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THOUGHTS ON THE NATURAL ABILITY, AND MORAL
INABILITY OF SINNERS, SUGGESTED BY READING WHAT IS FOUND IN MR. BANGS' LETTERS ON THIS SUBJECT.
THE subject relative to the sinner's natural ability to do that to which his heart is wholly disinclined, was not very particularly brought into view in the Sermons, against which Mr. Bangs has written but as he has taken considerable notice of this matter in his Letters, I shall make some concise remarks on what he has offered. He thus writes, (pp. 283, 284 :) "To say that men have power, naturally to love God, while they have a "moral inability," is a manifest contradiction. Inability supposes a want of power; and therefore to say that a man has power to do a thing, and at the same time contend that there is an inability to do that thing, is saying that a man has power, and yet has not power, Let the inability be natural or moral; it is certain that, so long as that inability remains, the sinner has not power to comply with the requirements of the divine law." When we have examined these two things apart, viz. the sinners natural ability and moral inability, to do what God requires of him, we shall then see if we cannot bring them together, and make them harmonize.
1. Let us examine into the sinner's natural ability to do what God requires of him. God requires of the totally depraved sinner, to love him, to repent of his sins,
believe in Christ, and obey his holy precepts. Now we say, that the sinner is under no natural inability to comply with these requirements. Here we use the word natural, as opposed to moral, and not in contrast with unnatural. We grant, that in a moral or spiritual sense, it is natural for the sinner to refuse compliance. When we are speaking of the sinner's heart, we say, it is as natural for him to sin as for the sparks to fly upward. But still it is proper to say, that he is capable of doing better; he is capable of doing his duty. This is the same as to say, that he is able to do what God requires of him. And if he is able, then it is proper to say, he has an ability. But as by this ability, we do not design at all to bring into view the present disposition of his heart, or to say any thing about his willingness to love and serve God, we distinguish it from that holy ability or willingness of mind, by calling it a natural ability. By this we mean, that he has powers and faculties, which belong to his nature as a rational mo;al agent, which are sufficient to enable him to do all that which he is commanded. He has natural ability to do all which he is great enough to do, whether he is good enough to do it or not. He has natural ability to love God with all his understanding and strength, when his heart is full of enmity. But he has not ability of any kind, to love with more than all his understanding and strength.
Theological writers have for a long time made a distinction between the natural and moral attributes of God. By the natural, they have meant those attributes which exhibit him as an intelligent being, infinite in greatness, without directly bringing into view his holiness; and by the moral attributes, they have meant those holy affections, which make a being who is infinitely great, to be also infinitely lovely. According to this distinction, which divines have been accustomed to make, it is proper to say, while we look only at the natural attributes, that the Divine Being has infinite natural ability, to exercise holy affection, and do good. And since his heart is as holy, as his understanding is great, his natural ability to be, and do good, is resisted by no moral inability, or indisposition of mind. This use of the words, natural and moral, when appli
ed to the attributes of the Creator, will serve to show how they are used in application to the ability of his rational creatures.
When we speak of the natural ability of a creature, we do not include the idea of independence in the least degree, for such ability is to be found only in the great First Cause of all things. But we speak of men, as being able to do things which irrational creatures cannot do; and of some men, as being able to do things which others cannot. And we speak of the existence of these different degrees of ability, without taking into the account the disposition of the mind to exert this power, whether in this or that manner. Therefore it must be a natural, and not a moral ability, which we have in our view.
Let us for the present drop the name, and look at the thing. Who is there that does not hold to such a thing as we intend by a natural ability to obey divine requirements? What believer in vine revelatio can there be, who does not hold, that all men, to whom the gospel is sent, are, in some sense or other, capable of receiving it? There is something in men, wherein they differ from stones, vegetables and brutes; which makes it proper that their Creator should make known his will to them, and require their hearty consent and obedience, let their present character be what it may. Therefore while the Most High addresses no commands to stones, and trees, and brutes," he commandeth all men every where to repent." He does not command the literal vipers to cease to be venomous; but he calls on sinful men, who are very aptly termed "a generation of vipers," to repent, and bring forth fruits meet for repentance. Now if men were, in every sense, as incapable of the exercise of repentance, as stones, or as the serpents which crawl on the earth, would the Lord require repentance of them? and would he say, Except ye repent ye shall all perish? And would he blame them for impenitence, as he manifestly does?
II. Let us now, for a moment, attend to the sinner's inability to comply with divine requirements. By this it is not meant, that the powers of moral agency in sinful men are so weak and enfeebled, that they have no
power to put forth actions of a moral nature. No, depraved men are wise to do evil, and they are capable of sinning with a high hand. Moral inability, in application to the sinner, is wholly a wicked thing. It is an unholy, unreasonable incapacity to obey holy and reasonable requirements. It is a heart "fully set to do evil;" "dead in trespasses and sins." Moral inability relates wholly to the temper and disposition of the heart. We are morally unable to do that which we do not choose to do, tho' the thing itself is at the same time within the compass of our natural powers and faculties. As those attributes in God, which serve to bring his character into view, are called his moral attributes, so here; the inability of the sinner which exhibits his character, is termed a moral inability.
When we say, that sinners labor under a moral inability to do their duty, or to accept of gospel invitations, it is the same as to say, their hearts are wholly opposed to duty, and altogether unwilling to take Christ's easy yoke upon their necks. But why, it will be asked, do you call this unwillingness by the name of inability ? Why not say, that men are, in every sense, able to do their duty? Why do you say, that they labor under a moral inability to do their duty? To this we reply, that the phrase, "moral inability," is not the great thing
or which we contend. The great thing for which we contend, is; that men, in their unrenewed state, do possess such a temper and disposition of heart, as serves effectually to prevent them from heartily complying with divine requirements: Or in other words, that unrenewed men are, as it respects their hearts, totally depraved. For proof on the subject of total depravity, the reader is referred to the second section in this work, and to the second sermon in the volume of sermons, to which reference has so often been had.
Tho' I have said, that the phrase is not the great thing for which we contend, yet I view it as a proper phrase, and one which is justified by the language of the scriptures, and by the language now in use among men. The scriptures say, "It is impossible for God to lie," when it is manifest, that they refer to an inpossibility which arises from his moral perfection, and not through any deficiency in his natural attributes, by
which he is incapacitated to lie. When Moses is speaking of the envious feelings which Joseph's brethren exercised towards him, he says, "They hated him and could not speak peaceably unto him.” "Could not," is the same as to be unable, or to labor under an inability. Jesus Christ said to the Jews, "How can ye believe, which receive honor one of another?" Again he said, "Ye cannot hear my words." And again he said, "No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me, draw him."* In all these cases, it is not a want of physical or natural strength of body or mind, which creates the difficulty. It is clearly a difficulty which arises from a wrong temper of heart : and yet is termed a cannot; which is the same as an inability. But to distinguish it from a thing rendered difficult or impossible, through want of corporal or mental strength, we term it a moral inability. This use of the word cannot or inability, when applied to things rendered impossible by the perfect opposition of the heart to those things, is not only sanctioned by the scriptures, but also by the present and common use of
*This last text is found in John, chap. vi. ver. 44. In chap. v. ver. 40, the same unerring teacher, in an address to hearers of the same character, said; "And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life." In this last text he manifestly makes the sinner's incapacity to become a true believer, to consist in the wicked and inexcusable disinclination of the will, which is what we term a moral inability. And ought we to suppose, that the other text teaches some other kind of inability, which is of an excusable nature? Such a thought cannot for a moment be indulged. The text in the 6th chapter, by a cannot, brings the same kind of incapacity into view, which the other text does by a will not. Do you ask, Why then is the mode of expression changed? We answer; The declaration, "Ye will not come," taught their present indisposition, yet did not explicitly teach that this was their fixed character: But the declaration, "No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me, drag him;" teaches that this indisposition, this "will not," is the fixed character of sinners, even of all the sinners in the world, so that there is no man who is an exception to it. It also teaches, that this indisposition of heart, this moral inability, will never of itself be removed; but that it must be removed by an immediate interposition of divine power and grace. "Which were born, aot of the will of the flesh, but of God."