by John Calvin



(Perils of this topic: point of view established, 1)

1. We have now seen that the dominion of sin, from the time it held the first man bound to itself, not only ranges among all mankind, but also completely occupies individual souls. It remains for us to investigate more closely whether we have been deprived of all freedom since we have been reduced to this servitude; and, if any particle of it still survives, how far its power extends. But in order that the truth of this question may be more readily apparent to us, I shall presently set a goal to which the whole argument should be directed. The best way to avoid error will be to consider the perils that threaten man on both sides.

(1) When man is denied all uprightness, he immediately takes occasion for complacency from that fact; and, because he is said to have no ability to pursue righteousness on his own, he holds all such pursuit to be of no consequence, as if it did not pertain to him at all. (2) Nothing, however slight, can be credited to man without depriving God of his honor, and without man himself falling into ruin through brazen confidence. Augustine points out both these precipices.

Here, then, is the course that we must follow if we are to avoid crashing upon these rocks: when man has been taught that no good thing remains in his power, and that he is hedged about on all sides by most miserable necessity, in spite of this he should nevertheless be instructed to aspire to a good of which he is empty, to a freedom of which he has been deprived.

In fact, he may thus be more sharply aroused from inactivity than if it were supposed that he was endowed with the highest virtues. Everyone sees how necessary this second point is. I observe that too many persons have doubts about the first point. For since this is an undoubted fact, that nothing of his own ought to be taken away from man, it ought to be clearly evident how important it is for him to be barred from false boasting. At the time when man was distinguished with the noblest marks of honor through God's beneficence, not even then was he permitted to boast about himself. How much more ought he now to humble himself, cast down as he has been - due to his own ungratefulness - from the loftiest glory into extreme disgrace! At that time, I say, when he had been advanced to the highest degree of honor, Scripture attributed nothing else to him than that he had been created in the image of God [Genesis 1:27], thus suggesting that man was blessed, not because of his own good actions, but by participation in God. What, therefore, now remains for man, bare and destitute of all glory, but to recognize God for whose beneficence he could not be grateful when he abounded with the riches of his grace; and at least, by confessing his own poverty, to glorify him in whom he did not previously glory in recognition of his own blessings?

Also, it is no less to our advantage than pertinent to God's glory that we be deprived of all credit for our wisdom and virtue. Thus those who bestow upon us anything beyond the truth add sacrilege to our ruin. When we are taught to wage our own war, we are but borne aloft on a reed stick, only to fall as soon as it breaks! Yet we flatter our strength unduly when we compare it even to a reed stick! For whatever vain men devise and babble concerning these matters is but smoke. Therefore Augustine with good reason often repeats the famous statement that free will is by its defenders more trampled down than strengthened. It has been necessary to say this by way of preface because some, while they hear that man's power is rooted out from its very foundations that God's power may be built up in man, bitterly loathe this whole disputation as dangerous, not to say superfluous. Nonetheless, it appears both fundamental in religion and most profitable for us.

(Critical discussion of opinions on free will given by philosophers and theologians, 2-9)


Since we said just above that the faculties of the soul are situated in the mind and the heart, now let us examine what both parts can do. The philosophers (obviously with substantial agreement) imagine that the reason is located in the mind, which like a lamp illumines all counsels, and like a queen governs the will. For they suppose that it is suffused with divine light to take the most effective counsel; and that it excels in power to wield the most effective command. On the other hand, they imagine that sense perception is gripped by torpor and dimness of sight; so that it always creeps along the ground, is entangled in baser things, and never rises up to true discernment. They hold that the appetite, if it undertakes to obey the reason and does not permit itself to be subjected to the senses, is borne along to the pursuit of virtues, holds the right way, and is molded into will. But if it subjects itself to the bondage of the senses, it is so corrupted and perverted by the latter as to degenerate into lust. In their opinion those faculties of which I have spoken above - understanding, sense, appetite, or will (which last designation is now accepted in more common usage) - have their seat in the soul. These philosophers consequently declare that the understanding is endowed with reason, the best ruling principle for the leading of a good and blessed life, provided it sustains itself within its own excellence and displays the strength bestowed upon it by nature. But they state that the lower impulse, called "sense," by which man is drawn off into error and delusion is such that it can be tamed and gradually overcome by reason's rod. Further, they locate the will midway between reason and sense. That is, it possesses right and freedom of itself either to obey reason or to prostitute itself to be ravished by sense - whichever it pleases.


Sometimes, convinced by experience itself, they do not deny the great difficulty with which man establishes the rule of reason a kingdom within himself. At one time he is tickled by the enticements of pleasures; at another is tricked by a false image of good things; and again is violently struck by immoderate inclinations, and as by cords and strings is pulled in divers directions, as Plato says.

Accordingly, Cicero says that the faint glimmer given us by nature is soon quenched by our wicked opinions and evil customs. The philosophers concede that such diseases, once they have occupied men's minds, rage so violently that no one can easily restrain them. Nor do these writers hesitate to compare them to wild horses, which when reason is overthrown, as a charioteer tossed from his chariot, intemperately and without restraint play the wanton.

Nevertheless, the philosophers hold as certain that virtues and vices are in our power. They say: If to do this or that depends upon our choice, so also does not to do it. Again, if not to do it, so also to do it. Now we seem to do what we do, and to shun what we shun, by free choice. Therefore, if we do any good thing when we please, we can also not do it; if we do any evil, we can also shun it. Indeed, certain of them have broken forth into such license as to boast that the fact that we live is a gift of the gods, but if we live well and holily, it is our own doing. Thence, also, comes that saying of Cicero in the person of Cotta, that "because every man acquires virtue for himself, no wise man ever has thanked God for it. For we are praised for our virtue, and glory in our virtue. This would not happen if the gift were of God and not from ourselves." A little later he says: "This is the judgment of all mortals, that fortune is to be sought from God but that wisdom is to be acquired from oneself. This is the sum of the opinion of all philosophers: reason which abides in human understanding is a sufficient guide for right conduct; the will, being subject to it, is indeed incited by the senses to evil things; but since the will has free choice, it cannot be hindered from following reason as its leader in all things.


All ecclesiastical writers have recognized both that the soundness of reason in man is gravely wounded through sin, and that the will has been very much enslaved by evil desires. Despite this, many of them have come far too close to the philosophers. Of these, the early ones seem to me to have, with a twofold intent, elevated human powers for the following reasons. First, a frank confession of man's powerlessness would have brought upon them the jeers of the philosophers with whom they were in conflict. Second, they wished to avoid giving fresh occasion for slothfulness to a flesh already indifferent toward good. Therefore, that they might teach nothing absurd to the common judgment of men, they strove to harmonize the doctrine of Scripture halfway with the beliefs of the philosophers. Yet they paid especial attention to the second point, not to give occasion for slothfulness. This appears from their words.

Chrysostom somewhere expresses it: "Since God has placed good and evil in our power, he has granted free decision of choice, and does not restrain the unwilling, but embraces the willing." Again: "He who is evil, if he should wish, is often changed into a good man; and he who is good falls through sloth and becomes evil. For the Lord has made our nature free to choose. Nor does he impose necessity upon us, but furnishes suitable remedies and allows everything to hinge on the sick man's own judgment."

Again: "Just as we can never do anything rightly unless we are aided by God's grace, so we cannot acquire heavenly favor unless we bring our portion." But he had said before: "In order that not everything may depend on divine help, we must at the same time bring something ourselves." One of his common expressions is: "Let us bring what is ours; God will furnish the rest." What Jerome says agrees with this: "Ours is to begin, God's to fulfill; ours to offer what we can, his to supply what we cannot."

Surely you see by these statements that they credited man with more zeal for virtue than he deserved because they thought that they could not rouse our inborn sluggishness unless they argued that we sinned by it alone. But how skillfully they did this we shall subsequently see. A little later it will be quite evident that these opinions to which we have referred are utterly false.

Further, even though the Greeks above the rest - and Chrysostom especially among them - extol the ability of the human will, yet all the ancients, save Augustine, so differ, waver, or speak confusedly on this subject, that almost nothing certain can be derived from their writings. Therefore, we shall not stop to list more exactly the opinions of individual writers; but we shall only select at random from one or another, as the explanation of the argument would seem to demand.

The other writers who came after them, while each sought praise for his own cleverness in his defense of human nature, one after another gradually fell from bad to worse, until it came to the point that man was commonly thought to be corrupted only in his sensual part and to have a perfectly unblemished reason and a will also largely unimpaired. Meanwhile the well-known statement flitted from mouth to mouth: that the natural gifts in man were corrupted, but the supernatural taken away. But scarcely one man in a hundred had an inkling of its significance. For my part, if I wanted clearly to teach what the corruption of nature is like, I would readily be content with these words. But it is more important to weigh carefully what man can do, vitiated as he is in every part of his nature and shorn of supernatural gifts. Those, then, who boasted that they were Christ's disciples spoke of this matter too much like philosophers. The term "free will" has always been used among the Latins, as if man still remained upright. The Greeks were not ashamed to use a much more presumptuous word. They called it "self-power," as if each man had power in his own hands. All - even the common folk - were imbued with this principle, that man is endowed with free will. Yet some of them who wish to seem distinguished do not know how far it extends. Let us, therefore, first investigate the force of this term; then let us determine from the simple testimony of Scripture what promise man, of his own nature, has for good or ill.

Few have defined what free will is, although it repeatedly occurs in the writings of all. Origen seems to have put forward a definition generally agreed upon among ecclesiastical writers when he said that it is a faculty of the reason to distinguish between good and evil, a faculty of the will to choose one or the other. Augustine does not disagree with this when he teaches that it is a faculty of the reason and the will to choose good with the assistance of grace; evil, when grace is absent. Bernard, wishing to speak subtly, "on account of the imperishable freedom of the will, and of the unfailing judgment of the reason," more obscurely says it is "consent." And Anselm's well-known definition is not plain enough: that it is the power of maintaining rectitude for its own sake. As a consequence, Peter Lombard and the Scholastics preferred to accept Augustine's definition because it was clearer and did not exclude God's grace. They realized that without grace the will could not be sufficient unto itself. Nevertheless, they bring forward their own ideas, which they consider either to be better or to make for a fuller explanation. First, they agree that the noun arbitrium ought rather to refer to reason, whose task it is to distinguish between good and evil; that the adjective liberum pertains properly to the will, which can be turned to one side or the other.

Hence, Thomas says that, since freedom properly belongs to the will, it would be most suitable to call free will a "power of selection," which, derived from a mingling of understanding and appetite, yet inclines more to appetite. We now find wherein they teach that the power of free decision resides, that is, in the reason and the will. It remains for us to see briefly how much they attribute to each.


Under man's free counsel they commonly class those intermediate things f50 which obviously do not pertain to God's Kingdom; but they refer true righteousness to God's special grace and spiritual regeneration. To show this, the author of the work The Calling of the Gentiles enumerates three kinds of will: first, the sensual; second, the psychic; third, the spiritual. With the first two, he teaches, man is freely endowed; the last is the work of the Holy Spirit in man. f51 We shall discuss in its proper place whether this is true. Now I intend briefly to weigh, not to refute, the statements of others. Hence, it happens that when the church fathers are discussing free will, they first inquire, not into its importance for civil or external actions, but into what promotes obedience to the divine law. Although I grant this latter question is the main one, I do not think the former ought to be completely neglected. I hope I shall render a very good account of my own opinion.

Now in the schools three kinds of freedom are distinguished: first from necessity, second from sin, third from misery. The first of these so inheres in man by nature that it cannot possibly be taken away, but the two others have been lost through sin. I willingly accept this distinction, except in so far as necessity is falsely confused with compulsion. The extent of the difference between them and the need to bear it in mind will appear elsewhere.


If this be admitted, it will be indisputable that free will is not sufficient to enable man to do good works, unless he be helped by grace, indeed by special grace, which only the elect receive through regeneration. For I do not tarry over those fanatics who babble that grace is equally and indiscriminately distributed. But it has not yet been demonstrated whether man has been wholly deprived of all power to do good, or still has some power, though meager and weak; a power, indeed, that can do nothing of itself, but with the help of grace also does its part. The Master of the Sentences meant to settle this point when he taught: "We need two kinds of grace to render us capable of good works." He calls the first kind "operating," which ensures that we effectively will to do good. The second he calls "co-operating," which follows the good will as a help. The thing that displeases me about this division is that, while he attributes the effective desire for good to the grace of God, yet he hints that man by his very own nature somehow seeks after the good - though ineffectively. Thus Bernard declares the good will is God's work, yet concedes to man that of his own impulse he seeks this sort of good will. But this is far from Augustine's thought, from whom Peter Lombard pretended to have taken this distinction. The ambiguity in the second part offends me, for it has given rise to a perverted interpretation. They thought we co-operate with the assisting grace of God, because it is our right either to render it ineffectual by spurning the first grace, or to confirm it by obediently following it. This the author of the work The Calling of the Gentiles expresses as follows: "Those who employ the judgment of reason are free to forsake grace, so that not to have forsaken it is a meritorious act; and what could not be done without the co-operation of the Spirit is counted meritorious for those whose own will could not have accomplished it." I chose to note these two points in passing that you, my reader, may see how far I disagree with the sounder Schoolmen. I differ with the more recent Sophists f59 to an even greater extent, as they are farther removed from antiquity. How ever, we at least understand from this division in what way they grant free will to man. For Lombard finally declares that we have free will, not in that we are equally capable of doing or thinking good and evil, but merely that we are freed from compulsion. According to Lombard, this freedom is not hindered, even if we be wicked and slaves of sin, and can do nothing but sin.


Man will then be spoken of as having this sort of free decision, not because he has free choice equally of good and evil, but because he acts wickedly by will, not by compulsion. Well put, indeed, but what purpose is served by labeling with a proud name such a slight thing? A noble freedom, indeed - for man not to be forced to serve sin, yet to be such a willing slave that his will is bound by the fetters of sin! Indeed, I abhor contentions about words, with which the church is harassed to no purpose. But I have scrupulously resolved to avoid those words which signify something absurd, especially where pernicious error is involved.

But how few men are there, I ask, who when they hear free will attributed to man do not immediately conceive him to be master of both his own mind and will, able of his own power to turn himself toward either good or evil? Yet (someone will say) this sort of danger will be removed if the common folk are diligently warned of its meaning. Man's disposition voluntarily so inclines to falsehood that he more quickly derives error from one word than truth from a wordy discourse. In this very word we have more certain experience of this matter than we should like. For, overlooking that interpretation of the ancient writers, almost all their successors, while they have clung to the etymological meaning of the word, have been carried into a ruinous self-assurance.


Now, if the authority of the fathers has weight with us, they indeed have the word constantly on their lips, yet at the same time they declare what it connotes to them. First of all, there is Augustine, who does not hesitate to call it "unfree." Elsewhere he is angry toward those who deny that the will is free; but he states his main reason in these words: "Only let no one so dare to deny the decision of the will as to wish to excuse sin." Yet elsewhere he plainly confesses that "without the Spirit man's will is not free, since it has been laid under by shackling and conquering desires."

Likewise, when the will was conquered by the vice into which it had fallen, human nature began to lose its freedom. Again, man, using free will badly, has lost both himself and his will. Again, the free will has been so enslaved that it can have no power for righteousness. Again, what God's grace has not freed will not be free. Again, the justice of God is not fulfilled when the law so commands, and man acts as if by his own strength; but when the Spirit helps, and man's will, not free, but freed by God, obeys. And he gives a brief account of all these matters when he writes elsewhere: man, when he was created, received great powers of free will, but lost them by sinning. Therefore in another passage, after showing that free will is established through grace, he bitterly inveighs against those who claim it for themselves without grace. "Why then," he says, "do miserable men either dare to boast of free will before they have been freed, or of their powers, if they have already been freed? And they do not heed the fact that in the term 'free will' freedom seems to be implied. 'Now where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.' [2 Corinthians 3:17.] If, therefore, they are slaves of sin, why do they boast of free will? For a man becomes the slave of him who has overcome him. Now, if they have been freed, why do they boast as if it had come about through their own effort? Or are they so free as not to wish to be the slaves of him who says: 'Without me you can do nothing'" [John 15:5]?

Why, elsewhere he seems to ridicule the use of this word when he says that the will is indeed free but not freed: free of righteousness but enslaved to sin! the also repeats and explains this statement in another place, where he teaches that man is not free from righteousness except by decision of the will; moreover, he does not become free from sin except by the grace of the Savior. When he asserts that man's freedom is nothing but emancipation or manumission from righteousness he seems aptly to mock its empty name. If anyone, then, can use this word without understanding it in a bad sense, I shall not trouble him on this account. But I hold that because it cannot be retained without great peril, it will, on the contrary, be a great boon for the church if it be abolished. I prefer not to use it myself, and I should like others, if they seek my advice, to avoid it.


Perhaps I may seem to have brought a great prejudice upon myself when I confess that all ecclesiastical writers, except Augustine, have spoken so ambiguously or variously on this matter that nothing certain can be gained from their writings. Some will interpret this as if I wanted to deprive them of any voice in the matter because they all are my opponents. But I meant nothing else than that I wanted simply and sincerely to advise godly folk; for if they were to depend upon those men's opinions in this matter, they would always flounder in uncertainty. At one time these writers teach that man, despoiled of the powers of free will, takes refuge in grace alone. At another time they provide, or seem to provide, him with his own armor.

Nevertheless, it is not difficult to demonstrate that they, in the ambiguity of their teaching, held human virtue in no or very slight esteem, but ascribed all credit for every good thing to the Holy Spirit. For this purpose I shall introduce certain of their expressions that clearly teach this. For what else does that statement of Cyprian mean which Augustine so often repeats: "We ought to glory in nothing, because nothing is ours," except that man, rendered utterly destitute in his own right, should learn to depend wholly upon God? What do Augustine and Eucherius mean when they interpret the tree of life as Christ and say that whoever extends his hand to it will live; while they interpret the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as the decision of the will, and say that he who, bereft of God's grace, tastes of it will die? What does Chrysostom mean when he says that every man is not only a sinner by nature, but wholly sin? If there is no good in us, if man is wholly sin from head to foot, if he is not even allowed to test how far the power of the will can be effective - how could anyone possibly parcel out the credit for good works between God and man? I could refer to very many statements of this sort from other authors. Lest, however, anyone should charge that I am choosing only what serves my purpose while I craftily suppress what disagrees with it, I shall refrain from such testimony. Yet I dare affirm this: however excessive they sometimes are in extolling free will, they have had this end in view - to teach man utterly to forsake confidence in his own virtue and to hold that all his strength rests in God alone. Now I come to a simple explanation of the truth concerning the nature of man.

(We must abandon all self-approbation, 10-11)


Nevertheless, what I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter I am compelled here to repeat once more: that whoever is utterly cast down and overwhelmed by the awareness of his calamity, poverty, nakedness, and disgrace has thus advanced farthest in knowledge of himself. For there is no danger of man's depriving himself of too much so long as he learns that in God must be recouped what he himself lacks. Yet he cannot claim for himself ever so little beyond what is rightfully his without losing himself in vain confidence and without usurping God's honor, and thus becoming guilty of monstrous sacrilege. And truly, whenever this lust invades our mind to compel us to seek out something of our own that reposes in ourselves rather than in God, let us know that this thought is suggested to us by no other counselor than him who induced our first parents to want to become "like gods, knowing good and evil" [Genesis 3:5]. If it is the devil's word that exalts man in himself, let us give no place to it unless we want to take advice from our enemy. Sweet, indeed, it is for you to have so much power of your own that you are able to rely on yourself!

But, not to be deluded by this empty confidence, let us be deterred by numerous weighty passages of Scripture that utterly humiliate us. Such are these: "Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his arm." [Jeremiah 17:5.] Again, "God's delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but he takes pleasure in those who fear him, relying upon his goodness." [Psalm 147:10-11.]

Again, "He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. He causes youths to faint and be weary, and young men to fall exhausted; but they who trust in him alone shall be strengthened." [Isaiah 40:29-31.] All these passages have this purpose: that we should not rely on any opinion of our own strength, however small it is, if we want God to be favorable toward us, Who "opposes the proud, but gives grace to the meek" [James 4:6 and1 Peter 5:5, Vg.; cf. Proverbs 3:34]. Then let these promises come to mind: "I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground" [Isaiah 44:3]. Again, "All ye who thirst come to the waters." [Isaiah 55:1.] These testify that no one is permitted to receive God's blessings unless he is consumed with the awareness of his own poverty. And we must not pass over other statements like these, such as this one of Isaiah: "The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light" [Isaiah 60:19]. Surely the Lord does not take away the brightness of the sun or moon from his servants; but because he wills alone to appear glorious in them, he calls them far away from trust even in those things which they deem most excellent.


A saying of Chrysostom's has always pleased me very much, that the foundation of our philosophy is humility. But that of Augustine pleases me even more: "When a certain rhetorician was asked what was the chief rule in eloquence, he replied, 'Delivery'; what was the second rule, 'Delivery'; what was the third rule, 'Delivery'; so if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third, and always I would answer, 'Humility.'"

But, as he elsewhere declares, Augustine does not consider it humility when a man, aware that he has some virtues, abstains from pride and arrogance; but when man truly feels that he has no refuge except in humility. "Let no man," he says, "flatter himself; of himself he is Satan. His blessing comes from God alone. For what do you have of your own but sin? Remove from yourself sin which is your own; for righteousness is of God." Again: "Why do we presume so much on ability of human nature? It is wounded, battered, troubled, lost. What we need is true confession, not false defense." Again: "When anyone realizes that in himself he is nothing and from himself he has no help, the weapons within him are broken, the wars are over. But all the weapons of impiety must be shattered, broken, and burned; you must remain unarmed, you must have no help in yourself. The weaker you are in yourself, the more readily the Lord will receive you." Thus in his interpretation of the Seventieth Psalm he forbids us to remember our own righteousness, that we may know God's righteousness; and he shows that God so commends his grace to us that we know that we are nothing. By God's mercy alone we stand, since by ourselves we are nothing but evil. At this point, then, let us not contend against God concerning our right, as if what is attributed to him were withdrawn from our well-being. As our humility is his loftiness, so the confession of our humility has a ready remedy in his mercy. Now I do not claim that man, unconvinced, should yield himself voluntarily, and that, if he has any powers, he should turn his mind from them in order that he may be subjected to true humility. But I require only that, laying aside the disease of self-love and ambition, by which he is blinded and thinks more highly of himself than he ought [cf. Galatians 6:3], he rightly recognize himself in the faithful mirror of Scripture [cf. James 1:22- 25].

(Man's natural endowments not wholly extinguished: the understanding, 12-17)


And, indeed, that common opinion which they have taken from Augustine pleases me: that the natural gifts were corrupted in man through sin, but that his supernatural gifts were stripped from him. For by the latter clause they understand the light of faith as well as righteousness, which would be sufficient to attain heavenly life and eternal bliss. Therefore, withdrawing from the Kingdom of God, he is at the same time deprived of spiritual gifts, with which he had been furnished for the hope of eternal salvation. From this it follows that he is so banished from the Kingdom of God that all qualities belonging to the blessed life of the soul have been extinguished in him, until he recovers them through the grace of regeneration. Among these are faith, love of God, charity toward neighbor, zeal for holiness and for righteousness. All these, since Christ restores them in us, are considered adventitious, and beyond nature: and for this reason we infer that they were taken away. On the other hand, soundness of mind and uprightness of heart were withdrawn at the same time. This is the corruption of the natural gifts. For even though something of understanding and judgment remains as a residue along with the will, yet we shall not call a mind whole and sound that is both weak and plunged into deep darkness. And depravity of the will is all too well known.

Since reason, therefore, by which man distinguishes between good and evil, and by which he understands and judges, is a natural gift, it could not be completely wiped out; but it was partly weakened and partly corrupted, so that its misshapen ruins appear. John speaks in this sense: "The light still shines in the darkness, but the darkness comprehends it not" [John 1:5]. In these words both facts are clearly expressed. First, in man's perverted and degenerate nature some sparks still gleam. These show him to be a rational being, differing from brute beasts, because he is endowed with understanding. Yet, secondly, they show this light choked with dense ignorance, so that it cannot come forth effectively.

Similarly the will, because it is inseparable from man's nature, did not perish, but was so bound to wicked desires that it cannot strive after the right. This is, indeed, a complete definition, but one needing a fuller explanation.

Therefore, so that the order of discussion may proceed according to our original division of man's soul into understanding and will, let us first of all examine the power of the understanding.

When we so condemn human understanding for its perpetual blindness as to leave it no perception of any object whatever, we not only go against God's Word, but also run counter to the experience of common sense. For we see implanted in human nature some sort of desire to search out the truth to which man would not at all aspire if he had not already savored it. Human understanding then possesses some power of perception, since it is by nature captivated by love of truth. The lack of this endowment in brute animals proves their nature gross and irrational. Yet this longing for truth, such as it is, languishes before it enters upon its race because it soon falls into vanity. Indeed, man's mind, because of its dullness, cannot hold to the right path, but wanders through various errors and stumbles repeatedly, as if it were groping in darkness, until it strays away and finally disappears. Thus it betrays how incapable it is of seeking and finding truth.

Then it grievously labors under another sort of vanity: often it cannot discern those things which it ought to exert itself to know. For this reason, in investigating empty and worthless things, it torments itself in its absurd curiosity, while it carelessly pays little or no attention to matters that it should particularly understand. Indeed, it scarcely ever seriously applies itself to the study of them. Secular writers habitually complain of this perversity, yet they are almost all found to have entangled themselves in it. For this reason, Solomon, through the whole of his Ecclesiastes, after recounting all those studies in which men seem to themselves to be very wise, declares them to be vain and trifling [Ecclesiastes 1:2, 14; 2:11; etc.].


Yet its efforts do not always become so worthless f79 as to have no effect, especially when it turns its attention to things below. On contrary, it is intelligent enough to taste something of things above, although it is more careless about investigating these. Nor does it carry on this latter activity with equal skill. For when the mind is borne above the level of the present life, it is especially convinced of its own frailty. Therefore, to perceive more clearly how far the mind can proceed in any matter according to the degree of its ability, we must here set forth a distinction. This, then, is the distinction: that there is one kind of understanding of earthly things; another of heavenly. I call "earthly things" those which do not pertain to God or his Kingdom, to true justice, or to the blessedness of the future life; but which have their significance and relationship with regard to the present life and are, in a sense, confined within its bounds. I call "heavenly things" the pure knowledge of God, the nature of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the Heavenly Kingdom. The first class includes government, household management, all mechanical skills, and the liberal arts. In the second are the knowledge of God and of his will, and the rule by which we conform our lives to it.

Of the first class the following ought to be said: since man is by nature a social animal, he tends through natural instinct to foster and preserve society. Consequently, we observe that there exist in all men's minds universal impressions of a certain civic fair dealing and order. Hence no man is to be found who does not understand that every sort of human organization must be regulated by laws, and who does not comprehend the principles of those laws. Hence arises that unvarying consent of all nations and of individual mortals with regard to laws. For their seeds have, without teacher or lawgiver, been implanted in all men.

I do not dwell upon the dissension and conflicts that immediately spring up. Some, like thieves and robbers, desire to overturn all law and right, to break all legal restraints, to let their lust alone masquerade as law. Others think unjust what some have sanctioned as just (an even commoner fault), and contend that what some have forbidden is praiseworthy. Such persons hate laws not because they do not know them to be good and holy; but raging with headlong lust, they fight against manifest reason. What they approve of in their understanding they hate on account of their lust. Quarrels of this latter sort do not nullify the original conception of equity. For, while men dispute among themselves about individual sections of the law, they agree on the general conception of equity. In this respect the frailty of the human mind is surely proved: even when it seems to follow the way, it limps and staggers. Yet the fact remains that some seed of political order has been implanted in all men. And this is ample proof that in the arrangement of this life no man is without the light of reason.


Then follow the arts, both liberal and manual. The power of human acuteness also appears in learning these because all of us have a certain aptitude. But although not all the arts are suitable for everyone to learn, yet it is a certain enough indication of the common energy that hardly anyone is to be found who does not manifest talent in some art. There are at hand energy and ability not only to learn but also to devise something new in each art or to perfect and polish what one has learned from a predecessor. This prompted Plato to teach wrongly that such apprehension is nothing but recollection. Hence, with good reason we are compelled to confess that its beginning is inborn in human nature.

Therefore this evidence clearly testifies to a universal apprehension of reason and understanding by nature implanted in men. Yet so universal is this good that every man ought to recognize for himself in it the peculiar grace of God. The Creator of nature himself abundantly arouses this gratitude in us when he creates imbeciles. Through them he shows the endowments that the human soul would enjoy unpervaded by his light, a light so natural to all that it is certainly a free gift of his beneficence to each! Now the discovery or systematic transmission of the arts, or the inner and more excellent knowledge of them, which is characteristic of few, is not a sufficient proof of common discernment. Yet because it is bestowed indiscriminately upon pious and impious, it is rightly counted among natural gifts.


Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God's excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn and reproach the Spirit himself. What then? Shall we deny that the truth shone upon the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us to speak reasonably? Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labor to our benefit? What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude, into which not even the pagan poets fell, for they confessed that the gods had invented philosophy, laws, and all useful arts. Those men whom Scripture [1 Corinthians 2:14] calls "natural men" were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good.


Meanwhile, we ought not to forget those most excellent benefits of the divine Spirit, which he distributes to whomever he wills, for the common good of mankind. The understanding and knowledge of Bezalel and Oholiab, needed to construct the Tabernacle, had to be instilled in them by the Spirit of God [Exodus 31:2-11; 35:30-35]. It is no wonder, then, that the knowledge of all that is most excellent in human life is said to be communicated to us through the Spirit of God. Nor is there reason for anyone to ask, What have the impious, who are utterly estranged from God, to do with his Spirit? We ought to understand the statement that the Spirit of God dwells only in believers [Romans 8:9] as referring to the Spirit of sanctification through whom we are consecrated as temples to God [1 Corinthians 3:16]. Nonetheless he fills, moves, and quickens all things by the power of the same Spirit, and does so according to the character that he bestowed upon each kind by the law of creation. But if the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance. For if we neglect God's gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloths. But lest anyone think a man truly blessed when he is credited with possessing great power to comprehend truth under the elements of this world [cf. Colossians 2:8], we should at once add that all this capacity to understand, with the understanding that follows upon it, is an unstable and transitory thing in God's sight, when a solid foundation of truth does not underlie it. For with the greatest truth Augustine teaches that as the free gifts were withdrawn from man after the Fall, so the natural ones remaining were corrupted. On this, the Master of the Sentences and the Schoolmen, as we have said, are compelled to agree with him. Not that the gifts could become defiled by themselves, seeing that they came from God. But to defiled man these gifts were no longer pure, and from them he could derive no praise at all.

17. SUMMARY OF 12-16

To sum up: We see among all mankind that reason is proper to our nature; it distinguishes us from brute beasts, just as they by possessing feeling differ from inanimate things. Now, because some are born fools or stupid, that defect does not obscure the general grace of God. Rather, we are warned by that spectacle that we ought to ascribe what is left in us to God's kindness. For if he had not spared us, our fall would have entailed the destruction of our whole nature. Some men excel in keenness; others are superior in judgment; still others have a readier wit to learn this or that art. In this variety God commends his grace to us, lest anyone should claim as his own what flowed from the sheer bounty of God. For why is one person more excellent than another? Is it not to display in common nature God's special grace which, in passing many by, declares itself bound to none? Besides this, God inspires special activities, in accordance with each man's calling. Many examples of this occur in The Book of Judges, where it is said that "the Spirit of the Lord took possession" of those men whom he had called to rule the people [Judges 6:34]. In short, in every extraordinary event there is some particular impulsion. For this reason, Saul was followed by the brave men "whose hearts God had touched" [1 Samuel 10:26]. And when Saul's consecration as king was foretold, Samuel said: "Then the Spirit of the Lord will come mightily upon you, and you shall be another man" [1 Samuel 10:6]. And this was extended to the whole course of government, as is said afterward of David: "The Spirit of the Lord came upon him from that day forward" [1 Samuel 16:13]. The same thing is taught elsewhere with respect to particular actions. Even in Homer, men are said to excel in natural ability not only as Jupiter has bestowed it upon each, but "as he leads them day by day." And surely experience shows that, when those who were once especially ingenious and skilled are struck dumb, men's minds are in God's hand and under his will, so that he rules them at every moment. For this reason it is said: "He takes understanding away from the prudent [cf. Job 12:20] and makes them wander in trackless wastes" [Job 12:24; cf. Psalm 207:40]. Still, we see in this diversity some remaining traces of the image of God, which distinguish the entire human race from the other creatures.

(But spiritual discernment is wholly lost until we are regenerated, 18-21)


We must now analyze what human reason can discern with regard to God's Kingdom and to spiritual insight. This spiritual insight consists chiefly in three things: (1) knowing God; (2) knowing his fatherly favor in our behalf, in which our salvation consists; (3) knowing how to frame our life according to the rule of his law. In the first two points - and especially in the second - the greatest geniuses are blinder than moles! Certainly I do not deny that one can read competent and apt statements about God here and there in the philosophers, but these always show a certain giddy imagination. As was stated above, the Lord indeed gave them a slight taste of his divinity that they might not hide their impiety under a cloak of ignorance. And sometimes he impelled them to make certain utterances by the confession of which they would themselves be corrected. But they saw things in such a way that their seeing did not direct them to the truth, much less enable them to attain it! They are like a traveler passing through a field at night who in a momentary lightning flash sees far and wide, but the sight vanishes so swiftly that he is plunged again into the darkness of the night before he can take even a step - let alone be directed on his way by its help. Besides, although they may chance to sprinkle their books with droplets of truth, how many monstrous lies defile them! In short, they never even sensed that assurance of God's benevolence toward us (without which man's understanding can only be filled with boundless confusion). Human reason, therefore, neither approaches, nor strives toward, nor even takes a straight aim at, this truth: to understand who the true God is or what sort of God he wishes to be toward us.


But we are drunk with the false opinion of our own insight and are thus extremely reluctant to admit that it is utterly blind and stupid in divine matters. Hence, it will be more effective, I believe, to prove this fact by Scriptural testimonies than by reasons. John very beautifully teaches it in a passage that I have previously quoted; he writes that: "Life was in God from the beginning and that life was the light of men; this light shines in the darkness, but the darkness comprehends it not" [John 1:4-5]. He shows that man's soul is so illumined by the brightness of God's light as never to be without some slight flame or at least a spark of it; but that even with this illumination it does not comprehend God. Why is this?

Because man's keenness of mind is mere blindness as far as the knowledge of God is concerned. For when the Spirit calls men "darkness," he at once denies them any ability of spiritual understanding. Therefore he declares that those believers who embrace Christ are "born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" [John l:13]. This means: Flesh is not capable of such lofty wisdom as to conceive God and what is God's, unless it be illumined by the Spirit of God. As Christ testified, the fact that Peter recognized him was a special revelation of the Father [Matthew 16:17].


If we were convinced that our nature lacks everything that our Heavenly Father bestows upon his elect through the Spirit of regeneration [cf. Titus 3:5] - a fact that should be beyond controversy - we would have here no occasion for doubt! For so speak the faithful people according to the prophet: "For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light shall we see light" [Psalm 36:9]. The apostle testifies the same when he says that "no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit" [1 Corinthians 12:3]. And John the Baptist, seeing his disciples' wonderment, exclaimed: "No one can receive anything except what is given him from above" [John 3:27]. That he understands by "gift" a special illumination, not a common endowment of nature, is evident from his complaint that the very words with which he commended Christ to his disciples availed him not. "I see," he says, "that my words have no power to imbue men's minds with divine matters, unless the Lord through his Spirit gives understanding." Even Moses, reproaching the people for their forgetfulness, nevertheless notes at the same time that one cannot become wise in God's mysteries except by his gift. He says: "Your eyes saw those signs and great wonders; but the Lord has not given you a heart to understand, or ears to hear, or eyes to see." [Deuteronomy 29:3-4, cf. Vg.] What more could he express if he called us "blocks" in our contemplation of God's works? For this reason, the Lord as a singular grace promises through the prophet he will give the Israelites a heart to know him [Jeremiah 24:7]. This doubtless means man's mind can become spiritually wise only in so far as God illumines it.

Christ also confirmed this most clearly in his own words when he said: "No one can come to me unless it be granted by my Father" [John 6:44 P.]. Why? Is he not himself the living image of the Father [cf. Colossians 1:15], wherein the whole splendor of his glory is revealed [cf. Hebrews l:3]? Therefore, he could characterize our capacity to know God in no better way than by denying that we have eyes to see his image even when it is openly exhibited before us. Why? Did not Christ descend to earth in order to reveal the Father's will to men [cf. John l:18]? And did he not faithfully carry out his mission? This is obviously so. But nothing is accomplished by preaching him if the Spirit, as our inner teacher, does not show our minds the way. Only those men, therefore, who have heard and have been taught by the Father come to him. What kind of learning and hearing is this? Surely, where the Spirit by a wonderful and singular power forms our ears to hear and our minds to understand. And Christ cites the prophecy of Isaiah to show that this is nothing new. When He promises the renewal of the church, he teaches that those who will be gathered unto salvation [Isaiah 54:7] "shall be God's disciples" [John 6:45; Isaiah 54:13]. If God is there foretelling some particular things concerning his elect, it is evident that he is not speaking of that sort of instruction which the impious and profane also share.

It therefore remains for us to understand that the way to the Kingdom of God is open only to him whose mind has been made new by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Paul, however, having expressly entered this discussion, speaks more clearly than all [1 Corinthians 1:18 ff.]. After condemning the stupidity and vanity of all human wisdom and utterly reducing it to nothing [cf. 1 Corinthians 1:13 ff.], he concludes: "The natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" [1 Corinthians 2:14]. Whom does he call "natural"? The man who depends upon the light of nature. He, I say, comprehends nothing of God's spiritual mysteries. Why is this? Is it because he neglects them out of laziness? No, even though he try, he can do nothing, for "they are spiritually discerned." What does this mean? Because these mysteries are deeply hidden from human insight, they are disclosed solely by the revelation of the Spirit. Hence, where the Spirit of God does not illumine them, they are considered folly. Previously, however, Paul had extolled above the capacity of eye, ear, and mind "what God has prepared for those who love him" [1 Corinthians 2:9]. Indeed, he had likened human wisdom to a veil that hinders the mind from seeing God. What then? The apostle declares, "God has made foolish the wisdom of this world." [1 Corinthians 1:20.] Shall we then attribute to it the keen insight by which man can penetrate to God and to the secret places of the Kingdom of Heaven? Away with such madness!


Accordingly, what Paul here denies to men, elsewhere, in prayer, he ascribes to God alone. "May God," he says, ". . . and the Father of Glory give to you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation." [Ephesians 1:17, Vg. and Comm.] Now you hear that all wisdom and revelation are God's gift. What else does he say? "Having the eyes of your mind enlightened." [Ephesians l:18a, Vg. and Comm.] Surely, if they have need of new revelation, they are blinded of themselves. There follows: "That you may know the hope to which he has called you," etc. [Ephesians 1:18b, cf. Vg. and Comm.]. He admits that men's minds are incapable of sufficient understanding to know their own calling.

Let no Pelagian babble here that God remedies this stupidity or, if you will, ignorance, when he directs man's understanding by the teaching of his Word to that which it could not have reached without guidance. For David had the Law in which was comprised all wisdom that can be desired; yet not content with it, he asks that his eyes be opened to "contemplate the mysteries of His law" [Psalm 119:18 p.]. By this expression he evidently means that the sun rises upon the earth when God's Word shines upon men; but they do not have its benefit until he who is called the "Father of lights" [James 1:17] either gives eyes or opens them. For wherever the Spirit does not cast his light, all is darkness. In this same way the apostles were properly and fully taught by the best of teachers. Yet if they had not needed the Spirit of truth to instruct their minds in this very doctrine which they had heard before [John 14:26], he would not have bidden them to wait for him [Acts 1:4]. If we confess that we lack what we seek of God, and he by promising it proves our lack of it, no one should now hesitate to confess that he is able to understand God's mysteries only in so far as he is illumined by God's grace. He who attributes any more understanding to himself is all the more blind because he does not recognize his own blindness.

(Sin is distinct from ignorance [vs. Plato], but may be occasioned by delusion, 22-25)


There remains the third aspect of spiritual insight, f96 that of knowing the rule for the right conduct of life. This we correctly call the "knowledge of the works of righteousness." The human mind sometimes seems more acute in this than in higher things. For the apostle testifies: "When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do the works of the law, they are a law to themselves... and show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their thoughts accuse them among themselves or excuse them before God's judgment" Romans 2:14-15 p.]. If the Gentiles by nature have law righteousness engraved upon their minds, we surely cannot say they are utterly blind as to the conduct of life.

There is nothing more common than for a man to be sufficiently instructed in a right standard of conduct by natural law f97 (of which the apostle is here speaking). Let us consider, however, for what purpose men have been endowed with this knowledge of the law. How far it can lead them toward the goal of reason and truth will then immediately appear. This is also clear from Paul's words, if we note their context. He had just before said that those who sinned in the law are judged through the law; they who sinned without the law perish without the law. Because it might seem absurd that the Gentiles perish without any preceding judgment, Paul immediately adds that for them conscience stands in place of law; this is sufficient reason 'for their just condemnation. The purpose of natural law, therefore, is to render man inexcusable. This would not be a bad definition: natural law is that apprehension of the conscience which distinguishes sufficiently between just and unjust, and which deprives men of the excuse of ignorance, while it proves them guilty by their own testimony. Man is so indulgent toward himself that when he commits evil he readily averts his mind, as much as he can, from the feeling of sin. This is why Plato seems to have been compelled to consider (in his Protagoras) that we sin only out of ignorance. This might have been an appropriate statement if only human hypocrisy had covered up vices with sufficient skill to prevent the mind from being recognized as evil in God's sight. The sinner tries to evade his innate power to judge between good and evil. Still, he is continually drawn back to it, and is not so much as permitted to wink at it without being forced, whether he will or not, at times to open his eyes. It is falsely said, therefore, that man sins out of ignorance alone.


Themistius more correctly teaches that the intellect is very rarely deceived in general definition or in the essence of the thing; but that it is illusory when it goes farther, that is, applies the principle to particular cases. In reply to the general question, every man will affirm that murder is evil. But he who is plotting the death of an enemy contemplates murder as something good. The adulterer will condemn adultery in general, but will privately flatter himself in his own adultery. Herein is man's ignorance: when he comes to a particular case, he forgets the general principle that he has just laid down. On this point Augustine has expressed himself beautifully in his exposition of the first verse of Psalm 57.

Themistius' rule, however, is not without exception. Sometimes the shamefulness of evil-doing presses upon the conscience so that one, imposing upon himself no false image of the good, knowingly and willingly rushes headlong into wickedness. Out of such a disposition of mind come statements like this: "I see what is better and approve it, but I follow the worse." To my mind Aristotle has made a very shrewd distinction between incontinence and intemperance: "Where incontinence reigns," he says, "the disturbed mental state or passion so deprives the mind of particular knowledge that it cannot mark the evil in its own misdeed which it generally discerns in like instances; when the perturbation subsides, repentance straightway returns. Intemperance, however, is not extinguished or shattered by the awareness of sin, but on the contrary, stubbornly persists in choosing its habitual evil."


Now when you hear of a universal judgment discriminating between good and evil, do not consider it to be sound and whole in every respect. For if men's hearts have been imbued with the ability to distinguish just from unjust, solely that they should not pretend ignorance as an excuse, it is not at all a necessary consequence that truth should be discerned in individual instances. It is more than enough if their understanding extends so far that evasion becomes impossible for them, and they, convicted by the witness of their own conscience, begin even now to tremble before God's judgment seat. And if we want to measure our reason by God's law, the pattern of perfect righteousness, we shall find in how many respects it is blind!

Surely it does not at all comply with the principal points of the First Table; such as putting our faith in God, giving due praise for his excellence and righteousness, calling upon his name, and truly keeping the Sabbath [Exodus 20:3-17]. What soul, relying upon natural perception, ever had an inkling that the lawful worship of God consists in these and like matters? For when profane men desire to worship God, even if they be called away a hundred times from their empty trifles, they always slip back into them once more. They admit, of course, that God is not pleased with sacrifices unless sincerity of intention accompany them. By this they testify that they have some notion of the spiritual worship of God, yet they at once pervert it with false devisings. For they could never be persuaded that what the law prescribes concerning worship is the truth. Shall I then say that the mind that can neither be wise of itself nor heed warnings excels in discernment?

Men have somewhat more understanding of the precepts of the Second Table [Exodus 20:12 ff.] because these are more closely concerned with the preservation of civil society among them. Yet even here one sometimes detects a failure to endure. A man of most excellent disposition finds it utterly senseless to bear an unjust and excessively imperious domination, if only he can in some way throw it off. And this is the common judgment of human reason: the mark of a servile and abject person is to bear it with patience; that of an honorable and freeborn man to shake it off. Nor do the philosophers consider the avenging of injuries to be a vice. But the Lord condemns this excessive haughtiness and enjoins upon his own people a patience disgraceful in men's eyes. But in all our keeping of the law we quite fail to take our concupiscence into account. For the natural man refuses to be led to recognize the diseases of his lusts. The light of nature is extinguished before he even enters upon this abyss. While the philosophers label the immoderate incitements of the mind as "vices," they have reference to those which are outward and manifested by grosser signs. They take no account of the evil desires that gently tickle the mind.


Just as we deservedly censured Plato above because he imputed all sins to ignorance, so also ought we to repudiate the opinion of those who suppose that there is deliberate malice and depravity in all sins. For we know all too well by experience how often we fall despite our good intention. Our reason is overwhelmed by so many forms of deceptions, is subject to so many errors, dashes against so many obstacles, is caught in so many difficulties, that it is far from directing us aright. Indeed, Paul shows us in every part of life how empty reason is in the Lord's sight when he denies "that we are sufficient of ourselves to claim something as coming from us as if it really did" [1 Corinthians 3:5]. He is not speaking of the will or the emotions; but he even takes from us the ability to think how the right doing of anything can enter our minds. Is our diligence, insight, understanding, and carefulness so completely corrupted that we can devise or prepare nothing right in God's eyes? No wonder that it seems too hard for us who grudgingly suffer ourselves to be deprived of keenness of reason, which we count the most precious gift of all! But to the Holy Spirit who "knows that all the thoughts of the wise are futile" [1 Corinthians 3:20; cf. Psalm 94:11] and who clearly declares that "every imagination of the human heart is solely evil" [Genesis 6:5; 8:21 p.] it seems most fitting. If whatever our nature conceives, instigates, undertakes, and attempts is always evil, how can that which is pleasing to God, to whom holiness and righteousness alone are acceptable, even enter our minds?

Thus we can see that the reason of our mind, wherever it may turn, is miserably subject to vanity. David was aware of this feebleness when he prayed to be given understanding to learn the Lord's commandments rightly [Psalm 119:34]. In desiring to obtain a new understanding he intimates that his own nature is insufficient. And not once, but almost ten times in a single psalm he repeats the same prayer [Psalm 119:12,18,19, 26,33,64,68,73,124,125,135,169]. By this repetition he suggests how great is the necessity that compels him to pray thus. And what David seeks for himself alone, Paul is accustomed to implore for the churches in common. "We ceased not to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of God in all spiritual wisdom and understanding in order that you may walk worthily before God," etc. [Colossians 1:9-10 p.; cf. Philippians 1:9.] We should remember, however, that whenever he represents this thing as a benefit from God he bears witness at the same time that it has not been placed within man's ability. But Augustine so recognizes this inability of the reason to understand the things of God that he deems the grace of illumination no less necessary for our minds than the light of the sun for our eyes. Not content with this, he adds the correction that we ourselves open our eyes to behold the light, but the eyes of the mind, unless the Lord open them, remain closed. f105 Nor does Scripture teach that our minds are illumined only on one day and that they may thereafter see of themselves. For what I have just quoted from Paul has reference to continuing progress and increase. David has aptly expressed it in these words: "With my whole heart I have sought thee; let me not wander from thy commandments!" [Psalm 119:10]. Although he had been reborn and had advanced to no mean extent in true godliness, he still confesses that he needs continual direction at every moment, lest he decline from the knowledge with which he has been endowed. Therefore he prays elsewhere that a right spirit, lost by his own fault, be restored [Psalm 51:10]. For it is the part of the same God to restore that which he had given at the beginning, but which had been taken away from us for a time.

(Man's inability to will the good, 26-27)


Now we must examine the will, f106 upon which freedom of decision especially depends; for we have already seen that choice belongs to the sphere of the will rather than to that of the understanding. To begin with, the philosophers teach that all things seek good through a natural instinct, and this view is received with general consent. But that we may not suppose this doctrine to have anything to do with the uprightness of the human will, let us observe that the power of free choice is not to be sought in such an appetite, which arises from inclination of nature rather than from deliberation of mind. Even the Schoolmen admit that free will is active only when the reason considers alternative possibilities. By this they mean that the object of the appetite must be amenable to choice, and deliberation must go before to open the way to choice. And actually, if you consider the character of this natural desire of good in man, you will find that he has it in common with animals. For they also desire their own well-being; and when some sort of good that can move their sense appears, they follow it. But man does not choose by reason and pursue with zeal what is truly good for himself according to the excellence of his immortal nature; nor does he use his reason in deliberation or bend his mind to it. Rather, like an animal he follows the inclination of his nature, without reason, without deliberation. Therefore whether or not man is impelled to seek after good by an impulse of nature has no bearing upon freedom of the will. This instead is required: that he discern good by right reason; that knowing it he choose it; that having chosen it he follow it.

That no reader may remain in doubt, we must be warned of a double misinterpretation. For "appetite" here signifies not an impulse of the will itself but rather an inclination of nature; and "good" refers not to virtue or justice but to condition, as when things go well with man. To sum up, much as man desires to follow what is good, still he does not follow it. There is no man to whom eternal blessedness is not pleasing, yet no man aspires to it except by the impulsion of the Holy Spirit. The desire for well-being natural to men no more proves freedom of the will than the tendency of metals and stones toward perfection of their essence proves it in them. This being so, we must now examine whether in other respects the will is so deeply vitiated and corrupted in its every part that it can beget nothing but evil; or whether it retains any portion unimpaired, from which good desires may be born.


Those who attribute to God's first grace the fact that we effectually will, seem to imply, on the other hand, that there is a faculty in the soul voluntarily to aspire to good, but one too feeble to be able to come forth into firm intention, or to arouse effort. There is no doubt that this opinion, taken from Origen and certain other ancient writers, was commonly held by the Schoolmen: they usually consider man in "mere nature," as they phrase it. As such, man is described in the apostle's words: "For I do not do the good I will, but the evil I do not will is what I do. It lies in my power to will, but I find myself unable to accomplish" [Romans 7:19,18, cf. Vg.]. But they wrongly pervert the whole argument that Paul is pursuing here. For he is discussing the Christian struggle (more briefly touched in Galatians [Galatians 5:17]), which believers constantly feel in themselves in the conflict between flesh and spirit. But the Spirit comes, not from nature, but from regeneration. Moreover, it is clear that the apostle is speaking of these regenerated, because when he had said that no good dwelt in him, he adds the explanation that he is referring to his flesh [Romans 7:18]. Accordingly, he declares that it is not he who does evil, but sin dwelling in him. [Romans 7:20.] What does he mean by this correction: "In me, that is, in my flesh" [Romans 7:18]? It is as if he were speaking in this way: "Good does not dwell in me of myself, for nothing good is to be found in my flesh." Hence follows that form of an excuse: "I myself do not do evil, but sin that dwells in me" [Romans 7:20]. This excuse applies only to the regenerate who tend toward good with the chief part of their soul. Now the conclusion appended clearly explains this whole matter: "For I delight in the law... according to the inner man, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind" [Romans 7:22-23]. Who would have such strife in himself but a man who, regenerated by the Spirit of God, bears the remains of his flesh about with him? Therefore, Augustine, although at one time he had thought that passage to be concerned with man's nature, later retracted his interpretation as false and inappropriate. Yet if we hold the view that men have, apart from grace, some impulses (however puny) toward good, what shall we reply to the apostle who even denies that we are capable of conceiving anything [2 Corinthians 3:5]? What shall we reply to the Lord, who through Moses declares that every imagination of man's heart is only evil [Genesis 8:21]? Since they have stumbled in their false interpretation of a single passage, there is no reason for us to tarry over their view. Rather let us value Christ's saying: "Every one who commits sin is a slave to sin" [John 8:34]. We are all sinners by nature; therefore we are held under the yoke of sin. But if the whole man lies under the power of sin, surely it is necessary that the will, which is its chief seat, be restrained by the stoutest bonds. Paul's saying would not make sense, that "it is God who is at work to will in us" [Philippians 2:13 p.], if any will preceded the grace of the Spirit.

Away then with all that "preparation" which many babble about! For even if believers sometimes ask that their hearts be conformed to obedience to God's law, as David in a number of passages does, yet we must also note that this desire to pray comes from God.

This we may infer from David's words. When he desires that a clean heart be created in himself [Psalm 51:10], surely he does not credit himself with the beginning of its creation. For this reason we ought rather to value Augustine's saying: "God has anticipated you in all things; now do you yourself - while you may - anticipate his wrath. How? Confess that you have all these things from God: whatever good you have is from him; whatever evil, from yourself." And a little later, "Nothing is ours but sin."