Fuller & Inability: A Rejoinder to Tom Nettles

Andrew Fuller

Andrew Fuller

Other Posts in This Series:      Part 1;       Part 2;       Part 3;       Whole Paper.

Recently, I published a Centrist response[1] to Dr. Tom Nettles’ series of articles on Andrew Fuller.[2] He has replied to that critique, but only in brief comments (one initial[3] and one final[4]). I had hoped he would step up to the task of a substantive engagement. Be that as it may, I will in this rejoinder address his comments and show the continuing inadequacies of his defense.

Dr. Nettles states:

I agree […] 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 [Hamrick’s] 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.

Contrary to Dr. Nettles, in this moral realm, necessity can be distinguished from certainty as surely as sovereignty can be distinguished from justice—as surely as might from right. To justly punish someone is to presuppose that he had a choice to make between right and wrong and he chose wrongly. Why will God judge men for their deeds? Why does He hold them to a standard that will not be met? Is it merely because He can? If so, then it is not a matter of justice but only a matter of sovereignty. If men are unable to choose what their desires or inclinations will be, and if they are unable to choose any other action than what accords with those inclinations, then their sin is not their crime but their misfortune… and their judgment is only the final link in an unbreakable chain of unchangeable calamities.

Dr. Nettles inconsistently oscillates between two ideas, seeing sinners as choosing wrongly and also seeing them as bound by necessity to only that selection. Yet, the concepts of choice and necessity are mutually exclusive. If there really is no viable option to choose the right, then there really is no choice between the two, and men are thus punished not for their choices, which are merely the necessary manifestations of their inclinations, but for their inclinations themselves. And since no man chooses his inclinations, then any so-called punishment is merely a calamity and no punishment at all. In such a case, justice is a lost concept, swallowed up by sovereignty.

Dr. Nettles, following Jonathan Edwards, sees only as far as that what a man chooses in any particular instance has some prior thing, event or circumstance that has caused the man to choose as he has—and that without this antecedent factor, the man would have chosen differently, so that this factor was necessary to his choosing what he chose. But the faulty assumption that plagues such Necessarians is that a necessity in the antecedent causal factor yields a necessity in the effect—that because a certain prior thing is necessary to a man choosing a certain way, then the way that he chooses is also a necessary result of that prior thing. But that simply does not follow when we are dealing with men rather than with dominoes. Dr. Nettles insists that every human choice has a cause; but let me point out that every man has a conscience and no man has an excuse. Who on Judgment Day will be able to claim, “There was nothing I could do but sin as I did, since my choices were the necessary result of things beyond my control?” No one. Every man’s conscience convicts him of sin, bearing witness that in every sinful choice, the right choice was both possible and available. Dr. Nettles claims that no man can choose against his prevailing inclination. He is only partly right: every man can choose against his prevailing inclination, but no man will choose against his prevailing inclination. That is the difference between a repugnant necessity and a Biblical certainty—and the very difference that Andrew Fuller endeavors so diligently to establish, but which seems to be lost on Dr. Nettles.

The ideas of command and obedience, free will and accountability, run throughout Scripture. The Bible everywhere presupposes that those who have chosen to sin should have and could have chosen otherwise. While it is true that no decision is ever “contrary to the prevailing motivation,” it is an error to take that so far as to assume that because a man would not choose otherwise then he could not choose otherwise. To say that a man would not choose otherwise speaks of certainty, while to say that he could not choose otherwise speaks of necessity. The former allows a just judgment for not choosing rightly, but the latter does not. This is not, as Dr. Nettles seems to object, to plead for “contra-causal choice;” but rather, it is to insist on a real choice existing and not merely the term stripped of the substance of its meaning. Yes, a man’s prevailing inclination causes him to prefer one option over another, but never to such an extent that he does not have it within his power to take the less-desired option. Every man’s conscience has convicted him, upon choosing wrongly, that he could have and should have chosen rightly. This universal truth seems to be forgotten when Dr. Nettles speaks of moral choices as if it were impossible for men to choose otherwise in any case.

Dr. Nettles distinguishes between natural and moral necessity, but only insofar as the one applies to the natural realm and the other to the moral realm. I cannot find where he makes the distinction that Fuller does, insisting that the terms of inability, such as necessary, impossible and unable, are used only improperly and figuratively when used in the moral sense, in contrast to these terms being used properly and literally in the natural sense. This I have addressed in my previous critique, but Dr. Nettles has not answered. I suspect that this distinction does not fit with his Necessarian understanding. His arguments for moral necessity seem to allow for no difference in the nature of how the term necessity is applied, but only mark off the separate “realms” of the moral and the natural, to which he applies the term in much the same way. He seems to overlook that Fuller saw the terms natural and moral as not only different realms but different senses by which the terms of inability are used and understood. The very reason why Fuller insisted that the moral use of such terms was figurative and improper was because moral inability—unlike natural inability—did not presuppose an absolute inability. Instead, a moral inability always presupposes a remaining natural ability to do the very thing that one is characterized as being morally unable to do. To Fuller, natural inability alone presupposes that absolutely no ability of any kind remains, and that is why only natural ability provides an excuse. To be excused requires that one have absolutely no ability to perform what is required, and only natural ability leaves one in such a state—moral inability only leaves one guilty of not having it in one’s heart to do what is right, even though one still has it in the power of his hand to do what is right.

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 assertions 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.

“Cause”—that word itself can have either a natural or a moral sense. Someone bumping into me may cause me to fall down, though I be ever so willing to remain upright. But, it is entirely a different sense of “cause” when someone causes me to fall morally. A solicitation to sin may be presented, which, when combined with my prevailing inclination, results in such sin. However, we can harldy be expected to believe that the results of the cause in the latter case are just as “necessary” as in the former! The former provides an excuse, since I could not remain upright no matter how willing I might have been; whereas the latter leaves me without excuse, since I could have remained morally upright if I had been willing to remain so. These things are universally understood by any man with a conscience.

Dr. Nettles leans on a false idea, to wit, that there is a sense in which the sinner cannot will the right no matter how much they might try to be willing. I say that he leans on this idea because he does not explicitly affirm it; but yet, he seems to continually imply it. It is difficult indeed, when speaking of will and inability together, to keep from slipping into natural inability when speaking of the depraved moral will. It is an error that must be guarded against, and the guarding boundary is this: only natural inability has the capacity to overwhelm any resistance. Therefore, when speaking of the moral inability of the will, we must guard against implying a strength greater than any possible resistance. The strength of moral inability is only in the complete absence of any resistance, and if any resistance were offered, the moral inability would be overcome. Moral inability is only “invincible” in the moral sense of the certainty that no resistance will be offered, and not in the natural sense of being necessary regardless of any resistance offered. Dr. Nettles continues:

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].

If God is to forgive men of their sins, and do so in a way that accords with justice, then a substitutionary atonement is necessary. However, it is not necessary that God want to forgive men, and neither was it necessary that God be so gracious as to provide a substitutionary atonement. Again, Dr. Nettles is mistaking the necessity of a cause for the necessity of an effect. While Christ dying on the cross was necessary in order for our sins to be forgiven, His death does not make the salvation of any man necessary. It is certain that the elect will be saved, but they come freely to Christ and God freely saves them.

As for the necessity of an efficacious call, Fuller did hold that no man will believe unless God first does a supernatural work of regeneration in the man; however, Fuller also affirmed that such a supernatural work did not cause the man to do what he could not otherwise have done, but only caused him to do what he already should have and could have done, if he had only been willing. Dr. Nettles continues:

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]

Dr. Nettles has completely failed to squarely engage the argument. Where does he explain why it is that Fuller says that the terms of moral inability, such as impossible, necessary, unable, cannot, etc., are used only improperly and figuratively (rather than properly and literally)? Rather than give us an answer to that question, Dr. Nettles has side-stepped by merely presenting other quotes from Fuller that use such terms. Are we to ignore the previous denials by Fuller that such terms are meant literally and properly, and assume that Fuller is inconsistent? I think not. When Fuller states, “But the impossibility respected their being brought to repentance..” he means by impossibility not the literal cannot of absolute inability (and necessity), but the would not of moral inability (and certainty). And when Fuller says, “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,” it is impossibility in the moral sense, which is never absolute but always presupposes a remaining natural possibility. It is not that it is impossible that a man could choose a certain way, but that it is impossible that he would choose—Fuller is speaking of the utter certainty that every man will choose according to his prevailing inclination, but Fuller is not offering that kind of impossibility as an excuse of absolute inability to choose otherwise. Rather, Fuller’s use of impossibility here is in full accord of what he has explained elsewhere, that such terms as impossible, invincible, etc., are not meant in their literal sense when used to describe moral inability.

Mr. Hamrick and I have reached an impasse in communication. He believes that I miss Fuller’s point and violate context in my citations. I think the same about his exposition of Fuller. The puzzling nature of his interaction is represented in the query, “Would Dr. Nettles claim that the moral inability is invincible because the sinner could not overcome it no matter how much he might want to?” ” No matter how much he might want to?!” What does that mean when one is dealing with moral inability? That is the very point of moral inability. The sinner does not want be rid of his hostile evaluation of the claims of God both in the Law and in the Gospel. If he wanted to overcome it (out of a sincere sense of wanting to know and honor a God of holy love), then the bondage already would be broken. My last reply in the comments above on this issue on August 4, 2014 is the final installment of all I have to say in light of Mr. Hamricks’ objections to my discussion of Fuller. The reader simply must look at what I have argued and what he has argued, look at the sources, and decide for himself.

I did not merely assert that Dr. Nettles missed Fuller’s point in some cases and took Fuller’s statements out of context. Rather, I established it by substantively engaging Dr. Nettles’ arguments—by citing the proper contextual meaning and proving the proper points. Where is Dr. Nettles’ substantive engagement of those arguments? Directing the readers to what he has already written is hardly a rebuttal.

In reply to my question, “Would Dr. Nettles claim that the moral inability is invincible because the sinner could not overcome it no matter how much he might want to?” Dr. Nettles seems to be at an impasse in his understanding: “‘No matter how much he might want to?!’ What does that mean when one is dealing with moral inability? That is the very point of moral inability. The sinner does not want be rid of his hostile evaluation of the claims of God both in the Law and in the Gospel. If he wanted to overcome it (out of a sincere sense of wanting to know and honor a God of holy love), then the bondage already would be broken.” Had Dr. Nettles truly understood Fuller and moral inability, then he would know the essence of moral inability is unwillingness, and that it is not so “invincible” that the sinner could not overcome it by merely choosing to do what is right. The man is not bound in the sense that he cannot choose the right no matter how much he might try to choose the right, but rather, he is bound only by the fact that a sinful heart will not freely choose the right on its own. Rather than the bondage of cannot (no matter how much one might want to), it is a bondage of will not (and will never want to). Therefore, it is a bondage only of certainty and not of necessity.

In conclusion, I will leave the reader with some of the arguments that Dr. Nettles has failed to substantively engage.

In his second installment, “Fullerite: Doctrine of Inability,” Dr. Nettles’ fundamental misunderstanding of Fuller is seen in how he has taken some of Andrew Fuller’s sentences out of context, and turned them around to imply what Fuller actually was teaching against:

In answering both the hyper-Calvinists and the Arminians in The Gospel Worthy of all Acceptation, Fuller pointed out that both believed that “it is absurd and cruel to require of any man what it is beyond his power to perform.” In their ardent desire to steer clear of each other, they finally concur in their attitude toward duty and grace—where there is not grace, there is no duty. “The one [hyper-Calvinists] pleads for graceless sinners being free from obligation, the other admits of obligation, but founds it on the notion of universal grace.” Fuller carefully distinguished, as he did in his earlier confession, between natural inability and moral inability, and asserted that the “inability of sinners is not such as to induce the Judge of all the earth . . . to abate in his demands. It is a fact that he does require them, and that without paying any regard to their inability, to love him, and to fear him, and to do all his commandments always.” Both hyper-Calvinists and non-Calvinist-partial-Arminians find this assertion to imply some kind of contradiction, or at [least] impose on any normal sense of fairness. In spite of all the rantings and reasonings against him and his view, however, Fuller continued to affirm both the absolute moral inability of man and the remaining duty of perfect obedience and cordial love to God and consequently a belief in the gospel.[5]

This axiom, that “it is absurd and cruel to require of any man what it is beyond his power to perform,” is not what Fuller argues against (as if only the hyper-Calvinists and Arminians held to such a thing), but in fact, Fuller agrees with it and argues for its truth in the succeeding paragraphs. He only argues against the two opposite conclusions that either side had drawn from this truth, to wit, that God does not obligate graceless sinners, or that God obligates all due to giving grace to all. Dr. Nettles seems (implicitly) to adopt the same faulty assumption that Fuller is fighting against, that without God’s grace, men have no power to perform what God requires—the only difference is that he has embraced the absurdity, affirming that it is not absurd and cruel to require of any man what is beyond his ability to perform.

Fuller acknowledges, “It is granted to be a dictate of common sense and common equity that no person should be blamed for the omission of that which he could not do if he would […]”[6] He states in clear terms, “[…] if the inability of sinners to believe in Christ were of the same nature as that of a dead body in a grave to rise up and walk, it were absurd to suppose that they would on this account fall under the Divine censure.” He also states (bold mine):

If the inability of sinners to perform things spiritually good were natural, or such as existed independently of their present choice, it would  be absurd and cruel to address them in such language. No one in his senses would think of calling the blind to look, the deaf to hear, or the dead to rise up and walk; and of threatening them with punishment in case of their refusal. But if the blindness arise from the love of darkness rather than light; if the deafness resemble that of the adder, which stoppeth her ear, and will not hear the voice of the charmer, charm he never so wisely; and if the death consist in alienation of heart from God, and the absence of all desire after him, there is no absurdity or cruelty in such addresses.[7]

Regarding the statement, “Fuller carefully distinguished, as he did in his earlier confession, between natural inability and moral inability, and asserted that the ‘inability of sinners is not such as to induce the Judge of all the earth . . . to abate in his demands[…],'” this also, in the context of how Dr. Nettles presents it, implies the opposite of what Fuller intended and has been taken completely out of the original context. Fuller’s meaning by this statement was not to affirm the mere idea that God does indeed require what men have no ability to perform—on the contrary, when read in its context, Fuller clearly meant to affirm that God requires these things of men because they are not destitute of all ability to perform them.

Fuller states that the “inability of sinners is not such as to induce the Judge of all the earth (who cannot do other than right) to abate in his demands. It is a fact that he does require them, and that without paying any regard to their inability, to love him, and to fear him, and to do all his commandments always” (bold mine). Contrary to Dr. Nettles’ implied emphasis, Fuller was not defending the right of God to require these things of sinners in spite of their inability. Fuller’s affirmation, “who cannot do other than right,” joins in the assumption that it would not be right to require of men what they have no ability whatsoever to perform. He thus argues that the “inability of sinners is not such”—not the kind of inability that leaves men with an excuse due to leaving them without any power whatsoever to comply—as to induce the Judge of all the earth (who would not require that which sinners had no ability whatsoever to perform) to abate in his demands.

Dr. Nettles states, “[…]Fuller continued to affirm both the absolute moral inability of man and the remaining duty of perfect obedience and cordial love to God[…]” However, it is Dr. Nettles and not Fuller who pairs the term absolute with moral inability. If moral inability were absolute, it would not be an improper, figurative use of the terms of inability, but a use that is just as proper and literal as when natural inability is meant. The very reason that the terms of moral inability are improperly and figuratively used is because moral inability does NOT leave one absolutely unable. Absolute inability is presupposed in natural inability, and thus, it is a proper and literal use of the terms; but, what is presupposed in moral inability is a remaining natural ability. One cannot contemplate natural inability without contemplating absolute inability; and neither can one contemplate absolute inability without contemplating natural inability. Just so, one cannot contemplate moral inability without contemplating a remaining natural ability—remove the remaining natural ability from the idea and moral inability itself disappears with it.

In his article, “A Reply to Ken Hamrick: Ability, Will and Necessity,” Dr. Nettles states;

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.[8]

It is not that I interpret “such” as indicating degree of inability, but rather, “such” refers to the kind of inability for which Fuller has been providing examples in the preceding paragraphs—the kind of inability that literally leaves one without any ability whatsoever, thus providing an excuse and an escape from accountability. So the criticism that the term points to kind of inability, and not to degree, falls short, since the “degree” is presupposed in the kind: moral inability presupposes a remaining natural ability; while natural inability presupposes an absolute inability.

Dr. Nettles said, “The inability in either case would be unalterable, determining, invincible, whether it were moral or natural, thus creating a ‘necessity’ in either case.” But as we saw in the above section, Fuller does not see moral inability creating a necessity:

To this it is replied, 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.[…] Now, where this is the case, it cannot be said, in strict propriety of speech, that no provision is made for their happiness, or 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.[9]

Why does Dr. Nettles not address the difference between such terms being used properly and their being used improperly? He seems to treat them as if they were used properly “in either case.” Fuller on the term “invincible:”

Invincible is a relative term, and supposes all opposition made, though made in vain. But moral inability is of such a nature, where it totally prevails, as to prevent all real and direct opposition being made. It is the same thing as for the “hearts of the sons of men” to be “fully set in them to do evil”—to be “full of evil while they live;” for “every imagination of the heart” to be “only evil, and that continually.” Now if we say this moral indisposition is invincible, it is for the want of a better term. What we affirm is this, rather: that, suppose it were conquerable, there is nothing of real good in the sinner’s heart to conquer it. 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.[10]

Once again, we find a term of inability that is used improperly when applied to moral inability. Properly, invincible describes what is so strong as to defeat all opposition. But as Fuller explains here, this is not the case with moral inability. If moral inability is to be described as invincible, it is only improperly so, since no opposition within the sinner exists—and further, as we cited earlier from Fuller (Bold mine), “[…] If I be under no other inability than that which arises from a dishonesty of heart, it is an abuse of language to introduce the terms “possible, impossible,” &c.,…” [and I might add, “unalterable, determining, invincible”], “…for the purposes of diminishing the goodness of God, or destroying the accountableness of man. I am not wanting in power provided I were willing; and if I be not willing, there lies my fault. […]”[11] Far from being like an invincible army that is able to resist all opposition that might come its way from any opposing force not currently present, it would instead immediately fall were any real opposition brought against it. If the world’s weakest army guarded a land so isolated as to never have contact with anyone outside it, it may be considered invincible—but only due to the lack of opposition and not due to its ability to resist opposition. The supposed invincibility of moral inability consists not in its resistance to the will, but only in the lack of any resistance in the will. If the sinner is willing, the power is his; and if he is not willing, the fault is his.

Would Dr. Nettles claim that the moral inability is invincible because the sinner could not overcome it no matter how much he might want to? I don’t think he would; but if he did, he would by that claim redefine the inability into a natural one and no longer a moral one. That is the defining question for natural inability: is the man unable no matter how much he might be willing? If so, then the inability is natural and not moral. Or, the opposing question: is the inability owing to the inclination and to nothing else? If so, then the inability is moral and a remaining natural ability is presupposed in it. However, by calling moral inability “absolute,” “unalterable,” and “invincible,” Dr. Nettles seems to imply that when it comes to obeying and believing God, the sinner cannot want to, no matter how willing he might be. And although Fuller agrees that the sinner will never find it within himself to want to believe or obey, Fuller never takes that last step off the precipice of common sense (bold mine):

[…] What then does Mr. T. mean? He must mean this, if any thing, that he could have been willing if he would; that is, he could have willed if he had willed: but this is no meaning at all, being a mere identical proposition. It is possible Mr. T. may here exclaim against such a method of reasoning, and appeal to common sense and common equity, “that no person is blameworthy for the omission of what he could not perform.” It is granted to be a dictate of common sense and common equity that no person should be blamed for the omission of that which he could not do if he would; but not that he should be excused for the neglect of that which he could not WILL if he would; for there is no such thing in being. So far is this from being a dictate of common sense, there is no sense in it, nor do they that talk of it understand what they mean.[12]

“There is no such thing…” as that which a man “could not WILL if he would…” He either wills it or he does not. The idea of will is not to be folded in upon itself (“the will to will”). One cannot change a “will not” into a “cannot,” except as a figurative expression (an improper usage of terms) wherein the meaning is clear from the context that the inability consists only in having no desire and not in a literal (absolute) lack of ability. Fuller asks a penetrating question (bold mine):

The answer of our Lord to those carnal Jews who inquired of him what they “must do to work the works of God,” is worthy of special notice. Did Jesus give them to understand that as to believing in him, however willing they might be, it was a matter entirely beyond their power? that all the directions he had to give were that they should attend the means and wait for the moving of the waters? No: Jesus answered, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.[13]

Fuller also states, in answer to Philanthropos’ objection to the injustice regarding sinners having no “power sufficient to have embraced” the gospel:

It seems, if men had but power to comply, all this injustice would subside. Well, we affirm they have power. They have the same natural ability to embrace Christ as to reject him. They could comply with the gospel if they would. Is any thing more necessary to denominate them accountable beings?[14]

The Arminian has to deny that natural ability is power to embrace the gospel and make men accountable. Instead, they must insist that sinners are given the power over their own inclinations, since they will always choose according to their inclination—therefore, it is reasoned, they must be able to choose their inclinations if they are to have any real power to decide for themselves whether to believe or reject Christ. Without the power over their own inclinations, the Arminian argues that sinners would have no power to embrace Christ and could not be justly held accountable for not doing so. Fuller continues…

[…] “No,” it will be said, “they might have had an inclination if they would;” but let it be considered whether any thing like this is revealed in Scripture, and whether it is not repugnant even to common sense. If they had been willing, they might, or would, have been willing; that is the amount of it, which is saying just nothing at all. […] [We maintain] that natural power is power, properly so called, and is, to all intents and purposes, sufficient to render men accountable beings; that the want of inclination in a sinner is of no account with the Governor of the world; that he proceeds in his requirements, and that it is right he should proceed, in the same way as if no such disinclination existed.[15]

Dr. Nettles comes close to agreeing with the Arminian in this, but from the opposite direction. If the moral inability is so emphasized that the power of sinners to embrace Christ is denied—if natural power is seen as powerless against the “unalterable, determining and invincible” moral inability—then those of opposite poles have come to some agreement with each other, but not with Fuller… nor with Scripture, as Fuller has so admirably expounded.

These are arguments that ought to be answered, and I hope Dr. Nettles will attend to these worthwhile matters.

Again, may God richly bless Dr. Nettles (whom I continue to hold in very high regard), the SBC, and all those who take up these matters in sincerity.

Ken Hamrick, 2014


[1] Ken Hamrick, “Fuller & Inability: A Centrist Response to Tom Nettles,” (published 8-7-2014, SBC Open Forum, at https://sbcopenforum.com/2014/08/07/fuller-inability-a-centrist-response-to-tom-nettles-whole-paper/)
[2] Tom Nettles, “Fuller The Non-Calvinist?” (first in the series, published 4-29-2014, Founders Ministries, at http://theblog.founders.org/fuller-the-non-calvinist/)
[3] Nettles’ comments made on 8-4-2014, (at http://theblog.founders.org/fuller-the-non-calvinist/#comment-99803), on “Fuller The Non-Calvinist?”
[4] Nettles’ comments made on 8-7-2014, (http://theblog.founders.org/fuller-the-non-calvinist/#comment-102676), on “Fuller The Non-Calvinist?”
[5] Nettles, “Fullerite: Doctrine of Inability”
[6] “Reality and Efficacy,” Letter IV, p. 529.
[7] “Gospel Worthy,” p. 386.
[8] Nettles, “A Reply to Ken Hamrick: Ability, Will and Necessity,” published 5-8-2014, Founders Ministries, at http://theblog.founders.org/a-reply-to-ken-hamrick-ability-will-and-necessity/
[9] Fuller, “Reality and Efficacy,” Letter X, pp. 545-546.
[10] “Reply to Philanthropos,” pp. 477-478.
[11] “Answers to Queries,” pp. 768, 769.
[12] “Reality and Efficacy,” Letter IV, p. 529.
[13] “Gospel Worthy,” p. 388.
[14] “Reply to Philanthropos,” p. 480.
[15] Ibid., pp. 480-481.

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: Fuller & Inability: A Centrist Response to Tom Nettles (Whole Paper) | SBC Open Forum
  2. Pingback: Fuller & Inability: A Centrist Response to Tom Nettles, Part 3 of 3 | SBC Open Forum

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