“The line between good and evil runs through the human heart.” So far, I have not found the primary source for these words, but they are attributed to Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
This is an important point in Christian anthropology and one with important social, cultural, and political implications. The line between good and evil does not run between you and me or between us and them. It runs straight (or crookedly!) through each of us. There is no saint here and sinner there; rather, each of us is some of both. Lutherans have something akin to what I am getting at in their doctrine of simul justus et peccator, at once just(ified) and sinner.
There is no “natural man” over there (somebody else) and “spiritual man” here; both “men” are conditions and degrees of being. Thus, St. Paul tells his flock at Corinth, who are baptized Christians, washed in the laver of regeneration, that they have not yet become spiritual men. (I Corinthians 3:1-3)
When he says of the natural man that he “does not receive the things of the Spirit of God,” he is speaking of the natural part of each of us, and not of separate human beings. Furthermore, St. Paul explains why this is so, and it does not have to do with man’s will, but with his darkened intellect. The natural man does not receive the things of God “for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
There is no person over there who has one set of desires, which are always only sinful, and another person here (I, of course!) who has another set of desires which are holy.
On the one hand, even the Gentiles have some spiritual light “because what may be known of God is manifest among them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, namely His eternal power and Godhead.” (Romans 1:19-20) It is not the case that they know nothing of God, but rather, they “exchanged the truth of God for the lie” (v. 25) and “they did not like to retain God in their knowledge” (v. 28). St. John further tells us that the Logos (articulate intellect) of God was “the light that enlightens every man coming into the world.” (John 1)
Furthermore, the Gentiles know something of the will of God and are even able, in some degree, to do it. “For when the Gentiles,” says St. Paul, “which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and [their] thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.” (Romans 2:14-15) Yes, they can obey the law of God. Yes, they do it by nature. It is written on their hearts, by grace. “But they only obey very imperfectly,” you say? So what? Christians do the same.
For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God--through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. (Romans 7:15-25)
St. Paul is describing the fallen man within each of us. Here we see man having two sets of desires. The one is the desire of the flesh, residing literally in our bodies. Our bodies demand food, drink, sex, sleep, warmth, clothing, shelter, security, various pleasures, comforts, satisfactions and thrills. Meanwhile, the “inner man” delights in the law of God, namely love, which demands that we give all of ourselves to God and each other instead of to our own bodies, seeking always the welfare of others above our own. The “I” wants to serve God, but is in “captivity” to the desires of the flesh. Sin usurps the self, and sin (“no longer I”) disobeys.
St. Paul makes the same point in Galatians 5:17: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” Note, you want to do these things, he says, even though the desires of the flesh seek to defeat you. You are both flesh and spirit, and as Jesus said, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)
Each of us has two sets of desires, between which he chooses. You can willingly set your mind on the flesh (Romans 8:7) or you can try (at least) not to. Your will is part of who you are as a human being, and is not the exclusive property of that condition called “the spiritual man.” Therefore, when a person is “dead in sins,” it means he is operating according to the dictates of the flesh, rather than in accordance with the Spirit – but that is not at all the same as to say his free will has disappeared. And I mean a genuinely free will, able to desire good or evil. To call anything else a free will is dishonest word games.
Please note carefully that I have not yet said a man can “choose Christ” at all, much less that he can do it on his own, apart from the grace of God. So far, I am only asserting that every man is genuinely able to desire such good as he knows, is able to strive after that good, and is able, with a high degree of imperfection, to perform it. There aren’t some people who can do this (believers) and others who cannot at all (unbelievers). There are, instead, only people whose free will is impaired by sin, and no people in whom free will is entirely ruined or absent.
There are various other reasons for asserting that a person cannot “choose Christ”. These I’ll discuss in another post. For now, all I want to say is, lack of ability to desire either good or bad is not one of them.