Some excellent men, who saw the danger of so insisting on the inability of man as to furnish an apology for the careless sinner, borrowed a little aid from the Arminian scheme, and taught that if the sinner would do what was in his power, and continue faithfully to use the outward means of grace, the Spirit of God would assist his endeavors: and thus a connection was formed between the strivings of the unregenerate and the grace of God. But this was not consistent with the other opinions of these men, and involved them in many practical difficulties, and contradicted many clear passages of scripture, which teach that " without faith it is impossible to please God:" and it seemed to be obviously absurd, that the promise of grace should be made to acts and exercises which, it could not be denied, were in their nature sinful. Some, indeed, spoke of a kind of sincerity which they supposed an unregenerate sinner might possess; but it was found difficult to tell what it was; and another difficulty was to quiet the minds of those convinced sinners who had been long using the means of grace. Such persons would allege that they had prayed, and read, and heard the word for a long time, and yet received no communications of grace. To such, nothing could on this plan be said, but to exhort them to wait God’s time, and to entertain the confident hope that no soul ever perished, that continued to the last seeking for mercy. The inconvenience and evil of these representations being perceived, many adopted with readiness a distinction of human ability into natural and moral. By the first they understood merely the possession of physical powers and opportunities; by the latter, a mind rightly disposed. In accordance with this distinction, it was taught that every man possessed a natural ability to do all that God required of him; but that every sinner labored under a moral inability to obey God, which, however, could not be pleaded in excuse for his disobedience, as it consisted in corrupt dispositions of the heart, for which every man was responsible. Now this view of the subject is substantially correct, and the distinction has always been made by every person, in his judgments of his own conduct and that of others. It is recognized in all courts of justice, and in all family government, and is by no means a modern discovery. And yet it is remarkable that it is a distinction so seldom referred to, or brought distinctly into view, by old Calvinistic authors. The first writer among English theologians that we have observed using this distinction explicitly, is the celebrated Dr. Twisse, the prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, and the able opposer of Arminianism, and advocate of the Supralapsarian doctrine of divine decrees. It was also resorted to by the celebrated Mr. Howe, and long afterwards used freely by Dr. Isaac Watts, the popularity of whose evangelical writings probably had much influence in giving it currency. It is also found in the theological writings of Dr. Witherspoon, and many others, whose orthodoxy was never disputed. But in this country no man has had so great an influence in fixing the language of theology, as Jonathan Edwards, president of New Jersey College. In his work on "The Freedom of the Will," this distinction holds a prominent place, and is very important to the argument which this profound writer has so ably discussed in that treatise. The general use of the distinction between natural and moral ability may, therefore, be ascribed to the writings of President Edwards, both in Europe and America. No distinguished writer on theology has made more use of it than Dr. Andrew Fuller; and it is well known that he imbibed nearly all his views of theology from an acquaintance with the writings of President Edwards. And it may be said truly, that Jonathan Edwards has done more to give complexion to the theological system of Calvinists in America, than all other persons together. This is more especially true of New England; but it is also true to a great extent in regard to a large number of the present ministers of the Presbyterian church. Those, indeed, who were accustomed either to the Scotch or Dutch writers, did not adopt this distinction, but were jealous of it as an innovation, and as tending to diminish, in their view, the miserable and sinful state of man, and as derogatory to the grace of God. But we have remarked, that in almost all cases where the distinction has been opposed as false, or as tending to the introduction of false doctrine, it has been misrepresented. The true ground of the distinction has not been clearly apprehended; and those who deny it have been found making it themselves in other words; for that an inability depending on physical defect, should be distinguished from that which arises from a wicked disposition, or perverseness of will, is a thing which no one can deny who attends to the clear dictates of his own mind; for it is a self-evident truth, which even children recognize in all their apologies for their conduct. We do not assert, however, that the dispute between the advocates and opposers of this distinction has been a mere logomachy. There is one important point of difference. They who reject the distinction, maintain that if we have lost any physical ability to perform our duty by our own fault, the obligation to obedience remains, although the ability to execute it is utterly lost; while the advocates of the distinction between natural and moral ability hold that obligation and ability must be of equal extent; and although they admit that we are accountable for the loss of any faculty which takes place through our fault, yet the guilt must be referred entirely to the original act, and no new sin can be committed for not exercising a faculty which does not exist, or which is physically incapable of the actions in question. To illustrate this point, let us suppose the case of a servant cutting off his hands to avoid the work required of him. The question then is, is this servant guilty of a crime for not employing those members which he does not possess? It is admitted that he is chargeable with the consequences of his wicked act, but this only goes to show the greater guilt of that deed. It is also true, that if the same perverse disposition which led to this act is still cherished, he is virtually guilty of the neglect of that obedience which was due. Sin consists essentially in the motives, dispositions, and volitions of the heart, and the external act only possesses a moral nature by its connection with these internal affections. But it cannot be truly said that a man can be guilty of a crime in not using hands which he does not possess. Let us suppose this servant to have become truly penitent, and to have nothing in his mind but a strong desire to do his duty; can any impartial man believe that he commits a sin in not doing the work which he has no hands to execute? We think not. The case will appear more evident, if the faculty lost should be one which is essential to moral agency; as if a man should by his own fault deprive himself of reason. It is manifest that a man totally destitute of reason is incapable of any moral acts; and this is equally true, however this defect may have been contracted. If a man performs an act by which he knows reason will be extinguished or perverted, he is guilty in that act of a crime which takes its measure, in part, from the consequences likely to ensue. Thus in the case of the drunkard; he who destroys his reason by ebriety, may be considered as guilty of an act, the guilt of which has respect to all the probable consequences. In human courts we are aware that intoxication cannot be pleaded as a justification of crime; but on this subject it may be observed, that drunkards are not commonly so destitute of a knowledge of right and wrong as to be deprived of their moral agency. And again, it would be of dangerous consequence to admit the principle, that a man might plead one crime in justification of another; and it would be exceedingly liable to abuse, as a man might become intoxicated for the very purpose of committing a great crime, or he might affect a greater degree of intoxication than was real; so that it is a sound political maxim, that a man shall be held responsible for all acts committed in a state of ebriety. But in foro conscientiae, we cannot but view the matter in a different light. If by an intoxicating liquor reason is completely subverted, and the man is no longer himself, we cannot judge that he is as accountable for what he does, as when in his sober senses. You may accumulate as much guilt as you will on the act of extinguishing or perverting his reason; but you cannot think that what he madly perpetrates under the influence of strong drink, is equally criminal as if committed while reason was in exercise. This we take to be the deliberate judgment of all impartial men….
Let us now return to the inquiry respecting natural and moral inability. We asserted that all men, and even children, were in the constant habit of making a distinction between an impediment to the doing of a thing, which arose from want of physical power, and that which depended solely on the disposition or will. But it may be useful to inquire, whether any advantage has been derived from the use of these terms; or, whether they have not rather served to perplex and mislead the people, for whose benefit they were devised. That this latter is probably a correct statement of the truth, may with some probability be presumed from the fact, that these terms are evidently falling into disuse with many who were once tenacious of them. But to render this more evident, we would remark, that there is an obvious inaccuracy in speaking of two kinds of ability, both of which are requisite to accomplish the same object. If both are necessary to the end, then evidently either by itself is not an ability. If the strength of a man, together with a machine of a certain power, be necessary to lift a weight, it is evidently incorrect to say, that the hand of the man is able to elevate this heavy body; his strength is only an ability when combined with the machine, which is needed to give it force; so, if the mere possession of natural powers to do the commandments of God is not of itself sufficient to reach the end, it is not properly called an ability; it is only such when combined with what is called moral ability.
Again, the word natural is here used in an uncommon and technical sense; and the term being already in common use, in relation to the same subject, in a sense entirely different, it is calculated to perplex and mislead. When we say, man possesses a natural ability, we mean by the word natural that which is contra-distinguished from moral; that which is destitute of any moral quality; but we are accustomed to say, and the usage is derived from Scripture, that man is naturally depraved, naturally blind, naturally impotent: but in this case we mean, that which is innate; that which is constitutional; and when applied to this subject, the meaning is entirely diverse from the one stated above; for while there, all idea of moral character is excluded, here it relates to moral qualities. Man is naturally able to obey the commandments of God:–man is naturally a depraved and impotent being, are contradictions, if the word natural be used in the same sense, in both cases; but as intended, there is no contradiction; for the word, in the first instance, has an entirely different meaning from what it has in the second. But surely, such confusion in the use of terms should be avoided. And if you will inquire of the common people what they understand by natural ability, you will be convinced that it is a phrase which perplexes and obscures, rather than elucidates the subject. We have known instances in which clergymen of some learning, and even doctors of divinity, have understood that they who held the doctrine of man’s natural ability, denied that of total depravity whereas the fact is, that there are no sterner advocates of universal and total depravity than those who make this distinction.
But an objection of a different but not less weighty kind, lies against the use of the phrases, "moral ability" and "moral inability." By the former is meant, that state of the heart or affections which leads a person to choose to perform any act of external obedience; by the latter, the contrary, or an indisposition or unwillingness to do our duty. Now, we know that the law of God extends to the heart, and requires rectitude in every secret thought and affection; yea, the essence of obedience consists in this conformity of the heart to the law of God. But according to the import of this distinction, these internal affections are no more than a moral ability to obey. The phrase seems to contemplate external acts only as acts of obedience, and the affections of the heart as the ability to perform them; but this is evidently incorrect. What is the sum of the obedience winch the law of God requires of man? Is it not supreme and perfect love? What is moral ability? It is this very thing in which the essence of obedience consists. This moral ability should relate to something prior to love; but what ability is that which is prior to all holy affection? If you say the nature or disposition, the law requires that this be pure also, as well as the acts and exercises. There is, then, no such thing as a moral ability to obey, as distinct from obedience itself And, again, what is moral inability but sin itself? It is the want of a right temper and a holy will–the defect of that love which the law requires; and what is this but sin? It certainly can have no other effect but to mislead, to call the essence of disobedience by the name of “moral inability." It can be no question whether sin can furnish any excuse for disobedience. Now what is called " moral inability," when it comes to be analyzed, is nothing but the essence of sin as it exists in the heart. Man labors under a moral inability to obey God, because he does not love him; but love is the sum and essence of all obedience; it is the same, therefore, as to say, that man in his natural state has no love to God. Man is in a state of sin, which, while it continues, must be an effectual hindrance to the service of God.
We have already remarked that the distinction of inability into natural and moral, is much less used of late, than it was some fifteen or twenty years ago. It has not answered the purpose for which it was invented. If there be a real inability which man cannot remove, it must have the effect of discouraging human exertions. Let it be conceded that it does not render man excusable; yet it does render his unassisted efforts ineffectual; therefore, they who consider it all important, not merely to fix upon the conscience the conviction of ill-desert, but to rouse the powers of the soul to action, have adopted a new method of treating this subject, which not a little alarms those who are tenacious of old notions and the ancient forms of speech. These new preachers, in their addresses to the impenitent sinner, say nothing about natural and moral inability. They preach that man is in possession of every ability which is requisite for the discharge of his duty. That it is as easy for him to repent, to exercise faith, and to love God, as to speak, or eat, or walk, or perform any other act. And men are earnestly and passionately exhorted to come up at once to the performance of their duty. Nothing is more in the power of a man, they allege, than his own will; and the consent of the will to the terms of the Gospel is all that is required to constitute any man a Christian. When sinners are awakened, and become anxious about their salvation, it is deemed by these teachers improper to manifest any sympathy with their feelings of pungent conviction; for the only reason of their remaining in distress, is their obstinate continuance in impenitence. All conversation with such, therefore, should assume the character of stern rebuke, and continued earnest exhortations to submit to God, to give up their rebellion, and to make choice of the service of God. And if any convinced sinner ventures to express the opinion, that he labors under any sort of inability to do what is required of him, he is severely reproved, as wishing to cast the blame of his impenitence on his Maker. And it is believed, that upon the new plan of treating awakened sinners, they are brought to the enjoyment of peace much sooner, than upon the old plan of treating them rather as unfortunate than as guilty. Men, upon being assured that salvation is in their power, are induced to make an exertion to submit to God, and do often persuade themselves that now they have complied with their duty, and have passed from death unto life. There is much reason to fear, however, that many souls, who have very slight convictions of sin, are deluded into the opinion, that they have submitted, and are reconciled to God, though they have never been led to any deep views of the dreadful sinfulness of their own hearts. And, others, who have deeper convictions, find all their own efforts unavailing; and while they confess that the fault is in the total depravity of their nature, continue to profess their inability to repent; and whatever power others may have to change the heart, are more and more convinced, that no such power belongs to them. The obstinate cases cannot but be perplexing and troublesome to the zealous preachers of full ability; but they contrive to reconcile them with their doctrine, by various methods, which it is not to our purpose to specify. Now, as a large portion of our younger theologians appear to be adopting this new theory of ability, and consider it a great improvement upon both the old Calvinistic doctrine, and also upon the Edwardean theory of natural and moral ability; and especially, as it claims a near alliance with the many revivals of religion which are now in progress in the church, it becomes a duty of high obligation to bring these opinions, which are now so widely and confidently inculcated, to the test of reason and scripture; and we trust that our readers will indulge us, while we enter, with some degree of minuteness, into the discussion. And, to give our views clearly and fully on the subject of man’s ability and inability, we shall Endeavour to go back to first principles, and cautiously examine those maxims, which, by most who speak on this subject, are taken for granted.
On the subject of man’s moral agency and accountableness, there is no controversy.
It is also agreed by most, that an obligation to perform an act of obedience supposes the existence of the faculties or physical powers requisite for its performance. An irrational being cannot be under a moral obligation to perform a rational act, Man cannot be under obligation to do what requires powers which do not belong to his nature and constitution. For example, man could not justly be required to transport himself from earth to heaven, as the angels do, because this exceeds the power which belongs to his nature. And it is admitted, that where there is a willingness to perform a duty, anything which renders the execution of our desire impracticable, removes the obligation. For no man can be bound to perform impossibilities. The maxim, that obligation to obey any command supposes the existence of an ability to do the action; required, relates entirely to actions consequent upon volitions. If we appeal to the common sense, or universal judgment of mankind; on this point, we must be careful to understand precisely the common principle respecting which all men are agreed; and must be careful not to extend the maxim to other things, entirely distinct from its usual application. An infant cannot justly be required to build a house or a ship. A person of weak intellect and little invention cannot be obliged to write an elegant poem. No man can be under obligation to remember every word which he ever spoke, and every thought which ever passed through his mind. A man who has lost his hands or his feet, cannot afterwards be under a moral obligation to exercise these members. This case is so plain, and the judgment of men so uniform on the subject, that we need not dwell longer on the point….
We come now to the inquiry, whether a man has a power to change the affections of his heart; or to turn the current of his inclinations in a contrary direction to that in which they run. On this subject our first remark is, that the very supposition of a person being sincerely desirous to make such a change is absurd, for if there existed a prevailing desire that our affections should not be attached to certain objects, then already the change has taken place; but while our souls are carried forth in strong affections to an object, it is a contradiction to say that that soul desires the affections to be removed from that object: for what is affection but the outgoing of the soul with desire and delight towards an object? But to suppose a desire not to love the object which has attracted our affections, is to suppose two opposite affections prevailing in the same soul at the same time, and in relation to the same object. It is true that there may exist conflicting desires in regard to the objects which are pursued; for, while with a prevailing desire we are led on to seek them, there may, and often do, exist inferior desires which draw us, according to their force, in another direction. Thus, a drunkard may be prevailingly inclined to seek the gratification which he expects from strong drink, but while he is resolved to indulge his appetite, a regard to health, reputation, and the comfort of his family, may produce a contrary desire; but, in the case supposed, it is overcome by the stronger inclination which a vicious appetite has generated. It is also true, as has been remarked by President Edwards, that in contemplating some future time, a man may desire that the appetite or affection which now governs him may be subdued. And again, a man may be brought into such circumstances that his desire of happiness, or dread of eternal misery, may be so strong as to induce him to wish that his predominant affections might be changed; and under the powerful influence of these constitutional principles he may be led to will a change in the temper of his mind and the inclinations of his heart. The question is, whether a volition to change the desires or dispositions is ever effectual. If our philosophy of the mind be correct, this is a thing entirely out of the power of the will. Every person, however, can put the matter to the test of experience at any moment. The best way to prove to ourselves that we have a power over our affections, is to exercise it. Who was ever conscious of loving any person or thing, merely from willing to do so? What power, then, has the sinner to change his own heart? He does not love God, but is at enmity with him–how shall he change his enmity into love? You tell him that he has the power to repent and to love God, and urge him instantly to comply with his duty. Now we should be exceedingly obliged by any one who would explain the process by which a sinner changes the current of his affections. We have often tried the experiment, and have found ourselves utterly impotent to accomplish this work. Perhaps the zealous preacher of the doctrine of human ability will say it is as easy to love God, or easier than to hate him. He can only mean, that when the heart is in that state in which the exhibition of the character of God calls forth love, the exercise of love in such a soul is as easy as the exercise of enmity in one of a different moral temperament. The ability to repent and love God then amounts to no more than this, that the human faculties when rightly exercised are as capable of holy as of sinful acts, which no one, we presume, ever denied; but it is a truth which has no bearing on the point in hand. The impenitent sinner cannot sincerely will to change his heart, and if under the influence of such motives as he is capable of feeling, he does will a change of affection, the effect does not follow the volition. Those persons, therefore, who are continually preaching that men have every ability necessary to repent, are inculcating a doctrine at war with every man’s experience, and directly opposed to the word of God, which continually represents the sinner as “ dead” and impotent, and incapable of thinking even a good thought. But we shall be told that it is a maxim of common sense, that whatever we are commanded to do we must have power or ability to perform–that it is absurd to suppose that any man is under obligations to do what he is unable to perform. Now, we are of opinion that this is precisely the point where these advocates of human ability mistake, and their error consists in the misapplication of the maxim already mentioned–which is true and self-evident when properly applied–to a case to which it does not belong. We have admitted, over and over, that this doctrine is universally true, in relation to the performance of actions consequent on volition; but we now deny that this is true when applied to our dispositions, habits, and affections. We utterly deny, that, in order to a man’s being accountable and culpable for enmity to God, he should have the power of instantly changing his enmity into love. If a man has certain affections and dispositions of heart which are evil, he is accountable for them; and the more inveterate and immovable these traits of moral character are, the more he is to be blamed, and the more he deserves to be punished. But as it is alleged that the common judgment of man’s moral faculty is, that he cannot be culpable unless he possesses the power to divest himself of his evil temper by an act of volition, we will state one or two cases, and leave it to every reader to judge for himself, after an impartial consideration of the facts.
In the first place, we take the case of a son, who being of a self-willed disposition, and having a great fondness for sensual pleasure and a strong desire to be free from restraint, has been led to cherish enmity to his father. The father we will suppose to be a man of conscientious integrity, who, from natural affection and from a regard to higher principles, wishes to perform his duty, by reproving, restraining, and correcting his child. But all this discipline, instead of working a reformation, has the effect of irritating the son, who every day becomes more stubborn and incorrigible; until he comes at length to look upon his father as a tyrannical master–an object of utter aversion. Hatred readily takes root in the bosom of such a one, and by the wicked counsels of ill advisers this feeling is cherished, until by degrees it becomes so inveterate that he cannot think of his father without being conscious of malignant feelings. The effect of such feelings will be to pervert every action of the hated person, however kind or just. Malice also causes everything to be seen through a false medium. Now suppose this process to have been going on for years, the first question is, can this ungrateful son change in a moment these feelings of enmity and ill-will for filial affection? The impossibility is too manifest to require any discussion; he cannot. But is he, on account of his inability to change his affections, innocent? Surely the guilt of such a state of mind does not require that the person be at once, or at all, able to change the state of his heart. And we maintain that according to the impartial judgment of mankind, such a man would be the object of blame without regard to any ability to change his heart. And this is the case in regard to impenitent sinners. Their enmity to God, and aversion to his law, is deep and inveterate; and though they have neither ability nor will to change the temper of their minds, they are not the less culpable on that account; for the nature of moral evil does not consist in that only which can be changed at will, but the deeper the malignity of the evil, the greater the sinfulness, and the more justly is the person exposed to punishment. We are of opinion, therefore, that the new doctrine of human ability, which is so much in vogue, is false and dangerous. And to corroborate this opinion, we remark, that men who are forsaken of God, and given over to believe a lie, and to work all uncleanness with greediness; or, who have committed the unpardonable sin, so that they cannot be “renewed again to repentance,” are surely unable to change their hearts, and yet they are exceedingly guilty.
The same thing may be strongly illustrated by a reference to the devils. They are moral agents and act freely, for they continue to sin; but who would choose to assert that they can change their nature from sin to holiness, from enmity to love? But they possess, as fully as man, what has been called "natural ability." They have all the physical powers requisite to constitute them moral agents, and to perform the whole will of God, and are continually adding to their guilt by their willing commission of sin. But it is impossible for the devils to become holy angels; and this one fact is sufficient to demonstrate, that a power to change the heart is not necessary to render a man guilty for continuing in sin. The very reverse comes nearer the truth. The more unable a sinner is to cease from his enmity, the deeper is his guilt: yet on the very same principles on which it is argued, that it is as easy for man to love God as to hate him, it might be proved that it was perfectly easy for the fallen angels to love God; or for the spirits shut up in the prison of despair to begin to love God, and thus disarm the law of that penalty which dooms them to everlasting death. If holiness is anything real; if it has any foundation or principle in the mind in which it exists; and if this principle was lost by the fall of men and angels, then it is certain that man cannot restore to his own soul the lost image of God. Again: they who insist upon it, that the sinner has all ability to repent and turn to God, and who so peremptorily and sternly rebuke the impenitent for not doing instantly what they have it in their power to do so easily, ought to set the example which these sinners should follow. Surely the renewed man has the same kind of ability, and as much ability, to be instantly perfect in holiness, as the unregenerate man has to renew his own soul or to change his own heart. Let the preacher give an immediate example of this ability by becoming perfectly holy, and we will consent that he preach this doctrine….
It will be objected, with much confidence, that if man has no ability to repent he cannot be blamed for not repenting. But this is only true if he desires to repent and is unable to do it. This, however, is not the case of the impenitent sinner. He does not wish to repent–if he did, there is no hindrance in his way. But his soul is at enmity with God, and this opposition is so deep and total that he has neither the will nor the power to convert himself to the love of God. But will his wickedness, therefore, excuse him, because it is so great that it has left no desire nor ability to change his mind? Certainly the judgment of mankind is sufficiently ascertained on this point, and is entirely different from this. The wretch who is so abandoned to vice, that he never feels a wish for reformation, is not on this account free from blame; so far from it, that THE GREATER THE INABILITY, THE GREATER THE GUILT. The more entirely a murderer has been under the influence of malice, the more detestable his crime. The object of all judicial investigation is to ascertain, first, the fact, and then the motive; and the more deliberate, unmixed, and invincible the malevolence appears to have been, the more unhesitating is the determination of every juror, or judge, to find him guilty. It is the common sense of all men, that the more incorrigible and irreclaimable a transgressor, the more deserving is he of severe punishment. It cannot, therefore, be a fact, that men generally think, that where there is any kind of inability there is no blame. The very reverse is true. And it will be found to be the universal conviction of men in all ages and countries, that a totally depraved character creates an inability to do good; and that the greater this inability the more criminal is the person who is the subject of it.
Archibald Alexander, "The Inability of Sinners," in Theological Essays (New York & London: Wiley and Putnam, 1846), 265–268, 272-275, 277-280, and, 281-282
Credit to Tony for the find.