illustrations of moral inability (Man WILL not come rather than merely CANNOT come)

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Ordinary Guy (TM)
I often hear people fault God. They say that God offering the Gospel to all .....some of which cannot like a man showing a sign pointing to food to many starving blind men who cannot see the sign.

This appears to impute some fault with God as it focuses on man's inability.

However, if we stress man's moral inability (his unwillingness) to come, what other illustrations might be used to illustrate man's refusal to come to the sound of the Gospel?

Example: God by the Gospel throws open the doors to the prison and calls all prisoners to come forth to him. Yet the prisoners still stay in the darkness of their cells because they will not come. Men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.

Of course, many speak of the illustration of Lazarus, a dead man, being raised, or of God not merely throwing a hand to sinners drowning in the sea but going down deep into the ocean to rescue the corpse and then reviving the corpse.

Yet, it seems wise to also use illustrations which speak of man's moral inability to believe rather than God's physical inability to believe:

I would here have you especially notice the distinction between natural and moral inability, which clearly reconciles human responsibility with divine sovereignty. There are some who, feeling a difficulty here, bring this objection; It is, say they, in fact the same whether you make the limit in redemption or election, since; after all, it is only the elect that can be saved. We reply; It is not the same. There is all the difference between a natural and a moral inability; and moral inability is sin. If there were any for whom Christ did not die, it could not be, imputed to them as personally blame-worthy that they are not saved; for the hindrance would not be in themselves alone, but in God. The justice of God would form an impassable barrier to their entrance into life. On the other hand, granting that redemption is general, the work of Christ threw down that barrier, and now the only hindrance is in themselves. It is in their dislike to, enter. It is true that this dislike can only. be overcome by divine grace; but that does not render it less their own fault that they retain it. We will make this more plain by an illustration.

Suppose a man chained to the walls of a dungeon; you throw open the prison doors, and without removing his fetters, you tell him he is at liberty! Alas! you do but mock him; he may see the light, and long for liberty, but his fetters still bind him to his prison; and if the poor man die a captive, it does not prove his unwillingness to be free. But suppose you not only throw open the prison-doors, but also break his fetters, and tell him he is free; but the man still loiters amongst his prison companions, and takes such delight in their company and their avocations as to disregard the blessings of light and liberty; then it will be admitted it is his own fault that he does not enjoy liberty, and he could not more show himself unworthy of the privileges of a free man. Now this is what Christ has done for the world.

He has not only thrown open the doors of invitation, but he has broken the fetters; that is, he has removed every external hindrance; and the only impediment in the sinner’s way to liberty, is his love of spiritual slavery. It is true this love of slavery can only be overcome by divine power, and this is the work of the Holy Ghost in the elect; but this does not make it less blame-worthy in the sinner to retain it. This brings us to our third point.

William Dodsworth, General Redemption and Limited Salvation (London: James Nisbet, 1831), 59-62.

To give some instances of this Moral Inability–A woman of great honor and chastity may have a moral Inability to prostitute herself to her slave. A child of great love and duty to his parents, may be thus unable to kill his father. A very lascivious man, in case of certain opportunities and temptations, and in the absence of such and such restraints, may be unable to forbear gratifying his lust. A drunkard, under such and such circumstances, may be unable to forbear taking strong drink. A very malicious man may be unable to exert benevolent acts to an enemy, or to desire his prosperity; yea, some may be so under the power of a vile disposition, that they may be unable to love those who are most worthy of their esteem and affection. A strong habit of virtue, and a great degree of holiness, may cause a moral Inability to love wickedness in general, and may render a man unable to take complacence in wicked persons or things; or to choose a wicked in preference to a virtuous life. And on the other hand, a great degree of habitual wickedness may lay a man under an Inability to love and choose holiness; and render him utterly unable to love an infinitely holy Being, or to choose and cleave to him as his chief good.

Jonathan Edwards, A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of the Will (EdinburghL Printed for Ogle, Allardice, and Thomas, 1818), 24-32.

But the first determined and direct assault against the HyperCalvinistic and Antinomian views prevalent at the time amongst the Baptists was in a book published by Fuller in 1785 and entitled The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, or the Duty of Sinners to Believe in Jesus Christ. Indeed, on considering the eminently scriptural and evangelical tone of this book it is almost incredible that it was the cause of such controversy. His purpose is to prove the obligation upon all men to believe whatsoever God declares and to obey whatsoever he commands, so that the moral law obliges all to whom the gospel is preached to exercise faith in Christ insomuch that it demands obedience to every declaration by God of his will. As Fuller deals with this point, he shows that the inability of man to conform in all points to God’s will, and therefore to the commandment to believe, is entirely a moral inability arising only from the corrupt nature of his heart and his enmity towards God, and not from any deficiency in his faculties or in the necessary natural abilities. Instead of excusing man for his unbelief and disobedience and releasing him from any obligation, this failure therefore only serves to increase the atrocity of his behaviour and to augment his guilt. Having proved the obligation that lies upon all who have heard, or have had opportunity to hear, the gospel to believe it, he then proceeds to answer the objections which are often put forward against this view: objections arising from the nature of man’s original holiness; the nature of predestination and the election of grace; man’s inability; the activity of the Spirit; and the necessity of a divine principle in order to believe. He very ably argues that the correct scriptural understanding of all these points is consistent with a belief in the general invitation of the gospel and in the duty of all to believe it.

Owen Thomas, The Atonement Controversy in Welsh Theological Literature & Debate 1707-1841, tran. John Aaron (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 2002), 131-132. [First published in 1874.]

Our inability lies in our unwillingness: Ps. Iviii. 4, 5, “They are like to the deaf adder, that stops her ear, which will not hearken to the charmer, charming never so wisely.” Mat. xxiii. 37, “How often would I have gathered thy children together as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and ye would not?” Luke xix. 14, “His citizens hated him, and sent a message after him, saying, We will not have this man to reign over us.” Now what more proper cure for all these evils than the word of God? Teaching is the proper means to cure ignorance, for men have a natural understanding. Warning of danger and mindfulness of duty is the proper means to cure slightness. And to remove their impotency (which lies in their obstinacy and willfulness), there is no such means as to beseech them with constant persuasions. The impotence is rather moral than natural. We do not use to reason men out of bare natural impotency, to bid a lame man walk, or a blind man see, or bid a dead man live; but to make men willing of the good which they rejected or neglected; in short, to inform the judgment, awaken the conscience, persuade the will: yet it is true the bare means will not do it without God’s concurrence, the evidence and demonstration of the Spirit; but it is an encouragement to use these means, because they are fitted to the end, and God would not appoint us means which should be altogether in vain.

Thomas Manton, “Sermons Upon 1 Peter 1:23,” in, The Complete Works of Thomas Manton (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1873), 21:332. [Some spelling modernized; italics original; and underlining mine.]

Answer. It is granted that to punish men for doing what they cannot help, or to require of them an impossibility, would be manifestly unjust and cruel. But this God does not, do. He requires no more of men than, they are able to perform; and he punishes them only for doing those things which they could and ought to have abstained from doing. When we speak, in common language, of ability and inability, can and cannot, possible and impossible, we always have reference to men’s power and faculties of body or mind, and not at all to their inclinations. If a man has all the power. and faculties of body and mind which are necessary to do a thing, we say he is able to do it, whether he is willing or not. His ability and his willingness are different things, perfectly distinct.

A man may be able to perform a piece of work, which he has no heart to perform, and which he is totally unwilling to engage in. And again, a man may be perfectly wiling to do that which is not in his power, that which is entirely beyond his strength. One man may be able to march to the field of battle, but totally unwilling. And another may be perfectly willing to march to the field of blood, but through bodily infirmity may be unable. Ability and willingness must both unite in the same person, before he will perform any thing, but they are perfectly distinct, and our willingness constitutes no part of our ability.

It is true that willingness is sometimes styled moral ability; but it is evidently in a figurative and improper sense. According to the usual and proper meaning of the term, men are able to do every thing which they have bodily and mental strength sufficient to do, whether they are willing to exert that strength, and do the thing or not. Now, although God cannot justly require of men more than they are able to do, that is, more than they have bodily and mental strength sufficient to do, if they were so disposed; yet he may, and does, justly require of them many things which they have no disposition to do, many things which they are totally unwilling to perform. And though men cannot be justly punished for not doing those things which they are unable to do, yet they may be justly punished for not doing those things which they are able, but are unwilling to do. Men are able to comply with the invitations of the gospel, that is, they have all the bodily and mental powers that are necessary to do it, and God may justly require them to do it, whether they are willing or not; and if they do not comply, he may justly punish them for their disobedience. And his making some willing and others unwilling, does not interfere with the ability of any. Those who are unwilling are just as able as those who are willing, and are as justly required to comply. To substantiate the objection, it must be made to appear, that God imposes some constraint upon men, so that they cannot do the things he requires, even though they are willing, and desirous of doing them. This is taken for granted in the objection. This is the real meaning of the phrase, doing what they cannot help. The meaning is, that they desire and endeavor to do otherwise, but have not the necessary bodily and mental strength. If they had, they should do, otherwise.

They would, but cannot. But the fact is directly the reverse. They can, but will not. They have the necessary bodily and mental strength, but have no willingness. And this, God is not bound to give them. Should any say, that God cannot justly require of men any more than he gives them a willingness to do, as well as bodily and mental strength, this would abolish all law, and destroy the distinction between right and wrong. For if God cannot require of men any more than he makes them willing, as well as able, to do, then, since they always do what they have both strength and will to accomplish, he cannot justly require of them any more than they actually perform. And if they always do all that he requires, there is no such thing as sin in the world. It is right, therefore, for God to require of them all that they have powers and faculties sufficient to perform, all that they are able to do; and if they fail of complying through unwillingness, it is right that they should be punished. But men have all the powers and faculties necessary to comply with the invitations of the gospel, and all the commands of God, and want nothing but a willingness. They can comply, but will not. When, therefore, God punishes them for not complying, he punishes them, NOT for what they could not help, but solely for refusing to do what they could but would not.

Williams Weeks, Nine Sermons on the Decrees and Agency of God, 3rd ed., (Newark, N.J.: Published by the Ecclesiastical Board of Trustees for the Propagation of the Gospel. John R. Weeks, Printer), 77-80. [Some spelling modernized and underlining mine.]

There is nothing to prevent men from obeying the will of God but their own depraved dispositions, and aversion to the things of God. The natural faculties of men would be sufficient to enable them to do what he commands, if they employed them properly. If they employ them otherwise, the fault rests exclusively with themselves. And as the corruption of our nature does not deprive a man of his natural faculties, or of perfect liberty to act conformably to the decision of his own mind, the obligation under which he lies to do right continues in full force. From this we see, first, how justly God punishes men for their crimes, who, unless inclined and enabled by his grace, cannot liberate themselves from the slavery of sin; and, further, that the inability of men to obey God, not being natural but moral inability, cannot deprive God of the right to command obedience, under the pain of his most awful displeasure.

On this subject the distinction between natural and should always be kept in view. Natural inability consists in a defect in the mind or body, which deprives a man of the power of knowing or doing anything, however desirous he may be of knowing or doing it. Natural inability, then, can never render a man criminal. Moral inability consists in an aversion to anything, so great that the mind, even when acting freely, that is, without any external impulse or constraint, cannot overcome it. When this aversion exists as to what is good, it is inseparable from blame, and the greater this aversion is, the greater is the criminality. All men are daily accustomed to make these distinctions, and according to this rule they constantly form their opinion of the conduct of others.

In the nature of things it is impossible that the justice of God can ever demand of reasonable creatures less than perfect obedience. To say that the moral inability of man to obey the law of God destroys or weakens in the smallest degree his obligation to obey that law, is to add insult to rebellion. For what is that moral inability? It is, as has been observed, no other than aversion to God, the depraved inclination of the carnal mind, which not only entertains and cherishes enmity against God, but is itself that enmity. And let it not be said that the view the Scriptures give of the natural depravity of men, and of the sovereign and efficacious grace of God, reduces them to the condition of machines. Between men and machines there is this essential difference, and it is enough for us to know, that man is a voluntary agent both in the state of nature and of grace. He wills and acts according to his own dispositions, while machines have neither thought nor will. As long, then, as a man’s will is depraved and opposed to God, his conduct will be bad; he will fulfill the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and on the other hand, when God gives the sinner a new disposition, and a new spirit, his conduct will undergo a corresponding change. “The liberty of a moral agent consists in the power of acting conformably to his choice. Every action performed without external constraint, and in pursuance of the determination of the soul itself, is a free action. The soul is determined by motives; but we constantly see the same motives acting diversely on different minds. Many do not act conformably to the motives of which they yet acknowledge all the force. This failure of the motive proceeds from obstacles opposed by the corruption of the heart and understanding. But God, in giving a new heart and a new spirit, takes away these obstacles; and in removing them, far from depriving a man of liberty, he removes that which hindered him from acting freely, and from following the light of his conscience; and thus, as the Scriptures express it, makes him free. The will of man, without divine grace, is not free but enslaved, and willing to be so."

Is it objected, that if a man be so entirely corrupt that he cannot do what is right, he should not be blamed for doing evil? To this it is sufficient to reply, that if there be any force in the objection, the more a voluntary agent is diabolically wicked, the more innocent he should be considered. A creature is not subject to blame if he is not a voluntary agent; but if he be so, and if his dispositions and his will were absolutely wicked, he would certainly be incapable of doing good, and according to the above argument he could not be blamed for doing evil. On this ground the Devil must be excused, nay, held perfectly innocent in his desperate and irreconcilable enmity against God. A consequence so monstrous totally destroys the force of the objection whence it is deduced. But if the objection be still pressed, if any one shall proudly demand who hath resisted his will, why hath he made me thus? the only proper answer is that of the Apostle, " Nay but, man, who art thou that replies against God?"

Robert Haldane, Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans (New York: Robert Cater, 1847), 339-343; Romans 8:7. [Some spelling modernized; italics original; and underlining mine.]

sinner's cannot find God in the same manner as a crook cannot find a police officer.

Is it a mistake of Calvinists to adopt many illustrations which portray a physical inability of man to believe and not, rather, focus on illustrations which show the sinner's unwillingness and moral inability, instead. This seems like it would shut the mouths of many critics.


Ordinary Guy (TM)
Supposing man hath a power to avoid such and such sins, he is justly punished for not making use of that power. Nay, supposing he had no power to avoid them, yet if his will be set to that sin he is justly condemned, not for want of power, but for the delight his will took in it. From which delight in it, it may be gathered that if he had had a power to have shunned it, he would not have shunned it. If a man be assaulted by murderers that will cut his throat, if he will not use his power against them, but take a pleasure in having his throat cut, is not this man a self-murderer, both in the judgment of God and man? Let me use another illustration, since the end of all our preaching should be to humble man and clear God. If a man be cast out of an high tower, and be pleased with his fall, would he not be justly worthy of it, and to be neglected by men, not because he did not help himself in his fall, for that was not in his own power, but because he was mightily pleased and contented with his fall, and with such a pleasure, that if he had been able to have helped himself he would not? So though man be fallen in Adam, yet when he comes to discern between good and evil, he commits the evil with pleasure. So that supposing he had no power to avoid sins, yet he is worthy of punishment because he doth it delightfully. Whence it may be concluded, if he had had power to avoid it, he would not, because his will is so malignant.
(2.) Without some liberty in the will, free from necessity of compulsion, man would not be capable of sin, nor of moral goodness. No human law doth impute that for a vice, or a virtue, to which a man is carried by constraint, without any power to avoid. Where anything is done without a will, it is not an human action. Beasts therefore are not capable of sin, be cause they want reason and will. If man had not liberty of will, he would be as a beast, which hath only a spontaneous power of motion without reason. Sin could not be charged upon man, as God doth all along: Ps. xcv. 10, “It is a people that do err in their hearts”; and Ps. cxix. 21, “Thou hast rebuked the proud that are cursed, which do err from thy commandments.” It had been no error in them, if they had not done it voluntarily. The erring from God’s commandments arises from pride of heart, they had not else deserved a rebuke. Who would chide a clock for going wrong, which hath no voluntary motion? Man without a liberty of will could not be the author of his own actions, and sin could no more be imputed to him, than the irregular motion of a watch can be imputed to the watch itself, but rather to the work man or governor of it. Without a voluntary power, man would be as an engine, moved only with springs; and human laws, which punish any crime, would be as ridiculous as Xerxes’ whipping the sea, because it would not stop its tide. Neither were any praise due to man for any moral virtue, no more than praise is due to a lifeless picture for being so beautiful, or to the limner’s pencil lor making it so: the praise is due to the artist, not to the instrument.

Stephen Charnock, “A Discourse of the Efficient of Regeneration” in The Works of Stephen Charnock, 3:227-228.

If a prince sets forth edicts to rebels to return, and promise them pardon upon their returning, though he knows they are rebelliously bent, that they will not entertain a thought of coming again under his scepter, but will still be in arms, and draw down his wrath upon them, will not all interpret this to be an act of clemency and goodness in the prince? Neither is God an accepter of persons, because he doth not give grace unto all; for may he not do with his own what he please without injustice? Those to whom we give alms have reason to thank us; those to whom we give not an alms have no reason to complain; we have gratified the one, but we have done no wrong to the other. We are all by nature criminals, deserving death; should God leave us in that deplorable estate wherein he found us, can we accuse him of injustice? Those that by grace are snatched out of the pit, have reason to acknowledge it an admirable favor, as indeed it is; those that are destitute of grace, and by their own willful rejection left to sink to the bottom, cannot impute their unhappiness to him; for he left them not without witness; he presented them the word, exhorted them to hearken to him; but, instead of paying their duty, they fiercely rejected him, abhorred his exhortations, and gave themselves over to sin and vice. If a man proclaim by a crier that such that can bring such a mark shall receive such an alms, he sends this private mark to some; they come and receive an alms. Had he not power to do what he pleased with his own, to send his distinguishing token to whom he pleased? What injustice is done to the other, to whom he sends not this mark?

Steven Charnock, “A Discourse on the Efficient of Regeneration, in Works 3:223-228.
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