Andrew Fuller on Natural vs. Moral Ability

Order of Contents

Introduction
Fuller Answers Objections
Articles

 

 

Introduction to Fuller on Natural and Moral Inability, by Travis Fentiman

The reformed baptists that arose in England in the 1600’s, like their puritan brothers, were strong on the Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel, as evidenced in John Bunyan, Vavasor Powell and the 1689 Baptist London Confession of Faith (ch. 7.2, 10.2), amongst many others.  However as the 1700’s progressed, the chilling winds of hyper-calvinism crept in.

Andrew Fuller, within a year and a half of being baptized as an adult and becoming a member of the local particular baptist church in 1770, went through a poignant experience that would set him searching and eventually bring him out of hyper-calvinism.  Fuller writes:

“One of the [church] members having been guilty of drinking to excess, I was one of the first who knew of it.  I immediately went and talked to him, as well as I could, on the evil of his conduct.  His answer was, he could not keep himself; and that though I bore so hard on him, I was not my own keeper.  At this I felt indignant, considering it as a base excuse.  I therefore told him that he could keep himself from such sins as these, and that his way of talking was merely to excuse what was inexcusable.  He, however, was offended, and told me that I was young and did not know the deceitfulness of my own heart. 

Well, I went and told my pastor, who highly commended me, and said, we certainly could keep ourselves from open sins.  We had not power, he observed, to do things spiritually good; but as to outward acts, we had power to obey the will of God and to disobey it.” ¹

T.E. Watson narrates:

“This set the whole church debating the question of ability and accountability.  Since most did not agree with their pastor’s explanation, they subsequently called upon him to resign.  As for Fuller, the more he thought the more puzzled he became.  He [Fuller] writes,

‘I perceived that some kind of power was necessary to render us accountable beings.  If we were like stocks and stones, or literally dead, like men in a burying-ground, we could with no more propriety than they be commanded to perform any duty; if we were mere machines, there could be no sin chargeable upon us… I prayed much, and labored hard to solve this difficulty.'” ¹

¹ Watson, T.E., ‘Andrew Fuller’s Conflict with Hypercalvinism’, 1959, in Puritan Papers, vol. 1, 1956-1959  Buy  edited by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2000, p. 276-281

In the following years Fuller came to see the heart of the issue.  Do all unconverted persons who hear the Gospel (including the reprobate) have an obligation or duty to savingly believe the Gospel?  The hyper-calvinists denied it.  Fuller wrote down his thoughts for his own private use.  Later at the request of friends, only hesitantly, did Fuller publish his work in 1784 proving the affirmative from scripture, entitled The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation or, the Duty of Sinners to Believe in Jesus Christ  Buy  See here for a 5 page summary of Fuller’s book.

 

 

 

Answers to Objections to Natural Ability

Andrew Fuller, ‘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, Banner of Truth one volume edition, 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. 8:43]  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.

 

 

Articles

‘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, vol. 1, 1833, Boston, p. 404-7

‘On Moral Inability’ 1841, 7 paragraphs, from his ‘Answers to Queries’ in his Works, 1833, Boston, vol. 2, pp. 860-1

Exposition of Passages Apparently Contradictory, on John 5:40 and John 6:44, 1841, 11 paragraphs, in his Works, vol. 2, 1833, Boston, pp. 158-160

“A Reply to the Observations of Philanthropos,” in The Works of Andrew Fuller (Philadelphia: Printed by Anderson and Meehan, for William Collier, 1820), 1:263-283

 

 

 

Related Pages

Natural vs. Moral Inability

Total Depravity