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