Papers from Hillsdale College (1998)
REL 319 -- Eighteenth Century Theology:
Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

Jonathan Edwards on
Adam's Original Righteousness and his Fall

by Andrew Mitchell

According to the literal Biblical account of creation, after God had made the world and all other creatures, He created man and woman on the sixth day and proclaimed them "very good."{1} Adam and Eve possessed an original nature that enjoyed constant communion with their Maker and delighted in things spiritual and good. The Lord placed Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, and permitted them to eat of every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. "In the day that thou eatest thereof," said the Lord," thou shalt surely die."{2} Deluded by the cunning serpent, however, both Adam and Eve tasted the fruit and fell from the estate wherein they were created. Forced to leave Eden as a result of their sin, they were cursed and condemned to live in a new way. A new nature had also come upon them: a sinful one, which was at odds with God, and which "exists" only in his absence. This new nature was inherited by their children, and as such they were inclined to sin at their first opportunity, and thus made liable to death. Though the account of man's fall is simply stated in the first chapters of the Bible, a pressing problem arises. If Adam was originally righteous, how and why did he fall? Jonathan Edwards struggled with answering this dilemma for a long time, constantly searching the Scriptures for the truth. In his discourses on Original Sin and the Freedom of the Will, and in some of his published sermons, Jonathan Edwards explained that there are two causes for Adam's first transgression; when one possesses a full understanding of each cause, one is inexorably directed back to the Almighty and His plan for the world.

In dealing with the perplexing topic of man's fall, Jonathan Edwards placed a great importance on addressing the doctrine of original sin. Original sin has commonly meant the general depravity of heart and spirit affecting mankind from their birth. Yet the doctrine of original sin includes not only the depraved nature, but also the imputation of this nature upon humans everywhere from Adam's first sin. Edwards turns to casual observation of men, as well as to passages from the Old and New Testaments to support his position. One of the most decisive Biblical passages in Edwards' favor lies in the fifth chapter of Romans. He dedicated one and half chapters in his treatise on Original Sin to a detailed exegesis of Romans 5: 6-14. In this passage, the apostle Paul declares that there exists only one judgment for the condemnation of sinners, and that lay in the pronouncement against Adam's first transgression. Sin entered the world through one man, and with that came death,{3} the most tangible sign of God's curse on man.

But what about Adam? Was he, too, created with the same nature that he bestowed on his posterity, or was he, in some way, distinguished from the rest? Jonathan Edwards argued that, unlike the rest of us, Adam was originally created without sin, something he refers to as Original Righteousness. In a nutshell he encapsulates the problem:

Looking at God's pronouncements upon his creation, Edwards argued that". . . it became God to create holy all his reasonable creatures [i.e. man]."{5} If Adam was born with an inherently sinful nature, would God have cause to declare all his works, "very good"? Edwards continues his argument by claiming that,"if Adam from the beginning did his duty to God, and had more respect to the will of his Creator, than to other things . . . then from the beginning he had a supreme and perfect respect and love to God: and if so, he was created with such a principle. There is no avoiding the consequence."{6} Yet the problem still remains, what caused Adam to fall? If he ate the fruit, it must have been because there was a motivation and desire for him to do so. This, however, would seem to imply that Adam's will was corrupted, since man's will is not free from making decisions based on previous actions or desires.{7} But the origin of the first corruption remains elusive. In order to provide full context for his answer, Edwards, after demonstrating the immediate cause of our parents' transgression, engages in a brief theodocy in order to bring together, in a gathering of one, the fall of mankind, and the ultimate causes for that separation, seen in God's supreme end for creating the world.

Jonathan Edwards began his discussion of our first parents by examining the nature and character of Adam. Adam was created from the dust and brought into this world as an active moral being, containing a will and situated "under the rule of right action."{8} "Human nature must be created with some dispositions," Edwards argued," . . .otherwise, it must be without any such thing as inclination or will . . . ."{9} Adam, however, differed from most men in one important way: he possessed a unique will that was inclined towards righteousness. Edwards was convinced that two types of principles were instilled in Adam's will. The first were natural, or inferior, ones. These are seen in self-love, and other such desires and inclinations as belong to the nature of man-the Bible often refers to these as the Flesh. The second, superior principles were spiritual ones. Chief among these are divine love, man's righteousness, and true holiness. Since they are supernatural principles, "These immediately depend on man's union and communion with God, or divine communications and influences of God's Spirit ."{10} Living in the garden of Eden, Adam enjoyed the privileges of the spiritual principles, which," were given to possess the throne, and maintain an absolute dominion in the heart . . . ."{11} His human nature was a battlefield between the two principles. The heavy and weighty natural principles, instinctively desiring to gravitate towards sin, yet being wholly mastered by the higher and lighter supernatural principles, at least until his fall from grace.

After clarifying the nature of Adam's will, Edwards moved on to describe the immediate cause of his fall from grace. To aid him in his argument, the minister from Northampton drew upon the first three chapters in Genesis, as well as his understanding of the workings of the will. He concluded that Adam was deluded by the serpent and deceived into choosing to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil. "For although there was no natural sinful inclination in Adam, yet an inclination to that sin of eating the forbidden fruit, was begotten in him by the delusion and error he was led into . . . ."{12} "It is evident, by the plain account the scripture gives us of the temptation, . . . that it was so contrived by the subtlety of the tempter, as first to blind and deceive them . . . and to make them believe that their disobedience should be followed with no destruction or calamity at all. . . ."{13} This single blunting of our parents' desire to those higher principles was sufficient enough to lead to their first transgression. Jonathan Edwards offers a useful analogy to help prove his point:

Edwards goes on to show that one could not argue that the man had a fixed propensity to the beverage merely by looking at his constant habit or from his first drink of the poison. Ultimately, it was the nature of sin that made Adam desire it. It was the first sip, proffered by the serpent, that resulted in our deadly intoxication. At the same time as Adam made the decision, the superior principles that God placed in his heart deserted him. "Therefore immediately the superior divine principles wholly ceased; so light ceases in a room when the candle is withdrawn; . . ."{15} Without the higher inclinations, Adam's own moral weight caused him to sink into sin. For Edwards, this is the only rational conclusion to draw. "Only God's withdrawing, as it was highly proper and necessary that he should, from rebel-man, and his natural principles being left to themselves, is sufficient to account for his becoming entirely corrupt and bent on sinning against God."{16} Though transient, this cause was to have permanent effects on not only Adam's nature, but on that of his posterity as well.

Many Arminians, and particularly a contemporary writer, Dr. Whitby, objected to this conclusion which Edwards reached, claiming that it made God the Author of Evil in the world, and thus, the one responsible for Adam's sin.{17} Edwards' next struggle in writing about original sin was to respond to this justifiable criticism. To begin with, the great American minister argued that there lies a distinction between the causes of all events. Commenting specifically on the objection raised above, Edwards wrote:

And again, in the treatise on Original Sin, he said," In order to account for a sinful corruption of nature, yea, a total native depravity of the heart of man, there is not the least need of supposing any evil quality, infused, implanted, or wrought. . .by any positive cause . . either from God or the creature."{19} To help his readers understand that his distinction is more than merely a semantic argument, Edwards offers a helpful illustration. There is a big difference between the sun's being the cause of light and warmth in the atmosphere by its positive influence, and its being the cause of darkness and frost in the night by its motion when it descends below the horizon. "If the sun were the proper cause of cold and darkness, it would be the fountain of these things . . .but from its being the cause not otherwise than by its departure, . . ." one cannot infer that the sun itself is black and frosty, and that its beams and dark and cold.{20} For Edwards, God is omniscient and omnipotent; He may will something to come to pass, but it will only be from His holy and perfect Will. When Edwards examines the other options to his explanation for man's fall, he does not encounter any that provide less confusion or difficulty. Adam could not have chosen to eat of the fruit from a previous sinful choice, for this was his first sin. It could not have come by accident, else God would not hold man responsible for his deeds. Content with defining the immediate cause for original sin of mankind, Edwards moves on in his accompanying works to provide a detailed explanation of the higher cause behind Adam and Eve's transgression.

God created this world and everything in it for his own glory. The Almighty, because He is a loving God, must love that good which is above all else, viz. Himself. All His creatures' happiness and good lie in seeking the glory of their Maker, for He is a treasure of infinite worth, and infinite beauty. Before anything was created, God was: perfect in a Triune fellowship with the Son and the Holy Ghost. He had all the sharing He could possibly desire. Yet He had nothing that needed Him, nothing that was dependent upon him. This denied the Lord the opportunity to show mercy, to demonstrate pity, to give help to the incomplete. As the all-wise, all loving God, He desires to be benevolent and merciful; He "needs" needs in order to meet them, which is one of his greatest joys.

It would follow then, for Edwards, that if the Lord delights in filling our deficiencies, that the greater our emptiness, the greater His joy in making us full. Nowhere else does God thus demonstrate His love and His joy than in tearing down the ultimate divider of ourselves and the Almighty: our sins, which were redeemed by His Son. For Jonathan Edwards, the Incarnation was the pivotal event in the entire history of mankind. It explains his views on the end for which God created the world, and also on the nature of original sin. Evil was brought into the world so that Christ might be exalted in the overcoming of it. "Christ appears gloriously above all evil in what he did to procure redemption for us . . . by the righteousness he wrought out, and the atonement he made for sin."{21}

If no one had ever sinned, God's grace and mercy in redeeming mankind would not have been displayed, nor would His justice in condemning people to hell been seen. These three attributes are an integral part of the Almighty's character, and essential for any man to understand in order to have a proper relation with the Lord. Without these major features, God's full character would be hidden from us. And yet, if He ever hid part of His glory He would sin. By saying "part of his glory" it is intended to relate to the hiding of a particular quality, not quantity. Surely, no man can look upon the awesome Creator of the universe and live. If, however, God merely showed the world His love and not His justice, His mercy and not His judgment, His grace and not His wrath, then He would be denying Himself one of His attributes, something which He clearly cannot do.

In the end, Jonathan Edwards would agree with one of the earliest Christian theologians, Augustine of Hippo, who called the fall,"felix culpa" because of the sweet redemption that resulted from it. In his first published sermon, Edwards identified some of the privileges that man receives from the sin of our first parents. "Under the first covenant we depended on God's goodness to give us the reward of righteousness; and so we do now: but we stand in need of God's free and sovereign grace to give us that righteousness; to pardon our sin, and release us from the guilt and infinite demerit of it."{22} Not only have we become greater partakers of God's grace, but our dependence on it has greater increased as well. "We were in our first estate dependent on God for holiness. . . but then holiness was not bestowed in such a way of sovereign good pleasure as it is now."{23}

One examining the argument that Jonathan Edwards offered in defense of his beliefs should be struck by the reasonableness of his claims. Some people would also find it helpful that he included many Scripture references to support his positions. Ultimately, God appears sovereign over all things: in creation as well as redemption. His grace appears that much dearer and more precious; His glory, unbounded. Some difficulties still remain, however. Many, like Dr. Whitby, argue that God is nevertheless the author of all sin by knowing that Adam would sin and refusing to prevent him. Others might question how or why Adam's sin was transferred to his posterity, making them a certain way without their choosing, as it were. Yet, in the end, the focus of the reader, whether agreeing with Edwards or no, should lie not so much on man and his liberties, as on the Divine Creator and His actions and motivations.

Jonathan Edwards did not argue his positions in the face of conflict merely for intellectual prestige, nor did he hold certain views because of their orthodoxy. Instead, he sought the highest possible good man can achieve: complete and continual love and glorification of the Most High. The minister from Northampton sought to give his Maker the glory at all times: through his hours of study as well as through his treatises and sermons. The writings of Jonathan Edwards stand out in the end, as a beacon for all those who endeavor to understand that Being who is Infinite Love, Infinite Joy, and Infinite Wisdom.


1. Genesis 1: 31. Holy Bible.
2. Genesis 2:17.
3. Romans 5: 12.
4. "A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of the Will." The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Banner of Truth Trust, vol. 1, (Avon: the Bath Press, 1995), 81.
5. "God Glorified in Man's Dependence." The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Banner of Truth Trust, vol. 2, (Avon: the Bath Press, 1995), 4.
6. "The Great Christian doctrine of Original Sin." The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Banner of Truth Trust, vol. 1, (Avon: the Bath Press, 1995), 179
7. For a more complete explanation behind the will and choice see Edwards treatise, On the Freedom of the Will.
8. Ibid. p. 178.
9. Ibid. p. 179.
10. Ibid. p. 218. (emphasis mine)
11. Ibid. p. 218.
12. Ibid. p. 168.
13. Ibid. p. 169.
14. Ibid. p. 168.
15. Ibid. p. 218.
16. Ibid. p. 219.
17. "A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of the Will." The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Banner of Truth Trust, vol. 1, (Avon: the Bath Press, 1995), 75.
18. Ibid. p. 76.
19. "The Great Christian doctrine of Original Sin." The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Banner of Truth Trust, vol. 1, (Avon: the Bath Press, 1995), 217.
20. "A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of the Will." The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Banner of Truth Trust, vol. 1, (Avon: the Bath Press, 1995), 77.
21. "Christ Exalted." The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Banner of Truth Trust, vol. 2, (Avon: the Bath Press, 1995), 215.
22. "God Glorified in Man's Dependence." The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Banner of Truth Trust, vol. 2, (Avon: the Bath Press, 1995), 4.
23. Ibid. p. 4.


"A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of the Will." The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Banner of Truth Trust, vol. 1, (Avon: the Bath Press, 1995).

"Christ Exalted." The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Banner of Truth Trust, vol. 2, (Avon: the Bath Press, 1995).

"God Glorified in Man's Dependence." The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Banner of Truth Trust, vol. 2, (Avon: the Bath Press, 1995).

Holy Bible. King James Version.

"The Great Christian doctrine of Original Sin." The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Banner of Truth Trust, vol. 1, (Avon: the Bath Press, 1995).

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Last updated: 25 May 1998