Stephen Charnock on Natural and Moral Ability


A Discourse of the Efficient of Regeneration, in The Works of Stephen Charnock, vol. 3, James Nichol, 1865.  In addition to what is below see the whole section generally, pp. 171-248.  Charnock very helpfully describes on pp. 213-223 what an unregenerate man is able to do by common grace.

p. 171

2. What kind of impotency or insufficiency is there in the soul to be the cause of this work [of conversion]?

Answer 1:  It is not a physical weakness for want [lack] of faculties.  Understanding we have, but not a spiritual light in it to direct us; will we have, but no freedom to choose that which is spiritually good.  Though since the fall we have such a free will left, which pertains to the essential nature of man, yet we have lost that liberty which belongs to the perfection of human nature, which was to exercise acts spiritually good and acceptable to GodHad the faculties been lost, Adam had not been capable of a promise or command, and consequently of ever sinning after.  In Adam, by creation we were possessed of it.  In Adam, by his corruption, we were stripped of it; we have not lost the physical but the moral nature of these faculties; not the faculties themselves, but the moral goodness of them.  As the elementary heat is left in a carcass, which yet is unfit to exercise any animal action for want of a soul to enliven it; so, though the faculties remain after this spiritual death, we are unfit to exert any spiritual action for want [lack] of grace to quicken them.  If man wanted [lacked] faculties, this want would excuse him in his most extravagant actions: no creature is bound to that which is simply impossible; nay, without those faculties, he could not act as a rational creature, and so were utterly incapable of sinning.  Sin has untuned the strings, but did not unstring the soul; the faculties were still left, but in such a disorder that the wit and will of man can no more tune them, than the strings of an untuned lute can dispose themselves for harmony without a musician’s hand.

2. Neither is it a weakness arising from the greatness of the object above the faculty. As when an object is unmeet [not fitted] for a man, because he has no power in him to comply with it; as to understand the essence of God; this the highest creature in its own nature cannot do, because God dwells in inaccessible light; and it is utterly impossible for any thing but God to comprehend God.  If man were required to become an angel, or to rise up and kiss the sun in the firmament; these were impossible things, because man wanted [lacked] a faculty in his primitive nature for such acts: so if God had commanded Adam to fly without giving him wings, or to speak without giving him a tongue, he had not been guilty of sin in not doing it, because it was not disobedience, for disobedience is only in what a man has a faculty to do; but to love God, praise Him, depend upon Him, was in the power of man’s original nature, for they were not above those faculties God endued him with, but very correspondent and suitable to him.  The objects proposed are in themselves intelligible, credible, capable to be comprehended.

3. Neither is it a weakness arising from the insufficiency of external revelation. The means of regeneration are clearly revealed in the gospel, the sound is gone into all the earth, Rom. 10:18, and the word of the Lord is an apprehensible object; it is ‘near us, even in our mouths,’ Rom. 10:8; ‘the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes,’ Ps. 19:8.  If the object were hid, the weakness lay not on the part of man, but on the insufficiency of revelation; as if any thing were revealed to man in an unknown tongue [language], there were an insufficiency in the means of salvation.

But, 4, it is a moral weakness The disability lies chiefly in the will, John 5:40; what is there, ‘You will not come to Me,’ is verse 44, ‘How can you believe?’  You cannot, because you will not.  Carnal lusts prepossess the heart, and make their party in the will against the things of God; so that inward propensities to embrace sin, are as great as the outward temptations to allure to it, whereby the soul is carried down the stream with a wilfull violence In this respect he is called dead, though the death be not of the same nature with a natural death; for such a one has not the natural faculty to raise himself; but this is an impotency arising from a voluntary obstinacy; yet the iniquity of a man binds him no less powerfully under this spiritual captivity, than a natural death and insensibility keeps men in the grave; and those fetters of perversity they can no more knock off, than a dead man can raise himself from the grave.  By reason of those bands they are called prisoners, Isa. 42:7, and cannot be delivered without the powerful voice of Christ commanding and enabling them to go forth: Isa. 49:9, ‘That thou must say to the prisoner, Go forth.’  The apostle lays the whole fault of men’s not receiving the truth upon their wills: 2 Thess. 2:10, ‘They received not the love of the truth;’ they heard it, they knew it, but they loved not that which courted them.  It is not seated in any defect of the will, as it is a power of the soul; for then God, who created it, would be charged with it, and might as well charge beasts to become men, as men to become gracious. (White, Instit., tom. i. lib. i. sect. xv. pp. 116,111)  Man, as a creature, had a power to believe and love God; to resist temptations, avoid sin, and live according to nature; but man, as corrupted by a habit derived to him from his first parents, and increased by a custom in sin, cannot believe, cannot love God, cannot bring himself into a good frame; as a musician cannot play a lesson when he has the gout in his fingers.  When the eyes are full of adultery, when the heart is full of evil habits, it ‘cannot cease to sin,’ it cannot be gracious, 2 Pet. 2:14.


p. 178

(1.) Man has a subjective capacity for grace above any other creature in the inferior world; and this is a kind of natural preparation which other creatures have not A capacity in regard of the powers of the soul, though not in respect of the present disposition of them.  A stone or a beast are not capable of habits of grace, no more than of habits of sin, because they want [lack] rational natures, which are the proper seats of both.  Our Savior did not raise trees or stones to life, though He had the same power to do that as He had to raise stones to be children to Abraham; but He raised them that had bodies prepared, in part, for a receptacle of a soul.  As there is a more immediate subjective capacity in a man newly dead for the reception of life upon a new infusion of the soul, because he has all the members already formed, which is not in one whose body is mouldered into dust, and has not one member organized fit for the acting of a rational soul.  These faculties have a spring of natural motion in them, therefore are capable of divine grace to make that motion regular; as the wheels of a clock out of order retain their substance and their motion if their weights be wound up, but a false motion unless the disorder of the spring be mended.  Man has an understanding to know, and, when enlarged by grace, to run the ways of God’s commandments; so that he stands in an immediate capacity to receive the life of grace upon the breath and touch of God, which a stone does not, not the most sparkling jewel any more than the meanest pebble; for in this it is necessary rational faculties should be put as a foundation of spiritual motion.  Though the soul be thus capable, as an agent, to prepare itself for it or produce it; as a piece of marble is potentially capable of being the king’s statue, but not to prepare itself by hewing off its superfluous parts, or to raise itself into such a figure.  If there were not a rational nature, there were nothing immediately to be wrought upon.  If there be not a wise agent and an omnipotent hand, there were nothing to work upon it.

(2.)  Besides this passive capacity, there are more immediate preparations [that God often uses before conversion].  The soul, as rational, is capable to receive the truths of God; but as the heart is stony, it is incapable to receive the impressions of those truths.  A stone, as it is a corporeal substance, is capable to receive the drops of rain in its cavities; but because of its hardness is incapable to suck it in, and be moistened inwardly thereby, unless it be softened.  Wax has a capacity to receive the impression of the seal, but it must be beaten down by conviction before it be raised up by regeneration; there must be some apprehensions of the necessity of it.  Yet sometimes the work of regeneration follows so close upon the heels of these precious preparations, that both must be acknowledged to be the work of one and the same hand…


p. 221

Proposition 4:  Man has a power to exercise consideration He has seminals of jus [justice] and aequum [equality], and a power of judging according to them: Luke 12:57, ‘Yea, why even of yourselves judge you not what is right?’  Our Savior checks them for not making use of their natural power; in the searching [of] their own consciences, and judging their own acts, as well as they did in discerning the face of the sky, and what weather would followThere is a power of consideration in a rebellious heart; for God acknowledges it in a rebellious nation: Eze. 12:3, ‘It may be they will consider, though they be a rebellious house.’

3. Can you not cherish, by consideration, those motions which are put into you? There is not a man but the Spirit strives with, one time or other, Gen. 6:3.  Has not man a power to approve any good counsel given him, if he will?  Have you not had some supernatural motions lifting you up towards God, and pressing obligations upon you, to walk more circumspectly?  Why might you not have cherished them, as well as smothered them?  Why could you not have considered the tendency of them, as well as have considered how to divert and drown them, by engaging in some sensual lust?  Was the power of consideration lost?  No; you could not then have cast about in your minds, by what means you should be rid of them, or how you should resist them [if you had no such power].  Have you not willfully rejected them, even when consideration has been revived at a sermon?  And yet you did industriously let that good motion die for want [lack] of blowing up the spark, by following on the consideration which was raised upon its feet.  When you have ‘begun well, who did hinder you’ from a further obedience?  ‘This persuasion comes not of Him that calls you,’ Gal. 5:7,8.  There was no necessity upon you, to fortify yourselves in your corrupted habits against the attempts of the Spirit.  Could you not as well have fallen down before the throne of grace, to have begged grace to second them, as kicked at them, and spurned them away?  Was it want [lack] of power to do otherwise?  Or was it not rather your own obstinate willfulness?  Since I appeal to you, whether your own consciences have not tugged at you, and spurred you on at such seasons, why could you not then beg of God, that such a good motion might not have departed out of your coasts?  Because a man cannot renew himself, therefore to lie down in sluggishness is not the design of this doctrine.


p. 223

Question 2:  If we have not an ability to renew ourselves, why does God command us to do so?  And why does God make promises to men if they will turn?  Is not this a cruelty? As if a man should command another to run a race, and promise to reward him if he did, and yet bind him with fetters that he cannot run?  Both the command would be unjust and the promise ridiculous.

Answer: In general.  God may command, and his command does not signify a present ability in man.

(1.)  He may command, because we have faculties suited to the command in respect of their substance.  For the death of a sinner was not a physical death, but a moral.  Man lost not his faculties, but the rectitude of them; he lost the purity of his sight, the integrity of his will, but not the understanding and will itself.

(2.)  God’s command does not signify a present moral ability to perform it.  God’s command, which acquaints us with our present duty, is no argument of a present power…


p. 227-8

And that God does not give grace to all to whom the means are offered, and yet does command them to turn, and promise to receive them;–

(2.)  It does not disparage his wisdom to command that to man which He knows man will not do without his grace, and so make promises to man upon the doing it.  If man indeed had not a faculty naturally fitted for the object, it might entrench upon God’s wisdom to make commands and promises to such a creature as it would be to command a beast to speakBut man has a faculty to understand and will, which makes him a man; and there is a disposition in the understanding and will which consists in an inclination determined to good or evil, which makes us not to be men, but good or bad men, whereby we are distinguished from one another, as by reason and will we are from plants and beasts.  Now the commands and exhortations are suitable to our nature, and respect not our reason as good or bad, but simply as reason.  These commands presuppose in us a faculty of understanding and will, and a suitableness between the command and the faculty of a reasonable creature.  This is the reason why God has given to us his law and gospel, his commands, not because we are good or bad men, but because we are men endued with reason, which other creatures want [lack], and therefore are not capable of government by a command.  Our blessed Lord and Savior did not exhort infants, though He blessed them, because they were not arrived to the use of reason; yet He exhorted the Jews, many of whose wills He knew were not determined to good, and whom He told that they would die in their sins.  And though God had told them, Jer. 13, that they could no more change themselves than an Ethiopian could his skin, yet He expostulates with them why they ‘would not be made clean’, verse 27, ‘O Jerusalem, wilt thou not be made clean?  When shall it once be?’  Because, though they had an ill disposition in their judgment, yet their judgment remained, whereby to discern of exhortations if they would.  To present a concert of music to a deaf man that cannot hear the greatest sound were absurd, because sounds are the object of hearing; but commands and exhortations are the object, not of this or that good constitution of reason, but of reason itself.


p. 231-3

So that to sum up the whole of this later discourse, the impotence of man does not excuse him.

1. Because the commands of the gospel are not difficult in themselves to be believed and obeyed.  If we were commanded things that were impossible in their own nature, as to shoot an arrow as high as the sun, or leap up to the top of the highest mountain at one start, the very command carries its excuse with it in the impossibility of the thing enjoinedBut the precept of regeneration and restoring to righteousness is easy to be comprehended; it is backed with clear and manifest reason, and proposed with a promise of happiness which is very suitable to the natural appetite of our soulsTo command a thing simply impossible is not congruous to the wisdom, holiness, and righteousness of God; it would not be justice, but cruelty.  No wise man will invite another man by any promises to do that which is simply impossible; no just judge will punish a man for not observing such a precept; no righteous and merciful person would impose such a commandBut these commands of the gospel are not impossible in their own nature, but in regard of our perversity and contumacy.  The command of righteousness was possible when first given, and impossible since by our own folly; impossible in our voluntary corrupted nature, and by reason of our voluntarily cherished corruption.  The change is not in the nature of the law, but in the nature of the creature; and what is impossible to nature is possible to grace, and grace may be sought for the performance of them.

2. Because we have a foundation in our natures for such commands, therefore man’s weakness does not excuse him. It had been unjust for God to have commanded Adam in innocency to fly, and give him no wings; this had been above Adam’s natural power, he could not have done it, though he would fain have obeyed God, because his nature was destitute of all force [power] for such a command.  It would be strange if God should invite the trees or beasts to repent, because they have no foundation in their nature to entertain commands and invitations to obedience and repentance; for trees have no sense, and beasts have no reason to discern the difference between good and evil.  If God did command a man that never had eyes to contemplate the sun, man might wonder, since such a man never had organs for such an action.  But God addresses himself to men that have senses open to objects.  These understandings to know, and wills to move, affections to embrace objects.  These understandings are open to anything but that which God does command, their wills can will anything but that which God does propose.  The command is proportioned to the natural faculty, and the natural faculty proportioned to the excellency of the command.  We have affections, as love and desire.  In the command of loving God and loving our neighbor, there is only a change of the object of our affections required; the faculties are not weak by nature, but by the viciousness of nature, which is of our own introduction.  It is strange, therefore, that we should excuse ourselves, and pretend we are not to be blamed, because God’s command is impossible to be observed, when the defect lies not in the want [lack] of a natural foundation, but in our own giving up ourselves to the flesh and the love of it, and in a wilfull refusal of applying our faculties to their proper objects, when we can employ those faculties with all vehemence about those things which have no commerce with the gospel.

4. Because this impotence is rather a willfulness than a simple weakness, therefore man’s pretended weakness does not excuse him from the command.  It is not a weakness arising from a necessity of nature, but an enmity of will, whereby some other apparent good is beloved above God, and some creature preferred before HimThere is a double impotence, merae infirmitatis [mere infirmity], which is a want [lack] of power in the hand, when there is a readiness in the will to perform (Trigland de grat. p. 303); or malignitatis [malignity], which is seated in the will and affections, whereby though a man has a power to perform, yet he cannot because he will not; he will abhor any return to God, and will not be whetted by his promise to any endeavor.  A simple impotency deserves pity, for it is a rational excuse; but an obstinate perversity is so far from an excuse that it is an aggravation.  The deeper the habit of obstinacy, the more inexcusable the person (Trigland de grat. p. 303).  What a ridiculous excuse would this be, to say to God,

(1.) that I ought not to be obliged to restore myself to righteousness, and obey the command of the gospel, because I am of so perverse a disposition that I will not obey, and will not be restored; or

(2.) that God is bound to restore to him that will to obey and renew himself, otherwise he is guilty of no crime (Ibid.).

The first would be ridiculous, and both impious.  What hinders any man from being regenerate under the call of the gospel, but a moral weakness, which consists in an imperious inclination to evil, and a rooted indisposition in corrupt reason and will to believe and repent?  And here the Scripture lays it upon the hardness of the heart, Rom. 2:5, and a rebellious walking after our own thoughts: Isa. 65:2, ‘I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people, which walk in a way that was not good, after their own thoughts.’  We are impotent and cannot, because we are rebellious and will not.  For since man has an understanding capable to weigh arguments on both sides, and see the advantage of the good proposed, and the disadvantage of the evil tempting, if he does the evil, and refuses the good, is not the fault clearly in his will?… 




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