A Reply to Ken Hamrick: Ability, Will, and Necessity

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Editorial note: This post is a reply to Ken Hamrick’s remarks in the comments section of Fullerite: Doctrine of Inability.

Now I think I get it. In looking again over Mr. Hamrick’s objection, he is interpreting “such” as a word that indicates degree of inability, so that the ability is not so absolute as to render command irrelevant or even unjust. If the inability were such, in this matter of absoluteness of degree, commands would be unjust and humans could not be accountable, so it seems Mr. Hamrick interprets Fuller. Fuller, however, uses the word in this comparison to point to kind, not degree, of inability. The inability in either case would be unalterable, determining, invincible, whether it were moral or natural, thus creating a “necessity” in either case. Mr. Hamrick objects to the concept of “necessity” in this moral area supposing seemingly that necessity can only relate to physical or natural events. The natural inability or necessity would make a command irrelevant and punishment for disobedience either irrational or unjust, or both. Moral inability or necessity, however, concerns the present hostility of the human mind and affections to God’s rule and holiness, and, thus, is the subject of both command and blame. This kind of inability, or such an inability, does not make a command irrelevant and punishment for disobedience either irrational or unjust. So, I believe that he is correct in saying, “We do still disagree, I think, on the nature of the impossibility that the sinner is under.”

Edwards, whose work on Freedom of the Will fully instructed Andrew Fuller in this matter wrote, “Therefore, on the whole, it is manifest, that moral Inability alone (which consists in disinclination) never renders any thing improperly the subject matter of Precept or Command, and never can excuse any person in disobedience, or want of conformity to a command” [BOT, Works, 1:151]. The fact that it is a moral inability does not render the direction of its course of action less necessary and determined than if it were related to a law of physics, e.g. A perfectly round object placed on an incline will necessarily move downward toward the center of the earth by the force of gravity, and will never roll up, unless there is a countervailing force that presses it upward with a force greater than the force of gravity. Our moral inability establishes such a necessity, both of decline when left to itself and of a sufficiently powerful reconstruction of its inclination if it ever is to choose rightly. Fuller wrote, “We suppose that the propensities of mankind to evil are so strong as to become invincible by everything but omnipotent grace” [2:476]. So, I still do believe that Fuller was arguing against the assertion that “it is absurd and cruel to require of any man what it is beyond his power to perform.” He means this strictly in terms of the necessities involved in moral inability and distinguishes these from natural inability. On the issue itself, therefore, though we disagree a to what Fuller meant in that statement, Mr. Hamrick and I agree that moral inability is a real thing and that it does not render a man excusable. Fuller contends that moral inability makes God’s holy commands “beyond his [the sinner’s] power to perform;” his inability in this case is precisely the lack of power about which Fuller wrote. As Edwards related divine providence to the individual moral actions of men he wrote: “Indeed, such an universal determining providence, [italics original] infers some kind of necessity of all events, such a necessity as implies an infallible previous fixedness of the futurity of the event: but no other necessity or moral events, or volitions of intelligent agents, is needful in order to this than moral necessity; which does as much ascertain the futurity of the event as any other necessity. [italics mine] But, as has been demonstrated, such [italics mine] a necessity is not at all repugnant to moral agency, and a reasonable use of commands, calls, rewards, punishments, &c” [BOT Works, 1:87]. This is the way that Fuller uses “such.”

Mr. Hamrick also has pointed to the truth that moral inability means that a person “will not” follow God’s command. Indeed, the “cannot” is a “will not.” The only reasons that I can think of that seems to present a difference in our views in Mr. Hamrick’s construction of this issue is that he conceives the “will” as an independent power or faculty that can choose against the prevailing moral disposition. If this is so, then again that is not Fuller’s position. In Fuller’s view, as in Edwards’s, the will is not so much a discreet faculty as it is the final choice itself made by the mind as the “last dictate of the understanding.” The will, therefore, does not execute an uncaused, or even contra-causal, choice, but is as the prevailing disposition. Whether Mr. Hamrick believes in contra-causal choice or not, I don’t know, but Fuller did not. In moral slavery, “there is no force opposed to the agent’s own will” [2:656]. When Dan Taylor suggested that men’s rational faculties could determine the will in opposition to any sinful inclination of heart, Fuller responded, “If sin is conquered by any efforts of ours, it must be by such as are voluntary. It is not enough that we be “rational beings,’ and that conscience suggests to us what ought to be; we must choose to go about it, and that in good earnest, or we shall never effect it. But where the thoughts of the heart are only evil, and that continually, it is supposing a plain contradiction to suppose ourselves the subjects of any such volition or desire” [2:478]. The will is as the desire of the heart is.

Perhaps we really agree on that—I hope so—and our differences can be reduced to different interpretations of Fuller on one sentence and the nuances of vocabulary.

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13 Responses to “A Reply to Ken Hamrick: Ability, Will, and Necessity”

  1. michael white

    As a messenger and minister of the King, it is like this: If a worldly king sent out a minister who came across a village where the people there did recognize the Rightful King as Ruler, and in fact claimed they did know this King as even alive, such ignorance would not relieve them of their duty and obligations to submit to the King.

    In the case of God, He has not left Himself without witness to His Laws, the consciences of men. Though men hear the Gospel preached, there is no Biblical foundation to assume that God [the Holy Spirit in this case] has opened up their eyes of understanding so that they have a foundation in their own way of thinking to throw themselves at His mercy in repentance. Through their own justifications and false religions have found a way to somewhat deal with their convicting conscience, and they see no need to surrender, what they perceive as, their autonomy to an ‘idea’ which they think is untrue and foolish. [1st Cor. 1:18]

    Those in that village, who think the king is not over them and is a dead man, need a compelling reason to believe a stranger telling them a fancy tale.

    Likewise, those who hear the Gospel need more than just the words of the person witnessing to Jesus, to have any compulsion to submit to Him.

    Thus they have an inability to submit from the heart that they can not overcome. They CAN’T submit from the heart and it is IMPOSSIBLE for them to submit from the heart to what they do not believe in their heart to be true. Neither can they know the love of God until they experience it.

    So while they have a duty to submit to the rightful Lord and King, their own sins [at least] have rendered them, judiciously so, UNABLE to grasp the spiritual truths, and all they have left is an UNWILLINGNESS to explore the source of their conviction of conscience whenever they violate the Law of God, and thus seek true repentance, though they be commanded to do so.

    Therefore we see that a person must recognize his or her need as a rebel against God and also recognize the cross of Christ as the only provision for that need, BEFORE their will can submit , or before they will submit freely to the Lord.

    If this is Fuller is saying, I agree with him. If not, then I disagree with him.

    Reply
  2. Dr. Nettles,

    Thank you for another gracious response. I will post an answer here tomorrow, May 9, Lord willing.

    Blessings!

    Reply
  3. Dr. Nettles,

    Cause and effect work differently in physical things than in human choices. If human choices were related to cause in the way that you seem to claim, then there really aren’t any “choices” being made, but mere effects being carried through. Influences are only contributive causes in human choices. It seems to me that you are stuck in the philosophical mire of necessity; but such a philosophy comes from the academy and not from Scripture. Oh, I’m aware of the various texts used to support the idea. But overwhelmingly, when taken as a whole, the Bible everywhere presupposes that men have real choices to make, and will be held accountable by God for their wrong choices precisely because they should have and could have chosen rightly. The certainty that men will choose according to God’s eternal plan, as well as the certainty that sinners will continue to freely choose sin over God unless God in His grace brings them to choose rightly, are also found throughout Scripture—but never in such a way as to deny men the responsibility, the opportunity, or the natural ability to choose rightly. Certainty does not preclude the existence of valid alternative possibilities, but necessity does. Never in Scripture is the sinner portrayed to be in such a position that there was nothing he could do but watch himself involuntarily sin as a necessary, mechanical effect of an irresistible cause. God affirms, for example, that with every temptation, He has provided the believer with “a way of escape”—but not provided only for those temptations successfully resisted, but also provided even when temptation is succumbed to. To assert a necessary cause-and-effect makes a farce out of such Biblical promises, among many other things. When such excessive philosophy is read into Scripture, it can easily lead to the kind of hyper-Calvinism that Fuller was fighting against. And it was exactly Fuller’s means of fighting such extremes, in his Gospel Worthy, to argue from Scripture and reason (and effectively so) that sinners are not without any ability whatsoever to choose to cordially embrace all that God has revealed, including the gospel of Christ, but that they do have the natural ability to believe. As a Calvinist, he held that not one of them will use that natural ability to come to Christ apart from God’s work of grace; but as a Berean, he faithfully argued that the ability was there nonetheless—and an ability that called for both evangelistic action on divine accountability. Sinners (even nonelect) were not “walking corpses” after all, but men to whom the gospel targets a response and requires a decision that all do have the ability to make
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    We should keep in mind that he was not writing to Arminians but to hyper-Calvinists, who already held that men are completely unable to believe or to perform what God requires. Fuller was trying to pull them out of their philosophical mire and into the Biblical light of day, to wit, that we ought to preach the gospel to all men precisely because all men have a warrant to believe and be saved, as well as an obligation to believe, and also an ability to believe and be saved (even if only a natural ability). I find it incredible that you can read, study and teach Fuller, and still think that he agreed with the hyper-Calvinists on the extent of the sinners’ inability and only disagreed on whether or not God holds these completely disabled people accountable in spite of their inability. But then again, if a Calvinist theologian can read, study and teach the Bible, all the while reading his philosophical necessitation into the text, then it should not surprise me if the same thing is done to Fuller’s text.

    Today, that’s all I have time for. If you keep the comments open, I will continue tomorrow. In case you find it necessary to close the comments, my reply will then be available at sbcopenforum.com.

    God is good—be blessed!

    Reply
    • Tom Nettles
      Tom Nettles

      Ken,

      Thank you for you clear forthright response. We certainly agree that Fuller taught that men have natural ability which warrants God’s holding them responsible for all the choices they make in the context of that natural ability. And we agree that Fuller believed their moral inability rendered their sin certain. We have affirmed this together on several occasion. You do not believe, however, that this absolute certainty amounts to a necessity. You characterized my view as affirming that men “involuntarily sin as a necessary, mechanical effect.” No, I affirm that all sin is voluntary and is moral, not mechanical. Necessity does not relate only to mechanical, or chemical forces, but also to any field in which preceding factors can so influence an outcome as to be the reason for its existence. All the moral factors that precede a moral, voluntary, action are the reason for its existence. Those reasons, given their impact on the mind’s understanding cause the decision and thus make it necessary. If that is not the case, then all our attempts to give reasons as to why a person should do one thing [receive Christ] rather than another [reject Christ] and have any expectation those very reasons can be the material in the power of the Spirit of God to move a person from darkness to light are vain, useless, and disconnected from any voluntary action. Necessity is just as valid in the moral realm as in the physical realm, and human decision and action are no less related to the prevailing influence of previous connected factors than in physics.

      You also affirm, “Fuller did believe that no man will believe in Christ unless he is first regenerated; but this regeneration is needed only because men will universally refuse to do what they ought, what they can, and what they have a warrant to do (believe in Christ).” Exactly; sinful dispositions cause a person not to believe; regeneration alters the moral disposition and causes the person, voluntarily on the basis of the altered disposition, to believe. The above admission of yours makes puzzling another of your statements, “This order of aversion–>persuasion–>faith–>justification–>regeneration has a strong, Biblical basis.” You seem to think that this is Fuller’s view for you hold it forth to be “the only real bridge available.” Here you place regeneration subsequent to both persuasion and faith as the Fullerite construct. Immediately above you say, Fuller believed “No man will believe in Christ unless he is first regenerated.” Certainly, he will not believe unless he also is persuaded, which means that regeneration must precede both persuasion (that is, the moral realization that the gospel message is right and has a claim on my affections) and the consequent act of faith. So, I am not sure if you agree or disagree unless you are saying that Fuller formulated the relation one way but you opt for another way.

      You have said in opposition to my presentation of the reasons that people believe, “cause-and-effect makes a farce out of such Biblical promises, among many other things.” I have explained in previous posts as well as immediately above my view on this, and unless you believe that one can have an effect without a cause, or unless you believe in contra-causal freedom—that events can come to be in opposition to all preceding and prevailing factors—then you must believe that the only reason that a promise is “effect-ive” is that it provides a motivation that hopefully will move the will to action—that is, the promise is in the position of cause and the human response to the promise is the effect. This is not a “farce” but the very foundation of all promises, and the reasons that regeneration preceding repentance and faith is necessary-a moral disposition is given that will embrace the promise. Again, one of our differences seems to be that you view the will as an autonomous faculty that may act according to motivation but just easily act out of accord with motivation.

      You remind me that in Gospel Worthy, Fuller is “not writing to Arminians but to hyper-Calvinists, who already held that men are completely unable to believe or to perform what God requires.” I would remind you that in the second edition, which we all work with, he also is engaging the Arminian view [as well as the Sandemanian], since he has had several interactions with Dan Taylor between the two editions. Fuller believed that the fundamental error of Arminians and hyper-Calvinists was the same—that men cannot be responsible to do that for which they do not have present disposition of will. I will have a later post on hyper-Calvinism, for I think it is one of the most misunderstood issues in this entire debate.

      In that light you find it incredible that I “can read, study and teach Fuller, and still think that he agreed with the hyper-Calvinists on the extent of the sinners’ inability.” That would be incredible, wouldn’t it? But that is not what I think. It is precisely at that point that he disagreed with them. I know that he did not agree with them on the nature of human inability, and I have written nothing in these blogs contrary to that understanding. You only indicate that you do not understand the whole theological context and, therefore, cannot see what Fuller is driving at.

      You refer to the “standard Calvinist view of sinners as walking corpses who could no more respond to the gospel than a literal corpse could rise of its own power.” Since moral inability means that the moral demands of the gospel meet a will that is completely unresponsive, spiritually dead, to those holy propositions, then it is true, in the realm of moral certainty, or necessity, those that are “dead in trespasses and sin” must be raised by the power of Christ while they are dead and unable to respond—that is, they are unable to respond in love, obedience, faith, holy fear, and joyful acquiescence to God’s perfection. They do respond negatively by walking according to the course of this world. At the point of regeneration they are passive, but are immediately active toward God and his glory and his gospel when that omnipotent, unilateral action of the new birth occurs. They are not to be pitied for this deadness, but blamed, for, as we both have continually chanted, it is a moral inability which is of the very essence of our sinful resistance and opprobrious posture toward God. Having eyes to see, we see not, and having ears to hear we hear not.

      I find something warm and hopeful in your last paragraph in the comment on “irresistible grace,” a desire to find a more stable common ground. It still has some theological impasses that will be difficult to negotiate, but it does show, as I have written elsewhere, a vital interest in many common effects.

      Reply
      • Dr. Nettles,

        You stated:

        You remind me that in Gospel Worthy, Fuller is “not writing to Arminians but to hyper-Calvinists, who already held that men are completely unable to believe or to perform what God requires.” I would remind you that in the second edition, which we all work with, he also is engaging the Arminian view [as well as the Sandemanian], since he has had several interactions with Dan Taylor between the two editions…

        Good point; and I thank you for the correction. You continue…

        …Fuller believed that the fundamental error of Arminians and hyper-Calvinists was the same—that men cannot be responsible to do that for which they do not have present disposition of will…

        On that, I think we agree.

        You stated:

        In that light you find it incredible that I “can read, study and teach Fuller, and still think that he agreed with the hyper-Calvinists on the extent of the sinners’ inability.” That would be incredible, wouldn’t it? But that is not what I think. It is precisely at that point that he disagreed with them. I know that he did not agree with them on the nature of human inability, and I have written nothing in these blogs contrary to that understanding. You only indicate that you do not understand the whole theological context and, therefore, cannot see what Fuller is driving at.

        Possibly… —Or, it could be that I just cannot see what you are driving at. As a theologian, you understand how important every chosen word can be in such discussions. I did not say that you agreed with the hypers on the nature of human inability, but on the extent. The hypers held that man was all together without any ability; and that coupled with the justice of God in not holding men accountable for that for which they had no ability to perform led them to conclude that men had no responsibility where grace had not enabled them to comply. Fuller, in my estimation, was telling them, “Wait a minute! They are not without any ability whatsoever. The inability spoken of in Scripture is only mistakenly taken to mean the kind of inability that consists in anything other than the will itself. The blindness of sinners is not like that of Bartimaeus “who was ever so desirous of his sight,” but is instead like a rebellious child holding his hands over his eyes and refusing to see. Because of this, they do have enough of an ability to make them justly responsible and proper objects of our imploring them to respond.” However, you seem to agree with the hypers insofar as the sinners having no ability whatsoever—yes, you affirm the presence of natural ability, but contrary to the force of Fuller’s argument, you make the natural ability of no effect, since it is supposedly swallowed up by the unalterable and determining moral inability. Thus, the whole reason for Fuller bringing the natural ability into the picture is set aside, as you seem to see him arguing only for the purpose of establishing that men are indeed accountable even without any ability to perform. While we disagree on Fuller’s meaning, I would at least like to get an accurate idea of your meaning, and if I have fallen short on that, then please bear with me.

        You stated:

        You refer to the “standard Calvinist view of sinners as walking corpses who could no more respond to the gospel than a literal corpse could rise of its own power.” Since moral inability means that the moral demands of the gospel meet a will that is completely unresponsive, spiritually dead, to those holy propositions, then it is true, in the realm of moral certainty, or necessity, those that are “dead in trespasses and sin” must be raised by the power of Christ while they are dead and unable to respond—that is, they are unable to respond in love, obedience, faith, holy fear, and joyful acquiescence to God’s perfection.

        Calvinism misses the mark here by failing to see that spiritual death is not a metaphor but a literal condition, which is spiritual separation (disunion) with God—the lack of the spiritual union involved in an indwelling of the Holy Spirit. By interpreting spiritual death as a metaphor, and applying the idea of an inanimate corpse to the spiritual condition of a sinner, Calvinism overreaches on the understanding of the sinner’s inability and misses the crucial point that Fuller was trying to make: the will has no role in the response of a dead corpse, but it has everything to do with the response-ability of the spiritually dead. They are “unable to respond—that is, they are unable to respond in love, obedience, faith, holy fear, and joyful acquiescence to God’s perfection”—but only unable in the moral sense and not in the natural sense. They are unable only in the sense that Joseph’s brothers were “unable to speak peaceably unto him,” as Fuller often pointed out. Even the faithless world understands such an inability as consisting only in the lack of will. Natural inability is simply the natural use of the word, ability; while moral ability is the word used in its moral sense. The lack of response of a corpse is not because it refuses to respond, but that is exactly what is involved in the spiritually dead.

        You stated:

        I find something warm and hopeful in your last paragraph in the comment on “irresistible grace,” a desire to find a more stable common ground. It still has some theological impasses that will be difficult to negotiate, but it does show, as I have written elsewhere, a vital interest in many common effects.

        This sounds hopeful, but I confess I do not know what you are referring to.

        You stated:

        You do not believe, however, that this absolute certainty amounts to a necessity. You characterized my view as affirming that men “involuntarily sin as a necessary, mechanical effect.” No, I affirm that all sin is voluntary and is moral, not mechanical. Necessity does not relate only to mechanical, or chemical forces, but also to any field in which preceding factors can so influence an outcome as to be the reason for its existence. All the moral factors that precede a moral, voluntary, action are the reason for its existence. Those reasons, given their impact on the mind’s understanding cause the decision and thus make it necessary… …Necessity is just as valid in the moral realm as in the physical realm, and human decision and action are no less related to the prevailing influence of previous connected factors than in physics.

        You do affirm that “all sin is voluntary and is moral, not mechanical;” but your view results in sin as a necessary, mechanical effect that is “no less related to the prevailing influence of previous connected factors than in physics.” The meaning of voluntary agency has been robbed of all substance, so that only the shell of meaning and sound of the words remain, when choices are portrayed as merely a cause carried through to a necessary effect.

        It is true that God’s eternal plan is being carried out in the minutest detail without fail. But while events and choices may be necessary to the plan, they are not necessary to the man. From the perspective of God’s eternal plan, all things are absolutely certain. But contingency is the fabric out of which our temporal existence is made. When we speak in terms of possibility and impossibility, we are speaking of this temporal world. At every moment, we are met with a myriad of possible courses of action—and all of which are genuinely valid possibilities.

        Matthew 26 ESV
        51 And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”

        If there was any event in human history that was necessary, it was the central event of the crucifixion of the Savior. But here we have the surprising revelation of Jesus that alternative courses of action were indeed possible. His question to Peter serves well as a rebuttal to all who think that the foreknowledge or the sovereign plan of God invalidate or preclude the possibility of alternative choices or actions: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” Those who think that there are no genuinely possible alternatives would have to answer Him, “No, I do not think You can.” And although Christ implicitly affirmed the possibility of the alternative, he also affirmed that the Scriptures will indeed be fulfilled (God’s foreknown plan will indeed be carried out): “But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” The balance is found in God’s use of certainty, rather than necessity, to carry out His perfect plan. If He had used necessity, then no other alternative choices or courses of action would be possible. But by using certainty, God left intact all alternative possibilities within our temporal world. God’s plan is unfailingly carried out not because men cannot do otherwise, but because they will not do otherwise.

        Sinners are accountable for choosing sin and self over God and right ways, which they do at every sinful moment, precisely because every man at every moment ought to choose God and the right over self and the wrong. No man will be able to give the excuse on Judgment Day, “There was nothing I could do, because my nature was unable…” Nature only explains why a man will not choose God—it does not give him the excuse that he cannot choose God.

        Calvinists in their noble desire to preserve the sovereignty of God lose sight of His goodness; and in their efforts to show how men are so bad that none can be saved unless God brings them to faith, they lose sight of what every man knows about his own free will. Thus, the argument is endless and futile: no matter how strong the argument constructed from logic and correlated to certain passages of Scripture, the opposition will never be convinced because every man absolutely knows within himself that every wrong choice he makes is one in which he not only should have but could have chosen the better path. The conscience within every man convicts not only of guilt of nature but guilt of not choosing what one could have and should have chosen. And, in fact, sinners do choose to not sin on some occasions, as no one sins as often as they could. The one tempted to steal some money carelessly left unprotected may feel the pangs of conscience and turn away from that sin, at least on that occasion. A sinful nature does not mean men are as bad as can be all the time, but rather, that sinful choices will be the direction in which their lives will flow—like the current in the river. The impossibility of any man to keep the law speaks to this sinful current of man’s nature, but it does not relieve the man of the fact that in any particular sinful act, the man had no excuse for not choosing the right, which he should have and fully could have chosen. Can any sinner tell God, “It’s not my fault, because—after all—it is impossible for me to keep the law, and I can’t do what’s impossible”? No way! It’s only impossible according to his nature, and not according to his will. In every single moment of the man’s life (upon reaching moral agency), his will should have and could have chosen the right over the wrong—chosen God over sin and self. The nature does not relate to what the will can or cannot do, but only to what the will will do—in other words, the nature keeps the man in sin only by certainty and not by necessity.

        While it might work for a strictly philosophical view to claim that mere inclination suffices to disqualify alternative courses of action as impossible, the Bible knows no such excuse. Antecedent influences may affect inclination and render a chosen action certain, but the man is still held accountable because inclination alone does not render alternative courses of action impossible. Although all things are determined according to God’s eternal plan, the sinner could have and should have acted differently, and inclination is no excuse.

        You stated:

        You also affirm, “Fuller did believe that no man will believe in Christ unless he is first regenerated; but this regeneration is needed only because men will universally refuse to do what they ought, what they can, and what they have a warrant to do (believe in Christ).” Exactly; sinful dispositions cause a person not to believe; regeneration alters the moral disposition and causes the person, voluntarily on the basis of the altered disposition, to believe. The above admission of yours makes puzzling another of your statements, “This order of aversion–->;persuasion–->;faith–->;justification–->;regeneration has a strong, Biblical basis.” You seem to think that this is Fuller’s view for you hold it forth to be “the only real bridge available.” Here you place regeneration subsequent to both persuasion and faith as the Fullerite construct. Immediately above you say, Fuller believed “No man will believe in Christ unless he is first regenerated…” …I am not sure if you agree or disagree unless you are saying that Fuller formulated the relation one way but you opt for another way.

        Fuller did believe in regeneration prior to faith, but I do not. But his teaching on moral and natural inability works well the centrist view, and is the best that I have found on the matter.

        If you haven’t tired of the discussion, I’ll continue on Monday morning. Be blessed!

        Reply
  4. michael white

    Gentlemen and brothers,

    Moral choice refers to Law not belief. To believe or disbelieve is not a moral choice.
    If you believe something is wrong, then to choose to do it, is also wrong. The choice to do it is not a belief but the doing or not doing.

    So when is confronted by the Gospel and they think if foolishness, they believe it is foolishness. They don’t believe it is the right thing to do. Now WHY they hold this erroneous tenet is due to their sin and hardness of heart, but the believing part in and of itself is not moral in the sense of the law. They can not obey the Gospel if they believe it foolish.

    Their thinking on spiritual things is damaged because their minds are futile, their eyes have been blinded, and their ears closed, according to the Word, by three things. [1] Their own sin blinds them to the truth of their sinfulness and standing before God. [2] The god of this world blinds them to the the truth of the Gospel. [3] God has shut them up in sin so that it would be by His given faith they are healed.

    The purpose of the Gospel is not to give men a >chance< to be saved, but to bring salvation to those God has chosen. God has hid from His ministers of the Gospel who He is saving, and has charged us to go into all the world and preach Jesus. And we know from HIs Word that people from every tribe, tongue, and nation will be saved.

    So we go to all that we can, proclaiming the truth. This truth we proclaim is real for all people: That Jesus is the Christ, the crucified and risen Savior, and that all who put their hope and faith in Him will not be ashamed. And that this Jesus is the Lord of all, who will judge the living and the dead, who deserves all of our glory, honor, and praise because of who He is and what He has done.

    We have a warrant to do this because the Creator Lord of all has told us to do that. We have orders from the King of Kings. The ability or inability of those to whom we proclaim the Gospel should not affect our duty to Jesus.

    Now the Bible seems quite clear, that those who are perishing are blinded to the truth of the Gospel. They do not see it as truth. They do not see Jesus as Lord. They do not see their need to submit to Him. They do not believe it. And as long as those things remain, they have no ability to embrace the Gospel.

    Now the Calvinists believe that regeneration is needed before those things can be taken away. Ken and others believe that regeneration happens after those things are taken away. I believe that regeneration includes taking those things away, and is complete only when faith and its work of confession are present.

    Coming to faith is not a moral decision. Moral decisions are of the Law. Coming to faith is not of the Law. There certainly is a moral inability for a man to keep the whole Law, but faith in Jesus is not a moral ability,right or wrong from a strictly moral sense.
    It is a moral choice to choose to not obey one's Lord. And because of their own sin, they have lost the ability to recognize Jesus as the Lord God. Thus in that way, they do fail morally. But when He returns, they will reject Him without excuse. Meanwhile, they can not embrace Him for they can not see Him as the Lord God. And unless he moves in their life, they will die in their sins.

    Reply
  5. Dr. Nettles,

    While the comments remain open, let me commend you on your willingness to substantively engage an opposing view. Currently, the Norm is to disallow any inconvenient argument of substance, no matter how irenic. Thank you for hearing me out.

    Regarding your statements:

    Now I think I get it. In looking again over Mr. Hamrick’s objection, he is interpreting “such” as a word that indicates degree of inability, so that the ability is not so absolute as to render command irrelevant or even unjust. If the inability were such, in this matter of absoluteness of degree, commands would be unjust and humans could not be accountable, so it seems Mr. Hamrick interprets Fuller. Fuller, however, uses the word in this comparison to point to kind, not degree, of inability. The inability in either case would be unalterable, determining, invincible, whether it were moral or natural, thus creating a “necessity” in either case. Mr. Hamrick objects to the concept of “necessity” in this moral area supposing seemingly that necessity can only relate to physical or natural events. The natural inability or necessity would make a command irrelevant and punishment for disobedience either irrational or unjust, or both. Moral inability or necessity, however, concerns the present hostility of the human mind and affections to God’s rule and holiness, and, thus, is the subject of both command and blame. This kind of inability, or such an inability, does not make a command irrelevant and punishment for disobedience either irrational or unjust.

    Fuller never sees moral inability as completely abstracted from natural ability. As Fuller said on page 172 of Gospel Worthy, “A moral inability supposes a natural ability.” Without the natural ability, moral inability cannot exist. Moral inability cannot be abstracted from natural ability to such an extent that blame falls upon moral inability alone, without regard to natural ability. The moral inability of the sinner leaves him the proper subject of command and blame only because of the natural inability presupposed in the moral inability—just so, the natural inability is also presupposed in the command and blame that fall upon that moral inability. Blame falls upon the moral inability not simply because God is just to require what sinners are morally unable to perform, but only because that presupposed natural ability makes them blameworthy regardless of how “invincible” the moral inability, since the essence of moral inability is mere unwillingness for which there can be no excuse.

    This is why Fuller has two poles in his teaching on inability. At one pole, he does, as you emphasize, affirm that the moral inability of sinners is insuperable and it is “impossible” for them to overcome it by their own efforts without God’s grace. However, the other pole in his thinking you seem to neglect, which is that to be naturally unable is to be unable, while to be morally unable is to be unwilling. This puts moral inability in a completely different light than the former pole.
    Here are some of Fuller’s statements toward that end:

    Yet, can
    any man plead that this their unwillingness is innocent? [p. 163]

    He who never, in any state, was possessed of the power of seeing cannot be said to shut his eyes against the light. If the Jews had not been possessed of natural powers equal to the knowledge of Christ’s doctrine, there had been no justice in that cutting question and answer, “Why do ye not understand my speech? Because ye cannot hear my word.” [p. 172]

    These two poles of thought would be contradictory, except if the moral inability were seen to be insuperable only by certainty and not by necessity. Implicit in unwillingness and natural ability is the temporal possibility of obedience—even if in the face of the certainty of continued disobedience.

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  6. Correction: Please change “The moral inability of the sinner leaves him the proper subject of command and blame only because of the natural inability presupposed in the moral inability—just so, the natural inability is also presupposed in the command and blame that fall upon that moral inability” to read, “The moral inability of the sinner leaves him the proper subject of command and blame only because of the natural ability presupposed in the moral inability—just so, the natural ability is also presupposed in the command and blame that fall upon that moral inability.”

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  7. In conclusion, Dr. Nettles, the main thrust of Fuller’s Gospel Worthy is that sinners are not unable (in the absolute sense) but are unwilling, even though both are referred to by the same expressions of inability. Their inability extends only to their unwilling hearts and to nothing else. This is the basis of his entire theme and purpose in writing. And although he does not speak explicitly of the difference between necessity and certainty, that for which he so tirelessly contends–that sinners are unwilling rather than unable (or, unable only insofar as they are unwilling)–is the very essence of the centrists’ insistence that God determines human choices by certainty and not by necessity. The parallel is undeniably clear: men choose according to God’s plan not because they are unable to do otherwise (in the absolute sense of necessity) but only because they are unwilling to do otherwise.

    I look forward to your response. God bless you!

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    • Tom Nettles
      Tom Nettles

      I thank Ken Hamrick for his sincere interest in this question. During the last time we were active on this issue, I allowed him to have the last word for I did not feel that his final submission added anything substantial to the arguments already put forth. I think the case is the same here. In light, however, of his feeling that more still needs to be sorted out, I will seek to give attention to the particular issues he revisits. I believe that the material I present from Fuller is determinative on this particular question.

      I agree with him that human sin in the fallen state is certain. I also agree that Fuller resisted capitulating to any concept of mechanical, or natural, necessity or impossibility in the issue of sin or, on the other hand, of faith and repentance. I disagree with his argument that certainty in the area of moral choice is substantially different from moral necessity. He states, “The philosophical lens of Centrism is that of a determinative certainty. In other words, God determines all things by making all things certain, but not necessary.” Given the entire fabric as to how humans make decisions in light of the inflow of motivations to the understanding, and that it is impossible to demonstrate that any decision ever goes contrary to the prevailing motivation, then how to separate certainty from necessity in this moral realm I must leave to Mr. Hamrick for I cannot do it. He must argue for contra-causal choice, which I don’t suppose he will want to do; or he must say that one’s choice has no cause at all, which will immediately contradict, in both of these cases, our Lord’s description of the human heart as the fountain of all moral choice.

      Mr. Hamrick seemingly will not recognize that my argument from physics and mechanical necessity was given only to illustrate that we operate on the basis of the expectation that all things that come into being, whether in nature or in moral action, have an explanation, that is, a cause. I am clear that the realm of moral choice always involves human responsibility and that a moral agent always makes moral choices. He thinks that these assertion s are empty because I do maintain that necessity in the moral realm does not eliminate praiseworthiness or blameworthiness in the moral choice. He noted, “There is nothing voluntary about a round object rolling down an incline. The meaning of voluntary agency has been robbed of all substance, so that only the shell of meaning and sound of the words remain, when choices are portrayed as merely a cause carried through to a necessary effect.” Without going into arguments that I have already given, such as the necessary moral goodness of God, in previous articles, I simply must say that he misrepresents, not only me, but the case as it is. Also, his assertion that my view would “deny men the responsibility, the opportunity, or the natural ability to choose rightly” simply is not true. If I have not made my argument clearly enough to this point for him to know that I affirm, in harmony with the arguments of Fuller, all three of these things that he claims my view denies, then I do not know how to make it clearer than before. I simply refer the reader to the previous posts on this issue.

      We certainly see an aspect of “necessity” in the moral realm when we affirm the necessity of a substitutionary atonement for the forgiveness of sins and the impossibility of God’s forgiving sin apart from it. The moral dynamic of this is not mechanical but all the connections are none-the-less necessary. I do not believe that Mr. Hamrick would want to argue against the necessity of a substitutionary, propitiatory atonement and that this necessity arises from the unchangeability of moral absolutes. Even so, Fuller, from the standpoint of the certain, universal, and inevitable human resistance to all the operations of the Spirit through the word and upon the natural conscience of men falling short of bringing about repentance and faith, argues for the necessity of an efficacious call, which means that an entirely new moral disposition is necessary for true repentance and faith: “From the depravity or perverseness of the human heart arises the necessity of a special and effectual influence of the Holy Spirit. The influence before mentioned may move the soul, but it will not bring it home to God. When souls are effectually turned to God, it is spoken of as the result of a special exertion of almighty power.” [CW 2 518, 519].

      Also Mr. Hamrick seeks to divide certainty from necessity in Fuller’s understanding and implied that he avoided the concept of impossibility. He quoted Fuller, “ it cannot be said, in strict propriety of speech, that […] any man’s salvation is impossible, or his destruction necessary; seeing the way of salvation is open to him, if he will but walk in it. All that can be said in truth is that there is a CERTAINTY in these things.” Piggybacking on that, he denies that Fuller would accept the idea of moral necessity. He quoted Fuller, “ All such terms as necessary, cannot, impossible, &c., when applied to these subjects, are used improperly. They always denote, in strict propriety of speech, an obstruction arising from something distinct from the state of the will. Such terms, in their common acceptation, suppose a willingness in us to perform an action, or obtain an end, but that we are hindered by some insurmountable bar from without.” Hamrick used this to deny that Fuller affirmed both necessity and impossibility in the moral realm. Hamrick does not see Fuller as attributing to the willingness of the moral agent such terms. Contrary to this assertion, however, Fuller resists those terms only when a person understands by them an obstruction extraneous to the will.

      I will, therefore, close this response with a couple of quotes from Fuller and have to allow the reader to judge for himself how Fuller argues this point of the relation between certainty, impossibility, and necessity and the subtleties that must be set forth clearly in the meaning of the words, nature, natural, and moral.

      “If the gospel and its invitations were addressed to them when their destruction was certain, then it is not inconsistent to address those invitations even to men who, as it may afterwards prove, were at the very time, as the just reward of their iniquity, appointed to utter destruction. The indefinite call of the gospel including them as well as others, and the declaration of our Lord, ‘Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out,’ holding good in regard to them as well as any others, it might be said with truth that there was no Natural impossibility in the way of their salvation; that if they had repented, they would have found mercy. But the impossibility respected their being brought to repentance, Heb vi 4, 5. They were under the power of a moral impotence; or, which is the same thing, of a rooted enmity to Christ; and God had determined to leave them in that state to perish for their sin.” [CW 2 559]

      “But whether the words natural necessity, or inability, be retained or given up in this matter, Mr. T. insists upon it that our depravity comes upon us according to the nature of things; that is, if I understand him, according to the established law, or settled order of things; and this he thinks equivalent to a natural necessity, and must therefore denominate it blameless. . . . But if Mr. T. can thus prove our native depravity blameless, I think I can, by the same mode of reasoning, prove all the fruits of it to be blameless too. Is there not a settled order, or an established law, of some sort, for the operations of the human mind, and indeed for all human actions? Is it not according to the law of nature, according to the nature of things, that a man always chooses that which, all things considered, appears in the view of his own mind the most agreeable; and pursues, if he have opportunity, that which, all things considered, is the object of his choice? It is impossible that a man should choose, in any instance, that which at the same time and in the same respects, all things considered, appears in the view of his mind disagreeable, and refuse that which is agreeable. And it is equally impossible that he should act in contradiction to his prevailing choice. An evil tree, according to the nature of things, will bring forth evil fruit; and a good tree will bring forth good fruit; and no less certainly will ‘wickedness proceed from the wicked,’ according to the proverb of the ancients and the manifest implication of our Lord’s words, Matt. xii. 33, 34. But does it thence follow that the evil fruit produced by a bad heart comes by a natural necessity, and is blameless? Which way will Mr. T. take? Will he deny an established order in the human mind, and maintain that we choose totally at random, without any respect to what is agreeable or disagreeable in the view of the mind; that we act without any necessary connexion with our prevailing choice; and that we must do so, in order to be free agents? Or will he admit of such a connexion in the operations of the mind, and instead of placing all blame in actions, and none in the state of the mind, as he seems to have done all along hitherto, will he now exculpate from blame all those acts which necessarily arise from choice, and all those volitions which necessarily arise from the view of the mind, and throw all the blame upon the state of the mind itself? He must either do this, or else allow that what comes to pass according to established laws, may nevertheless, be blameworthy.” [CW 2:526, 526]

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