If I tell my child that he should clean his room it does strongly imply that he could clean his room. This is basic common sense, but is it applicable to how God deals with humanity? Is the implication in scripture of “you should” mean that “you could?”
I think we can all agree that “ought” strongly implies moral ability for all practical purposes, but is that a biblical reality in every instance? Sometimes the Bible defies our practical sensibilities and turns our reality up on its ear. Is that the case here? Do God’s expressions of what we SHOULD do imply that we actually COULD do it.
Suppose you had a horrible gambling addiction and as a result accrued a debt so large that it was literally impossible for you to repay. Would your inability to pay off this debt excuse you from paying it? Of course not. You SHOULD pay off this debt regardless of whether or not you COULD pay off this debt. This is an example of where inability does not remove responsibility and thus SHOULD does not mean that one necessarily COULD.
Likewise, the scriptures teach us that we SHOULD obey the law of God perfectly (Matt. 5:48), but it also teaches us that no one COULD (Rom. 3:23). Our moral inability to fulfill the laws demands does not remove our moral responsibility to the law. We have a sin debt that we cannot pay, yet scripture seems to teach that we are held accountable for that debt nonetheless. In this instance it certainly does seem that SHOULD does not imply COULD.
But, continuing with the analogy above, suppose your wealthy and benevolent father offered to pay your gambling debt for you if you would confess your addiction and go to rehab. Clearly this is something you SHOULD do, but COULD you? Of course you COULD! Your inability to pay off the debt in no way hinders you from accepting the benevolent offer of your father’s provision.
Likewise, with regard to the law, your benevolent and gracious Father offers to pay your sin debt if you confess your sin addiction and trust in Him. Clearly this is something you SHOULD do, but COULD you? Of course you COULD! Your inability to pay off your sin debt in no way hinders you from accepting the benvolent offer of your Father’s gracious provision.
Suppose someone tried to convince you that one’s inability to pay off their debt equaled their inability to accept help when it was offered. Would you believe them? I ask because that is what our Calvinistic friends are attempting to get the church to believe. Allow me to explain further…
Could the “Rich Young Ruler” have willingly given up his wealth to follow Christ as Zacchaeus does in the very next chapter? Or was Zacchaeus granted an ability that was withheld from the Rich Young Ruler? (Note: I’m speaking of man’s moral/spiritual abilities to repent in faith, not their physical ability or mental assent, so please don’t try to rebut this article with the all too often “catch all” phrase of, “He is able but not willing.”)
Calvinists would agree with the Traditionalists that both Zacchaeus and Rich Young Ruler SHOULD have given up everything to follow Christ, but only the Traditionalist maintains that both of them COULD have willingly done so. Why do Calvinists insist that SHOULD doesn’t imply COULD when it comes to the Biblical revelation?
Dr. Wayne Grudem, a Calvinistic scholar, explains the issue in this manner:
“Advocates of the Arminian position draw attention to the frequency of the free offer of the gospel in the New Testament. They would say that these invitations to people to repent and come to Christ for salvation, if bona fide, must imply the ability to respond to them. Thus, all people without exception have the ability to respond, not just those who have been sovereignly given that ability by God in a special way.” 
Grudem, like John Hendryx of mongerism.com, rebuts this perspective by making arguments such as:
“What the Scriptures say we ‘ought’ to do does not necessarily imply what we ‘can’ do. The Ten Commandments, likewise, speak of what we ought to do but they do not imply that we have the moral ability to carry them out. The law of God was given so that we would be stripped of having any hope from ourselves. Even faith itself is a divine command that we cannot fulfill without the application of God’s regenerative grace by the Holy Spirit.”
Are you following the Calvinistic argument? Here it is put very simply:
- God tells man they SHOULD keep all the commandments.
- Man CANNOT keep all the commandments.
- God also tells man they SHOULD believe and repent for breaking commandments.
- Therefore man also CANNOT believe and repent for breaking commandments.
If the fallacy in this argument is not obvious to you, please allow me to use the analogy above as a parallel:
- The gambler SHOULD pay off his gambling debts.
- The gambler CANNOT pay off his gambling debts.
- The father tells the man he SHOULD admit his addiction and receive help.
- Therefore the gambler CANNOT admit his addiction and receive help.
Maybe another analogy will help bring more clarity? Back when my kids were younger we did a family activity that our church had suggested. I stood at the top of the stairs with my four children at the bottom.
I said to them, “Here are the rules. You must get from the bottom of the stairs to the top of the stairs without touching any of the railing, the wall or even the stairs. Ready, go!”
My kids looked at me and then each other and then back at their mother. With bewilderment in their eyes, they immediately began to whine and complain saying, “Dad, that is impossible!”
I told them to stop whining and figure it out.
The youngest stood at the bottom and started trying to jump, slamming himself into the steps over and over. The more creative one of the bunch began looking for tools to help build some kind of contraption. Another set down on the floor while loudly declaring, “This is just stupid, no one can do that!”
Finally, in exasperation one of the kids yelled out, “Dad, why don’t you just help us?” I raised my eyebrows as if to give them a clue that they may be on the right track. The eldest caught on quickly.
“Can you help us dad?” he shouted.
I replied quietly, “No one even asked me.”
“Can you carry us up the stairs?” he asked.
“I will if you ask me,” I said.
And one by one, I carried each child to the top after they simply asked.
Then, we sat down and talked about salvation. We talked about how it is impossible for us to get to heaven by our own efforts, but if we ask Christ for help then He will carry us. It was a great visual lesson of God’s grace in contrast with man’s works.
But suppose that my children’s inability to get to the top the stairs also meant they were incapable of asking me for help. Imagine how this story would’ve played out if it was impossible for my children not only to get to the top of the stairs but equally impossible for them to recognize that inability and request help when it was offered.
This illustrates the mistake of Calvinism. Let’s go back to their fallacy above as it relates to my story:
- Dad tells his kids they SHOULD get to the top of stairs.
- Kids CANNOT complete this task as requested.
- Dad also tells the kids they SHOULD ask for help.
- Therefore the kids CANNOT ask for help.
Do you see the problem now? The whole purpose of presenting my kids with that dilemma was to help them to discover their need for help. To suggest that they cannot realize their need and ask for help on the basis that they cannot get to the top of stairs completely undermines the very purpose of the giving them that dilemma.
The purpose of the father in both instances is to get others to trust Him. The law was not sent for the purpose of getting mankind to heaven. Just as the purpose of the activity was not to get the kids to the top of the staircase. The purpose was to help them to see that they have a need and that they cannot do it on their own.
Calvinists have wrongly concluded that because mankind is unable to attain righteousness by works through the law, they must also be equally unable to attain righteousness by grace through faith. In other words, they have concluded that because mankind is incapable of “making it to the top of the stairs,” then they are equally incapable of “recognizing their inability and asking for help.” IT DOES NOT FOLLOW AND IT IS NOT BIBLICAL. Paul said;
What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith;but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works (Rom. 9:30-32).
It seems Calvinists would have us believe that because pursuit by works fails in attaining righteousness that a pursuit by faith would not even be possible. This is simply never taught in scripture.
When Calvinists are pressed on the obvious implication that SHOULD implies COULD, they appeal to the demands of the law, which is like appealing to my demands for the children to get to the top of the stairs without touching anything. I didn’t make that demand with the expectation of my children actually doing it, after all it is impossible. I made the demand to help them realize they could not do it without my help.
So too, God did not send the law with the expectation that we could actually fulfill its demands. That is not the purpose of the law. According the scripture, “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Rom. 3:20).
The law is a “tutor” who points us to our need for Christ (Gal. 3:24). The law was never sent for the purpose of being fulfilled by mankind, just as the stair-climbing activity was never intended to be completed by my kids. It was a “tutoring” lesson to teach my children that they must rely on someone else, a useless activity indeed if they are somehow incapable of coming to that realization or admitting their need for help.
If my kids are as completely incapable of understanding their need for help in getting to the top of stairs as they are in getting to top of the stairs without help, then why would I bother with the activity in the first place? Likewise, if mankind is as completely incapable of trusting in the One who fulfilled the law as they are in fulfilling the law themselves, then what is the point in sending an insufficient tutor to teach them a lesson they cannot learn?
The argument that SHOULD implies COULD remains virtually unanswered by the Calvinist who appeals to the law as their example. That is, unless they can demonstrate that it actually was God’s intention for us to fulfill the law’s demand in order to attain righteousness. After all, to conclude that man cannot fulfill the purpose of the law’s demands begs the question, because it presumes man cannot fulfill the purpose of the law by believing in the One who fulfilled it’s demands.
Basic common sense tells us that if one ought to do something, he can do it. This is especially true if one is punished for his failure to do that which is expected. In 2 Thessalonians 2:10, Paul says of the unrighteous, “They perish because they did not accept the love of the truth in order to be saved.” And in John 12:48, Jesus said, “There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day.”
Scripture never once says that we will perish because of Adam’s sin. But over and over again it says that we will each be held accountable for our response to the clear the revelation of God. According to Paul, all men stand “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20), yet Calvinistic doctrine gives mankind the best excuse imaginable:
Judge: “Why did you remain in unbelief?”
Reprobate: “I was born hated and rejected by my God who sealed me in unbelief from the time I was born until the time I died due to the sin of another.”
Can you think of any better excuse than that? I cannot.