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Jonathan Edwards and the Theology of Revival (4)

Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England

Summary and Analysis

 

Part IV

 

"Shewing what things are to be corrected or avoided in promoting this work, or in our behavior under it" (409).

 

Edwards opens with this interesting comment:

 

"Many that are zealous for this glorious work of God are heartily sick of the great noise there is in the country about imprudences and disorders; they have heard it so often from the mouths of opposers that they are prejudiced against the sound; and they look upon it that that which is called a being prudent and regular, which is so much insisted on, is no other than being asleep, or cold and dead in religion, and that the great imprudence that is so much cried out of, is only a being alive, and engaged in the things of God: and they are therefore rather confirmed in any practice, than brought off from it, by the clamor they hear against it, as imprudent and irregular" (409).

 

This greatly concerns Edwards, because he does not want the supporters of the revival to become so insensitive to criticism that they fail to acknowledge their errors or correct their mistakes.

 

Edwards is keenly aware of the efforts by Satan to undermine the work of God. "It has been a common device of the Devil," he writes, "to overset a revival of religion, when he finds he can keep men quiet and secure no longer, then to drive 'em to excesses and extravagances. He holds them back as long as he can, but when he can do it no longer, then he'll push 'em on, and if possible, run 'em upon their heads" (410).

 

One of the principal mistakes of those who benefited most from the revival is the delusion that because they have received blessing and power from God, they are now invulnerable or immune from demonic attack and deceit. They think that as long as they remain "near to God" (412), they are beyond the devil's reach. Says Edwards:

 

"I believe so too, as long as they keep near to God in that respect, that they maintain an universal and diligent watch, and care to do their duty, and avoid sin and snares, with diffidence in themselves and humble dependence and prayerfulness: but not merely because they are near to God, in that respect that they now are receiving blessed communications from God, in refreshing views of him; if at the same time they let down their watch, and are not jealous over their own hearts, by reason of its remaining blindness and corruption, and a subtile adversary. 'Tis a grand error for persons to think they are out of danger of the Devil, and a corrupt, deceitful heart, even in their highest flights, and most raised frames of spiritual joy. . . . However highly we may be favored with divine discoveries and comforts, yet as long as we are in the world, we are in the enemy's country" (412).

 

"'Tis therefore a great error, and sin in some persons, at this day, that they are fixed in their way in some things that others account errors, and won't hearken to admonition and counsel, but are confident that they are in the right of it, in those practices that they find themselves disposed to, because God is much with them and they have great degrees of the Spirit of God" (413).

 

Having made this point, Edwards proceeds to identify three primary errors that attend revival, hoping that those in his own day pay close heed.

 

1.             "The first, and the worst cause of errors that prevail in such a state of things, is spiritual pride. This is the main door, by which the Devil comes into the hearts of those that are zealous for the advancement of religion" (414).

 

It is because of pride "that the mind defends itself in other errors, and guards itself against light by which it might be corrected and reclaimed. The spiritually proud man is full of light already; he don't need instruction, and is ready to despise the offer of it" (414).

 

On the other hand, "nothing sets a person so much out of the Devil's reach as humility" (414).

 

Edwards is not prepared to say that everyone in the revival is infected with pride. Indeed, he reminds his readers of this important point:

 

"I know that a great many things at this day are very injuriously laid to the pride of those that are zealous in the cause of God. When any person appears, in any respect, remarkably distinguished in religion from others, if he professes those spiritual comforts and joys that are greater than ordinary, or if he appears distinguishingly zealous in religion, if he exerts himself more than others do in the cause of religion, or if he seems to be distinguished with success, ten to one but it will immediately awaken the jealousy of those that are about him; and they'll suspect (whether they have cause or no) that he is very proud of his goodness, and that he affects to have it thought that nobody is so good as he; and all his talk is heard, and all his behavior beheld with this prejudice. Those that are themselves cold and dead, and especially such as never had any experience of the power of godliness on their own hearts, are ready to entertain such thoughts of the best Christians; which arises from a secret enmity against vital and fervent piety" (415).

 

Edwards proceeds with a masterful diagnosis of pride, its effects, as well as the essence of humility. Here are just a few statements worth remembering:

 

"Spiritual pride often disposes persons to singularity in external appearance, to affect a singular way of speaking, to use a different sort of dialect from others, or to be singular in voice, or air of countenance or behavior: but he that is an eminently humble Christian, though he will be firm to his duty, however singular he is in it; he'll go in the way that leads to heaven alone, all the world forsakes him; yet he delights not in singularity for singularity's sake, he don't affect to set up himself to be viewed and observed as one distinguished. . . . Spiritual pride disposes persons to affect separation, to stand at a distance from others, as better than they, and loves the shew and appearance of the distinction" (421-22).

 

"Nothing is so effectual to bring God down from heaven in the defense of his people, as their patience and meekness under sufferings"(424).

 

"Fishermen that have been very successful, and have caught a great many fish, had need to be careful that they don't at length begin to burn incense to their net" (430).

 

2.             "Secondly, another thing from whence errors in conduct, that attend such a revival of religion, do arise, is wrong principles" (432).

 

Edwards cites six principles, ideas, or doctrines that have proved especially troublesome during the revival.

 

a.             "One erroneous principle, than which scarce any has proved more mischievous to the present glorious work of God, is a notion that 'tis God's manner now in these days to guide his saints, at least some that are more eminent, by inspiration or immediate revelation; and to make known to 'em what shall come to pass hereafter, or what it is his will that they should do, by impressions that he by his Spirit makes upon their minds, either with or without texts of Scripture; whereby something is made known to them, that is not taught in the Scripture as the words lie in the Bible" (432).

 

Edwards is referring primarily to the "God-told-me-to" syndrome. He warns of the potential dangers in this approach to Christian living:

 

1)            "Satan would have opportunity thereby to set up himself as the guide and oracle of God's people" (432).

 

2)            This view would soon "bring the Bible into neglect and contempt. Late experience in some instances has shown that the tendency of this notion is to cause persons to esteem the Bible as a book that is in a great measure useless" (432).

 

3)            "This error will defend and support all errors. As long as a person has a notion that he is guided by immediate direction from heaven, it makes him incorrigible and impregnable in all his misconduct: for what signifies it for poor blind worms of the dust to go to argue with a man, and endeavor to convince him and correct him, that is guided by the immediate counsels and commands of the great Jehovah?" (432-33).

 

4)            "'Tis enough to astonish one that such multiplied, plain instances of the failing of such supposed revelations in the event don't open everyone's eyes. I have seen so many instances of the failing of such impressions, that would almost furnish an history" (433).

 

In point of fact, these are all legitimate warnings. People have indeed been led astray and fallen into error because of their failure to heed the dangers to which Edwards alludes. However, none of these arguments is explicitly biblical. I.e., Edwards cites no texts of Scripture to prove that God no longer speaks with his people beyond the words of the Bible. No one denies that there are dangers and difficulties in hearing the present tense voice of the Spirit. But the solution to that is to develop biblical principles for protecting us from delusion, not denying or forbidding the hearing of God's voice altogether.

 

Edwards' principal error, in my opinion, is in thinking that any and all post-canonical revelation undermines the sufficiency of Scripture and would, if valid, be on an equal plane with Scripture in terms of authority and infallibility.

 

The work of the Spirit, he argues, is simply to enlighten "the mind to understand the precepts or propositions of the Word of God, and to know what is contained and revealed in them, and what consequences may justly be drawn from them, and to see how they are applicable to our case and circumstances; which is done without any new revelation, only by enabling the mind to understand and apply a revelation already made" (435).

 

b.             "Another erroneous principle that some have embraced, that has been a source of many errors in their conduct, is that persons ought always to do whatsoever the Spirit of God (though but indirectly) inclines them to do" (442).

 

Contrary to how it may sound, Edwards is not advocating disobedience to the Spirit! He has in mind acting unwisely or over-zealously on what is otherwise a legitimate Spirit-induced inclination or disposition.

 

c.             "Another wrong principle from whence have arisen errors in conduct is, that whatsoever is found to be of present and immediate benefit, may and ought to be practiced without looking forward to future consequences" (444).

 

Edwards believes it important that in responding to the work of the Spirit within our hearts, we make decisions not only in terms of short-term blessings, but also in the light of long-term consequences and fruit.

 

d.             "Another error that is of the nature of an erroneous principle, that some have gone upon, is a wrong notion that they have of an attestation of divine providence to persons or things. We go too far when we look upon the success that God gives to some persons, in making them the instruments of doing much good, as a testimony of God's approbation of those persons and all the courses they take" (450-51).

 

Edwards wisely reminds us that although God may bless a person externally because of some one thing of which he approves, this does not necessarily mean he approves of everything in or about the individual. In other words, we must not conclude from the blessings of providence that God's favor and approval are unqualified.

 

e.             "Another erroneous principle that there has been something of, and that has been an occasion of some mischief and confusion, is that external order in matters of religion and use of the means of grace is but little to be regarded: 'tis spoken lightly of, under the names of ceremonies and dead forms, etc." (454).

 

f.             "Another erroneous principle that it seems to me some have been, at least, in danger of, is that ministers, because they speak as Christ's ambassadors, may assume the same style and speak as with the same authority that the prophets of old did, yea, that Jesus Christ himself did in the 23d chapter of Matthew" (457).

 

3.             "Being ignorant or unobservant of some particular things, by which the Devil has special advantage" (458).

 

The only thing to which I want to draw attention is Edwards' observation concerning the influence of ministers on whether or not people readily or reluctantly display external bodily manifestations. He explains:

 

"If some person is among them to conduct them, that much countenances and encourages such kind of outward manifestations of great affections, they naturally and insensibly prevail, and grow by degrees unavoidable; but when afterwards they come under another kind of conduct, the manner of external appearances will strangely alter: and yet it seems to be without any proper design or contrivance of those in whom there is this alteration; 'tis not properly affected by them, but the influence of example and custom is secret and insensible to the persons themselves" (472).

 

"Therefore, though it would be very unreasonable and prejudicial to the interest of religion to frown upon all these extraordinary external effects and manifestations of great religious affections . . . ; yet I think they greatly err who think that these things should be wholly unlimited, and that all should be encouraged in going in these things to the utmost length that they feel themselves inclined to: the consequence of this will be very bad. There ought to be a gentle restraint held upon these things, and there should be a prudent care taken of persons in such extraordinary circumstances, and they should be moderately advised at proper seasons, not to make more ado than there is need of, but rather to hold a restraint upon their inclinations; otherwise extraordinary outward effects will grow upon them, they will be more and more natural and unavoidable, and the extraordinary outward show will increase, without any increase of the internal cause; persons will find themselves under a kind of necessity of making a great ado, with less and less affection of soul, till at length almost any slight emotion will set them going, and they will be more and more violent and boisterous, and will grow louder and louder, till their actions and behavior becomes indeed very absurd" (473).

 

What I hear Edwards saying is that we need to be careful lest bodily manifestations become a habit, easily triggered or set off, not by an inward spiritual cause, but by the external tactics, style, or manner of a particular minister.

 

Before leaving Part IV, we need to note Edwards' comments on what he calls "the mismanagement that has been in some places" when it comes to "the duty of singing praises to God" (489). He writes:

 

"But the mismanagement I have respect to, is the getting into a way of performing it without almost any appearance of that reverence and solemnity with which all visible, open acts of divine worship ought to be attended; it may be two or three in a room singing hymns of praise to God, others that are present talking at the same time, others about their work, with little more appearance of regard to what is doing than if some were only singing a common song for their amusement and diversion" (489).

 

Some even objected to the growing practice of singing in the streets while on the way to or from church. Whereas Edwards warned against the danger of parading one's religiosity in public and thus violating the principle behind Mt. 6:5, he could find no valid objection to corporate singing in the streets. Indeed,

 

"When God's people are going to his house, the occasion is so joyful to a Christian in a lively frame . . . that the duty of singing praises seems to be peculiarly beautiful on such an occasion" (492).

 

 

Part V

 

"Shewing positively what ought to be done to promote this work" (496).

 

1.             Stumbling blocks should be removed (496). Cf. Isa. 40:3; 57:14; 62:10.

2.             Orthodoxy should be reaffirmed (502).

3.             Older persons should forsake unbelief (504).

 

The majority of those who opposed the revival were among the elderly. "The state of the present revival of religion," writes Edwards, "has an awful aspect upon those that are advanced in years. The work has been chiefly amongst those that are young; and comparatively but few others have been made partakers of it" (504).

 

4.             Ministers should seek grace, zeal and courage (506).

 

["I think there is a great deal of reason from the Scripture, to conclude that no sort of men in the world will be so low in hell, as ungodly ministers" (506-07).]

 

5.             Colleges should nurture piety in their students (510).

6.             Wealth and power should be used for religious ends (513).

7.             All Christians should honor God in every way (515).

 

Here Edwards focuses on several important duties:

 

a.             Fasting and prayer

 

"When God has something very great to accomplish for his church, 'tis his will that there should precede it the extraordinary prayers of his people; as is manifest by Ezek. 36:37, 'I will yet for this be inquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them'; . . . And 'tis revealed that when God is about to accomplish great things for his church, he will begin by remarkably pouring out 'the spirit of grace and supplication,' Zech. 12:10" (516).

 

"When God is about to bestow some great blessing on his church, it is often his manner, in the first place, so to order things in his providence as to shew his church their great need of it, and to bring 'em into distress for want of it, and so put 'em upon crying earnestly to him for it" (517).

 

"There is no way that Christians in a private capacity can do so much to promote the work of God, and advance the kingdom of Christ, as by prayer. By this even women, children and servants may have a public influence. Let persons be never so weak, and never so mean, and under never so poor advantages to do much for Christ and the souls of men otherwise; yet, if they have much of the spirit of grace and supplication, in this way they may have power with him that is infinite in power, and has the government of the whole world: and so a poor man in his cottage may have a blessed influence all over the world. God is, if I may so say, at the command of the prayer of faith; and in this respect is, as it were, under the power of his people; as princes, they have power with God, and prevail [cf. Gen. 32:28]. Though they may be private persons their prayers are put up in the name of a Mediator, that is a public person, being the Head of the whole church and the Lord of the universe: and if they have a great sense of the importance of eternal things and concern for the precious souls of men, yet they need not regret it that they are not preachers; they may go in their earnestness and agonies of soul, and pour out their souls before One that is able to do all things; before him they may speak as freely as ministers; they have a great High Priest, through whom they may come boldly at all times [Heb. 4:14-16],and may vent themselves before a prayer-hearing Father, without any restraint" (518).

 

Edwards was a strong advocate for a national day of prayer and fasting:

 

"Such a circumstance makes the union and agreement of God's people in his worship the more visible, and puts the greater honor upon God, and would have a great tendency to assist and enliven the devotions of Christians. It seems to me, it would mightily encourage and animate God's saints, in humbly and earnestly seeking to God for such blessings which concerns them all; and that it would be much for the rejoicing of all, to think that at the same time such multitudes of God's dear children, far and near, were sending up their cries to the same common Father for the same mercies" (520).

 

b.             The Lord's Supper

 

Edwards believed that the Lord's Supper was a vital part of worship that should be observed every Sunday.

 

c.             Practical holiness

 

In addition to the above, there should "be a proportionable care to abound in moral duties, such as acts of righteousness, truth, meekness, forgiveness and love towards our neighbor" (522).

 

Included in this is giving to the poor (in support of which Edwards cites Isa. 58:7-11).

 

d.             Covenant renewal

 

e.             Public proclamation of the progress of revival

 

"It has been found by experience that the tidings of remarkable effects of the power and grace of God in any place, tend greatly to awaken and engage the minds of persons in other places" (529).