How Asahel Nettleton's Confusion
of Preference With Disposition
Relates to the
Heresy of Decisional Regeneration
Nettleton’s confuses the will as preference with the will as disposition ("disposition" means "state of being". In theological debates it refers to a person being regenerated or not regenerated).
In chapter three of this book, Lyman Atwater identified the error of New Light Calvinists equating the will as disposition with the will as preference as the main cause of evangelical confusion over the significance of man’s abilities in regeneration. This chapter will focus entirely on that subject, as a thorough understanding of it will set Calvinists and Arminians free from a fundamental error that prevents consensus and cooperation in overthrowing the heresy of decisional regeneration.
Atwater identifies Nettleton as the best example of the confusion.
"In doctrine Dr. Nettleton was a strenuous Calvinist, after the strictest New England type of those days, and was earnest on all matters touching the divine sovereignty, decrees, fore-ordination, election, perseverance. But he, and those of his time in New England, and the portions of the Presbyterian church most leavened by its ideas, took great pains to elaborate a view of the sinner’s power and free-agency, which would prevent him from sheltering his impenitence under fatalistic views of inability and dependence on the Holy Spirit; which, in short, would harmonize man’s responsibility with his dependence on sovereign grace. In attempting this, he and they brought into fuller prominence, and more explicit definition, and larger practical use than it had before obtained, the famous distinction of natural and moral ability (Posited by Jonathan Edwards); by the former meaning all the essential faculties of moral agency and right action; by the latter that right disposition, heart, or moral bias, without which these faculties will not, and indeed cannot, be used aright, so as to please God and pass from death unto life. Thus, in preaching from the text,
“How long halt ye between two opinions,” he says of this halting: "It is not for want of power. I speak now of what is usually denominated power. It is not for the want of faculties which render you capable of doing your duty. It is true, sinners represented in the Scriptures are being unable, in a certain sense, to do what God requires. But this inability arises not from the want of faculties, but from the want of disposition. They are said to be unable to do what they have no inclination to do. Thus it is said of Joseph’s brethren, that they could not speak peaceably to him. Not because they were incapable of speaking peaceably, but because they hated him, and had no disposition to speak peaceably. When I say, therefore, that it is not for the want of power that you have hitherto neglected to come to a decided choice, I mean that you might have done it had you been so disposed. It is plain that God does not condemn sinners for being unable, in this sense, to do their duty, but for being averse to their duty.” – Nettleton’s Remains, p. 117.
"In the course of the sermon he changes the word “inclination,” “disposition,” etc,. into “will,” thus: “The reason why God will punish you for not obeying him is not because you cannot but because you will not. The reason why the almighty power of God is necessary to draw you, is not because you cannot, but because you will not.” – Id. P. 122. p. 122. We have noted this for the purpose of distinctly marking another step in the evolution of the doctrine of the sinner’s ability in itself, and especially in its practical application to conversions and revivals. More of less confusion of thought in the way of now identifying disposition with will" *
1) Nettleton insisted that a man’s will was the result of a disposition (a state of nature or heart) only God could change by regeneration. Like all New Light Calvinists, Nettleton had abandoned the puritan understanding of the function of common grace, common faith and common repentance preparing sinners for regeneration.
2) Nettleton held a reductionist view of Jonathan Edwards' moral versus natural ability ideas, that is, every man had the natural ability to repent. According to this idea, it is only man’s moral inability because of his disposition (a state of nature or heart) that stands in the way of his receiving regeneration.
3) The first two statements are contradictory unless it is always God’s way to regenerate if the man wills it.
4) But if a man wills to have his disposition changed, it means (according to statement 1) that God has already changed his disposition by regeneration. This confusion is the basis of the heresy of decisional regeneration – the ridiculous idea that if a man wants to be regenerated, it means God has regenerated him. The modern expression of the heresy is if a man “makes a decision for Christ” he is expressing “saving faith” and is therefore, de facto regenerated.
Jonathan Edwards called this irrational view “A divine constitution antecedent to that which establishes justification by a Saviour.” Edwards condemned the entire premise of the modern concept of “saving faith” as the cause of regeneration on the ground that saving faith was only possible because of regeneration. Regeneration is the “because” of saving faith, never the result of it. Edwards saw common faith and common repentance and common grace as preparatory to regeneration, but not causes of regeneration.
But New Light Calvinists had abandoned the puritan holistic grace paradigm, using Edwards own words to justify a reductionist view of grace which elevated regeneration as the singular grace worth having. In fact, in typical Enthusiast fashion, the New Light Calvinists condemned the means of common grace as the refuge of the unrepentant.
Edwards comments on the idea of “saving faith” before regeneration. “But to suppose that God gives a man an interest in Christ in reward for his righteousness or virtue, is inconsistent with his still remaining under condemnation till he has an interest in Christ … It does not consist with the honour of the majesty of the King of heaven and earth, to accept of any thing from a condemned malefactor, condemned by the justice of his own holy law, till that condemnation be removed.”
The puritan way of salvation was God reveals Himself to sinners through common grace, enabling sinners to engage in common repentance and common faith in a period of law works wherein the sinner sees himself completely undone and in need of the Savior. The sinner knows he is unable in himself to change and needs God to regenerate him. “Flee to God” meant draw as close to God as you are able by His grace and beg Him to change your nature by regeneration.
The New Light Calvinists condemn this type of thinking. The heirs of Jonathan Edwards used his distinctions between moral and natural ability to justify the abandonment of common grace, common repentance and common faith as beneficial before regeneration. Nettleton split from Timothy Dwight (see chapter five, Timothy Dwight - The Last Puritan) on the subject of the means of grace and developed a hyper-grace view of regeneration without the need of soul preparation.
“Even before he entered college, he had read with attention a large part of the writings of Edwards, Hopkins, and Bellamy ; and before he graduated, he was better acquainted with systematic theology, than many young men are, who are licensed to preach the gospel. He took a deep interest in doctrinal discussions, and ably vindicated the doctrines of grace, against the objections which were urged against them. During his senior year, there was much discussion among the professors of religion, and theological students in college, respecting the means of grace. This was occasioned by the sermons which were preached at that time by President Dwight on that subject ... In that the idea is advanced, that the prayers and strivings of awakened sinners,
although they possess no moral goodness, are not to be regarded, in all cases, as positively sinful.
Mr. Nettleton entertained a high respect for Dr. Dwight. On almost all subjects, he received his views without hesitation, and considered it a great privilege to sit under his instructive
preaching. But on this point he differed from him, as did also a large part of the pious students in college. He believed with Hopkins, and the New England divines generally, that sinners, properly speaking, never use, but always abuse the means of grace—that in all their efforts to escape
future misery, and secure future happiness, they are influenced by unholy motives, and that their religious services are mercenary and sinful. In this opinion, which, appeared to him to be clearly taught in the scriptures, he was greatly confirmed by his own religious experience. While under conviction of sin, he had such discoveries of his own heart, as to impress indelibly upon his mind, a conviction of the entire sinfulness of the religious services of unrenewed men. There was no
one point in theology, on which his mind was more fully established than this ; or on which he more strenuously insisted, during his life, both in the pulpit, and in his conversation with
awakened sinners. He considered it a point of great practical importance, and particularly useful in destroying the selfrighteous hopes of sinners, and in showing them their utterly lost condition, and entire dependence on the grace of God. This was a weapon which he wielded with great power, and which seemed to be in his hands, pre-eminently the Sword of the Spirit.” **
Anyone who reads a biography of Nettleton will find he went through a typical period of law works before regeneration. Nettleton used the means of grace and exhausted all avenues of self-justification when God finally regenerated him. Perhaps he suffered greatly in his law works experience and wanted to prevent others from suffering needless pain.
But telling someone to accept they are a sinner as an abstract principle in need of Christ as an abstract Savior to avoid the pain of self-discovery is not an option. The pre-regeneration process is necessarily painful because the conscience of man must know the truth and deal with the truth and not just abstract ideas about truth.
The following excerpts from Nettleton's Memoirs will illustrate that Nettleton recognized the period of self-discovery called law works. But he thought he could shorten the period if he insisted that people just accept the fact that they could do nothing to save themselves.
1812, Nettleton asks congregations to immediately repent.
"What is that murmur which I hear?—I wish I had a new heart. What shall I do ?—They tell me to
repent—I can't repent—I wish they would give me some other direction." He thus went on for a short time, personating the awakened sinner, and bringing out the feelings of his heart. He then changed the form of his address, and in a solemn and affectionate manner, appealed to the consciences of his hearers, and showed them that they must repent or perish, that it was their reasonable duty to repent immediately, and that ministers could not direct them to any thing short of repentance, without being unfaithful to their souls. The address produced a thrilling effect, and served greatly to deepen the convictions of those who were anxious … the Spirit of God was operating on many minds. At the close of one of his evening meetings, several youths repaired to his lodgings in deep distress, to inquire what they must do to be saved. He pointed them to Christ, and with affectionate earnestness, urged them immediately to repent and believe the gospel. The next day, in visiting from house to house, he found others under deep religious impressions. The seriousness soon spread through the place, and the subject of religion became the engrossing topic of conversation. In the course of one or two weeks from this time, several were found rejoicing in hope. He was exceedingly anxious lest they should take up with a false and spurious hope. He warned them of the danger of self-deception, reminded them of the deceitfulness of the human heart, and pointed out the various ways in which persons are liable to deceive themselves. He also exhibited with great plainness the distinguishing marks of genuine conversion". Pg 56-57
1815, Nettleton deals with inquirers.
“Meetings became crowded and deeply solemn, and many obtained hope in Christ. He conversed individually with the anxious, and met at certain times at his boarding place, all who were disposed to be conversed with, on the state of the heart, and the salvation of the soul”. Pg 74
1816 Nettleton deals with inquirers.
“The measures adopted, were such as were common in this region at that time ; such as the ministry of the word on the Sabbath—frequent visitation, connected with personal conversation on the subject of religion ; and more or less prayer meetings during the week … " The doctrines taught are those considered as the grand leading truths of the gospel, viz.: the strict spirituality of the moral law—the total depravity of the natural heart—its enmity to God—the necessity of regeneration by the spirit of his grace—an entire dependence on the merits of Jesus Christ for justification, pardon and acceptance—our obligations to own him before men, and to manifest our faith in him by a holy walk and conversation—the divine sovereignty—the electing love of God—and the final perseverance of the saints, as the only ground of the sinner's hope, and the anchor of the christian's soul." Pg 80-84
1816 Nettleton deals with inquirers.
"Many spent the night in crying for mercy, and several found peace before morning. From this
time, the work became very powerful. Meetings of inquiry were held at the house of the pastor, but the place became too strait, and God provided one of greater convenience. A man who owned a large ball-room, and who had been a bitter enemy to religion, was awakened and hopefully brought to repentance. He opened his ball-room for meetings of inquiry”. Pg 86
1819 Nettleton deals with inquirers.
" The convictions of the subjects of this work, were deep, increased rapidly, and were of short continuance. Unconditional submission was urged, as the only ground of acceptance with God. And as soon as this was exercised, in most instances, the sinner was filled with joy. One expressed herself thus, ' I attempted to pray for mercy, while in my sins, but my conscience flashed conviction in my face. What ! will such a sinner as you attempt to pray ! You are so vile, your prayers will not be heard. I then felt the reasonableness of my condemnation so forcibly, that I took up on the side of justice, and pleaded the cause of God against myself. In this condition, I soon found relief." ...“we had more than two hundred in our meeting of inquiry, anxious for their souls. We met in a large upper room called the Masonic Hall. The room was so crowded, that we were obliged to request all who had recently found relief, to retire below, and spend their time in prayer for those above. This evening will never be forgotten. The scene is beyond description. Did you ever witness two hundred sinners, with one accord in one place, weeping for their sins. Until you have seen this, you can have no adequate conceptions of the solemn scene. I felt as though I was standing on the verge of the eternal world ; while the floor under my feet was shaken by the trembling of anxious souls in view of a judgment to come. The solemnity was still heightened, when every knee was bent at the throne of grace, and the intervening silence of the voice of prayer, was interrupted only by the sighs and sobs of anxious souls”. Pg 92-97
1820 Nettleton deals with inquirers.
“This evening met those that were anxious, at Dr. M 's. About thirty were present. As I commenced
speaking to them in general, all were very still and solemn. Suddenly a youth sitting near the window, as if pricked in the heart, cried out in distress. This produced no diversion of attention, but increased the solemnity ; for the cause was perfectly understood. After conversing with each one, we bowed the knee together at the throne of grace, and then in solemn stillness retired at an early hour. A number of these anxious souls belonged to one family. They reached home weeping. The father of the family had retired to rest. As the carriage came up to the door, he heard the cry of distress, and started from his bed to learn the cause. His daughter-in-law, on entering the house, threw her arms around his neck and exclaimed, ' My father, what shall I do ? what shall I do ?
“This evening met about sixty in a meeting for anxious inquirers. Among them were many in deep distress. This I expected would be my last meeting in this place. But I found so many in distress for their souls, and the number increasing, that I announced the appointment of one public
meeting more in the meeting-house, on the following evening ... Met in the meeting-house. More crowded than ever, and solemn as eternity. Preached on the nature and reasonableness of gospel repentance, and urged the duty of immediate compliance, and the danger of delay. Never
more expecting to meet my anxious hearers in this world, I urged them by all the solemnities of the judgment, not to pass the threshold of the meeting-house that night, with impenitent hearts. They seemed to hear as for their lives. One from deep distress, found relief in the midst of the discourse, and lifted up a joyful countenance. No sooner had 1 closed and stepped from the stage, than she came near, and taking her husband by the hand, urged him to come to Christ. It was like a two edged sword. It pierced him to the heart. At this moment the anxious ones assembled around me, and took me some by the hand, some by the arm, and some by the coat, exclaiming, ' Don't leave us. What shall I do ? What shall I do?' Nearly the whole congregation tarried. Those who could not come near, stood, some on the seats, and some on the sides of the pews, to hear and see. From the midst of this scene of distress, I addressed the whole congregation for about five minutes. Among other things 1 said, " My hearers, I now no longer hesitate to tell you what I have hitherto been afraid to speak, that a revival of religion is begun in Nassau. Yes, from what I have seen, I can no Ionger doubt the fact. I believe you are about to witness a solemn and trying time in this place ; and now you must prepare either to be taken or to be left. I then told them, I would meet them in the morning at sunrise, in the school-house, and pray with them before I left, if they chose. I advised them to depart as still as possible, and to be retired through the night.” Pg 102
1820 Nettleton deals with inquirers.
" I must give you a short account of the revival in this place. Meetings are held every evening in the week, crowded, still, and solemn as eternity. Every Monday evening, we meet the anxious ones in a large ball-room. We have had from sixty to about three hundred assembled at these meetings, all solemn, and many in deep distress of soul. The cloud of divine influence, has gone rapidly over our heads, and covered us with awful solemnity. And there is the sound of abundance of rain. The fields have whitened every where, and we are in danger of losing much of the harvest, because we cannot reap every where at once." We visit by appointment, and make a number of visits in a day at a given hour. We sometimes meet ten or fifteen, and sometimes thirty at once. We converse a little with each one, speak a word to all in general, pray and pass on to another circle, and so we spend our time. Our visits are generally short, except one which will never be forgotten. This was August 25, at 2 o'clock, P. M., at the house of Mr. B.We entered the house at the time appointed, and found about twenty persons sitting around the room in pensive silence. All had been more or less anxious for a number of days, and one was in awful distress. This one I addressed more particularly, and urged the duty of immediate repentance, not without some hope that relief would be obtained on the spot ... They urge with all the tenderness and firm decision of those who had felt the conviction, the necessity, and reasonableness of immediate repentance, and submission to God. ” Pg 115
1820 Nettleton deals with inquirers.
“This evening met nearly 200 in a meeting for inquirers. This meeting was anticipated by many with secret dread. Some christians, doubtless, among the rest, who were present and witnessed the scene of distress at the last inquiry meeting were heard to say, that they dreaded to attend this
evening. They could hardly endure the thought of passing through such a scene of distress a second time. And I can truly say, that for the first time, I felt the same reluctance. But to the astonishment of all, instead of an anxious, we had a joyful meeting. Most of those in such distress at our last
meeting for inquirers, had found relief". Pg 119
1821 Nettleton deals with inquirers.
“three or four hundred are convened for the purpose of inquiry, and behold the solemnity and the distress for sin, we think he would feel that the Lord was there. And could he behold the same company of convicted, trembling sinners, in smiling crowds, rejoicing in the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, he would be equally convinced that the same Holy Spirit, who convinced them of sin, is, when the sinner has submitted, the blessed comforter which Christ promised to send. The work is still in progress. It is the still, small voice that convinces of sin. ' The wind bloweth where it listeth ; we hear the sound thereof, but cannot tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth.' We have no new gospel, no other terms of salvation than those that have always been held out, for acceptance. The sinner has been taught invariably, that he must not look for comfort without submission. And such has been the faithfulness of our spiritual teachers, that in most cases, those who have been slain by the law, and brought to despair of climbing up some other way, have been led directly to the Saviour, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life ; and who has always been ready and willing to receive them."
“As many as fifty persons, it was afterwards ascertained, dated their first decided purpose of immediately seeking their salvation from that evening ; and it is worthy of remark, that the same sermon was preached on the following week to two other large and solemn assemblies, in the adjoining parishes, with no special effect that could afterwards be traced. The fact probably was, that here it convinced numbers that the Spirit was already striving with them, and that then was their day. ' A word spoken in due season, how good is it !' At a meeting of the anxious, on the evening of February 26, there were present, about a hundred and seventy. Here were persons of almost every age and class—some who a few weeks before, had put the subject of serious piety at a scornful distance, and others who had drowned every thought of religion in giddy mirth,
now bending their knees together in supplication, or waiting in silent reflection, for a minister of the gospel to pass along, and tell them individually, what they must do..”
"Mr. Nettleton continued with us, except during a few short intervals, till about the middle of April. To his labors, so far as human instrumentality was directly concerned, the progress of the revival must be chiefly ascribed. The topics on which he principally dwelt, were the unchangeable obligations of the divine law, the deceitful and entirely depraved character of the natural heart, the free, indiscriminate offers of the gospel ; the reasonableness and necessity of immediate repentance ; the vanity of those excuses to which awakened sinners are accustomed to resort; and the manner, guilt, and danger of slighting, resisting, and opposing the operations of the Holy Spirit. His addresses were not formal discussions, first of one, and then of another of these sub jects, but a free declaration of the truth of God concerning them all” Pg 119-128
1822 Nettleton deals with inquirers.
This afternoon Mr. Nettleton met sixty or eighty in an anxious meeting—an awful scene of distress. From this we repaired to the church, where he addressed us on the danger of grieving the Spirit of God. It was indeed a heart-searching subject. The sighs and sobs of anxious sinners were to be heard from every part of the house. When the speaker dismissed his audience, a large number rushed toward him, as if expecting assistance from an arm of flesh. In this situation, Mr. Nettleton addressed them about five minutes, and requested them to retire as silently as possible. Some individuals were so overwhelmed with a sense of eternal realities, that it became necessary to urge, and even assist them home.” Pg 145
1824 Nettleton deals with inquirers.
As the revival progressed, he preached more and more closely and doctrinally. ' The great truths of the gospel,' were the weapons of his warfare, and were wielded with a spirit and an energy, which the people were unable to gainsay or resist. He was remarkably clear and forcible in his illustrations of the sinner's total depravity, and his utter inability to procure salvation by unregenerate works, or any desperate efforts. He showed the sinner that his unregenerate prayers for a new heart, his impenitent seeking, striving and knocking would be of no avail ; and that absolute, unconditional submission to a sovereign God, was the first thing to be done. To this duty the sinner was urged immediately with great power and conclusiveness of argument. " His visits among the people were frequent, but short and profitable. He entered immediately on the subject of the salvation of the soul, and the great importance of attending to it without delay. He did not customarily propound questions, and require answers, lest by this means he should turn the attention of sinners from their own wretched state, by leading them to think how they should reply to the minister.' He was so well acquainted with the human heart, that he seemed to have an intuitive perception of what was passing in the minds of those whom he was addressing. Thus he could so direct his conversation as to produce silence and self-condemnation, and confine their thoughts to their own lost and ruined state, sometimes remarking, ' You have no time to spend in conversation, before the salvation of the soul is secured.' " When any indulged a hope which was not satisfactory, he would say, ' you had better give it up, and seek your salvation in earnest.' Well versed in all the doctrinal and experimental parts of the gospel ; feeling deeply in his own heart the power of divine truth, he was qualified, beyond most, to judge of the character of others' experience ; and though mild and conciliatory in his manner, he was faithful in his warnings against false hopes and spurious conversions. All selfish considerations in the concerns of the soul he discarded; and he never used any art or cunning to entrap, or produce commitment on the part of sinners. In the anxious circle he was short, direct in his remarks, concluding with a short and fervent prayer ; directing his petitions solely to God, and not displaying eloquence, or seeking to fascinate the congregation. He seemed to lose sight of man, and to be absorbed in a sense of the divine presence”.
“His eloquence was peculiar to himself, and consisted in conveying his own views and feelings to the minds of others. He never failed to impress his own ideas upon his hearers. As the revival became more interesting and powerful, he preached more doctrinally. He brought from his treasure the doctrines of total depravity, personal election, reprobation, the sovereignty of divine grace, and the universal government of God in working all things after the counsel of his own will. And these great doctrines did not paralyze, but greatly promoted the good work. Never had brother Nettleton such power over a congregation, as when he poured forth, in torrents, these awful truths. And at no time were converts multiplied so rapidly, and convictions and distress so deep, as when these doctrines were pressed home to the conscience. One evening, while our house of worship was filled to overflowing, he preached on the doctrine of election, and the people were so held by the power of truth, that when in the midst of the sermon, an intoxicated Universalist stepped within the door, and cried out with a stentorian voice, and with a horrid oath, ' that's a lie,' scarcely an eye was turned from the speaker towards the door. " The above remarks will serve to give a general idea of the character of this revival”. Pg 156-158
Nettleton was spontaneous and extemporaneous – Pentecostal-like, if you will. Charles Finney was soon to start his ministry and exhibit a similar confidence that he was led by the Holy Spirit moment by moment. When Finney was saved in 1823, Nettleton had been the most prominent evangelist in the circles that Finney was to travel. It is very possible that Finney was influenced by Nettleton, but typical of Finney, he denied the influence of any man over his ministry.
* Atwater article in 1876 Princeton Review, Revivals Of The Century
** Memoir of Rev. A. Nettleton D.D., Bennet Tyler, 1854, Pg 37-38