John Witherspoon on Natural and Moral Ability

Witherspoon (1723-1794) was a calvinistic, Scottish presbyterian minister famed in America for signing the United State Declaration of Independence, being the president of what is now Princeton University, and being influential in the training of many later leaders of America.



Archibald Alexander on John Witherspoon

Archibald Alexander, “The Inability of Sinners,” in Theological Essays: Reprinted from the Princeton Review, 1846, pp. 266-267

It [the distinction between natural and moral ability] is also found in the theological writings of Dr. Witherspoon, and many others, whose orthodoxy was never disputed.

[To see the full orthodoxy of Witherspoon demonstrated, besides in just reading his treatises on Regeneration and Justification, see Lyman Atwater on Witherspoon as well as Ashbel Green on Witherspoon.]  




Treatise on Regeneration, Works, vol. 1 (of 4), second edition, Philadelphia, 1802, HT: Kevin DeYoung for references to the below passages.

p. 142

But what shall we say?  Alas! The very subject we are now speaking of, affords a new proof of the blindness, prejudice, and obstinacy of sinners.  They are self-condemned; for they do not act the same part in similar cases The affairs of the present life are not managed in so preposterous a manner.  He that ploughs his ground, and throws in his seed, cannot so much as unite one grain to the clod; nay, he is not able to conceive how it is done.  He cannot carry on, nay, he cannot so much as begin on single step of this wonderful process toward the subsequent crop; the mortification of the see, the resurrection of the blade, and gradual increase, till it come to perfect maturity.  Is it, therefore, reasonable that he should say, “I for my part can do nothing: it is, first and last, an effect of divine power and energy: and God can as easily raise a crop without sowing as with it, in a single instant and in any place, as in a long time by the mutual influence of soil and season; I will therefore spare myself the hardship of toil and labor, and wait with patience, till I see what He will be pleased to send?”  Would this be madness?  Would it be universally reputed so?


p. 215-6

Again the sinner will perhaps say, “But why should the sentence be so severe?  The law may be right in itself, but it is hard, or even impossible for me.  I have no strength: I cannot love the Lord with all my heart.  I am altogether insufficient for that which is good.”  Oh that you would but consider what sort of inability you are under to keep the commandments of God.  Is it natural, or is it moral?  Is it really want of ability, or is it only want of will?  Is it anything more than the depravity and corruption of your hearts, which is itself criminal, and the source of all actual transgressions?  Have you not natural faculties, and understanding, will, and affections, a wonderful frame of body, and a variety of members?  What is it that hinders them all from being consecrated to God?  Are they not as proper in every respect for his service, as for any baser purpose?  When you are commanded to love God with all your heart, this surely is not demanding more than you can pay: for if you give it not to Him, you will give it to something else, that is far from being so deserving of it.

The law then is not impossible, in a strict and proper sense, even to you.  Let me next ask you, Is it unreasonable?…

…He will see that there is nothing to hinder his compliance with every part of his duty, but that inward aversion to God, which is the very essence of sin It is of no consequence what your natural powers are, whether those of an angel or a man, a philosopher or a clown, if soul and body, and such powers as you have, are but wholly devoted to God.  Do you say this is impossible?  Where then lies the impossibility of it, but in your depraved inclinations?



Essay on Justification, in Works, Philadelphia, 1802, 1:53, footnote

Since mention has been made of perfect conformity to the will of God, or perfect obedience to his law, as the duty of man, which is indeed the foundation of this whole doctrine [of Justification], I think it necessary to observe, that some deny this to be properly required of man, as his duty in the present fallen state, because he is not able to perform it.  But such do not seem to attend either to the meaning of perfect obedience, or to the nature or cause of this inabilityPerfect obedience is obedience by any creature, to the utmost extent of his natural powers.  Even in a state of innocence, the holy dispositions of Adam would not have been equal in strength and activity to those of creatures of a higher rank: but surely to love God, who is infinitely amiable, with all the heart, and above all, to consecrate all his powers and faculties, without exception, and without intermission, to God’s service, must be undeniably the duty of every intelligent creatureAnd what sort of inability are we under to pay this?  Our natural faculties are surely as fit for the service of God as for any baser purpose: the inability is only moral, and lies wholly in the aversion of our hearts from such employment.  Does this then take away the guilt?  Must God relax his law because we are not willing to obey it?  Consult even modern philosophers; and such of them as allow there is any such thing as vice, will tell you, that it lies in evil or misplaced affections.  Will then that which is ill in itself excuse its fruits in any degree from guilt or blame?  The truth is, notwithstanding the loud charge of licentiousness upon the truths of the gospel, there is no other system that ever I perused, which preserves the obligations of the law of God in its strength: the most part of them [other erroneous systems], when thoroughly examined, just amount to this, that men are bound, and that it is RIGHT and MEET and FIT that they should be as good and as holy as they themselves incline.



‘The Absolute Necessity of Salvation through Christ’, Sermon 37, preached before the Society in Scotland for propagating Christian Knowledge, in the High Church of Edinburgh, on Monday, Jan. 2, 1758, in Works, 2:357

But, besides the mercy of God to the world in general in sending his son to redeem us who were sold under sin, we find in scripture many strong declarations of the infinite mercy of God in sending the tidings of salvation to those who were ignorant of them before… For I hope no Christian will assert, that any person in the world, who has the exercise of reason, is under a Natural, but only a Moral impossibility of coming to the knowledge, and doing the will of God If the first were the case, it would take away all sin; but the last is only such an obstinate disinclination, as is still consistent with guilt and blame.

¹ I use the words Natural and Moral impossibility in the sense in which they are used by the authors who first applied that distinction to subjects of philosophy and divinity, and not in the absurd sense in which some late infidel writers [of the Enlightenment, advocating a natural, philosophic necessitarianism] do obstinately persist in using them.  These gentlemen, instead of meaning by Natural or Physical necessity or impossibility, that which arises from the irresistible operation of the laws of nature, and by Moral, a high degree of probability from concurring circumstances, tell us, that Physical necessity is what arises from the laws of matter; and Moral, that which arises from the laws of mind or spirit.  But nothing can be more evident, than that any influence from without upon mind or spirit, if it be irresistible, is as much physical or natural necessity as any other.  And the distinction thus explained, or perverted, is utterly useless, when applied to morals [by philosophic neccessitarians].



See Also

Lyman Atwater on John Witherspoon

Atwater affirms the Natural vs. Moral Ability distinction, and demonstrates that Witherspoon was an Old School Calvinist, fully holding to man’s complete inability to turn to God apart from the sovereign drawing of God.


Ashbel Green on Witherspoon

Green demonstrates Witherspoon’s teaching on the complete moral inability of man to turn to God apart from the sovereign drawing of God.




Related Pages

 Natural vs. Moral Ability

Total Depravity