John Owen on Natural vs. Moral Ability

1616-1683

.

Order of Contents

Introduction
‘Not Because Men Cannot Enter, but Because They will Not’
On Man’s Natural Capacity to Receive Spiritual Things
On the Noetic Effects of the Fall
On the Terms of Salvation not being Great, Hard, or Difficult
On the Natural Ability of Men for Duties Required Unto Regeneration

.

.

Introduction

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 is argued in Charles Hodge’s critique

Owen, however, ‘the Prince of the Puritans’, recognizes 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.  

This distinction you will also find in Owen’s colleague and pulpit successor David Clarkson (which quote is on the Natural vs. Moral Ability Mainpage).


.

.

‘Not Because Men Cannot Enter, but Because They will Not’

An Exposition upon Ps. 130, verse 4, in Works, vol. 6, pp. 529-530

4. This way is free and open for and unto sinners.  He that fled to the city of refuge might well have many perplexed thoughts, whether he should find the gates of it opened unto him or no, and whether the avenger of blood might not overtake and slay him whilst he was calling for entrance.  Or if the gates were always open, yet some crimes excluded men thence, Num. 35:16.  It is not so here, Acts 13:38-39.

This is the voice of God, even the Father: ‘Come,’ says He, ‘to the marriage, for all things are prepared,’ –no fear of want [lack] of entertainment, Mt. 22:4; whence the preachers of the gospel are said in his stead to beseech men to be reconciled, 2 Cor. 5:20

…Though He proclaim pardon in the blood of Christ indefinitely, according to the fullness and excellency of it, yet He gives out his quickening grace to enable men to receive it as He pleases; for He has mercy on whom He will have mercy.  But this lies in the thing itself; the way is opened and prepared, and it is not because men cannot enter, but because they will not, that they do not enter.  As our Savior Christ tells the Pharisees, ‘Ye therefore hear not God’s Word, because ye are not of God,’ Jn. 8:47; 6:44; so He does [say], ‘Ye will not come to Me that ye might have life,’ Jn. 5:40.  In the neglect and inadvertency of the most excusable, there is a positive act of their will put forth in the refusing of Christ and grace by Him; and this is done by men under the preaching of the gospel every day…


.

.

On Man’s Natural Capacity to Receive Spiritual Things

Discourse on the Holy Spirit, 1676, London, page numbers are to the Banner of Truth edition, Works, vol. 3, reprinted 2000

pp. p. 261-2

1.  There is a natural power consisting in the suitableness and proportionableness of the faculties of the soul to receive spiritual things in the way that they are proposed unto usThis is supposed in all the exhortations, promises, precepts, and threatnings of the GospelFor in vain would they be proposed unto us had we not rational minds and understandings to apprehend their sense, use, and importance, and also [be] meet [fitted] subjects for the faith, grace and obedience which are required of us None pretend that men are in their conversion to God like stocks and stones, or brute beasts that have no understanding.  For although the work of our conversion is called a turning of stones into children of Abraham, because of the greatness of the change and because of ourselves [as] we contribute nothing thereunto: yet if we were every way as such, as to the capacity of our natures, it would not become the wisdom of God to apply the means mentioned for effecting of that work.  God is said indeed herein to give us an understanding, 1 John 5:20, but the natural faculty of the understanding is not thereby intended but only the renovation of it by grace, and the actual exercise of that grace in apprehending spiritual things.  There are two adjuncts [corollaries] of the commands of God: (1) That they are equal [to our capacity], (2) That they are easy, or not grievous.  The former they have from the nature of the things commanded and the fitness of our minds to receive such commands, Eze. 28:25.  The latter they have from the dispensation of the Spirit and grace of Christ, which renders them not only possible unto us, but easy for us.

Some pretend that whatever is required of us, or prescribed unto us in a way of duty, that we have a power in and of ourselves to perform.  If by this power they intend no more but that our minds and the other rational faculties of our souls are fit and meet as to their natural capacity for and unto such acts as wherein those duties do consist, it is freely grantedFor God requires nothing of us but must be acted in our minds and wills, and which they are naturally meet and suited for.  But if they intend such an active power and ability, as being excited by the motives proposed unto us, can of itself answer the commands of God in a due manner, they deny the corruption of our nature by the entrance of sin and render the grace of Christ useless, as shall be demonstrated.

2.  There is, or may be, a power in the mind to discern spiritual things, whereby it is so able to do it as that it can immediately exercise that power in the spiritual discerning of them upon their due proposal unto it, that is spiritually; as a man that has a visive [pertaining to vision] faculty sound and entire, upon the due proposal of visible objects unto him, can discern and see them.  This power must be spiritual and supernatural.  For whereas to receive spiritual things spiritually, is so to receive them as really to believe them with faith divine and supernatural, to love them with divine love, to conform the whole soul and affection unto them, Rom. 6:17; 2 Cor. 3:18, no natural man has power so to do.  This is that which is denied in this place by the apostle.  Wherefore between the natural capacity of the mind and the act of spiritual discerning, there must be an interposition of an effectual work of the Holy Ghost enabling it thereunto, 1 John 5:20; 1 Cor. 4:6.


.

.

On the Noetic Effects of the Fall

Discourse on the Holy Spirit, 1676, London, page numbers are to the Banner of Truth edition, Works, vol. 3, reprinted 2000, pp. p. 266-7

Secondly, as the instance foregoing comprises the reasons why a natural man will never receive the things of the Spirit of God, so the apostle adds a reason why he cannot, and that is taken from the manner whereby alone they may be usefully and savingly received, which they cannot attain unto.  Because they are spiritually discerned.  In this whole chapter he insists on an opposition between a natural and a spiritual man, natural things and spiritual things, natural light and knowledge and spiritual.  The natural man, he informs us, will by a natural light discern natural things.  The things of a man knows the spirit of a man.  And the spiritual man, by a spiritual light received from Jesus Christ, discerns spiritual things.  For none knows the things of God, but the Spirit of God, and he to whom He will reveal them.  This ability the apostle denies unto a natural man.  And this he proves (1) Because it is the work of the Spirit of God, to endow the minds of men with that ability, which there were no need of in case men had it of themselves by nature.  And (2) (as he shews plentifully elsewhere) the light itself, whereby alone spiritual things can be spiritually discerned, is wrought, effected, created in us, by an almighty act of the power of God, 2 Cor. 4:6.

From these things premised, it is evident that there is a two-fold impotency on the minds of man with respect unto spiritual things: (1) That which immediately affects the mind, a natural impotency whence it cannot receive them, for want of light in itself; (2) That which affects the mind by the will and affections, a moral impotency, whereby it cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God, because unalterably it will not; and that because from the unsuitableness of the object unto its will and affections, and the mind by them, they are foolishness unto it.

(1)  There is in unregenerate men a natural impotency, through the immediate depravation of the faculties of the mind, or understanding, whereby a natural man is absolutely unable without an especial renovation by the Holy Ghost to discern spiritual things in a saving manner.  Neither is this impotency, although absolutely and naturally insuperable and although it have in it also the nature of a punishment, any excuse or alleviation of the sin of men when they receive not spiritual things as proposed unto them.  For although it be our misery, it is our sin.  It is the misery of our persons, and the sin of our natures.  As by it there is an inconformity in our minds to the mind of God, it is our sin.  As it is a consequent of the corruption of our nature by the fall, it is an effect of sin; and as it exposes us unto all the ensuing evil of sin and unbelief, it is both the punishment and cause of sin.  And no man can plead his sin or fault as an excuse of another sin in any kind.  This impotency is natural; because it consists in the deprivation of the light and power that was originally in the faculties of our minds or understandings, and because it can never be taken away or cured but by an immediate communication of a new spiritual power and ability unto the mind itself by the Holy Ghost in its renovation, so curing the depravation of the faculty itself.  And this is consistent with what was before declared [on pp. 261-2 above], the natural power of the mind to receive spiritual things.  For the power respects the natural capacity of the faculties of our minds; this impotency the depravation of them with respect unto spiritual things.

2.  There is in the minds of unregenerate persons a moral Impotency, which is reflected on them greatly from the will and affections, whence the mind never will receive spiritual things; that is, it will always and unchangeably reject and refuse them, and that because of various lusts, corruptions and prejudices invincibly fixed in them, causing them to look on them as foolishness.  Hence it will come to pass that no man shall be judged and perish at the Last Day merely on the account of his natural impotency.  Every one to whom the Gospel has been preached, and by whom it is refused, shall be convinced of positive actings in their minds rejecting the Gospel for the love of self, sin, and the world.  Thus our Savior tells the Jews, that no man can come unto Him unless the Father draw him, John 6:44.  Such is their natural impotency that they cannot, nor is it to be cured but by an immediate divine instruction or illumination, as it is written, they shall be all taught of God, v. 45.  But this is not all, He tells them elsewhere: you will not come unto me that you may have life, John 5:40.  The present thing in question was not the power or impotency of their minds, but the obstinacy of their wills and affections which men shall principally be judged upon at the Last Day.  For this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. John 3:19. 


.

.

On the Terms of Salvation not being Great, Hard, or Difficult

An Exposition of Hebrews, Vol. 3, reprinted Baker, 1980, p. 309

On Hebrews 2:2-4

2. These terms contain salvation.  Men in the neglect of them neglect and refuse their own salvation; and can any man perish more justly than they who refuse to be saved?  If God’s terms had been great, hard, and difficult, yet considering by whom they were proposed, and to whom, there was all the reason in the world why they should be accepted; and their destruction would be just that should not endeavor to observe them unto the utmost.  But now it is life and salvation that he tenders [offers], on whose neglect He complains that men will not come unto Him that they might have life.  Certainly there can be no want [lack] of righteousness in the ruin of such persons.


.

.

On the Natural Ability of Men for Duties Required Unto Regeneration

Discourse on the Holy Spirit, 1676, London, page numbers are to the Banner of Truth edition, Works, vol. 3, reprinted 2000

pp. 229-231

There are things required of us in a way of duty in order unto our regeneration, which are so in the power of our own natural abilities as that nothing but corrupt prejudices and stubbornness in sinning do keep or hinder men from the performance of them. And these we may reduce unto two heads:

1. An outward attendance unto the dispensation of the word of God, with those other external means of grace which accompany it or are appointed therein. ‘Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God’ Rom. 10:17; that is, it is hearing the word of God which is the ordinary means of ingenerating faith in the souls of men. This is required of all to whom the gospel does come; and this they are able of themselves to do, as well as any other natural or civil action. And where men do it not, where they despise the word at a distance, yea, where they do it not with diligence and choice, it is merely from supine negligence of spiritual things, carnal security, and contempt of God; which they must answer for.

2. A diligent intension [resolution or determination] of mind, in attendance on the means of grace, to understand and receive the things revealed and declared as the mind and will of God. For this end has God given men their reason and understandings, that they may use and exercise them about their duty towards Him, according to the revelation of his mind and will. To this purpose He calls upon them to remember that they are men, and to turn unto Him. And there is nothing herein but what is in the liberty and power of the rational faculties of our souls, assisted with those common aids which God affords unto all men in general. And great advantages both may be and are daily attained hereby. Persons, I say, who diligently apply their rational abilities in and about spiritual things, as externally revealed in the word and the preaching of it, do usually attain great advantages by it, and excel their equals in other things; as Paul did when he was brought up at the feet of Gamaliel. Would men be but as intent and diligent in their endeavors after knowledge in spiritual things, as revealed in a way suited unto our capacities and understandings, as they are to get skill in crafts, sciences, and other mysteries of life, it would be much otherwise with them than it is. A neglect herein also is the fruit of sensuality, spiritual sloth, love of sin, and contempt of God; all of which are the voluntary frames and actings of the minds of men.

These things are required of us in order unto our regeneration, and it is in the power of our own wills to comply with them. And we may observe concerning them that:

1. The omission of them, the neglect of men in them, is the principle occasion and cause of the eternal ruin of the souls of the generality of them to whom or amongst whom the gospel is preached: ‘This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil,’ John 3:19. The generality of men know full well that they do in this matter no more what they are able than what they should. All pleadable pretences of inability and weakness are far from them. They cannot but know here, and they shall be forced to confess hereafter, that it was merely from their own cursed sloth, with love of the world and sin, that they were diverted from a diligent attendance on the means of conversion and the sedulous exercise of their minds about them. Complaints hereof against themselves will make up a great part of their last dreadful cry.

2. In the most diligent use of outward means, men are not able of themselves to attain unto regeneration, or complete conversion to God, without an especial, effectual, internal work of the Holy Spirit of grace on their whole souls. This, containing the substance of what is principally proposed unto confirmation in the ensuing discourses, need not here be insisted on.

3. Ordinarily, God, in the effectual dispensation of his grace, meets with them who attend with diligence on the outward administration of the means of it. He does so, I say, ordinarily, in comparison of them who are despisers and neglecters of them. Sometimes, indeed, He goes, as it were, out of the way to meet with and bring home unto Himself a persecuting Saul, taking of him in, and taking him off from, a course of open sin and rebellion; but ordinarily He dispenses his peculiar especial grace among them who attend unto the common means of it; for He will both glorify his word thereby, and give out pledges of his approbation of our obedience unto his commands and institutions.

.

p. 290-1

(3)  No man is so unable to live unto God, to do any thing for Him, but that withal he is able to do any thing against Him.  There is in all men by nature a depraved vicious habit of mind wherein they are alienated from the life of God.  And there is no command given unto men for evangelical faith or obedience, but they can and do put forth a free positive act of their wills in the rejection of it, either directly or interpretatively, in preferring somewhat else before it.  As they cannot come to Christ unless the Father draw them, so they will not come that they may have life; wherefore their destruction is just and of themselves.

.

.

.

Related Pages

Natural vs. Moral Ability

Total Depravity