Moral Inability and Moral Obligation.

by W. G. T. Shedd

The foundation of man's obligation to perfectly obey the divine law was the holiness and plenary power to good with which he was endowed by his Creator. Because God made man in his own image, he was obliged to sinless obedience. Moral obligation rested upon the union and combination of the so-called natural ability with the moral. It did not rest upon the first alone. Not a will without any inclination, but a will with a holy inclination, was the basis of the requirement of sinless obedience. The possession of a will undetermined would not constitute man a moral agent. God did not make man without moral character and then require perfect obedience from him. When man was created and placed under law, he was endowed not only with the faculties of a man, but with those faculties in a normal condition. The understanding was spiritually enlightened, and the will was rightly inclined. He had both "natural" and "moral" ability. He had real and plenary power to obey the law of God. In the beginning of man's moral existence, ability must equal obligation. And the ability did equal it. Kant's dictum—"I ought, therefore I can"—was true of holy Adam and his posterity in him. If at the instant man came from the hand of God he had been unable to obey, he would not have been obligated to obey:

The law was not above man's strength when he was possessed of original righteousness, though it be above man's strength since he was stripped of original righteousness. The command was dated before man had contracted his impotency, when he had a power to keep it, as well as to break it. Had it been enjoined to man only after the fall, and not before, he might have had a better pretense to excuse himself, because of the impossibility of it; yet he would not have had sufficient excuse, since the impossibility did not result from the nature of the law, but from the corrupted nature of the creature. It "was weak through the flesh" (Rom. 8:3), but it was promulgated when man had a strength proportioned to the commands of it. (Charnock, Holiness of God)

Obligation being thus founded upon the Creator's gifts cannot be destroyed by any subsequent action of the creature. If he destroys his ability, he does not destroy his obligation. If man by his own voluntary action loses any or all of the talents entrusted to him, he cannot assign this loss as a reason why any or all the talents, together with usury, should not be demanded of him in the final settlement (see Christ's parable of the talents): "God's commandments are not the measure of our powers but the rules of our duty. They do not teach what we are now able to do, but what we ought to do, and what we were able to do at one time" (Turretin 10.4.23). Heidelberg Catechism 9 thus represents the subject: "Does not God, then, wrong man by requiring of him in his law that which he cannot perform? A. No; for God so made man that he could perform it; but man through the instigation of the devil, by willful disobedience, deprived himself and all his posterity of this power."

It is objected that if man is unable to keep the law he is not obligated to keep it. This depends upon the nature of the inability and its cause.

If man were destitute of reason, conscience, will, or any of the faculties of a moral being, he would not be obligated. If he were internally wrought upon by an almighty being and prevented from obeying, he would not be obligated. If he were prevented by any external compulsion, he would not be obligated. If he had been created sinful, he would not be obligated. If he had been created indifferent either to holiness or sin, he would not have been obligated. None of these conditions obtain in the case of man. He was created holy, with plenary power to keep perfectly the moral law, and therefore was obligated to keep it. At the point of creation, ability and obligation were equal.

But if after creation in holiness and plenary power, any alteration be made in the original ratio between ability and obligation by the creature's voluntary agency, this cannot alter the original obligation. If ability is weakened by an act of self-determination, obligation is not weakened. If ability is totally destroyed by self-determination, obligation is not destroyed. The latter is the fact in the case. There is a total inability, but it is not an original or created inability. It came to be by man's act, not by God's: "Man's inability to restore what he owes to God, an inability brought upon himself, does not excuse man from paying the satisfaction due to justice; for the result of sin cannot excuse the sin itself" (Anselm, Why the God-Man? 1.24).

The principle that if a moral power once possessed is lost by the voluntary action of the possessor he is not thereby released from the original duty that rested upon it is acknowledged by writers upon ethics. Aristotle (Ethics 3.5) remarks that it is just in legislators:

to punish people even for ignorance itself, if they are the cause of their own ignorance; just as the punishment is double for drunken people. For the cause is in themselves; since it was in their own power not to get drunk, and drunkenness is the cause of their ignorance. And they punish those who are ignorant of anything in the laws which they ought to know and which it is not difficult to know; and likewise in all other cases in which they are ignorant through negligence, upon the ground that it was in their own power to pay attention to it. But perhaps a person is unable to give his attention? But he himself is the cause of this inability, by living in a dissipated manner. Persons are themselves the causes of their being unrighteous by performing bad actions and of being intemperate by passing their time in drunken revels and such like. When a man does those acts by which he becomes unjust, he becomes unjust voluntarily [i.e., by the action of his own will]. Nevertheless, he will not be able to leave off being unjust and to become just whenever he pleases. For the sick man cannot become well whenever he pleases, even though it so happen that he is voluntarily sick owing to an incontinent life and from disobedience to physicians. At the time indeed, it was in his own power not to be sick; but when he has once allowed himself to become sick, it is no longer in his power not to be sick; just as it is no longer in the power of a man who has thrown a stone to recover it. And yet the throwing of it was in his own power, for the origin of the action was in his own power. In like manner, in the beginning it was in the power of the unjust and the intemperate man not to become unjust and intemperate; and therefore they are so voluntarily. But when they have become so, it is no longer in their power to avoid being unjust and intemperate.… And not only are the faults of the soul voluntary, but in some persons those of the body are so likewise, and with these we find fault. For no one finds fault with those who are disfigured and ugly by birth, but only with those who are so through neglect of gymnastic exercise or through carelessness. The case is the same with bodily weakness and mutilation. For no one would blame a man who is born blind or who is blind from disease or a blow, but would rather pity him. But everybody would blame the man who is blind from drunkenness or any intemperance. For those faults of the body which are in our own power originally and which result from our own action, we are blamable.

The assertion of Plato (Laws 5.731) that "the unjust man is not unjust of his own free will; because no man of his own free will would choose to experience the greatest of evils," if it were true, would relieve the unjust man of obligation. The ethics of Plato in such an assertion is defective. He, however, contradicts himself, because elsewhere he teaches the guiltiness of the unjust man. Even in this very connection (Laws 5.734), he reasons in a self-contradictory manner. The temperate life, he says, is pleasant and the intemperate is painful, "and he who would live pleasantly cannot possibly choose to live intemperately. If this be true, the inference clearly is that no man is voluntarily intemperate, but that the whole multitude of men lack temperance in their lives, either from ignorance or from want of self-control or both." But "want of self-control" is voluntariness. The probability is that Plato in the above extract employs "voluntary" in the sense of "volitionary."

In secular commercial life, the loss of ability does not release from obligation. A man is as much a debtor to his creditors after his bankruptcy, as he was before. The loss of his property does not free him from indebtedness. He cannot say to his creditor, "I owed you yesterday, because I was able to pay you; but today I owe you nothing, because I am a bankrupt." It is a legal maxim that bankruptcy does not invalidate contracts.

That obligation remains fixed and immutable under all the modifications of ability introduced by the action of the human will is proved by the case of the drunkard and the habit which he has formed. The drunkard is certainly less able to obey the law of temperance than the temperate man is. But this law has precisely the same claim upon him that it has upon the temperate. The diminution of ability has not diminished the obligation. If obligation must always keep pace with the changes in the ability, then there are degrees of obligation. The stronger the will is, the more it is obliged; the weaker it is, the less is it bound by law. In this case, sin rewards the sinner by delivering him from the claims of law. The most vicious man would be least under obligation to duty.

It is objected that if the apostate will is unable to perfectly obey the divine law it is not free. The reply to this objection requires a definition of finite freedom, both negatively and positively. Negatively, finite freedom is not …

1. Freedom of omnipotence (Owen, Arminianism, 12): There are many things out of man's power, but this does not prove that he is necessitated within his own proper sphere of action.

2. Freedom of independence: This species of freedom requires self-existence and self-sustenation. It is beyond the reach of an influence from another being. It is pure aseity (aseitas) or self-sufficiency.

3. Freedom from the internal consequences of voluntary action: The formation of a habit is voluntary; but when the habit has been voluntarily formed, it cannot be eradicated by a volition.

4. Freedom from the external consequences of voluntary action: The objective fact caused by the will cannot be destroyed by the will. The suicide cannot restore himself to life; the homicide cannot reanimate his victim.

5. Freedom from action itself: The will is not free not to act at all. The will must will something, as the mind must think something. Inaction of the will is impossible, like inaction of the understanding.

6. Freedom from the regulation and restraint of law: Even in God, freedom is not unbridled almightiness unregulated by other attributes. God can do all that he wills to do, but there are some things which he cannot will because certain of his attributes prevent: for example, logical contradictions and sinful acts. Freedom in God is rational freedom. Kant denominates the practical reason the will, because, ideally, the will is one with reason. "Subjection (douleia) to righteousness" (Rom. 6:19) is "obedience from the heart" or spontaneity (6:17) and also "glorious liberty" (8:21). The moral law is "a law of liberty" (James 2:25). The believer is "free indeed" (John 8:34).

7. The possibility of willing contrary to what is already being willed: The possibility of willing the contrary is an accident, not the substance of freedom. It may be associated, temporarily, with an existing self-determination for the purpose of testing the strength of it, but not for the purpose of making the self-determination any more self-determined than it is already is in its own nature. Freedom is the present actual willingness and not the power to will something else in addition to the present actual willingness. Suppose, for illustration, that a man thinks of only one single act, say, to walk to a certain tree before him. No other act is in his mind. He walks spontaneously to this tree. Here, he does not choose between two actions, but he self-determines to one action. He walks to the tree and is free in so doing, not because he could have walked away from the tree if the thought of so doing had occurred to him, but because he actually walked to the tree proprio motu and without compulsion.

8. Indifference or freedom from a bias or inclination: A bias or inclination of the will is the central and dominant self-determination of the will. The stronger the bias, the more intense is the self-determination and hence the more intense the freedom. The more the will is self-determined and inclined, the farther off it is from indifference; and hence indifference is not the characteristic of freedom.

9. Mere liberty of performing an outward act: Edwards, in his polemics against the Arminian, finds the substance of freedom in this. According to this, a man is free to worship God only when he is permitted to act out his inclination and to worship externally; and if he is not so permitted, he is not free to worship God. But the truth is that if he has the inclination to worship he is a free worshiper, whether he is allowed to put his inclination into volition and act or not. He is the Lord's freeman and a true worshiper, by virtue of his spontaneous inclination itself. "Fool," says the lady in Comus,

Fool do not boast:

You cannot touch the freedom of my mind

With all thy charms, although this corporal rind

You have immanacled, while Heaven sees good.

The same truth is embodied in the fine lines of Lovelace, written while confined in prison:

Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage,

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for an hermitage.

If I have freedom in my love,

And in my soul am free,

Angels alone, that soar above,

Enjoy such liberty.

—Percy, Reliques

And on the other hand, if a man has an evil inclination, say to earthly ambition and power, he is free in sin, that is, self-determinedly sinful, whether he is permitted to carry it out in volition and act or not. Shut him in prison, so that he can take no part in earthly affairs, he is still Satan's freeman by virtue of the inclination of his will.

The reason of this is the fact that the subjective energy of the human will is all that a man can call his own and be responsible for. The realization of this personal inward energy in outward act depends upon others and especially upon the providence of God, but not upon the man himself. The circumstances of a man are no part of his spontaneous self-determination, and he is not responsible for them. He is not free in regard to them. As in the case supposed, a man may have the inclination to worship God, but his surroundings prevent. These surroundings are no part of his voluntary agency and ought not to be taken into account in determining whether he is a free agent. If the subjective personal energy of his own will, as seen in his inclination, is truly free from compulsion and really spontaneous, he is free, whether he can give it outward form in a particular act or not. Says Calvin (2.4.8):

The ability of the human will is not to be estimated from the event of things, as some ignorant men are accustomed to do. For they imagine that they disprove the freedom of the human will, because even the greatest monarchs have not all their desires fulfilled. But the ability of which we are speaking is to be considered as within man and not to be measured by external success. For in the dispute concerning free will, the question is not whether a man notwithstanding external impediments can perform and execute whatever he may have determined in his mind, but whether in every case his understanding exerts freedom of judgment (judicii electionem) and his will freedom of inclination (affectionem voluntatis). If men possess both of these, then Attilius Regulus when confined in the small extent of a cask stuck round with nails will possess as much free will as Augustus Caesar when governing a great part of the world with his rod.

To the same effect, Edwards (Will 3.4) remarks that

if the will [i.e., the inclination] fully complies, and the proposed effect does not prove, according to the laws of nature, to be connected with his [executive] volition, the man is perfectly excused; he has a natural inability to the thing required. For the will [inclination] itself, as has been observed, is all that can be directly and immediately required by command; and other things only indirectly, as connected with the will. If, therefore, there be a full compliance of will [inclination], the person has done his duty, and if other things do not prove to be connected with his [executive] volition that is not owing to him. (cf. Reid, Intellectual Powers 3.4.1)

Defined positively, finite freedom is …

1. Self-determination in the sense of moral spontaneity—not self-determination and power to the contrary, but self-determination alone, pure, and simple: The first is true, the last is spurious self-determination and should be denominated indetermination.

2. Freedom from compulsion, either internal or external: "God has endued the will of man with that natural liberty that it is not forced to good or evil" (Westminster Confession 9.1).

3. Freedom from physical necessity or the operation of the law of cause and effect: "God has endued the will of man with that natural liberty that it is not by any absolute necessity of nature determined to good or evil" (Westminster Confession 9.1).

Physical necessity is seen in the sequences of physical cause and effect. There is no freedom in such a series of sequences because there is no true beginning and first start. The cause is itself an effect of a foregoing cause, and this again is the effect of another foregoing cause and so backward indefinitely: causa causae causa causati. No responsible cause can be found in such a line of antecedents and consequents, because as fast as the responsibility is found in a particular cause, it is thrown back upon the cause of this cause. No real and true author or beginner is found until the chain terminates in God, who is not a part of the chain, but the Creator of it. All physical and material events and phenomena must be referred to the Prime Mover. There is no real author and no first cause within the chain of nature itself. But in the sphere of mind, the case is different. The law of cause and effect operating in matter has no operation in the human will. This latter is the faculty of self-motion. Even when the Holy Spirit works in it "to will and to do," the motion is still self-motion—spiritual not physical, voluntary not necessitated. In the origin of sin, the will cannot refer its action back to a physical cause and thus convert it into a mere effect and transfer its responsibility to a foregoing cause of its agency. In respect to sin, it is itself a true originating cause. It begins its own movement ab intra, by an act of self-determination. There is a first inclining of the will to the creature, and away from the Creator, which is not the effect of a foregoing sin, but is the original nisus or start of self-will. And in the origin of holiness, though the will must refer its action back to God, yet not to him as a physical cause producing a physical effect. Holy inclination is the activity of mind, not of matter. It is not produced by the operation of the law of cause and effect, because the divine Spirit works in the human will in accordance with the nature of mind, not of matter.

If this be the true definition of freedom, it follows that the apostate will is free in being inclined or self-determined and that this inclination to evil constitutes an inability to good. The sinner is at once voluntary in sin and impotent to holiness. He is enslaved by himself to himself. He cannot love God supremely, because he loves himself supremely. He cannot incline rightly, because he is inclining wrongly. He is spontaneously and freely evil and therefore is unable to be spontaneously and freely good. Self-determination is a hazardous endowment. It may be an evil as well as a good. When free will is wicked will, it is a curse. (See supplement 4.5.16.)

The answer to the question "can the sinner repent if he will?" depends on the meaning of the term Will: whether it denotes inclination or volition. Can the sinner repent if he incline? Yes. But the inclining is the repentance itself. So that this answer is the truism "he can repent, if he repents." Can the sinner repent, if he choose or resolve? No. A volition of the will cannot produce an inclination of the will. If a man inclines to repent, he repents in so inclining; but if a man resolves to repent, he does not repent in so resolving.

It is objected that if the sinner has no power to obey the law he has nothing to do in the matter of religion. He may say with Macbeth,

If chance will have me king, why let chance crown me,

Without my stir.

This does not follow. Because the sinner cannot do the primary work, it does not follow that he cannot do the secondary. He has a very important work to do, namely, to discover his inability. A wide field is open here for his agency. (a) He can compare his character and conduct with the requirements of the law; this tends to convince him of his inability to perfectly obey the law: "I have seen an end of all perfection; your commandment is exceeding broad" (Ps. 119:96). (b) He can try to obey the law; this will convince him of his inability still more.

A sinner has power under common grace to find out that he has no power to the "spiritually good." This is a preparative work to regeneration. The discovery that he is "without strength" leads to the discovery that "Christ died for the ungodly" (Rom. 5:6). When he is weak then he is strong. God has appointed certain means to be employed by common grace prior to his exercise of regenerating grace, not meritoriously, but as congruous or adapted to the end. The sinner is to use them. Says Howe (Decrees 3.7):

Where there is not as yet the light of a saint, there is that of a man, and that is to be improved and made use of in order to our higher light; and if there be that self-reflection to which God has given to every man a natural ability, much more may be known than usually is. It belongs to the nature of man to turn his eyes inward. Men can reflect and consider this with themselves: Have I not an aversion toward God? Have not worldly concernments and affairs, by the natural inclination of my own mind, a greater room and place there than heaven and the things of heaven? Are not other thoughts more grateful? And have they not a more pleasant relish with me than thoughts of God? Men, I say, are capable of using such reflections as these. And therefore of considering: This can never be well with me. If there remain with me a habitual aversion to God, who must be my best and eternal good, I cannot but be eternally miserable. If I cannot think of and converse with him with inclination and pleasure, I am lost. If my blessedness lie above, in another world, and my mind is carried continually downward toward this world, I must have a heart attempered to heaven, or I can never come there. Well, then, let me try if I can change the habit of my own mind, make the attempt, make the trial. The more you attempt and try, the more you will find that of yourselves you cannot; you can do nothing of yourselves, you do but lift a heavy log, you attempt to move a mountain upward, when you would lift at your own terrene hearts. Then is this consideration obvious: I must have help from heaven, or I shall never come there. Therefore fall a-seeking, fall a-supplicating, as one that apprehends himself in danger to perish and be lost, if he have not another heart, a believing heart, a holy heart, a heavenly heart.

It is objected that if the sinner's ability to keep the moral law depends upon the sovereign grace of God he must wait God's time. The reply is that God's time is now and therefore excludes waiting for it: "God says, I have heard you in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succored you: behold now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2); "God limits (horizei) a certain day: saying, Today if you will hear his voice harden not your hearts" (Heb. 4:7). God offers the Holy Spirit as a regenerating Spirit this very instant, but confines the offer to this very instant. Nowhere in revelation does God offer to pardon sin or regenerate the soul at a future time. This work is always described as to be done in the sinner's heart, now, this very moment. No future redemption is promised.

The sinner excuses himself from faith and repentance by saying, "I cannot believe. I am unable to repent." He is to be made to feel the truth of his statement, not to be told that his statement is untrue. He needs to become conscious of that inability which in words he asserts, but not in sincerity. The difficulty in the instance in which this objection of inability is urged is that the sinner does not really believe what he says. He does not realize his inability; but he perceives that to urge it is a good verbal objection, an argumentum ad hominem for the preacher. In this case, the work of the preacher is to make the objector eat his own words and seriously feel the truth of his assertion. And in doing this, he will bring out the important fact that the sinner's inability is guilty because self-originated, that the sinner is the sole author of the inability.

It is objected that the doctrine of inability is incompatible with commands and exhortations to believe, repent, and obey the law of God. It is said that we would not command a dead man to rise from the grave or a man without legs to walk. To this it is to be replied that we would so command if God bade us to utter this commandment in a given instance and promised to accompany the word from our lips with his own omnipotent and creative power. Christ's command to preach the gospel to men "dead in trespasses and sins" and who "cannot come unto the Son except the Father draw them" (John 6:44) is coupled with the promise to accompany the truth with the Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of the sinner's ability is exposed to great objections:

1. It contradicts consciousness. The process of "conviction" is a growing sense of inability to everything spiritually good in heart and conduct. Sinful man cannot be made conscious of ability. This form of consciousness has never been in the human soul.

2. The tenet undermines the doctrine of atonement. It is conceded that the sinner has no ability to make atonement for his guilt; it would follow from this theory of ability that he is not obligated to make one, in other words, that punitive justice has no claims upon him.

3. The tenet conflicts with the doctrine of endless punishment. If the power to the contrary belongs inalienably to the apostate will, self-restoration in the future world is possible, and endless punishment is not certain. The Alexandrine theologians Clement and Origen founded their denial of endless punishment upon this view of the will. If the sinner is able at all times to believe and repent, he may do so at any time, and under the impressions of the other world it is probable that he will. Clement and Origen founded the final recovery of Satan and his angels, together with fallen man, in the future world upon the abiding existence of free will to good. It is no reply to this objection to say that the lost man can, but certainly never will repent. If latent power be given in the premise, the natural inference is that it will be used, not that it will not be. Suppose that previous to the fall it had been said, "Adam has the power to sin, but he certainly never will sin." Suppose that it were said, "Gunpowder has the inherent power of self-explosion, but it certainly never will explode." To say that it was certain that Adam would use his power to sin because it was decreed that he would use it is not to the point; because this is inferring the certainty as relative to the divine decree, not as relative to the power of the human will, which is the matter in dispute.

4. The tenet of ability encourages the sinner to procrastination and neglect of the gospel offer. If he believes that from the very nature of free will he has the power to believe and repent at any moment, he will defer faith and repentance. A sense of danger excites; a sense of security puts to sleep. A company of gamblers in the sixth story are told that the building is on fire. One of them answers, "We have the key to the fire escape," and all continue the game. Suddenly one exclaims, "The key is lost"; all immediately spring to their feet and endeavor to escape. While there was the belief of security, there was apathy; the instant there was a knowledge of insecurity, there was action.

5. If the law can be perfectly obeyed by "natural ability" or by will without right inclination, then "moral ability" is superfluous. But if the law cannot be obeyed except by the union of natural and moral ability or by will with right inclination, then either alone is insufficient.

The following propositions comprise the substance of the Augustino-Calvinistic doctrine of inability. (1) There is a free self-determination or inclining to evil in the sinner's will. (2) There is an inability of the sinner to self-determine or incline to good that results from his self-determining or inclining to evil. This inability is culpable because it is the product of the sinner's agency. (3) The Holy Spirit reoriginates self-determination or inclination to good in the sinner's will. (4) The sinner's will is wholly, not partially, dependent upon the divine Spirit for a holy self-determination or inclination. (5) God has elected an immense "multitude whom no man can number" to be the subjects of his regenerating power.

Actual transgressions are the particular sins that proceed from original sin. They are the individual's sins of act in distinction from his inherited nature and inclination. Original sin is one; actual sin is manifold. "Actual" in this connection is not the contrary of "imaginary." Actual transgressions are accompanied with more or less of self-consciousness.

Actual transgressions are (a) interior, namely, a particular conscious doubt in the mind or a particular conscious lust in the heart. These are single manifestations of the general inclination. The worship of the creature or idolatry (Rom. 1:25) is the generic corruption, and an internal actual transgression is the outworking of this in a particular ambitious purpose or a proud aspiration or a malignant emotion, etc. And actual transgressions are (b) exterior, namely, theft, lie, homicide, suicide, etc.

The depravity or corruption of nature is total: Man is "wholly inclined to evil, and that continually" (Westminster Larger Catechism 25); "God saw that every imagination of the thoughts of man was only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5). There can be but a single dominant inclination in the will at one and the same time, though with it there may be remnants of a previously dominant inclination. Adam began a new sinful inclination. This expelled the prior holy inclination. He was therefore totally depraved, because there were no remainders of original righteousness left after apostasy, as there are remainders of original sin left after regeneration. This is proved by the fact that there is no struggle between sin and holiness in the natural man like that in the spiritual man. In the regenerate, "the flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh" (Gal. 5:17). Holiness and sin are in a conflict that causes the regenerate to "groan within themselves" (Rom. 8:23). But there is no such conflict and groaning in the natural man. Apostasy was the fall of the human will, with no remnants of original righteousness. Regeneration is the recovery of the human will, with some remnants of original sin.

Total depravity means the entire absence of holiness, not the highest intensity of sin. A totally depraved man is not as bad as he can be, but he has no holiness, that is, no supreme love of God. He worships and loves the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25).



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