The Personal Narrative of Jonathan Edwards - Part XV
One section in Edwards’ Personal Narrative has proved troubling to some Christians. They find Edwards’ description of his own sinfulness to be excessively introspective, unduly pessimistic, and downright morbid. I’ve heard it said that we may justifiably view ourselves in this way before our conversion, but once we have been born again, justified and forgiven, being as we are now new creatures in Christ, our perspective should take on a decidedly more positive tone.
Perhaps I should let you read it for yourself, after which I’ll have a few comments.
“Often, since I lived in this town, I have had very affecting views of my own sinfulness and vileness; very frequently to such a degree as to hold me in a kind of loud weeping, sometimes for a considerable time together; so that I have often been forced to shut myself up. I have had a vastly greater sense of my own wickedness, and the badness of my heart, than ever I had before my conversion. It has often appeared to me, that if God should mark iniquity against me, I should appear the very worst of all mankind; of all that have been, since the beginning of the world to this time; and that I should have by far the lowest place in hell. When others, that have come to talk with me about their soul concerns, have expressed the sense they have had of their own wickedness, by saying that it seemed to them, that they were as bad as the devil himself; I thought their expressions seemed exceeding faint and feeble, to represent my wickedness.
My wickedness, as I am in myself, has long appeared to me perfectly ineffable, and swallowing up all thought and imagination; like an infinite deluge, or mountain over my head. I know not how to express better, what my sins appear to me to be, than by heaping infinite upon infinite, and multiplying infinite by infinite. Very often, for these many years, these expressions are in my mind, and in my mouth, ‘Infinite upon infinite! Infinite upon infinite!’ When I look into my heart, and take a view of my wickedness, it looks like an abyss infinitely deeper than hell. And it appears to me, that were it not for free grace, exalted and raised up to the infinite height of all the fullness and glory of the great Jehovah, and the arm of his power and grace stretched forth in all the majesty of his power, and in all the glory of his sovereignty, I should appear sunk down in my sins below hell itself; far beyond the sight of every thing, but the eye of sovereign grace, that can pierce even down to such a depth. And yet it seems to me, that my conviction of sin is exceeding small, and faint; it is enough to amaze me, that I have no more sense of my sin. I know certainly, that I have very little sense of my sinfulness. When I have had turns of weeping and crying for my sins I thought I knew at the time, that my repentance was nothing to my sin.
I have greatly longed of late, for a broken heart, and to lie low before God; and, when I ask for humility, I cannot bear the thoughts of being no more humble than other Christians. It seems to me, that though their degrees of humility may be suitable for them, yet it would be a vile self-exaltation in me, not to be the lowest in humility of all mankind. Others speak of their longing to be ‘humbled to the dust;’ that may be a proper expression for them, but I always think of myself, that I ought, and it is an expression that has long been natural for me to use in prayer, ‘to lie infinitely low before God.’ And it is affecting to think, how ignorant I was, when a young Christian, of the bottomless, infinite depths of wickedness, pride, hypocrisy and deceit, left in my heart.”
Does Edwards exaggerate his own sinfulness? Was he the victim of an overly-sensitive conscience? From our perspective, yes. From his, no. From all we know of his life, and we know a great deal, he was by common consensus one of the most godly men who ever lived. I don’t think Edwards’ conclusion concerning himself is the result of some quantitative comparative analysis, as if he literally measured his wickedness against that of all others. Yes, there are degrees of sin and evil among men. Some are more wicked than others. But Edwards, I suggest, is concerned only with how far short he falls from God’s standard, not that of some other human.
Surely his sense of personal depravity is the fruit of seeing himself over against the infinite holiness of God. As far he was concerned, the only reasonable conclusion was that he was “the very worst” of all men, deserving of “the lowest place in hell.” May I be so bold to suggest that if you and I have never come to a similar conclusion we have spent too much time comparing ourselves to one another rather than looking at our souls in the light of transcendent righteousness.
So what accounts for this vivid sense of personal depravity and wickedness? I suggest it comes from his knowledge of God. Perhaps we don’t see ourselves this way because we don’t see God at all. Or if we do see him, we see little of his holiness and the magnitude of his purity and the measureless sweep of his righteousness and the unimaginable depths of his integrity and the commitment of his will to the vindication of truth and goodness. For if we knew God as he is, what so easily and often passes for “minor indiscretions” in us would suddenly appear appallingly revolting and horrendously evil.
If you stand in the darkness, depravity is difficult to see. But when you walk in the light of his glory, every spot and every stain is magnified beyond words. Such is why Edwards felt what we don’t. Might it also be that we’ve become so accustomed to our sin, indeed, comfortable with it, that its presence in our souls arouses little more than a whimper of conviction?
In our therapeutic, anthropocentric world, many would say to this Puritan: “Ease up, Jon! Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re not nearly as bad as you think you are. You just need a little help with your self-image.” I can only conclude that Edwards’ description is not the result of what we today would call “low self esteem,” but comes from a biblically-informed “high God esteem”!
Two more observations, and then I’m finished.
First, could this also be why he had such a profound view of hell and its eternal torments and the justice of unending punishment? Resistance to the concept of hell is the direct result of ignorance of God. With the knowledge of God comes the awareness of sin. And with the awareness of sin, hell seems not so unreasonable. We minimize God and thus find the notion of hell unjust.
Second, we must remember that this sense of personal depravity was far from paralyzing to Edwards. It didn’t cripple his determination to walk in purity. He refused to wallow in the reality of his own moral corruption or to use it as an excuse to give up on God or to justify a life given to passivity or, worse still, perversion. How so, you ask? Because the only thing that stood forth in his mind with greater clarity and power than the reality of sin was the vision of God’s grace, unending love and redemptive mercy in Christ Jesus. Hear him again: “Were it not for free grace, exalted and raised up to the infinite height of all the fullness and glory of the great Jehovah, and the arm of his power and grace stretched forth in all the majesty of his power, and in all the glory of his sovereignty, I should appear sunk down in my sins below hell itself; far beyond the sight of every thing, but the eye of sovereign grace, that can pierce even down to such a depth.”
Ah! The “eye of sovereign grace”! It peers into the depths of the lowest hell and elevates the sunken, sinful soul to heights of joy and freedom and forgiveness.