August 6, 2013

Isaac Watts (1674‒1748) on Natural and Moral Impotency

Object. I. But may it not be said here, If there be only an outward Sufficiency of Salvation provided for the Non-elect, by a conditional Pardon procured through the Death of Christ if they should repent and believe, but no inward Sufficiency of Grace provided to enlighten their Minds, to change their Hearts, and enable them to exercise this Faith and Repentance, the Event will be infallibly and necessarily the same, and their Damnation as necessary and certain, as if there were no outward Salvation provided; since they of themselves cannot repent, they cannot believe; for by the Fall all Men are become blind in Spiritual things, and dead in Sin.

Answer. It is granted, that no Sinner will truly and sincerely repent and believe in Christ, without the powerful and effectual Influences of converting Grace; and therefore they are called Blind and Dead in Sin, because God knows the final Event will be the same as if they were under a natural Impossibility, or utter natural Impotence. And for this reason the Conversion of a Sinner is called, A New Creation; Being born again; Giving Sight to the Blind; or, a Resurrection from the Dead: And the Necessity of Divine Power to effect this Change, is held forth in many Places of Scripture.

Yet we must say still, that Sinners are not under such a real natural Impossibility of repenting and believing, as though they were naturally Blind or Dead. 'Tis true, the Blind and the Dead have lost their natural Powers of Seeing and Moving; but when Scripture represents the Inability of Sinners to repent, or believe in Christ, by such Figures and Metaphors as Death or Blindness, it must be remembered these are but Metaphors and Figures, such as the holy Writers and all the Eastern Nations frequently use; and they must not be understood in their literal Sense, as if Men had lost their natural Powers or Faculties of Understanding, Will, and Affections, which are the only natural Powers necessary to believe and repent.

Now 'tis plain that these natural Faculties, Powers, or Capacities, are not lost by the Fall; for if they were, there would be no manner of need or use of any moral Means or Motives, such as Commands, Threatenings, Promises, Exhortations; these would all be impertinent and absurd, for they could have no more Influence on Sinners, than if we command or exhort a blind Person to see, or a dead Body to rise or move; which Commands and Exhortations would appear ridiculous and useless. And since the blessed God, in his Word, uses these moral Means and Motives to call Sinners to Repentance and Faith, it is certain that they have natural Powers and Faculties sufficient to understand and practice these Duties; and therefore they are not under a Necessity of Sinning, and of being destroyed, since there is nothing more wanted in a way of sufficient natural Powers, Faculties, or Abilities, than what they have.

All the other Impotence and Inability therefore in Sinners to repent and believe, properly speaking, is but moral, or seated chiefly in their Wills. 'Tis a great Disinclination or Aversion in these natural Faculties, to attend to, learn, or practice the things of God and Religion*; and this holds them fast in their sinful State in a similar way, as if they were blind and dead, and I said the final Event will be the same, i.e. they will never repent without Almighty Grace. And upon this account that strong and settled Inclination to Sin, and Aversion to God, which is in the Will or Affections, is represented in our own Language, as well as in the Eastern Countries, by Impotence or Inability to forsake or subdue Sin: As when a Drunkard shall say, I had such a strong Desire to the Liquor, that I could not but drink to excess, I could not with-hold the Cup from my Mouth: Or when a Murderer shall say, I hated my Neighbor so much, that having a fair Opportunity, I could not help killing him: Or when we say to a Man of Fury in his Passion, You are so warm at present, that you cannot see thins in a true Light, you cannot hearken to Reason, you cannot judge aright, you are not capable of acting regularly. And that this is the Manner of speaking in the Eastern Countries, is evident from the Bible, Gen. xxxvii. 4. Joseph's Brethren hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him: Yet you will grant all this is but moral Impotence, i.e. a very strong Inclination to Excess of Drink, or Murder, or Passion, or a strong Aversion to the contrary Virtues. Even in the things of common Life the Can-not sometimes signifies nothing but the Will-not, Luke xi. 7. Trouble me not, my Door is shut, my Children are with me in Bed, I cannot rise to give thee; i.e. I will not. And with regard to Faith or believing in Christ, our Saviour explains his own Language in this manner. In one place he saith, No Man can come unto me except my Father draw him, John vi. 44. And in another Place he charges the Jews with this as their Fault: Ye will not come unto me, that ye may have Life, John v. 40. So in the Parable one Excuse is, Luke xiv. 20. I have married a Wife, and I cannot come. All these Citations intend the same thing: their Can-not is their Will-not, i.e. 'tis the Strength of their Aversion to Christ, which is a moral Impotence or Inability to believe in him, and the Fault lies in the Will.

St. Paul speaks to the same purpose, Rom. viii. 7. where he shows, that 'tis the Aversion or Enmity of the Carnal Mind to God, which hinders it from obeying the Law of God, and at last he says, it cannot be subject to it. The Carnal Mind is Enmity against God, for it is not subject to the Law of God, neither indeed can be: So then they who are in the Flesh cannot please God. The Fault still lies in the Will of sinful Man; and 'tis this makes it criminal, while it is not naturally impossible to be avoided or overcome.

And upon this account God is pleased to use moral Means and Motives, (viz.) Promises, Threatenings, Commands, &c. toward all Men, such as are suited to awaken their Hearts, and excite and persuade their Will to use all their natural Abilities, to set their natural Powers or Faculties to work, to attend to, and learn, and practice Faith and Repentance; and 'tis by these very means God persuades his Elect powerfully to repent and believe. But when Persons will not hear, nor be influenced by these Motives, because of their strong and willful Aversion to God and Godliness, their Crime is entirely their own, and their Condemnation is just. They have natural Powers or Faculties in them, which, if well tried, might overcome their native Propensity to Vice, though they never will do it.

If the great God, in a way of Sovereign Mercy, gives some Persons superior Aids of Grace to overcome this moral Impotence, and conquer this Aversion to God and Goodness; if he effectually leads, inclines, or persuades them by his Spirit to repent and believe in Christ, this does not at all hinder the others from exercising their natural Powers of Understanding, and Will in believing and repenting.

Nor can any thing of their Guilt and willful Impenitence be imputed to the blessed God, who is Lord of his own Favours, and gives or with-holds where he pleases, and who shall say to him, what dost thou? Why should mine Eye be evil toward my Neighbour, because the Eye of God is good? Or what Pretense have I to charge God with Injustice, when he does more for me than he is bound to do, though he does more for my Neighbor than he has done for me?

Let this then be constantly maintained, there is a natural, inward Sufficiency of Powers and Faculties given to every Sinner to hearken to the Calls and Offers of Grace and the Gospel, though they lie under a moral Impotence; and there is an outward Sufficiency of Provision of Pardon in the Death of Christ, for every one who repents and accepts the Gospel, though Pardon is not actually procured for all Men, nor secured to them. And thus much is sufficient to maintain the Sincerity of God in his universal Offers of Grace through Jesus Christ, and his present Commands to all Men to repent and trust in his Mercy; as well as to vindicate his Equity in the last great Day, when the Impenitent and Unbelievers shall be condemned. Their Death lies at their own doors, for since there was both an outward and inward Sufficiency for their Recovery, the Fault must lie in their own Free-will, in their willful Aversion to God and Christ, and his Salvation. I think this Distinction of natural and moral Power and Impotence, will reconcile all the various Expressions of Scripture on this Subject, both to one another, and well as to the Reason of things, which can hardly be reconciled any other way.

* I grant this Inability to repent has been sometimes called by our Divines a Natural Impotence, because it arises from the original Corruption of our Nature since the Fall of Adam; and in this Sense I fully believe it. But this Spring of it is much better signified and expressed by the Name of Native Impotence, to show that is comes from our Birth; and the Quality of this Impotence is best called Moral, being seated chiefly in the Will and Affections, and not in any want of Natural Powers or Faculties to perform what God requires: And the Reason is plain, (viz.) That no new natural Powers are given by converting Grace, but only a Change of the moral Bent or Inclination of the Soul, a happier Turn given to our natural Faculties by the sovereign Grace of God and his Spirit.

Whether the Spirit of God effectually persuade the Will to repent and believe in Christ, by immediate Influence upon the Will itself, or by setting the Things of the Gospel before the Mind in so strong a Light, and persuading the Soul so to attend to them, as shall effectually influence the Will, this shall not be any Matter of my present Debate or Determination; for in both the Event and Consequences are much the same: There is no new natural Power or Faculty given to the Soul in order to Faith and Repentance, but a divine Influence upon the old natural Powers, giving them a new and better Turn.


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