Asahel Nettleton on Natural vs. Moral Ability


For Nettleton’s life, see Wiki.  For Nettleton’s calvinistic teaching on the sinner’s complete moral inability to be converted, see his sermon on ‘Total Depravity’, his ‘Notes on Theology’ (in Asahel Nettleton: Sermons from the Second Great Awakening, 1995, International Outreach pp. 234, 236-7), and numerous other places in his writings.  What is below should be interpreted in light of the sinner’s complete moral inability to exercise saving faith.



 ‘True Repentance not Antecedent to Regeneration’ in Remains of the Late Rev. Asahel Nettleton, consisting of Sermons, Outlines, and Plans of Sermons, Brief Observations on Texts of Scripture, and Miscellaneous Remarks, ed. Bennet Tyler, 1845, Hartford, p. 64-70

In order to settle the difficulty it may be proper to inquire, Why is the power to God necessary to change the heart of the sinner?  And to this question there are but two answers: Either because the sinner is unable, or because he is unwilling to do what God commands.

Now suppose the sinner cannot repent, believe, and be pardoned and saved.  What then?  Why then he must be lost; awful indeed!  What if the sinner is forever lost?  No injustice is done.  He suffers the penalty of a good law, and that is all.  The sinner has broken the divine law.  ‘Cursed is every one that continues not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them’ is the sentence of that law.  And no reason can be given why sentence should not be executed.  Now unless the sinner can make it appear that he has never in all this lifetime committed one single sin, he has no reason to complain if God has made his pardon and salvation impossible.

But though I do not allow that you are under any natural inability to repent and be saved, yet I confess I can see no injustice were you to be placed in this awful condition.  And I wish you to remember that what you now complain of may very soon be real.  Unless you do soon repent and believe, the very thing of which you now complain, you will be obliged to feel.  Very shortly, my fellow sinner, you will be beyond the reach of hope.  God will by and by make it impossible for you to come out of your prison.  This is the case with all in the prison of hell.  There they are fastened, and they cannot get out.  And it is a wonder of mercy that you are not now there.  When you get there, you will have no reason to murmur and complain that you would if you could, but you cannot get out of the prison of hell.  The great gulf will be fixed, so that, they which would pass from hence cannot.  This is the condition in which all the finally impenitent will remain forever.  And the sinner who is now out of Christ is every moment in awful danger of sinking into the same condition.  But this instance of a criminal bolted and barred and surrounded by the massy walls of a prison I do not admit to be a correct illustration of the state of the sinner.  Though the finally impenitent will be forever shut up in this prison, yet this is not the case with sinners on earth.  Though I can see no injustice in God’s making it impossible for sinners on earth to come out of their prison and be saved; yet there is one point in which this illustration will not hold.

If the prisoner were to be invited and commanded to come out of his prison, while the doors were shut, and bolted, and barred; I confess I can see no propriety in such invitations and commands.  The very fact that God does invite, and command sinners to come to Christ is, to me, a convincing proof that the difficulty lies only in the sinner’s will.  If the sinner were willing to do all in his power, that is the point where common sense would direct us to stop urging him. 

This single command, ‘Turn ye to the strong hold, ye prisoners of hope’ is to me a convincing proof that all the bolts and bars of his prison are now removed.  Christ has opened the doors of his prison  and proclaimed liberty to the captives.  God does not command the sinner to break through bolts and bars and massy walls.  But this is the case with all who deny the distinction between natural and moral inability.  They call upon the sinner to do what they themselves acknowledge absolutely impossible.  This is I do not admit.

Again—If the prisoner were to be confined and punished without reprieve for all his past sins, that would be perfectly just, and right.  Every friend to good government must heartily acquiesce.  But if the prisoner were commanded to break through bolts, and bars, and massy walls, and then in addition to all his past crimes were to suffer tenfold punishment for not doing it; I confess I do not see the justice of it.

But it is acknowledged on all hands that those who perish from under the light of the gospel will suffer an aggravated weight of condemnation.  It shall be more tolerable for Sodom in the day of judgment than for such sinners.  ‘Of how much sorer punishment shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden underfoot the Son of God.’  ‘If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin.’  Now the reason why God invites sinners to come out of their prison is not because they cannot; but because they will not.  The reason why He commands them to do it, is not because they cannot but because they will not.  The reason why they are to be punished in such an awful manner for not doing it, is not because they cannot, but because they will not.  Unwillingness always makes it proper to invite and command.  The will and nothing else is the object of command.  This and nothing else is the ground of punishment.

Now God does certainly treat the sinner in all respects as though the difficulty was a criminal difficulty.  He does treat them in all respects just as He would on the supposition that they were unwilling to do what they could.  It is surprising with what little ceremony the Bible treats the inability, and all the excuses of sinners.  I believe everyone of my hearers  must have been struck with this fact.  The Bible commands the sinner to remove the difficulty.  To repent, and believe, and make a new heart.  It commands and condemns without ceremony if he does not do it.  The Bible speaks just as freely as though it was every whit unwillingness.

I will now state what appears to me to be the real difficulty.  The sinner will not do what he can.  I know this is denied by many.  They reason in this way—That because the Bible everywhere attributes this change to God; therefore the sinner cannot do it.  It is said that if the sinner could produce this change himself, then the power of God would not be necessary.

But this reasoning will not hold.  Because the sinner has power to do what God commands, it does not follow of course that the sinner will exert that power.  You will easily see that those who adopt this reasoning take it for granted that the sinner will certainly do the utmost in his power to obey God.  But if the sinner will not do what he can, there is the same necessity of almighty power to make him willing to do what he can, as there would be to make him willing to do, or, rather, do for him what he could not.

This point is illustrated as follows: Here is a child which has departed from his father; He calls upon him to return to him.  He has power to run every way; but he will not return to his father.  He invites; but no invitation is sufficient.  He threatens; but no punishment is sufficient to make the child willing to do what he can.

Now what is the duty of that child?  Common sense declares that it is his duty to obey the command.  But the child is unwilling.  Now does this unwillingness make it improper for the parent to invite, entreat, and command the child to do what he can?  If the child would, but could not obey the command, I could see no propriety in the parent’s conduct.  But if the child can, and will not; his unwillingness is no excuse.  His unwillingness is the very thing which makes it proper to command.  This unwillingness is the very thing for which he deserves punishment.  This is plain common sense.

But, says the parent, “I will reveal one secret.  You know not how dreadfully stubborn that child is.  Though my commands are reasonable, and the child can if he would, yet he is so opposed to me that he never will do what he can.  He never will come unless I go and bring him.”  Here the child replies, “How absurd you talk; You call upon me to do what you say I never will do unless you make me do it.”  But because he is so wicked that he never will do what he can, he stands murmuring, “What a cruel parent.  Now I cannot come, how can I?  What a cruel parent!  He calls upon me to do what I never shall do: and how can I be blamed?”… what answer would you make to that child?

This, in my view, is exactly the state of the sinner.**  This, in my view, is the exact state of the sinner.  The commands of God are reasonable.  The sinner is capable of obeying them; but he has a proud stubborn, rebellious heart, that will not submit to God’s authority.  Hence it is necessary that he should be born again in order to see the kingdom of God.  While, therefore, those who perish, will be without excuse, and will have none to blame but themselves; those who are saved, will be saved by grace, and will have none to praise but God.

“O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in Me is thy help.”


** [The modern reprint of Asahel’s works, from original manuscripts, has a slightly different, longer ending.  It follows below, from Asahel Nettleton: Sermons from the Second Great Awakening, 1995, International Outreach, p. 72-3]

Whether we think it a just comparison [that of a father to his capable, rebellious child] or not, God does.  He says, ‘I have nourished and brought up children, but they have rebelled against Me.’ [Isa. 1:2]  All have departed from God and He invites, and entreats, and commands them to return.  ‘Turn ye at my reproof—Turn ye, Turn ye, for why will ye die?’  Now what is the duty of sinners?  Why it is their duty to obey the commands of God.

Now suppose God to reveal this fact.  That the sinner is so opposed to Me that he never will do what I command him.  I believe all will allow that this is the fact with all who have lost their souls.  If so, then it may be with sinners now living, that they never will do what they can.  When in hell all acknowledge it again.  Does the unwillingness to do what he can make it improper for God to invite and command and punish?  Unwillingness in the case of the child is the very reason why every parent would invite, command, and threaten, and punish.  In that case, no one but the child would ever think of complaining.  And has not God a right to deal with us in the same manner as we deal with others?  Yes; you will say, provided I were equally stubborn with that child.  There lies the difficulty, my hearers, you cannot believe that you are so wicked that you will not do what you can.  But it is possible that stubbornness in the heart even of a little child might rise beyond the power of mere moral suasion.  It is possible that it might rise to such a pitch that no invitations, commands, or threatenings of the parent would overcome it.  Unwillingness might arise to such a pitch in the heart even of a little child that it might be necessary for the parent to go and turn him by the strength of his arm.  If there may be such stubbornness in the heart even of a little child; or rather, since there is such stubbornness in his heart, that he will not do what he can, though urged by his parent whom he loves with all his natural affection, then is it not possible that the sinner may be so stubborn in the sight of God?  God does make the comparison.  And do you believe that you are less wicked than a little child?

If this is possible—then it may be possible for sinners to continue for years to hear the invitations, commands, and threatenings of the gospel and never do what they can.  Now the only reason why the parent’s arm is necessary to turn the child is because it is so wicked that it will not do what it can.  If it were willing to do what it could, nothing special on the part of the parent would be necessary.  Just so I view the state of the sinner.  They will never do what he can—And that will always make it proper to call upon them to do it.

On a dying bed confess it—why would one wish to recover if they are not conscious that they have not done what they would.  Amidst this mountain of evidence we can summon the conscience of the dying sinner.  If you hear any one find fault, you may take it for granted that he understands the subject.  Ask him to explain these passages and to give a better interpretation.

1. Reasonableness of the command to make a new heart. Every time they (are) command(ed) to love God, repent, or believe, (they) are commanded to make a new heart.

2. Saved wholly by grace. If not repent[ance] certainly does nothing which influences God to give a new heart.  So we read—They that are in the flesh cannot please God.  It will take up a whole eternity to praise Him for his grace.

3. A reason why Christians should pray for sinners. Sinners will never do what they could do.  All hangs on the mere sovereign pleasure of God.




Related Page

Natural vs. Moral Inability

Total Depravity