Here is the lingering question from yesterday’s blog –

Where – and how – do we draw the lines of “moral responsibility” when discussing behaviors which may or may not be caused by internal conditions over which we may or may not have complete control?

I promised yesterday that I would try to see how America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards, would deal with this issue.

At first glance, this might seem anachronistically impossible.  After all, Edwards never wrote anything about the March 19, 2012, issue of Time magazine or about the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (which were part of the discussion yesterday).  Recognition of the potential anachronism involved here is appropriate; all too often, we try to make historical figures answer questions which never occurred in their worlds and we sometimes thereby twist the ideas of those figures inappropriately.

In this case, however, what we are proposing is not impossible because Edwards did wrestle with the issue of moral accountability and he did so specifically in the context of forces which some did regard as “controlling” the individual in question.  Edwards codified the results of this wrestling in his treatise on The Freedom of the Will which some Edwards scholars (John Gerstner among them) regard as his finest written document.  

Here are two simplified (but I really believe NOT simplistic) themes of Freedom

  1. Unless we are physically constrained to act or not to act in a given way, we are “free” to do what we want and are, therefore, responsible. [Alan Heimert {Religion and the Anmerican Mind} identified this insight as the key to the American Revolution.]
  2. In every situation where we are not physically constrained, we always do what we MOST WANT to do.  That is, in every single action when we are not constrained/restrained by external, physical forces, we are giving expression to that which we MOST WANT in the moment when we take that action. 

Further, Edwards argues that the ultimate measure of the “rightness” or “wrongness” of any given action rests in the very character of God Himself.  The moral law, as given in Scripture, is not arbitrary . . . it is nothing more or less than the objectification of the nature of God.  Therefore, anything that does not conform to the moral law is, by definition, a denial of or an attack on the character of God.  WHY we desire what we do when we take a specific action is irrelevant, at least in terms of determining whether the action is itself “right” or “wrong.”  Yes, there IS black and white in the moral world.

But how do we handle actions which deny or attack the character of God?  Now, the gray appears.

And it is not just gray with respect to actions which, in and of themselves, deny or attack the character of God.  Actions which by their nature conform to the character of God but which emerge from any desire other than the desire to “seek first the Kingdom of God” are themselves “not fully gracious,” to use the language of Edwards’s Treatise on Religious Affections  (which I regard as Edwards’s finest written document).

To push this point home, Edwards argues that there can be (and often are) ways of urging ourselves and others to “trust in Christ” which themselves  are “not fully gracious.”  If, for example, our entire motive for exercising faith in Christ is to get the blessedness of heaven, we are, in effect, making Christ a means to the end of our own benefit.  We are seeking our own “kingdom” (even though it is a “spiritual kingdom) instead of HIS Kingdom.  We should exercise faith in Christ most fundamentally (Edwards argues in Section 2 of Part III of the Affections ) because He deserves our faith, because He is worthy of the worship and honor which true faith entails.  Yes, God can be our greatest joy, but sinfully selfishly human beings (like the one writing this blog) far too often make joy our greatest god.

Therefore, to return to where we started yesterday, “sin”  always occurs when anything (yes, anything) other than the Kingdom and glory of God is “sought first.”  That sin may emerge in “normal” or “abnormal” individuals and it may emerge in either “healthy” or “sick” individuals.  

Further, Edwards argues in his Treatise on Original Sin that, when we consider the nature of sin, we must take account not only of the sins of commission but also of the sins of omission.  Here is just one of his statements on this subject:

It therefore appears . . . that whosoever withholds more of that love or respect of heart from God, which his law requires, than he affords, has more sin than righteousness.  But what considerate person is there, even among the more virtuous part of mankind, but would be ashamed to say, and profess before God or men, that he loves God half so much as he ought to do; or that he exercises one half of that esteem, honor, and gratitude towards God, which would be altogether becoming him; considering what God is, and what great manifestations he has made of his transcendent excellency and goodness, and what benefits he receives from him?

Anyone who wished for black and white (as I did at the beginning of yesterday’s blog) surely gets it here.  But this is a perfect case of “Be careful what you wish for because you might get it!” 

And this leads us again to what might be called “appropriate missional grayness.”

The standards are clear and they are white as the driven snow.  But since none of us achieves or could achieve this kind of moral whiteness, we are called upon to take account of all kinds of situational circumstances as we bring grace, in the person of Jesus, to sinners, ourselves included.  The child with Tourette’s Syndrome (mentioned in yesterday’s blog) is surely violating the Third Commandment when he takes the Lord’s name in vain.  We do neither the child nor (much more importantly) the Lord justice if we deny that such speech is wrong.

But how do we treat the child?  With the same patient grace that we bring to the severely depressed person or to the homosexual or to the binge eater or to the Internet addict or to the sex addict.  We seek to understand as much as we can about the person and her situation, including any relevant medical and psychological information.  We do not “excuse” behavior that is wrong no matter what the cause.  But we respond to such sins as those just mentioned in the way we hope our colleagues and spouses will respond when we fail (as we ALL do) to give God every bit of the glory that He deserves.

There really is a lesson to be learned from the Book of Jonah – and that lesson is NOT that the Ninevites did not deserve judgment.  They DID deserve judgment, just as I do every single time I take an action which seeks my own kingdom rather than His.  The Ninevites were great sinners and yet, of those great sinners, didn’t the Lord Himself say, “Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

“Should I not pity Nineveh?” is an essentially missional question.  It does not downplay the extreme seriousness of any sins which rob God of His glory.  But it does affirm that what Jonah should have desired most of all was not that judgment be visited upon the Ninevites but that the Ninevites should repent and believe and appropriately worship and honor God and, as a result, receive the blessing which is intimated at the end of Jonah 3 and which Jonah expressly repudiates in the first four verses of Chapter 4.

Yes, of course, maintain black and white where God gives clear indication in Scripture that they exist.  But nuance our response to all of those who sin toward the goal that they repent and be saved.  And nuance is essentially a “gray” word.  It is also and consequently and “missional” word.

It is a word that describes our journey as we “follow Jesus into the world.”  Do you agree?

Sam Logan is Special Counsel to the President and Professor of Church History at Biblical. He is an ordained minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He is married to Susan and they have two sons and two grandsons. See also 

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