By: Prof. Willem van Vlastuin,
Lecture was given by W. van Vlastuin at the pastors-meeting of Grace and Truth, 15 September 2017 in Tel Aviv. Willem van Vlastuin is Professor of Theology and Spirituality of Reformed Protestantism at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Rector of the Restored Reformed Seminary there.
Imagine. It’s 1734 and we are walking in Northampton, a village about 150 km west of Boston, Massachusetts, in the present United States of America. It’s 1734. Northampton is a small village of about 200 houses and 1,200 people. In the centre we see a simple church made from bare wood where the (congregational) congregation meets every Sunday and where village meetings are held during the week. Circling the village is a bank of earth to protect the inhabitants from Indians and wild animals, beyond this are meadows and woods. The village is only accessible on horseback along the small paths from the Connecticut River. This is where Jonathan Edwards spent most of his life.
The story of Northampton cannot be separated from the history of Protestantism and Puritanism in America, a history that began with the Pilgrim Fathers. In 1620 the first Puritans left England to begin a new life in the new world. There were also people who went to America in later years to become rich, but the original purpose of the journey was to realize high spiritual standards. The Puritans wanted to start a theocratic society, ‘a city upon a hill’, and saw themselves as the people of God’s covenant with a message for all the world, a self-understanding that we still perceive in America today.
The decay of spiritual life in New England
These high spiritual goals soon began to be watered down. The believers were formal in their spiritual life, but there were many unconverted people and many sins occurred. Among the younger people were sexual derailments, and among the older people were conflicts and disputes. Living by moral codes replaced living from radical grace and the interests of man became more important than God. Everyone had a vague expectation of going to heaven, but most people had not even walked 50% of the road to Jesus (as Stoddard, the grandfather of Jonathan Edwards said).
The spiritual situation in Northampton did not differ much from that of other parts of Puritan New England and, for this reason, there were more and more exhortations about the need for a moral and spiritual reformation in the sermons of the second half of the seventeenth century. The sermons given on fast days talk about the curses of the covenant. There are some indications that the reformed preaching and living was on the wane:
- One of the concrete developments in the new world was the ‘half-way covenant’. But what does this mean? The original Pilgrims allowed only converted people to baptize their children. However, because of the watering down of spiritual life there were fewer God-fearing people, so not as many people confessed their faith. The number of regenerations was lower than the birth rate, which created a number of problems, not least of which was: how do we deal with all these children?
In 1662 though the synod changed its opinion. Parents who led a moral life could now baptize their children; it was no longer necessary to provide a story about a conversion. People with a moral life could “own the covenant”. They did not have the rights of a full church member (they could not go to the Lord’s Supper, for example), but it was possible to baptize their children. To describe this position between being a full or non-member, there was not a construction called the “half-way covenant”. This means that the opinion of the church radically changed; it was no longer just a congregation of believers, it was now the mother of believers too.
In itself, we cannot describe this new attitude to the church as a symptom of a lowering of the spiritual level. The holiness of the full church members remains as a necessary standard. On the other side, we can understand that there is a huge danger of people becoming satisfied with their moral lives. To become a member of the church, it was not necessary to be converted. The moral life became more important than having a personal relationship with God through regeneration.
- Then there’s another problem. In public, all the ministers agreed with the Westminster Confession of faith. But, in reality, it appeared that there were also preachers who were not, with all their hearts, Calvinistic. A type of “moderatism” arose. In 1731, when Jonathan Edwards delivered an important public sermon in Boston, he stressed our dependence on God. The publisher clarified the reason prompting him to publish this sermon in the preface, explaining that it was necessary to correct the mood of the time in which this powerful language was missing. In the 1730s the problems grew bigger and bigger and, in 1734 and 1738, a number of ministers were dismissed because of their public Arminian principles.
- There was a third phenomenon. Developments went on, with Solomon Stoddard making a particular plea for a wider admission to the Lord’s Table. If people with a moral life have access to baptism, why not to the Lord’s Supper? We cannot make such a distinction between the sacraments. Edwards saw the sacraments not only as a seal of existing faith, but also as an instrument for discovering faith. The promises of God’s covenant are seals for everyone. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the practice of most churches in New England included a wider admission to both sacraments. It is very striking that, within a single century, churches in New England had adopted the same practice as the one they had actually attacked the Church of England for practicing.
- I think we can see the influence of the Enlightenment in these different developments. It is a difficult subject, but it is clear that human beings became more central and dependence on God was stressed less. The human mind became the norm in religious and moral thinking. In short we can say that the liberal way of thinking influenced developments in New England. In sermons the natural depravity of men was not as important as it used to be. The necessity of supernatural grace was not preached with power. Zeal decreased. The power of this new way of thinking appeared after the Great Awakening.
Personal life and conversion
It is in this context that, in 1703, Jonathan Edwards was born in the manse of East Windsor as the son of Timothy Edwards and Esther Stoddard. At the time of his birth, the tensions of the times were felt in the manse. Jonathan’s father Timothy was called up to serve in the war against France, the ‘Queen Anne War’ and his maternal aunt lost her life in an Indian attack.
It is also significant that he experienced times of religious revival in the congregation of his father. During one of these periods his mother Esther came to full assurance of her faith; this impressed the young Jonathan and his friends. They went to the swamp, built a hut and prayed there together for spiritual well-being. The death of Edward’s grandfather Richard also touched him deeply. In a letter from that time we can perceive a great earnestness about the reality of eternity. During the last years of his study, Edwards’ spiritual wrestling intensified:
“Indeed I was at times very uneasy, especially towards the latter part of my time at college, when it pleased God to seize me with a pleurisy; in which he brought me nigh to the grave, and shocked me over the pit of hell. And yet it was not long after my recovery, before I fell again into my old ways of sin. But God would not suffer me to go on with any quietness; I had great and violent inward struggles, till after many conflicts with wicked inclinations, repeated resolutions, and bonds that I laid myself under by a kind of vows to God, I was brought wholly to break off all former wicked ways, and all ways of known outward sin; and to apply myself to seek salvation, and practice many religious duties, but without that kind of affection and delight which I had formerly experienced. My concerns now wrought more and more by inward struggles and conflicts, and self-reflection, I made seeking my salvation the main business of my life. But yet, it seems to me, I sought it after a miserable manner, which has made me sometimes since to question, whether ever it issued in that which was saving; being ready to doubt whether such miserable seeking ever succeeded.”
He also writes of his “new sense”, the moment of his conversion:
“The first instance, that I remember, of that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things, that I have lived much in since, was on reading those words, 1 Tim 1:17: Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen. As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it was diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being: a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before.”
Acceptance of the sovereignty of God was essential to his experience:
“From my childhood up, my mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, in choosing whom he would to eternal life; and rejecting whom he pleased; leaving them eternally to perish, and be everlastingly tormented in hell. It used to appear a horrible doctrine to me. But I remember very well when I seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to this sovereignty of God, and his justice in thus eternally disposing of men, according to his sovereign pleasure. (…) But I have often, since that first conviction, had quite another kind of sense of God’s sovereignty than I had then. I have often since had not only a conviction, but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has very often appeared exceedingly pleasant, bright and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. But my first conviction was not so.”
Experience is central in his spiritual life:
“Since I came to Northampton, I have often had sweet complacency in God, in views of his glorious perfections, and of the excellency of Jesus Christ. (…) The way of salvation by Christ has appeared, in a general way, glorious and excellent, most pleasant and most beautiful. (…) And God has appeared glorious to me, on account of the Trinity. It has made me have exalting thoughts of God, that he subsists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The sweetest joys and delights I have experienced, have not been those that have arisen from a hope of my good estate; but in a direct view of the glorious things of the gospel. (…) Often, since I lived in this town, I have had very affecting views of my own sinfulness and vileness; very frequently to such a degree, as to hold me in a kind of loud weeping, sometimes for a considerable time together; so that I have often been forced to shut myself up. I have had a vastly greater sense of my own wickedness, and the badness of my heart, than ever I had before my conversion.”
Edwards as a preacher
In 1727 Edwards was installed as a help for his grandfather in the town Northampton. Two years later his grandfather Stoddard died and Edwards became fully responsible for the spiritual matters of the town. The themes he preached at this time were: the absolute necessity of the new birth, the depravity of human heart, the sovereignty of God’s grace, and the justification of the sinner by faith alone.
His sermons were not a product of the spirit of the time. He preached against the culture in which he lived, but his sermons are not timeless, he knows the people who are listening to him. He knows the emphases to make which are necessary and useful.
In his sermons, he explains the text, looks for the message of the text, develops his theme and then makes very powerful applications to his congregation. Reading the sermons now, you can feel, in the explanatory part of the sermon, a quiet explanation but, on reaching the part with the application, we feel a climax and tension in the sermon. Each application is fresh. He touches your heart and your conscience.
In short we can say that Edwards preaches God. In Edwards’ sermons we meet the holy, sovereign, righteous and graceful God. We experience the majesty of God. Who can see this God and live? Edwards’ preaching was not an ‘info-takeaway’, but a real presentation of God. He did not speak about God, but was a witness of the awful and joyful presence of God. Edwards did not focus on the head, but on the heart, or the complete human being. Recent research has revealed that this also influenced his choice of words. We cannot say that he used intellectual concepts in his sermons, but we can speak about his affective concepts. He used experiential concepts to present God and the message of his kingdom in a realistic way rather than using any abstract concepts. Experiential words like ‘sweet’, ‘new sense’, ‘happy’, ‘enjoy’ and ‘affection’ are typical of his language use; he even used words such as ‘glory’ and ‘excellent’ to refer to an experienced reality. Edwards made clear in his sermons that a believer does not only have an ‘opinion’ but also a ‘sense’ of spiritual reality. The image of the taste of honey is well known: ‘There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness.’ Thus, people can rationally conclude that God is full of glory, but through the Holy Spirit ‘there is a sense of the loveliness of God’s holiness’.
We can summarize Edwards’ message in a number of themes.
- Edwards preaches hell and heaven, as a number of the titles of his sermons make clear. He preached hell to deter sinners from going there. This preaching of God’s judgment added earnestness to his message. His sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” is impressive and well-known. God is not compelled to be gracious to the moral sinner in church. The greatest obstacle to going to heaven is not our sins, but our false rest, our contentment. For that reason Edwards tries to wake his listeners up stressing that it is sovereign common grace that we are not in hell yet. He does not mean to make his listeners melancholy, but he warns against cheap grace. He is afraid of superficial conversions and looks for deepness in spiritual life. He wants to awaken his congregation. Thus we understand his sermon about the wife of Lot: She left Sodom, but she was not saved. So, many people leave the world and start seeking heaven, but they are ultimately lost. The astonishing message given by Edwards is that those seeking heaven will go to hell. Edwards is most known for his sermons about hell, but he preached more about heaven, saying you must long for the place where love reigns and God is all and in all.
- Another theme in the sermons is Edwards’ emphasis on God’s sovereignty. God is completely free when showing mercy, he governs the history of the world, the lives of human beings, and our eternal destination. We cannot reason about the sovereignty of God, it humbles people and it brings us to an adoration of God. Acknowledging and accepting God’s sovereignty is the essence of our reliance on God. It brings us to the revelation that the sovereign God is the gracious God. Sovereignty and grace are not opposing characteristics of God, it is sovereign grace and gracious sovereignty that we meet in God.
As strong as Edwards stresses God’s sovereignty is, he also preaches about our responsibility. He says “God does all and we do all”. In a sermon about Luke 16:16 “Pressing into the Kingdom of God” Edwards shows that the sinner has to seek salvation with all his power. God does not seek opportunities to offer the sinner salvation, on the contrary, the sinner is completely involved in his own salvation. It is not the Spirit that repents, relies on Christ and loves God, but we, via the Holy Spirit.
- The third theme in Edwards’ sermons is the preaching of sin, the sinfulness of sin and the complete depravity of our hearts. We are enemies of God. He is not moralistic in preaching sin, but he discovers the root of sin.
Edwards preached the holiness of God. If we think little about God, we think little about our sins. The issue is not whether we believe in God, but what sort of God we believe in. Do we believe in a God who always blesses and never curses, always forgives and never punishes? Or do we believe in the God of Scripture, a God who is to be feared?
Only this understanding of the greatness of God brings us to an understanding of the atonement in Christ. If we do not accept the punishment of our sins, how can we accept a punishment from Christ that is not righteous? Christ does not save us from small errors, or the flu, he saves us from the wrath of God. In this way, Edwards clarified that the message of the gospel is not: do not worry, there is no problem. He was an honest preacher who did not shy away from preaching about real problems with the aim of saving the lost sinners.
So Christ’s work is great and we admire Him who has given up himself for us out of eternal love. Edwards is able to preach so deeply about sin by also preaching about the heart of love in God. Everybody is invited to fly to Christ immediately. The door of grace is thrown wide open – not for qualified sinners, but for everyone.
- Another aspect in Edwards’ sermons is the preaching of the righteousness of God. His sermons about justification by faith alone had a particularly enormous impact on his congregation. These sermons are critical of the forms of moral religion in his time and must have shocked his congregation. After hearing his sermon about Rom. 3:19 “The justice of God in the damnation of sinners”, many already-awakened people were convicted in their hearts and sought for grace. Thus it was an important instrument in the revival in Northampton.
In balance with the preaching of justification by faith alone, Edwards preaches very strongly about the necessity and the nature of sanctification. It is not enough to go through the small gate of regeneration; it must be the beginning of a holy and self-denying life. We do not reach perfection, but we have to long for it. Edwards is most known because of his hell-fire sermons, but what is not known is that most of his sermons are about sanctification. The conversion was not the end in the Christian life, but the beginning. He believed in the real possibility of spiritual growth; it is this element which distinguishes him from Whitefield. Living the holy life is, for him, less important than being saved from hell.
When Edwards speaks about the new life he emphasizes one particular thing: love is all, love is the most important element for him. It is not a certain set of habits or cultural traditions that make a Christian, but the love that he holds in his heart. Love makes sanctification concrete and practical, it is not emotional. A Christian shall bear injustice, not by resigning oneself to it, but by giving over to the Lord. Love does good; to enemies too. We do not long for compensation. As opposed to the heart in its natural state, love believes in the good things of another rather than the bad things. Christianity is more than humanism.
Edwards is very positive in his teachings about sanctification. If we compare Edwards’ teachings to those of Calvin, we see that the reformer wants to stay as he is and Edwards wants to grow. He knows the power of the old man. He does not make the mistake of the theologia gloriae.
Edwards’ stress on self-love is striking. Zwingli says that self-love is the root of all sin and Calvin that all self-love must be destroyed, although he does give place to feelings of bitterness and sorrow. Edwards teaches (as Augustine did) that self-love is in accordance with God’s creation. We can desire happiness. The saints in heaven enjoy their happiness. It is unrestricted self-love that is a sin. The norm about loving our neighbors is really about loving ourselves. Grace does not destroy creation but recovers it.
- The last accent in Edwards’ sermons is the distinguishing element. He separates the real Christian from the almost-Christian saying that the difference is not gradual but principal. The opinion of his time centered on the belief that everyone in the church was a believer, but Edwards asked the question; are you really regenerated? A scholar of Edwards’ once remarked that what was judged as great belief in other congregations was judged by Edwards as the normal work of the Spirit. Not every experience is the work of the Holy Spirit. We have to inquire into the nature of our experience to know whether we are a Christian or not.
For Edwards self-examination is not simply a pro-memory in the Christian life. Times of rest and reflection are integral to this new life. We can compare his position with a shopkeeper: the shopkeeper who is always busy and never draws up his accounts is not wise. On the other hand, it is not good to be continually busy doing administration and never working in the shop. So, a healthy Christian life means self-examination and the working of the heart, the practice of faith and piety. It is a life found between activism and introversion.
The first years of Edwards’ labors were very disappointing. After preaching for seven years he did not see any real effect on his congregation. But in the years 1734-35 he experienced a mighty revival in Northampton. He says that the town was full of the presence of God. Hearts were broken, many people were in distress, others came to Christ, and God’s people came to a deep assurance of the forgiveness of their sins. There was not a house in which the grace of God was not working. The tavern was closed and people gathered in the house of God or came together in their houses to speak about the Word of God, to pray for the extension of the kingdom of God and to sing praises to God. In six months about 300 of the 1,200 inhabitants were converted.
The revival had its effects on the children of God. They awakened from their half-heartedness and superficiality. A person can be a child of God, but without bearing fruit. In winter we do not see the difference between a living tree and a dead tree. But in spring we see the difference. In the same way, it became visible who were the real saints in Northampton and what the work of the Spirit was.
The unconverted people in the congregation then became conscious of the spiritual reality they were missing. They were awakened from false consciousness and began to seek Christ. People outside the church also became conscious that Christianity was not only a view or a meaning, but was a power, a reality. While we see more and more people leaving the church and moving out into the world in our own contemporary culture, in times of revival we see the opposite movement; the world is touched by the church.
In his “Faithful Narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many hundred souls in Northampton and neighboring towns” Edwards gives a description of the awakening, describing the revival as a work of the Holy Spirit. It is an extraordinary work of the Spirit. The work of the Spirit is of the same nature as in other times but is intensified. Edwards recognizes the normal pattern of the Spirit’s work in saving people: Sinners are first convicted of sin; they then try to reform their lives but fail. Finally, they learn the freedom of God’s grace and reach a moment in their lives when they give themselves over to God and confess their guilt and acknowledge God’s righteousness. In that way, their eyes are opened to Christ and his willingness and sufficiency. Sometimes people have more light in the grace of God than the person of Christ. They give themselves over to God in Christ and experience a deep rest and joy, filled with compassion towards people who do not have Christ in their lives, they pray for neighbors and others. The children of God seek each other to pray for a further working of the Spirit. Edwards clarifies the extraordinary character of the revival, identifying a number of features:
- The awakening is an extraordinary work of the Spirit because of the great number of people who are converted. There are more people converted in one week than in the previous seven years.
- The awakening is an extraordinary work of the Spirit because of the universality of the people beginning a new life. Rich and poor, old and young, all fear the Lord.
- The awakening is an extraordinary work of the Spirit because of the speed of the work of the Spirit. People are as if it was Pentecost in a short time brought to Christ.
- The awakening is an extraordinary work of the Spirit because of the depth of the working of the Spirit. People experience the sinfulness of sin very deeply, but also the riches of God’s grace.
- The awakening is an extraordinary work of the Spirit because of the extension of the awakening to other places in the neighborhood
- Although Edwards mentions it in another context, he says that another feature of the awakening was that public worship is renewed. In the gathering of the congregation, attendees experience the presence of God and, especially when singing praises to God, they experience a type of heaven on earth. Revival is much more than the addition of individual conversions. It has to do with the community.
In his Narrative, Edwards gives the first analysis and description of an awakening. There were other awakenings in the time before Edwards, but his Narrative provides a blueprint. It is very impressive how often his book has been reprinted. In his lifetime there were about 60 reprints and it was read in America, England, Scotland, Germany and the Netherlands. Many people were deeply affected and prayed for a revival such as the one described by Edwards.
The years 1740-1745 were the years of the Great Awakening. George Whitefield’s message, in particular, reached many thousand listeners. If Edwards was more the theologian, Whitefield was the orator, the man of “public relations”, sometimes addressing ten or twenty thousand people in the open air. He was a restless man who traveled from Scotland to Ireland, England and several states in America. There is a heart-warming story of a farmer working in the field who sees so many people traveling by that he asks what is happening. On hearing that Whitefield is preaching in the area, he puts down his spade and runs with the other people to hear the message of the young George. Thousands of people are pricked in their heart and find a real rest for their souls in Jesus Christ.
A revival was a matter of public opinion. The front pages of the newspapers were not filled with the news about the war with Spain, but with the tours of George Whitefield. Whitefield knew how to reach the masses availing himself of the press and upcoming newspapers. The influence that this movement had is still amazing.
- Investigating the relationship between this revival and the international mission is a study in itself. Before the nineteenth century, Protestant mission was rare. The year 1792 was the year of the breakthrough. The Baptist Mission Foundation was founded. William Carey as the father of the modern Protestant mission went to India in 1793. There are several connections between the Great Awakening and this missionary movement.
- In the first place Edwards’ The History of Redemption. In this work, he developed from scripture his great expectation for the extension of God’s kingdom in the world. The revival in his own time had brought him to the understanding of the extension of God’s worldwide kingdom. God would fulfill his plans through the religious revivals. What Edwards had seen in East-Windsor, in Northampton, and in the Great Awakening filled his heart with great expectations of God’s kingdom spreading throughout the world. As a post-millennialist – which puritans are – he expected that the church’s best times would be in the future. All the scientific and technical developments would serve God’s interests in the world and the conversion of the Jews, in particular, would be an important instrument in furthering the interests of God’s kingdom on earth.
- Edwards also wrote A Humble Attempt which is full of the same expectation. This book encourages believers to pray for the millennium and was the book that convinced Edwards, the Baptist, that a hyper-Calvinist attitude was false and that Christians are responsible for the extension of God’s kingdom. This brought English Baptists to a prayer meeting and, in 1789, Edwards’ book was republished. William Carey belonged to this circle and wrote: An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen (1792). A year later he went to India.
- The well-known missionary, David Brainerd, was also influenced by this way of thinking and became a missionary among the Indians in America. After contracting tuberculosis he died in Edwards’ manse. Afterwards, Edwards published Brainerd’s diary which still inspires missionaries to persevere through disappointment. His compassion for his neighbor and his intense life of prayer is especially encouraging – even today.
- Edwards worked as a pastor in Northampton until 1750. The last eight years of his life, he worked as a missionary in Stockbridge among the Indians. Thus he gave us a personal example of someone who dedicated his life to the work of the mission encouraged by the strong expectation that all nations would share in the worldwide movement of the Spirit.
- It is undeniable that the spiritual movement of the great awakening was a catalyst for the abolition of slavery. Edwards had his own Negro slave and Whitefield used Negro slaves in the Bethesda orphanage that he supported and for which he collected money. Notwithstanding, the criticism of the practice of slavery began in the Great Awakening because these preachers understood that Negroes have souls and, in the eyes of God, are equal to white people. It was a milestone in history that in Northampton Negroes and Indians shared the Lord’s Table. Edwards did not appreciate the true social significance of his spiritual understanding, but we can say that this was the beginning of the abolishment of slavery. Wesley developed his insights further and also criticized the institution of slavery, until the evangelical Wilberforce, in England, was successful in banning slavery by law.
- Several more fruits of the Great Awakening should be mentioned. In the Great Awakening, the seeds of the struggle for the independence of America were sown. The spiritual revival also gave balance to the influences of the Enlightenment that the effects were not as deep as in France, for instance. The Great Awakening did not repress human intelligence, as we can see that several universities arose from this movement. We can also mention the powerful hymns that were written in this time, such as the well-known hymn by John Newton, ‘Amazing Grace’, or Toplady’s ‘Rock of ages, cleft for me’. In short, America after the Great Awakening differed sharply from America before it.
This enormous spiritual movement had also its darker sides, especially with regard to its Anabaptistic elements. The revelation of the power of the Spirit caused people to deny the Word, the order of God and human intellect. Lay preachers began to preach because they felt driven by the Holy Spirit, judging other ministers of the Word of God as unconverted. If women can receive the Spirit, they claimed, why couldn’t they preach the gospel? The message of these Spirit-driven preachers was not always the sound doctrine of the Word of God which caused congregations to divide because the message they presented raised questions and criticism.
Some preachers thought that if people were emotionally moved this was indicative of the real work of the Holy Spirit and therefore they tried to rouse their congregations to fever-pitch outbursts of emotion. We understand that there was much emotionalism. Many people’s beliefs were based upon their inner light rather than on acceptance of the Bible as their only rule for life.
The name James Davenport (1716-1757) is particularly relevant here. For his sermons he made direct appeals for the guidance of the Holy Spirit rather than engaging in any kind of preparation, doing everything he could in the immediate situation to provoke emotional responses from his audience. For him, expressing emotion was more important than understanding the message. There were also other extreme aspects in his work; he claimed to have had special revelations. In his view, most preachers lacked grace in their souls, and he showed no hesitation in naming names which showed the spirit of separatism which, in turn, discredited the revival movement. It is important to note that the power of the Great Awakening was not undermined by anti-revivalist forces but by the uncritical and hyper-spiritual defenders of the awakening.
In this context, Edwards defended the Great Awakening as a work of the Spirit of God but rejected the Anabaptic extremes. In his book Distinguishing Marks he develops a series of criteria (marks) to test whether a religious movement is a movement of the Spirit:
- In the awakening the Person of Jesus Christ is present. He sees that many sinners are brought to the knowledge and the confession of Jesus Christ. Thinking of the text in the bible “Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwells in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:15).
- The awakening goes against the interests of the kingdom of Satan. Satan will not convince people of sin and break them with the temptations of the world.
- In the awakening, the bible has a central place. People regard the Scriptures as the only rule in life. They study the Word of God. They see the great themes of God’s Word and are assured of it. The devil cannot drive people to have high esteem for the Bible, so it must be a work of the Spirit of God.
- In the awakening, there are many people with holy lives. The love for God and man is a mark of the Spirit of God. They show their unworthiness before God, and towards man, their love, and humility.
Charles Chauncy (1705-1787) from Boston responded to this publicly in his Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England. Initially, he was favorably inclined toward the spiritual movement, but when he looked more closely, he was overcome by shock and rejection. He saw that many were misled by their emotions and he wanted to sound the alarm about the visions, physical effects, and ecstasy that were being elevated to a norm, and about the mass hysteria, he witnessed.
Chauncy discussed a number of aspects of revivalism. The conversion of slaves made him afraid that the social order was being turned on its head. It is striking that he held a prayer meeting for revival in 1742, while the Great Awakening was at its height. Most importantly is his in-depth analysis which concluded that all the emphasis in the Great Awakening lay on the immediate work of the Spirit. This promotes, on the one hand, an antinomian disposition in which living by experiences and emotions takes precedence over serving God with zeal. Referring to Whitfield’s journal, he shows that people too often allow themselves to be led by impulses which they think are the inspiration of the Spirit. Emphasis on the Holy Spirit leads, on the other hand, to a contempt for any external means, for the liturgy in the service, the whole of the church order, and the offices of the church. Chauncy’s major critique, however, is directed to those who judge the spiritual state of others.
For these reasons, Chauncy feels compelled to take up the fight against any deviations from the true religion. According to him, the New Testament prohibits disarray and sectarianism. When Edwards expresses his expectation that the Great Awakening was, perhaps, the beginning of the millennium, he gives his contemporary every reason to defend the use of the existing order and to resist this ‘New Light.’
It is not simply a straightforward matter to interpret Chauncy’s critique of the revival as that of a defender of the ‘Old Light.’ Chauncy cannot simply be seen as someone who is opposed to the pietistic character of religion. He not only uses the Puritan church order in his defense but also appeals, in a spiritual way, to Puritans like Baxter, Flavel, Guthrie, Owen, and Shepard. Just like Edwards, he emphasizes the necessity of the spiritual rebirth that ‘heartfelt experience’ is at the center of. This emphasis on personal rebirth is found within the framework of the idea of two ways to eternity and, for that reason he also calls people to examine themselves. At the same time, he writes at the high point of the Great Awakening of the low level of religion.
So, what is going on here theologically? What does the fundamental difference in insight between Edwards and Chauncy hinge on? Both theologians want to follow the Puritan tradition, both oppose the idea of lay preachers, both point to extremes in revivalism, and yet both are diametrically opposed to each other with respect to their fundamental attitude to the Great Awakening. What Edwards sees as chaff among the grain, Chauncy sees as the essence of the revival movement.
If we look at this more closely, then it is apparent that it is related to the nature of the character of the work of the Holy Spirit. For Chauncy, it is fundamental that the work of the Spirit begins with enlightening the understanding. This is an anthropological issue in which the human understanding ranks above the abilities of the human spirit, whereas the will and the affections determine the second and third levels respectively. The work of the Spirit does not, therefore, have anything to do with ‘raised affections’ but, rather, on an ‘enlightened mind’. This makes clear that he did not consider fervor and passion to be important instruments in judging the work of the Spirit, the work of the Spirit is characterized primarily by reasonableness and not by passion. Thus, it is understandable why Chauncy argued for a more gradual rebirth, one in which a moderate keynote is decisive, in contrast to the revivalist piety which was characterized much more by an emphasis on the immediately-experienced power of the Holy Spirit.
Defending affective faith
Edwards felt compelled to give a theological interpretation of true religion and so, in 1743 he delivered a series of sermons to the congregation in Northampton, which resulted in the 1746 publication of A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. The work consisted of three main parts: in the first, Edwards grounds the affective character of the Christian religion emphasizing that the greater part of the Christian religion consists of affections. He supports his argument by citing a number of scripture references referring to affective words like ‘fear,’ ‘hope,’ ‘joy,’ ‘sadness,’ ‘zeal,’ and ‘mercy’ in the book of the Psalms. He also finds an affective dimension in Jesus’ disposition and states that heavenly life can be interpreted in an affective way too. The flipside is that a hard heart is characterized by an absence of affections. In the context of his situation, his statement that opponents of affective religion themselves probably did not know the power of religion must have come across quite sharply.
Just like Chauncy, Edwards’ approach is related to his anthropology. Whereas Chauncy, a defender of intellectualism, gives the understanding priority of place in the hierarchical order of the soul’s abilities, Edwards places the understanding and the will on the same level. In fact, Edwards rejects the dichotomy between the understanding and the will because they are both aspects of the one heart. In addition, in Edwards’ understanding, the affections are an aspect of the will. This is very different from Chauncy; according to Edwards, instead of the affective dimension being secondary, it is fundamental to the work of the Holy Spirit. The affective dimension of spirituality is not under the control of the will but under that of the Spirit. Therefore, there is no work of the Spirit that is not affective, but the spiritual life always touches the affective dimension in the person. It could be said that the affections indicate the orientation of the heart.
Edwards thus has a theological concept in hand to deal with the confusion regarding the Great Awakening. In the first place, this concept justifies the affective character of the Christian life, enabling Edwards to completely defend the attention paid to a spiritual experience in the Great Awakening. In line with this, he can also give a place to physical effects. If the soul can be powerfully touched by the spiritual reality of God, it is – given the unity of body and spirit – not at all surprising that people are physically overcome. For Edwards, therefore, the physical effects are not essential to interpreting the spiritual character of the Great Awakening. Just as feelings are secondary for Chauncy, so the physical effects are secondary for Edwards. They can figure more or they can figure less, depending on one’s personal constitution.
Third, Edwards can clarify emotional deviations on the basis of his understanding. He distinguishes between ‘affection’ and ‘passion.’ ‘Passion’ has to do with a superficial touching of the emotions that are not rooted in the heart. If the heart is touched by the Holy Spirit, both the understanding and the will are affected. If there are emotions without the enlightenment of the understanding, then the affections are not hallowed ones. Here we can use the metaphor of fire to do justice to Edwards. Just as fire gives both light and warmth, so the work of the Spirit is characterized by ‘light’ in the understanding and ‘warmth’ in the heart.
This leads to the fourth consideration, namely, that Edwards agrees with Chauncy in his great appreciation of the understanding and of knowledge. Edwards’ own life shows that rational reflection on the Christian faith is of the greatest importance for him. He also wrote a treatment of Christian Knowledge in which he defends the importance and advantage of having a thorough knowledge of doctrine. This means that his argument for an affective religion cannot be used to downgrade the intellectual aspect of the Christian faith.
Affection should always be a reasonable affection, just as love is not unacquainted with the object of love. Emotions in preaching should be summoned by the content of the message and not the emotions of the preacher. Here Edwards, therefore, also rejects the emotional tendencies in revivalism in which emotion is an end in itself and the understanding is placed in opposition to the influence of the Spirit.
The qualification of the spiritual affections
Fifth, Edwards’ view of the affective will as determined by love offers a useful concept for qualifying the spiritual affections more closely. In the second part of Religious Affections, Edwards mentions twelve experiences or feelings that cannot be called spiritual, in which he employs acute psychological insight into the obstinacy and complexity of the human spirit in order to distinguish between the human spirit and the mystery of the Holy Spirit. He lists the intensity of the emotions first. Second, he states that the effects the emotions have on the body are not proof either for or against, grace. Third, he proposes that the candor that accompanies an experience is not determinative of its spiritual character. Fourth, the inexplicability of our emotions is not proof of the mystery of the Holy Spirit. Fifth, the fact that we are addressed by a text from the Bible is even less decisive. Sixth, even the phenomena of love can be deceptive; in this connection, Edwards refers to the people around Jesus who call out ‘Hosanna’.
The seventh phenomenon that Edwards lists is the combination of various kinds of feelings. Although Edwards is a proponent of the sequence of law and gospel, the relief we feel after fear and unrest does not prove that the Holy Spirit is active in us. Nor is exhibiting fervor and zeal any indication of their ‘Spirit-ual’ origin. This also obtains praise. The strong certainty people can have sometimes that they are a child of God is not a compelling sign that someone is not a hypocrite – because hypocrites are typically strong in their faith. Finally, the fact that a certain person’s testimony touches other Christians is not a proof of grace either.
In the third part of Religious Affections, Edwards describes what the characteristics are of the spiritual nature of affections. The first is actually not a description but an explanation in which Edwards emphasizes that God’s Spirit is its source. The second is that spiritual affections are directed toward the glory of God and Christ and not primarily in one’s own interest. Here the principle that love does not seek its own is operative. Third, spiritual affections are directed to the glory of God’s moral properties, such as His justice, truth, faithfulness, and goodness, summed up in His holiness. Fourth, Edwards points out that people are not only convinced of spiritual things by the Holy Spirit but also see their glory. The Spirit does not add new intellectual knowledge, but people’s existing intellectual knowledge is given a new dimension because the light of God shines over it. Translated into contemporary language: two people can see the same thing, but one of them will feel its beauty and the other not.
Fifth, spiritual affection is affective and certainly is so in us. Edwards then emphasizes that spiritual affections arise from humility, laying his finger on the problem of spiritual pride with great acuity. A proud person thinks highly of his humility, but the humble person thinks highly of God and is, therefore, sensitive to those with a proud disposition. This essential characteristic of a believer is absent from those who consider themselves more spiritual than another. If the humility is foundational, it is accompanied by a total transformation of our personality, the seventh characteristic. That is why Edwards can remark that a Christian shows the mind of Christ in love, humility, and a disposition to forgive. This obtains, ninth, in particular for gentleness. Tenth, this revival theologian says that the affections of a true Christian show a balance. The eleventh feature is also very important. False spiritual affections are accompanied by self-satisfaction, whereas true affection is characterized by an unquenchable thirst for God. The true believer is satisfied by God but never has enough of God. The hypocrite is satisfied with being saved, but the believer desires deeper knowledge and deeper worship of God. Affection is thus passion for God. Finally, the theologian who emphasizes the affection of the heart indicates that the most important feature of the indwelling of God’s Spirit lies in its affectiveness, namely, the Christian way of life.
The Spirit dwells in the believer
Edwards’ understanding of the work of the Spirit leads us to a special /feature/mark/ of his doctrine of the Spirit. The affective dimension of personality is, at bottom, determined by the Spirit. Edwards does not only speak of the work of the Holy Spirit but, following people like John Owen, he emphasizes the indwelling of the Spirit.
The indwelling of the Spirit makes it clear that regeneration is a momentous and conscious experience; we are reborn at one particular moment in time. But this does not mean that everyone should know exactly when their regeneration has taken place because frequently there are common workings and preparatory workings of the Spirit which are difficult to distinguish from the saving workings. Many times persons date their conversion wrongly.
When speaking about conversions in this way one can identify a change to the traditional attitudes. Puritans like Shepard and Hooker believe that people should be able to recognize the different stages of their conversion. In his youth it was difficult for Edwards to see this and, as a theologian, he denies this claim. We can see an element of his doctrine of the Holy Spirit here as the indwelling of the Spirit is clearly more important than the different steps of the Spirit. What is decisive about being a Christian is not the steps, but the Spirit Himself.
The indwelling of the Spirit means the earnest of the Spirit. Grace means that we receive the Holy Spirit Himself in our hearts. If the Spirit is a pledge of the heavenly future, something of heaven is now in the hearts of the believers. The peace, the rest, love, and joy are experiences of heaven and also of this life. Each working of the Spirit intensifies the longing to be with God.
Given that the indwelling of the Spirit is characterized by love, the Christian life is about love. This love is also the power of the new life. In this work, it is striking that he stresses the practice of piety and the Christian life. The best mark of the work of the Spirit of God is our daily life. So Edwards connects the inner life of the Christian with the practice of his doctrine of the Spirit. The indwelling Spirit moves to a holy life and gives Christians the experience of heaven in the heart.
This indwelling of the Spirit in the heart explains his thinking about unity. All the graces belong together and are inseparably connected. We can compare it with Calvin. For Calvin, the most important theological theme in the Christian life is the community with Christ. The reformer can speak about sanctification before justification. Sanctification is not a fruit of justification but a fruit of Christ. Edwards is a theologian of unity, just like Calvin, the difference is that Calvin gives it a Christological interpretation and Edwards a pneumatological.
The outpouring of the Spirit
Edwards understands revival as an extraordinary intensification of the ordinary work of the Spirit. This understanding of revival implies some consequences:
- Edwards was not charismatic that he interprets revival as a revival of special gifts of the Spirits. In this time of revival, many people were claiming the gifts of the Spirit. This is also an important question today: can we expect the gifts of the Spirit if a revival is an outpouring of the Spirit?
Edwards draws a distinction between gift and grace. Citing examples of Bileam, Saul, and Judas, Edwards explains that the gifts of the Spirit are not proof of a Spirit-filled man. He also quotes the text of Matt. 7:22-23: we can compare gifts with nice clothes. We may accept them and admire them, but they do not say anything about the person himself.
Edwards understood the gifts in the context of the history of salvation. According to him, the gifts belong to the childish time of the church. Now the church has come to maturity. The revelation is complete, so we cannot expect new revelations. As the gift of the apostle has disappeared, the other prophetical gifts are out of use. We have the prophetical Word which is reliable.
In this way, Edwards makes clear that it is not extraordinary phenomena that proves a movement to be of the Spirit of God, but its extraordinary piety. With power and scriptural arguments, he makes clear that the devil can imitate miraculous gifts, visions, revelations, etc., but the devil cannot and will not imitate a holy life.
- This approach has a positive reversal. His approach implies that revival is related to ordinary congregations, ordinary sermons, and ordinary pastors. Sometimes we may be depressed because we are not special pastors or preachers, but the history of the revival in Edwards’ congregation reminds us that it was an ordinary pastor and ordinary preaching that had special blessings.
- Edwards’ approach underlines the mystery of the Spirit. We have our responsibility in understanding the gospel as a message for our time. We have to study our time to preach the gospel in this context as the message of God himself. There is no revival without reformation and praying. But we cannot organize the blessing of the Spirit in the preaching of the Word. The history of Edwards’ Northampton revival reminds us of our dependence on the Spirit and the need for concrete prayer for the Spirit. The title of Edwards’ report of the revival begins ‘Faithful Narrative of the surprising work of God’. In the word, ‘surprising’ Edwards has expressed that we cannot organize or create a revival, but that it is a creation of the Spirit. This also means that we do not seek the power of the state to promote the church. The church has its own vitality, the vitality of the Spirit. This gives us hope in dark and difficult times: Our desperation is God’s opportunity.
- On the whole, we can say that Edwards’ doctrine of the Holy Spirit has a special subtheme, namely the subtheme of awakening or revival. That Edwards asks us to focus our attention on this aspect of the work of the Holy Spirit is, in my opinion, one of his major contributions to theology. Our dogmatic works write about the work of the Spirit in creation, in the development of Scripture, in the person and the work of Christ, in the regeneration of sinners and their sanctification and assurance; to this Edwards adds the theme of revival. Awareness of this subtheme of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit can help us in our preaching and our prayers for the church in Israel and across the world.
I think we can learn something from this giant in the kingdom of God:
- Jonathan Edwards had a life full of the Spirit. Being at one with the Lord and the kingdom of the Lord were his deepest aims of life. In the center of his life was the triune God in Jesus Christ. The holiness of his life is a mirror for us to examine our lives by. Are we full of the Spirit of God or do we live a minimal Christian life?
- Edwards understood the essence of religion. Real religion is more than morality or confessionalism. Edwards, like no other, understood the reality of the Holy Spirit and His power in his indwelling and renewing of the heart. So can Edwards distinguish between common grace and special grace? We can summarize Edwards’ theology from the viewpoint of his doctrine of the Spirit. In an incomparable way, Edwards clarifies that real religion is an issue of the heart and affection.
- The circumstances in Edwards’ time and congregation were very disappointing. But he continued to sow the seed of the Word and pray that the Lord would grant his work the power of the Spirit. He knew that one shower of rain would bring fruitfulness in the barren desert where so much seed was waiting for the fresh rain of the Spirit. He was not ashamed.
Our circumstances are dire. We see much liberalism in church. In the world around us, there is immorality and postmodernism. In Orthodox Christianity, we see so much deadness and traditionalism and hyper-Calvinism. We see more people going from the church into the world than vice versa. History can teach us not to despair.
- The method of Edwards is clear. We must not think that extraordinary gifts can save the church. In the church of Corinth were many gifts, but not so many healthy spiritual lives. The normal preaching of the Word of God is God’s method. Let us preach the old message in our current circumstances. We have to know the time to have a message for our times.
We may expect great things from God and so attempt great things for God. Let our hope be in the God of Jonathan Edwards. He is still alive!