Let’s see what God’s word says in Romans 1:18-2:16
According to this passage, God has made Himself knowable to all men and are therefore without excuse. Instead of turning to him, they turn to their dark and evil desires, worshiping the creation rather than the Creator. Because of this, God allows such men to continue on ravaging themselves by denying or at least not acknowledging His obvious existence. They understand that they deserve death yet promote such activities. We condemn those who break the law (ex. the Ten Commandments), yet we ourselves break it. The Gentiles, whom God did not give the physical manifestation of the Law (ex. the tablets to Moses on Mount Sinai) obey the law, showing that God has given general revelation inside of man of Himself and what He requires.
In other words, they have already decided to deny the most important aspect of the gospel: The acknowledgement of the Holy One of Israel, His perfect, righteous standard of living and their failure to live up to it. They deny the need of a Savior and are therefore foolish in their thinking.
All men cannot respond to the gospel because we are dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:5, Colossians 2:13). A dead man has no choice. He can’t say, “Hey, today I want to get up and walk.” The unregenerate person is dead in their sins (Romans 5:12) can’t even comprehend the gospel unless God draws us to Him. The Bible also says that we were slaves to sin but are now set free to be slaves to righteousness. (Romans 6:18) A slave has no choice. They can’t decide to wander off and be free. They do whatever their master tells them to and before we were saved, our master was sin.
We are totally depraved (not utterly depraved) so we do have hope. Because of The Fall, we are all sinful. Because we are all sinful, none of us will ever choose God. We will always choose sin. When given a choice, we choose sin. The Bible is pretty clear that we cannot respond to the gospel unless God draws us to Him (because we will always choose sin when given a choice). Since the unregenerate person is dead in their sins (Romans 5:12), they don’t know. Man is still responsible even though God is Sovereign. A man’s will is not necessarily free because we are totally depraved. We are so in love with sin that we can’t choose God. So the unbeliever cannot know God (1 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Corinthians 4:4, Ephesians 4:18, Romans 8:7; Romans 3:9) but he/she is held accountable for their sin though. We are so in love with sin so we can’t choose God. However that is not an excuse and since God is a just and holy God, he cannot tolerate sin. We have a bondage to sin but we are still held responsible to repent. God has to hold everyone accountable because He is just and holy so it would be outside of His character not to judge us.
Now this might seem confusing as in it seems like man has no say in the matter. However, John Piper gives a very helpful example. Hopefully this will clarify this topic. Say you are physically chained to a chair. I command you to get up and you really want to get up. You keep trying but you are unable to. If I punish you from not getting up, that would be grossly unjust. But let’s say you are sitting in a comfy, warm massage chair that feels absolutely wonderful. I ask you to stand up and you say, “I don’t want to stand up” since you love sitting in the chair so much that it rises to a moral inability. We are the problem. When you say respond to the gospel “freely” we are able to respond (as in the comfy chair) but we don’t because of our sinful nature. The Bible commands us to repent and believe but it doesn’t say that we are unable to (Acts 17:30). A command kind of implies a moral ability in that this is what a man should do.
The Bible commands us to repent because God is a righteous and holy God (1 Peter 1:16). Although man doesn’t obey God, it is not because of God but it is our own refusal to obey God (total inability). Since the beginning, man despised and hated God’s commands and chose evil and sin instead. Man has his own his own willful disobedience and God made us capable of doing good (nonbelievers do have common grace and a moral conscience). God commands us to repent of our sin and put our faith in Christ because it is for our own good and out of His holy character!
I would recommend Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J.I. Packer, and Easy Chairs, Hard Words by Douglass Wilson.
This is a heavy topic and we will never fully understand God’s Sovereignty with our limited human minds in this life. However we can trust in the sovereignty of God and His faithfulness to save all of His elect in whatever manner He so pleases and chooses.
John MacArthur on limited atonement and why Calvinists should witness.