"To call on dead sinners to repent and believe the gospel implies ability in them to do so." These were the words of Elder Beebe as cited in the previous chapter. It is also repeated by other leaders in the "Primitive Baptist Church." It is also a leading premise of Pelagianism. But, we must ask - does the fact that all men are commanded to keep the commandments of the Lord imply that they have ability to do so? Did not Solomon say - "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man." (Eccl. 12: 13) "Man," all men, are commanded to "fear God." Does this imply that "man" has ability to do this? Pelagians would say yes. Hardshells, such as Beebe and the men cited in the previous chapter, also would have to say yes. Yet, even though they deny that all men are commanded to repent and believe the Gospel, yet they do not deny that all men are commanded to fear God and keep his law. If Hardshells can believe that the command to fear God and keep his commandments do not imply ability in man to do so, then why do they argue that the command to repent and believe imply an ability to do so?
Elder John Clark, editor of Zion's Advocate, and leader of the "Primitive Baptist" church in the middle 19th century, and an oft opponent of some of the views of Beebe, wrote:
"But some object and say, Why preach repentance to dead sinners? They can neither hear, see nor understand. That is true; that they hear not, see not, understand not, so far as the preacher is concerned or is able to effect them; but why did the prophet call upon the dry bones to hear the word of the Lord? He answered, “And I prophesied as I was commanded.” That was authority then for all who feared God, and it is still the authority for all such. This objection, however, will lie against all the exhortations and admonitions to the saints as it does against addresses to the ungodly, for the Christian has no more power than the unbeliever. The difference between them is not in the power, but in the will; as it written: "To will is present with me, but to perform that which is good I find not.”"
The theory that we must preach to men according to the power they possess to obey is sublimated Arminianism, and yet; the advocates of it are very fraid of being called Arminians. Christians know, however, by the word of his grace, and by the revelation of that word in their hearts, when it comes in power and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance, that Christ’s word is true which says, “Without me you can do nothing.” The Spirit takes the word of Christ and shows it to his people, and thus it is verified in the experience.
To preach to men upon the ground that they have power to do what is commanded, or to refuse to preach to them because they have not the power, shows that the confidence is in the flesh and not in God; that they depend upon the will of the flesh and not upon the power God, and that is the very essence, double refined, of Arminianism.
The minister of Christ does not preach to any class of men upon the consideration of their ability or inability. He has the sentence of death in himself, and therefore cannot trust in himself; and he has no confidence in the flesh of any other, but his confidence, his faith and hope, is in God, from whence alone are his expectations."
("What To Preach and How To Preach" Written by John Clark in Zion's Advocate--August 1875)
Elder John Clark understood the error of his fellow Hardshells who argued that Gospel commands implied ability in those addressed and therefore opted to believe that there are no Gospel commands to any other than those who are already saved. Interesting is the fact that Elder Clark was one of the few remaining believers in the Gospel being a means in regeneration or new birth in the late 19th century. It would be well if today's Hardshells would understand and accept the insightful words of Elder Clark. What Clark calls "sublimated Arminianism," "double refined" Arminianism, is really "Pelagianism." It is the view expressed by Elder Beebe. who said that Gospel commands imply an ability in those commanded, and therefore could not be addressed to the unregenerate. Clark saw through this and called it for what it is, "sublimated Arminianism" or "Pelagianism." It is because of these Pelagian errors that Hardshells have been labeled as "Antimomian" as well as "Hyper Calvinist."
Moral versus Physical or Natural Inability
It is clear that the Hardshells do not understand the nature of the inability of fallen man. And, because of this, they likewise do not understand the nature of regeneration. They do not understand that man's inability is moral, not physical (or natural). They do not understand that regeneration is not physical, does not change the essence of the soul or impart new faculties to it, but is a moral transformation.
A. W. Pink, a favorite author to read for many Hardshells, wrote (emphasis mine):
"Second, fallen man’s inability is moral, not physical or constitutional. Unless this is clearly perceived we shall be inclined to turn our impotence into an excuse or ground of self-extenuation. Man will be ready to say, "Even though I possess the requisite faculties for the discharge of my duty, if I am powerless I cannot be blamed for not doing it." A person who is paralyzed possesses all the members of his body, but he lacks the physical power to use them; and no one condemns him for his helplessness. It needs to be made plain that when the sinner is said to be morally and spiritually "without strength," his case is entirely different from that of one who is paralyzed physically. The normal or ordinary natural man is not without either mental or physical strength to use his talents. What he lacks is a good heart, a disposition to love and serve God, a desire to please Him; and for that lack he is justly blamable."
"For the sake of those who desire additional insight on the relation of man’s inability to his responsibility, we feel we must further consider this difficult but important (perhaps to some, abstruse and dry) aspect of our subject. Light on it has come to us "here a little, there a little"; but it is our duty to share with others the measure of understanding vouchsafed us. We have sought to show that the problem we are wrestling with appears much less formidable when once the precise nature of man’s impotence is properly defined. It is due neither to the absence of requisite faculties for the performance of duty nor to any force from without which compels him to act contrary to his nature and inclinations. Instead, his bondage to sin is voluntary; he freely chooses the evil. Second, it is a moral inability, and not physical or constitutional." ("The Doctrine of Man’s Impotence," Chapter 9-Affirmation, see here)
Jonathan Edwards, in his book "Freedom of the Will," SECTION IV., under the heading "Command and Obligation to Obedience, consistent with moral Inability to obey," wrote:
"What has been said of natural and moral Necessity, may serve to explain what is intended by natural and moral Inability. We are said to be naturally unable to do a thing, when we cannot do it if we will, because what is most commonly called nature does not allow of it, or because of some impeding defect or obstacle that is extrinsic to the will, either in the faculty of understanding, constitution of body, or external objects. Moral Inability consists not in any of these things; but either in the want of inclination, or the strength of a contrary inclination, or the want of sufficient motives in view, to induce and excite the act of the will, or the strength of apparent motives to the contrary. Or both these may be resolved into one; and it may be said in one word, that moral Inability consists in the opposition or want of inclination. For when a person is unable to will or choose such a thing, through a defect of motives, or prevalence of contrary motives, it is the same thing as his being unable through the want of an inclination. or the prevalence of a contrary inclination, in such circumstances, and under the influence of such views."
It must be noted how Edwards uses the term "natural" in the above words. He does not deny that the lack of inclination and disposition to obey God is "natural" in the sense that it is inbred in the soul, but he uses the term in the sense of what is "physical" or "constitutional."
"It cannot be truly said, according to the ordinary use of language, that a malicious man, let him be ever so malicious, cannot hold his hand from striking, or that he is not able to show his neighbor kindness; or that a drunkard, let his appetite be ever so strong, cannot keep the cup from his mouth. In the strictest propriety of speech, a man has a thing in his power, if he has it in his choice, or at his election: and a man cannot be truly said to be unable to do a thing, when he can do it if he will. It is improperly said, that a person cannot perform those external actions which are dependent on the act of the will, and which would be easily performed, if the act of the will were present . And if it be improperly said, that he cannot perform those external voluntary actions, which depend on the will, it is in some respect more improperly said, that he is unable to exert the acts of the will themselves; because it is more evidently false, with respect to these, that he cannot if he will: for to say so, is a downright contradiction: it is to say, he cannot will, if he does will. And in this case, not only is it true, that it is easy for a man to do the thing if he will, but the very willing is the doing; when once he has willed, the thing is performed; and nothing else remains to be done. Therefore, in these things to ascribe a non-performance to the want of power or ability, is not just; because the thing wanting is not a being able, but a being willing. There are faculties of mind, and capacity of nature, and every thing else sufficient, but a disposition: nothing is wanting but a will." (see here)
Basically, Edwards argues that man's "cannot" lies strictly in his "will not."
"Dr. Whitby's notions of liberty, obligation, virtue, sin, &c., led him into another great inconsistence. He abundantly insists, that necessity is inconsistent with the nature of sin or fault. He says in the forementioned treatise, p. 14, "Who can blame a person for doing what he could not help?" And p. 15, "It being sensibly unjust, to punish any man for doing that which was never in his power to avoid." And in p. 341, to confirm his opinion, he quotes one of the Fathers, saying, " Why doth God command, if man hath not free Will and power to obey 1" And again in the same and the next page, " Who will not cry out, that it is folly to command him, that hath not liberty to do what is commanded; and that it is unjust to condemn him, that has it not in his power to do what is required 1" And in p. 373, he cites another saying: "A law is given to him that can turn to both parts, i. e. obey or transgress it: but no law can be against him who is bound by nature." And yet the same Dr. Whitby asserts, that fallen man is not able to perform perfect obedience. In p. 165, he has these words: "The nature of Adam had power to continue innocent, and without sin; whereas it is certain our nature never had."—But if we have not power to continue innocent and without sin, then sin is inconsistent with Necessity, and we may be sinful in that which we have not power to avoid; and these things cannot be true which he asserts elsewhere, namely, "That if we be necessitated, neither sins of omission nor commission, would deserve that name," (p. 348.) If we have it not in our power to be innocent, then we have it not in our power to to be blameless: and if so, we are under a necessity of being blameworthy.—And how does this consist with what he so often asserts, that necessity is inconsistent with blame or praise"? If we have it not in our power to perform perfect obedience, to all the commands of God, then we are under a necessity of breaking some commands, in some degree; having no power to perform so much as is commanded. And if so, why does he cry out of the unreasonableness and folly of commanding beyond what men have power to do?"
"And Arminians in general are very inconsistent with themselves in what they say of the inability of fallen Man in this respect. They strenuously maintain, that it would be unjust in God, to require any thing of us beyond our present power and ability to perform; and also hold, that we are now unable to perform perfect obedience, and that Christ died to satisfy for the imperfections of our obedience, and has made way, that our imperfect obedience might be accepted instead of perfect: wherein they seem insensibly to run themselves into the grossest inconsistence. For (as I have observed elsewhere),"they hold, that God. in mercy to mankind, has abolished that rigorous constitution or law, that they were under originally; and instead of it, has introduced a more mild constitution, and put as under a new law, which requires no more than imperfect sincere obedience, in compliance with our poor, infirm, impotent circumstances since the fall." (Section II 94-98)
Not only are Arminians "very inconsistent with themselves in what they say of the inability of fallen Man," but so are the Hardshells.
A. A. Hodge, in his "Outlines of Theology," wrote:
"16. What distinction is intended by the theological terms, natural and moral ability?
By natural ability was intended the possession, on the part of every responsible moral agent, whether holy or unholy, of all the natural faculties, as reason, conscience, free will, requisite to enable him to obey God s law. If any of these were absent, the agent would not be responsible. By moral ability was intended that inherent moral condition of these faculties, that righteous disposition of heart, requisite to the performance of duty. Although these terms have been often used by orthodox writers in a sense which to them expressed the truth, yet they have often been abused, and are not desirable. It is evidently an abuse of the word to say that sinners are naturally able, but morally unable, to obey the law; for that can be no ability which leaves the sinner, as the Scriptures declare, utterly unable either to think, feel, or act aright. Besides, the word “natural,” in the phrase “natural ability,” is used in an unusual sense, as opposite to moral; while in the usual sense of that word it is declared in Scripture that man is by nature, i.e., naturally, a child of wrath." (A.A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, page 272, as cited in calvinandcalvinism.com, see here)
Hodge explains how Edwards and other Calvinist writers use the term "natural" in opposition to the term "moral" in explaining both man's inability and his regeneration.
W. G. T. Shedd wrote:
"1) In the Westminster statement, the disability or inability is connected with the disposition and inclination of the will. Man is “indisposed to all spiritual good, and inclined to all [spiritual] evil.” It follows from this, that the cause and seat of the inability in question is in the action and state of the voluntary faculty. It is moral or willing inability.
Nam servit voluntas peccato, non nolens sed volens. Etenim voluntas non noluntas dicitur. Second Helvetic Confession, IX.
In denominating it “moral” inability, it is not meant that it arises merely from habit, or that it is not “natural” in any sense of the word nature. A man is sometimes said to be morally unable to do a thing, when it is very difficult for him to do it by reason of an acquired habit, but not really impossible. This is not the sense of the word “moral” when applied to the sinner’s inability to holiness. He is really and in the full sense of the word impotent. And the cause of this impotence is not a habit of doing evil which he has formed in his individual life, but a natural disposition which he has inherited from Adam. The term “moral,” therefore, when applied to human inability denotes that it is voluntary, in distinction from created. Man’s impotence to good does not arise from the agency of God in creation, but from the agency of man in apostasy.
Whether, therefore, it can ever be called “natural” inability, will depend upon the meaning given to the term “nature.”
(a) If “nature” means that which is created by God, there is no natural inability to good in fallen man. But if “nature” means “natural disposition,” or “natural inclination,” there is a “natural” inability to good in fallen man." (ibid)
In the writings of Hardshells on the inability of the natural man to obey the law or the Gospel, they conceive of the inability as being natural or physical, as if it results from some lack of a faculty of soul rather than strictly from a lack of moral strength. This has led them to view regeneration as involving the giving of faculties to the soul which it did not previously have rather than of a strictly moral transformation. On this we will have more to say later in this series. What do the Hardshells mean when they insist that God gives the sinner an inner power or ability in regeneration? Do they mean that God gives it faculties which it did not have before? Yes, they do, and this results from the fact that they do not understand the nature of the inability that the unregenerate sinner possesses. If the sinner has a natural or physical inability, then truly he would not be accountable.
In the next chapter we will continue to show that the Scriptures and the leading Calvinistic authors teach a moral rather than a natural or physical inability and then show how such a view affects one's view on the nature of the change effected in regeneration.