A.A. Hodge on Jonathan Edward’s Definition of Natural & Moral Ability
A.A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, 1860, expanded 1879, reprinted 1979, Zondervan, p. 341, referencing Pt. 1, Section 4 of Edwards’ The Freedom of the Will
…men since the fall have natural ability to do all that is required of them, but are destitute of moral ability to do so. By natural ability he [Edwards] meant the possession by every responsible free agent, as the condition of his responsibility, of all the constitutional faculties necessary to enable him to obey God’s law. By moral ability he meant that inherent moral state of those faculties, that righteous disposition of heart, requisite to the performance of those duties.
Introduction – Travis Fentiman
People choose what cereal to eat everyday. It is in their physical and spiritual capacity to pour the cereal out of the box, pour milk on it and eat it. People trust friends, the media, doctors, books, and everything else everyday, as it is in their capacity as a rational, volitional soul to do so.
But when they are told by God’s Word to trust Jesus Christ to save them from their sins, all of a sudden people won’t do it. God doesn’t command them to push a 10,000 pound boulder up a mountain to be saved (which we have no capacity to do), just to trust what He says.
They have the facultative capacity to trust, they choose to trust all sorts of other persons and things, but they don’t want to trust Jesus. They would have to admit that they are sinful, are deserving of eternal punishment, they would have to believe things that are not popular, they would be taking a risk in casting themselves upon One largely unknown to them, and ultimately, they simply really do not like God and want to live as they please their own way (Jn. 3:19-20).
They have the natural capacity to believe (as they do anything else), but mysteriously, they will not, unless their natural faculties are morally renewed by the Holy Spirit to love and desire Christ.
Scriptures that evidence this distinction between natural and moral ability are below. For the best short treatments of this distinction from scripture and general revelation, see Isaac Watts and Thomas Scott below. For a compelling short story on why this distinction is so practically vital, see the Introduction to Andrew Fuller on Natural Ability.
For the ablest, most balanced and careful articulation of this distinction, see John Owen’s treatment. Sometimes those who are skeptical of the Natural vs. Moral Ability distinction are so because they do not believe it gives enough credence to the noetic effects of sin (the disabling effects of sin upon the mind), as argued in Charles Hodge’s critique. John Owen, however, the “Prince of the Puritans”, recognized the full weight of the noetic effects of sin (that it consists in a moral ‘deprivation of the light and power’ of the faculties) while still maintaining, in a different sense, that man has by his creaturely nature a natural, facultative capacity to receive spiritual things. While man has a full facultative capacity to do all that God requires of him, according to Owen, he has no active moral power to do the spiritual things that God requires of him.
Charles Hodge, as some others, also argues that man has both a moral and a natural inability to do spiritual good. Andrew Fuller, however, shows below that this position is untenable as Moral Inability is incompatible with Natural Inability. He answers a few other objections as well. For a further defense of the Natural vs. Moral Ability distinction, see Fentiman’s response to William Cunningham’s observations in the ‘More Quotes’ section below.
Several dozen historic reformed quotes on the distinction follow below. Not all of the writers below agree on all points related to the topic (and should be read in light of their larger theological context), but they all make very helpful insights respecting man’s natural and moral ability.
Gen. 37:4; Ex. 5:6-16; Dt. 30:11-15; Josh. 24:19; Lk. 11:5-8; Lk. 14:16-20; Jn. 3:19-20; 5:40; 6:44; Rom. 10:6-9; 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Pet. 2:14
Andrew Fuller Answers Objections
‘On the Inability of Sinners to Believe in Christ, and Do Things Spiritually Good’, 1781, 10 paragraphs, from Part 3, ‘Objections Answered’, of his The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, in Works, p. 172-3
Some writers, as has been already observed, have allowed that sinners are the subjects of an inability which arises from the depravity; but they still contend that this is not all, but that they are both naturally and morally unable to believe in Christ; and this they think agreeable to the Scriptures, which represent them as both unable and unwilling to come to Him for life. But these two kinds of inability cannot consist with each other, so as both to exist in the same subject and towards the same thing. A moral inability supposes a natural ability. He who never, in any state, was possessed of the power of seeing, cannot be said to shut his eyes against the light. If the Jews had not been possessed of natural powers equal to the knowledge of Christ’s doctrine, there had been no justice in that cutting question and answer, “Why do ye not understand my speech? Because ye cannot hear my word.” [Jn. 8:41] A total physical inability must, of necessity, supersede a moral one. To suppose, therefore, that the phrase, “No man can come to Me,” [Jn. 6:44] is meant to describe the former; and, “Ye will not come to Me that ye may have life,” [Jn. 5:40] the latter; is to suppose that our Savior taught what is self contradictory.
Some have supposed that, in attributing physical or natural power to men, we deny their natural depravity. Through the poverty of language, words are obliged to be used in different senses. When we speak of men as by nature depraved, we do not mean to convey the idea of sin being an essential part of human nature, or of the constitution of man: our meaning is that it is not a mere effect of education and example; but is, from his very birth, so interwoven through all his powers, so ingrained, as it were, in his very soul, as to grow up with him, and become natural to him.
On the other hand, when the term natural is used as opposed to moral, and applied to the powers of the soul, it is designed to express those faculties which are strictly a part of our nature as men, and which are necessary to our being accountable creatures. By confounding these ideas we may be always disputing, and bring nothing to an issue.
Some have alleged that ‘natural power is only sufficient to perform natural things, and that spiritual power is required to the performance of spiritual things.’ But this statement is far from accurate. Natural power is as necessary to the performance of spiritual as of natural things; we must possess the powers of men in order to perform the duties of good men. And as to spiritual power, or, which is the same thing, a right state of mind, it is not properly a faculty of the soul, but a quality which it possesses; and which, though it be essential to the actual performance of spiritual obedience, yet is not necessary to our being under obligation to perform it.
William Cunningham on the Reformers
Cunningham (1805-1861) was a professor of Historical Theology in the Free Church of Scotland. The reader is encouraged to read the whole of Cunningham’s discussion on ‘The Doctrine of the Will’ on pp. 568-613, as he had much more to say.
Historical Theology, vol. 1, p. 573-4
These, then, are the two points asserted in the statement of our [Westminster] Confession in regard to that natural liberty with which God has endued the will of man—viz.,  that there is nothing in the inherent structure of the natural power of volition itself, as it exists even in fallen man, and  that there is no external force or compulsion exerted upon him, which certainly deprives him of a capacity of doing good as well as of doing evil. If it be true, as it certainly is, that fallen and unrenewed men do always in point of fact will or choose what is evil, and never what is good, the cause of this is not to be traced to any natural incapacity in their will or power of volition to will or choose good as well as evil, nor to any external force or compulsion brought to bear upon them from any quarter; for this would be inconsistent with that natural liberty with which God originally endued the will of man, and which it still retains and must retain. It must be traced to something else.
The Reformers admitted all this, and in this sense would not have objected to the doctrine of the freedom of the will, though, as the phrase was then commonly used in a different sense as implying much more than this—as implying a doctrine which they believed to be unscriptural and dangerous—they generally thought it preferable to abstain from the use of the expression altogether, or to deny the freedom of the will, and to assert its actual bondage or servitude because of depravity, or as a consequence of the fall.
On the History of the Distinction
Alexander (1772-1851) was the first professor of old Princeton Seminary, and was very influential to the rise of reformed Christianity in America
See the whole of Alexander’s treatment of the distinction in his “The Inability of Sinners” from his ‘Theological Essays’.
Lyman Atwater 1813-1883, Atwater was an Old School Presbyterian
‘Witherspoon’s Theology’, The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, 1863, pp. 598-9
Holding the distinction of natural and moral ability and inability, decides nothing in this behalf, because these terms are used by different men in different senses. Some mean by natural ability, plenary [complete] ability, in the full Pelagian sense; others mean, a partial, or gracious; an Arminian, or Semi-Pelagian ability. The orthodox, however, use it, if at all, simply to denote the natural faculties of understanding, desire, and will, which are essential to moral agency and responsibility, and belong to man, as such, whether unfallen, fallen, or renewed by grace. So, by moral inability, the former class [of Pelagians and Arminians] mean merely an aversion or unwillingness which the sinner can remove by his own will. The old Calvinists mean by moral inability, that indeed which characterizes fallen man; but still that which is real, which the subject of it cannot, while the Almighty power of God can, remove.
A Collection of Quotes
15 writers, including quotes by Augustine, Twisse, Manton, Charnock, Edwards, Fuller, Haldane, Alexander, and Spring. Twisse ** was the moderator of the Westminster Assembly. Manton wrote the Letter to the Reader in front of many editions of the Westminster Standards. **
Order of More Quotes (38)
** – Denotes a Westminster divine
Dr. R. Muller on the Reformation and Puritan eras Benedict Pictet 1655–1724
Dr. R. Muller on John Calvin 1509-1564 Thomas Boston 1676-1732
Robert Rollock †1599 Isaac Watts 1674-1748
William Bucanus 1602 John Witherspoon 1723-1794
. Edward Griffin 1813
The Leiden Synopsis 1625 Andrew Fuller 1754-1815
Thomas Ford 1668 ** Thomas Scott 1747-1821
Joseph Truman 1631-1671 Edward Payson 1783–1827
. Asahel Nettleton 1845
George Swinnock 1627-1673 John Elias 1847
Stephen Charnock †1680 Ashbel Green 1762–1848
John Owen 1616-1683 John Brown of Edinburgh 1852
. William Cunningham 1805-1861
Samuel Clark 1683 William Engles 1797-1867
David Clarkson 1622–1686 John Laidlaw 1879
Dr. Richard Muller on Francis Turretin Lyman Atwater 1813-1883
Francis Turretin 1623-1687 A.A. Hodge 1823-1886
Richard Baxter 1615-1691 Alfred Edersheim 1825-1889
Peter van Mastricht 1698
William Bates 1625-1699 John Girardeau 1825–1898
John Howe 1630-1705 B.B. Warfield 1851-1921
Matthew Henry 1622-1714 John Murray 1898-1975
Richard Muller on the Reformation and Puritan Eras, Muller is one of the preeminent reformed historians of the reformation and puritan eras in the world.
Christ and the Decree
This issue [of a deterministic system] for all the theologians noted in this essay [Calvin, Bullinger, Musculus, Vermigli, Beza, Ursinus, Zanchi, Polanus & Perkins] is the establishment of the divine will in Christ as the ground and foundation of our salvation—what might be called a soteriological determinism: as J.K.S. Reid remarked of Calvin’s doctrine, predestination belongs to a different order of being from our willing and therefore does not interfere with human responsibility.¹
¹ Cf. Reid’s introduction to Calvin’s Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, p. 26.
Rather than philosophical determinism, we encounter in these thinkers, on the side of providence and the overarching divine causality, a Scotist [from John Duns Scotist] conception of panergism or a standard scholastic conception of the concurrence of divine and human willing, without any sense of a determinism or necessity inherent in the will itself or in the order of being of which man is a part. Predestination stands, simply, as the guarantee of divine sovereignty in the work of salvation; indeed, as the guarantee of the efficacy of Christ’s work. In this doctrinal assumption there is continuity from Calvin’s time onward into the early orthodox codification.
Thus in Polanus’ Syntagma, and even in a high orthodox system like Turretin’s Institutio theologicae elencticae, where a fully developed doctrine of God and his attributes with all the scholastic and philosophical language of essence and being appears prior to treatment of predestination, the determining factor in the system is not a speculative interest in the metaphysics of causal determination but a soteriological interest in the manner in which God relates to his world in Christ.²
² Cf. Turretin, Institutio, I.v.4.
This is indeed a deterministic system, but as with Calvin, the stress is upon hope in Christ and the utterly free grace of the transcendent God in making possible the salvation of believers; and the divine determination, lodged in another order of being, does not infringe upon the freedom or contingency of events in this, the order of finite being.
Richard Muller on John Calvin
Richard A. Muller, “Reception and Response: Referencing and Understanding Calvin in Seventeenth-Century Calvinism,” in Calvin and His Influence, 1509-2009, ed. by Irena Backus and Philip Benedict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 189. This quote was compiled by Tony Byrne.
Calvin is similarly defended on the issue of free choice by various others, including the St. Andrews and Aberdeen University metaphysician Robert Baron (1593-1639). In the particular case of free choice of the will, Calvin’s rather hyperbolic language of the bondage of the will and its inability to do any good (quite in parallel with Luther’s De servo arbitrio [Bondage of the Will]) had to be argued as referring to the specific case of the fallen will in its inability to choose a saving good rather than, as one might read Calvin’s unqualified language, as a full doctrine of free choice. Baron pointed out, against Ballarmine, that the issue in debate was not the human power of free choice in natura sua considerato [considered in its nature], which all human beings can exercise, but rather the limitation of free choice in fallen humanity and the issue of free choice in the instant of conversion.
Robert Rollock †1599
William Bucanus 1602
Institutes of Theology, 1602, XVIII, 4, as quoted in Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 362. Bucanus’s Institutes was one of the first reformed systematic theologies.
What then is your opinion of liberum arbitrium [free will] in the state of man before conversion? That it is thoroughly bad. The soul, it is true, with its faculties of knowledge (intellectus) and will has remained intact as an essence. But the powers of these faculties for spiritual good have been completely lost…
The Leiden Synopsis 1625
Disputation 17, ‘On Free Choice’, p. 417
18. Then again, in man’s corrupt state, or in man as born only naturally and bound up by original sin, although he had not lost the intellect in his intelligence (despite being corrupted entirely) nor the natural freedom¹ of choice in his will, he retained his natural faculties (along with the physical substance of his soul) which form the principle of his actions, and he retained the remote and passive ability to undertake the opposite. Nevertheless, he lost the righteousness and goodness in both his intellect and his will; indeed, he took on the opposite, sinful inclination.
¹ [‘natural freedom is defined in Disp. 17.12 as: “a human wills (and does everything that he wills and chooses to do) not out of natural necessity; nor does he will and do anything coerced by external force or against his will, unwillingly. For nature, violence and the necessity of compulsion are opposed to the will.”]
19. And so by the proximate and active capability, instigated by the devil (who has power and dominion over it) free choice is drawn no longer towards the good that is truly good, but only towards the evil that only appears good (although a choice remains between the sorts and degrees of evil); with respect to the nearest principle it is necessarily carried off freely, willingly, and of its own accord. For he chooses evil and rejects the good.
Disputation 30, ‘On the Calling of People to Salvation’ in vol. 2 (Brill, 2016), thesis 18, pp. 213-4
“Those who in contradistinction ascribe to corrupt human nature some aptitude for responding to God and his calling, confuse things that must be kept apart, namely the human subject of the aptitude and the mode of the aptitude.† Regarding the former, human beings, endowed with reason and logically classified as opposite to dumb animals, are rightly said to be capable of listening to God when He calls them. However, regarding the latter, we affirm that the same people are entirely unsuited to listening to God as He calls.
For the mode of the aptitude or the ability that sinners have to listen to God when He calls does not come from the blinded eyes of their own minds… but God here bestows it on those people to whom He gives ears to hear…
† [Editor: The distinction expresses that in principle human beings are able to respond, because they are creatures with a will and intellect, but they are not able to respond due to the consequences of sin. A simple comparison is that in principle all people are able to play the piano, but only those who have learned to play it have the right mode of the aptitude.]”
Thomas Ford 1668 **
Joseph Truman 1675
A Discourse of Natural and Moral Impotency, 1675, see the Table of Contents
The Incomparableness of God, in his Works, 4:493-497, Banner of Truth edition
2. Consider upon what terms you may have this God for your God…
You give more for your bread, your clothes, your house, for the needful comforts that are for the support of your frail body, than you need give for the great, glorious, incomprehensible, incomparable God. You pay money for them, but you may have Him without money and without price. One would think that the equity of the condition should both amaze you and allure you. Consider, I say, God does not require of you things impossible to you; He does not say, If you will remove mountains, dry up oceans, stop the course of nature, create worlds, I will then be yours, as great as I am; He does not say, If you will satisfy my justice, answer the demands of my law, merit my love and favor, then I will be your God. No; He Himself has done all this for you by the death of his Son; all He desires is, that you would accept Him in his Son for your God. Nay, He does not require of you anything that is barbarous or cruel, as the heathen deities did, by the devil, of their worshippers. He does not say, If you will lance and mangle your bodies, as Baal’s priests did; if you will go barefoot in sackcloth long and tedious pilgrimages, as the papists do; if you will offer your children in the fire, and give the fruit of your bodies for the sins of your souls, as some did, then I will be your God. Again, He does not require of you things that are chargeable, to offer the best and chief of your flock daily in the sacrifice to Him; nor, as He once did of the young man, to sell all that you have, and give it to the poor; nor, as idolators, to lay down such a part of your estate for your portion; but He only requires that you would take the Lord for your God; and will you not do it? Can you deny Him and your poor soul so reasonable, so equitable a request? As the servant said to Nama, ‘If the prophet had commanded you some great thing, would not you have done it? how much more then when He only says, Wash, and be clean?’ So say I to you; if God had commanded the greatest things imaginable, would you not to your power have done them, that you might enjoy the blessed God for your eternal portion? how much more then when He only says, ‘Thou shalt have no other God before me’? O reader, do but observe that first command, which contains the sum both of your duty and felicity, and you are made, you are a blessed man for ever. Take the true God in Jesus Christ for your God, prize Him as your God, love Him as your God, honor Him as your God, and obey Him as your God, and He will be your God forever. Do but as much for the true God as the covetous man does for his wealth, which is his god, as the intemperate man for his belly, which is his god; they give their highest esteem, their choicest affections, and their greatest service to that which they take for their god. And surely the true God is more worthy hereof, and will requite you best for them.
Stephen Charnock †1680
John Owen 1616-1683
Samuel Clark 1683
Annotations on the New Testament
On Rom. 10:6
But now the nature of Gospel-righteousness is not to put us upon anything that is impossible for us to do, but only to believe and confess, v. 9.
Don’t entertain such vile thoughts, as if God required anything of you in order to your Justification, that you could not perform, though never so desirous to do it.
On Rom. 10:8
No impossible thing, but that which may be done with ease (Matt 11:30) through the assistance of grace (which God by Moses promises there, v. 6).
David Clarkson 1622–1686
Clarkson was the colleague and pulpit successor of John Owen. Clarkson’s distinction that you will find below, that man has a natural capacity to do all that God requires of him, but no active moral power to do such, you will also find in John Owen.
‘Man’s Insufficiency to do Anything of Himself’, on John 15:5, in The Works of David Clarkson, vol. 2, p. 128-9
Free will, in the sense of those [errorists] who maintain it, is [said to be] a power in the will to incline either way, when that which is supernatural and saving is offered as its object; a power and freedom in the will to choose or refuse, to yield or resist, to embrace or reject, as it list. So that this with them is twofold:
2. To choose, or embrace. The will, they [errorists] say, can incline to that which is spiritually and supernaturally good. They speak not of a capacity, which is not denied, but of an active power. A natural man, by the power of his will, as he can reject Christ, so he can embrace Him; as he can resist converting grace, so he can yield to it as he will; the will can incline itself to this as well as to the other. This is a true representation of their opinion in the other branch of it. Against which we say…
Richard Muller on Francis Turretin
“Recovering the Past for Use in the Present: Richard Muller”, an interview of Richard Muller by R. Scott Clark, 7:39-8:26. This quote was compiled by Tony Byrne. He says, ‘See also Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in Early Modern Reformed Theology, eds. Willem J. van Asselt, J. Martin Bac, and Roelf T. te Velde (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010). They cover the positions of Zanchi, Junius, Voetius and Turretin.’
If you read Francis Turretin’s Institutes of [Elenctic] Theology at the beginning of each topic, he has a state of the question. What are we actually discussing here. A good example is when you ask the question, “Do human beings have free choice?” Turretin will say we are not discussing the question of whether human beings have free choice in every day matters. There’s no debate. They do. We’re not discussing the question of whether human beings have free choice to obey the law on a daily basis, the civil law or moral law. We all agree, they do. What we are debating is the specific question, “Do human beings have free choice in matters of salvation, matters of being righteous before God. And the answer we have is, no they don’t. We disagree with Rome and Arminians and the like on that point.
Note that Turretin’s affirmation that the scripture’s language of natural men being ‘dead’ and ‘blind’ is metaphorical and not literal was later also affirmed by Isaac Watt’s below.
Institutes, Tenth Topic, ‘The Free Will of Man in a State of Sin’, Question 2. The reader is encouraged to see Turretin’s numerous discussions relating to the related issues throughout his Institutes, as he has a lot more to say.
V. There are two principal characteristics of free will in which its formal nature consists: (1) the choice, so that what is done is done by a previous judgment of reason; (2) the willingness, so that what is done is done voluntarily and without compulsion. The former belongs to the intellect; the latter belongs to the will. Two species of necessity also contend [are in opposition] with it. The first is physical and brute necessity; the other the necessity of coaction. The former takes away the choice; the latter, however, the willingness. For the things done from a physical necessity by natural agents determined to one thing by nature and without reason, cannot be done freely, i.e. with the previous light of reason. And the things done by force and compulsion cannot be done voluntarily. There is no controversy about these between us and our opponents.
VIII. Third, as to moral necessity arising from habits. For as the will can be called “free” if it is devoid of habit, so it can rightly be called “slavish” if by habit it has been determined to a certain manner of acting. Still this servitude by no means overthrows the true and essential nature of liberty. Otherwise it would follow that habits destroy the will (which they rather perfect and facilitate to operation). Hence moral habits are twofold: good and evil. A two fold servitude also is thence born: the one of righteousness in good; the other of sin in evil and misery. This belongs to man in a state of sin, of which John says, “Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin” (8:34); and “Ye were the servants of sin” (Rom. 6:17)…
IX. Hence it is evident that the adversaries falsely charge our men with saying the will is a slave in the state of sin, as if its liberty were destroyed by that very thing. Scripture beforehand so calls it and indeed with a twofold limitation: (1) that “servant” should be understood not absolutely and physically, but relatively, after the fall in a state of sin; (2) not simply about every natural, civil, or externally moral object, but especially about a spiritual object good per se (in which manner inability to good is more strongly asserted, but the essence of liberty is not destroyed). Although the sinner is so enslaved by evil that he cannot but sin, still he does not cease to sin most freely and with the highest liberty.
Richard Baxter 1615-1691
The Arrogancy of Reason Against Divine Revelations, Repressed. Or, Proud Ignorance the Cause of Infidelity, and of Men’s Quarrelling with the Word of God, 1655, London, 21-24. HT: Tony Byrne.
4. Another expression of this arrogant ignorance is, when men will not believe the several truths of God, because they are not able to reconcile them, and place each one in its own order, and see the method and body of truth in its true locations and proportion: Nay, perhaps they will believe none, because they cannot discern the harmony.
…These self-conceited ignorant souls, do imagine all to be impossible which exceeds their knowledge; and because they cannot see[?] the sweet consent of Scripture, and how those places do suit, and fortify each other, which to them seemed to contradict each other, therefore they think that no one else can see it; no not God Himself…
And upon this account many cast away particular truths, though they will not cast away all. Some cannot reconcile the efficiency of the Spirit, with that of the Word, in the Conversion and Confirmation of sinners; and therefore some exclude one, and some the other, or own by the empty names; some cannot reconcile the Law, and the Gospel: And too great a part of the teachers, in the Christian world, have been so troubled to reconcile God’s grace, with man’s free-will, that of old, many did too much exclude the natural liberty of the will, upon a supposition of the inconsistency; only the names of both were still owned.
The Reduction of a Digressor, 1654, p. 131.
3. I easily acknowledge that grace gives such a power as is commonly called Moral, distinct from the natural faculties, as our corrupt estate contains an opposite impotency. But this is but an applying of the terms [‘can’] and [‘cannot’] [‘power’] and [‘impotency’] to dispositions and undisposedness, to habits and their privations.
4. A new heart and spirit, I easily confess necessary. But those words do commonly signify in Scripture, only new inclinations, dispositions, qualifications. It is a new heart, though only the old faculties and substance. I hope you will not follow Illyricus.¹
¹ [Matthias Illyricus (1520–1575), a Lutheran reformer. Wiki says, “Affirming the natural inability of man, he adopted a position on sin as not being an accident of human nature, but involved in its substance, since The Fall of Man.”]
5. Where you say that [without faith a man can no more receive Christ, nor do ought towards it, than a dead man can walk or speak.], I Reply
1. That proves not faith to be equivalent to a potentia vel facultas [power or capacity], any otherwise than that it is of as absolute necessity, but not that it is of the same nature. If you show an illiterate man a Greek or Hebrew book, he can no more read in it then a dead man, that is, both are truly in sensu composito [in a combined sense] impossible: But yet it is but a habit that is wanting to one, and a power or faculty natural, to the other. And so it may truly be said that a sinner cannot do well that has accustomed to do evil, no more than a leopard can change his spots, or a blackmoore [a black person] his skin. Yet if you mean that such are equally distant from actual change as a dead man, it is but a dead comparison. A dead man wants both natural faculties, and an inclination or moral power. An unbeliever wants but one.
Peter van Mastricht
Theoretical-Practical Theology (RHB), vol. 3, bk. 4
ch. 3, ‘Actual Sin’, section 21
“(6) That the law does not obligate to what is impossible. I respond, It does not obligate to what is impossible simpliciter, simply, by nature, to man as he is a man, apart from his fault, such as, for example, flying, but it obligates to what is impossible secundum quid [according to which], relatively, by man’s own contumacy, to man as he is a sinner (Rom. 8:3).”
ch. 4, ‘The Penalty & State of Sin’, section 9
“Nevertheless, it [death as a penalty] is not just any impotence, but a spiritual impotence. For in spiritual death, man retains his natural power of understanding, willing, and operating, though he becomes devoid of spiritual power. Furthermore, it is a spiritual impotence not for every kind of good, natural, civil, and moral, but for spiritual and saving good, good that accompanies salvation (Heb. 6:9), at least that he might do it spiritually (1 Cor. 2:14).”
William Bates 1625-1699
John Howe 1630-1705
(2) To evince to you the greatness and horridness of that sin [of not delighting in God]. Suffer yourselves therefore to be reasoned with to this purpose; and consider, first, that you have somewhat of delectation in your natures, that is, you have the power naturally inherent in you of taking delight in one thing or other… Therefore herein an act is not enjoined you which is incompetent to your natures, or simply impossible to you…
…Yea, when you look into your disaffected hearts and find that you not only do not delight in God, but you cannot, and not for the want of the natural power, but a right inclination, should you not with astonishment bethink yourselves, every one for himself, ‘What is this that has befallen me? I am convinced this is the best good, every way most worthy of my highest delight and love, and yet my heart savors it not!’
Matthew Henry 1622-1714
Benedict Pictet 1655–1724
Pictet was a professor at Geneva after Francis Turretin.
Christian Theology, Book 5, Section 10, Part 12, p. 200
Impotence of the sinner does not excuse him in sinning, since it is not involuntary and merely physical, arising from a defect of natural power, but voluntary and moral, arising from a depraved nature.
Thomas Boston 1676-1732
Isaac Watts 1674-1748
Note that Watt’s affirmation that the scripture’s language of natural men being ‘dead’ and ‘blind’ is metaphorical and not literal, is also affirmed by Francis Turretin above.
The Ruin and Recovery of Mankind, 1740, London, pp. 247-254. HT: Tony Byrne
Answer. It is granted, that no sinner will truly and sincerely repent and believe in Christ, without the powerful and effectual Influences of converting grace; and therefore they are called ‘blind’ and ‘dead’ in sin, because God knows the final event will be the same as if they were under a natural impossibility, or utter natural impotence. And for this reason the conversion of a sinner is called, ‘a new creation’; ‘being born again’; ‘giving sight to the blind’; or, a ‘resurrection from the dead’: And the necessity of divine power to effect this change, is held forth in many places of scripture.
Yet we must say still, that sinners are not under such a real natural impossibility of repenting and believing, as though they were naturally blind or dead. ‘Tis true, the blind and the dead have lost their natural powers of seeing and moving; but when Scripture represents the inability of sinners to repent, or believe in Christ, by such figures and metaphors as death or blindness, it must be remembered these are but metaphors and figures, such as the holy writers and all the Eastern nations frequently use; and they must not be understood in their literal sense, as if men had lost their natural powers or faculties of understanding, will, and affections, which are the only natural powers necessary to believe and repent.
Now ’tis plain that these natural faculties, powers, or capacities, are not lost by the Fall; for if they were, there would be no manner of need or use of any moral means or motives, such as commands, threatenings, promises, exhortations; these would all be impertinent and absurd, for they could have no more influence on sinners, than if we command or exhort a blind person to see, or a dead body to rise or move; which commands and exhortations would appear ridiculous and useless. And since the blessed God, in his Word, uses these moral means and motives to call sinners to repentance and faith, it is certain that they have natural powers and faculties sufficient to understand and practice these duties; and therefore they are not under a necessity of sinning, and of being destroyed, since there is nothing more wanted [lacking] in a way of sufficient natural powers, faculties, or abilities, than what they have.
All the other impotence and inability therefore in sinners to repent and believe, properly speaking, is but moral, or seated chiefly in their wills. ‘Tis a great disinclination or aversion in these natural faculties, to attend to, learn, or practice the things of God and religion*; and this holds them fast in their sinful state in a similar way, as if they were blind and dead, and I said the final event will be the same, i.e. they will never repent without almighty grace.
* I grant this inability to repent has been sometimes called by our divines a natural impotence, because it arises from the original corruption of our nature since the Fall of Adam; and in this sense I fully believe it. But this spring of it is much better signified and expressed by the name of native impotence, to show that it comes from our birth; and the quality of this impotence is best called moral, being seated chiefly in the will and affections, and not in any want of natural powers or faculties to perform what God requires: And the reason is plain, (viz.) That no new natural powers are given by converting grace, but only a change of the moral bent or inclination of the soul, a happier turn given to our natural faculties by the sovereign grace of God and his Spirit.
And upon this account that strong and settled inclination to sin, and aversion to God, which is in the will or affections, is represented in our own language, as well as in the Eastern countries, by impotence or inability to forsake or subdue sin: As when a drunkard shall say, I had such a strong desire to the liquor, that I could not but drink to excess, I could not withhold the cup from my mouth: Or when a murderer shall say, I hated my neighbor so much, that having a fair opportunity, I could not help killing him: Or when we say to a man of fury in his passion, You are so warm at present, that you cannot see things in a true light, you cannot hearken to reason, you cannot judge aright, you are not capable of acting regularly.
And that this is the manner of speaking in the Eastern countries, is evident from the Bible, Gen. 37:4. Joseph’s brethren hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him: Yet you will grant all this is but moral impotence, i.e. a very strong inclination to excess of drink, or murder, or passion, or a strong aversion to the contrary virtues. Even in the things of common life the ‘cannot’ sometimes signifies nothing but the ‘will not’, Luke 11:7. ‘Trouble me not, my door is shut, my children are with me in bed, I cannot rise to give thee’; i.e. I will not. And with regard to faith or believing in Christ, our Savior explains his own Language in this manner. In one place He says, ‘No man can come unto Me except my Father draw him,’ John 6:44. And in another place He charges the Jews with this as their fault: ‘Ye will not come unto Me, that ye may have life,’ John 5:40. So in the parable one excuse is, Luke 14:20, ‘I have married a wife, and I cannot come.’ All these citations intend the same thing: their cannot is their will not, i.e. ’tis the strength of their aversion to Christ, which is a moral impotence or inability to believe in Him, and the fault lies in the will.
St. Paul speaks to the same purpose, Rom. 8:7, where he shows, that ’tis the aversion or enmity of the carnal mind to God, which hinders it from obeying the Law of God, and at last he says, ‘it cannot be subject to it.’ The carnal mind is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the Law of God, neither indeed can be: ‘So then they who are in the flesh cannot please God.’ The fault still lies in the will of sinful man; and ’tis this makes it criminal, while it is not naturally impossible to be avoided or overcome.
And upon this account God is pleased to use moral means and motives, (viz.) promises, threatenings, commands, etc. toward all men, such as are suited to awaken their hearts, and excite and persuade their will to use all their natural abilities, to set their natural powers or faculties to work, to attend to, and learn, and practice faith and repentance; and ’tis by these very means God persuades his elect powerfully to repent and believe. But when persons will not hear, nor be influenced by these motives, because of their strong and willful aversion to God and godliness, their crime is entirely their own, and their condemnation is just. They have natural powers or faculties in them, which, if well tried, might overcome their native propensity to vice, though they never will do it.
If the great God, in a way of sovereign mercy, gives some persons superior aids of grace to overcome this moral impotence, and conquer this aversion to God and goodness‡; if He effectually leads, inclines, or persuades them by his Spirit to repent and believe in Christ, this does not at all hinder the others from exercising their natural powers of understanding, and will in believing and repenting.
‡ Whether the Spirit of God effectually persuade the will to repent and believe in Christ, by immediate Influence upon the will itself, or by setting the things of the Gospel before the mind in so strong a light, and persuading the soul so to attend to them, as shall effectually influence the will, this shall not be any matter of my present debate or determination; for in both the event and consequences are much the same: There is no new natural power or faculty given to the soul in order to faith and repentance, but a divine influence upon the old natural powers, giving them a new and better turn.
Nor can anything of their guilt and willful impenitence be imputed to the blessed God, who is Lord of his own favors, and gives or withholds where He pleases, and who shall say to Him, what dost thou? Why should mine eye be evil toward my neighbor, because the eye of God is good? Or what pretense have I to charge God with injustice, when He does more for me than He is bound to do, though He does more for my neighbor than He has done for me?
Let this then be constantly maintained, there is a natural, inward sufficiency of powers and faculties given to every sinner to hearken to the calls and offers of grace and the gospel, though they lie under a moral impotence; and there is an outward sufficiency of provision of pardon in the death of Christ, for everyone who repents and accepts the gospel, though pardon is not actually procured for all men, nor secured to them. And thus much is sufficient to maintain the sincerity of God in his universal offers of grace through Jesus Christ, and his present commands to all men to repent and trust in his mercy; as well as to vindicate his equity in the last great Day, when the impenitent and unbelievers shall be condemned. Their death lies at their own doors, for since there was both an outward and inward sufficiency for their recovery, the fault must lie in their own free-will, in their willful aversion to God and Christ, and his salvation. I think this distinction of natural and moral power and impotence, will reconcile all the various expressions of Scripture on this subject, both to one another, and well as to the reason of things, which can hardly be reconciled any other way.
John Witherspoon 1723-1794
‘The Plea of Inability Considered’ on Mt. 25:24-27 1813 25 pp. in A Series of Lectures Delivered in Park Street Church, Boston, on Sabbath Evening, pp. 245-270
Compare also Griffin’s lecture on Total Depravity.
Andrew Fuller 1754-1815
Andrew Fuller grew up in hyper-calvinist circles where it was denied that man has any ability to do what God says, in any sense of the word. The practical effects of such error is extremely detrimental. But by God’s grace, Fuller saw the error, came to grips with it, and since has spoken more to the issue than just about anyone else in church history.
Thomas Scott 1747-1821
Edward Payson 1783–1827
‘Select Thoughts’, in The Complete Works of Edward Payson, vol. 1, p. 488
The Sinner’s Unwillingness to go to Christ
Suppose an apparently strong and healthy man should apply to you for relief, and, when asked why he did not labor for his subsistence, should reply, Because I can find no one to employ me. If you wished to know whether this or indolence were the true reason, you would offer him employment; and if he then refused to labor, you would feel satisfied that he was slothful and undeserving of your charity. So, when God puts into the hands of sinners a price to get wisdom, and they do not improve it, it becomes evident that they do not wish, that they are not willing, to become religious.
John Elias 1774-1841
Elias was a Welsh, Calvinist, Methodist preacher.
‘On the Moral Inability of Man’, in John Elias: Life, Letters, and Essays, 1847, reprinted 1973, Banner of Truth
The moral inability is not less because there is no want [lack] of natural ability, members, senses, or faculties in man. The need of a nature, principle, and disposition to act in a holy manner is as great an inability to it as if there was a want [lack] of members or faculties to operate in a natural manner. As the body cannot act without the soul, so the soul cannot do anything that is holy without the divine nature. 2 Peter 1:4. As the eye cannot behold any thing without the humor [transparent fluid in the eye], so the soul cannot act in a holy manner, though possessed of all the faculties, without a holy principle and disposition to do so. A spiritual life is as necessary to act in a holy manner, as natural life is for its actions…
We ought to take care, on the other hand, lest, by proving that it is not the lack of members, senses, or faculties that accounts for man’s inability to act in a spiritual manner, we should set forth that weakness as something small, and that man may remove it by some endeavor of his own…
Asahel Nettleton 1845
Ashbel Green 1762–1848
John Brown of Edinburgh 1852
Discourses and Sayings of our Lord, 1852, reprinted 1990, Banner of Truth, vol. 1, p. 459-60
And the change which is absolutely necessary, is a change which God alone can effect. It is by his drawing men that they are induced to come to Christ. By the “drawing” of the Father we are to understand, as is evident form the following verse, the influence of the Holy Spirit, and the cogency of divine truth, understood and believed. It is by being made to hear and learn of the Father, that men are drawn to Christ. It is because men do not understand and believe the truth, that they cannot come to the Savior, and depraved men never will understand and believe that truth, till the Spirit so fix their minds on its meaning and evidence, that they cannot help understanding and believing it, and when men understand and believe the truth, coming to the Savior follows as a matter of course—they can no longer help coming to Him; and when any man, whomsoever he be, Jew or Gentile, however guilty and depraved, drawn by the Father, by his word and Spirit, comes to the Son, our Savior declares that the final salvation of that person is secure. He is one of those who are given to him of the Father, and he shall not be lost, nothing of him shall be lost. He shall be ‘raised up at the last day.’
It is plain from this passage [John 6:44], that the inability of coming to Christ, under which men labor, is not physical, but moral. It does not originate at all in a want [lack] of those intellectual and active faculties which are necessary to come to Christ, but entirely in an indisposition arising out of willful ignorance, and the love of sin, and of the world. It is like the inability of Joseph’s brethren to speak peaceably to him [Gen. 37:4]. If men cannot come to Christ, it is just because they will not come to Him. They who under the gospel dispensation ‘are untaught of God,’ are so, because they refuse to learn of Him. The appropriate means of removing this kind of inability, is the statement of the truth and its evidence. This is all men can do. Divine influence is necessary, absolutely necessary, to fix the mind on the truth and its evidence, so as to produce faith, and the native consequences of that faith; and that influence never was, never will be, refused to him who honestly desires it. What would men have more? Would they have men left to themselves? Then all must perish. Would they have God to compel men to salvation? This would be to do violence to man’s nature, God’s work! Would they have men saved as they are—in sin? This were to require an impossibility, and to do violence at once to the constitution of man, and the nature of God, to disgrace the Divine character, and overturn the Divine throne. The sum of the whole matter is, no man perishes under the gospel dispensation, but in consequence of his own willful obstinacy: no man is saved, but in consequence of a divine influence originating in free sovereign mercy. Man is his own destroyer, God is man’s only Savior. If we perish, our damnation is entirely of ourselves. If we are saved, our salvation is entirely of God.
He [Jesus] plainly states that mankind, unchanged by divine influence, labor under such an indisposition to embrace his Gospel, and the blessings which it at once reveals and conveys, as amounts to a moral incapacity,—an indisposition which nothing short of divine influence can remove: ‘No man can come to Me, except the Father, which has sent Me, draw him;’ and with equal plainness He states that this influence, while absolutely necessary, is also fully competent to produce the desired effect,—‘All that the Father has given Me shall come to Me.’
William Cunningham 1805-1861 Cunningham was an eminent professor of the Free Church of Scotland. The material below is in addition to what is quoted at the top of the page.
Historical Theology, vol. 1, Ch. 20, The Doctrine of the Will, Section 3, Bondage of the Will—Objections, pp. 598-613
Travis Fentiman’s Summary: Cunningham admits of the distinction between natural and moral ability (as defined by Edwards), and says that it is ‘real’, but does not think that the distinction is a full solution to the ‘dilemma’ of the conjunction of man’s responsibility and moral inability to will spiritual good for two reasons (pp. 602-4):
(1) This distinction, while preserving man’s capability as a whole agent by his faculties to do external actions, leaves man’s inner will still incapable of doing spiritual good. And the question of inability is precisely that, not of the man as a whole to external actions, but of the will’s ability itself.
(2) While man’s lack of willing is the ‘proximate’ cause of his non-performance of spiritual things, it is not the ultimate cause (which is theological), and thus the distinction does not fully explain the difficulty. The real source of man’s inability to spiritual good lies in our union to Adam, our consequent original sin, native depravity and retained full responsibility. The resolution to these fundamental issues, while received by faith as taught in God’s Word, is inherently mysterious and is not forthcoming.
Travis Fentiman’s Response: In response to Cunningham’s observations, it should be noted that:
(1) Cunningham’s discussion of the distinction hinges on Edwards’ definition of it (given at the top of this webpage). Edward’s definition distinguishes between the ability of the outward man as a whole and the inability of his inner will. But this definition does not go deep enough into the distinction between natural ability and moral inability of the will itself, as does John Owen’s treatment of the topic. Thus, the natural ability vs. moral inability of the inner will itself, as defined by Owen, does sufficiently address Cunningham’s first concern.
(2) Cunningham’s second observation is legitimate and fully admitted, but the distinction between natural ability and moral inability does not claim to be a full (or the main) explanation of all the ultimate Biblical and theological factors involved, or a resolution of them, but only one component part that is both (i) an accurate description of the created, present nature of man as is really the case, and (ii) necessary to maintain both the justice of God’s holding man responsible to do his spiritual commands (including liability to punishment) and fallen man being completely, morally unable to do them.
William Engles 1797-1867
Engles was an Old School Presbyterian, edited The Presbyterian newspaper in Philadelphia and was elected to the board of directors of Princeton Seminary in 1842. The view of Engles is given in the answers of the Pastor below.
‘A Caution Against Prevailing Errors, Being a Conversation Between a Presbyterian and his Parishoner’, p. 23, being p. 25 of Presbyterian Tracts, vol. 2. The fuller title of the book this tract is contained in is: A Series of Tracts on the Doctrines, Order and Polity of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America Embracing Several on Practical Subjects, vol. 2. This series of tracts was printed by the Presbyterian Board of Publication and includes tracts in it by Archibald Alexander, William Symington, Samuel Miller, Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies and others.
Parishioner: Although I admit, sir, that man is depraved, yet I have been inclined to believe that he was not entirely disabled to do good. I have supposed that his moral and not his natural faculties were affected by the fall, and hence that his inability referred merely to the will, and was manifested in his indisposition to receive the gospel. And the reference of Scripture appears to be to this kind of inability, when it is said, “we are made willing in the day of God’s power,” [Ps. 110] and in that other passage “ye will not come unto Me that ye may have life.” [John 5] Do not these passages imply that a sinner possess a natural, but not a moral ability to believe, and that he can if he will repent?
Pastor: If the distinction between natural and moral ability contemplates no more than this, that in our natural condition, we possess all the faculties of mind, which a regenerated man employs in the service of God, I am ready to admit it. The same natural faculties characterize both the regenerate and the unregenerate, and the work of the Spirit on the mind does not increase the number of these faculties. But if the distinction implies that these natural faculties are not disabled by the fall, this I deny, as being contrary to fact.
John Laidlaw 1879
Laidlaw (1832–1906) was a Free Church of Scotland minister, professor and theologian that later joined the United Free Church of Scotland in 1900. His The Bible Doctrine of Man is a standard conservative work in the field.
Lyman Atwater 1813-1883
Atwater was an Old School Calvinist and demonstrates that John Witherspoon was as well.
A.A. Hodge 1823-1886
Outlines of Theology, 1860, expanded 1879, reprinted 1979, Zondervan, pp. 340-1.
5. In what sense is this inability absolute, and in what sense natural, and in what sense moral?
4th. It is not natural in another sense, because it does not result in the least from any constitutional deficiency in human nature as it now exists as to its rational and moral faculties of soul.
5th. This inability is purely moral, because while every responsible man possess all moral as well as intellectual faculties requisite for right action, the moral state of his faculties is such that right action is impossible. Its essence is in the inability of the soul to know, love, or choose spiritual good, and its ground exists in that moral corruption of soul whereby it is blind, insensible, and totally averse to all that is spiritually good.
[Webmaster’s note: While Hodge affirmed the distinction, he had serious objections to the phraseology of ‘natural ability’. His words are: ‘…there is no question as to the validity and importance of this distinction. The same principle is explicitly recognized in the statement of orthodox doctrine given above [by Hodge], Questions 4 and 5. Nevertheless we seriously object to the phraseology used’, by Jonathan Edwards and others, for the five reasons he lists on pp. 340-1.]
Alfred Edersheim 1825-1889
The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, complete and unabridged in one volume, Hendrickson, 1993, Book 3, Chapter 32, p. 497
The words: ‘No man can come to Me, except the Father which has sent Me draw him,’ [John 6:44] present only the converse aspect of those [words spoken] to the disciples: ‘All that which the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and him that comes to Me I will in no wise cast out.’ For, far from being a judgment on, it would have been an excuse of, Jewish unbelief, and, indeed, entirely discordant with all Christ’s teaching, if the inability to come were regarded as other than personal and moral, springing from man’s ignorance and opposition to spiritual things. No man can come to the Christ—such is the condition of the human mind and heart, that coming to Christ as a disciple is, not an outward, but an inward, not a physical, but a moral impossibility—except the Father ‘draw him’. And this, again, not in the sense of any constraint, but in that of the personal, moral, loving influence and revelation, to which Christ afterwards refers when He says: ‘And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Myself’ (John 12:32).
John Girardeau 1825–1898
B.B. Warfield 1851-1921
‘Inability and the Demand of Faith’ in Selected Shorter Writings, ed. John Meeter, Vol. 2, p. 725-6
One of the most difficult questions which the seeker after souls has to meet arises out of the doctrine of Inability. “What, then, must I do to be saved?” He cannot be put off, and he ought not to be put off, with a mere “You can do nothing.” This is not the Scripture answer…
Such a response [by the seeker] may doubtless be nothing more than a theoretical difficulty raised by the sinner as an excuse for not obeying the command of God. In such a case it is enough, in reply to it, to point out that at bottom it is a cavil. The command to believe is explicit. And the object of faith is most winningly presented to the mind and heart. Our obvious duty is to believe: and if we do not do so the responsibility rests upon us. That we cannot do so is the result and index of our sinfulness. Inability is a sinful condition of the will, and the sole reason why a man cannot believe is that he is so exceedingly sinful that such a one as he cannot use his will for believing. He cannot will to do it because he loves sin too much. For such a “cannot” he is certainly responsible.
1. Something may be done toward removing the difficulty by pointing out the nature of the puzzle into which the mind has fallen. The puzzle is a logical one, and concerns doctrine, not action; and it must not be permitted to stand as an obstacle to action. Regeneration is not a fact of experience [not self-consciously experienced], but an inference from experience; and inability is not a ground of quiescence [not acting], but an inference from quiescence [not acting]. It passes away in regeneration; and no one can know that it is gone save by the change in activity. We reason back from our experience and call in the doctrine of inability to explain our actual conduct, and that of regeneration to explain the gulf between our conduct of yesterday and today. But that gulf is revealed in consciousness only by action. No man can know, then, whether he is unable save [except] by striving to act.
We may point out, therefore, that the doctrine of inability does not affirm that we cannot believe, but only that we cannot believe in our own strength within us by which we may attain to belief. But this is far from asserting that on making the effort we shall find it impossible to believe. We may believe, in God’s strength…
John Murray 1898-1975
Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 2, Chapter 9, ‘Inability’, p. 83
Inability deals with the fact that our own depravity is humanly irremediable. Man is totally unable to change his character or act in a way that is different from it.
Negatively, it is not:
1. Metaphysical; it is not due to the loss or absence of any component element of our being, nor to any incompatibility between the component elements in our being, nor to any limitation belonging to our being as creatures.
2. It did not belong to man originally. We must distinguish between what man is unable to be, become, or do because of his finitude, and the moral inability arising from sin. In his original state man had plenary ability to fullfil all of God’s demands. To maintain otherwise would mean that sin was a necessity of the condition in which he was created. For all failure to meet the full demands of God is sin.
3. Inability does not mean the loss of natural liberty. This refers to free agency, namely, that man exercises volition according to his character. Inability presupposes liberty.
4. Inability does not deny the possibility of Justitia civilis, that is natural and social virtue.
Positively, inability means that in sin man is not only indisposed and made opposite to all good but that he is totally unable to be otherwise. It is inability to discern, love, or choose the things that are well pleasing to God. He cannot know them because they are spiritually discerned; he cannot love them because his mind is enmity against God; he cannot choose them because those in the flesh cannot please God. It is the [in Greek] ou dunatai (cannot) of the natural man.