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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

Francis R. Beattie




In entering upon the exposition of man's free agency, one of the most difficult problems in metaphysics, and one of the most-perplexing questions in theology, arises for consideration. The question of man's moral agency is at the same time one of the utmost importance, alike for a sound system of moral philosophy, and for a proper scheme of Christian doctrine, both in its theoretical and practical aspects. With wonderful caution, and at the same time with profound philosophical insight, do the Standards speak upon this great subject. An attempt will be made in this chapter to give a somewhat careful exhibit of that teaching.

No elaborate discussion of the metaphysics of this intricate subject can now be undertaken; although, in explaining the doctrine of the Standards, some general explanations of the philosophy of man's moral agency is necessary to a proper understanding of the subject in its theological bearings, and to clearly perceive the important issues involved in the theory of man's moral agency adopted.

I. The Doctrine of Man's Moral Freedom.

The doctrine of the Standards upon this great subject is expressed in the following brief and pregnant statement: "God hath endowed the will of man with that natural ability, that it is neither forced, nor by any absolute necessity of nature determined, to good or evil." It will be observed that this statement is somewhat negative in form, and yet it asserts in very positive terms the fact that man in his very nature, being endowed with volitional agency, is a free moral agent, and, hence, a responsible being. This being the case, all charges made against the Standards, to the effect that they teach the doctrine of necessity, are utterly without any grounds whatever. The fact of man's natural freedom and consequent moral responsibility is clearly taught here, and implied elsewhere in the Standards. Just as was seen in a previous chapter, that the great fact of the sovereignty of God was plainly asserted, so now at this stage, with equal force, the fact of man's free moral agency is announced. The statement just quoted from the Standards, though very brief, contains several things which are now to be carefully considered.

1. The nature of the will must be first explained. This is a point about which there is still much difference of opinion among both philosophers and theologians. In what does the will as a faculty or power of man's nature or constitution really consist? What is the nature of man's volitional agency? Two general views upon this question have prevailed in the history of speculation.

First, Some take a comprehensive view of the nature of the faculty called will. According to this view the will embraces the exercise of all the conative, or striving faculties of man's nature, as well as that of volitional agency. As thus used, the term "will" includes desire and appetency as well as choice or volition. The whole of those activities of human nature which are spontaneous, as well as those which are directive, are included under this broad view of the nature of the will of man. If this view of the nature of the will be taken, it will include not only those decisions which are determined by some inward disposition or motive, but also those movements of man's nature which are the result of mere external inducement. To express the same still more briefly, the will in this wide sense includes self-expression as well as self-determination. This use of the term is often found in the discussions upon this subject. When so used it includes not only volitional agency but everything related to it. Hence, volition and conation, motive and inducement, desire and choice, are all taken together in this wide view of the nature of the will of man. It seems quite just to say that much confusion has been introduced into a very intricate subject by the adoption of this general view of the nature of the will of man.

Secondly, Others take the term will in a much narrower sense, and define its nature in a much more limited way. According to this view, the will includes only those activities of man's nature which are voluntary or self-directive. All that is conative or purely spontaneous is excluded, and only that which is of the nature of choice or volition is taken into account. According to this view, the will is the faculty of rational self-determination. It is to be carefully distinguished from conation, desire, or appetency, and may even be found running counter to it. And, further, outward inducement may be related to desire or conation, but motive, in the strict sense, is connected only with volition or choice. This view confines the scope of the nature of the will to a much narrower area than does the former, and it denotes self-determination as distinguished from self-expression. It is in this limited sense that the term is used in the Standards, and care must be taken to keep this in mind in the exposition of their doctrine upon this subject. The nature of the will, as a faculty of the constitution of man, denotes the power of choice, in the sense of free rational self-determination. In his very constitution, this endowment belongs to man. The will is not something apart from or other than the man; but it is just the man choosing or determining himself by means of free rational volition.

Into other questions, such as the relation between will and appetency, will and intelligence, will and conscience, will and the emotions, it is not necessary now to enter, nor does the space at command in this exposition permit doing so. The fact that the Standards clearly teach that man is a free rational agent is emphasized, and this simply means that there is in his nature a power of free rational self-determination, and that this is the adequate basis of his moral responsibility before God.

2. The Freedom of the Will, or of the Moral Agent.

As has been indicated, this is the real point upon which the Standards lay special stress. Man is free. He has natural liberty, and so is rationally responsible for his volitions and acts. In stating their position so clearly upon this point, the Standards guard against two false views, both of them really necessitarian, of the way in which the will is determined. These may be briefly noticed before the true doctrine is set forth.

First, The will is not forced in any way. Man, in the exercise of volitional agency, is not under restraint or compulsion. He is not compelled in any way from without. Indeed, it would be a contradiction in terms to speak of a will that was forced, or of a volition that was the product of compulsion. The very notion of will is that it is a faculty or power which is free. If not free it would be mechanical, and man would be but a machine, and not a moral agent. The statement of the Standards at this point rebuts this mechanical view of the way in which the volitional activity of man is determined. It is not by force of outward circumstances that this determination is brought about. The connection between volitions and their causes is not of the nature of physical causation at all, but man in willing, or in the exercise of his power of rational determination, does not act under any kind of external restraint. Hence, physical necessitarianism is not the doctrine of the Standards.

Secondly, Nor is the will of man determined by any absolute necessity of its own nature. The statement of the Standards here relates to the inward conditions of voluntary rational action, and it is directed against all forms of what may be called rational or moral necessitarianism. If the will of man were determined by some inner necessity of its own nature, it would not be really free at all. If man were thus determined in his volitions he would not really be a free agent. If inner necessity of nature determined the man in acting he would be after all but a rational machine and not a free agent. But the doctrine of the Standards is to the effect that man is in no sense a machine, but a free rational moral agent. By the necessity of his nature as a voluntary agent, he is not, by the very conditions of that nature, so determined to good or evil that of necessity he is determined to the one or the other absolutely. Hence, again, volitions and their causes are not linked together by what may be called a rational causal necessity.

Thirdly, On the positive side, the Standards teach that man by the very fact of his creation and by virtue of his constitution, has been endowed with a peculiar power which is of the nature of a natural liberty to choose as he pleases, or to exercise his voluntary activity as he desires. In this sense and in this way man is free. Whatever a man's nature prefers that he freely chooses, and he is responsible for the choices or volitions thus exercised. Whatever may be the connection between the nature and dispositions of the man, and his choices and volitions, the latter are truly and consciously free. If there be any connection asserted between them it can only be of the nature of free moral causation, in harmony with the power with which man has been endowed.

Here the distinction between liberty and ability appears to be of considerable importance. Liberty is simply the power to choose or decide as the man desires or pleases. Ability is the power to choose this or that course, even though it may be contrary to the desires or dispositions of the man. Liberty is freedom in willing, ability is freedom to will this way or that way. An illustration may make the difference more fully understood. A wicked man constantly sins. In sinning he chooses freely to sin. He sins freely because he pleases to sin, and he has full liberty in that direction. It cannot be said that he sins under compulsion. But, on the other hand, he has no power to choose or prefer holiness. He has no ability to will that which is pure and good. Herein lies his inability. He has liberty in willing the evil, but he has no ability to will the good. The case of the un-fallen angels who are confirmed in holiness further illustrates this distinction. They have the fullest liberty in serving God and willing the good, and at the same time they have no ability to sin or dishonor God. Hence, it is apparent, from the nature of the case, that in exercising his volitional agency man is perfectly free in that exercise. This simply means that his liberty is unquestioned. But it is equally true that a man, owing to the nature of his desires and dispositions, may be entirely without ability to exercise his volitional agency at all in certain directions. This distinction kept in mind goes far to make plain the nature of that freedom which man has.

It is proper to point out, at this place, the force of the distinction made by some theologians between natural and moral liberty or freedom. This distinction resembles that made in the previous paragraph, but is not to be identified with it. The view now under notice holds that man has a natural ability to do all that God requires of him. This implies that he has all the natural endowment necessary to enable him to will and to do what God requires. But by reason of sin he has no ability to choose, or to do, the will of God. The sinner, according to this view, has natural ability, but no moral ability; and all that he needs is merely the restoration of that moral ability in order to be saved and serve God. It will be observed that this distinction between natural and moral ability really overlooks the import of the deeper distinction between liberty and ability. Hence, what a sinful man needs is not merely the restoration of ability in regard to the choice of the good, but rather a radical change in the desires and dispositions of his nature, for it is out of these dispositions that choice, volition, or self-determination freely flows. Till this change is effected, the man with the sinful disposition always prefers the sinful, and wills or chooses accordingly. Hence, while there may be some force in the distinction between natural and moral ability, it must not be pushed too far. It is better to clearly grasp the distinction between liberty and ability of will as it is set forth in the Standards. By doing this the disability under which the sinner lies will appear to be not merely a certain disability of the will, but a deeper perversity of the whole nature, and it also will become evident that regeneration is not merely a change in the will or volitional agency of the sinner, but a radical renovation of the dispositions of the whole nature. The force of this will be seen more fully later on.

3. The question of the freedom of the will now requires some more definite discussion. In explaining more fully the doctrine of the Standards upon this subject, it may be instructive to give an outline of the main types of theory which have been announced concerning this knotty subject. This may, perhaps, be done in a twofold way, for the subject of the freedom of man has been discussed from two distinct standpoints. It may be considered from the view-point of philosophy, and in its relation to theology. A brief sketch of the chief types of theory under each of these aspects of the subject may help to shed some light upon it. Throughout, it will be seen that philosophy and theology run in parallel lines.

First, The philosophical theories of man's moral freedom are to be considered. In general, all these theories may be reduced to three heads. The first may be termed that of mechanical necessity, the second that of contingent liberty, and the third that of moral certainty. A very brief statement of each of these is all that can now be made.

The theory of mechanical necessity is first explained. This theory virtually denies freedom to man. Volitions and their causes are connected by the law of physical causation, so that man is a mere machine. Events in the moral sphere are in no essential respect different from those that happen in the physical. The will of man is determined in precisely the same manner as the forces of nature produce their effects. According to this theory, all events belong to the same category, and the distinction between the physical and the moral, between freedom and necessity, is obliterated altogether. If this theory be correct, man's volitional agency is a piece of refined mechanism, and his supposed freedom is a delusion.

The theory of contingent liberty is next considered. This type of theory is not easily described, because it appears in various forms, and is often stated in very ambiguous terms. In general, it goes to the opposite extreme of the preceding view, and regards the will as an entirely unstable element in our nature. It is looked on as not only distinct, but as separated, from the desires and dispositions of the nature of man. It is further held that the will is possessed of the power of asserting itself against the dispositions of the nature. And, in order to freedom and moral responsibility, this theory also holds that the conscious power to choose the contrary is necessary. It is asserted that if there be no such power to choose, man's freedom is destroyed, and his moral career can have no reality. Hence, the ability of will to choose the opposite of that which is actually chosen is needed to make man a free agent, and to render him responsible for his acts. This is contingent liberty, or power of contrary choice.

This theory is right in asserting that man is a free agent, and that freedom is necessary to moral responsibility. But it errs in disregarding the close connection between the dispositions of the nature and the volitions of the will. It errs, also, in assuming that the power of contrary choice is necessary to moral freedom and responsibility, and it is in danger of taking the position that a man can be conscious of ability to choose in any other way than is actually chosen. Moreover, this theory, as will be seen later on, confounds necessity and certainty, and concludes that since the former is inconsistent with freedom the latter is also.

The theory of moral certainty remains for remark. This theory takes middle ground between the two already expounded. It maintains that man has moral freedom, and is endowed with the native power of self-determination. Man has liberty of will, is able to choose as he pleases, and to will in accordance with his desires and dispositions. Between his desires and choices, between his disposition and volitions, there is intimate connection, yet that connection is not mechanical or necessary, but moral and certain. In all his volitional activity man chooses, wills, or decides freely, yet his desires, dispositions or moral states determine certainly, though not necessarily, the volitions which he exercises. All that is necessary to true freedom and responsibility is liberty or freedom in willing, not ability to will the contrary. Hence, this theory maintains that freedom in volition and certainty in regard to the direction of the volition are not inconsistent with each other. This is the theory of moral certainty.

This is accepted to be the true theory of the philosophy of man's moral freedom, which is involved in the doctrine of the Standards. It takes the middle ground between two extremes, and does justice to all the facts in the case. Nor is it open to the objections to which both of the other theories are exposed, for they are both one-sided, and hence defective. The will of man is not bound up by an iron law of necessity, nor is it in a condition of entirely unstable equilibrium. Man has freedom or liberty in all his choices or voluntary decisions, which simply means that he determines himself. That his moral self-determinations are certain to be in accordance with his dispositions and moral states is quite consistent with their freedom and the moral responsibility of the agent. This is a very important position.

Secondly, Theological theories in regard to man's moral freedom open up the other view of this intricate subject. The speculations of the philosopher upon this subject have passed over into the hands of the theologian. To a certain extent the philosophical theory has determined the theological doctrine, but care should be taken not to allow this to take place at the expense of the facts set forth in the Scriptures. The phase of the subject which now comes specially into view relates to the effects of sin on man's freedom, and to the liberty of man as he lies under the disabilities of his sinful estate. Touching this aspect of the problem, there are three distinct types of theory, to a certain extent corresponding to the philosophical theories just described. These are now to be stated in outline.

What is known as the Pelagian view comes naturally first. This theory denies that sin has in any way disabled man's moral agency. He has always possessed the power to will good or evil, or to choose rightly or wrongly. The first man had this power, and men ever since have retained the same ability. This theory denies, also, that any evil result has come upon the race by reason of its relation to the first man. Men are brought into the world now with the same moral character that the first man had, and there is in it no natural bias to good or evil. Every man, as a moral agent, is free to choose or decide in one way or the other upon all moral questions. At first, character has no moral quality, and volitions produce character according as they are good or bad. Each man voluntarily stands or falls when he acts in a holy way, or commits personal sin. However much of force this theory might have in the case of unfallen moral agents, it is evident that it is not the true view of the moral agency of sinful man. It is not in harmony with the teaching of the Scriptures in regard to the condition of man in his sinful estate, and it is inconsistent with the facts of experience, observation, and history.

The Arminian theory is properly considered next. This theory denies that sin has entirely disabled the moral agency of man. It holds that it has been greatly weakened by reason of the sin of the first man, but the benefits of what is called common grace, bestowed upon all men as the result of the universal atonement for sin made by Christ, restores to all men their moral ability. The moral weakness or disability which rests upon the race is a misfortune for which it is not responsible; hence, justice to the race on the part of God required that he should in some way restore to man his moral ability, otherwise God could not justly punish men for remaining in their sinful estate. By reason of this restored ability men are able to choose or reject the good, to accept or refuse the gospel. In this way man was placed in substantially the same position that Adam was in prior to the fall. Thus, by the aid of common grace, man is put in the same position that the Pelagian assigns to him, and the theory of his moral freedom held is virtually that of contingent liberty, according to which the power to choose the contrary is held to be necessary to his responsibility. This theory of man's moral agency under sin is inadequate. It is not in harmony with the statements of Scripture in regard to his helpless estate in sin, about the gratuitous nature of salvation, and in reference to the necessity of determining grace to enable the sinner to turn and choose the good, to decide for God, for Christ, and for holiness.

The Calvinist theory remains for some simple explanation. This theory asserts that man's moral agency has been totally disabled, so far as any ability to choose the good, or to will that which is holy, is concerned. The nature of man has been corrupted by sin, so that his desires and dispositions are perverted, and his whole voluntary activity is turned away from God and holiness. Still, men are free in all their wicked acts, and consequently responsible for them. Man has liberty in regard to all the exercises of his will, but he has no ability to choose the right or holy. Thus man is perfectly free, even while he acts certainly in the line of evil. The disabling effects of sin, which he has inherited, and the guilt of which rests upon him, have entirely destroyed his ability to know, to love, to choose, or to will the good, but they have not destroyed his liberty or his ability in the love and choice of the evil.

The theory thus briefly stated is accepted as the true one. It is in harmony with the teaching of Scripture, and in accordance with the true philosophy of man's moral agency already described. It is also consistent with all the facts in the case. According to this view, man has free agency in all that he wills and does. This implies that he chooses and acts freely, in accordance with his dispositions and inclinations. Still, man in his sinful state and apart from special grace has no ability to choose or will the good or holy; and for this inability he is held responsible, by reason of his race relation to the first man. This inability, moreover, is part of the penalty of original sin, as was seen in a former-chapter, and guilt rests upon the race on this account. This brings up directly the question of the inability of man in his sinful state, as this is exhibited in the Standards, especially in the Confession, where the subject is treated at greater length than it is in the Catechisms.

4. Man's moral inability under sin is now to be explained. The Catechisms state plainly that no mere man is able in this life, even when assisted by divine grace, to keep perfectly the holy law of God. The Confession covers the whole field in the fourfold view it gives of man's moral agency and ability in relation to the effects of sin. These four phases of the question of man's ability and inability will now be presented in outline.

First, In his unfallen state of innocency the first view of man's moral agency appears. In this state man had freedom of choice between good and evil, and ability both to will and do that which was pleasing to God. This freedom and ability were not absolutely confirmed, though, doubtless, the desires and dispositions were towards the good. Hence, man's moral agency in the state of innocency was a mutable ability to do all that God required of him, and being mutable he was liable to fall from it.

Secondly, In his sinful fallen state the moral agency of man has undergone important changes. By reason of his fall into a state of sin, man has wholly lost all ability to will any spiritual good accompanying salvation. This statement fixes attention upon a single important fact. Man by the fall has lost all ability to will any good which is spiritual, or which looks to salvation. He has lost ability to will in the direction of the spiritually good. His dispositions have been corrupted, and made averse to that which is holy, and the result is, that though he chooses as he pleases when he freely wills the evil, yet he has no ability in his natural state to choose in the opposite way. He is under spiritual death, and has no power to will or do the spiritually good. He cannot by any effort of his own convert himself, which means that he cannot change his natural dispositions, and consequently he is unable to restore to himself the ability to prefer and choose the good; nor can he prepare himself thereto. This means that a man cannot do anything to change for the better the natural evil dispositions out of which his choices or volitions all proceed. This, of course, does not mean that a man cannot put himself in the way of obtaining, through the appointed means of grace, that spiritual renewal which alone can work a change in the desires and dispositions of the nature. In this state man is under total inability, and he remains so till his nature is renewed by the gracious operation of the Holy Spirit.

Thirdly, In a state of grace, man is freed from his natural bondage in sin, and is delivered from his inability to will that which is spiritually good. This is brought about by the effectual grace of God, which works a radical renovation in the sinful, helpless state of man's moral nature, and by means of which he is translated into a state of grace and favor. In this gracious spiritual condition he is delivered from the bondage of his moral and spiritual inability, and the consequence of this is that the sinner is endowed with ability to freely will and do that which is spiritually good. He is made willing in the day of God's gracious power, which delivers him from the thraldom in which sin holds him, and makes him a freeman in Christ Jesus. It is added in the Confession, that by reason of his remaining corruption man does not perfectly nor only will that which is good, but he does also will that which is evil. This may be called a mixed state, wherein the will freely chooses good or evil, having power to do so, though not in the sense of having the power of contrary choice. The remaining corruption, which is only slowly extirpated from the nature of the believer, sometimes leads him into sin. But the bondage of sin is broken, and ability to will and do the good is enjoyed, though holiness is not yet confirmed.

Fourthly, In the state of glory, the will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to good alone. There is now confirmation in holiness, the corruption of the nature has been entirely removed, certainty of holy volitions is fully and for ever assured, and the saints in glory enjoy a freedom and enlarged liberty, such as they cannot know in this life. Here, again, is illustrated the fact that while freedom and necessity exclude each other, still freedom of volition and certainty in regard to the kind of volitions are entirely consistent with each other.

The teaching of the Standards in regard to the subject of man's ability and inability may now be summed up in a closing sentence. In the state of innocence man had full moral ability, yet was mutable; in the state of sin man still had freedom, yet no ability to will that which was good; in a state of grace man has freedom with a mixed ability to will both the good and the evil; and in the state of glory man has an immutable freedom to will the good, and no ability to will or do that which is evil. This is, indeed, a matchless creed statement.

II. Guilt and its Degrees.

This is a topic which the Catechisms handle in close connection with that of man's moral inability, and, perhaps, it can be best treated as the concluding part of this chapter. The Catechisms, after stating that no mere man is able in this life, either of himself or by any grace received, perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed, proceed to consider the question of the heinousness of different sins in the sight of God. The position taken is that all sins are not equally heinous in God's sight, but that in themselves and by reason of several aggravations some sins are worse in God's sight than others. At the same time it is stated distinctly, that every sin, small and great, even the least, since it is an offence against God's sovereignty, goodness, holiness, and righteous law. deserves God's wrath and curse, both in this life and in that which is to come. The Larger Catechism adds that man cannot atone for his own sins, but that the blood of Christ alone can expiate the sins of men. Here there are two things to be briefly explained.

1. The nature of guilt must first be understood. Guilt, strictly speaking, is liability to punishment, or the infliction of punitive suffering. The penalty of sin is punitive suffering on its account. The guilt of sin, or its liability to penalty, is to be carefully distinguished from its depravity or pollution. Guilt comes upon the transgressor, depravity abides in the sinner. Guilt is directly related to the law and its sanction, depravity pertains directly to the nature of the agent. Both always go together, but they are not to be confounded with each other. The pardoning mercy of God, on the ground of Christ's mediation, takes away guilt; the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit removes depravity.

If guilt is liability to penalty, or responsibility under violated law, then in the very nature of the case the penalty which the sanction of the law threatens is incurred through sin. Then it is in relation to this fact that the second point arises. This raises the question of the degrees of guilt, or the measure of penalty incurred by various transgressions.

2. The degrees of guilt is the question now to be briefly explained. The Standards plainly teach that guilt is graduated according to the sinfulness of the sin. This graduation arises from two considerations: First, Some sins in themselves are worse than others. Murder is worse than evil speaking, stealing than covetousness. If the sin be against the express letter of the law, if it be not only conceived in the heart but break out in act, if it allow of no reparation, if it be in violation of any promise, or be done deliberately, the sin is more heinous than if not so done; and such sins deserve a severer punishment. Secondly, By reason of various aggravations some sins are more heinous in the sight of God than others, and bring the transgressor into greater condemnation than others. The Larger Catechism is very complete in its statement upon this point, for it mentions several sets of aggravating circumstances.

First, From the persons offending. If the persons be of mature years, and of wide experience or grace; or if they be eminent for profession, gifts, place, or office; or if they be guides to others whose examples are likely to be followed, the sins of such persons are to bo regarded as more heinous than they might be in other persons.

Secondly, From the parties offended. If the sin be directly against God or his attributes, or worship; or against Christ and his grace, or against the Holy Spirit, his witness; or if it be against superiors, or those with whom we are closely related; or if it be against the brethren, especially against the weak; or against the common good of all or many, the offence becomes the more heinous on this account, and entails a greater degree of guilt.

Thirdly, From circumstances of time and place. If the offence be committed on the Lord's day, or during divine worship, or just before or after such worship; or if it be done in a public way, or in the presence of others who may be led astray by example, the offence becomes all the more heinous.

Man, of course, cannot estimate the exact degree of guilt which each several sin deserves, but there can be no doubt that the judge of all the earth will do right, and graduate the penalty of each sin according to its just deserts.

This concludes a very difficult subject, upon which the Standards have very important teaching. The nature of man's moral agency, and the question of the moral freedom of man, have been explained. The moral ability of man in his fourfold estate of innocence, of sin, of grace, and of glory has also been expounded; and the nature and degrees of guilt, or liability to punishment, has had brief treatment. In the next chapter the way by which man is recovered from this helpless estate of sin and guilt will be entered on, and another important stage in the exposition of the Standards will be reached.

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