Thoughts On The Will


J. H. Oliphant



I have long thought the distinction between moral and physical inability ought to be well understood, so I will devote this article to that subject. "Edwards on The Will," p. 11, says: "We are said to be naturally unable to do a thing when we cannot do it if we will, because what is most commonly called nature does not allow of it, or because of some impeding defect, or obstacle that is intrinsic to the will, either in the faculty of understanding, constitution of body, or external objects. Moral inability consists not in any of these things." His definition of physical inability is the being unable to do the thing from want of bodily strength or mental weakness. Inability of this kind destroys accountability, and where one fails to do a thing for want of power to do so, he cannot be to blame. In our earliest life we learned that a "can not" of this kind was a perfect excuse for not doing anything our superiors required of us. But moral inability is very different. Edwards says:

"Moral inability consists not in any of these things; but either in the want of inclination, or the strength of a contrary inclination, or the want of sufficient motives in view, to induce and excite the will, or strength of apparent motives to the contrary, or both these may be resolved into one; and it may be said in one word, that moral inability is the opposition or want [lack] of inclination [desire]; for when a person is unable to will choose such a thing through a defect of motives, or prevalence of contrary motives, it is the same thing as his being unable through the want of an inclination or the prevalence of a contrary inclination in such circumstances and under the influence of such views."

When we say a man could do better we mean he could if he would, we do not mean a man can do that which he has no inclination or disposition to do. The words "can" and "cannot" are used in a different sense respecting moral conduct from what they are used respecting physical things.

The Arminians a century ago held that moral inability to do a thing, would destroy "liberty of will" and remove all blame for the not doing, but I desire to stay with my first subject till it is made plain. Suppose a parent requires a child to perform a task utterly above its strength, the child says: "I can not."

In such a case the child is entirely excusable. The will or wish to do so is present, but not a sufficiency of natural strength. We have from infancy learned that a "can not" of this kind is a just apology for not doing.

Edwards gives a number of illustrations showing the nature of moral inability and I will give them. "A woman of great honor and chastity may have a moral inability to prostitute herself to her slave." None can dispute the truth of this statement. She could not do so, and yet her freedom of will is not destroyed, nor is it true, that this kind of inability, destroys the idea of virtue in her behavior. "A child of great love and duty to his parents, may be thus unable to kill his parents." "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, to gratify, his lusts." "A drunkard, under such and such circumstances, may be unable to forbear taking strong drink."

These are sufficient to illustrate the subject, and show that moral inability neither destroys liberty of will, nor accountability.

Edwards gives a great many more illustrations and the reader can add an infinite number of illustrations to the list.

You cannot forsake your family and would feel insulted if you were told that you could. You can not take your neighbor's property. Physically you are able to slay your own child, but morally you are not.

Physically you are able to attend the place of sin but morally you are not. Physically you are able to leave your home and church and neighbors, and live the life of a desperado, but morally you are not. These illustrations will help to illustrate the distinction between moral and physical inability.

Arminians hold that, in order to vindicate "liberty of will" we must hold that the will is poised or balanced between right and wrong so that the will by some sovereign power it has over itself may determine itself either to the right or to the wrong, and also that if we hold that the will is determined to sin, and sin only, then this fact would destroy all "liberty of will" as well as all accountability and blamableness for sin.

As to this supposed poised or indifferent state of the will I will leave for another chapter, but will now ask whether a determined state of the will to sin and sin only destroys all liberty of will or accountability. "Having eyes full of adultery and that cannot cease from sin." Here is a cannot, but who would say it is such a cannot as would remove blame. If it would remove blame it is a blessed "cannot," but, on the contrary, it is a cannot that, instead of apologizing for the case, it aggravates it; it is a moral cannot. When our Savior said, "No man can come to me," he did not refer to such a cannot as would remove all blame, but to a moral cannot.

I think it plain that an inclination to do wrong makes it somewhat difficult to do right. I suppose none would deny this, and if so a stronger inclination to do wrong would make it more difficult to do right, and so it is plain to me that the inclination to do wrong may be so strong as to render one unable to do right, but who would say that an inclination to do wrong is an apology for the wrong or that it furnishes any excuse for doing wrong.

If an inclination to do wrong destroys blame and liberty of will in the act, then the more one is inclined to do a wicked deed the less he would be to blame, and the less liberty of will he would have in it. And so on the other hand, the less one is inclined to do an evil deed the more he is to blame and the more liberty of will he would have in the act. But the very reverse of this is true. The more one is inclined to do an evil deed the more blameworthy he is, and the more freely he does it. So that there is no excuse nor apology for sin of any kind whatever, and wicked men are to blame for every evil act of their lives. The degree of sinfulness increases with the degree of inclination to do the deed and decreases as the inclination to do the deed decreases. If we would take care of the doctrine of grace we must watch both sides. The Arminian is urging that our obedience is sufficient to weigh at least something in the matter of salvation, and this plainly destroys the doctrine of grace. On the other hand our own brethren are liable to unite with the Arminian and say a "determined state of the will destroys all liberty of will," and thus apologize for sin and so rob grace of its dues by making sin out to be a misfortune instead of a fault.

But I repeat that an inclination to do wrong is no excuse for it nor does it destroy liberty of will in the matter.

Suppose a man be determined to kill his neighbor, and so determined as that no argument, nor appeal could induce him to give up the design. How could this interfere with his liberty in the matter, or how could it remove blame from his conduct?

Edwards defines "liberty of will" as one who is situated to do as he pleases about things, and where persons are so situated to do as they like about matters, they have liberty. He adds that "All who have learned to talk and are not prejudiced will accept this definition."

Where men are tried in human courts for crime it is not necessary to show how men first became inclined or willing to do the deed, it is sufficient to show that men are thus inclined.

And so I do not think it necessary to show how this inclination to sin came to be in men. Arminians must admit that there is a strong inclination among men to sin, and this inclination to sin is not an apology for sin. No doubt we are sinful by nature or hereditarily so, but this is no apology for our sin. David said, "I was conceived in sin and shapen in iniquity." He did not say this to apologize for sin but rather to exhibit the deep corruption and sinfulness of his behavior.

This is the experience of God's people, we feel that it is our sin, and we deplore the deep corruption of our hearts, as truly as the evil of our conduct, although the one is hereditary and the other our own conduct. Yet we deplore the one as truly and really as the other.

Paul says: "Who knowing that they which do such things are worthy of death, not only do them but have pleasure in them that do them." In this Paul refers not to the Saints, but to the vilest of men, and shows that wicked men have thoughts on this subject and confess themselves worthy of death. And to show the strength of inclination to sin that evil men have he adds: "They not only do them but have pleasure in them that do them." Again Paul says: "Whatsoever the law saith it saith to them who are under the law that every mouth should be stopped and all the world become guilty before God."

This is experimental. "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all the things written in the book of the Law to do them." Men are under the curse.

Reader, if you are not a Christian, let me ask you what reason could you assign why you should not be lost or why you should not die now. Your cup of sin is full enough, were it the pleasure of God to call you hence now. Men are not simply in danger of being lost or under the curse, they are that now. This is not a state of trial and probation for man; he is now under the curse and under the law. Among criminals on earth and before human courts the criminal has no power to relieve himself, he is at the sovereign disposal of the court; no power to rescue himself, and yet to blame for his condition. This is true of the criminal in the best governments of earth, and we insist it is also true in God's government of men.

The hope of the convict is only in the mercy of the court, and so it is before God; every human being may say, " Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me whole." This view of the subject puts God on the throne, and puts man, all men, in the attitude of the criminal.


Thoughts On The Will. J.H. Oliphant. Press of Moore & Langen Printing Co. Terre Haute, IN. 1899. Pages 45-52.