How Jonathan Edwards Got Fired, and Why It's Important for Us Today

Desiring God 2003 National Conference | Minneapolis

Some of you, before you read the title to this chapter, or before you read the earlier chapters in this book, may not even have known that Jonathan Edward had been fired. He was fired by a vote of his congregational church. In July 1750 the members of his own congregation voted to sever the pastoral relationship between them. Only 10 percent of the church members voted to keep Edwards as their pastor. As Edwards put it to a friend a couple of weeks later, the “generality” of the church members voted to send him away.

But before he could be voted out, he had to be voted in.

In April 1725 the church in Northampton, Massachusetts, voted to find a colleague pastor for the ailing Solomon Stoddard, the so-called “Pope of the Connecticut Valley” and Jonathan Edwards’s maternal grandfather. Edwards was first invited to preach there in August 1726. In November of that same year, Edwards was invited to settle in Northampton. He accepted the call to become the assistant and presumed successor of his Grandfather Stoddard at the church in Northampton, arguably the most important church center outside of Boston.

Stoddard was certainly one of the most celebrated ministers in New England. And it is at this point that Edwards’s biography — and that of his family — gets so intertwined with ecclesiology and the purpose of this chapter. Back in 1662 the Congregational churches in New England had struck a compromise in order to give many of the rights of membership (which included, most importantly, having their own children baptized) to those who had made no profession of conversion. This would allow such people to enjoy all the privileges of church membership except for the Lord’s Table. This was withheld from them. This became known as “the Halfway Covenant” and was bitterly opposed by Increase Mather and some others, but was finally generally accepted by the churches.

The church at Northampton had been founded by Increase Mather’s brother, Eleazar Mather. It was one of the congregations that had rejected this Halfway Covenant. When Eleazar Mather died in 1669, he was immediately succeeded by Solomon Stoddard, who was himself a champion of the new Halfway Covenant. Stoddard took Mather’s widow as his wife, and the church quickly took the new way advocated by Stoddard. Soon they had Covenant members (who gave evidence of conversion and were admitted to the Lord’s Table) and nonCovenant members (who did not give evidence of conversion and were not admitted to the Lord’s Table).

Within a few years something occurred that the plan’s proponents had not foreseen — the non-Covenant members outnumbered the Covenant members. After some years of wrestling with this, in 1700 Stoddard suggested a fundamental change in the way that the Lord’s Supper was given. He suggested that it should be expanded to include all of those members (regenerate and unregenerate) who wanted to partake, excepting only those whose lives were scandalous. “Mr. Stoddard’s Way,” as it was known, had been practiced for many years quietly in Northampton under his pastorate. Now he would make it known and advocate it.

Once again Increase Mather led the charge against this innovation. Stoddard published treatises in favor of his position, claiming that it might help in converting the unregenerate, and soon Stoddard’s way became the practice of many, and perhaps most, of the New England churches. One can immediately grasp why it would be popular.

Now back to Edwards. In February 1727 Edwards was ordained a co-pastor of the church at Northampton, working alongside his grandfather. Two years later, on February 11, 1729, Solomon Stoddard died, and so Jonathan Edwards became the sole pastor of the most important congregation in western Massachusetts, with over 600 members. Stoddard’s funeral was the very public occasion then for the beginning of Edward’s solo pastorate. His first couple of years were spent quietly.

On July 8, 1731, Edwards preached a sermon in Boston entitled “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence,” at the request of the Boston clergy. It was the regular Thursday lecture at First Church (largely attended by ministers), but it was special because it was also the week of commencement at Harvard College. Being invited to give this address, then, was the biggest honor of the whole series of lectures. It would be the best-attended lecture of the year. And this lecture promised to be a particularly interesting one for a number of reasons pertaining to the lecturer.

First, the lectures were usually given by ministers from the Boston area; Edwards was from remote Northampton. Second, they were usually given by Harvard graduates; Edwards had not gone to Harvard, but to the new school, Yale (whose reputation was in serious question at the time). Third, Edwards was young — only twenty-eight at the time he was asked to give it. Fourth, he was the grandson of the famed Solomon Stoddard, who had often given this or some other important lecture in Boston. As Perry Miller described it, “The figure who stood before the congregation on this Thursday morning was the newly crowned successor of a rival principality, and the Boston clergy turned out to greet him as some privy council might greet the fledgling heir of a competing power” (Miller, Jonathan Edwards [William Sloane Associates, 1949], 13).

The lecture was deemed to be a success and was printed within a month; it was Edwards’s first sermon to be printed. Its printed title was: God Glorified in the Work of Redemption by the Greatness of Man’s Dependence upon Him, in the Whole of It (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses, 1730-1733, [Yale University Press, 1999], 200-219).

Edwards continued on in his ministry. He saw revivals in the work in Northampton during the next few years, most notably from December 1734 through the spring of 1735. The membership of the church increased by several score, and so in 1736-1737 they built a new meetinghouse to accommodate the increase. Edwards continued as pastor of this congregation for more than a decade, having an international reputation, until, in July 1750, the members of the church voted by a margin of 10 to 1 to dismiss him. Ten days later, Edwards preached his final sermon to them as their pastor.

The situations that led to his dismissal are a long story that has to do with everything from botched pastoral moves to disputes over salary, envy in the town, a perceived coolness and aloofness on the part of Mr. Edwards, and even long-standing tensions in his own extended family. We could go on. The answer to “why” questions is almost always beyond human capacity to answer fully. Many of the particulars would be of interest only to academic historians or would take more space than the scope of this chapter allows.

At the very heart of the controversy that led to Edwards’s being fired was church discipline and especially the question of who was to be admitted to the Lord’s Table. Jonathan Edwards had come to disagree with his venerable grandfather, and the shock to the unity of the church was enough to send Edwards tumbling out of his pulpit, twenty-three years of spectacularly faithful and fruitful ministry notwithstanding.

Edwards had seven more years to live. They would mainly be spent in Stockbridge, a mission settlement further west in Massachusetts. The last few months of his life were spent in Princeton, New Jersey.

Edwards arrived in Princeton on February 16, 1758, and was formally installed as the President of the College that same day. One week later, February 23, he was inoculated for small pox, and after one month, lacking a day, on March 22, 1758, he died from it. Jonathan Edwards lived to be only fifty-four.

But in his brief life he had had the privilege of having a ministry of tremendous importance for a number of reasons. Not least among those reasons was his strong reassertion of the visible nature of the church, particularly reflected in his understanding of the Lord’s Supper as an ordinance for believers.

The Setting for the Controversy

The controversy surrounding Edwards’s views on Communion had gone on for a couple of years, from 1748 until its resolution by his dismissal in 1750. The setting for the controversy was a church already frayed by tensions between the pastor and a few of the leading families. In what has been called the “Bad Book Case” in 1744 — which George Marsden, in his magisterial recent biography of Edwards, has argued we should call the “young folks’ Bible” case — Edwards had alienated (probably unnecessarily) a number of families by reading publicly the names of children whom he wanted to see concerning a certain scandal, thereby leaving the public impression that all of these children had behaved scandalously.

In fact, all Edwards was really doing was asking that certain of the young people come to see him so that he could get information from them (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life [Yale University Press, 2003], 292-302). Pastors will understand the importance of such small miscalculations, as well as their incalculable effects. Marsden describes Edwards as one “never given to excessive tact” and as having a personality that was “brittle” and “unsociable” (Ibid., 344, 349).

Edwards continued to pastor the church and write prolifically, producing most notably A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections in 1746, and in 1747 A Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement, and in 1749 An Account of the Life of Reverse David Brainerd.

But it was in 1748 that dissension really seemed to take hold in Edwards’s church.

Dealing with the difficulties of pastoral ministry became even more difficult for Edwards when, in 1748, his influential and supportive uncle, Colossians John Stoddard, died. Various clergy who had been disaffected with Edwards for one reason or another began to feel more free to voice their dissatisfactions. The divisions in his own congregation were encouraged. The Hawleys and the Williamses had had differences with Edwards. Some matters of church discipline, perhaps poorly handled, had caused stresses and strains.

The Communion Controversy

It was against the backdrop of these existing tensions that the controversy over Communion broke out in earnest. In December 1748, Edwards told someone that they must profess Christianity before they could take Communion. This simple instruction reversed decades of practice. Stoddard had specifically opposed such requirements. Edwards was now quietly asserting his pastoral authority in a new direction.

The applicant talked to others about this and then refused to profess being a Christian. He was happy to profess godliness, but not being a Christian. He withdrew his request for membership in the church.

Tongues wagged, and eyebrows were raised. In February 1749 Edwards proposed that he preach about this change in the terms of admission to Communion. He proposed preaching a series of sermons to teach the congregation. The leaders preferred that Edwards make his case in print, and so he did.

In the meantime, in April, Mary Hulbert presented herself for Communion and membership, but Edwards and the Church Committee could not agree on whether she should make a profession of faith in order to do this, or whether such an action would prejudice the church. In order to break the impasse, Edwards bought time by offering to resign if the church would wait until after his defense of this change was written and published, so that they would have a chance to carefully consider his views. By a 15 to 3 vote the committee would not agree to it; so she was not allowed to join. The very fact that Edwards offered to resign signals something of how frayed the relationships had become.

In the midst of all this, it became clear that Edwards had come to disagree with the Halfway Covenant — the practice in New England churches of baptizing the infants of baptized, yet non-communicant church members. This only further alienated many of Edwards’s church members, who felt that their own rights to church privileges were being threatened.

In a letter to John Erskine in Scotland, written on May 20, 1749, Edwards mentioned the controversy:

A very great difficulty has arisen between my people, relating to qualifications for communion at the Lord’s table. My honoured grandfather Stoddard, my predecessor in the ministry over this church, strenuously maintained the Lord’s Supper to be a converting ordinance, and urged all to come who were not of scandalous life, though they knew themselves to be unconverted. I formerly conformed to his practice but I have had difficulties with respect to it, which have been long increasing, till I dared no longer proceed in the former way, which has occasioned great uneasiness among my people, and has filled all the country with noise. (Edwards to John Erskine (May 20, 1749), in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Letters and Personal Writings, [Yale University Press, 1998], 271)

By August 1749 his new book had arrived in Northampton: An Humble Inquiry into the Rules of the Word of God Concerning the Qualifications Requisite to a Complete Standing and Full Communion in the Visible Christian Church (Edwards, “An Humble Inquiry . . .” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, [ Banner of Truth, 1974], 1:431-484). That fall a secular meeting of citizens urged the church to separate Edwards either from his new principles or from his congregation. In December a council of local ministers was convened to look into the case.

In February 1750 Edwards decided to lecture on his opinions on Thursday afternoons at 2 P.M. The sermons were well-attended by visitors, but not by his own people. And they were to no avail. There was a series of divisive church meetings throughout the spring, issuing in a meeting of a council of ministers from June 19-22, 1750. The council asked to know the congregation’s mind on the matter, and in a specially called members’ meeting, only 10 percent of the church’s members voted for Edwards to remain as their pastor. The ministerial council then decided (by one vote) that the relations between Edwards and the congregation in Northampton should be dissolved. In effect, the council narrowly ratified what the congregation clearly desired.

“Only 10 percent of the church’s members voted for Edwards to remain as their pastor.”

Marsden sums the matter up this way:

Without his clumsily managed reversal of direction on [the terms of admission to the sacraments], he would have remained pastor in Northampton. True, there were pent-up resentments that came pouring out when the occasion arose. Nonetheless, the question of admission to the sacraments was in itself a momentous issue, with potential to disrupt even a harmonious relationship between a pastor and a town. (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 370)

Perhaps if Edwards had introduced this more gradually, matters would have turned out differently, but we can only speculate.

On July 1, 1750, Edwards preached one of the most remarkable sermons that he — or any pastor to my knowledge — has ever preached. He preached his farewell sermon from 2 Corinthians 1:14 (KJV): “As also ye have acknowledged us in part, that we are your rejoicing, even as ye also are ours in the day of the Lord Jesus” (Edwards, “Farewell Sermon,” in Works, 1:cxcviii-ccvii). This sermon is remarkable for its gravity and tenderness, its love and certainty, and the evident deep trust in God expressed by its preacher. Strangely enough, Edwards (in what must have been a rather awkward situation) continued to live in the parsonage and to preach for them Sunday by Sunday at their request, until October 1751, fifteen months later.

The next year, 1752, from his home in Stockbridge, Edwards sent to the press the only other major work he published on this question: Misrepresentations Corrected, and Truth Vindicated in a Reply to the Reverse Mr. Solomon Williams’s Book (Works, 1:485-531). This was his answer to Solomon Williams, Edwards’s cousin, who had written defending Stoddard’s practice and the decision of the Northampton church. Of course, this controversy had been settled by the dismissal of Edwards, so it was not continuing to disturb Northampton. Nevertheless, Edwards thought that he must correct certain misrepresentations.

By the end of the century Solomon Stoddard’s “converting ordinances” idea — the idea that prevailed in the church at Northampton over Edwards’s objections — became virtually extinct. After his death, Edwards’s ideas won out.

Concern for the Visibility of the Church

In all of this, it is evident that Edwards’s concern was a concern that had marked various parts of the Reformation and that was especially typical of the New England Puritan heritage he had received — the concern for the* visibility* of the church. By requiring those who are considered full members of the church to profess and demonstrate conversion, Edwards was hearkening back to the need for a clear distinction between the church and the world that had been so typical of the Puritan movement that had originally motivated so much of the settlement of New England. He was willing to put all of his personal convenience as a forty-six-year-old man, with a large (and therefore expensive to maintain) family on the line for what he understood to be faithfulness to Scripture on this particular matter.

As earlier separatists had maintained before him, Edwards understood that the visible church will always be mixed, and yet its purity was an asset to be cherished and improved. Its certain mixture was in no way an excuse for indifference or complacence about the moral purity of the church. In his sermons and particularly in his Humble Inquiry, Edwards advocated the simple idea that “none ought to be admitted to the communion and privileges of members of the visible church of Christ in complete standing, but such as are in profession and in the eye of the church’s Christian judgment godly or gracious persons” (Edwards, “An Humble Inquiry into the Rules . . . Concerning . . . Communion in the Visible Christian Church,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, * Ecclesiastical Writings*, ed. David Hall [Yale University Press, 1994], 182).

Edwards summoned the examples of the church in the New Testament, both in the Acts and in the Epistles, as supporting his case. Based on texts such as 1 Corinthians 11:28, “Let a man examine himself . . . and so eat,” Edwards argued that “It is necessary, that those who partake of the Lord’s Supper, should judge themselves truly and cordially to accept of Christ, as their only Savior and chief good; for this is what the actions, which communicants perform at the Lord’s table, are a solemn profession of” (Ibid., 256). The argument is straightforward enough.

What Lessons Can We Learn for Today?

What are we today to learn from Edwards’s stand? Why should this be so important that Edwards would be willing to be maligned and even fired over it? The main thing that I have been challenged about as I reflect on Edwards’s resolve in this matter is the clarity with which he perceived that the church is to be visible; it is to be visibly the church.

We are to remember afresh that part of what we need to do is not simply try to make the church as accessible and comfortable as possible for the nonbeliever, but we must labor to make it as pure and holy as we can for all concerned — believers and nonbelievers, ourselves and others, the church, and even for the glory of God himself.

J.H. Thornwell, the great Southern Presbyterian theologian of the nineteenth century, noticed the churches in his day moving in a dangerous direction, a direction that he feared might compromise the very message of the church. In a letter written in July 1846, Thornwell warned:

Our whole system of operations gives an undue influence to money. Where money is the great want, numbers must be sought; and where an ambition for numbers prevails, doctrinal purity must be sacrificed. The root of the evil is in the secular spirit of all our ecclesiastical institutions. What we want is a spiritual body; a Church whose power lies in the truth, and the presence of the Holy Ghost. To unsecularize the Church should be the unceasing aim of all who are anxious that the ways of Zion should flourish. (Thornwell, in a letter dated July 24, 1846, quoted in Benjamin Morgan Palmer, The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell (Richmond, Va.: Whittet & Shepperson, 1875), 291)

Like the compromised church at Northampton, so too among evangelicals of our own day, somewhere along the way something has happened to our ideas of church membership. And what touches membership touches the visibility of the church, and thereby the clarity and credibility of the gospel we preach in the world. Edwards seemed to understand this, and to understand its importance.

Evangelicals today may not have self-consciously entered into a Halfway Covenant. We may not be inviting non-Christians to Communion officially as they were in Edwards’s day, but can anyone deny that membership in a church — the symbolic core of which is being regularly welcomed to the Lord’s Table — is less meaningful today than it was a century ago? And if that is true, what kind of progress does that evidence, or portend, in sanctification? In evangelization? In missions? In bringing glory to our great Creator and Savior?

Is this a peculiarly American phenomenon, a leftover from the cultural dominance evangelical Christianity did in the past enjoy?

I read recently that the average Baptist church in England had seventy-three members and eighty-five in attendance (according to the 1989 English Church Census). In the U.S., the average attendance on Sunday morning among Southern Baptist churches was actually somewhat smaller — seventy — but still comparable. What was way out of line was this: Instead of having a slightly smaller membership — almost all of whom would be in attendance, with some visitors added in — the average U.S. Southern Baptist church has 233 members! (According to SBC Research Review 6 [Fall 1996]: 1)

Do you remember the line in the old spiritual “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” that says, “Some go to church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out”? That seems to happen, then, not just to some, but to most! And it’s not just among Baptists. The statistics of denomination after denomination, local congregation after local congregation, evidence a laxness about church membership that undermines the gospel. Surely this is similar to the situation Edwards faced.

In Part 3 of Edwards’s Humble Inquiry, Edwards asked why parents would be so concerned that their children have the signs and symbols — baptism and the Lord’s Supper — and so evidently less concerned that they have the realities symbolized by them! Edwards wrote:

What is the name good for, without the thing? Can parents bear to have their children go about the world in the most odious and dangerous state of soul, in reality the children of the devil, and condemned to eternal burnings; when at the same time they can’t bear to have them disgraced by going without the honor of being baptized! A high honor and privilege this is; yet how can parents be contented with the sign, exclusive of the thing signified! Why should they covet the external honor for their children, while they are so careless about the spiritual blessing! (Edwards, “Inquiry,” 316)

Edwards goes on like this for pages!

Perhaps for us today, it is not strictly that membership has become meaningless and that it doesn’t matter, but that it has the wrong meaning, and that it matters wrongly. Today a high-affection, lowcommitment idea of membership is common. That is, today it may mean much to “leave someone’s membership” in a particular place, but such a membership in itself evidences no commitment whatever to attend the church or pray for its ministry, to give to the church or to work to forward the gospel through it.

What we need is an exact reversal to take place. Ideas of membership should not be so associated with affection (I can love those who are not members of my church; I sometimes find that easier!) and linked more simply to commitment. Yes, make allowances for those who have recently moved, those who are invalids, those who are temporarily away for education or business or military service. But normalcy should be that a member of a church is in regular attendance and is evidently growing in love to God and man and in holiness of life.

Laxness about church membership undermines the gospel.

Church discipline, too, should be reinvigorated to recover this winsome and hope-giving distinction that we Christians are to have from the world. Writing in the 1940s, New Testament scholar H.E. Dana said:

The abuse of discipline is reprehensible and destructive, but not more than the abandonment of discipline. Two generations ago the churches were applying discipline in a vindictive and arbitrary fashion which justly brought it into disrepute; today the pendulum has swung to the other extreme — discipline is almost wholly neglected. It is time for a new generation of pastors to restore this important function of the church to its rightful significance and place in church life. (Dana, Manual of Ecclesiology, [Central Seminary Press, 1944], 244)

Again, why is discipline important? Why is Edwards’s recovery of the idea of regenerate church membership important? Because the gospel matters! And because God has elected to move in human history in a corporate way. Did he send his Son uniquely? Yes. Did he raise up individual prophets and apostles? Yes. Does he gift his church with individuals as pastors and teachers, servants and workers of mercy? Yes. Does he save us as individuals? Yes. But that is not the whole story!

By the stand that Edwards took, even to the sacrificing of his own reputation, position, and welfare, he was only reflecting God’s own concern as we see it on the pages of Scripture when he desires members of the church to be those who are manifesting and displaying the glory of God. How will the satanic slander against the Creator’s character be refuted? Not merely by individual conversions, but by the church, as the society of the redeemed, the company of the elect, the trophy of God’s grace, showing his love and grace, his justice and holiness to each other.

Why Should We Exclude People from Communion?

Why should we act, like Edwards, to exclude certain people from the Lord’s Table in our own local churches? Why should we act to discipline or exclude people from Communion? We could give many reasons, but let me just give you five.

For the good of the individual disciplined. (See 1 Corinthians 5:5; Galatians 6:1; 1 Timothy 1:20; Titus 1:13.) The man in 1 Corinthians 5 was lost in his sin, thinking God was fine with his having an affair with his father’s wife. The people in the churches in Galatia thought it was fine that they were trusting in their own works rather than in Christ alone. Alexander and Hymenaeus thought they were fine in blaspheming God. But none of these were! So out of our love for such people, we want to see church discipline practiced. We don’t want to allow them to come to the Lord’s Table, to enjoy the benefits of membership in our churches. We don’t want to publicly affirm to them or to the watching world that they are pictures of what it means to savingly repent and believe. We don’t want our church to encourage hypocrites who are hardened and confirmed, lulled in their sins. We do not want to live that kind of life individually or as a church. We don’t want to see people who are not partakers of Christ by faith being treated as if they were! And we want this clarified for their own good!

For the good of the other Christians, as they see the danger of sin. When Paul wrote to Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:20, he said that if a leader sins, he should be rebuked publicly. That doesn’t mean that anytime I, as the pastor of my church, do anything wrong, members of my church should stand up in the public service and say, “Hey, Mark, you were wrong when you did this.” It means that when there is a serious sin (particularly that’s not repented of), it needs to be brought up in public so that others will take warning by seeing the serious nature of sin. Even Solomon Stoddard understood that those who were “scandalous livers” were not to partake of the Lord’s Table. Is there anything at your church that would inhibit the “scandalous livers” from taking the Lord’s Supper?

For the health of the church as a whole. (See 1 Corinthians 5:6-8.) Again in 1 Corinthians 5, when Paul was pleading with them, he said that they shouldn’t have boasted about having such toleration for sin in the church. He asked rhetorically, “Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?” Here yeast represented the unclean and spreading nature of sin. So Paul said, “Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast — as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival” — that’s the Passover supper — “not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth” (NIV).

For the Passover meal a lamb was slaughtered, and unleavened bread was eaten. Paul here told the Corinthians that the lamb (Christ) had been slaughtered and that they (the Corinthian church) were to be the unleavened bread. They were to have no leaven of sin in them. They as a whole church were to be an acceptable sacrifice. This would seem to mean that there was to be no partaking by those who were not Christians, who had not been forgiven by Christ.

Of course, such a reason to practice discipline doesn’t mean that discipline is the point of the church. Discipline is no more the point of the church than medicine is the point of life. Sometimes you are necessarily consumed with it, but generally it is no more than that which allows you to get on with your main task; it is certainly not the main task itself. The main task of the church, which Jonathan Edwards well knew, is glorifying God by preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. And yet, along with that, for the health of the church as a whole, Edwards also knew that church discipline should be practiced, and only those who give evidence of conversion should be allowed to come to the Lord’s Table. Only they should be members of our churches.

We should want to see discipline practiced in a church for the corporate witness of the church. (See 1 Corinthians 5:1; John 13:34-35; Matthew 5:16; 1 Peter 2:12.) This is a powerful tool in evangelism. People notice when our lives are different, especially when there is a whole community of people whose lives are different. The church is not a community of people whose lives are perfect, but whose lives are marked by genuinely loving God and loving one another. Conformity to the world in our churches makes our evangelistic task all the more difficult. As Nigel Lee of English Inter-Varsity once said, “We become so like the unbelievers they have no questions they want to ask us.” May we so live that people are made constructively curious.

And finally, the most compelling reason we have to practice church discipline is:

For the glory of God, as we reflect his holiness. (See Ephesians 5:2527; Hebrews 12:10-14; 1 Peter 1:15-16; 2:9-12; 1 John 3:2-3.) That’s why we’re alive! We humans were made to bear God’s image, to carry his character to his creation (see Genesis 1:27). So it is no surprise that throughout the Old Testament, as God fashioned a people to bear this image for himself, he instructed them in holiness so that their character might better approximate his own (Leviticus 11:44; 19:2; Proverbs 24:1, 25). This was the basis for correcting and even excluding some of the people in the Old Testament, as God fashioned a people for himself.

And that was the basis for shaping the New Testament church as well (see 2 Corinthians 6:14 — 7:1; 13:2; 1 Timothy 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 3:1-5). In the passages already mentioned, we find that as Christians we are supposed to be conspicuously holy, not for our own reputation, but for God’s reputation. So in Matthew 5 we see that we are to be the light of the world and that when people see our good deeds they are to glorify God (verse 16). Peter says the same thing: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). This is why God has called us and saved us and set us apart (Colossians 1:2122). What else should we look like if we bear his name? Paul wrote to the church at Corinth:

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

From the very beginning, Jesus had sent his disciples out to teach people to obey all that he had taught (Matthew 28:19-20). God will have a holy people to reflect his character.

The Church’s holiness reflects God’s.

And then when you read the picture of the church at the end of the book of Revelation, you see it is this glorious bride that reflects the character of Christ himself. In chapter 21, and then in chapter 22, we read the words of Christ: “Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (22:15).

Taking 1 Corinthians 5 as a model, churches have long recognized church discipline as one of the boundaries that make church membership mean something. The assumption is that a church member is someone who can appropriately take Communion without bringing disgrace on the church, condemnation on themselves, or dishonor to God and his gospel (see 1 Corinthians 11). Edwards understood better than his grandfather that it was not only moral uprightness but true spiritual life that is to be reflected in the church. It is by the collection of such spiritually alive people coming together that God is glorified as the church is made visible. It is through the church being made visible that the gospel is displayed. And the gospel glorifies God.

What was it Jesus said? “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). It is this shining, this visibility of the light of God’s Word and of his hope for sinners that is the role of the church and that pastors should cultivate in churches — even if people resent it and misunderstand us, gossip about us and are cruel to us and our families, even if it costs us our jobs and our reputations — as it did Jonathan Edwards. But then, Edwards didn’t live to please men but to please God.

I love the statement of David Hall about Edwards’s conduct during the ministerial council’s investigation of him, when they delivered the news that his relation with the Northampton congregation should be dissolved. This witness of Edwards’s reaction at the time recorded, “That faithful witness received the shock, unshaken. I never saw the least symptoms of displeasure in his countenance the whole week but he appeared like a man of God, whose happiness was out of the reach of his enemies” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 361).

This was Jonathan Edwards’s vision of the visible church — visible for the glory of God. And it is a vision that we today should reaffirm. The church is to be constituted of believers, so that it will be visible for the glory of God. And that glory comes not by our exulting in our independence, but in our glorious dependence on God, and in creating distinct societies of love in a world of God-ignoring selfishness. God help us when our doctrine of the church stands to protect human pride and selfish individualism. God help us recover the true vision of the church — the vision that, by God’s grace, Edwards really had — the vision of the church visibly shining and distinct from the world, radiantly distinct, visible for the glory of God!