How Asahel Nettleton
Relates to the
Heresy of Decisional Regeneration
Asahel Nettleton (1783-1844) has been portrayed in virtually all modern Calvinist books on the subject of decisional regeneration as completely innocent in the evolution of the New Light Calvinist decision for Christ. The original source materials give another picture. Please see the article written by Lyman H. Atwater in the 1876 Princeton Review. Asahel Nettleton and Lyman Beecher were Hopkinsians - which means their theology was very similar to that of Charles Finney. Samuel Hopkins' theology was the most extreme of all American versions of New Light Calvinism (even Finney did not go as far as Hopkins and say the best evidence of a person being regenerate was their having a peace about going to hell if it be God's will). Hopkins theology was: 1) Extreme in that it considered penitents who wanted to use the mean of grace as avoiding repentance. 2) Extreme in that it considered penitents who thought they had to go through a period of Law Works as avoiding repentance. 3) Extreme in that he considered penitents who did not immediately repent and submit to God as resisting the Holy Spirit. 4) Extreme in that they told sinners to "make yourself a new heart" (see the red words in the Nettleton sermon below). If you think telling sinners to "Make yourself a new heart" is unusual for New Light Calvinists, you do not understand their predetermination, consecutional basis for saving faith. To learn why New Light Calvinists told sinners, "make yourself a new heart", click here. All New Light Calvinists believed that even though penitents can not savingly repent without regeneration, they had the duty to repent. The Nettleton sermon below is Genuine Repentance Does Not Precede Regeneration.
“Surely after that I was turned, I repented” (Jeremiah 31:19).
Israel had departed from God. In this chapter his restoration is predicted, and the happy effects which would follow described. They shall come and sing in the height of Zion, and shall flow together for the goodness of the Lord; and their soul shall be as a watered garden; and they shall not sorrow any more at all.
But this happy season was to be preceded by deep repentance. In the description of the Prophet we behold a vast company assembled, and commencing their journey up to Zion. Thus saith the Lord; they shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them. The repentance of Ephraim, a name which here stands for the people at large is thus further described.—In the conviction and conversion of one, we see a specimen of the whole. I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus; Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised as a bullock, unaccustomed to the yoke: turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God. Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth.
In this account, we have, what is commonly called a state of conviction. God had taken him in hand. Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised. But he would not yield, His heart was too proud, and too stubborn to bow. His conduct, he tells us was like that of a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke—wild, unmanageable, and determined not to yield to the hand of its master.
His opposition is so great, he is convinced that he shall never overcome it. In this great work, he shall never assist in any other manner than as a rebel would help his antagonist to subdue himself. The conversion of a sinner like himself, he is convinced, could never be effected by the power of mere moral suasion. No finite power could do it. None but the God that made him, can manage the sinner.
Under conviction of this truth, you hear him say: Turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God. He then states what follows: Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth.
His conversion was followed not only with a change of feeling, but with a change of sentiment.—After that I was instructed.—When he saw clearly his past conduct, his sins, his stubbornness, and where the difficulty lay, he was perfectly astonished. I smote upon my thigh. It is possible! How could I be so stubborn! I was ashamed, yea, even confounded. What is here said is true of every sinner who is brought to true repentance. From the words of our text we derive this doctrine, that Genuine repentance does not precede regeneration. Surely after that I was turned, I repented.
Here it may be proper to state that there are two kinds of repentance. One arising from the fear of punishment, and dread of consequences; without either love to God or hatred to
sin. Such was the repentance of Saul, of Judas, and others. Such is the repentance of awakened sinners, and all sinners in a greater or less degree. There may be great distress, many tears, and awful forebodings of a guilty conscience in the unregenerate. This may, and generally does precede regeneration. But this is not godly sorrow. Godly sorrow worketh repentance unto salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.
There is a kind of repentance which always precedes regeneration, but it is not the repentance which the gospel requires. That repentance which implies no love to God, and no hatred to sin, and nothing but terror and dismay is not commanded. But that repentance which God commands, and which ministers are bound to preach includes both.
That this repentance does not precede regeneration is evident from the following considerations.
1. From the nature of true repentance. This repentance implies love to God. Sin is committed against God, and so the sinner is to exercise repentance towards God. This cannot be done without love. And before regeneration there is no love to God. For it is written, Every one that loves is born of God. A crown of life is promised to them that love him. But none can have this promise without regeneration; and therefore love to God cannot exist without regeneration. No one feels heartily sorry that he has offended a being whom he does not love. Much less does he sorrow that he has offended a being whom he hates. But all the unregenerate possess carnal minds; And the carnal mind is enmity against God.
Genuine gospel repentance flows only from a heart melted into love to God.—Against thee and thee only have I sinned.—Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, is the language of the true penitent.
This repentance implies love to God’s law. Sin is a transgression of the law. No one feels sorrow that he has broken a law which he does not love; much less a law which he hates. But the carnal, or unrenewed mind is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. If then evangelical repentance implies love to God and love to his law, it is not an exercise of a carnal, unrenewed heart; for that is enmity against God, not subject to his law, neither indeed can be.
2. Repentance has the promise of salvation. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart, and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit (Psalm 34:14). But this cannot be said of any before regeneration. For except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise (Psalm 51:17). For thus saith the high and lofty one that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones (Isaiah 57:15; also 66:1, 2).
But this cannot be said of a natural man; For they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But repentance is pleasing to God, and has the promise of salvation. If the sinner does repent before he is regenerated, then, they that are in the flesh can please God. But the Apostle says they cannot please him. A promise of salvation is annexed to repentance; If then he can have the promise of salvation before regeneration, he can be actually saved without it; which our Saviour declares impossible.
If the sinner can exercise repentance without a new heart, so he can every other Christian grace. He can love God, and believe in Christ without a new heart, as well as repent of sin. Regeneration is no more necessary to prepare the sinner to love God aright than it is to repent aright, for without love there is no true repentance.
If he can repent without a new heart, he can exercise faith without a new heart. But that faith which does not imply love is not genuine. For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love. It is no easier to repent aright than it is to exercise faith; for that repentance which is without faith cannot be accepted. For without faith it is impossible to please him. And then it will follow,
4. That regeneration would not be necessary. For if the sinner can love God and perform all the duties of religion without regeneration, this is all that is necessary to fit him for heaven. Now it is believed that sinners do not love God and the duties of religion, and therefore regeneration is necessary. But if the Christian graces may take place without regeneration, then the ground of this necessity is entirely destroyed. There is no room for such a work. The power of God would not be necessary. For the work is done, and no change is necessary.
That repentance does not precede regeneration will appear from the nature of regeneration. View it in connection with repentance. The change in regeneration is expressed by taking away the heart of stone and giving an heart of flesh. I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. From this it appears that regeneration is the act of taking away a hard and stony heart. Now, my hearers, this cannot be a penitent heart. If repentance does take place before regeneration then the heart of stone is not there. A penitent heart is not a heart of stone; it is a broken, and a contrite heart. And God never takes away such a heart. If repentance does precede regeneration it must be the repentance of a hard and stony heart. This, when compared with the idea of true repentance, would be a contradiction in terms, the repentance of a heart of stone.—And I will give you an heart of flesh. This is a broken and contrite heart, a heart susceptible of feeling. It is a penitent heart.
When God takes away the heart of stone and gives an heart of flesh—that is regeneration. When God takes away the heart of stone and gives an heart of flesh — Then God grants repentance. A new heart is a penitent heart. Regeneration is necessary because sinners have hard, impenitent hearts. And this is the glorious effect of the power of God in the act of regeneration. It reduces the rebel into submission. It melts the stubborn heart into repentance. When God regenerates and grants repentance, he does it by one decisive act.
Thus I consider the point established, that evangelical repentance does not precede regeneration.
But, by the way, I would remark, that I have not asserted that the sinner is not under obligations to repent before regeneration. That it is not the duty of the sinner to repent before God changes his heart, that we have not asserted. It is his duty. The question has not been “what is duty?” but what is the fact?
It is the duty of sinners to do many things which they never have done, and perhaps never will do. It is their duty to stop sinning, and to love God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength. This is their duty. And so is it their duty to repent, without delay, but they have never done it, and some never will do it.
By this time, my hearers will perceive a great difficulty in our subject. It is this: If sinners do not repent before regeneration, then you call upon them to do what needs almighty power to accomplish. This difficulty is not peculiar to this text, or to this subject alone. It is the same difficulty which runs through almost every subject which concerns our salvation.
There are many who think they see a great inconsistency and absurdity running through almost every discourse which they hear. “Ministers contradict themselves, they say, and unsay; they tell us to do, and then tell us that we cannot do.” This difficulty some of our hearers see and state for themselves; others think they see it, but cannot state it. This difficulty I am calculating to state in all its absurdity, “You sometimes call upon sinners to believe and repent; and then tell them that faith and repentance are the gift of God. You call upon them to do what needs almighty power to effect.” My hearers, this is correct. We are guilty of all this absurdity; and the Bible talks just so too.
But further: “We sometimes hear ministers in one discourse inviting sinners and calling upon them to come to Christ; and then they will turn about and contradict the whole, by telling them that they cannot come.” And what think you of such absurdity, my hearers? What think ye of such preachers?
That some have been guilty of this absurdity we do not, we cannot deny. Your charge is well founded. We dare not contradict it. I well recollect an instance of this kind. A celebrated preacher in one of his discourses once used these words: Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28). And then this same preacher in another discourse used this expression: No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him (John 6:44).
Now what think you, my hearers, of such preaching and of such a preacher? What would you have said had you been present and heard it? Would you have charged him with contradicting himself? But so it was; this great preacher in one of his discourses did say, Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest, and in another, No man can come to me, except the Father which sent me draw him. And I have no doubt that others have since adopted the same expressions. This preacher, you will remember was none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. And I have no doubt that many ministers have since followed the same example of their divine master. And have therefore been guilty of the same absurdity, if such you would call it.
Now, my hearers, which will you do? Will you say that the difficulty can easily be explained, and that Christ is guilty of no absurdity? If you can explain the difficulty in Christ’s preaching; then you can explain it with respect to all subsequent preachers. The same explanation which would relieve his preaching from all difficulty; with a little candor would do it in all similar cases. Will you adopt this course and say all is well? Or will you boldly assert that Christ is absurd, and that he contradicted himself? Then you turn infidel at once. You enter the lists with the Son of God, and boldly renounce divine revelation.
Or will you say, I believe that the Bible is the word of God, and that Christ is consistent with himself, whether I can see how to reconcile this difficulty or not? I wish you to remember that this difficulty existed in our Saviour’s preaching. Nor is it peculiar to a few texts only; the same difficulty runs through the Bible.
This I will now state more at large: The Bible does call upon sinners to repent; and yet considers repentance as the gift of God.
John, the harbinger of Christ, came preaching, and saying: Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 3:2). From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 4:17). And the Apostles went out and preached that men should repent (Mark 6:12). God commendeth all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).
On the other hand repentance is the gift of God. Then Peter and the apostles answered and said—Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins (Acts 5:31). The disciples with one voice glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life (Acts 11:18). In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth (II Timothy 2:25).
Thus you see, John the Baptist, Christ, and his Apostles, and God himself urged the duty of immediate repentance. And on the other hand they ascribe it wholly to God.
Again—The Bible calls upon sinners to believe in Christ; and yet, considers faith as the gift of God. Repent ye, and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15). Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved (Acts 16:31). And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ (I John 3:23).
On the other hand; faith is the gift of God. Unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake (Philippians 1:29). For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8); Jesus the Author and the finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). That ye may know what is the exceeding greatness of his power to usward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead (Ephesians 1:19). Here you see, sinners are commanded to believe, and threatened with eternal death if they do not do it. And faith is wrought only by the mighty power of God.
Again: Sinners are represented as being dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). We know that we have passed from death unto life; because we love the brethren (I John 3:14). I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead (Revelation 3:1).
In this situation God commands them to live. For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye (Ezekiel 18:32). This is the command of God. Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light (Ephesians 5:14).
On the other hand, the effect is attributed wholly to God. You hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.
The Son quickeneth whom he will. The hour is coming, and now is when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live. Again: A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).
But on the other hand, God commands the sinner to make a new heart. Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby you have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 18:31).
Again: Sinners are represented as departing from God. And thus God calls, Turn ye at my reproof (Proverbs 1:23). Turn ye; turn ye, for why will ye die. Thus saith the Lord, Repent and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin (Ezekiel 18:30). Thus saith the Lord God; wherefore turn yourselves and live ye.
On the other hand, the Bible ascribes this work wholly to God. Turn thou me, and I shall be turned, for thou art the Lord my God. And again, in our text; Surely after that I was turned, I repented.
In all these passages you see that the Bible calls upon sinners to do what he needs almighty power to accomplish. Now whether I am able to explain this difficulty or not, it is the language of the Bible, I wish you to remember. You have seen that God does command sinners to repent, and believe, and make a new heart, and arise from the dead. And those ministers who do not, in his name, call upon them to do the same, do not preach as God has commanded them. You have seen that repentance, and faith, and a new heart are all the gift of God. And whoever does not attribute them wholly to God robs him of his glory, and does not preach the Bible.
Whoever preaches, and is not guilty of all this absurdity, does not declare all the counsel of God. Whether he can explain these difficulties or not, every minister is bound to preach in this manner. If he does not call upon sinners to do all these things; and when done, if he does not ascribe the whole to God, he does not preach the gospel.
I wish my hearers to bear this continually in mind. That whether I am able to explain this difficulty or not, yet I am bound to preach it. I shall take it for granted that all my hearers believe the Bible to be the word of God. And if I should not succeed in explaining these passages to your satisfaction, the difficulty in reconciling these texts lies equally against all who believe the Bible.
This then is the question before us: How can it be proper for the Bible to command sinners to do what needs Almighty power to do for them?—Many methods have been adopted to obviate this difficulty. One says: You must do as well as you can without a new heart, but you must try to repent—try to love God and the like. But I answer: The Bible says no such thing. God nowhere commands sinners to try to repent—to try to love him. But: God now commands all men everywhere to repent. Nowhere does it say, thou shalt try to love the Lord thy God, but it does say, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart. This is what God commands. And the sinner trying to repent and love God if he does not do it, amounts to nothing. He does not obey the command.—However hard the sinner may labor and toil; yet if he does not repent and love him, he does nothing in the sight of God. After all that he has done, he is still threatened with eternal death, as the consequence of his neglect.
It is sometimes said, “That faith is the gift of God, and you must do as well as you can without it.” But what says the Bible to one who does not ask in faith? Does it encourage him to ask without? The Bible answers: Let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord (James 1:7). But faith and repentance and love to God are duties which the Bible enjoins; and which every minister is to urge on all his hearers. If he does not preach faith, and repentance, and love to God, he does not preach the gospel, nor urge them to do anything which God regards. Do as well as you can without faith? How will he ever exhort to these duties? Will he exhort the sinner to believe without faith—to repent without repentance, and to love God without loving him?
How, on this ground, would an exhortation exhort the sinner to do these duties as well as he can without doing them at all; or say nothing on the subject? In order to settle the difficulty it may be proper to inquire, Why is the power to God necessary to change the heart of the sinner? And to this question there are but two answers: Either because the sinner is unable, or because he is unwilling to do what God commands.
Let us examine the first. By being unable, I mean just what the sinner means: “That he would if he could, but he cannot.” Let us proceed on this ground, and what then? Is the sinner not to blame? If God is really such a being as to command the sinner to do what is in every sense impossible for him to do: Is there any ground for that ease which thousands feel when they plead this excuse? If God commands, and will punish the sinner for not obeying, what can be done? If this be the character of God, the sinner who is in his hand is in an awful condition indeed.
Let us advance on the sinner’s own supposition. Is this the character of God and are you in his hands, does it become you to oppose and quarrel with Omnipotence? Whatever his character may be, it becomes feeble worms to beware how they contend with God. Do you believe what you say, “that you would if you could, but you cannot obey the commands of God?” Do you verily believe that you are in the hands of such a being; and can you remain at ease? My fellow sinner: Do you still plead that this is your inability? And will you still allow that God is just and righteous in commanding and punishing you for not doing what you cannot do?
Let us try your own sentiment, for if indeed you cannot believe, or repent or make a new heart, I dare not deny the justice of God in your punishment. I acknowledge that God may be just though he has made it impossible for sinners to be saved. Grant that God has made no atonement for some sinners, and yet I frankly own that I can see no injustice here. He has made no atonement for the fallen angels; and yet they have no right to complain. God has made it impossible for them to be saved—he has reserved them in everlasting chains unto the judgment of the great day. And still they have no right to complain. Suppose he had done the same by all or any part of the human race, not one would have had any reason to complain. I dare not object even to a limited atonement on the ground of justice. Suppose God had made an atonement and made it sufficient only for one single soul, and all the rest had been consigned over to endless perdition, yet I can see no injustice in this.
The sinner often pleads his inability as an excuse. Call upon him to attend to the duties of religion, and he will tell you: faith, and repentance, and a new heart are the gift of God; and what can I do? This he intends for an excuse,
Grant the sinner his own plea. Grant that God has made it absolutely impossible for him to repent, and believe, and be saved, and what then? What right have you to complain? Suppose a sinner has been guilty of a breach of the laws of this state, that he has been guilty of murder, and is committed to prison, bolted and barred. The criminal walks around by the walls, murmuring and complaining that he cannot get out, “that he would if he could, but he cannot.” We ask, what then; what if he cannot make his escape?—Why then he must suffer the penalty of a good law. He suffers no injustice—he has no right to complain; unless he can make it appear that he is innocent, he deserves death.
Now suppose the sinner cannot repent, believe, and be pardoned and saved. What then? Why, then he must be lost; awful indeed! What if the sinner is forever lost? No injustice is done. He suffers the penalty of a good law, and that is all. The sinner has broken the divine law. Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them is the sentence of that law. And no reason can be given why this sentence should not be executed. Now unless the sinner can make it appear that he has never in all this lifetime committed one single sin, he has no reason to complain if God has made his pardon and salvation impossible.
There is a strange disposition in the human heart to murmur and complain of God because he is just. The sinner thinks it hard and cruel if God will not allow him the privilege of sinning and rebelling against him. And in addition to this he feels as though God was bound to make him repent and love him. And not only so, but if he should stop sinning and begin to love God now; he feels as though God could not in justice ever punish him for one of his past sins. O, what a demand does the sinner make on God! And yet he will not allow that God, can in justice, make any claims upon him. If the sinner cannot repent and believe and love God, he is certainly in an awful condition.
But though I do not allow that you are under any natural inability to repent and be saved, yet I confess I can see no injustice were you to be placed in this awful condition. And I wish you to remember that what you now complain of may very soon be real. Unless you do soon repent and believe, the very thing of which you now complain, you will be obliged to feel. Very shortly, my fellow sinner, you will be beyond the reach of hope. God will by and by make it impossible for you to come out of your prison. This is the case with all in the prison of hell. There they are fastened, and they cannot get out. And it is a wonder of mercy that you are not now there. When you get there, you will have no reason to murmur and complain that you would if you could, but you cannot get out of the prison of hell. The great gulf will be fixed, so that, they which would pass from hence cannot. This is the condition in which all the finally impenitent will remain forever. And the sinner who is now out of Christ is every moment in awful danger of sinking into the same condition.
But this instance of a criminal bolted and barred and surrounded by the massy walls of a prison I do not admit to be a correct illustration of the state of the sinner. Though the finally impenitent will be forever shut up in this prison, yet this is not the case with sinners on earth. Though I can see no injustice in God’s making it impossible for sinners on earth to come out of their prison and be saved; yet there is one point in which this illustration will not hold.
If the prisoner were to be invited and commanded to come out of his prison, while the doors were shut, and bolted, and barred; I confess I can see no propriety in such invitations and commands. The very fact that God does invite, and command sinners to come to Christ is, to me, a convincing proof that the difficulty lies only in the sinner’s will. If the sinner were willing to do all in his power, that is the point where common sense would direct us to stop urging him.
This single command, Turn ye to the strong hold, ye prisoners of hope is to me a convincing proof that all the bolts and bars of his prison are now removed. Christ has opened the doors of his prison and proclaimed liberty to the captives. God does not command the sinner to break through bolts and bars and massy walls. But this is the case with all who deny the distinction between natural and moral inability. They call upon the sinner to do what they themselves acknowledge absolutely impossible. This I do not admit.
Again—If the prisoner were to be confined and punished without reprieve for all his past sins, that would be perfectly just, and right. Every friend to good government must heartily acquiesce. But if the prisoner were commanded to break through bolts, and bars, and massy walls, and then in addition to all his past crimes were to suffer tenfold punishment for not doing it; I confess I do not see the justice of it.
But it is acknowledged on all hands that those who perish from under the light of the gospel will suffer an aggravated weight of condemnation. It shall be more tolerable for Sodom in the day of judgment than for such sinners. Of how much sorer punishment shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God. If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin. Now the reason why God invites sinners to come out of their prison is not because they cannot; but because they will not. The reason why he commands them to do it, is not because they cannot but because they will not. The reason why they are to be punished in such an awful manner for not doing it, is not because they cannot, but because they will not. Unwillingness always makes it proper to invite and command. The will and nothing else is the object of command. This and nothing else is the ground of punishment.
Now God does certainly treat the sinner in all respects as though the difficulty was a criminal difficulty. He does treat them in all respects just as he would on the supposition that they were unwilling to do what they could. It is surprising with what little ceremony the Bible treats the inability, and all the excuses of sinners. I believe every one of my hearers must have been struck with this fact. The Bible commands the sinner to remove the difficulty. To repent, and believe, and make a new heart. It commands and condemns without ceremony if he does not do it. The Bible speaks just as freely as though it was every whit unwillingness.
I will now state what appears to me to be the real difficulty. The sinner will not do what he can. I know this is denied by many. They reason in this way—That because the Bible everywhere attributes this change to God; therefore the sinner cannot do it. It is said that if the sinner could produce this change himself, then the power of God would not be necessary.
But this reasoning will not hold. Because the sinner has power to do what God commands, it does not follow of course that the sinner will exert that power. You will easily see that those who adopt this reasoning take it for granted that the sinner will certainly do the utmost in his power to obey God. But if the sinner will not do what he can, there is the same necessity of almighty power to make him willing to do what he can, as there would be to make him willing to do, or, rather, do for him what he could not.
This point is illustrated as follows: Here is a child which has departed from his father; He calls upon him to return to him. He has power to run every way; but he will not return to his father. He invites; but no invitation is sufficient. He threatens; but no punishment is sufficient to make the child willing to do what he can.
Now what is the duty of that child? Common sense declares that it is his duty to obey the command. But the child is unwilling. Now does this unwillingness make it improper for the parent to invite, entreat, and command the child to do what he can? If the child would, but could not obey the command, I could see no propriety in the parent’s conduct. But if the child can, and will not; his unwillingness is no excuse. His unwillingness is the very thing which makes it proper to command. This unwillingness is the very thing for which he deserves punishment. This is plain common sense.
But, says the parent, “I will reveal one secret. You know not how dreadfully stubborn that child is. Though my commands are reasonable, and the child can if he would, yet he is so opposed to me that he never will do what he can. He never will come unless I go and bring him.” Here the child replies, “How absurd you talk; You call upon me to do what you say I never will do unless you make me do it.” But because he is so wicked that he never will do what he can, he stands murmuring, “What a cruel parent. Now I cannot come, how can I? What a cruel parent! He calls upon me to do what I never shall do: and how can I be blamed?” My heavens, what answer would you make to that child?
This, in my view, is exactly the state of the sinner. Whether we think it a just comparison or not, God does. He says I have nourished and brought up children, but they have rebelled against me. All have departed from God and he invites, and entreats, and commands them to return. Turn ye at my reproof—Turn ye, Turn ye, for why will ye die? Now what is the duty of sinners? Why it is their duty to obey the commands of God.
Now suppose God to reveal this fact. That the sinner is so opposed to me that he never will do what I command him. I believe all will allow that this is the fact with all who have lost their souls. If so, then it may be with sinners now living, that they never will do what they can. When in hell all acknowledge it again. Does the unwillingness to do what he can make it improper for God to invite and command and punish? Unwillingness in the case of the child is the very reason why every parent would invite, command, and threaten, and punish. In that case, no one but the child would ever think of complaining. And has not God a right to deal with us in the same manner as we deal with others? Yes; you will say, provided I were equally stubborn with that child. There lies the difficulty, my hearers, you cannot believe that you are so wicked that you will not do what you can.
But it is possible that stubbornness in the heart even of a little child might rise beyond the power of mere moral suasion. It is possible that it might rise to such a pitch that no invitations, commands, or threatenings of the parent would overcome it. Unwillingness might arise to such a pitch in the heart even of a little child that it might be necessary for the parent to go and turn him by the strength of his arm. If there may be such stubbornness in the heart even of a little child; or rather, since there is such stubbornness in his heart, that he will not do what he can, though urged by his parent whom he loves with all his natural affection, then is it not possible that the sinner may be so stubborn in the sight of God? God does make the comparison. And do you believe that you are less wicked than a little child?
If this is possible—then it may be possible for sinners to continue for years to hear the invitations, commands, and threatenings of the gospel and never do what they can. Now the only reason why the parent’s arm is necessary to turn the child is because it is so wicked that it will not do what it can. If it were willing to do what it could, nothing special on the part of the parent would be necessary. Just so I view the state of the sinner. They will never do what he can—And that will always make it proper to call upon them to do it.
On a dying bed confess it—why would one wish to recover if they are not conscious that they have not done what could. Amidst this mountain of evidence we can summon the conscience of the dying sinner. If you hear any one find fault, you may take it for granted that he understands the subject. Ask him to explain these passages and to give a better interpretation.
1. Reasonableness of the command to make a new heart. Every time they (are) command(ed) to love God, repent, or believe, (they) are commanded to make a new heart. 2. Saved wholly by grace. If not repent certainly does nothing which influences God to give a new heart. So we read—They that are in the flesh cannot please God. It will take up a whole eternity to praise him for his grace. 3. A reason why Christians should pray for sinners. Sinners will never do what they could do. All hangs on the mere sovereign pleasure of God.