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Edwards on the gravity of depravity

March 23, 2008

In an age that collectively denies original sin,* I find I often need my imagination provoked to recall its perniciousness. I do not want merely to know that sin is bad, I want my affections to feel its weight. Jonathan Edwards provides a good response to those who would say that mankind is good, as their virtuous actions outnumber their sin, and so doing helps us grasp our heinous our iniquities are before God.

Therefore how absurd must it be for Christians to object, against the depravity of man’s nature, a greater number of innocent and kind actions, than of crimes; and to talk of a prevailing innocency, good nature, industry and cheerfulness of the greater part of mankind? Infinitely more absurd, than it would be to insist that the domestic of a prince was not a bad servant, because though sometimes be contemned and affronted his master to a great degree, yet he did not spit in his master’s face so often as he performed acts of service; or, than it would be to affirm, that his spouse was a good wife to him, because, although she committed adultery, and that with the slaves and scoundrels sometimes, yet she did not do this so often as she did the duties of a wife. These notions would be absurd, because the crimes are too heinous to be atoned for, by many honest actions of the servant or spouse of the prince; there being a vast disproportion between the merit of the one, and the ill-desert of the other: but in no measure so great, nay infinitely less than that between the demerit of our offenses against God and the value of our acts of obedience. (Original Sin, 1.3; Yale ed. 133)


*I am not sure how many evangelicals deny original sin these days, but if silence is any way of telling, it seems that the doctrine has fallen on hard times. Perhaps contemporary evangelicals struggle, as have many before them, with mankind being condemned for something Adam did. But, assuming they so cavil at our being condemned for the guilt of Adam’s first sin, it seems strange that contemporary evangelical articulations of the doctrine of soteriology at the same time are quite eager to impute to mankind (and Christians) the guilt for the sins of racial animosity and ecological damage.

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