The Nature and Capacity of Man’s Will

Nature and Capacity of Mans Will

Anthony Burgess
Treatise on Original Sin
Part 3, Chapter 4, Sections 1-2.


The will is the proper subject and seat of all our sin.

Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13).

The original pollution of the understanding, conscience, and memory hath been largely and fully discovered, we now proceed to the other part or power of the rational soul, which is the will. That is in the soul like the primum mobile in the Heavens, that doth carry all the inferior orbs away in its own motion, or like the fire among the elements that doth assimilate everything else to itself. This is the whole of a man. A man is not what he knoweth, or what he remembereth, but what he willeth. The understanding is but as a counselor. The will is as the Queen sitting upon its throne, exercising its dominion over the other parts of the soul. The will is the proper subject and seat of all our sin, and if there could be a Summum malum [greatest evil], as there is a Summum bonum [greatest good], this would be in the will. Seeing therefore that our will is the master power of the soul, and is to that what the heart is to the body, the principle of all motion and action, the more we find this will thoroughly infected with sin, the greater will our misery appear. Neither mayest thou fear that the doctrinal discovery of that poisoned fountain in thee and the representation of thy soulness and loath somness upon thee may discourage thee, but hereby thou wilt be brought to loath thyself, and admire the riches of grace in Christ, which shall pardon and glorify such a noisome wretch as thou art by nature. Indeed Lorinus relateth of Ptolemy King of Egypt, that he banished one Hegesius, a Philosopher and eloquent Orator, because he did so pathetically and sensibly declaim upon the miseries of man’s life, that many were thereby cast into such grief, that they made away themselves. But our end in discovering of this universal leprosy of sin upon us by nature is to bring us into an holy despair of ourselves, a renouncing of our righteousness, that so Christ may be all in all.

Come we then to make inquiry into the original pollution of our will, which is a subject of very large territories. The disputes about it are voluminous, but I shall be as brief as the nature of this truth will permit. Concerning the will, we may consider the nature of it absolutely, in its proper works and operations, or relatively in its state, as free or enslaved. I shall treat of both, because herein original sin hath put forth itself more than in any other parts of the soul.

First, I shall begin with the will absolutely considered, as it is the great and mighty part of the soul, and that from this Text [John 1:13], which because of the different thoughts of learned interpreters, doth deserve a diligent explication.

Exegesis of John 1:12-13.

For the coherence of it, you may take notice of the sad and bitter event described by the Evangelist, of Christ’s coming as light into the world. Though he came to his own, and that as a Physician to the sick, as a Saviour to such who were lost, yet his own received him not. Now lest it might be thought this rejection of Christ was universal, he addeth that some did receive him and declareth the unspeakable benefit and privilege vouchsafed to such. “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:12). So that in the words we may take notice,

1. Of the Subject, who are thus honored and highly blessed by Christ, “Such as received him,” and what this is, is explained, namely such who “believe on his name.” In this is comprehended all our Evangelical Duty, and that both inwardly and outwardly, only faith is expressed, because this is virtually all. This is the seed and the root, the soul and life, the salt that seasoneth the whole man.

2. We have the Privilege or Benefit, which is said to be the right or dignity of being the sons of God, for so the word exousia is to be understood, and therefore Popish Disputes about the power of free-will in holy things from this place is wholly impertinent, only the difficulty is,

Question. How they who believe in Christ can be said to have this privilege given them of Sonship, seeing that they could not believe unless they were first born of God, and so the sons of God?

Answer. Some therefore do understand this Sonship in respect of that future glory, which in Scripture is sometimes called Adoption (c.f. 1 John 3:1). Then it will properly appear that we are sons of God. But we may well enough understand it of our Adoption and Sonship even in this life, and this is said to be obtained by faith, because in our sense and feeling there must be believing before we come to know this privilege doth belong to us. Or else though faith and Sonship be together in time, yet in order of nature one precedeth the other.

Thus we have the Subject and the Privilege. But in the next place, we have the Description of the efficient cause, for it was not their own power and freewill that made them believe. Therefore the efficient cause is set down, first Negatively, and then Positively. Negatively, by removing those false causes that men might imagine. And we have a three-fold enumeration of them, “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man” (John 1:13).

Divers interpreters go divers ways, though much to the same sense: Some think the Evangelist by blood doth not in the general mean natural generation, and then afterward distribute it into two particulars, not of “the will of the flesh,” that is of the woman, “nor of the will of man,” that is not of the man. Others (supposing the general) interpret the distribution thus: Not of “the will of the flesh,” that is not naturally; “Nor by the will of man,” that is, not by human adoption, for so some are made legal sons amongst man. Others think all these enumerations are but to signify one thing, and therefore the opposition to all is God. But we may not think the Holy Ghost doth so industriously reckon up these several ways, but that some special thing is intended by every one. Although, as Erasmus observeth, the emphatic article is not in the original. By “blood” therefore we understand any dignity or excellency of birth, it’s bloods in the plural number, either by an enallage, and so an Hebraism, as Maldenate [says], or else because of the long succession by birth. And this may well oppose the carnal opinion reigning both with Jew and Gentile, for all know how the Jew boasted in his birth, because he was the seed of Abraham, therefore he thought the favor of God necessarily annexed to him. And for the Gentile, What a vanity and sinful humor is in persons to be proud of their birth, that they come of noble parents? For, although this be an outward civil dignity amongst men, yet it maketh nothing at all to their spiritual dignity, yea many times hindereth it, according to that observation, Heroum filii noxae [criminal sons of the heroes]. Regeneration then doth not come according to such civil and political respects.

Not of the will of the flesh” that is, not of the natural will and choice of the flesh, he hath no power or ability in him so much as to will a better condition than the flesh is in.

Lastly, “Nor of the will of man” that is, not by the will of man, though perfected and adorned with many acquired perfections. Not by the will of a Plato, or an Aristotle, or a Seneca. So that here is a two-fold will denied from efficacy in grace, the will considered in its natural abilities, or in its acquired abilities. Thus 2 Peter 1:21, the prophesy in old time is said not to come by the will of man, but the will of God. The will of man is there supposed to be in some raised and eminent ability above what it naturally hath, and therefore opposed to the will of God in a more peculiar and extraordinary manner putting forth itself. Thus we have all false causes removed, and the true one affirmed, which is God himself.

So that this Text doth plainly triumph over all the proud opinions of Pelagians, Socinians, Arminians, and Papists, who either give whole or part of the work of conversion to the will of man. For the Evangelist is very diligent to exclude the will from any efficiency herein, under any respect whatsoever. Observe,

The will of every man is naturally so polluted that it cannot produce or cause our regeneration. It is not by the will of the flesh, or by the will of man, that we are born again.


Propositions concerning the Nature of the Will.

Before we come to launch into this ocean of wormwood and gall (for the polluted will polluteth all other things), let us say something to the nature of the will, not enlarging ourselves either as Philosophers or Divines do in this point, but select only what is fit for our purpose.

1. Apprehensive vs. Appetitive Power.

First, God hath appointed and ordered in nature that every apprehensive power should have an appetitive power proportionable thereunto. The apprehensive being like the eye to discern and discover the object, the appetitive like the hand to embrace it. Thus the Angels, as they have an understanding to know things, so they have a will to desire them. In beasts there is a sensitive apprehension by imagination, and a sensitive appetite accordingly. Now because man in his soul is like an Angel, and in his body communicateth with beasts, therefore he hath both a two-fold apprehension, intellectual and sensitive, understanding and imagination; and also a two-fold appetite, a rational one, which is the will, and a sensitive one, which is the sensitive appetite in a man, wherein the passions and affections are seated.

The will then is in a man his rational appetite, following the proposition and manifestation of the understanding. For if a man did know what was good, or what is evil, and no appetite to embrace the one or avoid the other, he would be no better than a stone or a statue for all his reason. We see then why God hath placed such a power in the soul as the will is. It is that the good which the understanding manifesteth may be embraced and entertained, and the evil it doth discover may be shunned. Whether this will be distinct really from the soul itself and from the understanding is a Philosophical dispute and will not tend to your edification.

2. The Will is the Rational Appetite in Man.

Secondly, Though it be the appetite in a man, yet it is a rational appetite, it is subjected in the rational soul. There is a three-fold appetite:

1. Natural, which is in the motion of inanimate things, as in the stone to descend downwards. This is called an appetite, though properly it is not so, because it doth not follow knowledge, but is consequent upon the form immediately.

2. There is the sensitive appetite, which moveth upon the knowledge of sense, and this is both in beasts, and also in men. Yea naturally we live and desire, even all the motions of the soul are according to sense, and so in this respect man is become like the brute beast: But of this afterward.

3. There is the rational appetite, and that is called the will, and this is in man only. A beast hath not properly any will, no more than he hath understanding, so that the will of a man is a noble and high faculty in him, appointed to follow reason, and to be regulated by it in all things. Therefore Augustine saith, Voluntas tantum est in bonis, The will is only in good things. If a man love evil or desire evil, this is not voluntas (saith he) but cupiditas, It doth not deserve the name of the will, but of lust. But common speech is otherwise, there is a bad will, a corrupted will as well as a good will, only when we say the will is a rational appetite, that must not be understood formaliter [formally], but participativè [by participation] as they say. That is, the will doth not know, doth not reason, but is directed thereby, therefore it is called coeca potentia, a blind power.

And if you say it is blind, How then can it see the good proposed? I answer, it followeth the good proposed, not because it knoweth it, but because of its essential subordination to the understanding. Hence it is that to have a good will, it is so requisite to have a sound mind. Ignorant and blind minds are always accompanied with corrupt and polluted wills. There cannot be a sanctified will where there is not an enlightened mind. This should make the ignorant and stupid to tremble in their estate they live in. This should make you prize knowledge above gold and pearls, as also to wait upon the Ministry with diligence, seeing that by knowledge the will cometh to be made holy.

3. The Nobility and Excellency of the Will.

Fourthly, we are the more to inform ourselves about its depravity, by how much the more noble and excellent it is. It is hotly disputed between the two factions of Thomists and Scotists which is the more excellent faculty, the understanding or the will. The Thomists are for the understanding, the Scotists for the will. But these two cannot absolutely and in every respect be commended before each other, only in respect of power and efficacy, the will is more eminent, for the understanding itself in respect of its exercise is subject to the dominion of the will, and the will also is properly the original and fountain of all good or evil in a man. For though the understanding hath actual sinfulness, and the affections, yet this is because of the will either directly or indirectly. So that to an actual deliberate sin there is required some kind of voluntariness, either expressly or interpretatively, either in se or in causâ. Original sin (you heard) was voluntary in some sense, although we need not judge of that by Aristotle’s rules, who was ignorant of any such thing. Therefore Julian the Pelagian triumphed in his Aristotelian Philosophy against original sin, despising his Ecclesiastical Judges as not knowing Aristotle’s Categories, as if (saith Augustine) he desired a Synod of Peripatetics rather than Judges in the Church. But though original sin, with the indeliberate motions thereof, have not the actual personal will of a man, yet all other sins have, so that the pollution of the will is in effect the pollution of the whole man. Hence

4. The difference between the understanding and the will in relation to their objects.

In the fifth place, There is this difference between the understanding and the will in relation to its objects. The understanding doth receive the species of the object to itself, not the objects themselves; and therefore when we know or understand evil as an object, this doth not defile the understanding, but is a perfection of it. Thus God knoweth all the evil committed in the world, yet his knowledge is not polluted thereby, Scire malum, non est malum [it is not evil to know evil]. But the will that goeth out to the objects as they are in themselves, and thereby loving of them, is what the object is. Thus if we will sin it is sin, and not if we know sin, because the will goeth out to a sinful object as it is in itself. So that above all keepings we are to keep the will, for what that is placed upon, it presently becomes like it. If thou lovest the world, or earth, thou art earth, thou art of the world.

Hence all the while sin is kept out from the will, though it be in thy mind, though it be by suggestion to thee, yet because there is no consent, it is not thy sin but thy misery. I speak not of the motus principatus [beginning motions; c.f. WCF 6.5, WLC 147], which are antecedent to our will, but of suggestions only offered from without. But when the will yieldeth when that consents, it becometh thy evil immediately, as poison while it is in the remote parts of the body may not kill, but when it striketh to the heart, then it is mortal. Thus sin in temptation, sin in suggestion doth not destroy till the will receive it, so great a matter is it to look to this power of the soul. For

5. The Will is the Universal Appetite of the Whole Man.

In the sixth place, Because of this rule and dominion the will hath therefore it is called the universal appetite of the whole man. We see all the other powers of the soul have their peculiar and proper inclination: The eye to see, the ear to hear, the understanding to know, but the will is to will the good for the whole person. Therefore it is not limited to one good object more than another, but bonum in communi, the good in general is the object of it, so that the will is the universal appetite and inclination of the whole man. Now if this great wheel that moveth all be irregular and out of order, what good can be expected in the less wheels? If the foundation be destroyed, how can the building be established? Let then your attention, your thoughts and affections be greatly quickened while we anatomize all the evil of the will. This is the most grievous and most dreadful instance of all the pollution original sin infecteth us with.

6. The “Will” May be Understood in Multiple Senses.

In the 7th place, When we speak of the pollution of the will, The will may be taken ambiguously. For sometimes thereby is denoted the power to will, sometimes again the very act of willing, and sometimes the object that we do will is often called our will.

Thus when the Scripture speaketh of God’s will, it doth sometimes mean the object willed, and this is often called God’s will, sometimes the act of willing, thus (if God will), and sometimes that power whereby he doth will. Not that there is Potenis volendi [the power to will] properly in God, for all power is Perfectibilis per actum [complete by action], whereas everything in God is actum purus [pure act], only we speak so of God according to our capacity. Some indeed have questioned, Whether we may properly attribute the word [will] to God, or metaphorically only? But seeing that simply to will is Perfectio simpliciter simplex, an absolute and most simple perfection, therefore it is not to be denied to God. For as the Psalmist saith [Ps. 94:9-10], He that maketh man know, shall not he know? Thus he that maketh man will, shall not he will?

Only will is not in God as it is in man, for man’s will is carried out to a good desired or not enjoyed. In our will there is, convenientia and indigentia. First, a convenience, or suitableness between the faculty and the object, and therefore we will it. And then there is an indigence or want of it. Now God’s will being the same with his Essence, is absolutely perfect and sufficient, but the created will in man is otherwise. And this will since man’s Fall, whether taken for the power to will, or the act of willing, or the object willed, is altogether a corrupt and a diseased will, there is nothing sound or good in it. Although our purpose is to speak of the will as a power in the soul, yet prone to put itself immediately into actings.

7. Obedience to God is Seated Properly in the Will.

In the eighth place, The will having this great dominion over the whole soul, and being the universal appetite of a man, therefore it is that in it is seated obedience or disobedience to God. Obedience or disobedience to God is not properly, at least not primarily or radically, in any part but in the will. It is true, all the other parts of the soul in regeneration are made holy and sanctified, and thereby in their way conformable to the will of God, yet obedience and disobedience are primarily acts of the will. So that as the will is qualified, so is a man said to be obedient to God. A good will is the good tree that maketh the fruit good, and a bad will is the bad tree that maketh the fruit bad. As then all the evil or good of a tree cometh from the root, so doth all the evil or good of a man come from his will. For till this be sanctified, till this be renewed, nothing can be good in a man. Therefore if you examine what is the cause of all the impiety, and all the wickedness that most commit, it is because their wills are corrupt, their wills are rebellious.

Their minds, their consciences many times, tell them they ought to do otherwise, only their wills are stubborn and contumacious, John 5:40. “Ye will not come unto me that ye may have life.” So in the Parable, Mat. 21:29, when the son was commanded to go and work in the vineyard, he saith, “I will not.” It is then the will of man that is the desperate and implacable enemy to all the things of God. Men may delude themselves with reasons and fair glosses, but it is their will, and only their unsanctified will, that maketh them continue in such opposition to God. Now the will is therefore the root of all obedience, of disobedience in a man, because that is like the Centurion in a man’s soul, whatsoever it biddeth this, or that power of the soul do, it doth. What it bids the mind think, it thinketh. What it bids love to love, it loveth. What it bids the hand move to, it moveth to.

For there are two acts of the will wherein it demonstrateth its dominion: The Elicit acts, and the Imperative. Elicit are those which the will doth immediately produce, as election, intention, consent, etc. and herein it hath full power, yet so as that it’s in subordination to God. The Imperative acts are those which are produced by other parts of a man, yet from the command of the will. So when we move our hands or our feet, these are imperative acts of the will. Thus when we turn our mind from one object and place it upon another, this is an imperative act of the will. The affections also are in some measure under the command of the will, but not so absolutely as the body and the motions thereof are. By which you see that all things in a man are reduced to his will, and therefore the more active and universal this is, the greater is the defilement thereof.

8. The Will Prior to and After the Fall.

In the ninth place, The will in regard of its constitution at first hath for its object that which is good. And in the state of integrity it was always a true real good, but in this state of revolt from God, the will cannot indeed be carried out to anything but what is good, only it’s but an apparent good, a disguised good, it is a true and real evil. As the object of the understanding is truth, and it cannot give its assent to that which doth appear to be false, so the object of the will is good. Neither can the will have any motion or tendency to any object which hath not the color (at least) of some good. As the Devil appeared in Samuel’s clothes, and so was believed to be Samuel [1 Sam. 28], thus doth all the evil in the world, which doth at any time seduce and draw the will aside, it hath the mantle and covering of good. It being impossible that the will should desire evil as it is evil.

It is true, some deny, that bonus [good] is the object, adequate, and general of the will; but they say, good is the object of the will, as it is prosequntiva, prosecuting and desiring; but malus [bad] is the object of the will, as it is persequntiva and aversiva, as it doth repel and dislike, so evil is the object of the will. For displicence [displeasure] and hatred are acts of the will, and the objects of these is evil. But we speak of the will now as it is a rational desiring appetite, satisfying itself with love of some object, and if this be not good, either real or apparent, the will can no more tend to it, than the eye to music, or the ear to colors. Only by original sin, herein ariseth our unspeakable misery, that the good which the will doth now embrace, is only a counterfeit specious gilded good, no true real good. They are but seeming goods, and real evils. Like the glow-worm that shineth in the night and is nothing but an earthly worm. Like a rotten post or tree, that in the night seemeth to be glorious, but in the day we know what it is. Thus if we could take off the visor, the painting from those objects, we place our wills upon, we shall see nothing but damnable guilt, and real abominable evils, which will at last damn our souls. Per falsa mala itur ad vera bona, per falsa bona itur ad vera mala, by that which is speciously good, we come indeed to that which is truly evil, and by that which is apparently evil, we come to what is substantially good.

9. Proportionality of the Affections and the Passions.

Lastly, In the will (according to those that are exercised in School Divinity) We are to conceive in it suitable and proportionable affections to those we call passions in the sensitive part. Thus in the will (as it is a rational appetite) there are love, joy, desire, fear and hatred. This is plain, because in Angels there are such affections; so also in the soul separated there is love and joy, earnest desire for the coming of Christ, and its reunion to the body. By which it appeareth evidently that besides those passions in a man, which work by a corporal transmutation, there are these spiritual and immaterial affections, or rather actions and operations of the will. So that the will loveth, the will rejoiceth, the will desireth, etc. This is the more to be attended unto, because hereby this pollution of original sin will appear the more extensive and diffusive. The love of the will, the desire of the will, the joy of the will are become abominable.


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