The Glory of God and the Reviving of Religion
Desiring God 2003 National Conference
A God-Entranced Vision of All Things
This message appears as a chapter in A God-Entranced Vision of All Things. (For more citations from this work see the chapter version.)
It is a privilege and a pleasure to bring a presentation — perhaps I ought to say, a present — to help celebrate Jonathan Edwards’s 300th birthday. Such celebration is welcome; it reflects wisdom. Though yesterday’s great Christians must not be idolized, they should be remembered, and their legacy kept in appreciative view; for God gave them their strength and insight in order to enrich not just their own generation but all who would come after. So then, I now invite attention to some aspects of Edwards’s thought that I, for one, have especially valued and that seem to me to have much to say to others of us at this time.
Let me be more specific about what I owe to Edwards. First, for almost sixty years I have been hungry for the wisdom of the Puritans, and Edwards has fed my appetite, for, to echo Perry Miller, Puritanism is what Edwards was. Again, for almost sixty years, ever since I read Charles Finney’s very able and forceful Lectures on Revivals of Religion, revival has been a heart-interest of mine, and it was Edwards’s classic writings on the Northampton visitation of 1734 and the Great Awakening of 1740-42 that brought the theme into biblical focus for me (before that, not surprisingly to anyone who knows Finney, it was somewhat skewed in my mind).
Furthermore, I repeatedly urge in varied company that evangelicalism is Christianity without additions, subtractions, or dilutions — Christianity, that is, in its purest and most authentic form. And to make the point I picture historic Christianity as a broad river whose main stream flows along a central channel while eddies, stagnant pools, backwaters, and expanses of mud abound along its banks. Then I cite the teaching of such men as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Owen, and Warfield, and Edwards with them, as so many buoys marking out the central channel for all who are concerned to be found in it. Thus, under God I owe a lot to Edwards and am glad to have this opportunity of acknowledging my debt.
My aim now is to show in detail how Edwards’s view of God shaped his thinking about revival. But first it will be good to make sure that we have a clear view of this remarkable man, saint, pastor, polymath, theologian, metaphysician, apologist, and educator as he was; and we may do that most vividly, I think, by setting alongside him the other evangelical leader whose 300th birthday we celebrated in 2003 — John Wesley. A glance at some of the similarities and differences between these two men will help us to see them both more clearly than otherwise we might do.
Edwards and Wesley
So how do they compare? They were different human types, to start with: Edwards was tall, gaunt, grave, taciturn with strangers, and always somewhat withdrawn, while Wesley was short, slight (regularly weighing 128 pounds, so he tells us), cheerful and outgoing to everyone, and a chatty conversationalist in all company. Neither seems to have had much of a sense of humor, but Wesley was a great storyteller, while Edwards was not. Their backgrounds were different. Wesley was a native Englishman, a sometime Oxford don, tirelessly traversing his homeland as a visiting fireman for God. Edwards was a settled New England colonial, serving smallish pastorates, who was caught constantly in the family rivalries and small-town politics of frontierland.
Both were Bible-believing Protestants, scholarly children of the early Enlightenment, reading and thinking men with well-trained minds, wide in their interests and widely read, and masters of a fluent precision of language for preaching, teaching, and debating. But Wesley was an activist, while Edwards was an analyst, and Wesley’s practical theology of religion — new birth, justification, and holiness, all by faith — though serviceable enough for his purposes, is not in the same league as Edwards’s exact explorations and demonstrations of the plans, works, and ways of the Triune God, according to the Scriptures and the developed Reformed faith.
Again, both were clergy, born into clergy families, who embraced the family theology; which made Wesley an eighteenth-century Anglican post-Calvinist (all his life Wesley had an anti-Calvinist obsession), while Edwards remained a seventeenth-century Calvinistic Puritan at heart. So when Wesley came to publish Edwards’s Religious Affections in 1773, he reduced “one of the most complete systems of what has been strikingly called ‘spiritual diagnostics’” (the words are B.B. Warfield’s) to half length, declaring that in its original form it had in it “much wholesome food . . . mixed with much deadly poison.”
Iain Murray, who records this, notes that in Wesley’s view, “Christian experience is so basically simple that it is needless to attempt distinctions between the real and the false in those who claim to be rejoicing in Christ. If a person who has assurance of salvation later loses it, and abandons the Christian practice which he once followed, he is plainly a case of a person losing his salvation. So Wesley thought. Edwards would have been almost nonplussed by such an approach. . . .” (Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography [Banner of Truth, 1987], 259-260) No comment necessary, I think.
The pastoral ministries of the two men, though both centering for substance on the preaching of regeneration and sanctification in Christ, were very different in form and style. Wesley traveled constantly throughout Britain, carving out for himself the role of chief pastor — para-bishop, you might say — of the countrywide Methodist societies. By the end of Wesley’s eighty-seven-year life the British societies had over 70,000 members (and the American societies, led by Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, had 50,000 more). In a little over fifty years Wesley had preached over 40,000 times, festooning familiar outlines with an easy extempore flow of stories, illustrations, and applications adapted to each congregation, averaging two sermons most days. “I know,” he wrote, “were I myself to preach one whole year in one place, I should preach both myself and most of my congregation to sleep” (John Telford, Letters of John Wesley [Epworth, 1931], 3:195).
That was the challenge facing homebody Edwards, who for twenty-four years was sole pastor of a town of some 1,200 adults and then for six years shepherded a village settlement of perhaps 100 Anglo-Saxons and 200 native Indians, and who always aimed to spend thirteen hours each weekday in his study. The 1,200 manuscript sermons that survive (one for most Sundays of his ministry) show him tackling most seriously the task of keeping everyone, including himself, spiritually awake.
In Edwards’s sermons riveting expository skill combines with a wide thematic range, a wealth of evangelical thought, a pervasive awareness of eternal issues, and a compelling logical flow to make them arresting, searching, devastating, and Christ-centeredly doxological to the last degree. His preaching style, though quiet, was commanding and by all accounts was almost hypnotic in its power to fix his hearers’ minds on divine things. Charles Simeon was later to say that his own sermons were planned to humble the sinner, to exalt the Savior, and to promote holiness; Edwards could have used exactly those words about his.
Two more contrasts before our profile ends. Both Edwards and Wesley were accused of being proud and stubborn. With Wesley the activist, it was because of his habit of always assuming leadership, intellectual and organizational, and never recognizing superiors or peers in any circumstance whatever. (Was this Paul-like care for the churches? Or Diotrephes-like love of preeminence? Faithful stewardship of the gospel or natural hubristic arrogance? Or a blend of both? All these views are taken, and the jury is still out.) With Edwards the analyst, however, there is no room for doubt: What gave offense was his unflinching loyalty to what he took to be biblical truth, as his open-eyed courting of dismissal from Northampton by pressing the principle that the Lord’s Supper is for believers only clearly showed.
Then, too, both men had wives: But whereas Jonathan’s thirty-one-year “uncommon union” with Sarah was a love match and a true partnership throughout, John Wesley’s thirty-year bond with Molly was a disaster from start to finish — a marriage of convenience that quickly became the precise opposite, a woeful tale of hurt, hostility, and separation. “I married because I needed a home in order to recover my health,” Wesley wrote grimly at one stage, “and I did recover it. But I did not seek happiness thereby, and I did not find it” (Murray, Wesley and Men Who Followed, 45). Oh dear. Let us tiptoe on.
Four major things should be remembered as we round off our set of contrasts. First, whatever their frailties and conceptual differences, both of these men preached substantially the same gospel of ruin through sin, redemption through Christ, and regeneration through the Holy Spirit, laying special stress on the reality of ruined human nature because they both believed that only out of self-despair would anyone ever turn wholeheartedly to God (which is why each of them took time out to rebut John Taylor’s denial of original sin, both of their books appearing in 1757).
Second, they explicitly embraced holiness both as their personal goal and as their ministry target, and both came to see and set forth holiness with increasing clarity as consisting essentially of love to God and man. Wesley’s commitment here went back to his reading of Thomas à Kempis, Jeremy Taylor, and William Law in 1725, thus antedating Aldersgate Street by thirteen years, and later he often declared that God had raised up Methodism precisely “to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.” Edwards wrote of himself as having from early on in his adult Christian life pursued “an increase of grace and holiness, and a holy life, with much more earnestness than ever I sought grace before I had it,”14 and the seventy Resolutions that he drew up for himself as early as 1722-23 would seem abundantly to bear this out.
Third, in their pastoral ministries both saw the value of “societies” (that is, small-group fellowships, as we would call them) for fanning the flames of spiritual life, though Wesley’s developed infrastructure of “bands” and “classes” and the “select society” within each Methodist community, a setup learned largely from the Moravians, went far beyond the prayer groups and instructional get-togethers that Edwards put in place in Northampton. Fourth — and this is reflected in all that we have looked at so far, even Wesley’s unhappy marriage, which came to grief through his unwillingness to reduce his ministry just because he had a wife — they were both spiritually alive in Christ in a quite breathtaking way; they were both wonderfully single-minded, and magnificently firm and courageous in the face of criticism and opposition; and overall, according to their own lights, they both were utterly selfless in the service of their God and Savior, just as they were both truly wise in dealing with the upheavals of revival.
Our portrait of Edwards is now sufficiently drawn; so we move Wesley out of the picture and go forward ourselves to look next at the makeup of Edwards’s theology.
The Mind of Jonathan Edwards
Let us begin at the beginning, with an orientation to Edwards’s overall outlook.
Edwards has been described as God-centered, God-focused, Godintoxicated, and God-entranced, and so indeed he was. There is no overstatement here. Every day, from morning till night, he sought to live in conscious communion with God, whether walking, riding, studying on his own, or relaxing in the bosom of his large and, it seems, happy and often extended family. He was not a mystic in the sense of seeking Goddrenched states of soul that leave rationality behind; on the contrary, it was precisely through deep and clear thoughts that God warmed and thrilled his heart. Rationally biblical and biblically rational understanding of everything was his constant quest, and John Gerstner was right to title his three-volume exposition The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards.
Edwards’s basic wavelength — theological, moral, devotional, and doxological — was Puritan, as has been said, and the theology of the midand late seventeenth century was his anchorage. “As to my subscribing to the substance of the Westminster Confession,” he wrote in 1750, when the possibility of his moving to minister in Scotland was mooted, “there would be no difficulty” (Murray, Jonathan Edwards, 346). Convictionally and confessionally, he was a tenacious adherent of the Puritan theology that had shaped New England, and coming at a time when the fires of that heritage were burning low, he gave it a new lease of intellectual and communal life.
“Every day, from morning till night, Edwards sought to live in conscious communion with God.” Tweet
A man is known both by his own friends and his own books, and also by the books he recommends to others. “Take Mastricht [Peter Van Mastricht, Theologia Theoretico-Practica, 1699] for divinity in general, doctrine, practice, and controversy,” Edwards wrote to young Joseph Bellamy in 1747, “. . . much better than Turretin [Francis Turretin, Institutio Theologiae Elencticae, 1688] or any other book in the world, except the Bible, in my opinion” (Murray, Jonathan Edwards, 282). Van Mastricht was Voetius’s successor in the theology chair at Utrecht University. Voetius, a pillar of Holland’s Second Reformation, had pioneered a solid blend of developed Calvinism with English Puritan wisdom on the Christian life, and Van Mastricht maintained this, laying out his treatment of each topic in four sections: explanatory (i.e., exegetical), doctrinal (i.e., systematic), argumentative (i.e., controversial), and practical (i.e., applicatory). His work is thus a user-friendly textbook of Reformed-Puritan-Pietist stripe for anyone who can read Latin and wants to know the full range and strength of the Puritan brand of Christianity.
From our overall orientation to Edwards’s theological system we now advance to a specific description of it. It is a fully integrated whole that we can sketch out as follows.
Shaping everything is the view of the Triune God’s plan of grace that the Westminster Standards set forth: a plan that turns upon two hinges — namely, the covenant of redemption that expresses God’s appointment of his Son to save sinners, and the covenant of grace that expresses the divine commitment to all whom the Father saves through the mediation of the Son and the life-giving gift of the Holy Spirit. Within this frame are set the Son’s course of past humiliation, present exaltation, and future vindication; the individual salvation of each elect and regenerate person; and the ongoing life and service of the church.
Sin-blinded humans are unacquainted with, and unclear and uncertain about, the abiding realities of which the Bible testifies and to which its inspired words point. But the “divine and supernatural light” of illumination by the Holy Spirit brings a knowledge of these things that is as immediate, sure, and indubitable as is the seeing of physical objects with our bodily eyes. From this illumination comes belief of biblical truth, and out of that grows the Christian life — the life, that is, of assured trust in Christ as one’s all-sufficient Savior, of increasing insight into the actual guilt and inward corruption from which Christ brings deliverance, of disciplined labor for holiness and virtue, and of sustained joy in knowing, worshiping, and appreciating God. Without this illumination, all forms of religious observance are hollow and empty, whether one realizes this or not. To see unilluminated formalism become real religion must therefore be a pastor’s constant goal.
God shows himself by word and deed in the processes and events of human history, which is thus in the most literal sense “his story.” The Bible’s interpretation of the histories, communal and personal, that it records is the model for interpreting our own history, from the same redemption-centered point of view, in terms of which alone will the history of any Christian person ever make real sense. As George Marsden states Edwards’s position:
History, according to Edwards, was in essence the communication of God’s redemptive love in Christ. The history of redemption was the very purpose of creation. Nothing in human history had significance on its own. . . . Christ’s saving love was the center of all history and defined its meaning. Human events took on significance only as they related to God’s redemptive action in bringing increasing numbers of human beings into the light of that love or as they illustrated human blindness in joining Satan’s warfare against all that was good. (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life [Yale University Press, 2003], 488-489)
Following up this modern-sounding insight, Edwards hoped one day (so he told the Princeton trustees shortly before his death) to write “a body of divinity [i.e., a systematic theology] in an entire new method, being thrown into the form of an history” (Ibid., 482). It would not, one supposes, abandon the decretal foundation on which Reformed systematic theology had regularly been set since Theodore Beza and William Perkins, but would trace out from Scripture the progressive fulfillment of God’s decretal plan.
Edwards did not live to fulfill his hope, but the posthumous publication of his 1739 sermons titled A History of the Work of Redemption gives us some faint idea of what the proposed work would have been like (Ibid., 483-486), and his evident grasp of the appropriate architectonic and hermeneutical implications of the fact that history is the Bible’s backbone, God’s self-revelation being essentially historical in form and substance, put him at this point ahead of all his contemporaries. Had he lived as long as Wesley did and written his proposed treatise, showing the significance of history within a Bible-believing frame long before liberal scholars started using history to support their own skepticism, the course of Protestant theology during the past two centuries might have been very different. But we cannot pursue that thought here.
Edwards saw clearly that Scripture reveals God to be a society with a unity — a triune society, eternally bonded in mutual love — and he ventured to think of our salvation as, so to speak, a welcome into the transcendent family circle. God’s plan, he once wrote, is that “[Christ] and his Father and they [Christians] should be as it were one family; that his people should be in a sort admitted into the society of the three persons in the Godhead” (“Miscellanies” in Works of Jonathan Edwards, The “Miscellanies,” 501-832, [Yale University Press, 2000], 110). Within this conception Edwards’s probing mind offers a variety of ideas about the sense and way in which the Son is the image of the Father and the Spirit is the divine love personalized.
Whether in these he went beyond Scripture is moot, but he certainly did not intend to do that. At the end of the day, so he writes, “I am far from pretending to explaining [sic] the Trinity so as to render it no longer a mystery [i.e., a divine fact beyond our understanding]. I think it to be the highest and deepest of all mysteries still, notwithstanding anything I have said or conceived about it. I don’t intend to explain the Trinity” (Edwards, “An Essay on the Trinity,” in Treatise on Grace and Other Posthumously Published Writings, [Attic Press, 1971], 121-122). As John Owen made so clear in his battles with Socinianism, confessional Trinitarianism is and must be presupposed in all articulations of Reformed covenant theology or else that theology collapses. Edwards knew this, and his grasp of the reality and centrality of the mystery of the transcendent eternal Trinity was firm.
Finally, just as Edwards presented all that has been stated thus far as clearly taught in specific Scriptures, so he brought it all to bear on the never-ending task of interpreting the Bible as a whole and every part of it, and fixing the standpoint and perspective of our receiving what God has to say to us in and through it. In other words, he worked in terms of the hermeneutical principle that all Reformed exegetes since Calvin had followed — namely, the analogy of faith or of Scripture (both phrases were used). This is the principle of the internal consistency of biblical teaching, as being first to last the product of a single divine mind. So he unfolded the Bible within its own theological frame, duly detecting and displaying its biggest and most pervasive themes — the sovereignty of God in creation, providence, and grace; the love of God to sinners, supremely expressed in the mediatorial ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ; and the power of God renewing hearts, generating faith and repentance, and transforming believers’ character and conduct.
And in doing this he constantly led his hearers to the pervasive biblical injunctions to look back and around and ahead, discerning as clearly as possible what God has done, is doing, and will do, praising and adoring, trusting and obeying, and hoping and enduring accordingly. As beyond a certain distance a view of scenery may get lost in mist, so beyond a certain point our sight of God’s works and our knowledge of his purposes, seen as it were through biblical field glasses that bring them up with maximum clarity, will nonetheless dissolve into mystery: The God who has told us so much about himself is still not a God about whom we do, or can, ever know everything. So here is a limit, a line to approach and walk but not to overstep. Edwards walks this line with classic skill.
Such, then, is the framework of Edwards’s theology. It had to be laid out first in order to put us in a position to understand what he says about the two linked themes of our title — the glory of God and the reviving of religion. Now, however, we can move straight to them, and shall do so.
The Glory of God
Edwards inherited a dispute among the learned: Was God’s goal in creation his own glory, as Reformed theology maintained, or man’s happiness, as Arminians and Deists thought? In his Dissertation on the End for Which God Created the World, posthumously published, Edwards resolved this question with startling brilliance. As his son, Jonathan Edwards, Jr., put it:
It was said that, as God is a benevolent being . . . he could not but form creatures for the purpose of making them happy. Many passages of Scripture were quoted in support of this opinion. On the other hand, numerous and very explicit declarations of Scripture were produced to prove that God made all things for his own glory. Mr. Edwards was the first, who clearly showed, that both these were the ultimate end of the creation . . . and that they are really one and the same thing. (Sereno E. Dwight, “Memoirs,” in Works, 1:cxcii)
Edwards clinched his case on this by surveying the biblical use of the word “glory” (Hebrew, kabod; Greek, LXX and NT, doxa). Having stated correctly that etymologically kabod implies “weight, greatness, abundance” and in use often conveys the thought of “God in fullness,” Edwards traces the term thus:
Sometimes it is used to signify what is internal, inherent, or in the possession of a person [i.e., glory that belongs to someone]: and sometimes for emanation, exhibition, or communication of this internal glory [i.e., glory that appears to someone]: and sometimes for the knowledge, or sense of these [communications], in those to whom the exhibition or communication is made [i.e., glory that is seen, or discerned, by someone]; or an expression of this knowledge, sense, or effect [i.e., glory that is given to someone, by praise and thanks in joy and love]. (Edwards, “The End for Which God Created the World,” in Works, 1:116)
And the conclusion he offers — on the basis of both biblical texts that speak of glory and of glorifying in these four distinct though connected ways and also analytical argument surrounding this exegesis — is that God’s internal and intrinsic glory consists of his knowledge (omniscience with wisdom) plus his holiness (spontaneous virtuous love, linked with hatred of sin) plus his joy (supreme endless happiness); and that his glory (wise, holy, happy love) flows out from him, like water from a fountain, in loving spontaneity (grace), first in creation and then in redemption, both of which are so set forth to us so as to prompt praise; and that in our responsive, Spirit-led glorifying of God, God glorifies and satisfies himself, achieving that which was his purpose from the start.
The chief end of man, as the famous first answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism memorably puts it, is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. God so made us that in praising, thanking, loving, and serving him, we find our own supreme happiness and enjoyment of God in a way that otherwise we would not and could not do. We reach our highest enjoyment of God in and by glorifying him, and we glorify him supremely in and by enjoying him. In fact, we enjoy him most when we glorify him most, and vice versa. And God’s single-yet-complex end, now in redemption as it was in creation, is his own happiness and joy in and through ours.
His great goal here and now is to glorify himself through glorifying, and being glorified by, rational human beings who out of their fallenness come to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Thus the emanation (outflow) of divine glory in the form of creative and redemptive action results in a remanation (returning flow) of glory to God in the form of celebratory devotion. And so God’s goal for himself (Father, Son, and Spirit, the “they” who are “he” within the Triune unity), the goal that includes his goal for all Christian humankind, is achieved by means of a singly unitary process, which itself is ongoing and unending.
“We reach our highest enjoyment of God in and by glorifying him, and we glorify him supremely in and by enjoying him.” Tweet
The unimaginable endlessness of this reciprocal sequencing that is in truth the end for which God created the world can only be indicated formulaically and analogically (to use a couple of non-Edwardsean terms). This is done for us in a normative way in Revelation 21, and C.S. Lewis most tellingly did it at the close of his final Narnia story, The Last Battle, where the children have been brought through a rail crash into the real Narnia that is to be their home forever. The key sentences are these:
Then Aslan [the Christ-like lion] turned to them and said:
“You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be . . . all of you are (as you used to call it in the Shadowlands) dead. The term is over; the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”
. . . We can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before. (Lewis, The Last Battle [Penguin, 1964], 165)
This picks up exactly, in mythical-parabolic terms, the point that Edwards, in his more prosaic way, was concerned to make. Amy Plantinga Pauw capsules it as follows:
Because “heaven is a progressive state,” the heavenly joy of the saints, and even of the triune God, will forever continue to increase. . . . Saints can look forward to an unending expansion of their knowledge and love of God, as their capacities are stretched by what they receive . . . there is no intrinsic limit to their joy in heaven. . . . As the saints continue to increase in knowledge and love of God, God receives more and more glory. This heavenly reciprocity will never cease, because the glory God deserves is infinite, and the capacity of the saints to perceive God’s glory and praise him for it is ever increasing. (Pauw, “The Supreme Harmony of All”: The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards [Eerdmans, 2002], 180-181)
Here, finally, is how Edwards himself, in his rather more severe and abstract manner, sums the matter up. (“The creature” in what follows is the believer.)
And though the emanation of God’s fulness, intended in the creation, is to the creature as its object; and though the creature is the subject of the fulness communicated, which is the creature’s good; yet it does not necessarily follow that, even in doing so, God did not make himself his end. It comes to the same thing. God’s respect to the creature’s good, and his respect to himself, is not a divided respect; but both are united in one, as the happiness of the creature aimed at is happiness in union with himself. . . . The more happiness the greater union. . . . And as the happiness will be increasing to eternity, the union will become more and more strict [i.e., closely bound] and perfect; nearer and more like to that between God the Father and the Son; who are so united, that their interest is perfectly one. . . .
Let the most perfect union with God be represented by something at an infinite height above us; and the eternally increasing union of the saints with God, by something that is ascending constantly towards that infinite height . . . and that is to continue thus to move to all eternity. (Edwards, “The End for Which God Created the World,” 120)
The two-way street of this unceasing process, says Edwards, embodies and expresses the true end for which God created the world: namely, the endless advancement of his glory, in union with us, through the endless advancement of ours, in union with him. Those who have in any measure tasted the refreshment and joy of heart that flow from faith in, friendship with, and worship of the holy Three (or shall I say the holy One, or One-in-Three) will latch on to Edwards’s thinking here as a complete answer to any who fancy that the Christian heaven would be static and dull, and will themselves look forward to the awaiting glory with ever-growing eagerness.
The Reviving of Religion
What Edwards has analyzed out concerning the glory of God and of the godly is no more, just as it is no less, than a dotting of the i’s and a crossing of the t’s in what earlier Puritan and Reformed teachers had already said. It is, however, an important ingredient in our present line of thought because of the clarity with which it focuses Edwards’s Godcentered concept of religion. Living as we do in a human-centered culture shaped by the Enlightenment, and surrounded as we are by human-centered forms of religion in as well as outside the churches, following Edwards at this point calls us to an effort of rethinking, reimagining, re-centering our attention, reeducating our desires, and refocusing our affections that is almost beyond our strength. Evangelical and liberal theology are, to be sure, always and necessarily at loggerheads, because cognitive revelation, on which evangelicalism builds, and cognitive relativism, which is basic to liberalism, are totally antithetical.
But for two centuries now evangelical and liberal pietists have been joining hands to give personal religion, previously defined as knowledge and service of God, a subjective twist that effectively redefines it as the experience of reaching after, and trying to maintain, some knowledge and service of God amid the ups and downs and strains and pains of daily life. The reference-point has moved; the study of religion — professedly Christian religion, that is — has become a study of human feelings, attitudes, and struggles rather than of God’s gifts and calling and works and ways with humans, which was Edwards’s agenda.
Edwards has, indeed, an unquenchable interest in Christian and pseudo-Christian religious experience, which he describes and dissects with great clinical skill; but his interest is theocentric rather than anthropocentric, intellectual rather than sentimental, theological rather than anthropological, and doxological rather than psychological. Set his Treatise on the Religious Affections alongside William James’s justly famous Gifford lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience, and you see at once that a watershed has been passed. Evangelical theologian and spiritual diagnostician Edwards asks, what is of God in all this; pragmatist philosopher and amateur psychologist James simply asks what happens. And today’s pietistic evangelicals and liberals both tend only to ask what is inside us that makes us feel as we do at this moment, and what has God for us here and now to make us feel better. What a downhill slide there has been!
What Edwards, standing in the Reformational mainstream, meant by religion is very clear. It is the life of regeneration, repentance, and assured faith and hope in Christ, based on knowing oneself to be a justified and adopted child of God whom the Triune Lord has loved from eternity, whom the Son has redeemed by dying on the cross, and whom the Holy Spirit, the divine change agent, now indwells. It is the life of loving both the written Word of the Lord and the living Lord of the Word. It is a life of rigorous self-watch and self-discipline, for the deforming, distracting, desensitizing, demonic power of sin in one’s spiritual system must be detected and resisted. It is a life of reckoning with our temperamental limitations, whatever mixture of sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic we find we are, and seeking to transcend those shortcomings.
It is a life of prayer — praise and petition; complaint and confession; meditation and celebration. And with that it is a quest for full Christlikeness of character and action, inasmuch as Christ “exhibited to the world such an illustrious pattern of humility, divine love, discreet zeal, self-denial, obedience, patience, resignation, fortitude, meekness, forgiveness, compassion, benevolence, and universal holiness, as neither men nor angels ever saw before” (Edwards, “The Life and Diary of the Rev. David Brainerd,” Works, 2:313). Finally, religion honors God by goodwill and integrity in all relationships and by enterprise in seizing such opportunities for “good works” of benevolence and help as present themselves.
What then is the reviving of religion? Again the idea is very clear. It is God pouring out his Spirit, and thereby ratcheting up the power and speed of the Spirit’s work in human hearts to further the many facets of supernatural spiritual life that have just been referred to. When Edwards uses the word “revival,” it is as a synonym for “reviving,” and usually he adds “of religion” to make his meaning explicit. For him, the reviving of religion is rooted in the intensified realization of divine realities through God’s work of making the sense of his own reality, and of the realities of sin and salvation, so vivid as to be overwhelming and inescapable. This creates in the heart a correspondingly intense urgency to get, and stay, right with God, and an equally intense joy of assurance and exaltation in worship when one’s acceptance with God is out of doubt. That joy grows into the larger enjoyment of God in his beauty and goodness that was spoken of earlier and that operates as the driving force of God-glorifying life. Whatever else occurs springs from this source.
Under the impact of such joyful excitement, persons with inner scars and weaknesses due to previous bad experiences, bad relationships, and bad habits may fall into exaggerated emotionalism, hysterical eccentricities, and what was called “enthusiasm” (we would call it fanaticism) — namely, belief in direct divine revelations to oneself. But these phenomena are no sure signs of God at work, and when God is at work there is still nothing spiritually significant about them, though pride may prompt the persons concerned to think otherwise. What Edwards, in the title of a 1741 publication, called The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God are (1) honor to Christ, (2) opposition to sin, (3) submission to Scripture, (4) awakening to truth, (5) love to God and man. These are the true, and only true, fruits and tokens of revival.
Edwards was in the thick of the reviving work of God, first in Northampton in 1734 and then in New England’s Great Awakening, 1740-42, and his revival writings have classic status. Should we, then, call him a revivalist — as even B. B. Warfield did, introducing him in 1912 as “saint and metaphysician, revivalist and theologian” (Warfield, Studies in Theology, in Works, 9:515), and so making it look as if revival involvement was the most important part of his public life? Surely the label is inappropriate. Since Charles Finney in the 1830s, revivalist has been used to mean a specialist in what Finney called “protracted meetings” (modern equivalents are “revivals,” “crusades,” and “renewal missions”) — that is, special series of preachments designed to invigorate Christians and convert unbelievers. But that is not what Edwards was at all.
He was a preaching pastor, the long-term servant of a regular congregation, and as such he was a meticulous textual expositor who in a broad sense was preaching the gospel in what he hoped was an awakening way all the time, as indeed his surviving sermons clearly reveal. Such special sermons as he produced during and after the revivals were, so far as we know, diagnostic and didactic rather than evangelistic. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which so drastically impacted the church at Enfield and has so fixed the image of Edwards in North American culture, was for him a fairly standard treatment of helltorment, a recurring theme in his own pulpit; it was in fact a sermon he had already preached at Northampton without anyone apparently turning a hair. So when scholars, even great men like Warfield, call Edwards a revivalist, I wince and wish they had not done it.
The Great Awakening was controversial in its own day, and the reviving of religion is still something of a disputed question among evangelicals (for example see Iain Murray, Pentecost Today? [Banner of Truth, 1998]). To clear the ground for our further advance, it will be helpful at this point to offer Edwardsean comment on some current opinions.
Current Opinions on Revival
“There is no doctrine of revival in the Bible.” If the meaning here is that no Bible writer discusses the reviving of religion in the formal, intentional way in which Paul treats justification in his letter to the Romans and John projects the divine saviorhood of Jesus Christ in his Gospel and epistles, we may agree without argument. But the Edwardsean comment is that doctrine, the explanatory declaration of God’s doings and man’s duty, is to be drawn from the biblical history of God’s words and acts set together, and that there are in the Bible many words from God, especially in the prophets, and many recorded prayers from the godly setting forth the need and hope of spiritual reviving, alongside many narratives of religion actually revived, and out of these materials a doctrine of God’s way of reviving his work in this world may properly be distilled. (Edwards, a postmillennialist, expected successive waves of revival eventually to convert the world.)
“Revival is concerned with saving souls.” If the meaning is that many are converted when revivings of religion occur, again we may agree. It happened so among respectable colonists in Northampton, and throughout New England during the Great Awakening, and among native Indians at Crossweeksung and the Forks of Delaware under the ministry of David Brainerd, whose life and papers Edwards published as a paragon example of personal godliness and missionary fruitfulness (Edwards, “The Life and Diary of the Rev. David Brainerd,” in Works, 2:313-458).
But the Edwardsean comment must be that since religion is centrally concerned with holiness and the glorifying and enjoying of God as a way of life, the reviving of religion must center here too, and the conversions that command so much Christian attention at revival times must be seen as the entry into what really matters to God rather than as the heart of the divine concern. Certainly, true conversion, the correlate of divine illumination of the mind and regeneration of the heart, is a great thing. Edwards rates it greater than the creation of the world and even than the resurrection of Jesus, since in new birth the rule of sin in the heart has to be overcome; but to limit one’s concern in revival to conversions alone would actually be a Spirit-quenching mistake.
“Revival is the action of God, but we can and must pray it down.” If this simply means that Christians should pray for the reviving of religion because the Bible tells them to and revival is something that in any case they long for, there would be no problem here. Edwards himself argues all of that in the mini-treatise he wrote to commend some Scottish ministers’ proposal of an international concert of prayer each Saturday evening, each Sunday morning, and the first Tuesday each quarter for seven years, interceding for the conversion of the world. Its title page ran An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Unity of God’s People Through the World, in Extraordinary Prayer, for the Revival of Religion, and the Advent of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, Pursuant to Scripture Promises and Prophecies Concerning the Last Time (Edwards, “Humble Attempt,” Works, 2:278-312).
To get the Christian world (that is, for Edwards, the Protestant communities everywhere) praying for revival was for Edwards hugely important, as the grandiose terms of his title seem to indicate. Nor is there a problem if the thought is simply that very earnest prayer is appropriate when very great blessing is being sought, for, as Edwards knew, that indeed is so. But the Edwardsean comment must be that we cannot directly induce a reviving visitation from God by the quantity or quality of our praying, and it would be arrogant presumption for us to think we could. God always answers faithful prayers in a positive way, but not always precisely when, where, and how we were hoping. God reserves the right to give better answers in better ways than we have thought to ask for. But the one in charge is always he, never we, and Edwards strikes this note at the end of his Humble Attempt by reminding his readers of the biblical link between
Praying and Not Fainting. . . . It is very apparent from the word of God, that he is wont often to try the faith and patience of his people, when crying to him for some great and important mercy, by withholding the mercy sought, for a season; and not only so, but at first to cause an increase of dark appearances. And yet he, without fail, at last succeeds those who continue instant in prayer, with all perseverance, and “will not let him go except he blesses. . . .” (Ibid., 312)
This, Edwards urges, is a truth of which the saints must never lose sight.
“Revival is the answer to all the church’s problems.” To some of them, such as the problem of spiritual apathy and deadness and bickering in the congregation, yes; but a reviving visitation from God brings its own problems, problems of spiritual life overflowing in disorder and counterfeited in fanaticism, and problems of alienation, opposition, and division between those who welcome the visitation and those who do not. No one knew this better than Edwards, whose revival writings are from one standpoint a series of attempts to deal with this unhappy state of affairs.
Elements in Revival
What exactly happens in a reviving visitation from God, gradual or sudden, brief or prolonged, large- or small-scale, as the case may be? From Scripture, and particularly from the Acts of the Apostles, which is a narrative from the archetypal revival era, we can put together a general answer to that question, all the specifics of which can be illustrated, one way or another, from Edwards’s revival writings. To be sure, no two episodes of revival are identical, if only because the various individuals and communities to which, and the various cultural backgrounds against which, the reviving of religion takes place have their own unique features, and in every narrative of revival these should be noted. But the same generic pattern appears everywhere.
“God reserves the right to give better answers in better ways than we have thought to ask for.” Tweet
Revival is God touching minds and hearts in an arresting, devastating, exalting way, to draw them to himself through working from the inside out rather than from the outside in. It is God accelerating, intensifying, and extending the work of grace that goes on in every Christian’s life, but is sometimes overshadowed and somewhat smothered by the impact of other forces. It is the near presence of God giving new power to the gospel of sin and grace. It is the Holy Spirit sensitizing souls to divine realities and so generating deep-level responses to God in the form of faith and repentance, praise and prayer, love and joy, works of benevolence and service and initiatives of outreach and sharing. The pattern can be analyzed as follows:
1. God comes down. There is no clearer way to characterize the sharpened sense of God’s close presence in his transcendent power, holiness, and grace than this phrase from Isaiah 64:1. God is felt to be inescapable as he searches our hearts, measures our lives, makes us know what he thinks of us, moves us to call on him for help, shows us his mercy, and fills us with joy because of it. Preoccupation with God and religion, both for sorrow and for joy, continues as long as the visitation lasts.
2. God’s Word pierces. Late in the seventeenth century, John Howe bewailed from the pulpit the fact that Puritan preachers were no longer able to “get within” their hearers as they had been able to do a generation earlier. Puritanism had once abounded in preachers whose gift was to “rip up” consciences, as the Puritans regularly put it, but that was no longer so. What that meant was not that veteran Puritans like Howe no longer knew how to make the searching applications that had once marked their movement, but that the Commonwealth period and the decades leading up to it had been an era of revival, which the post-Restoration period was not.
In revival times, Bible teaching about God and sin, death and eternal life, spiritual lostness and divine salvation is always felt to come with the authority of God. When Paul reminded the Thessalonians that they had accepted his gospel “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:13), and when he asked them to pray that in his ongoing ministry “the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you” (2 Thessalonians 3:1), this is what he was referring to. (“Run and be glorified” is the literal rendering of the Greek verbs used here, and “be glorified” conveys the thought of being venerated as coming from God and displaying his glory in its declaration of what he has done.) Under revival conditions the ministry of the Word of God — Word ministered, whether through preaching, reading, gossip, or however — strikes the conscience with piercing and convincing authority.
3. Man’s sin is seen. The divinely inspired Old Testament prophets set forth the sins of God’s people with all the lurid ugliness that their oriental imaginations could command, but people were unmoved; as we say today, they simply did not see it. When, however, the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost and Peter spoke to the crowd of their sin in crucifying the now risen and enthroned Christ, they were “cut to the heart” (the Greek verb is ordinarily used of sawing) and asked aloud what they should do to get rid of their guilt (Acts 2:37). At times of revival, deep conviction of personal sin, particularly of the dishonor that unlove and unbelief do to Christ, fastens upon heart and conscience as the Spirit applies the truth, thus fulfilling Jesus’ own words recorded in John 16:8-11.
4. Christ’s cross is valued. “We preach Christ crucified . . . the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14). So wrote Paul, himself both a convert and a preacher under revival conditions. Discernment of the cross as an atoning sacrifice, and faith in the crucified Lord, and exultation in the forgiveness of sins are further elements in the reviving of religion, whenever and wherever it occurs. Christianity that is alive in the heart is always cross-centered.
5. Change goes deep. Repentance, flowing from faith, is a change of mind expressed in a changed way of life. Thinking differently, we behave differently. The essence of the change is to stop living to oneself in self-will and sin and to start living to God in obedience and holiness. At revival times the inward pressure thus to change and leave the past behind becomes very strong and may prompt dramatic and violent gestures of renunciation, like the burning of a fortune’s worth of occultist literature that Luke describes in Acts 19:18-19. The best exegesis of the violence that takes the kingdom of God by force understands it as the drastic changes that true repentance requires and that true converts actually make (Matthew 11:12; cf. Luke 16:16).
5. Love breaks out. “The town seemed to be full of the presence of God: it never was so full of love . . . as it was then” (Edwards, “A Faithful Narrative,” in Works, 1:348). Knowledge of being the object of God’s saving love generates grateful love to him and joyful love to all others. The seemingly extravagant mutual love and care that the New Testament writers celebrate as fact in the first churches (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32; 2 Corinthians 8:1-4; Colossians 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; etc.) is part of the evidence of revival conditions at that time.
7. Joy fills hearts. Peter, writing to Jewish Christians all over Asia Minor (1 Peter 1:1), many of whom he could not have known personally, nonetheless declares of them all: “Though you do not now see [Christ], you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1:8; the Greek says literally, “with glorified joy”). Thinking of today’s church, we wonder how Peter could have felt entitled to generalize in this way, but the answer stares us in the face: Under first-century revival conditions, inexpressible joy in Christ was virtually a standard and universal experience among Christian believers. When God is reviving his work, intense joy, alongside generous love, becomes the norm.
8. Each church becomes itself — becomes, that is, the people of the divine presence in an experiential, as distinct from a merely notional, sense. God is felt to be there, present to bless, in the midst of those who are his. In 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 Paul says that if in church all speech from all parties takes the form of intelligible declaration of gospel grace (which is what “prophesy” means here), then an unbeliever, wandering in, “is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.” Paul’s point, that prophecy does more good than tongues in church, would gain no force from his saying this unless something of this kind had already happened in the Corinthian church, so that it made sense to expect it to happen again. Under revival conditions the sense of God’s presence among his people is vivid, and such things do in fact happen.
9. The lost are found. The blessing overflows; the saints reach out; unconverted people seek and find Christ. Earlier the point was made that revival is about more than conversions, but that does not mean it is not about conversions at all. Revivals of religion are ordinarily times of evangelistic fruitfulness, as was the case in Jerusalem after Pentecost and in Northampton in 1734-35. The cautious Edwards writes:
I am far from pretending to be able to determine how many have lately been the subjects of . . . mercy; but if I may be allowed to declare anything that appears to me probable in a thing of this nature, I hope that more than 300 souls were savingly brought home to Christ, in this town, in the space of half a year. (Ibid., 350)
Later he thought he had overestimated. But the point — that there is always an evangelistic overflow when God revives religion, as was the case in Jerusalem long ago (Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:7) — remains.
10. Satan keeps pace. The devil is not a creator but a destroyer. He is always busy trying to wreck the work of God. He is a cunning and resourceful adversary who at revival times, over and above his regular trapping routines, uses the false fire of fanaticism, the false zeal of errant teachers, and the false strategies of orthodox overdoers and divisive firebrands majoring in minors to discredit and demolish what God has been building up. Under revival conditions, as at other times, Christians need to take and use the complete armor of God, as described by Paul in Ephesians 6:10-20, in order to stand against him.
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These, then, are the processes of revival, clinically stated. In medical studies, physiology explores the healthy working of all body parts, while pathology, applying physiological knowledge, investigates physical malfunctions and asks what can be done to put them right. Edwards was a spiritual pathologist of great clinical brilliance and thus was a shrewd guide in all aspects of communion with God, most outstandingly in the context of religious excitement as God revives religion and Satan keeps pace. Surveying his work in this field, as his own writings witness to and explicate it, we see in him three special strengths for this task.
First strength: a true understanding of religion. Edwards knows that sin is an anti-God allergy found in every human soul, the taproot of all active disobedience, all bad habits and inability to break them, all egocentric and self-serving motivations, all desires (lusts) in which the Iwant syndrome called original sin finds expression, and all the unbelief of and unresponsiveness to the Word of God that mark our lives. He knew that regeneration is the supernatural renewing of the heart in the motivational image of the Lord Jesus, so that the urge to love and honor and serve and please and exalt and glorify God the Father now dominates and becomes the mainspring of faith, of repentance, of righteousness, of real worship, prayer, joy, and neighbor-love, and of all good works (good inwardly, in motivation, as well as outwardly, in performance). And he knew that holiness means, negatively, renouncing and avoiding moral and spiritual evil and, in positive terms, actively loving God and man. This knowledge equips him to identify and instill truly pure religion at all times.
Second strength: a true understanding of the nature of revival, what God does when he revives religion. The ten-point analysis set out above mirrors Edwards’s view here. This knowledge equipped him to distinguish between the authentic and the phony, that which was of the Spirit of God and that which was carnal and satanic, and to write about the difference in a way that remains standard for all time.
Third strength: a true understanding of God’s wisdom and sovereignty in reviving religion according to the church’s need and his people’s prayers. Knowing that those who pray for revivings of religion are inevitably, whether they realize it or not, asking for trouble, and foreseeing what trouble will come, God yet keeps times and seasons in his own power as his own secret and does what he does in answer to those prayers according to his own discretion. Therefore we must learn to combine eagerness in prayer and boldness in diagnosing deadness and challenging sin with submission to providence and to sustain all three for as long as we have to, confident that if our stance triggers new troubles for us and our petitions are not granted in our own lifetime, an answer will be given in some form someday. Edwards’s teaching on patient persistence in prayer for revival blessing that will change the world reflects abidingly valid insight at this point.
So, of all theological writers on the reviving of religion, I hail Jonathan Edwards as not only the first but also the best. Now back to his own big picture.
We should now note that such revivings of religion as we have analyzed, and as Edwards had experienced, had a key place in his understanding of God’s plan for world history. What is nowadays called postmillennialism seemed to him clear in Scripture — Old Testament prophecy, including Daniel, and the book of the Revelation, interpreted in historicist terms, being the main sources. He thought the final era of history, when knowledge of God would fill the earth as the waters cover the sea, had begun.
The book of Acts tells how, at the start of the newcovenant dispensation, an outpouring of the Holy Spirit produced an impetus that took the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. Edwards seems to have thought this paradigmatic, for he taught that through such outpourings the gospel would circle the world, and the mass of humans would be converted. This would be the full realization of the kingdom of Christ, who was central in all God’s purposes. The role of the church in Edwards’s day and in future days, therefore, was to match the church’s role in Acts — that is, to become through its ministers the instrumental means of spreading the gospel. Ecclesiology is more the frame than the focus of Edwards’s thought about God’s plan.
Understandably, Reformers and Puritans were constantly laboring to get and keep churches in scriptural shape, whatever else claimed their attention. Edwards, however, could take the Reformed church order of New England for granted, and so, equally understandably, his point of reference when looking ahead was less the perfecting of the church than the triumph of the kingdom of Christ, of which the church was the executive agent. Edwards was not weak in his ecclesiology, as witnessed by his willingness to lose his job, as he did, for insisting on classic New England discipline at the Lord’s Table. Characteristically, though, his thought about the church was an aspect of his thought about the kingdom.
Today the older churches worldwide are under threat, so it is natural for biblically informed minds within them to strategize for the renewing and reviving of churches (congregations, that is) as units and in their life together. For Edwards, however, the focus of thought was always the reviving of religion in and through the churches for the conversion of the world. What difference this makes is a matter worth discussing, but we cannot do that here.
The initial goal of this essay was to elucidate Edwards’s understanding of revival, distinguishing it from more general ideas of renewal as the reanimating of the church’s corporate life. For it is in my view important to see that what is meant when we hear of congregational renewal, biblical renewal, liturgical renewal, ecumenical renewal, lay renewal, and so on is something less than Edwards’s conception of a reviving of religion — that is, a deepening and energizing of personal communion with God according to the Scriptures. Edwards, however, like Calvin, was a very organic as well as a very powerful, Bible-centered, God-focused thinker, and it soon became clear that the project required some account to be given of how Edwards understood the fellowship with God that constitutes religion and the God with whom Christians commune; and so the essay grew into its present shape. Out of the material surveyed, the following questions for us now seem to arise:
“Sin is an anti-God allergy found in every human soul.” Tweet
First, do we acknowledge Edwards’s God — that is, the biblical profile and lineaments of the Creator as Edwards presents them from the Scriptures? Sadly, for many in the churches today the word God has no clear meaning. Talking-points about God among the church’s intellectuals include the anti-trinitarian monism into which Process Theology has finally mutated, the non-hierarchical social Trinity of some post-liberals, and the ultra-Arminian open theism of some evangelicals. But neither God’s holiness, nor his glory, nor the punitive pain involved in being finally condemned by one’s Creator receive much serious attention. Yet if Edwards is right, when God revives religion, these truths, faithfully taught, make an enormous impact; and about their prominence in the Bible there can be no question. So we do well to ask ourselves whether we have come to terms with them as of now.
Second, do we understand religion as Edwards did? Specifically, do we understand Christian existence as the joy of enjoying God in Christ, framed by the struggles of a life of repentance, self-denial, and suffering in its various forms? Much is heard today of spirituality as selfdiscovery and self-fulfillment in God and of a relationship with God that brings happiness, contentment, satisfaction, and inward peace. But of bearing the cross, battling wrong desires, resisting temptation, mortifying sin, and making those decisions that Jesus pictured as cutting off a limb and plucking out an eye, little or nothing gets said.
Yet this is the living out of repentance, and without realistic emphasis on this more demanding side of the Christian life, a great deal of self-deceived shallowness and a great many false professions of faith from persons ignorant of the cost of discipleship are bound to appear. Now it is precisely the life of repentance, of cross-bearing, of holiness under pressure and joy within pain — the life, in other words, of following Jesus on his own stated terms — that God revives, for this is the reality of religion. Again, we do well to ask ourselves whether this is something we have come to terms with as of now.
Third, would we recognize a reviving of religion if we were part of one? I ask myself that question. For more than half a century the need of such reviving in the places where I have lived, worshiped, and worked has weighed me down. I have read of past revivals. I have learned, through a latter-day revival convert from Wales, that there is a tinc in the air, a kind of moral and spiritual electricity, when God’s close presence is enforcing his Word. I have sat under the electrifying ministry of the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who as it were brought God into the pulpit with him and let him loose on the listeners. Lloyd-Jones’s ministry blessed many, but he never believed he was seeing the revival he sought.
I have witnessed remarkable evangelical advances, not only academic but also pastoral, with churches growing spectacularly through the gospel on both sides of the Atlantic and believers maturing in the life of repentance as well as in the life of joy. Have I seen revival? I think not — but would I know? From a distance, the difference between the ordinary and extraordinary working of God’s Spirit looks like black and white, a difference of kind; to Edwards, however, at close range, it appeared a matter of degree, as his Narrative and his Brainerd volume (to look no further) make clear. Some evangelicals need to be asked, Are you not expecting too little from God in the way of moral transformation? But others need to be asked, Are you not expecting too much from God in the way of situational drama? Do we always know when we are in a revival situation?
To bring Wesley back for a moment before we say good-bye: Had I been mentored through the successive levels of one of his brilliantly structured Methodist Societies, from trial band (a small group of four to ten, exploring whether I truly wanted God in my life) to class membership in the United Society and to a band of believers, and on in due course to the Select Society, a fellowship of bands seeking to live a life of holy love, would it have been clear to me at any stage that I was part of a nationwide work of God’s reviving religion? I do not know. Here is an uncertainty with which, I think, we must all learn to live. Touches of reviving, I suspect, surround us, and we are not always aware of them.
What is certain, however, is this: God calls us, and wisdom directs us, to seek for ourselves the full reality of religion as Edwards describes it, and to pray for the further reviving of religion, by God’s grace and for God’s glory, that all our communities have need of at this time.
More Messages from Desiring God 2003 National Conference
Jonathan Edwards: The Life, the Man, and the Legacy (Iain Murray)
Sarah Edwards: Jonathan’s Home and Haven (Noël Piper)
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