The 3rd Rail: Inability of the Will is Never Literal

KH LogoBy Ken Hamrick

See all the posts in the series, ‘The 3rd Rail’

We in the middle watch with dismay as justification for the extremes of one side is claimed to be based on the extremes of the other (in the ongoing Calvinism/Traditionalism debate). Why ignore the middle position? There are more than two choices here. In fact, both sides can actually come to near agreement on some issues, with a few minor adjustments—adjustments that bring them more in line with sound, Biblical truth. The issue of the inability of sinners is one in desperate need of common sense and Biblical clarity, which will provide some common ground for both sides—that is, for those who are willing to open their eyes and consider what the middle has to offer.

The most clarifying principle in expounding the inability of sinners is that explained by Andrew Fuller[1] (who was prompted by the writings of Jonathan Edwards[2]), to wit, that there is a distinction between natural and moral inability—a distinction that is both Biblical and common in understanding language. A moral inability consists in nothing more than an unwilling heart—unwilling due to its immoral nature—and provides no excuse because it is not absolute but leaves a power remaining to do otherwise (a remaining natural ability). A natural inability is one that cannot be overcome no matter how much one might be willing—it excuses because it is absolute and no power remains to do otherwise.

Perhaps an easier way to think of this distinction is to keep in mind that terms of inability when applied to the will are always figurative (what Edwards and Fuller called “improper”[3]). If a man is wholly averse to doing a particular thing, even though he has it within his power to do it, and nothing hinders him except his unwillingness, he can within the common rules of language be said to be unable to do it. But since his inability consists only in his unwillingness, it is universally understood that terms of inability in the case are being used figuratively and not literally—figuratively because the man literally has it within his power. If he wanted to do it, nothing stands in his way.

Fuller explains, “It is common, both in Scripture and in conversation, to speak of a person who is under the influence of an evil bias of heart, as unable to do that which is inconsistent with it.” As an example, Fuller offers Gen. 37:4, in which it is said that Joseph’s brothers “could not speak peaceably” to Joseph. It is universally understood that such an inability was not meant in the literal, natural sense of being absolutely unable—like a mute man being unable to speak anything, but only in the figurative, moral sense of being unable to find it within their hearts to speak peaceably to him. And it is just as universally understood that the former meaning provides an excuse while the latter does not.

When it comes to the inability of sinners to believe in Christ or do what is right, they cannot find the willingness in their heart, but the ability—in the literal, natural sense of that word—remains just the same, so that they are left without excuse. They are unable to believe, in the figurative, moral sense of that word, just as Joseph’s brothers were unable to speak peaceably to him. This is what Fuller understands in the Bible’s descriptions of sinners as unable to come to Christ. And it fully resolves the seeming tension with the Bible’s description of sinners as unable to come to Christ, as well as the “Divine censure” that attends such an inability.[4]

Both Calvinists and Traditionalists look for God to “enable” sinners to believe. However, since the inability consists in nothing more than unwillingness, then we in the middle look only for the persuading power of God’s grace at work in the sinner’s life. When the inability is figurative, consisting only in unwillingness, then the enabling would also be figurative, consisting only in changing an unwillingness to a willingness. Of course, all would agree that God has the power to supernaturally make such a change instantaneously; but the real question is, can He effect a change in will without first indwelling and regenerating the man? Like most Middlers, I believe that God is indeed capable, by means of the Holy Spirit, of persuading the lost man to embrace God and His truth through Christ and His cross.

This dynamic of aversion/persuasion sees salvation as contingent upon the sinner’s decision, and sees unwillingness rather than inability as the impediment to be overcome by God’s grace. No man can come to Christ only because none can come unless they are willing; and none are willing unless they are drawn by God’s gracious persuasions. Sinners are unable to come to Christ only because of their unwillingness and aversion toward God; and it is through the preaching of men and the convictions of the Holy Spirit—in conjunction with the orchestration of life events and circumstances—that sinners are drawn to Christ and persuaded to embrace Him in the full surrender of genuine, repentant faith… The Holy Spirit does play a part in drawing, convicting and persuading men; but ultimately, it remains a persuading and not coercing, so the decision is still freely made, and God still accomplishes His will through—and not in spite of—the will of men. Although God saves through such persuasion, the final outcome as to which persons will be saved is nonetheless certain from eternity past.[5]

The two sides can indeed meet in the middle, and find both the clarity and the fullness of Biblical ground they’ve been missing.

[1] Andrew Fuller, “The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation,” The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle, 1988), vol. II.
[2] Jonathan Edwards, “A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that FREEDOM OF WILL, Which is Supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003/1834), Vol. 1.
[3] Fuller,  “Reply to Philanthropos,” Complete Works, vol. II, states:
[…] when the terms cannot, inability, &c. are used in these connexions, they are used not in a proper, but in a figurative sense; that they do not express the state of a person hindered by something extraneous to his own will, but denote what we usually mean by the phrase cannot find in his heart; […]
Edwards, “Freedom of Will,” p. 11, states:
But it must be observed concerning moral Inability, in each kind of it, that the word Inability is used in a sense very diverse from its original import. The word signifies only a natural Inability, in the proper use of it; and is applied to such cases only wherein a present will or inclination to the thing, with respect to which a person is said to be unable, is supposable. It cannot be truly said, according to the ordinary use of language, that a malicious man, let him be never so malicious, cannot hold his hand from striking, or that he is not able to show his neighbor kindness; or that a drunkard, let his appetite be never so strong, cannot keep the cup from his mouth. In the strictest propriety of speech, a man has a thing in his power, if he has it in his choice, or at his election: and a man cannot be truly said to be unable to do a thing, when he can do it if he will. It is improperly said, that a person cannot perform those external actions, which are dependent on the act of the Will, and which would be easily performed, if the act of the Will were present. […] it is in some respect more improperly said, that he is unable to exert the acts of the Will themselves; because it is more evidently false, with respect to these, that he cannot if he will: for to say so, is a downright contradiction; it is to say, he cannot will, if he does will. […] Therefore, in these things, to ascribe a non-performance to the want of power or ability, is not just; because the thing wanting is not a being able, but a being willing.
[4] Adapted from “Unwillingness & Inability: A Summary of Andrew Fuller’s Solution,” accessed at
[5] Adapted from “Compatibilism: A More Immanent Grace”, accessed at