John Girardeau on Natural vs. Moral Ability




Calvinism and Evangelical Arminianism, Part 1, Section 3, Objection 4

But it will be urged: Where, after all, is the sincerity of invitations addressed to the dead; of lighting up a charnel-house [a vault or building where human skeletal remains are stored] as a banqueting hall, spreading in it a feast of viands [food], and exhorting the mouldering corpses to rise and partake of the sumptuous repast [meal]?  Unless life be infused into them it is a grim and solemn mockery to exhort them to attempt the functions of the living.  Besides the answer which has already been furnished to this objection, the following considerations are submitted:

First, sinners are not in such a sense dead as to be wholly beyond the reach of the gospel offer.  The effect of the fall was the total destruction of spiritual life.  That was totally eliminated from every faculty of the soul.  Holiness was not an essential element, but a separable quality, of man’s original constitution.  It is a sufficient proof of that position that all evangelical theologians admit the possibility of its restoration after having been lost.  The faculties which were essential to the very make and constitution of man survived the disaster of the fall; otherwise his being would have been extinguished.  Although, therefore, the principle of spiritual life no longer exists until restored by supernatural grace, the intellect, the feelings, the will, considered as to its spontaneity at least, and the conscience as a moral faculty, still continue their functions in the natural sphere.  In contact with these powers God brings the instructions, invitations and threatenings of the gospel.  The gospel does not speak to stocks and stones; it addresses beings who are intelligent, emotional, voluntary and moral.  They are capable of apprehending its statement that they are spiritually dead, and its gracious offer to them of the boon of everlasting life.  They can understand the proposition that God has through Christ provided redemption for sinners, and that they are freely invited to accept it.  They are susceptible of some feeling of desire to obtain it, and of some sense of obligation to seek it.

Secondly, with the operation of these natural faculties in the moral sphere the Holy Spirit concurs, in the discharge of what has been called his law-work.  He illuminates the understanding, stimulates the affections, presses upon the conscience the sanctions of the moral law, and directs the attention of the sinner to the provisions of redeeming mercy which are proposed to his acceptance in the gospel.

Thirdly, is there anything which the unconverted sinner can will to do?  This is an important question.  It is very certain that he can do nothing in the spiritual sphere, for the reason that he is spiritually dead.  He cannot convert himself, for how can a dead man restore himself to life?  He cannot repent, he cannot believe in Christ, for repentance and faith suppose the possession of spiritual life.  This spiritual inability is itself sin, and as has been already shown cannot be held to absolve the sinner from the obligation to obey God’s requirements either purely legal or evangelical, unless the preposterous ground is assumed that sin can excuse sin.  The spiritual inability of the sinner is no reason why God may not consistently either with justice or goodness or veracity command and invite him to repent and believe…  

This subject has been again adverted to for the purpose, in the first place, of showing that as the spiritual inability of the sinner cannot absolve him from the obligation to pay obedience to any requirement God may please to make, there is no insincerity involved in the extension of the gospel offer occasioned by the divine knowledge of the sinner’s incompetency to embrace it; and, in the second place, of guarding against any misconception of the views about to be presented in regard to that measure of ability which the unregenerate sinner possesses in the merely natural sphere.

The question recurring, Can the unconverted sinner will to do anything in regard to the offer of salvation conveyed in the gospel, I answer:

He can will, or not will, to place his understanding in such relation to the evidence which God proposes for his consideration, to the facts and teachings, the invitations, remonstrances and warnings of the gospel, as is suited to impress it with the duty, the policy, the importance of paying attention to the great concern of personal salvation.

He can will, or not will, to attend upon the ordinances of God’s house, and listen to the preaching of the divine Word, and thus place himself in the way along which Jesus as a Savior is passing.

He can will, or not will, to read the Scriptures, and so subject his mind to the influences which they are suited to exert.

What hinders the unregenerate man from doing these things?  What hinders him from hearing the preacher of the gospel any more than listening to any public speaker?  What hinders him from repairing to the sanctuary any more than going to any other building?  What hinders him from reading the Bible any more than perusing any other book?  To do these things he is not dependent upon supernatural grace.  He may do them in the exercise of his natural will.  Now, on the supposition that he avails himself, as he is competent to do, of these means which God furnishes him in the natural sphere, it is perfectly possible for him to be impressed with the statements of the gospel concerning his lost and ruined condition as a sinner, and the redemption effected by Christ, and the expediency and necessity of complying with the calls of mercy.  It is also conceivable that he should be convinced of his utter inability to accept the offer of the gospel and rely upon Christ for salvation

¹ Owen, Works, vol. iii. p. 229, ff. Goold’s Ed.

In this condition of mind, he can will, or not will, to cry to God for help [see 1 Sam. 8:18; Isa. 1:15; Jer. 2:27-28; 11:14; 14:12; Eze. 8:18; Mic. 3:4].¹  What would hinder him from determining, in view of his inability to meet the exigency, to pray that God would enable him to come to Christ and accept the offered salvation?  Men sincerely appeal for help only when they cannot help themselves.  The very conviction of impotence would be the strongest motive to prayer.  Now, the throne of grace is accessible to all. God debars no sincere suppliant from approaching it. He invites the distressed to call upon him and promises that He will answer their cry.

¹ [Webmaster’s note: Note that Thomas Boston affirmed this 150 years before Girardeau.]

These things, then, the unconverted sinner can do in the natural sphere: he can hear the preaching of the gospel, he can read the Scriptures, he can call on God for delivering grace [see 1 Sam. 8:18; Isa. 1:15; Jer. 2:27-28; 11:14; 14:12; Eze. 8:18; Mic. 3:4].  In that charnel-house [house or chamber that stores skeletons] in which the objector paints the gospel feast as spread – yea, in the sepulchre in which his spiritual corpse is lying, he can, in the exercise of his natural powers, apprehend the invitation to partake of the blessings of redemption and cry to God for ability to embrace it.  His prayers would have no merit: they would, on the contrary, be the expression of impotence, of self-despair and of utter dependence on God.

If, therefore, the unregenerate sinner may do these things, what ground is there for imputing insincerity to God in extending to him the gospel offer and urging him to accept it?  If he will not do what he is able to do, with what face can he find fault with God for not doing for him what he is not able to do?  What excuse will he render in the day of final accounts for his willful neglect of the means which were placed in his power?  Should the Judge ask him, in that day:

Didst thou attend the sanctuary and hearken to the preaching of the gospel? Didst thou seriously read the Scriptures?  Didst thou call on God to save thee?  [see 1 Sam. 8:18; Isa. 1:15; Jer. 2:27-28; 11:14; 14:12; Eze. 8:18; Mic. 3:4]  Didst thou not know that thou couldst have done these things? he will be speechless; for his inner consciousness will attest the justice of the awful interrogatories, and close his lips to self-justification.²

² A similar line of argument, very ably presented by the Rev. S. G. Winchester, may be found in Vol. i. of the Tracts issued by the Presbyterian Board of Publication, Philadelphia.




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