Good to see you. I’m looking forward to teaching tonight and being with friends this afternoon and having a picnic with you next Sunday. That’s an announcement we’re making. We plan to go down to Elliot Park and eat together after church next Sunday afternoon. These messages are not just a two-part series; it’s a three-part series because Noël, the Sunday after I’m done, will talk about Jonathan Edwards’s wife, who had a very significant role in the revivals of his day.
Let me explain how I’m going to handle this time, these two weeks. What I’d like to do today is to biographically, from my standpoint, take you on my pilgrimage with Jonathan Edwards, and then talk a little bit about the man himself. We’ll walk through my walk into Edwards’s books over the last 27 years or so and then look at his life. Then next Sunday we’ll focus in on his engagement with the revivals. There were two major revival seasons: 1734 to 1735 and 1741 to 1742, trailing off into 1743. These were big awakenings in New England.
Edwards was a pastor theologian who lived from 1703 to 1758. He died when he was not quite 55 years old and he is regarded by many as the most powerful preacher, theologian — and some would even say philosopher — that America has ever produced.
A Journey with Jonathan Edwards
Let me save his life until the end of our time this morning and begin by introducing you to his thought. The reason I spend a whole Sunday here on what you might call “non-revivalistic Edwards” — what he thought and his framework — is due to the fact that you should know how God uses different kinds of people. The Edwards that God used was vastly different from the Finney that God used, or the Moody that God used — vastly different. We must never stereotype the kind of person God might be pleased to make the instrument of an awakening, never. Because the history of the church simply puts that to naught. You can’t do it.
You need to meet this amazingly intellectual man, Jonathan Edwards, in his pastoral labors so that you can avoid stereotyping the kind of people that might be used by God for remarkable revivalistic fervor. Next Sunday we’ll tackle his specifically revivalistic writings, the events surrounding those revivals, and the controversies that emerged.
I don’t know what inclinations you have in this regard, but if you want to be reading let me just show you some places to begin. This is the best biography, I believe, on Jonathan Edwards, and I think I’ve read five. It’s called Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography by Iain Murray. This is the one we carry in our bookstore. If they’re not there right now, we’ll be getting some more. The writing style is accessible. You don’t have to be a trained theologian or have a seminary background in order to benefit from this book. It’s a biography of Edwards and it’s rich with practical, personal implications for our lives. I recommend it to all of you.
If you want to go deeper and have most of what is published, these are the two volumes that Banner of Truth Trust puts out. Most of the works that I’ll be referring to this morning are in these. It has little, tiny two-column print. You have to have high motivation to work your way through the sermons and texts here. But you could do what I did years ago, and I may still do it again: Set yourself 15 minutes a day to read. When they’re done, stop. If you do that religiously six days a week, you’ll be amazed how much you can read in six months or a year. There are huge amounts that, if you’re a non-reader, you would still be able to read. I’ve got a stack of books here, but I want to address these as I came to them on my own pilgrimage with Edwards.
When I was in seminary (1968 to 1971), a teacher named Lewis Smedes who taught ethics, recommended something that really lodged in my heart. He said, “I recommend to all of you young seminarians that in addition to all your broad reading, you pick one great theologian to read.” By “great” he meant someone whom the church, over centuries, has proved to be fruitful to engage with — not somebody who appeared on the scene for a decade or 50 years and then they disappeared, but somebody whom the centuries have validated as consistently fruitful for dialog in the church. These would be people like Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, etc. I fell toward and embraced Jonathan Edwards as that person for me.
I’ve read more of Edwards than I’ve read of any other person, living or dead, outside of the Bible. You need to know that Edwards exerts a massive influence on my life. I distinguish those who are living and those who are dead as my teachers, and he is the most important dead teacher outside of the Bible. So as I walk through this, you’ll be hearing echoes of how I got to be the way I am. That’s for good or ill, according to your interpretation of Scripture.
The first encounter with Edwards was in high school of course, as it was with most of you, where they took a little excerpt in my literature book and they called it typical puritan preaching, and they gave me about a page’s worth of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. They quote him saying, “God abhors sinners, holding them over hell like a spider on a thread over a fire,” which, in the context of that sermon, is a true statement, I believe. If you put it over against his majestic vision of grace and heaven, it enhances your love of God. But that’s where most people end on Edwards. He was a fiery, hellfire and brimstone preacher in New England, and he has nothing to do with contemporary life so he can be laid aside.
My real encounter came in 1968 or 1969, when I first read Essay On The Trinity, which is in the little book called Treatise on Grace: & Other Posthumously Published Writings. Essay On The Trinity is at the very end. It’s just a little, short essay on the Trinity — 30 pages at the back of the book. That was my next exposure and I knew I was into something very different than what they had said in the high school literature textbooks.
The impact of that little essay on the Trinity was, first, to give me a conceptual framework of the Trinity that I had never ever seen before. I’m tempted to go into it right now, though seeing what I’ve got to cover here and knowing how much time we have, I’m going to resist it. You’ve heard it as I’ve spoken about the Trinity before with God beholding his Son as the perfect embodiment of his own idea, or vision of himself. Therefore the Son is God reflected back to God and is a person in his own right. The Holy Spirit is the energy and love of God flowing back and carrying so much of the Son and the Father back and forth in love that he stands forth as the embodiment of all that God is in the love that he has for his Son. Therefore God has been a holy, happy, all-sufficient, Trinitarian community from all eternity. This glorious vision is so far above Allah in his solitude.
But probably more important than that was the whole effect of that book in causing me to come to a conclusion that I’ve never changed, namely that God is great and above all of our thinking, but he is mainly worshiped because of what we know of him, not what we don’t know of him. It was remarkable to me then and it is remarkable to me now how many people revel in what they don’t know about God as though that mystery were the rock solid basis of worship. They make it seem like the less one knows about God’s mystery, the more excited one gets about God. There’s something profoundly wrong with that.
Now that does not mean there’s nothing we don’t know. But when I came to the end of this essay on the Trinity, I read this:
I am sensible what kind of objections many will be ready to make against what has been said, what difficulties will be immediately found, “How can this be? And how can that be!” And I am far from affording this as any explication of this mystery that unfolds and renews the mysteriousness and incomprehensibleness of it. For I am sensible that though by what has been said some difficulties are lessened, others are new and appear, and the number of those things that appear mysterious, wonderful and incomprehensible, are increased by it. I offer it only as a further manifestation of what the Divine truth of the word of God exhibits to the view of our minds concerning this great mystery.
In other words, Edwards said there is more in the Holy Scriptures concerning God than we ever dreamed. And once you devote a life to seeing the God revealed in Scripture, you will not come to the end of your life thinking you have exhausted him, but marveling both at what you have known, mainly, and standing in awe of what you don’t know.
Vistas of Glory
I remember in those days this image came to my mind and I’ve used it over and over again. I got this in seminary and I’ve mentioned it in various services. I think all of eternity, beginning right now in this world, is like mountain climbing in the Alps of the glory of God. It’s as if you look up in the mountain ranges of the glory of God and you see a peak and devote yourself to climbing through meditation, prayer, study, obedience, worship, and fellowship. You move up for 10, 15, or 20 years, and you’re approaching the peak of this site that you got of the glory of his holiness or the glory of his mercy. Then when you come to the top when you’re 49 years old or so, you grab the top and come over and there falls away before you a huge endless ravine of glacier ice rising up into another peak that disappears into the cloud.
Then in a thousand years or so you climb that one, and with your growing understanding of his glory and his grace you pull yourself up over that edge with the exhilaration of accomplishment and fulfillment, and there falls away before you another vast array of beauty — mountain ranges upon mountain ranges rising up into endless skies. We will spend all eternity growing in our understanding of God.
I remember as a little child, in my foolishness, that heaven appeared boring to me for various reasons. Golden streets and fountains and harps never moved me as a kid. Grass, trees, dogs, and football did, but those kinds of crystalline images never helped me. But another reason I was bored was because I thought, “Well, once you get to heaven you know even as you are known (1 Corinthians 13:12), therefore we will know everything there is to know and it will be finished. We won’t be able to learn anymore, and learning is part of the joy of being finite under an infinite God.” Now I know better than that because Edwards showed that to me.
He showed it in varied ways and he showed it in numerous places. God is beyond comprehension and he will always be beyond comprehension. But our worship rests on what we know, mainly. And then we stand in wonder and awe of what we don’t yet know. That was the essay on the Trinity back in 1968 or 1969.
Freedom of the Will
The next book I encountered was Freedom Of The Will. This is probably the hardest book he wrote and maybe the most important. Now, Edwards was a Calvinist. However, here’s what he says about that:
I should not take it at all amiss to be called a Calvinist for distinction’s sake, though I utterly disclaim a dependence on Calvin or believing the doctrines which I hold because he believed them and taught them and cannot justly be charged with believing in everything just as he taught.
That’s exactly the way I would describe my Calvinism. I hope and pray and still lay myself open to the test that my Calvinism is rooted, not in Calvin or in anybody’s book, except that of Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, James, and the Old Testament.
Freedom of the Will is written to answer the question: Is the will free, as Arminians define freedom, or not? He devotes his whole effort to the thesis, the main point of the book: God’s moral government over mankind, his treatment of them as moral agents, making them the object of his commands, councils, calls, warnings, and invitations, is not inconsistent with a determining disposal of all events of every kind throughout the universe in his providence, either by causative efficiency or by permission.
Now that’s a long sentence so let me sum it up. What he’s saying is that God controls absolutely everything everywhere all the time, and that is not inconsistent with God telling you to do one thing and not another and holding you blameworthy if you do the wrong thing. If you sit there and say, “It is absolutely impossible for those two things to be true,” here’s what I suggest to you: Realize that your conclusion about those two things — God’s absolute sovereignty and his command of faith with the corresponding sentence of unbelief as blameworthy — is owing to a philosophical presupposition that you yourself bring. It’s not owing to the laws of logic.
It is owing to this philosophical presupposition: In order for a person to be held accountable, they must have ultimate self-determination. That’s the philosophical presupposition that you are bringing to the so-called contradiction that you see. But it may not be a contradiction. In fact, I would argue profoundly that it is not a contradiction. Edwards’s book was devoted to proving that it is not a contradiction, and the Bible is replete with two things: First, everywhere human beings are responsible for their evil; they must do right and not wrong; they are accountable before a holy God; they will be judged for their unbelief or their misdeeds. That’s one thing the Bible is clear on. Second, the Bible is also clear, again and again, that God reigns over the hearts of human beings. God fashions the hearts.
God controls the world. God rules the hurricanes. I remember Noël, the boys, and I sat through hurricane Erin in Pensacola, Florida. But there’s no doubt in my mind who was blowing that wind. I was also praying like crazy for the Osbourn’s sale yesterday because I didn’t want it to rain. I prayed, “God, don’t make it rain on their sale. They need money for the mission field.” And it rained. Do you think Satan just took over the world?
God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are both true. If you can’t figure it out, that’s okay. We don’t have to have it all figured out at Bethlehem. You don’t have to even agree with me about this. Is that clear? You do not have to agree with Edwards on that point. There are long standing views in the Evangelical church that have different solutions than Edwards. For example, Charles Finney, whom I believe was mightily used by God in the second awakening in America, wrote negatively about Freedom of the Will. Finney was born in 1792, which is 34 years after Edwards died. Charles Finney, when he wanted to attack Calvinism, didn’t choose anybody who was his contemporary; he chose this book. That was because still in his day, this book was used in all the seminaries to defend Calvinism. Here’s what he wrote:
Ridiculous! Edwards I revere; his blunders I deplore. I speak thus of this Treatise on the Will, because while it abounds with unwarrantable assumptions, distinctions without difference, metaphysical subtleties, it has been adopted as the textbook of a multitude of what are called Calvinistic divines for scores of years.
He attempted, therefore, in his systematic theology, to devastate Edwards. And you must then decide, did he succeed? Will you trumpet the view of free will that Finney propounded, or the view that Edwards propounded? God used both Finney Edwards.
God Honors Those Who Honor Him
Let me tell you something I heard on tape just two days ago. It was Erroll Hulse, a Calvinistic Baptist pastor in England who was talking about the Trinity and the Holy Spirit in particular, and he raised the question as to why the Assemblies of God are so marvelously fruitful around the world when the Assemblies of God confessionally are anti-Calvinistic. Now, if God is a Calvinist, why does he do this? Here’s what Erroll Hulse said:
We have a baseball game in Britain but it’s not your baseball. If we miss the ball, we’re out. You spend a long time trying to hit the ball. You can have a crooked bat or a straight bat, but the difference is what you do with your bat. If you have a crooked bat and you hit the ball better, you’ll get more runs than if you have a straight bat and miss the ball with it.
I think the Assemblies of God have a crooked bat. There are parts of their theology that are skewed in their view of the sovereignty of God. But in the power of the Holy Spirit, they wield their bat in reliance upon God, with a fervor and faith that God honors better than many of us Calvinists who have a straight bat on this issue or that issue.
That’s a helpful picture of why God blesses it. J.I. Packer put it like this:
God loves to honor the needle of truth in a haystack of error.
You can go all over the city today and you will find dozens of theological orientations — nuances here and there, nobody saying quite the same. But God, the sovereign Holy Spirit, is bringing people to himself all over the place. Don’t let that make you indifferent to doctrine.
The Nature of True Virtue
Then Noël and I finished seminary and headed to Barnesville, Georgia. We were in Pasadena, California at Fuller when I read those two books — Essay on the Trinity and Freedom of the Will. Then we packed up our belongings and wound up in summer of 1971 in Barnesville, Georgia where we spent four weeks. One afternoon I went out in the carport where they had a two-person swing, hanging on a chain. It’s still there. I sat in it and on that swing I read this book: The Nature of True Virtue, surrounded by trees and beautiful Georgia woods.
Many would say this book is a naked idea. Perry Miller said this book comes as close as any book he’s ever read to a naked idea, meaning unclothed without illustrations or real life things like flesh and blood, trees, dogs, fleas, ticks, diapers, dirty dishes, and dust. It’s a naked idea, and it had a very, very powerful effect on me.
Listen to this. He argues that goodness resolves into beauty ultimately. If you pressed him and asked, “What is goodness in God? Define goodness.” Edwards would say: “Goodness or virtue is a certain kind of beautiful nature, form, or quality.” So it resolves into an aesthetic category of moral beauty. And if you said, “Well, what is that? Where do you go from there? Where do you stop when people press you to define something? How far back do you go?” Ultimately, you have to stop somewhere in your definition of things. You can’t keep defining the thing you’ve just defined. Ultimately we are shut up to a point, which leads to this statement by Edwards:
The manner of being affected with the immediate presence of the beautiful idea depends not on any reasonings about the idea, after we have it, before we find out whether it be beautiful or not; but on the frame of our minds, whereby they are so made, that such an idea, as soon as we have it, is grateful or beautiful to the mind.
Let me see if I can put that in my own words. This is very profound for evangelism, for why you became a Christian, and for how you can commend Christ. Let me put a Biblical verse on this so it sounds biblical to you, not philosophical. Second Corinthians 4:4 says this:
In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
The light of the gospel — preaching Jesus as the king who died for sinners, was buried, rose again, triumphed over death and hell, and whose reign is coming — of the glory (beauty, goodness, virtue) of Christ, who is God’s image. Satan is blinding minds from not seeing that.
Successful evangelism is when the gospel is articulated, light shines, and the Holy Spirit lifts blindness. Do you know what happens at that moment? Edwards says it is not owing to a long series of reasonings that a person at that moment says, “Ah! This is true, that is true, and that also is true; therefore, I will be a Christian.” Some have worked toward it that way, but most people, though they can’t articulate it, had a moment of crisis, need, and spiritual reality with the gospel witness and the glory of Christ.
It’s like the mind has been, as a template, designed for the glory and the beauty of God the crud of the world is filling up these little cracks where God is supposed to fit. The Holy Spirit chips out all this crud through suffering, and in all kinds of other ways, and then the template of the human soul is clear. And then as the preaching of the gospel is doctrinally articulated with some correctness, it comes and it fits and light dawns. Light comes into the soul and the person experiences what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:6:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
In other words, just as God looked out upon the darkness in the beginning and said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, he looks into a dark soul, and just like he did for Lydia, he says, “Shine,” and the light goes on. He causes this to happen to give “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
This is very profound here. The Nature of True Virtue is a heavy book, but it boils down to something incredibly practical; namely, human beings are created in the image of God for God. You’ve never met a person on the street, no matter how drunk, no matter how sin-sick and degenerate, who isn’t made in the image of God for God. Their soul is shaped for God. And you never know when you might deliver a word of truth and love into that soul and the Holy Spirit might be pleased to take that word, clean out all the substitute gods, cause it to fit, and suddenly light, beauty, and glory is spiritually apprehended.
Taste and See
Edwards used this illustration. He said: Suppose you had never tasted anything sweet and never tasted honey, and you found honey and you put a little bit of this gold stuff on your lip. You would say, “What! That is good! It’s just a brand new taste. That is so good!” And then imagine you went to another person and said, “I found honey. It’s good. Believe that it’s good. Trust in the goodness of honey.” But they said, “I don’t know what that is. Honey? What is honey?” You could reply, “Well, it’s like sugar.” But then maybe they would say, “I don’t know what sugar is. What is sugar? I’ve never tasted sugar.” And then you might say, “Well, it’s sweet,” but if they’ve never tasted sweetness, what are you going to do? Give them some honey, right? You would give them some honey and say, “Here, taste this.” And then they taste it.
Edwards is saying that spiritually there’s a glory to be apprehended. There’s a glory to be tasted, seen, loved, rested in, satisfied by, and the world doesn’t know it. They’ve never tasted it. They don’t know what we’re talking about. So you’ve got to argue them into liking it. Arguments can help; they can provide motivation and they can knock away some objections, but ultimately we are dependent upon the light of the gospel of the glory of God in the face of Christ shining into their hearts.
But don’t become passive when you hear this. Maybe one of the reasons Calvinists don’t do as well as Assemblies of God is due to the fact that at this moment we so easily make the mistake of thinking, “Well, if so much depends upon God, I guess I don’t have to be very aggressive in my evangelism. I don’t need to urge people, or wrestle, cry, weep, pray, and pursue.” I’m going to talk about this idea this morning in the sermon and for the next three weeks and tonight as well, and I’ll tell you an experience I had in my front yard last night. It was a very significant experience for me personally.
So that was Georgia in 1971, reading The Nature of True Virtue. When I was done, by the way, just to show you how odd I am, I was sitting there swinging and I took out a pencil and paper wrote this poem called Georgia Woods:
Let this green press through your eyes,
upon the softness of your mind,
And with a moment’s thought dissolve let trickle down,
down to the center of your heart
In a moments of joy the faint green vapor form
And feel it spread, spread, spread.
Where did that come from? What does that have to do with virtue? The effect it has on me is that when I encounter something this profound and this deep, it just seems to make me see poems everywhere. When you meet God, when you feel deep, when you’re moved profoundly, you can write a poem about a backboard or about precious people. You just don’t see anything the same.
Charity and Its Fruits
In Germany from 1971 to 1973, Noël and I went to Germany to study, and we sat on our little couch in the room in our flat and read together out loud this book: Charity And Its Fruits by Jonathan Edwards. It is an exposition of 1 Corinthians 13 in about 13 sermons. This book is not included in the two-volume work. We read it out loud to each other, each reading a few minutes. We both agreed it’s very verbose. Edwards is verbose and he’s not easy to read. And we both agreed it is very precious and very powerful to beget a stirring up of love in our lives.
One of the things the book did for me was help me in my emerging Christian hedonism. Edwards, I’m arguing in what I write, is a Christian hedonist. That is, he really believes that you should live your life to maximize your joy in God, and that God is glorified when you do that. God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. That’s an Edwardian sentence. I didn’t come up with this vision on my own. I am in a long stream of tradition that goes back to Augustine, and I believe the Apostle Paul, Moses, Isaiah, David, etc.
But in that book he explains the sentence in 1 Corinthians 13, which says. “Love seeks not its own.” That is a problem text if you believe you should seek your own joy all the time. Let me take a minute just to read a piece of it to show what his answer was:
The charity or the spirit of Christian love is not contrary to all self love. It is not a thing contrary to Christianity that a man should love himself or, which is the same thing, love his own happiness. If Christianity did indeed tend to destroy a man’s love to himself and to his own happiness, it would therein destroy the very spirit of humanity. But the very announcement of the gospel, as a system of peace on earth and goodwill toward men, shows that it is not only not destructive of humanity, but in the highest degree promotive of its spirit.
That a man should love his own happiness is as necessary to his nature as the faculty of his will is, and it is impossible that such a love should be destroyed in any other way than by destroying his being. The saints love their own happiness. Yea, those that are perfect in happiness, the saints and angels in heaven, love their own happiness; otherwise that happiness which God hath given them would be no happiness to them; for that which anyone does not love he can not enjoy any happiness in.
In other words, you would dishonor God if he offered you happiness and joy and peace in himself and you turned away and said, “I’m not supposed to be happy. I’m a duty person.” This book, as well as everything else Edwards wrote, helped me tremendously in that regard.
The End for Which God Created the World
Next, there was a little pantry off the kitchen in Germany. It was about eight feet long with a little vertical window and about five feet wide, and I put a desk in there and a bookshelf, and that’s where I lived for three years, working on my doctorate in Germany. That became a vestibule of heaven. And one of the accompaniments there was this book called Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World The question Edwards is trying to answer is: Why did God create the world? And he answers by saying he created it for his glory.
Now this is probably the most important paragraph for me in this book, and you will hear, I think, if you listen carefully, so much of John Piper that you will begin to go back to the source, rather than thinking that I am very original.
It appears that all that is ever spoken of in Scripture as an ultimate end for God’s works is included in that one phrase, the glory of God. In the creature’s knowing, esteeming, loving, rejoicing in, and praising God, the glory of God is both exhibited and acknowledged; his fullness is received and returned. Here is both the emanation and remanation. The refulgence shines upon and into the creature, and is reflected back to the luminary. The beams of glory come from God and are something of God, and are refunded back again to the original, so that the whole is of God, and in God, and to God; God is the beginning, and middle, and end in this affair.
That’s what I want to live for. I want to devote my life to the centrality and supremacy of God because when I met those things in Jonathan Edwards’s writings my life was so changed. And I can testify, over 20 years or so, how many lives are changed when they encounter the centrality and the supremacy of God.
But notice the key. Let me see if I can boil it down. God’s glory shines forth like light refulgent from his holiness. It is known, esteemed, loved, and rejoiced in, and that rejoicing in is a reflection back to him of the glory we receive from him. So then those who are most satisfied in him make him appear most glorious. That’s Christian Hedonism. That’s my life. That’s my theology.
Emotional Excess, Doctrinal Discernment
Revival is the awakening of that joy. And Edwards got into tremendous trouble in the 1730s and 1740s because he worked to kindle joy, and the staid and proper congregationalists in Boston, like Charles Chauncy, got on his case as a fanatic, an emotional person, and one who was stirring up trouble — there were people swooning and falling down and all kinds of crazy things. And he wrote two books to defend the whole thing, which we’ll talk about next week.
But I want you to see that right at the heart of theology is emotion, and the danger of emotionalism, which is emotion without thought, is built right into reality. And therefore, when you look around the revival scene today and you see excesses of emotion, you must not conclude that there is a false root here. There may be just an oddly twisted branch on a very appropriately rooted reality. A very God-centered thing might be going on when there’s exuberance and explosive joy in what is revealed of the glory of God. And knowing my own heart and its incredible sin and finitude and limitations of sight, it’s not surprising to me that if I were to be gripped by that kind of explosive fervor, it would have some odd manifestations.
Generally, when I get excited, I say inappropriate things. You know that. You can remember a few of them. And I did it in Pensacola last week when I was there. I won’t quote it, because then I would repeat the same defamation that I did. But I was getting all excited about the sufficiency of the Scriptures and I said something like, “Certain crazies in the world.” I didn’t name anybody. And as soon as I said it I thought, “I shouldn’t have said that. Scratch that, dump the tape.”
The point is, I’ve been a Christian for 42 years, I’ve been a pastor for 15 years, and I’ve been a teacher for six years longer than that. And if I, saturated in theology and analytical thinking, cannot control this, but in my exuberance about good things say ill-advised things, should we expect that it would be any different anywhere else? We’ll get into that next week. I shouldn’t be so far ahead.
The next thing I read in Germany is this little book, which is dated 1796. So this book, next year, will be — this actual piece of paper — will be 200 years old. It’s not an original and it’s not a first edition or anything like that, it’s just old and smells. I can remember the smell from 1972.
I took this book and I read it — Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections. People ask me, “Where should I begin reading Jonathan Edwards?” And I always say to begin with this — Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections. This is Jonathan Edwards’s mature response to the revival. He was preaching these sermons in 1740 as he was writing Thoughts Concerning the Revival, which we’ll talk about next week. And they were published in 1746, after the revival fervor started to die down. This is his mature effort to discern wheat and chaff in the revival explosion.
How do you recognize true grace in the heart? If somebody falls down, or trembles, or somebody shrieks, what is of God? How do you tell? That’s what this book is about — How do you tell when there is true grace in the heart? So this is an incredibly relevant book, I believe, for today, and its relevance is going to increase in the years to come.
It isn’t necessarily easy reading, but it is rich reading. And just to encourage some of you non-readers, I am a slow reader. I read slower than most of you in this room, and therefore I don’t read a lot. I read carefully to make up for my slowness. They didn’t have Sunday evening services in the German church, so when Noël and I were home alone on Sunday night I would sit in a rocking chair — the same black rocking chair that’s in our living room right now, where Noël nursed our first son — and I would sit there and read for probably a half an hour. And that would be probably 10 to 15 pages, maybe. It was just slow reading. I was meditating over those pages. And the Lord was convicting me.
It brought me to relentless repentance and conviction about lukewarmness, about what the heart seeing God should do in response to God. Before the body does anything, what should the heart do? That’s what this book is about — heart religion. I’ll just give a little excerpt here. This is the kind of thing that, when Edward gets on a roll, he’s best at. He’s describing true grace in the human heart. This is a person who is truly gracious:
The less apt he is to be afraid of natural evil, having his heart fixed, trusting in God, and so not afraid of evil tidings; the more apt he is to be alarmed, with the appearance of moral evil, or the evil of sin. As he has more holy boldness, so he has less of self-confidence, and a forward assuming boldness, and more modesty. As he is more sure than others of deliverance from hell, so he has more of a sense of the desert of it.
He is less apt than others to be shaken in faith, but more apt than others to be moved with solemn warnings, and with God’s frowns, and with the calamities of others. He has the firmest comfort, but the softest heart; richer than others, but poorest of all in spirit; the tallest and strongest saint, but the least and tenderest child among them.
There are many passages of that kind of beauty and paradox in Edwards that we have yet to live up to.
The Life of Edwards
Well, the readings went on. I could list other works of his, but you can find them. Let me close by a quick summary of his life and then we will jump into the revival parts next Sunday. In 1703, he was born in Windsor, Connecticut. His father was Timothy Edwards and he was a pastor. He was born into a pastor’s home — the only son with 10 sisters. His father used to lament that he had been given 60 feet of daughters and one little boy. His father taught him Latin when he was six.
Now this is amazing — at 12 he went to Yale and when he was 14 he read Essay on Human Understanding, by John Locke, a philosophical treatise. The reason this sticks out to me is that I was a philosophy minor at Wheaton and I took 15 credit hours worth of philosophy. I read Essay on the Understanding by John Locke. And Edwards was 14? Give me a break. I can’t believe that he read this when he was 14. And this is what he said about it:
I got more pleasure out of it than the most greedy miser finds when gathering up handfuls of silver and gold from some newly discovered treasure.
He was very strange — a very different kind of human being at 14. Nobody will be like Edwards or most of the other amazing people in history.
In 1720, he graduated from Yale and he was 17 years old. He gave the valedictory address in Latin, and then stayed on two more years to get his MA. Then he became a pastor in New York for eight months in a Presbyterian church, and then decided to go back to be a tutor at Yale. While he was there he fell in love with Sarah Pierpont. I’ve got this juicy quote here about how he fell in love, written inside of his Greek New Testament, but I wrote in the margin, “Let Noël have this one.” So Noël will read it in two weeks. She’s going to talk about Sarah and their relationship and what happened with them.
They got married four years later and he became the pastor at Northampton Congregational church in Northampton, Massachussetts. He was pastor there for 23 years, and after 23 years they voted him out of his church. He died when he’s 54, and he was 46 years old when he was voted out of his church after 23 years.
There were a few reasons he was voted out. First, he made a terrible pastoral blunder several years earlier. I think I’ve probably done worse than this. There was a group of teenagers who were passing around the best thing they had for pornography, namely a midwifery manual. And it came to the attention of the pastor that the teenagers were into pornography. And so he stood up on Sunday morning and he read a list of kids that were to meet him in his house that afternoon, and he included in the list both the culprits and the names of those who identified them with no distinction. The parents hit the roof, and it was never forgotten that he insensitively lumped the good kids and the pornographic kids in one list before all 600 people that gathered in his church and didn’t make any distinction between them. Tha simmered there.
The second reason they booted him out was theological. His grandfather, who had been the pastor of this church 60 years before he came, Solomon Stoddard, had taught that the communion table was a converting ordinance, and therefore anyone without discrimination could eat at the communion table. Edwards studied, thought, and wrestled, and came to the biblical conclusion that is not right, and he wrote a book. He wrote a book against his grandfather and defended that only those who give evidence of conversion should be admitted to the Lord’s Table. And it caused such a controversy that they put him out of his church.
The next eight years he spent as a missionary to the Indians in a little church in Stockbridge in the west. When he was 54 years old he was called by Princeton College to be the President of the school, and he didn’t want to go. The counselors he had around him pressed upon him to go, and he wept because he said, “I am so much into my studies.” He wrote The Freedom of the Will, and The End for Which God Created the World, and Original Sin, and The Nature of True Virtue all in the wilderness while he was a missionary to the Indians. And he said, “I’m so much into these studies I can’t bring myself to put myself in a position where I can’t continue my studies.” And they prevailed upon him and he yielded.
Sweetly Resigned to the Will of God
On February 13, 1758, he agreed to submit himself to an experimental smallpox inoculation and it backfired. The pustules in his throat got so big that he couldn’t take fluid anymore, and he became dehydrated. They knew he was going to die at 54 years old, at the beginning of his presidency. He had been there one month. There’s a magnificent quote about how his wife handled this. He had 11 children. I left that quote for Noël but I’ll close with this one. This is what he spoke to his daughter, Lucy, as he was dying:
Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you; therefore give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue forever; and I hope she will be supported under so great a trial and submit cheerfully to the will of God. And as to my children you are now to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you to seek a Father who will never fail you.
None of his children—Noël will share more about this—none of his children forsook the Lord. And the legacy that he left as a family man was remarkable, as well as the legacy he left in revival and in theology.