I recently listened to an interview of a well-respected pastor/theologian on one of my favorite podcasts. I was quite excited to see that he was a guest on the show and had been looking forward to the episode. But they didn’t get very far into the podcast before I was hit with a very disappointing blow. When the interviewer asked the Pastor about what he felt was at the root of the error of the gospel of easy-believism, his answer was, unbelievably, Jonathan Edwards!
His reasoning went along these lines. Jonathan Edwards used the same terminology that Moses Amyraut (founder of Amyraldianism, often called 4 point Calvinism) had used in describing man’s will with his distinction between man’s natural ability and moral inability. He said that those who introduced the false gospel in the Second Great Awakening claimed to be following Edwards when they taught that since man has the natural ability to believe in Christ, we can therefore manipulate him into making a decision for Christ. The pastor concluded by stating that more investigation needs to be done to discover if this is indeed what Edwards taught. Now I have no desire whatsoever to discredit this pastor in any way. (hence, no name) However, I think we can set the record straight in regards to Jonathan Edwards having any responsibility in this case. The only “further investigation” that needs to be conducted here is to read Edwards’ treatise on Freedom of the Will.
While the terms natural ability or moral inability do not appear in the Scriptures as such, the distinction they convey is both Biblical and Confessional. These terms accurately convey the fact that when we teach that God commands all men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel, yet no men anywhere have the ability to repent and believe the gospel, it is not as if God gave a man muscles that could only jump 2 feet high, yet commanded him to jump 100 feet in the air.
I think the clearest Biblical example of what we are talking about is found in Genesis 37:4.
But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.
Joseph’s brothers could not speak peaceably to him. This was not because their lips and tongues lacked the ability to produce the noises necessary to express kindness to the brother they so dearly loved. They could not speak well of Joseph because they hated him. They had the natural ability to speak well of Joseph, but they were morally unable because of the sinfulness of their hearts.
The London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 also sets forth this distinction, though not in the exact terms. Paragraph 1 of Chapter 9 addresses the issue of natural ability when it says:
God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil.
God did not give man a will that was by nature unable to choose to please God, so that even though his heart would desire to do so, he would be unable to make that choice. God gave man a will that is perfectly capable of choosing whatever it is that his heart desires. It is not as though God asked man to choose A, B, C or D, but then punished him because he should have chosen Q. Or to put a more modern spin on the idea, it is not as though 3 of the required fields on a web based form have been greyed out and cannot be filled.
Paragraph 3 goes on to discuss the other side of this equation, man’s moral inability, when it says:
Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.
Man is utterly and completely unable to do any spiritual good. This is a moral inability, because the reason he cannot do good is precisely because he has no desire to do so. He hates God and seeks only to faithfully serve his master: sin (John 8:34). His will is perfectly capable of choosing what pleases him, but quite simply, it never pleases him to please God.
The fact that man has the natural ability to trust, believe and turn, does nothing to negate the fact that he is morally unable to trust Christ, believe God or turn from his sins. The fact that he has natural ability does absolutely nothing to negate the fact that he is morally unable. No one could possibly read Edwards on this subject and walk away thinking that he was teaching that men can be manipulated into coming to Christ because of their natural ability. The entire point of his treatise is the absolute proof that man’s moral inability has rendered him utterly and entirely incapable to making any motion whatsoever toward pleasing God or forsaking sin. The regenerating work of the Spirit of God is absolutely necessary before man can even see the kingdom of God, let alone make any motion toward it.
Those who believed that the fact of man’s natural ability meant that they could manipulate him into turning to Christ may very well have claimed Edwards was on their side, but they could not possibly make that claim without taking his terminology from its context and using it in such a way that Edwards own words utterly repudiated. If you haven’t read Edwards’ Freedom of the Will, please do. It is a masterpiece.
His Throne is Forever and Ever!