Thoughts On The Will


J. H. Oliphant



Our brethren are sometimes unable to see how it is that men are to blame for sin, and yet it be true that men can do no works that would tend to their eternal salvation. I have been asked, often, whose fault it is that men are lost? Good brethren who see and love the truth in general, are unable to see how it is that "works of righteousness" and "works" in every sense, are excluded from the cause of justification, and yet sins and transgressions of men are in any sense the cause of future punishment.

The experience of Christians is evidence to them that it is "your sins and your iniquities that have separated between you and your God." Years ago, the president of the state university of Indiana, in talking to me on this subject said: "Every Christian man and woman knows for himself that if they are ever saved it will not be for any good works of theirs, or goodness of their nature, and also that if they are finally lost it will be for their own sins. These two truths may be hard for some men to reconcile, but every Christian must know that both are true, whether he can harmonize them or not." In the administration of human government we see something that partially illustrates this principle.

Let us consider the condition of a man, guilty of treason, which is the highest form of crime known among men; and all sin, every sin, has in it the nature of treason against the government of God. Now let us consider the condition of this man; he is not in a state of probation now, he is condemned and is legally lost. The notion that, in this life, we are on probation, or in a state of trial is false; at least it is false, so far as every one is concerned, who has sinned one time, because he that offends in one point is guilty of the whole law. One sin, the least sin, has in it the nature of treason and is leveled at the very throne of God himself.

But all can see that this man is now justly condemned, all can see that it is his fault; and yet all can see that there is nothing that he can do, to deliver himself from his present difficulty. Let him try what way he will, his state of ruin still remains and is absolutely unchangeable so far as he is concerned.

Whatever hope he may have, is in the action of the sovereign power he has offended. In a word, his only hope lies, not in any act of his, but in the sovereign power he has dared and insulted, "so then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth but of God that showeth mercy," "who will have mercy on whom he will have mercy.

All can see that this man is to blame for his sins, wholly and entirely his own fault, and yet he is utterly powerless to do anything to secure his release.

So when we contend that our ultimate salvation cannot be secured by any act of ours, but that it is all depending on God, and yet, if finally lost, it will be wholly our fault, we are but insisting that God's government in these things is equally as severe as the best and most enlightened governments of earth. Civilization would not endure among us if the principle were incorporated in our governments that all crime should be removed and every criminal set free upon the performance of certain conditions, to be performed by the criminal after his being guilty of the highest crime known to the world.

So now we contend that God, in his government of men, may and does justly, pursue that course which every good government of earth pursues; and so it is plain that men by sin, may get themselves into trouble in such a way that no act of theirs can ever deliver them and we ought not to be called hard for contending for a principle in God's governments which, if not exercised in human governments, civilization would perish from the earth.

Men may in many ways bring themselves into difficulty in such a way that no good works of theirs can get them out of it.

By bad conduct, a man may waste his health or property, or good name among men, so that no good action of his would ever deliver him from it. In many ways this principle that bad conduct may bring ruin, so that good conduct never can remove it, may be illustrated. I call attention to Paul's words, "The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life." Eternal death, no doubt, is here intended. A careful study of this text will clear this subject.

Wages is what men receive for their works, while a gift is what men receive freely and from no consideration of works or merit of their own.

But Arminians urge that it is severe to blame men for what they cannot help, and that if men can not do right, it is certainly wrong to blame them for not doing so, as we contend that the will is "determined' to evil, and if so we must do evil necessarily, and unavoidably. So they urge it would be cruel to punish men for what they cannot avoid.

Now here again is where they fail to distinguish between natural and moral inability.

It is true that natural inability does remove blame. If the thing required is impossible with a natural impossibility it would be cruel to punish men for a non-performance.

Sometimes we are met with such sentences as "you say a man can not come to the Savior," "can not turn from sin," &c., intimating that men might greatly desire to do so, and are hindered by some natural difficulty, but this is a false supposition. The inability of men to do right is moral, and not natural, and moral inability lies in an inclination to do wrong, or a disinclination to do right, or both, and these things are not a just apology for sin.

Edwards says that, "Men in their first use of the words must, cannot, "cannot help it," cannot avoid, necessary, unable, impossible, unavoidable, irresistible, use them to express a natural necessity, or impossibility, or some impossibility that the will has nothing to do with, something that must be, whether we be willing or not, and which will be no matter how much we may desire to the contrary."

That such expressions are used to express that which must be, no matter how anxious we should be that they should not be.

In our early childhood we used these expressions and came to understand them to contain a good excuse for not doing what was required of us. This understanding of the words grew with our growth, and was strengthened with our strength, so that when we hear men talk of what cannot be done we understand a natural "cannot." We understand they cannot, no difference how much they may desire to do so. And so when men speak of the inability of men to turn from sin we are apt at once to think men may be ever so anxious to turn and are hindered from doing so by some natural obstacle. When Paul said "Who cannot cease from sin," he used the words in a moral sense and not in a natural sense. He did not mean that men might be very anxious to cease from it and were hindered by some unavoidable difficulty; but he refers to the strength of their bias to sin, as constituting inability to do right. And a bias to do sin, let it be ever so strong, does not constitute an apology for it, although it may constitute an inability to avoid it. I have for years thought that our people should well consider the difference between moral and natural inability. A clear understanding of this subject would, as I believe, settle some difficulties among our own people as well as furnish the most irresistible arguments against Arminianism.

Sometimes sin is presented as a disease, and Christ as the physician. In this figure we are liable to be mislead, for a sick man desires to be cured, is tired of the disease, &c., whereas the sinner is not tired of his disease, he loves the disease well, and would sooner perish in hell than part with it. He does not love the remedy nor the physician, and would never apply to Him if left to himself.

The strength of the disease lies in his love for the disease, so that the physician's task is to cure him of his love of the disease. When his love of sin is cured the disease of sin is broken up.

So we see how liable we are to be misled by bible figures. In bible times the poor leper no doubt loathed his disease and longed for a remedy, but the sinner whose soul is all leprous loves the disease, and feels no pain from it. His disease is his heart's delight, the darling of his bosom. So that to cure this moral leprosy is to cure his love for the disease.

Another figure, sometimes misunderstood, is where sin is presented as a debt. " Ten thousand talents in debt," &c.

Naturally a man may be in debt to his neighbor, and he may regret it, and long to be freed from it. He may in every way regret it and avoid increasing that debt, but the sinner's case is different. He is in debt, 'tis true, but has no regret about it; instead of seeking to lessen the debt, or to avoid increasing it, he with "every imagination of the thought of his heart" increases that debt.

The heart of men by nature is set on evil , inclined to evil, prone to evil, dead in sin, " by nature children of wrath" in love with sin, and all things, that constitute a moral inability to holiness; yet these things do not apologize for sin in the least degree, nor do they destroy liberty of will in sin, nor render men blameless for sin, nor unfit for moral government. I insist that our people should consider well the distinction between moral and natural inability, I am sure that a clear understanding of this matter will help to settle some troubles now existing among us and also furnish us with a most fatal weapon against Arminianism.


Thoughts On The Will. J.H. Oliphant. Press of Moore & Langen Printing Co. Terre Haute, IN. 1899. Pages 90-97.