Often cited as a proof text for the doctrine of Total Inability is Jeremiah 13:23, which reads,
“Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.” (Jer. 13:23; ESV)
The purpose of this post is to explain my reasons for rejecting Jeremiah 13:23 as a good proof-text for the doctrine of Total Inability.
I believe in the depravity of man, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t believe that Jeremiah 13:23 is the best proof-text for such a fundamental truth as this. When considered in context, I believe that this verse is not teaching that it is literally impossible for unsaved man to do any good. Needless to say, I don’t believe this verse is teaching mankind’s ‘Total Inability.’
» The context is that of God threatening Judah and Jerusalem (v.9), aka, the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah (v.11) with exile, in response to their continual rebellion – their refusal to hear God’s words, their stubbornly following their own heart, and their going after other gods to serve and worship them (v.10). This fact leaves the application of this verse to all mankind without foundation. The context of the passage as a whole makes it clear that only Israel and Judah are in view.**
» The question of whether the Ethiopian can change his skin or the leopard his spots reminds me of the statement made by Jesus that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25) We wouldn’t take Jesus’ words to mean that it is literally possible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, nor should we take His words to mean that under no circumstances can a rich man enter the kingdom of God, simply because he is rich. Jesus isn’t stating that a rich man, because he is rich, cannot, under any circumstances, enter the kingdom of God. Money, in and of itself, is not evil, nor is the mere possession of money, in and of itself, evil. What is evil, and indeed, a root of all kinds of evil, is a wilful heart condition, namely the love of money (cf. 1 Tim. 6:10). Jesus’ statement comes immediately after the rich young ruler refused to forsake all his riches to follow Christ. What Jesus is doing is illustrating what riches do to a man’s heart. Jesus knew that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil; He knew how money would corrupt a man’s heart so as to make him proud, self-sufficient, and unwilling to forsake all to follow Christ, hence Jesus’ statement in verse 25. The case in point: the rich young ruler, who went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions, the passage says. Given what riches do to a man’s heart, it would be easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than it would be to get a rich man to forsake his riches and follow Christ. The ‘inability’ of the rich is a wilful condition, not a necessary one.
And so it is with Jeremiah 13:23. We shouldn’t take the words to mean that it is literally impossible for an unsaved man to do anything good. But rather, we should consider the context: Israel and Judah hadn’t simply fallen into sin; they were reveling in sin; they were continuing in steadfast rebellion to God; continuing in a steadfast refusal to hear God’s words; continuing in steadfast idolatry. And then comes the question regarding the Ethiopian and the leopard. What is being illustrated is just how far Israel and Judah had departed from God. Considering how far they’ve gone, and how unwilling they are to repent and turn back to God, it would be just as easy for an Ethiopian to change his skin colour, or a leopard to change its spots, than it would be for the houses of Israel and Judah to turn from their wickedness and do well.
As Jesus was illustrating what riches do to a man’s heart, so God (through Jeremiah) was illustrating what continued wilful rebellion and apostasy will do to a man’s heart.
In both cases, the ‘inability’ is a wilful condition of the heart, not a necessary one. The question regarding the Ethiopian and the leopard illustrated what happened to men’s hearts as a result of their continued unwillingness to turn to God.
** I find it ironic that Calvinists take a text that is quite obviously speaking of a particular group of people (Israel and Judah) and give it a universal application, given their usual tendency to restrict and limit the meaning of passages using universal language, such as John 3:16, 1 Tim. 2:4, 1 Tim. 4:10, 1 John 2:2, and Heb. 2:9.