Ashbel Green on Natural vs. Moral Ability

1762 – 1848

Green was a Presbyterian minister who served as a Sergeant in the Revolutionary War, studied with John Witherspoon at Princeton University and later became a President of the same institution, and he served as a chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives.



The Life of John Witherspoon, in the Sprinkle Publications edition of Witherspoon’s Works, vol. 9, pp. 265-6

It has been publicly asserted in print, that Dr. W[itherspoon]. favored the idea, that unsanctified men possess natural ability to love God and keep his commandments.  On this topic, he distinctly explained his views to his theological class in Nassau Hall.  At the close of his fifteenth lecture on Divinity he thus speaks. 

As to the inability of man to recover himself by his own powers, though I would never attempt to establish a metaphysical system of necessity, of which infidels avail themselves, in opposition to all religions, nor presume to explain the influence of the Creator on the creature; yet nothing is more plain from Scripture, or better supported by daily experience than that man by nature, is in fact, incapable of recovery, without the power of God specially interposed.  I will not call it a necessity arising from the irresistible laws of nature.  I see that it is not a necessity of the same kind as constraint, but I see it an impossibility, such as the sinner never does overcome.”

This statement, it is presumed, would not appear seriously objectionable, to any advocate, however strenuous, for the utter impotency of an unregenerate man to render an acceptable obedience to the requirements of God, till changed and sanctified by his sovereign grace.  There are, indeed, both in the Doctor’s [Witherspoon‘s] treatise on regeneration, and in his sermon on Matt 11:30, passages in which a distinction is stated between natural and moral ability and inability; but these passages ought, in all fairness, to be taken as subject to the above explanation, as well as to that with which they are connected, in the places where they are found: and so taken, they will not be different, in their general import, from the creed of any well informed Calvinistic divine of the Old School, namely; that in regeneration no new faculties are imported, but only that there is a renewal and sanctification of those which are possessed from nature; and also, that every unregenerate man is justly answerable for any act of disobedience to the divine requisitions, and every omission of commanded duty, because, in all, he acts voluntarily and of choice.




Related Pages

John Witherspoon on Natural vs. Moral Ability

Lyman Atwater on John Witherspoon’s Natural Ability Distinction

Natural vs. Moral Inability Mainpage