The author of the article is quick to point out that Vincent had no guarantee from God that he would not contract the disease, yet he entrusted himself into the sovereign care of God under no obligation that his life would be spared.  In his book The True Christian’s Love to the Unseen Christ Vincent writes:

“If you have but little love to Christ, you will be apt to faint in the day of adversity, to shrink when you are called to take up His cross and suffer for His sake. Lesser sufferings will decompose you, greater sufferings will frighten you and amaze you, and you will be in danger of turning into fearful apostates in time of great trials. There is need of great love to Christ, as well as great faith, to carry you through sufferings with courage that you may persevere unto the end” (p. 33).

As in Vincent’s day, Christ’s reigns supreme even now.  Like the pestilence in Scripture and the Bubonic Plague in the 1600’s, Ebola is not a rouge virus that is running rampant unchecked in the universe.  It is within the sovereignty of Christ.  It neither afflicts nor is avoided without Christ’s sovereign ordination.  That should be a great comfort for the believer and should put to rest any fears and doubts that may arise, whether stirred up by the media or others.  If Christ is so concerned with the details that neither a sparrow falling from the sky nor a hair turning black or white escapes notice, will not He also supremely rule over the most vicious of viruses?  Should believers contract it, as the missionary workers in Liberia, we can know that the virus will not run its course nor take a life apart from Christ’s sovereign decree.  Should it take a believer’s life, what great consolation there is in knowing that there is therefore now no condemnation in Christ and that upon the conclusion of their suffering, they are ushered into the glorious presence of the Majesty on High to rule and reign with Him for eternity.  Does that sound like a worthy prize for the temporal suffering that a virus might bring?  I should hope so.

If you are an unbeliever, take special notice.  Though Christ is supreme, His arm is not shortened preventing Him from bringing any affliction He desires upon you for the purpose of bringing you to repentance or resigning you to judgment.

Christ will use means, such as Ebola, getting hit by a bus while crossing the street, or simply old age, to either usher believers into the presence of His glory or resign unbelievers to the place of eternal suffering, apart from His glory.  Through His death on the cross and resurrection on the 3rd day, He has defeated death.  Subsequently, all those who are united to Him by faith will likewise defeat death upon their resurrection.  The question is not when or by what method, but who.  Who is your faith in?  Are you united to Him by faith, or apart from Him by rebellion and unbelief.  In either case, Christ reigns supreme and He will get glory out of both the vessels of wrath and the vessels of mercy, but rest assured there is nothing rogue or outside of His dominion.  All authority in heaven and on earth is His.


An Objection to Total Inability: Deuteronomy 30:19

Continuing with some common objections to the Calvinistic doctrine of man’s inability, a second objection can be found in the Old Testament passage of Deuteronomy 30:11-20.

11 “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14 But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”

The appeal made from this passage is the phrase I’ve highlighted from verse 19 above, “Therefore choose life”.  Since Moses lays the choice before the people, it is often assumed that this is an example of the free-will of man to choose his own destiny.  Again, we must 1) Examine this verse in context 2) Realize that God’s Sovereignty in salvation is not divorced from man’s responsibility to repent and believe, as we have previously seen.

The use of the verse as a proof-text for man’s freewill highlights the importance of understanding a verse in its context, both the immediate context of its chapter and where it fits in the flow of the larger context within the book its written.  There are really two ways to do this.  We could read through Deuteronomy noting the context as we go until we come to this passage in chapter 30 or we could start in this chapter for the immediate context and then expand out from there.  The former is probably the better angle for our study because of the covenantal framework of Deuteronomy.  It breaks down something like this[1]:

  1. The Covenant Setting (1:1-5)
  2. The Historical Review (1:4-4:40)
  3. The Preparation for the Covenant Text (4:41-49)
  4. The Principles of the Covenant (5:1-11:32)
  5. The Specific Stipulations of the Covenant (12:1-26:15)
  6. Exhortation and Narrative Interlude (26:16-19)
  7. The Curses and Blessings (chaps. 27-28)
  8. The Epilogue Historical Review (chaps. 29-30)
  9. Deposit of the Text and Provision for Its Future Implementation (31:1-29)
  10. The Song of Moses (31:30-32:43)
  11. The Blessing of Moses (chap. 33)
  12. Narrative Epilogue (34:1-12)

Upon examining the book in this way, we find that our verse falls within the section of The Epilogue Historical Review.  What this means is that the passage from Deuteronomy 30 is pregnant with a lot of meaning that needs unpacked before it can properly be understood within its context. I’ll try to summarize some of the key points in the narrative that will give us the background necessary to understand this passage.

At this point in the book, Moses has reviewed the covenant made with the people at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments (5:1ff) specifically because the people are about to enter the Promised Land.  A key passage for our understanding is in Deuteronomy 10:12-22.  In this passage God commands fear, love, obedience, and service and that the people to circumcise their own hearts.  Who can do that themselves?  Further reading will answer that question.  God then provides additional stipulations of the covenant (12:1-26:15) which Moses instructs the people to write on whitewashed stones when they entered the land (note the contrast between the 10 Commandments written in stone by the finger of God and these additional commands written on stone by the people).  When we arrive at chapters 27-28 we have God promising blessings for obedience and cursings for disobedience.  I take this to highlight the conditionality (IF/THEN) of the Mosaic or Siniatic Covenant, i.e. Do this and live, Don’t do this and die.  ( A separate, yet related question might be: Is the covenant here (Mosaic) even referring to salvific blessings? See here and here).

Fascinatingly, weaved within the description of the blessings and cursings are prophecies concerning how the people will respond and what God’s plan for them will be.  Ultimately, this shows us the sovereignty of God over His people; not simply His omniscience that they will do such and such, but that He is sovereignly ordaining the events for the purpose of His glory.  In these prophecies we see that the people will agree to obey, but that they will ultimately disobey and the full weight of the curses will fall on them.  You can read in the passage and get a sense of the expectation for failure. (Deut. 28:36-37)

In chapter 29, this expectation changes though, from an expectation of failure to an expectation of hope in the form of a better covenant, the New Covenant (Hebrews 7:22).  Hints of this, which began in chapter 10, surface again here with a brief reminder of what God has done for Israel, yet in 29:4 we see that the Lord “has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.”  This is significant because of the transition here between the Old Covenant, temporal in nature and the New Covenant, everlasting and salvific.  As we’ve seen before, all those under the Old Covenant were not circumcised in heart, evident here, however all those in the New Covenant have the sign of the covenant, namely a circumcised heart.  As the transition continues through the expectation of failure to the expectation of the New Covenant in chapter 29, we arrive at chapter 30 and read of the prophecy of what will happen:

“And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”

Clearly the people were going to turn from the Lord and follow their uncircumcised hearts (vs. 29:19), thereby suffering all of the curses that God had lain before them.  What was hinted at in chapter 29, now blossoms into a fully revealed promise of the New Covenant (30:6).  Note also that the language here is not one of conditionality, but of certainty on God’s part.  Ultimately, because of Israel’s disobedience, they would not perpetually enjoy the blessings of the Old Covenant promised to them, instead they would experience the curses.  However, as we know, there would come One who through perfect obedience would fulfill the covenant law, likewise suffering the curse for all of the covenant breakers who by faith are united to Him.  It is in Christ alone that the Old Covenant is fulfilled and the New Covenant is inaugurated (Matt. 26:28; 1 Corinthians 11:25; Hebrews 12:24).  All of that is right here, in a “boring” Old Testament passage narrating the history of Israel on the plains of Moab.  Oh the wisdom of God!

Returning to our theme of man’s free will, by the time we arrive at verse 30:19 we have seen blessings and cursings for obedience and disobedience respectively; we have read of God’s expectation of disobedience; and we have seen the promise of the New Covenant, out of which One would come who would perfectly obey.  So when we read, “therefore choose life” this is a foregone conclusion.  Yes the decision is real; yes the command is legitimate, but the outcome of obedience is impossible because the people’s hearts have not been circumcised.  In fact, even if perfect obedience to the commandments of God had been possible, it would have been the great result of moralism (see the rich, young ruler), not obedience from the heart.

As we continue into chapter 31, to maintain the rest of our context, we read that in fact God affirms the inability of man to obey and follow Him:

Deut. 31:16-21

16 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them. 17 Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ 18 And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods.

19 “Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel. 20 For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. 21 And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring). For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.”

Deut. 30: 27-29 (Moses speaking)

”For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord. How much more after my death! 28 Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears and call heaven and earth to witness against them. 29 For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.”

Again, as in our last post, in a verse that has been championed by those who advocate for the free-will of man, we actually find a passage prophesying about the total inability of man to follow and obey God out of his own corrupt, sin-bound heart and the promise that only God alone can overcome the sinner’s heart by replacing the heart of stone with a heart of flesh and causing them to walk according to His commands and statutes (Ezekiel 11:19-20; Ezekiel 36:24-27).

My prayer for you the reader is to understand that apart from God, we can do nothing and that assuredly includes our salvation.  It is entirely a work of grace.  Secondly, the Old Testament is so rich in its meaning and deserves not to be neglected, but treasured as the absolute and supreme Word of God which points forward to Christ and provides much of the foundational understanding for the New Testament.

[1] Merrill, Eugene, Word and the World: An Introduction to the Old Testament

John 17:17 Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.