Sinner in the Hands of a Patient God

“Exposure to Jonathan Edwards has mostly been limited to reading Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, as an early selection in an American literature textbook, such that we might despise the Puritans all the more when we get to The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible.”

It is a familiar snark heard among the young, restless Reformed, one used to discredit the lack of legitimate credit that modern educators assign one of early America’s greatest intellects. I have heard it often. I even have said it often, claiming it as my own experience. Now, I must confess. For me, it is not true.

A so-called “Halftime” job change recently required me to box up hearth and home in Cincinnati and move to Minneapolis to answer a calling to serve Bethlehem College & Seminary. For a pre-Kindle bibliophile like me, this meant boxing and unboxing over a hundred cartons of books. In truth, the task was a joy, an opportunity to reacquaint myself with many old friends who have mentored me on life’s spiritual and intellectual journey.

Finding Edwards

In the process of de-shelving and re-shelving, I happened upon a book I read in the mid-90’s by former U.S. House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, in which he opined that Jonathan Edwards was the most under-appreciated of the American Founding Fathers. How strange it seemed to me then that Gingrich, whom I respected as an authority on American history, would place Edwards in the pantheon with Washington, Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson. Jonathan Edwards’s place in my own mind was set in stereotype: preacher, pinch-faced, Puritan, and prude. This one sentence in Newt Gingrich’s book was profoundly influential in setting the trajectory of my life. It suggested to me that I didn’t know enough about Jonathan Edwards and that I probably ought to learn more.

A week later while browsing the new arrivals table at Borders, my eyes landed upon God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards by John Piper. What were the chances that the name of Edwards, this long-dead, hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, would occupy any of my attention span at the close of the twentieth century, much less recur twice in a span of seven days? It seemed to me a book I needed to pick up.

God’s Passion for His Glory changed my life. As I sat reading in our living room, I found myself interrupting my wife’s own leisure reading to say, “Listen to this,” then reciting Edwards, then Piper, then Scripture, well into the evening. I had never read anything like it.

The emanation or communication of the divine fullness, consisting in the knowledge of God, to love him, and joy in him, has relation to God as its fountain, as the thing communicated is something of its internal fullness. The warm stream is something of the fountain; and the beams of sun are something of the sun. (Jonathan Edwards, The End for Which God Created the World)

[I]f we would not be infinitely parochial, and thus fail in true virtue, then our private life, our public life, and our global life must be driven not by a narrow, constricted, merely natural self-love, but by passion for the supremacy of God in all things — a passion created through supernatural new birth by the Holy Spirit, giving us a new spiritual taste for the glory of God — a passion sustained by the on-going, sanctifying influence of the Word of God — and a passion bent on spreading itself through all of culture and all the nations until Christ comes. (John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards)

God is not the God of the dead but of the living; for all live to him. (Luke 20:38)

For seventeen years, I had walked with Jesus, but after reading Piper’s God’s Passion for His Glory, it felt as if I were only taking my first steps. Here was the God-centered God of the Bible, supreme sovereign, good-worker in all things, rationally jealous of his own glory. Here I learned the truth that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” It was where I first met Jonathon Edwards, John Piper, and, in perhaps the most intimate way, God himself.

Or, so I thought. Which brings me back to the un-boxing of books.

Strange and Supernatural

In my recent un-packing, I found my high school American literature textbook, Major Writers of America, Volume I, 1962, Harcourt, Brace & World, edited by noted Edwardsian, Perry Miller of Harvard. I need to confess that Edwards was not at all trivialized in this textbook. His name appears on the cover alongside Franklin, Irving, Cooper, Emerson, Thoreau, and others. I leafed the table of contents to locate Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and found instead seventeen weighty selections including Personal Narrative, Notes on the Mind, Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England, The Nature of True Virtue, and yes, Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World. I had read all of these, and more, twenty-three years before reading John Piper and, even more notably, six years before becoming a Christian.

I flipped forward to the Edwards section of the textbook and was stunned by what I saw. Here were my own underlinings in Edwards, highlighting just six things that had obviously captured my then-teenage mind.

And my mind was greatly engaged to spend my time in reading and meditating on Christ, on the beauty and excellency of person, and the lovely way of salvation by free grace in him.

. . . a divine beauty; far purer than anything here upon the earth; and that every thing else was like mire and defilement, in comparison of it.

When I look into my heart, and take a view of my wickedness, it looks like an abyss infinitely deeper than hell.

[I] have experienced more of an abhorrence of my own righteousness.

I see that serpent rising and putting forth its head continually, every where, all around me.

How happy are they which do that which is right in the sight of God! They are blessed indeed, they are the happy ones!

God at Work

Those underlinings were from 1975. I was not a Christian. I didn’t come from a Christian home. I’d never read the Bible. Yet here almost as blind, deaf, and dead in my sin as I ever was, there was something at work in my consciousness magnetizing me toward the words of Jonathan Edwards. The next six years of my life, in truth, were to be the worst of my life — years of rebellion, reprobation, a grand tour of perdition. But then God showed his love for me in that while I was still a sinner, Christ died for me. In 1981, Christ came to me.

For years, I have credited John Piper with first introducing me to Jonathan Edwards. Now, I need to credit properly an unappreciated high school literature teacher for assigning a very respectful reading of Edwards. But this bit of time travel has caused me to see so clearly, after almost 40 years, that it was really God who first introduced me to Jonathan Edwards so that, in is his own delightfully jealous way, he might introduce me to himself.