Man’s Inability to keep the Moral Law
by Thomas Watson
An Excerpt From His Work Titled: The Ten Commandments
Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God? No mere man, since the fall, is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but does daily break them, in thought, word, and deed.
‘In many things we offend all.‘ James 3:2. Man in his primitive state of innocence, was endowed with ability to keep the whole moral law. He had rectitude of mind, sanctity of will, and perfection of power. He had the copy of God’s law written on his heart; no sooner did God command but he obeyed. As the key is suited to all the wards in the lock, and can open them, so Adam had a power suited to all God’s commands, and could obey them. Adam’s obedience ran parallel with the moral law, as a well made dial goes exactly with the sun. Man in innocence was like a well tuned organ, he was sweetly in tune to the will of God; he was adorned with holiness as the angels, but not confirmed in holiness as the angels. He was holy, but mutable; he fell from his purity, and we with him. Sin cut the lock of original righteousness where our strength lay; it brought a languor and faintness into our souls; and has so weakened us, that we shall never recover our full strength till we put on immortality. What I am now to demonstrate, is, that we cannot yield perfect obedience to the moral law.
I. The case of an unregenerate man is such, that he cannot perfectly obey all God’s commands.
He may as well touch the stars, or span the ocean, as yield exact obedience to the law. A person unregenerate cannot act spiritually, he cannot pray in the Holy Ghost, he cannot live by faith, he cannot do duty out of love to duty; and if he cannot do duty spiritually, much less perfectly.
Now, that a natural man cannot yield perfect obedience to the moral law, is evident:
(1) Because he is spiritually dead. Ephesians 2:1. How can he, being dead, keep the commandments of God perfectly? A dead man is not fit for action. A sinner has the symptoms of death upon him. He has no sense; he has no sense of the evil of sin, of God’s holiness and veracity; therefore he is said to be without feeling. Ephesians 4:19. He has no strength. Romans 5:6. What strength has a dead man? A natural man has no strength to deny himself, or to resist temptation; he is dead; and can a dead man fulfil the moral law?
(2) A natural man cannot perfectly keep all God’s commandments, because he is born in sin, and lives in sin. Psalm 51:5. ‘He drinketh iniquity like water.‘ Job 15:16. All the imaginations of his thoughts are evil, and only evil. Gen 6:5. The least evil thought is a breach of the royal law; and if there be defection, there cannot be perfection. As a natural man has no power to keep the moral law, so he has no will. He is not only dead, but worse than dead. A dead man does no hurt, but there is a life of resistance against God that accompanies the death of sin. A natural man not only cannot keep the law through weakness, but he breaks it through wilfulness. ‘We will do whatsoever goes out of our own mouth, to burn incense unto the queen of heaven.‘ Jeremiah 44:17.
II. As the unregenerate cannot keep the moral law perfectly, so neither can the regenerate.
‘There is not a just man upon earth, that does good and sinneth not;‘ nay, that ‘sins not in doing good.‘ Ecclesiastes 7:20. There is that in the best actions of a righteous man that is damnable, if God should weigh him in the balance of justice. Alas! how are his duties fly-blown! He cannot pray without wandering, nor believe without doubting. ‘To will is present with me, but how to perform I find not.‘ In the Greek it is, ‘How to do it thoroughly I find not.‘ Romans 7:18. Paul, though a saint of the first magnitude, was better at willing than at performing. Mary asked where they had laid Christ; for she had a mind to have carried him away, but she wanted strength: so the regenerate have a will to obey God’s law perfectly, but they want strength; their obedience is weak and sickly. The mark they are to shoot at is perfection of holiness; but though they take a right aim, yet do what they can, they come short of the mark. ‘The good that I would, I do not.‘ Rom 7:19. A Christian, while serving God, like a ferry-man that plies the oar, and rows hard, is hindered, for a gust of wind carries him back again: so says Paul, ‘The good I would, I do not,‘ I am driven back by temptation. Now, if there be any failure in a man’s obedience, he cannot be a perfect commentary upon God’s law. The Virgin Mary’s obedience was not perfect; she needed Christ’s blood to wash her tears. Aaron was to make atonement for the altar, to show that the most holy offering has defilement in it, and needs atonement to be made for it. Exodus 29:37.
If a man has no power to keep the whole moral law, why does God require it of him? Is this justice?
Though man has lost his power of obeying, God has not lost his right of commanding. If a master entrusts a servant with money to lay out, and the servant spends it dissolutely, may not the master justly demand it? God gave us power to keep the moral law, which by tampering with sin, we lost; but may not God still call for perfect obedience, or, in case of default, justly punish us?
Why does God permit such an inability in man to keep the law?
He does it:
(1) To humble us. Man is a self-exalting creature; and if he has but anything of worth, he is ready to be puffed up; but when he comes to see his deficiencies and failings, and how far short he comes of the holiness and perfection which God’s law requires, it pulls down the plumes of his pride, and lays them in the dust; he weeps over his inability; he blushes over his leprous spots; he says with Job, ‘I abhor myself in dust and ashes.‘
(2) God lets this inability be upon us, that we may have recourse to Christ to obtain pardon for our defects, and to sprinkle our best duties with his blood. When a man sees that he owes perfect obedience to the law, but has nothing to pay, it makes him flee to Christ to be his friend, and answer for him all the demands of the law, and set him free in the court of justice.
Use one. Here is matter of humiliation for our fall in Adam. In the state of innocence we were perfectly holy; our minds were crowned with knowledge, and our wills, as a queen, swayed the sceptre of liberty; but now we may say, ‘The crown is fallen from our head.‘ Lamentations 5:16. We have lost that power which was inherent in us. When we look back to our primitive glory, when we shone as earthly angels, we may take up Job’s words, ‘Oh that I were as in months past!‘ Job 29:2. O that it were with us as at first, when there was no stain upon our virgin nature, when there was a perfect harmony between God’s law and man’s will! But, alas! how is the scene altered, our strength is gone from us; we tread awry at every step: we come below every precept; our dwarfishness will not reach the sublimity of God’s law; we fail in our obedience; and while we fail, we forfeit. This should put us in deep mourning, and spring a leak of sorrow in all our souls.
Use two: Of confutation.
(1) It confutes the Arminians, who cry up the power of the will. They hold they have a will to save themselves. But by nature, we not only want strength, but we want will to that which is good. Rom 5:6. The will is not only full of weakness, but obstinacy. ‘Israel would none of me.‘ Psalm 81:11. The will hangs forth a flag of defiance against God. Such as speak of the sovereign power of the will, forget ‘It is God that worketh in you both to will and to do.‘ Philippians 2:13. If the power be in the will of man, then what need is there for God to work in us to will? If the air can enlighten itself, what need is there for the sun to shine? Such as talk of the power of nature, and their ability to save themselves, disparage Christ’s merits. I may say (as Gal 5:4), ‘Christ has become of no effect to them.‘ They who advance the power of their will in matters of salvation, without the medicinal grace of Christ, do absolutely put themselves under the covenant of works. I would ask, ‘Can they perfectly keep the moral law?’ Malum oritur ex quolibet defectu [Evil is manifested in any blemish at all]. If there be but the least defect in their obedience, they are lost. For one sinful thought the law of God curses them, and the justice of God condemns them. Confounded be their pride, who cry up the power of nature, as if, by their own inherent abilities, they could rear up a building, the top whereof should reach to heaven.
(2) It confutes that sort of people who brag of perfection; and who, according to that principle, can keep all God’s commandments perfectly. I would ask such whether at no time a vain thought has come into their minds? If there has, then they are not perfect. The Virgin Mary was not perfect. Though her womb was pure (being overshadowed by the Holy Ghost), yet her soul was not perfect. Christ tacitly supposes a failing in her. Luke 2:49. And are they more perfect than the blessed Virgin was? Such as hold perfection, need not confess sin. David confessed sin, and Paul confessed sin. Psalm 32:5; Romans 7:25. But they are got beyond David and Paul; they are perfect, they never transgress; and where there is no transgression, what need for confession? Again, if they are perfect, they need not ask pardon. They can pay God’s justice what they owe; therefore, why pray, ‘Forgive us our debts‘? Oh, that the devil should rock men so fast asleep, as to make them dream of perfection! Do they plead, ‘Let us therefore as many as be perfect be thus minded‘? Philippians 3:15. Perfection there, is meant of sincerity. God is best able to interpret his own word. He calls sincerity perfection. ‘A perfect and an upright man.‘ Job 1:8. But who is exactly perfect? A man full of diseases may as well say he is healthful, as a man full of sins say he is perfect.
Use three. For encouragement to regenerate persons. Though you fail in your obedience, and cannot keep the moral law exactly, yet be not discouraged.
What comfort may be given to a regenerate person under the failures and imperfections of his obedience?
That a believer is not under the covenant of works, but under the covenant of grace. The covenant of works requires perfect, personal, perpetual obedience; but in the covenant of grace, God will make some abatements; he will accept less than he required in the covenant of works.
(1) In the covenant of works God required perfection of degrees; in the covenant of grace he accepts perfection of parts. There he required perfect working, here he accepts sincere believing. In the covenant of works, God required us to live without sin; in the covenant of grace he accepts of our combat with sin.
(2) Though a Christian cannot, in his own person, perform all God’s commandments; yet Christ, as his Surety, and in his stead, has fulfilled the law for him: and God accepts of Christ’s obedience, which is perfect, to satisfy for that obedience which is imperfect. Christ being made a curse for believers, all the curses of the law have their sting pulled out.
(3) Though a Christian cannot keep the commands of God to satisfaction, yet he may to approbation.
How is that?
(1) He gives his full assent and consent to the law of God. ‘The law is holy and just:‘ there was assent in the judgment. Romans 7:12. ‘I consent unto the law;‘ there was consent in the will. Romans 7:16.
(2) A Christian mourns that he cannot keep the commandments fully. When he fails he weeps; he is not angry with the law because it is so strict but he is angry with himself because he is so deficient.
(3) He takes a sweet complacent delight in the law. ‘I delight in the law of God after the inward man.‘ Romans 7:22. Greek: ‘I take pleasure in it.‘ ‘O! how love I thy law.‘ Psalm 119:97. Though a Christian cannot keep God’s law, yet he loves his law; though he cannot serve God perfectly, yet he serves him willingly.
(4) It is his cordial desire to walk in all God’s commands. ‘O that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes.‘ Psalm 119:5. Though his strength fails, yet his pulse beats.
(5) He really endeavours to obey God’s law perfectly; and wherein he comes short he runs to Christ’s blood to supply his defects. This cordial desire, and real endeavour, God esteems as perfect obedience. ‘If there be a willing mind, it is accepted.‘ 2 Corinthians 8:12. ‘Let me hear thy voice, for sweet is thy voice.‘ Song of Solomon 2:14. Though the prayers of the righteous are mixed with sin, yet God sees they would pray better. He picks out the weeds from the flowers; he sees the faith and bears with the failing. The saints’ obedience, though short of legal perfection, yet having sincerity in it, and Christ’s merits mixed with it, finds gracious acceptance. When the Lord sees endeavours after perfect obedience, he takes it well at our hands; as a father who receives a letter from his child, though there be blots in it, and false spellings, takes all in good part. Oh! what blotting are there in our holy things; but God is pleased to take all in good part. He says, ‘It is my child, and he would do better if he could; I will accept it.’