Radically God-Centered

The Call to Magnificent Joy

JAMA New Awakening | Atlanta

One of the evidences that America is in need of a great awakening is that many of the people, including the people who still use the language of revival and awakening, have lost the radically God-centered sense that the language once had. And so, what I want to do is take two very common elements of revival and try to restore, as much as I can, the radical God-centeredness to them that you find in the Bible and that you find in people like Jonathan Edwards from 250 years ago. And the two that I have in mind are repentance and God’s love for us.

The Need for Repentance and the Experience of God’s Love

You’ll find people across the country saying what we need in America is repentance. So people say, “Let’s call the nation to repent.” And others will say, “What the nation needs is to know the love of God.” These of course are not at odds, necessarily; they are just two different focuses. And my question is, how will we ever experience repentance and the love of God if we do not recover the joyfully God-centered sorrow of repentance, and if we do not recover the ego-devastating God-centeredness of God’s love for us?

Let me say that again because that’s all I want to try to get across in these few minutes that we have together. I don’t think we’ll ever experience the great awakening of repentance if we don’t recover the joyful God-centeredness of the sorrow of repentance, and if we don’t recover the ego-devastating God-centeredness of the love of God for us. Those are my two aims in our time together.

Will we ever experience the gravity and the gladness of spiritual awakening if we gut repentance and the love of God of their God-centeredness, of the weight of glory that they once had — the massive weight of God’s self-exaltation?

I hope you know who Jonathan Edwards is, but just in case you don’t, I learned more from him than anybody else outside the Bible. Jonathan Edwards is the most important dead teacher in my life. This is the 300th anniversary of Jonathan Edwards’ birth — October 5 of 2003. Jonathan Edwards, under God, was the most significant human instrument in the Great Awakening that swept across the colonies of this land in 1735 and 1736. And then it happened again in 1741 and 1742 with the help of George Whitfield. God did an unbelievable work through these men and many other pastors like them. We call it the Great Awakening.

His home was Northampton, Massachusetts. And in Northampton, there were about 600 adults and their large families at that season, and 300 of them in the space of three months, during the Great Awakening, were converted. Virtually everybody in the town became an active member of the church. And that happened all over New England.

My question is, what vision of God did Jonathan Edwards have that God was pleased to use in that way? And to give you an idea, let me quote from the new biography by George Marsden. I recommend it very highly, it will become the standard for the next 100 years, probably. Here’s what he said about Edwards:

He was not like John Locke (the philosopher), trying to build a philosophy from the ground up starting with human experience, nor was he liked Descartes trying to deduce a universe by starting with the dictates of human reason. Rather, he was developing his thought in a rigorous Calvinist fashion from the top down, starting with an absolutely sovereign, triune Creator who was in control of all things. The universe was a universe of relationships, and the ultimate relationship was always a relationship to the Creator.

Now, if we are ever going to see a biblical, God-centered, Christ-exalting, sin-defeating, justice-advancing, mission-mobilizing, church-renewing awakening in America, we must recover this top-down, God-besotted, God-entranced vision of reality that Jonathan Edwards had. If we don’t, we may have very large churches and very exciting conferences, but it will not last. So let’s take these two revival realities — repentance and the love of God for us — and try to restore to them some of what has been gutted out of them in the last 200 man-centered years in America.

God-Centered Repentance

Let’s take repentance first. I said that Americans can scarcely begin to understand repentance. Americans can scarcely grasp the concept of the joyfully God-centered sorrow of repentance. Now, when I say the word repentance, I mean the full-orbed experience both emotionally of sorrow and intellectually of the change of mind (metanoia). I have both of those in mind, and I see both in 2 Corinthians 7:8–9. Let me read you the key verse. Paul had written to the church in Corinth a very painful letter calling them to repent from attitudes and actions that they should forsake. And he said:

I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting.

Now, I take the grief and the repenting all as one thing. I don’t think there is a repenting that is true without sorrow for what you’re repenting of. If you blow sin off and say, “Oh, yes, I’m supposed to turn around and do the opposite,” you’re not repenting. Your heart is exactly the same. You just managed some willpower. That is not repentance. This grieving unto repentance is the whole reality and is absolutely essential.

Now, when Jonathan Edwards got ahold of this biblical idea, he did what he always does, he thought from the top down and penetrated to the core of it. I want to read you a mind-blowing sentence, at least it was for me. Remember that he wrote this in 1723. Now, do the math. He was born in a year that makes this his 300th birthday. I want to know how fast you can compute how old he was when he preached the sermon. He was 20. Many of you are 20. Listen to what he wrote in a sermon when he was 20:

There is repentance of sin, though it is be deep sorrow for sin that God requires as necessary to salvation, yet the very nature of it necessarily implies delight. Repentance of sin is a sorrow arising from the sight of God’s excellency and mercy. But the apprehension of excellency or mercy must necessarily and unavoidably beget pleasure in the mind of the beholder. It is impossible that anyone should see anything that appears to him excellent and not behold it with pleasure. And it is impossible to be affected with the mercy and love of God, and his willingness to be merciful to us and love us, and not be affected with pleasure at the thoughts of it. But this is the very affection that begets true repentance. How much soever of a paradox it may seem, it is true that repentance is a sweet sorrow so that the more of this sorrow, the more pleasure.

Now, let me try to paraphrase that for you. It is astonishing and it is true. If we are to bring people in America to the sorrow of repentance, we must first awaken in them a delight in the excellency of God. Otherwise, the sorrow is not a sorrow of not embracing the excellent God. It is a strange thing that in order for us to have a nation on its face weeping, we must have a nation awakened spiritually to the all-satisfying beauty of God, so that the tears will honor the beauty.

Weeping in Vain

You know, don’t you, that there is a way to weep over something that gives it no honor whatsoever. I’m a pastor and I sit with many weeping people. I never assume tears signify something good. A prisoner standing before a bench, having committed grievous crimes and hearing the verdict pronounced guilty, and being sentenced to 20 years of the loss of his life, might begin to weep and have the tears roll down his cheeks. Why? It might be brokenheartedness that he has seen the beauty of righteousness and justice, and he is grieved that he has not lived in accordance with the sweetness of a society that is governed with justice. That might be why he’s crying, or it might be that he is weeping over the loss of 20 years to do more unrighteousness.

Tears mean nothing in and of themselves, which is why we have to get to the bottom of the sorrow called repentance. We have to bore in, like Edwards did, to the bottom of it. And the bottom of it was that until you see God as an all-satisfying God whom you have not treasured, you have not delighted in — sex has been better, money has been better, pride and esteem and the praise of men has been better, rising in your career has been better — and then suddenly he is seen as the all treasure of your life, then the tears signify his worth. Before that, they may mean nothing more than the bad feelings that come with guilt. And every unbeliever cries over bad feelings. And therefore, I say there is a joyful God-centeredness to the sorrow of repentance.

Preparing to Meet the King

Let me tell you a little story and give you a quote. Jonathan Edwards’s daughter, Jerusha, was 17 in 1746, and David Brainerd, the missionary to the Indians stayed in Edwards’s house when he died. He had contracted tuberculosis and was coughing up blood in the last eight years of his ministry, and he pressed on for God because there was no cure. All you could do is endure, and he did endure. He saw awakenings among the Indians in Crossweeksung. And finally, he could labor no longer and he went to Jonathan Edwards’ house to die at 29. Do you have any 29-year-olds in the house ready to die? He went to Jonathan Edwards’s house, he laid himself down there, and Jerusha took care of him, fell in love with him, and nurtured him until he died. Four months later, she died, having caught the disease from him.

It’s a beautiful love story, but mainly a beautiful love story about both of their love for Jesus. The funeral sermon Edwards preached a week later for his 17-year-old daughter was turned to a revival for young people. And he said things that I never thought any 18th-century pastor ever said. This is the kind of thing you read in George Marsden’s biography. You won’t believe this. He said:

My daughter died a week ago. She was in this church two weeks ago, and there was never a sign. She has died in order that you might stop fondling women’s breasts, that you might stop bundling.

Do you know what bundling was? It was sleeping together without taking your clothes off. Jonathan Edwards dealt with the real world. He took his daughter’s death and he said, “Come on young people. She did not die in vain. This is a call to get ready to meet the King and to treasure him now, because if you don’t treasure him now, you will lose him forever.”

The Sweet Affection of God-Exalting Sorrow

The reason I’m mentioning this little story is because Brainerd’s life was then told by Edwards — 500 pages long he recorded Brainerd’s life. And in that life, which I commend all of you to read, there are quotes from Brainerd’s sermons. Brainerd’s sermons and his experience with the awakening among the Indians illustrate the point about the joy of God-centered sorrow in repentance. Let me read you one example. On November 30th, 1745, he was preaching on Luke 16, and David Brainerd wrote this in his journal:

The word made powerful impressions upon many in the assembly, especially while I discoursed of the blessedness of Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom. This I could perceive affected them with much more sorrow than when I spoke of the rich man’s misery and torments in hell, and thus it has usually been with them. They have always been much more affected by the comforting than the dreadful truths of God’s word. That which has distressed many of them under convictions is that they found they lacked and could not obtain the happiness of the godly.

Now what that means is that Brainerd was discovering, in his preaching, what Edwards wrote in that sermon 20 years earlier, namely, in order to experience authentic repentance, people must be awakened to the beauty, the delightfulness, and the all-satisfying preciousness of the excellency of God. And he would lay out these excellencies, these beauties, and this mercy, and the tears would flow more than when he preached and threatened them with hell. Because they have to come to see the true, beautiful, excellent, just, and merciful God, and delight in that. And then weep that they don’t have it. And then, through the weeping, embrace it and receive it.

So on repentance, to call America to this in a way that glorifies God and exalts Christ, we must treasure Christ, cherish Christ, value Christ, and delight in Christ as our supreme and central pleasure above all other things. And then we must preach, pray, labor, and strive to waken the world to delight in Christ above all things so that their hearts would be broken that they haven’t been delighting in him and have been dishonoring his worth because they never even saw how beautiful he was.

God-Centered Love

Second, and lastly, let’s think about the love of God. I said it will be very hard to bring America or the nations, as we turn to the global dimension tomorrow, to experience the love of God as it ought to be when we do not see how ego-devastating is the God-centeredness of the love of God. Let me try to explain.

It’s a tragedy in America today — it has been for 40 years — that so much evangelism, so much counseling, so much preaching, so many books speak of the love of God in such a way that we actually encourage, aid, and abet people to feel joyfully loved by God, when in fact, all they are experiencing is God-supported vanity. We have defined the love of God in such a way that it comes in and serves egocentrism. The thought is, “If God will serve my ego, I will really feel love, I will feel so warm, I will sing worship songs to him, and go to church and Sunday, as long as he’s the servant of my self-esteem.” Oh, how broad is this tragedy.

Many of you are in victim situations and you need to be delivered, and I hope God will do it as I speak. Because you and millions of Americans probably cannot even begin to define what it means to be loved by God any other way than to be made much of by God. Most Americans can’t even conceive of an emotion called “being loved” that is anything other than being made much of. So if we love our children, we make much of them. That’s way you love a student who’s struggling in school, you make much of him. That’s the way you love a kid on dope, you make much of him. Everything is healed by making much of us. America is just one big, great, mutual admiration society because it brings healing as the ego rises and we like what we see in the mirror because God has fixed it.

That’s not the definition of love in the Bible. God’s love for you in the Bible is not making much of you, it is God sending his Son and dying, and then sending his Spirit in order to enable you to joyfully make much of him. God’s love for you is not his making much of you, it is enabling you to have the all-satisfying, eternally glorious and happy experience of making much of him forever. That is what the love of God is.

Brought into the Greatness of Christ’s Eternal Glory

Now, I don’t know if you have a Bible with you. But if you have a Bible, I want you to go to John 17 with me. John 17 is the last prayer that Jesus prayed in the garden. The high priestly prayer is a loving prayer and it ends on a note that will make no sense whatsoever to you if you are in the grip of needing God to put you at the bottom of your happiness. If you have to be the final ground — that is, if being made much of is the final ground of your happiness, and God is precious, provided he keeps doing that for you — you won’t be able to make any sense out of John 17:24. In John 17:24, Jesus prays before he goes to pay for it:

Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

Jesus’s next-to-last prayer for you was that you would be able to see his glory. Now, I want to know whether that’s love or not, and it is. Heaven is not a hall of mirrors. They will all be gone. Heaven is a place where Christ replaces mirrors. And if you do not find your full and lasting satisfaction in seeing him, this prayer is cruel — but it is not cruel. It is meant to create people who see Christ now and are changed from one degree of glory to the next into his image, so that they might more, and more, and more enjoy him forever and ever.

Rejoicing in Weakness for Christ’s Sake

Edwards wrote another sentence that is tremendously important. But before I read it, let’s go to Second Corinthians for one more confirmation of this point. Second Corinthians chapter 12:7–9 says:

To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

You know what I think a typical, evangelical, non-Christ-centered person would say in response to that word from Jesus? “I don’t care about your grace being made perfect in my life. It hurts. Get my pain out of my life. What do you mean by using me to make your grace shine? What do you mean by using me to make your power look great? It hurts.” I think that’s the way they talk. They might not say it like that, but they would feel that. I hear it all the time. I hear it in my church, I hear it on the radio, I hear it on television, and I read it in books: “Give an account, God, I hurt.”

Why was Paul able to say, “Lord, please take it away. Please, take it away. Please, take it away,” and get the reply, “No. No. No,” and then hear these words, “My power, Paul, is going to be made perfect in your pain,” and respond like this, “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Unbelievable. He is saying, “I will boast all the more gladly in my pain, this thorn, because you have taught me now through this thorn, that both I and others will be enabled to see more of you, love more of you, delight in more of you, and make much of you in this world. So bring it on, Father.” Now tell me where in America are people so utterly centered on God, so utterly in love with the supremacy of God in all things that they take on pain?

Yes, it’s all right to pray that you be delivered. He prayed three times, “Heal me, heal me, heal me.” And in this point, not always, but in this point, God said, “I have other plans. My power is going to look good on you.” Only if you love the power of God looking good on you can you embrace pain like that. Only if your soul has been so inverted with a kind of Copernican revolution can you say, “All right, this is a greater joy. This is a greater joy than being delivered of my cancer or my leukemia — to have the power of God and the grace of God reflecting off of me so that I can see it reflect and others can see it reflect, and he can become our treasure. That’s all. That’s all.”

I hope that the clapping means, “God help me, God help me, God help me,” because there are very few people like that in this room. I’m hardly one of them. This is not easy. This will cost you your life. We heard that this morning from Cornelius Plantinga. It will cost you your life to be revived and to lead a revival. And you can do that.

The Bottom of Our Joy

Let me read you that quote that I said Edwards gave as I close. This is from his book Religious Affections, which is his most mature statement about his understanding of revival and how you discern a true work of grace in the soul. I recommend the book to all of you. It’s called Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections. Here’s what he said:

This is the difference between the joy of the hypocrite and the joy of the true saint. The hypocrite rejoices in himself. Self is the first foundation of his joy. The true saint rejoices in God. True saints have their minds in the first place inexpressibly pleased and delighted with the sweet ideas and the glorious and amiable nature of the things of God. And this is the spring of all their delights and the cream of all their pleasures.

And this is a devastating sentence for America in the grip of the gospel of self-esteem:

But the dependence of the affections of hypocrites is in a contrary order: they first rejoice that they are made so much of by God, and then on that ground, he seems lovely to them.

It’s a tragedy that all over America people are being brought, supposedly, to Christ when that’s what’s happening. I’ll read it again:

The dependence of the affections (the emotions) of hypocrites is in a contrary order, they first rejoice that they are made so much of by God, and then on that ground, he seems lovely to them.

That is why they can worship the way they do and not be saved. Isn’t it amazing? I mean, it’s an appalling thing that you can be excited about God and not be a Christian. You can be excited about Jesus and not be a Christian, if Jesus is exciting to you because one thing he does makes much of you. At the bottom of your joy then, is you — where everyone in the universe and hell has their joy.

Delight Yourself in the Lord

So, brothers and sisters, God will do a great thing among us. And the thing he will do is make you different. I pray that he will make you different. How shall we call America to an awakening, when most of our categories, including repentance and the love of God, have been gutted and stripped of their God-centeredness? Answer: you will be different. You will be different. You will put God and God’s God-centeredness back into repentance with a joyfully God-centered sorrow. And you will put God’s God-centeredness back into the love of God so that it’s not making much of you, but enabling you, by the price of the cross, to make much of him with joy forever.

Believe me, joy is at the root of both repentance and the love of God. I don’t call you to a sad life, I call you to a magnificently joyful life that will cost you your life. If we are going to reach America, and if we are going to reach the nations, we must die so that we might live in this kind of God-centered joy.

So, delight your heart in God as central and supreme in your emotions. Above all things labor to do that. If you’re here now saying, “Frankly, I love pornography more than I love God”, or, “I love money more than I love God,” or, “I love the praise of men more than I love God,” then we’re being called to fast today, the 4th of July. What a dumb thing to do on the 4th of July — to fast over the lunch hour and pray. I think Charles is going to come to lead us or somebody is, in a minute, to just pray for a few minutes and then dismiss us to go be with God.

If you’re in that position, lay hold on him and say, until you are my treasure, severing the root of all these other competing delights, I will not let you go. I will hold on until I see you as supreme. And the second thing is to go and make disciples. That is, preach this, counsel this, confirm this, and converse this all over the world. America desperately needs to see God’s God-centeredness in all things.