What Saith the Scripture?


Phila delphia > Danger of Delusion by Charles G. Finney from "The Oberlin Evangelist"

The Oberlin Evangelist

Lecture III
Ability and Inability

Charles G. Finney

Charles G. Finney

A Voice from the Philadelphian Church Age

  Wisdom is Justified

by Charles Grandison Finney

Public Domain Text
Reformatted by Katie Stewart

from "The Oberlin Evangelist"
August 31, 1842

Lecture III.

by the Rev. C. G. Finney

Texts.--Joshua 24:19: "And Joshua said unto the people, Ye cannot serve the Lord: for He is a holy God."

In this discussion, I shall

I. Point out the distinction between the different kinds of ability and inability to obey the law of God, which have been insisted on by different classes of philosophers and divines.

II. Show that this distinction is nonsensical.

III. What is intended by the language of the text and similar passages of Scripture.

IV. Why the Holy Spirit is employed in the production of holiness.

I. Distinction between the different kinds of ability and inability to obey the law of God, which have been insisted on by different classes of philosophers and divines.

Now it is very plain, that the very nature of the connection between the physical cause and its effect, is that of necessity. And if, according to them, the connection is the same in kind, between motive and choice, then choice must be determined by necessity. You may call it necessity or certainty, or what you will, the true idea and thing intended, is necessity.

Without this aid they maintain, that fallen or sinful beings have no kind of ability to obey God. Hence consistency drives them to maintain, that but for the atonement and gracious divine influence, men after the fall, would have been under no obligation to obey God, and that those in hell, from whom the gracious influence is withdrawn, are under no such obligation. It is easy to see, also, that if consistent, they must deny that Satan has ever sinned since his fall, or can sin, unless the atonement and gracious ability extend to him.

Observe, I do not intend that all, who professedly belong to either of these schools, are consistent enough, to hold the whole of their theory, as I have stated it. But I have stated the doctrine of natural and moral ability and inability, and of gracious ability just as held by the leading minds of these different schools, if I rightly understand them, which I have taken much pains to do.

II. These distinctions are nonsensical.

III. What is intended by the language of the text and similar passages of Scripture?

Here let me remark that so to explain these passages as to make them teach either a moral or a natural inability is to deny the freedom of the will. But that the will is free we have the testimony of our own consciousness. To come to Christ, to do our duty, in other words to be holy, consists in acts of will. Now to affirm an inability to will in any direction, in view of motives, is to affirm that as true which our consciousness teaches us to be false.

I might quote other passages that have been relied on to support the doctrine of inability, but have said enough to give the candid reader a clue to the right understanding of them all. And for the caviler I am not now writing.

IV. Why the agency of the Holy Spirit is employed in inducing obedience to the moral law.


1. To represent God as requiring impossibilities on pain of eternal death, is to hold up his character and government to irresistible abhorrence. Men are so constituted that, by an unalterable law of their reason, they affirm intuitively, irresistibly, and indignantly, that for any government, human or divine, to require natural or moral impossibilities is unjust and tyrannical. And until the very nature of man is altered, this must forever be the case. It has been publicly affirmed not long since, by a Doctor of Divinity in the Presbyterian church, that moral obligation did not imply any kind of ability whatever to do our duty. Now a more shocking and revolting contradiction of reason, common sense, and the Bible, could hardly be stated in words. Such statements are in exact accordance with the spirit and policy of the devil.

2. It has always been the policy of Satan to misrepresent the character and government of God. He prevails by false hood. He sustains his dominion in this world by gross misrepresentations of the character of God. It has always been of the greatest importance to him and his cause to deceive the Church and induce the leading minds to entertain and publish to the world, views of the character and government of God which are at war with reason and the Bible. He very early succeeded in this, under the Christian dispensation. And who that is acquainted with the opinions and dogmas of the Christian fathers, does not know that they very early began to inculcate the most absurd and revolting dogmas concerning the character and government of God. One of the leading minds among them could say of a certain doctrine, "It is absurd and therefore I believe it." In every age of the Christian Church, Satan has succeeded in influencing a certain class of minds to adopt and shamelessly avow, and zealously to inculcate dogmas as the truth of God, against which the very nature of man cries out with vehement indignation. And this many of them do not pretend to deny, but on the contrary boldly affirm it, and insist that the very nature of man must therefore be changed before he can love God. Instead of representing man as needing to have the voluntary state of his mind changed in respect to God, they represent him as needing to have his very nature changed, by a creative act of physical Omnipotence. And what sentiment can please the devil better than this?

3. When good but unlearned people have listened to such distorted misrepresentations of God and his government, they have hushed down their rising indignation under the impression that it was a mystery. They have piously chided themselves for having a thought of the injustice and unreasonableness of such dogmas enter their minds. And oftentimes have they diverted their attention and found it indispensable to abstract their minds from the consideration of these dogmas, to prevent the rising remonstrances of their deepest nature, against the injustice of requiring of men natural or moral impossibilities on pain of eternal death.

4. It is remarkable to what extent unconverted but thinking men have become sceptical in view of such representations of the character of God. And ministers that maintain such sentiments are very little aware of the extent to which they preach their unconverted hearers into infidelity. Millions of souls have been ruined by the false representations of the character and government of God, which they have heard from the pulpits not only of notorious heretics, but multitudes of self-styled orthodox.

5. Since the doctrine of entire sanctification in this life has been so much and so pointedly insisted on, multitudes of ministers and others who have heretofore professed to believe and teach the doctrine of ability in every moral agent to do his whole duty, are retiring back to the ranks of those who deny the doctrine of ability. They see and acknowledge that the doctrine of entire obedience to the law of God, or in other words, of entire consecration and sanctification, is only the legitimate application of the doctrine of ability to all the conduct of Christians; that if men are able to obey God perfectly, there is no reason why they should not, nor any ground for the affirmation that they will not. But let not those brethren think to find a resting place, or an apology for sin under the doctrine of inability, for it is abundantly easy to show that of all the absurd doctrines that ever were broached, not one is more contrary to the Bible and to common sense, and more easily refuted than the doctrine of inability.

6. From what has been said it will be seen that the dependence of sinners and of Christians upon God is of such a nature as to afford no excuse whatever for their sins. If the doctrine of inability were true, and the Spirit of God were indispensable to make them able to do their duty, then their dependence would be an apology for their sins. Or what is still more proper to say, until the divine agency was granted, they could not begin to sin, inasmuch as sin must imply the power to be holy. But if, as has been shown, the sinner is able to obey, and the whole difficulty lies in his unwillingness to do his duty, and if the Spirit is employed only as a persuasive agency to induce a willingness to comply with duty, it is abundantly plain that the sinner's dependence upon the Holy Spirit, affords him not the least shadow of excuse for ever having sinned or for ever indulging in another sin.

7. Until men are willing to confess their sins--that they are able but unwilling to obey God--until they are ingenuous enough to own that their difficulty does not lie in an inability but in a pertinacious obstinacy--until they perceive and allow that the Spirit is not needed to make them able, but only to overcome their voluntary rebellion, they have no reason to expect a divine influence, to lead them to Christ--but have every reason to fear that God will give them up to the agency of Satan, and send them strong delusion, and confirm them in the belief of inability, until they become so utterly blinded as that they cannot "deliver their souls, or say, have I not a lie in my right hand."

8. And now sinner, will you be as ingenuous and as courageous as were the Israelites when Joshua uttered the words of the text? If you read the connection you will see that they believed and avowed their belief that they could render to Jehovah an acceptable service. And when Joshua put the question plainly home to them, whether they would, that day, choose and enter upon the service of God, they rose up and signified their determination to serve Jehovah. And from the history of that generation, it is manifest that many of them, to say the least, were sincere and whole-hearted in the avowal of their purpose. Is it not time for you to decide? Will you become holy? Will you serve the Lord? Will you do it now? Answer in your inmost being, upon the spot. If you say no, or if you refuse to answer at all, remember that God may take you at your word; but if you say yes, and mean it, if you let your heart go with your words, your name shall be written in the "Lamb's book of life."


of easily misunderstood terms as defined by Mr. Finney himself.
Compiled by Katie Stewart

  1. Complacency, or Esteem: "Complacency, as a state of will or heart, is only benevolence modified by the consideration or relation of right character in the object of it. God, prophets, apostles, martyrs, and saints, in all ages, are as virtuous in their self-denying and untiring labours to save the wicked, as they are in their complacent love to the saints." Systematic Theology (LECTURE VII). Also, "approbation of the character of its object. Complacency is due only to the good and holy." Lectures to Professing Christians (LECTURE XII).

  2. Disinterested Benevolence: "By disinterested benevolence I do not mean, that a person who is disinterested feels no interest in his object of pursuit, but that he seeks the happiness of others for its own sake, and not for the sake of its reaction on himself, in promoting his own happiness. He chooses to do good because he rejoices in the happiness of others, and desires their happiness for its own sake. God is purely and disinterestedly benevolent. He does not make His creatures happy for the sake of thereby promoting His own happiness, but because He loves their happiness and chooses it for its own sake. Not that He does not feel happy in promoting the happiness of His creatures, but that He does not do it for the sake of His own gratification." Lectures to Professing Christians (LECTURE I).

  3. Divine Sovereignty: "The sovereignty of God consists in the independence of his will, in consulting his own intelligence and discretion, in the selection of his end, and the means of accomplishing it. In other words, the sovereignty of God is nothing else than infinite benevolence directed by infinite knowledge." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LXXVI).

  4. Election: "That all of Adam's race, who are or ever will be saved, were from eternity chosen by God to eternal salvation, through the sanctification of their hearts by faith in Christ. In other words, they are chosen to salvation by means of sanctification. Their salvation is the end- their sanctification is a means. Both the end and the means are elected, appointed, chosen; the means as really as the end, and for the sake of the end." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LXXIV).

  5. Entire Sanctification: "Sanctification may be entire in two senses: (1.) In the sense of present, full obedience, or entire consecration to God; and, (2.) In the sense of continued, abiding consecration or obedience to God. Entire sanctification, when the terms are used in this sense, consists in being established, confirmed, preserved, continued in a state of sanctification or of entire consecration to God." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LVIII).

  6. Moral Agency: "Moral agency is universally a condition of moral obligation. The attributes of moral agency are intellect, sensibility, and free will." Systematic Theology (LECTURE III).

  7. Moral Depravity: "Moral depravity is the depravity of free-will, not of the faculty itself, but of its free action. It consists in a violation of moral law. Depravity of the will, as a faculty, is, or would be, physical, and not moral depravity. It would be depravity of substance, and not of free, responsible choice. Moral depravity is depravity of choice. It is a choice at variance with moral law, moral right. It is synonymous with sin or sinfulness. It is moral depravity, because it consists in a violation of moral law, and because it has moral character." Systematic Theology (LECTURE XXXVIII).

  8. Human Reason: "the intuitive faculty or function of the intellect... it is the faculty that intuits moral relations and affirms moral obligation to act in conformity with perceived moral relations." Systematic Theology (LECTURE III).

  9. Retributive Justice: "Retributive justice consists in treating every subject of government according to his character. It respects the intrinsic merit or demerit of each individual, and deals with him accordingly." Systematic Theology (LECTURE XXXIV).

  10. Total Depravity: "Moral depravity of the unregenerate is without any mixture of moral goodness or virtue, that while they remain unregenerate, they never in any instance, nor in any degree, exercise true love to God and to man." Systematic Theology (LECTURE XXXVIII).

  11. Unbelief: "the soul's withholding confidence from truth and the God of truth. The heart's rejection of evidence, and refusal to be influenced by it. The will in the attitude of opposition to truth perceived, or evidence presented." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LV).


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