Why American Christianity Needs Jonathan Edwards… Again

Why American Christianity Needs Jonathan Edwards… Again October 30, 2017

Sometimes contradictory thoughts and feelings coexist in our hearts and minds. In one sense, I have never been more encouraged about the direction of Christianity in America than I am right now. I see pockets of brothers and sisters who care deeply about the Gospel, who connect their faith to their work, who take Jesus’ command to care for the least of these seriously, and who see the importance of healthy local churches. Unfortunately, some corners of American Christianity concern me deeply. Many evangelicals have sold their souls to the GOP, others emphasize justice to the exclusion of the Gospel, some believe we can rewrite essential biblical teachings, and many buy into a new version of the prosperity gospel that focuses on helping me be the best me I can be.

While talking about American Christianity, which boasts many different traditions, denominations, and emphases, can be a tricky proposition, there are enough general trends for me to say that American Christianity could use another dose of Jonathan Edwards. While no person is worthy of our complete emulation other than Jesus, many of Edwards’s works emphasize truths about God and his work through Jesus Christ that we need to hear again. (If you want a good, accessible biography, the short version of George Marsden’s biography of Edwards would be a great place to start. The longer version is one of the best biographies I have ever read, and you can never go wrong with Iain Murray’s biography of Edwards either.)

Edwards is a flawed man saved by God’s grace. We should not follow Edwards’s example of pastoral ministry since he did not spend enough time with the people entrusted to his care. His views on slavery reflected more of the world in which he lived than it did the teachings of Scripture. He handled some controversies in clumsy and unhelpful ways. Yet, there is so much good, rich Gospel truth in his writings that we can learn from and exult in the areas where he is faithful to Scripture while also learning what to avoid from his failures. Like every Christian, Edwards possessed rough edges, flaws, and still showed the effects of the fall, but like every Christian, he displayed the beauty of what it means to be saved by God’s grace. From the grace of God which was so evident in his life, we have much we can learn.

In particular, I think there are five areas where American Christianity needs to hear Jonathan Edwards again.

We Need Edwards’ Doctrine of Sin

We live in an era where many people still believe that most people are basically good in spite of the accumulating evidence in front of their faces. Our growing cynicism about other people shows that we know better than we profess. People are skeptical of others. Many liberals do not know a conservative and vice versa. Many of the ones who do wish they did not. 40% of people say they go out of the way to avoid their neighbors.

It seems strange to say that we need Jonathan Edwards’s doctrine of sin in a time when we are cynical about each other. After all, what could be more pessimistic than original sin and total depravity? This is a legitimate question, but I think the answer is apparent. We need to understand what is the basic problem with human beings so that we spend more time addressing our real issues than our superficial ones. In addition, to understand that people are totally depraved is to acknowledge that they were originally created in the image of God and stand worthy of dignity and respect. In this sense, we know people are sinners and so we are not surprised when they believe things that we find to be ridiculous, but we still know they bear the image of God and are disappointed when they fall short of what it means to be made in his image.

For American Christianity, total depravity will help us remember to make appeals to hearts. Laws need to change when they are unjust, but ultimately hearts must change for actions to change. Changing laws will make us feel like we’ve done something, but the rewards can often be short-lived. Heart change takes much longer, but the fruit lasts forever.

We Need Edwards’ Vocabulary of Judgment

I first heard of Edwards in AP English during my junior year of high school. We read a portion of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I don’t remember much about it from then, but I’m sure our reading focused on this section. “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire. He is of purer eyes than to bear you in his sight; you are ten thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.” A new generation is meeting Edwards through the portrayal of his grandson Aaron Burr in Hamilton: An American Musical. In the number “Wait for It,” we get one reference to Edwards, and it is the same caricature most of us got in high school literature. Burr sings, “My grandfather was a fire and brimstone preacher.” This is all that most of us know about Edwards.

What we never stop to ask is why Edwards talks about judgment the way he does. Why does he talk about God’s wrath burning like fire and having purer eyes than to bear us in his sight? He talks this way because it is true, and if it is true, no human language can adequately express the horror of suffering under the wrath of the living God.

Every human being in the world believes in hell whether they want to admit it or not. We believe people should suffer for the wrong things they do and the injustice they inflict. Today, people are celebrating the indictments against Paul Manafort. Netflix just announced that House of Cards will end after this season because of an accusation of sexual assault against lead actor Kevin Spacey. We want justice and we appeal to karma, the universe, the authorities, or whatever higher power will listen. However, we don’t want the same standards applied to us. Ours is a self-righteous, hypocritical desire to see other people get what they deserve while I get away scot-free.

In addition, American Christianity continues to be plagued by rampant immorality among those who profess to follow Jesus. Too often, we think nothing of the most high-handed sins. Hearing Edwards’s accurate description of God’s judgment shakes us out of our complacency and our living at ease with sin. We need to hear the warnings for those who say they follow Christ and deny him by their deeds. We need to warn others that they will one day stand before the God who created them. And what do we need more than the good news that the judgment we so richly deserve fell on another? When we get this, we follow him our whole life long.

We Need Edwards’ View of God

We talk about God like he is an idealized version of ourselves. We often take what we think we would be when we are our best selves, and project that onto God. We demonstrate our audacity with astonishing phrases like “I could never worship a God who…” How arrogant do we have to be to think we get to rearrange the attributes of God to our liking as if he is a divine Mr. Potato Head?

Edwards holds up God as he presents himself in his word without varnish so that we can adore him for who he is. Edwards lets God be God without renegotiating his attributes. To read Edwards on the Trinity or on the excellencies of Christ is to hear someone who has gazed at God’s beauty, meditated on his wonder, and used every word at his disposal to help us see the beauty he sees.

One particular area where Edwards can help us is in recovering a proper view of God’s transcendence. God is both transcendent (high above us) and immanent (near to us.) Throughout church history, we have walked through periods where we emphasized one to the near exclusion of the other.

I would argue that now we overemphasize immanence to the detriment of God’s transcendence. God is our buddy who sits with us and tells us to relax. (see the God of Jesus Calling, who sounds a lot like a suburban housewife) He’s the cheerleader helping us on as we face our giants and live our best life now. He is very concerned with justice on earth but doesn’t seem to care that much about where souls spend eternity. We demonstrate our affinity for immanence when we gush over any teaching on God as our friend, but balk at talk of God’s sovereignty or eternal justice.

We don’t need to hear Edwards on God’s transcendence because we need some kind of “balance,” but because God’s nearness to us is only good news when we also understand how he is altogether unlike us. What Edwards helps us see is God in his majestic glory and holiness; the one who dwells in unapproachable light. When we see God like this, and then we hear that Jesus came to explain him to us, that he fills us with his own Spirit, and that he adopts us as his children, we start to understand how good this good news really is. Without it, the love of God and his complete forgiveness become mundane; something he offers out of obligation rather than abundant grace.

We Need Edwards’ Understanding of the Affections

The First Great Awakening produced no small amount of religious excitement in the colonies. Genuine faith in Christ stirred some of these passions and mere excitement fanned the flames in other cases. Edwards found it necessary to distinguish between true possession of what he called “religious affections” and a false excitement that came from a faulty profession of faith.

Likewise, we find plenty of “religious faith” alive and well in America. (Well, we can debate the “alive” part.) Millions of people still claim to follow Jesus and we have never had more megachurches. Christian presses churn out books at an unprecedented rate and it seems as if there is a big Christian conference every weekend. How do we distinguish between what is substantive faith in Christ and what is mere religious showmanship and marketing? Edwards provided some tests for us in his book, Religious Affections. (Sam Storms helps us understand Edwards’s emphases in Signs of the Spirit.)

First, he walked through signs that do not necessarily mean we have genuine faith in Christ. They can look like genuine affections on the surface, but they are not a positive or negative sign of real faith. Some of what we read here can be scary. Attending religious services, acts that have the appearance of love, talking about Christianity, and experiences that come with a verse of Scripture attached to them are no sure signs of genuine faith. We need to hear this in our day where we are so prone to believe that our experiences carry as much weight as the truth of Scripture.

Next, Edwards dove into the signs that we have genuine affections. In this section, he shows how authentic faith in Christ demonstrates itself in love for God and other people from the heart. He defines these signs in twelve headings, showing that these are gracious affections that cannot be faked or worked up. They flow from real union with Christ and the work of Spirit, so they are deep, real, and abiding. We desperately need to grasp these crucial distinctions.

We Need Edwards’ Not Living in 2017

If I could get to my Twitter feed right now, which I cannot do because I have blocked it for two hours so I could write this post without distraction, my guess is that many of the tweets have something to do with the investigations into President Trump and Russia. In fact, most of the tweets for the last two years and four months have been about something he said or did. In addition, we have debates going on about the LGBT community, immigration, racial justice, healthcare, and many other issues that are of vital importance. However, if I don’t shut everything down and read something that was written in a time completely different from my own, I will read the Bible, pray, and think about everything in light of the latest political and cultural debates. The immanent will drown out the transcendent.

When we read someone like Edwards who does not live in our century, we encounter transcendent truths that affect life in every century. Who God is, what our basic problem is, what God has done to bring us back to himself, and who we are in Christ does not change from cultural moment to cultural moment.

Also, I get quite discouraged when I look across our cultural landscape. It boggles my mind that evangelical Christians are calling on other evangelical Christians to hop on board with Steve Bannon’s bid to remake our government. When I look at our government institutions, I see chaos reigning; and where chaos exists, totalitarianism often steps in to fill the void. I could list another hundred things that fill me with fear and frustration when I only think about today, but when I turn to the voices of Christians from the past, I’m reminded of the timeless God who controls all of history. I get to remember that the controversy du jour will be forgotten, but every act of love done for a neighbor will be rewarded for eternity.

Followers of Jesus need to lose our addiction to social media, meaningless drivel, and breaking news and focus instead on reading our Bibles, spending time in prayer, loving our neighbors, encouraging other believers and exposing ourselves to good literature that will deepen our walk with the Lord. Jonathan Edwards will be a helpful guide in this journey. Nothing he wrote is a quick or breezy read, but it always repays the hard work involved.

Related Posts:
Cultivating a Deep Walk with the Lord

Why We Struggle to Pray in the Digital Age

For Further Reading:
Edwards on the Christian Life by Dane Ortlund

Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought by Stephen Nichols



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