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DR. Woods's THIRD LETTER TO DR. BEECHER.
I have just received your sermon on DEPENDENCE and FREE-AGENCY; and, according to a suggestion in your last Letter to me, I shall proceed to remark on some of the topics which it introduces.
Between your views and mine on the subject of man's ability and inability, there is not, so far as I can judge, any real disagreement. You do indeed sometimes use language different from that which I am accustomed to use.
But when you come to explain your language, as you do in your second Letter, and in your Sermon just published, you show that you have a meaning which I can fully adopt. In the first place you do, what many who make much of man's ability neglect to do; that is, you clearly make the distinction between natural ability and inability, and moral. Natural ability you explain to be," the intellectual and moral faculties which God has given to men, commensurate with his requirements ;"_" the plenary powers of a free agent;"_" such a capacity for obedience, as creates perfect obligation to obey." You say, it is “what the law means, when it commands us to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.” The sinner, according to your representations, is under no natural impossibility to obey God; that is, it is not impossible for him to obey God in the same sense in which it is impossible for him " to create a world.” To all this I fully subscribe. Here then
” is no room for debate. I have been acquainted with ministers who have differed widely in their language respecting human ability, and who have had much debate on the subject, and . have seemed to entertain opposite opinions. But I doubt not, they would all coincide with the above statements. They would all admit that man has those intellectual and moral faculties which constitute him a moral agent, justly accountable for his actions, and under perfect obligation to obey the divine law. But all would not judge it best to give to these faculties the name of ability, or even of natural ability. In regard to the words by which the sentiment, held by them all, may most properly be expressed, there would be a difference. And would not this be the only difference? And would not any dispute on the subject be logomachy ? Suppose a minister of Christ does not like the expression, that sinners have a natural ability to obey the divine law. But he admits that they have those
faculties of mind which constitute them moral and accountable beings, put them under a perfect obligation to obey, and bring on them a just condemnation for disobedience. That is, he admits all that you mean by natural ability, though he does not use the language. Respecting this, you and he may diller. But the moment you lay aside the particular word, ability, and use other words expressing exactly what you mean by this, the difference between you and him is ended. You both believe that sinners have all the powers necessary to moral agents, and that they are under perfect obligation to do what God commands, though you may perhaps attach more importance to this view of the subject, and may give it more prominence in your preaching, than he thinks proper.
The same as to inability. I find from your explanations, that you
believe the sinner to be the subject of all the inability, which I have ever attributed to him. You say that man, in his unrenewed state, is “destitute of holiness and prone to evil ;" that he has "an inflexible bias of will to evil," "a sinfulness of heart and obliquity of will, which overrules and perverts his free agency only to purposes of evil ;" that he has an obstinate will, which as really and certainly demands the interposition of special divine influence, as if his inability were natural ;" that “his natural ability never avails, either alone, or by any power of truth, or help of man, to recover him from alicnation to obedience; that "the special, renovating influence of the Spirit is indispensable to his salvation ; " " that motives and obligation are by his obstinacy swept away;" and “that it is the work of the Holy Spirit to convince him of sin, to enlighten his mind, to renew his will, and to persuade and enable him to embrace Christ;" that “the powers requisite to free agency, which still remain in degenerate man, are wholly perverted, and hopeless of recovery, without the grace of God ;"
;" “ that men, as sinners, are dependent on Christ for a willingness to do any thing which will save their souls.” You hold it to be “a fact, that mind, once ruined, never recovers it
f;" "that the disease rages on, unreclaimed by its own miseries, and only exasperated by rejected remedies;" that “the mainspring of the soul for holy action, is gone, and that divine influence is the only substitute."
You not only make these just and moving representations of the state of unregenerate man, but you expressly speak of him as having an inability to obey God. You make the “distinction between the ability of man as a free agent, and his inability as a sinner," and say, “it is a distinction singularly plain, obvious to popular apprehension, and sanctioned by the
common sense of all men.” You fully justify the language of the Bible in ascribing to man,“ inability to obey the gospel." You quote the passages which declare, ihat “the carnal mind cannot be subject to the law of God ;—that they who are in the flesh cannot please God ;” and you say, the inability spoken of means the impossibility of becoming holy by any philosophical culture of the natural powers, or by any possible modification of our depraved nature ;" though you very properly take care to guard us against supposing, that the inability of sinners implies “ an absolute natural impossibility,” or has“ a passive, material import.” You say also, that “no language is more frequent in the common intercourse of men, than the terms, unable, cannot, and the like, to express slight, or deter-mined and unchanging aversion; and that the same use of these terms pervades the Bible ;" that“ inability, meaning only voluntary aversion, or permanent choice or disinclination, is ascribed to God, to Christ, and to good men in as strong terms, as inability to obey the gospel is ascribed to sinners.”
In regard to the above cited representations of yours, I see no ground for controversy. I am aware that, in your preaching, you are accustomed to say less frequently than many others, that sinners cannot believe and obey. But even if you should think it best, as some do, to go farther, and wholly to avoid expressions of that kind ; still while, in other words, you attribute to the sinner every thing which I and others mean by such expressions; there would be no difference, except in words. In ihe unmeasured abundance of remarks which have lately been made on the subject of ability and inability, it has not been always remembered that the principal if not the only difference which exists among thinking and candid 'men, is verbal. If this should be kept in mind, as it ought to be, and if men who are going to dispute, would just stop to inquire, what they are going to dispute about, it would very much narrow the ground of debate, and diminish, if not remove, the occasions of strife.
Still I hold the question about the use of particular words to be of no small importance. Words are the usual means of conveying the thoughts of our own minds to the minds of others. If then our words are not well chosen, we may fail of communicating what we wish, and may communicate something very different; and so the gift of speech, instead of contributing to useful purposes, may become positively hurtful.
It is not my design to controvert any of the positions which you lay down on the subject of ability and inability. Putting a candid and fair construction on your language, and considering you as agreeing with those excellent authors to whom
you refer with approbation, I am satisfied, as I have before said,
I that there is no material difference between your opinions and mine on this subject. My remarks therefore will relate chiefly, , if not wholly, to modes of expression ; though not so much to any which you employ, as to those employed by others. There is danger, I think, of a wrong impression being made on the minds of men from the manner in which some preachers speak respecting the sinner's ability. And although there is much in what you have lately given to the public, which is well calculated to guard against this danger; I humbly conceive that still greater caution in your manner of treating the subject, would do no hurt.
I am somewhat afraid of extending my remarks further than is necessary. But the subject is of acknowledged importance, and I will endeavour not to be a burden to your patience. My object is to show, as briefly as I can, that the language which is often employed on the subject of man's ability and inability, is subject to some serious inconveniences, both philological and metaphysical.
One of the principal inconveniences arises from the different senses of the words, and from the difficulty in many cases of knowing which of the senses is intended. The words and expressions are anbiguous. The natural inference will be, that where words have such a variety of senses, and where there is such danger of ambiguity, there is great need of caution. For if we do not guard against ambiguity, and if we leave others at a loss about the meaning of our words; we shall fail of answering the purposes of language. It would be better to be silent, than to use words which do not convey a clear, definite sense. For words, used ambiguously, occasion a thousand mistakes, and are the fruitful source of controversy and strife. Common honesty requires us to avoid ambiguity in our language; because ambiguity may lead others to believe what we regard as false; and benevolence requires it ; because the falsehood which they may believe, is likely to prove injurious.
I have said that the words relating to the present subject are used in a variety of senses. To illustrate this, we will take the word, ability, or power. In the general sense, power is that which produces or is capable of producing an efiect. As pewer resides in various things, and is productive of various effects; it is distinguished into various kinds. Efects produced in the physical world, as vegetation, thunder, earthquakes, &c., and all effects of a mechanical nature, result immediately from what we call physical causes, and these causes we consider as involving a physical power. Why? Because the effects are of a physical nature. By the physical power of man is understood his bodily power, or muscular strength.
Let me here remark, that the word physical is, in good use, almost always confined to the material world, and is, accordingly, much more limited in sense, than the word natural ; though we might suppose they would have the same sense. The word natural is indeed often applied to the same subjects in the same sense with physical ; but its application does not stop here. It is used also in relation to certain faculties, affections, and actions of intelligent beings. In this case, it cannot signify that the things to which it is applied, are of a material or physical nature; but it is used to distinguish them from that which is, in the higher sense, of a moral nature ; that is, from that which comes directly under the cognizance of the moral law, and is regarded as worthy of praise or blame.
But what is natural ability, or power, as used in relation to the present subject ? It is that combination of faculties, which constitutes man a moral and accountable agent, a fit subject of law, and under perfect obligation to obey.
But how great is the perplexity which may be occasioned here by the customary manner of using words ! The powers and faculties which constitute man a responsible agent, are called natural. But is the agent which these natural faculties constitute, called, as we might suppose he would be, a natural agent? No. He is a moral agent.
And what is still more remukable, some of those very faculties which make up natural ability or power, are still called moral faculties; such as the faculty of loving and hating, and especially the faculty of judging between good and evil. They are all called natural powers or faculties; (not physical ;) and some of them are called moral faculties; and all these natural faculties, including those which are also moral, constitute what is called a moral agent, not a natural agent. But how happens it that some of the natural faculties are denominated moral, while others are not ? Is it because we consider those which are denominated moral as being either conformed or not conformed to the divine law, and so worthy of praise or blame? No. Is it because those faculties which are called moral, thongh not, in themselves, either morally good or evil, do yet, when exercised, directly constitute moral good or evil ? This may be true in some cases, but not in respect to conscience, whose exercises are not considered as either praise-worthy or blame-worthy.
To what confusion are we here exposed! We have natural faculties, some of which are also moral, and moral faculties which are natural ; but our ability, constituted by all