Shadows of Jonathan Edwards

This would be an interesting day for Jonathan Edwards. What appears to be a revival focused on the excellence of the person and work of Christ, the comfort of Scripture, the necessity of repentance, and the beauty of worship began at Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky, and has spread to other college campuses. Laura Ingraham interviewed one student from Cedarville, who gave an articulate, joyful, bold, and clear testimony about the centrality of the cross of Jesus for what seemed to be central in the movement at her college. Incidentally, she had played the piano for about six straight hours as worship flowed from the mouths and hearts of the student body. Perhaps no one in the history of evangelicalism has studied, been more personally conversant, more optimistic and cautious, and more biblically analytical of revival phenomena than Jonathan Edwards.

He wrote four major works in order the give a detailed and deeply encouraging analysis of the phenomenon while issuing clear warnings about abuses intrinsic to such a plowing up of the human affections. His Faithful Narrative of Surprising Conversions  examined the revival in Northampton 1734-1736 and established his method for looking at every aspect of such a culture-shaper from the standpoint of historical setting, an empirical investigation of the spiritual experiences, comparison to a broadly-conceived biblical standard, and possible dangers to both supporters and opponents. Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God was followed by Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, and finally a more intentionally and thoroughly theological inspection entitled A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections.

The second part of Distinguishing Marks contains five positive evidences that a movement is of divine origin. These are all taken from 1 John 4. The first evidence focuses immediately on esteem and affection for Jesus. A genuine operation of God’s Spirit raises esteem for the biblical Jesus born of the Virgin, who came in human flesh and nature, was crucified without the gates of Jerusalem, was buried, rose from the dead, and ascended bodily into heaven. Faith in him for salvation implies love to him for his personal excellence and his saving work. A true operation of the spirit will “beget in them higher and more honorable thoughts of him than they used to have, and to incline their affections more to him.” Second, this work of the Spirit operates against the interests of Satan’s kingdom (1 John 4:4, 5.  Cf. 1 John 2:15, 16).  It takes the mind away from corruptible things of this age. removes our affections from the accumulation of worldly profit, pleasure, and prestige and engages us to a contemplation of the future and eternal happiness. We will have awakened consciences that are “sensible of the dreadful nature of sin, and of the displeasure of God against it,” and are “sensible of their need of God’s pity and help.” We will earnestly seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness and relish the new heaven and the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness. The Spirit engenders deep affection for the “excellency of divine things.” Third, a mark of the Spirit’s work is a greater regard to Holy Scripture (1 John 4:6). “We are from God,” John wrote; “Whoever knows God listens to us.” The Spirit leads to a love for and obedience to the apostles and “all the penmen of Holy Scripture.” The spirit of error, the spirit of deceit, would not beget in them a high opinion of the infallible rule, and incline them to think much of it, and desire an ever deeper knowledge of it. In accord with that, the fourth mark is the Spirit’s operation as a Spirit of truth as opposed to a spirit of error – All that leads us to deeper discoveries of the truth and disposes our mind to seek it and to love it is of God. The light discloses evil in all its ugly and destructive contours (Ephesians 5:13). “If I am brought to a sight of truth, and am made sensible of things as they be, my duty is immediately to thank God for it.” The fifth distinguishing mark of a true work of the Spirit is this: it “operates as a spirit of love to God and to Man” (1 John 4:7 to the end of the chapter).  “There is sufficient said in this passage of St. John that we are upon, of the nature and motive of a truly Christian love, thoroughly to distinguish it from all such counterfeits. It is a love that arises from an apprehension of the wonderful riches of free grace and sovereignty of God’s love to us in Christ Jesus; being attended with a sense of our own utter unworthiness, as in ourselves the enemies and haters of God and Christ, and with a renunciation of all our own excellency and righteousness” (9, 10, 11, 19).

The traits, derived as they are from close attention to an apostle’s clear instruction to a people whom he loved and for whom he served as a teacher in truth and love, will be maintained and expand in influence if the present college revival is a work of the Spirit of God. The reports of seasoned and friendly observers seem to indicate that these traits are present.

Within this same time frame as the college revival phenomenon, Beth Moore, a well-known Bible teacher and preacher, has found this same Jonathan Edwards to be alarmingly perplexing. So did his contemporaries. He noted that many dismissed the revival as an occasion of unbridled enthusiasm fostered by ministers insisting on the terrors of God’s holy law, and “that with a great deal of pathos and earnestness.” Obviously referring to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, or perhaps, The Wicked Useful in their Condemnation Only or, The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners,  Edwards countered with the transparently logical observation, “If I am in danger of going to hell, I should be glad to know as much as possibly I can of the dreadfulness of it.” He went on to say, “He does me the best kindness, that does most to represent to me the truth of the case, that sets forth my misery and danger in the liveliest manner.” 

Readers could find a series of tweets @BethMooreLPM that began with, “For the life of me, I don’t get the appeal of Jonathan Edwards to many.” Then she noted her response of years ago to a passage in Jonathan Edwards “Sinners” that said “But I have Jesus.” She had underlined the word “Jesus” and indicated that Edwards’s powerful and unnuanced presentation of God’s wrath somehow made her feel the need to “respond so curtly toward” Edwards’s picture of fearsome wrath like holding a spider “over the pit of hell.” She presented the impact of Edwards as discouraging to souls in need of the loving presence of Jesus.  Her response was designed as a correction to Edwards in his failure to do that. 

Edwards, however, is not deficient on the issue of the saving love of Jesus. In fact, in addition to the incomparable loveliness of his person as the God/man, the loveliness of Jesus is precisely commensurate with the infinite intensity of divine wrath. In The Excellency of Jesus Christ, Edwards made this important point. “Christ never so greatly manifested his hatred of sin, as against God, as in his dying to take away the dishonor that sin had done to God; and yet never was he to such a degree subject to the terrible effects of God’s hatred of sin, and wrath against it, as he was then. In this appears those diverse excellencies meeting in Christ, viz. love to God and grace to sinners.” 

Thus any attempt to diminish one’s perception of the wrath of God against sin and its overwhelming and just hatred against sinners as sinners at the same time necessarily diminishes the grace that Christ has shown to sinners. Ms. Moore indicated that the main attraction of Jesus to her was the promise of dealing with the extremity of her internal brokenness. “I was so broken & self-loathing & ensnared in my sins, such preaching would’ve made me feel like dying. Like running away, not running toward God.” Then she adds, “I would’ve wondered how he could go straight to loving someone like a son after he had abhorred them like a spider.” Of course, she was exactly right to put the sentence, “But I have Jesus” at that point. Only Jesus can do wretched sinners good.  At the same time, she missed the fundamental relationship between Law and Gospel that establishes the necessity to flee to Jesus from deserved divine wrath with an expectation that he will receive us. Only he can receive us for he alone has borne that very wrath of God the description of which she has indicated would drive her away. Recall Edwards’s remark about the Spirit’s operation through truth: “If I am brought to a sight of truth, and am made sensible of things as they be, my duty is immediately to thank God for it.”

Ms. Moore found many elements of her life—messed-up kid, terrible decisions, shame, boundary-less home—that made her seek some point of stability and gain a sense of self-worth. “What drew me to God,” she testified, “was merciful, beautiful Jesus.” Of course, this is right and good and a sound perception as far as it goes, but one must not focus on by-products such as self-worth and dignity but on the reality that we are by “nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), and Jesus alone saves us “from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). She probably would find a great sense of wonder, emotional satisfaction, and expansive awareness of the greatness of Jesus if she would spend some more time in Edwards. For example, I imagine she would relish this passage from Edwards:

And yet he will at the same time appear as a Lamb to his saints; he will receive them as friends and brethren, treating them with infinite mildness and love. There shall be nothing in him terrible to them. … What is there that you can desire should be in a Saviour, that is not in Christ? Or, wherein should you desire a Saviour should be otherwise than Christ is? What excellency is there wanting? What is there that is great or good; what is there that is venerable or winning; what is there that is adorable or endearing; or what can you think of that would be encouraging, which is not to be found in the person of Christ?

Such an engaging description of Christ’s gentleness with his people and such an entreating call to see his beauty gains fullness of power in seeing, hearing, and believing his appearance as a Lion: “He will then appear in the most dreadful and amazing manner to the wicked. The devils tremble at the thought of that appearance; and when it shall be, the kings, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bond-man, and every free-man, shall hide themselves in the dens, and in the rocks of the mountains, and shall cry to the mountains and rocks to fall on them to hide them from the face and wrath of the Lamb. And none can declare or conceive of the amazing manifestations of wrath in which he will then appear toward these; or the trembling and astonishment, the shrieking and gnashing of teeth, with which they shall stand before his judgment seat, and receive the terrible sentence of his wrath.”

Moore puts herself in the position of obscuring the true greatness of God’s condescending love when she writes, “I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m no big theologian but I just don’t think you’re a spider. And I don’t think God abhors you.” Maybe an edge into Moore’s awareness that she might benefit from a larger knowledge of Edwards would be his treatise on the spider, in which one of his corollaries said, “Hence the exuberant goodness of the Creator, who hath not only provided for all the necessities, but also for the pleasure and recreation of all sorts of creatures, even the insects.” An even greater door of edifying knowledge would be a serious engagement with the expansive treatments that Jonathan Edwards gives of the dying love and grace and continued intercession of the Jesus who was set forth as the propitiation for our sins in order that God might be just even in justifying those who trust in him. 

What Christian would not agree with Beth Moore in writing, “I have found exactly ONE in whom I feel completely safe, completely loved, completely known, and completely helped.” I would recommend that her sense of safety, love, knowledge, and help could be expanded in a profound and edifying way—not only to her but to the many who benefit from her Bible teaching—by a serious engagement with the biblical, experiential, and doctrinal insight of Jonathan Edwards.

The ageless Edwards might still instruct us in such a time as this.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts