Natural Ability

The umbrella of influence of the ultra Calvinistic thought that existed in the days of Charles G. Finney is again the prevailing theological thought of our day in the 21st Century.  The same things that Jonathan Edwards believed which Finney commented about in this book are seen in ever increasing corners of our own theological worlds so that it is once again necessary to answer the extremely questionable to the point that it is almost imperative that we once again have a visitation of the thought the produced some of the greatest revivals in the history of the church.  That is where we are in this work.   The subject of Natural Ability is a discussion of the question posed by some of the ability of man to obey the commands of God.  Is it possible for man to love God and to love his neighbor?  Is it possible for a man to tell the truth or keep from killing or obey his parents or keep the Sabbath as in the Ten Commandments which are only an extension of the Moral Law?  Is it possible then to respond to the love of God in sending Jesus Christ to the earth to die for our sins?  Is it possible to receive Him?  Is it possible to repent?  Is it possible to present ourselves to God a living sacrifice?  Or, as some would suggest, does it require some form of executive act of God in bring strong means to bear that changes ones ability even before he is even saved so that there is a constitutional effect on the ability of the sinner that now allows a choice to be made which he could not make here-to-fore but now is made possible by this wondrous executive act of God.  It is also stated that this executive act of God is arbitrary so that there are some that are not so fortunate as to have this change in their ability to occur and as such they will never have the opportunity to come to God no matter how hard they try since only God can grant that Gracious ability in his Sovereign will and by his Sovereign choice.  In essence, the choice is not that of the sinner but that of God and it is based in the will of God, contrary to what we have previously stated in this work, namely, that the foundation of obligation can never be founded in the will of God because it would make God a ruthless dictator with no love of the intrinsic value of his subjects.

So now we will discuss this subject of Natural Ability by taking a look at the prevailing Calvinistic view and then comparing it with what the Bible clearly teaches.  We will thus show the following main points for consideration:

  1. The typical notion of natural ability as held by Calvinists and even Jonathan Edwards in his day.
  2. That this natural ability is not really any ability at all.
  3. What this school of thought is actually saying regarding natural inability.
  4. Again that this is not really any form of inability at all.
  5. That a true definition of natural ability is really freedom of the will to choose.
  6. That men are naturally able to obey God and that the human will is truly free.

The typical notion of natural ability held by Calvinists, Edwards included.

It is said in the book by Jonathan Edwards on Works, Volume II and page 38, “the power, opportunity, or advantage, that any one has, to do as he pleases.” “Or, in other words, his being free from hindrance or impediment in the way of doing or conducting in any respect as he wills.”  He then goes on to comment on the fact that a man is free to conduct himself according to his choice but then he seems to question the cause of the choice.  It is as if he is questioning the ability of the will of man to cause the choice.  He seems to hint that there is some outside force or influence that is making the choice and not the man himself.  Then the statement is made that once the choice is made that there is nothing hindering the person from carrying out that choice.  They go to great lengths to show that natural ability is not the ability to make choices but merely the ability to carry out the choice once it is made somehow and by someone, not necessarily the moral agent himself.  They seem to have a mortal fear of allowing man to be a moral being, one that makes choices that determine his level of virtue before a holy God.  The standard prevailing thought is that we can’t do right so why should we even try and any choice that we make cannot be of ourselves but only of God.  The scripture for this is typically that in Romans.  “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.”  (Romans 9:16)  That line of reasoning is used in a chapter where God tells how he chose Israel and then he rejected them to allow the Gentiles to have a chance to receive his love and mercy.  It you take the reasoning that God chooses some to be saved and then others to be lost, the argument fails miserably in the case of Israel.  One need only see that the history of the Jews after God chose Abraham and the nation of Israel had nothing to do with their acceptance of the Messiah or their historic rejection of Him.  It had more to do with the raising up of nations and of giving other peoples the chance to hear the good news that the Jews actually rejected by choice after God had willed that they be the chosen people and the nation that would bring the Messiah into the world.  When you look at the whole story, this choice that God made was rejected by the evil hatred of the Jewish leaders for Jesus Christ and the result of their rejection was that Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews were disbursed throughout the whole world.  One can hardly make the argument that God caused them to reject Jesus Christ.  However, the doctrine of foreknowledge would not prevent one from seeing that God in His foreknowledge realized that even though He made the choice that Israel would bring in the Messiah, yet it was their own free will that ultimately rejected Him and caused the era of the Gentile to be ushered in according to the prophesy of the Seventy Weeks in Daniel which is called “the times of the Gentiles.”  To carry the notion of ability to its ultimate end with Israel, the choice that God made should have made the Jewish leaders crown Jesus as the Messiah simply because God had willed that it be so.  It did not happen that way.  In the end, the free will of the people prevailed to their ultimate misery and destruction.  It prevailed over the very God that had showed mercy in sending the Messiah to them.  The sad commentary is made as follows:  “He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:” (John 1:11-12) Sad, isn’t it?  God made the choice, but they chose the opposite and thus God had to offer his salvation to anyone who would receive him.

That this natural ability is not really any ability at all.

If we take the Calvinist view that we have not the natural ability to will then we don’t have any ability at all.  The fact that after a choice is made we have freedom to make the choice happen is only a physical ability statement, not a moral ability statement.  Under that thinking the only thing that would hinder a choice would be that a person had no body or that their body was in some way completely limited and unable to perform what the will had chosen.  Ability has nothing to do with the freedom to do what has already been chosen, but rather with the ability to make the choice in the first place.  The true morality of the situation is not in the doing of a choice after the choice is made but in the original choice itself.  A person could be in a concentration camp and unable to attend church but his moral choice is that if he were free he would go.  His will has made the choice and though he is not free, he has already made the moral decision which is what ability is all about.  The problem is that the Calvinist does not see the fact that people make choices even like Israel did after God had chosen them to be his special holy nation and yet they chose to reject their own Messiah.  If the only ability that men have is the choice that God makes, then the Jews are a perfect example that this is not what makes men make moral choices.  God does reach down to us but if we refuse his offer that is where the ability contradicts the will of God.  Again the Bible teaches us this very clearly,  “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  (2 Peter 3:9)  Jesus even wept when the nation that he had chosen ultimately rejected him and left him grieving their selfish choice,  “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.”  (Matthew 23:37-39)  As you can see, the divine choice that was made is not a choice at all in the end and natural ability is nothing according to the standard of the Calvinist if it does not include the Jews making their own choice to accept the Messiah who is in tears at their decision to reject his own will for them.  The Calvinist notion would have been that the Jews had no ability unless God had made the choice, which he obviously did, and then once that choice is made that they are irresistibly inclined to abide by the choice that God has made.  Did that happen?  No, it did not!  Had the Calvinistic view point been a Bible principle then the Jews would not have rejected Christ and the Gentiles of that period would not have been able to accept him as they obviously did and history testifies to that fact.  What this doctrine teaches is complete nonsense, it is double talk and it is completely without merit even in the clear explanations of the Scripture.

What this school of thought is actually saying regarding natural inability.

Edwards, vol. ii. p. 35, says, “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.”  One can see the thinking here that there is a constitutional problem which prevents the performing of a moral choice that is made.  The problem with this is that moral law is the law of the choice not of the action the proceeds from the choice.  So their whole reasoning has more to do with the ability to do something that is already a matter of choice rather than the choice itself.  What they are actually saying is that natural ability is a man willing to fly but since he is not physically able to fly, he has natural inability.  They are not speaking about the ability to choose so they are not really talking about any moral principle at all.  If we take this statement to it’s ultimate extreme, then we are saying that to be able to make a choice to repent of our sins and to trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is just as impossible as for us to fly like a bird or swim like a fish, it is not part of our nature and so we cannot trust Christ.  The problem is that this is not what they are saying here.  They are actually saying that if a person has a defect, then they can’t perform what would be normal.  They are saying that if a person is blind he cannot see or if he is deaf he cannot hear.  That is not really the inability of the will, it is really only a physical inability.  They then go further and make the statement of men such as Jonathan Edwards regarding physical inability and try to make it into a moral inability.

Again that this is not really any form of inability at all.

We have seen that the root of morals is the willing which is considered the doing of a thing even if there is a physical inability to perform what is willed.  As we have stated in the last section, a physical disability does not equal a moral disability.  If men were unable to keep the moral law in the way that we have already described in this book, then God would be unjust for demanding that we do something that is impossible to do because of natural inability, and he would also be a despotic tyrant for sending people to hell for what they have no ability to do.  Again, the Bible says that the offer of salvation is to “every man” and it says “whosoever will” may come.  That hardly fits the definition of inability.  If, for any reason, the Calvinist is reasoning that the only way that a person can come to God is through the Holy Spirit, it still does not mean that a person cannot make a decision based upon the wooing of the Holy Spirit in their life.  No one has ever said that making a moral choice is without the agency of the Holy Spirit being involved in the decision to trust Christ.  The Bible is again very plain in saying that no man can state that Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Ghost.  The truth is that the necessity of having the convicting power of the Holy Spirit does not prove them right concerning natural inability at all.  It only proves that a man has the ability to make moral choices and that even though the Holy Spirit is moving powerfully to influence the decision, it is still the ultimate choice of the moral agent that causes the influence of the Holy Spirit to be accepted in his or her life.  The Holy Spirit never forces his way on anyone.  He woos and wins like a man winning a young woman to himself.  However, it is her ultimate decision whether she will accept his offer of love or reject it flatly.  Were a man to force himself on a woman, it would be considered sexual battery or worse.  God is no different and his very character indicates that he would never wish for a race of robots who were forced by some form of “spiritual assault” to become what they had no desire to become.  So, though a Calvinist claims that man has natural inability, it has nothing to do with making ultimate moral choices, even if the Holy Spirit is attempting to prevail in helping the moral agent to make the final decision to follow Jesus and become his life-time servant.

Actually, natural ability is only freedom or liberty of the will.

We have already shown, even from statements by such men as Jonathan Edwards, that:

  1. Moral obligation is strictly only acts of the will.
  2. Moral obligation is the obligation to be disinterestedly benevolent; it is to desire the highest good of being as the best end for its own sake.
  3. This willing the best end, the good of being, is the only doing that is required by moral law.
  4. This natural ability, in accordance to the moral law, to obey God is the only proper freedom of the will that concerns morals or religion.  So when we speak of ability, we are only speaking of the liberty or power to will, either in favor of moral law, or in opposition to it.  We could never consider it to be moral law with sanctions if there were no ability to conform to the moral obligation.  This talk of some that says man has no ability to conform to the obligations of moral law, namely to choose to know God and receive his gift of salvation, is pure nonsense.  The truth is that even those who hold to the principles of Calvin do so at their own choice which is what moral law is all about.  They live a life of free choice while they talk of inability or ability in theory which has nothing to do with their own actions.  The truth is that all the elements that make up the human personality are under the final veto power of the human will.  The body, except for natural bodily functions such as the heart, or other involuntary actions, is controlled by the will.  The emotions, for the most part, are controlled by the will.  The spirit, the part of us that communes with God, is controlled by the will.  Even when the Holy Spirit comes in to indwell the believer, that believer has the ultimate veto power over the whisperings of the Holy Spirit so that he may either obey or disobey.  When one has been regenerated, his ultimate end is to obey God and seek the best end of all that are within his sphere of influence.  Even with the Holy Spirit living within, the will is free.  This is essentially the same for someone who has never come to know God.  They are free to seek Him and the Holy Spirit is perfectly willing to give faith to any one who is willing to receive.  As the Bible says, “But as many as received him, to them gave he power…..”  It does not say that he gave power first and then they made the choice to receive, rather it says that they received and then received the power to become sons of God.  This is the one thing that makes man different from animals.  Animals are instinctive and though they can be trained by conditioned responses to stimuli, a man can make moral decisions based upon conscience.  This is a first truth that even reformed theology cannot deny, it is the freedom of the human will to obey and follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit from the time that they first hear of the grace of God until they are saved and then during their whole life until they get to heaven.  There is truly no ability or inability as respects the human will.

Since the human will is free, there is no reason that men cannot do their full duty before God.

  1. God’s word, his commands, threatenings, expectations, and punishments, all show that the human will has liberty to make choices which are expected by the very words used in the Bible.
  2. The human mind has no problem with assuming this very fact, freedom of the human will, as a first truth of reason.  Let’s not forget that a first truth of reason is a truth that is assumed by every moral agent.  Even those who espouse “Reformed Theology” do so at their own choice which is naturally assumed by them.  The fact that various theories of theology may be put forth with strong reasons is further evidence that even those who stress the ability or inability that they espouse, are actually showing that they have made a choice to believe their particular brand of theology.  So, even though some may not claim to believe in freedom of the will in theory, they do believe such a first truth in actual practice.  That is what makes it a first truth of reason, the fact that all moral agents act upon such a truth with no limitations whatsoever.  I truly feel that this theology of ability or inability is only a method of easing the conscience that is screaming in the minds of moral agents that they should be making certain choices and rather than do so, they make the excuse that they are unable to comply with moral law because of “inability.”  The truth is that “if there is a will, there is a way.”  It is apparent even in declaring certain doctrines and theology, that the first truth of a freedom of the will is in full display in the lives of moral agents who claim otherwise.  It cannot be denies and that is why this whole discussion is so much needed in our day.  We live in a day when it is being postulated that evolution is the explanation for the origin of all that exists in the universe.  Yet, even in the development of this very theory, there are assumptions that relate to the laws of science that beg the question of where did those laws come from.  It all comes down to a choice in the end.  The first truth of the existence of God is being denied by this very fact, the freedom of the human will.  Yet, the first truth of the existence of God is evident even in such a choice.  If God’s existence were not an obvious first truth, then there would be no debate, for there would be no one that had any inner conviction of such an existence.  It is the existence of such a first truth that causes the debate in the first place which goes further to prove our discussion here.  It proves that even an atheist is what he is by choice and not because he was born with such an inclination.  An animal does not debate the existence of God because an animal is not a moral creature.  The very fact that certain things are debated is ample proof of the freedom of the will to choose.

What can we conclude from this discussion?  We can conclude that with the ability to choose comes the ability to do all that God has commanded, that ability to do one’s full duty.  It eliminates all excuse making and all reasons why lives are lived in sin even after a person supposedly comes to Christ in repentance and faith.  I have told many atheists that they are only atheists because they have not sought God fully.  The Bible says that if a person seeks God they will find him.  Sounds like the action of a free will doesn’t it?  I tell them that the very fact that they have not found God proves that they have not adequately sought him yet.  It is the same with a professing Christian that claims that they are bound by sin.  NONESENSE!  They have the same abilities that every apostle and prophet had from the beginning of time.   They have the ability to make choices.  The very fact that they have been bound by sin is evidence against them that they have made the wrong choices that have allowed sin to be the ultimate end, the choice of self-gratification.  They cannot claim inability as we have shown here.  They are able to obey God but have been unwilling to do so and the sanctions of moral law will be applied to any and all who consistently refuse to heed its warnings.  God is love and that very love makes grace available to all men and the power to become the sons of God is also an integral part of knowing God, the ultimate end of moral law.