To expand my thoughts at the end of yesterday’s post about the slow-moving nature of worldviews, I thought I’d post a piece I wrote a few years ago after reading a chapter called “Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner” in A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards. It’s a sobering reminder of our limitations as human beings in applying revealed truth to our practices:
Even as Edwards argued against the slave trade, saying it was wrong because we’re all of the same human race, made by the same Maker in His image, and we ought not steal human beings and tear them away from their families, nor should we profit from others who do so—even as he argued this, Edwards continued to own slaves.
It’s a scary thought that a man who knew God’s word far better than I do and who spent far more time in prayer, study, and meditation than I do was blinded enough by his own sin and culture not to see a sin that is now glaringly obvious to us—that a man of such incisive and precise thinking could not see that he condemned himself with his own arguments against the slave trade.
His son, who was able to follow the logic of Edwards’s arguments and the implications of his theology to the end, argued eloquently against slavery, not just the trade. But it took those of that next generation to finally work their way completely out of the blinders of cultural complacency.
It’s difficult to see clearly and then fight against a sin you’re already participating in. How much more so if your culture condones it! Our sin blinds us and distorts our perception (a frightening reality that ought to make us more careful about giving into temptation). Edwards had slaves, so he was not able to see the wrongness of it, and while he was ahead of his time morally in many ways, including in his arguments against the slave trade, his treatment of his slaves, and his inclusion of slaves as members of his church, we can see now how far he was from God’s standard of perfect righteousness.
If this doesn’t point out the need of all of us for a savior, I don’t know what does! We are all desperately in the “sinner” category (a category which includes everyone but God) in ways of which we haven't even a clue. Edwards fought so hard for holiness in himself and mastery over his sin, and people around him would have considered him a very good man. Some who misunderstood the gospel probably thought he was good enough to get to heaven based on his works. But they could not even see the sin of slavery.
In the same way, as best as we try to conquer our own sin, there will be sins in our lives that we will never even recognize. This is a humbling thought to which we are forced to respond like Paul:
Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!... Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…. For what the Law could not do [i.e., make us righteous], weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.