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, et.al. Word and the World: An Introduction to the Old Testament

5 thoughts on “An Objection to Total Inability: Deuteronomy 30:19”

  1. The fatal flaw of Calvinism is that it overlooks the power of the Ministry of God’s Spirit which not only brings about light and revelation of man’s need for God, but also frees man’s will so that man can humble himself and make the right choice.

    “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is Freedom,” 2 Corinthians 3:17

    “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,” Luke 4:18.

    Hence, we also find the Spirit’s liberating presence in the Old Testament.
    “Seek the LORD while he may be found;
    call upon him while he is near;
    let the wicked forsake his way,
    and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
    let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him,
    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon,” Isaiah 55:6, 7.

    While the presence of the Holy Spirit is near, the individual has the liberty to … seek, … call, … forsake wickedness and unrighteous thoughts.
    In short, the Spirit of the Lord provides the liberty for the sinner to humble himself and repent, and then “choose life.”

    Because, John Calvin overlooked this variable (the enabling and freeing power of the presence of the Holy Spirit—2 Corinthians 3:17; Luke 4:18) in the equation of salvation, he therefore assumed that the sinner had to be regenerated in order to believe. This doctrine is not taught in the New Testament, and in fact the New Testament teaches the very opposite. In the New Testament, faith or belief always comes before regeneration.
    Again what is the clear testimony of the Word of God concerning regeneration?

    You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,” (Galatians 3:26). Belief (faith), then regeneration (rebirth) as a child of God

    “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in name, he gave the right to become children of God,” (John 1:12). Belief (faith), then new birth (regeneration) as a child of God

    “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God,” (1 Peter 1:23). It is our faith in the living and enduring Word of God (which includes the Gospel) whereby we are regenerated. Faith in the Gospel first, then regeneration or new birth. We are not regenerated first, and then believe. No! 1 Peter 1:23 tells us that we first believe the Gospel, and are then regenerated.

    “For you have been born again (regenerated) through (faith in) the living and enduring word of God,” (1 Peter 1:23). Faith first in the Word of God which contains the Good News of Christ; then comes regeneration.

    “Believe in the light, that you may become sons of light,” (John 12:36). Belief (faith) in Jesus, then new birth (regeneration) as a child of God.

    thanks for your time
    harry Murphy

  2. Hi Harry, thanks for the thought-provoking comment, please allow me to interact in a respectful manner.

    In your opening comment you stated,

    “…the power of the Ministry of God’s Spirit which not only brings about light and revelation of man’s need for God, but also frees man’s will so that man can humble himself and make the right choice.”

    If I understand you correctly, this is none other than a “Calvinistic” statement that looks to God as the source of light and revelation to man revealing 1) His need for God (and I might add, his sinfulness) and 2) giving him the “free will” if you like, or perhaps we might say the ability, to humble himself and “choose” God. I think I summarized your words accurately and I agree with them wholeheartedly. In fact, everyone I know that would affirm the doctrines of grace, often called Calvinism, affirms this same view that you have put forth in your comment. So maybe there’s something I’m missing?

    Again, your statement,

    “In short, the Spirit of the Lord provides the liberty for the sinner to humble himself and repent, and then “choose life.”

    I agree with that statement 100%.

    Finally, with regards to this statement,

    “…he (Calvin) therefore assumed that the sinner had to be regenerated in order to believe. This doctrine is not taught in the New Testament, and in fact the New Testament teaches the very opposite. In the New Testament, faith or belief always comes before regeneration. Again what is the clear testimony of the Word of God concerning regeneration?”

    First, I’m not certain that either of us can state with dogmatism that the NT does not assert regeneration precedes faith. I could cite verses as well that state the opposite of your position (1 John 5:1, Eph. 2:5, etc.). Instead, the NT seems to maintain the tension between faith and regeneration and I’m not willing to split hairs for the sake of splitting hairs. Faith comes from God; Regeneration is an action of the Spirit in man; both have their source in and from God apart from man.

    As to Calvin’s views, I’m not a Calvin scholar. I have read some of his Institutes and some of his commentaries but simply not enough to make a declarative blanket statement on his view of the “ordo salutis”, the order of salvation, which I believe you are referring to with the statement that faith precedes regeneration. I think this is often debated, even among those that hold to “Calvinism” (I really dislike that term, but simply use it because most are familiar with it).

    However think about your opening comment, which I cited at the very beginning of my reply. If it is indeed an operation of the Holy Spirit that brings light and revelation to man showing him his need for salvation and enabling him to make a choice, which I think we would both summarize as an exercise of faith, then surely there is something that occurs prior, namely a work of the Spirit. If I may summarize then, this initial action of the Spirit is one where the scales are removed from the eyes and the heart of stone is replaced with a heart of flesh enabling him to see his need for Christ. I think most would see this as regeneration. I’m probably not the right guy to ask or debate on ordo salutis. I believe you have correctly stated the origin of man’s exercise of faith, namely by the work of the Spirit, and that is at it’s heart “Calvinisitc”.

    But let’s look at a snippet of Calvin in his own words on John 1:12-13:

    “Hence it follows, first, that faith does not proceed from ourselves, but is the fruit of spiritual regeneration; for the Evangelist affirms that no man can believe, unless he be begotten of God; and therefore faith is a heavenly gift. It follows, secondly, that faith is not bare or cold knowledge, since no man can believe who has not been renewed by the Spirit of God.

    It may be thought that the Evangelist reverses the natural order by making regeneration to precede faith, whereas, on the contrary, it is an effect of faith, and therefore ought to be placed later. I reply, that both statements perfectly agree; because by faith we receive the incorruptible seed, (1 Peter 1:23,) by which we are born again to a new and divine life. And yet faith itself is a work of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in none but the children of God. So then, in various respects, faith is a part of our regeneration, and an entrance into the kingdom of God, that he may reckon us among his children. The illumination of our minds by the Holy Spirit belongs to our renewal, and thus faith flows from regeneration as from its source; but since it is by the same faith that we receive Christ, who sanctifies us by his Spirit, on that account it is said to be the beginning of our adoption.

    Another solution, still more plain and easy, may be offered; for when the Lord breathes faith into us, he regenerates us by some method that is hidden and unknown to us; but after we have received faith, we perceive, by a lively feeling of conscience, not only the grace of adoption, but also newness of life and the other gifts of the Holy Spirit. For since faith, as we have said, receives Christ, it puts us in possession, so to speak, of all his blessings. Thus so far as respects our sense, it is only after having believed — that we begin to be the sons of God. But if the inheritance of eternal life is the fruit of adoption, we see how the Evangelist ascribes the whole of our salvation to the grace of Christ alone; and, indeed, how closely soever men examine themselves, they will find nothing that is worthy of the children of God, except what Christ has bestowed on them.”

    It would seem that he recognizes the stickiness of which comes first, faith or regeneration, and freely admits to the likelihood of a simultaneous operation. Likewise, he would seem to affirm the operation of the Holy Spirit in illuminating the mind (which was the fatal flaw you mentioned?).

    Thanks for the comment!

    Grace and Peace,
    John

  3. Thank you John, it is a debatable point on the regeneration preceding faith, but Calvinists are consistent in that man must be brought to life if he is dead in sin or unable to have a relationship with God..That is where the New Covenant plays a part in our salvation according to Jeremiah 31:31-33 where God takes out the heart of stone and places in a heart of flesh. See also Ezekiel 36:26. I can’t help but think that Jesus was thinking of the O.T. verses in the prophesies of the New Covenant when he discussed the New Birth with Nicodemus. No one sees the the Kingdom of God till he is born again so when Jesus told him ”
    that “that which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Nicodemus was dumbfounded and Jesus mildly rebukes him with more scripture that made him go back and dig in and find out where he stood. We never have an outright confession from Nicodemus, but he was involved and around at the death of the Lord Jesus.
    Sammie references John 1:12, but not verse 13 “who were born not of blood, , nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. God is the initiator and provider to the remedy of the corrupt heart and Spirit in the provision of the New Covenant.

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