July 24, 2017

Jonathan Edwards' Gospel And The Great Awakening Paradigm

Before the American Revolution, there was a spiritual phenomenon named the Great Awakening in which the gospel was presented in such an effective manner that people listening would cry out in the middle of the sermons and ask what they must do to be saved. There is only one true gospel, but it can be altered to the point where it is unrecognizable and essentially different. What was the gospel preaching like during the US spiritual Awakenings? How was it similar or different to the paradigm of gospel preaching today and in the book of Acts?

The pattern of the repentance-type preaching of the Awakenings was kept alive in towns such as Ocean Grove, N.J., that was designed as a camp-meeting center, in which a large wooden auditorium still exists. It was a place I used to love to go to when I was younger, a couple of hours away at the shore. I love the beach and was impressed by the small town that was set up as a place for spiritual renewal and revival. There was a sense of God's presence.

The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA) was founded in 1869 with a simple mission to "provide opportunities for spiritual birth, growth, and renewal in a Christian seaside setting." And this ties into these questions that I've been thinking about. It was very powerful to experience concerts and meetings and to be in the midst of such a large group of people seeking God in such a place. The attached post card shows a colorized photo of a historical meeting at Ocean Grove with banners that read: 'HOLINESS TO THE LORD ...SO BE YE HOLY."

While scriptures teach that the Holy Spirit moves unpredictably at various times and in various ways, there are some key points that stand out on the subject of revivals and revivalism and one is the centrality of God's presence and power. The American Awakenings relied on the fact that the Holy Spirit will convict people's hearts of sin when the Word of God is proclaimed prayerfully, purely, and powerfully.[1] This was underscored by a quote of Jonathan Edwards:

"Persons are first awakened with a sense of their miserable condition by nature, the danger they are in of perishing eternally, and it is of great importance to them that they speedily escape and get into a better state… Some are more suddenly seized with convictions-it may be, by the news of others’ conversion, or some thing they hear in public, or in private conference-their consciences are smitten, as if their hearts were pierced through with a dart. Others are awakened more gradually…"[2]

It was not by accident that first reaction by a person during the Great Awakening was an awareness of the sinful human nature: "Persons are first awakened with a sense of their miserable condition by nature..."The basic message of the US Great Awakening was that life was very short and unpredictable and that God's judgment was awaiting anyone that had not repented of sin and established peace with God. The teachers didn't try to sugarcoat the message. They didn't try to serve the frosting without the cake. It's more like there was the taste of death and the smell of sulfur in the air before the altar call came around and God's grace and mercy were described and offered in the gospel message. The message was based on scripture, pure and simple, and the results were similar to what the Apostle Peter preached when about 3,000 people believed in Christ and repented in one day, and his message urged: “Save yourselves from this crooked generation!”[3]

Edwards didn't hold back from preaching the unpleasant realities of sin and hell, so he could probably say with Paul: "for I didn't shrink from declaring all that God wants you to know." (Acts 20:27). And Edwards also elaborated on the joys of holiness in his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections,  within the framework of these two questions: "What is the nature of true religion? And wherein do lie the distinguishing notes of that virtue and holiness that is acceptable in the sight of God?" What is notable is that he was very concerned with truth and did not wax dogmatic about his answers to these questions, or hastily create a philosophy surrounding his ideas, but merely presented his observations on these subjects for consideration. Unlike many teachers today, Jonathan Edwards welcomed critical reviews of his teachings:

"The consideration of these things has long engaged me to attend to this matter, with the utmost diligence and care, and exactness of search and inquiry, that I have been capable of. It is a subject on which my mind has been peculiarly intent, ever since I first entered on the study of divinity. But as to the success of my inquiries it must be left to the judgment of the reader of the following treatise."

Please read that again. Jonathan Edwards encouraged critical thinking and the "judgment of the reader" with regard to his own teachings. So often today teachers dissuade critical thinking and attempt to make followers feel guilty if their teachings are questioned. Often today, teachers create controversial philosophies and then just expect people to follow along, even refusing to publicly discuss and debate questionable points. Jesus welcomed questions. Paul advocated testing all things[4] and praised those that did[5].

Why do teachers today not follow Jonathan Edwards' example of welcoming critical discussion of their own doctrinal assertions? Because most likely their ideas are faulty and cannot stand up to interactive debate.

I believe that the Holy Spirit is reliable to give insight into doctrine and to guide preachers and teachers on how to address certain audiences, such as the manner in which Paul addressed the Athenians. However, I see extreme dogmatism today when people take this seeker-friendly approach and attempt to make a universal application to all Christians. Edwards seems to have been careful with regard to dogma, and he was effectively used by God to radically change society, perhaps because of his care not to diminish the name of God and because of his sense of appropriate humility with regard to creating new doctrinal approaches.

Jonathan Edwards was one of the most effective preachers of the Great Awakening, and his sermon text for “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”[6] was based on both the Old Testament and New Testament references, with the title derived from Hebrews:

“It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31 NIV)

Edwards used scripture to describe the restlessness state of those that reject God: “The Souls of the Wicked are in Scripture compared to the troubled Sea, Isai. 57. 20. For the present God restrains their Wickedness by his mighty Power, as he does the raging Waves of the troubled Sea, saying, Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further; but if God should withdraw that restraining Power, it would soon carry all afore it.” - This is the actual quote of Isaiah that Edwards' referenced:

“But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt.” Isaiah 57:20 (KJV)

Well, Isaiah 57:20 isn't exactly the kind of verse one quotes to build self-esteem and positive feelings. And it's not very common in a word-art picture on Pinterest and Instagram. But it shows the true state of the lost soul, as described by Isaiah elsewhere: "There is no peace," says the LORD, "for the wicked."(Isaiah 48:22 NIV). Edwards was not hesitant to mention the word “sin” and in describing its devastating effects in bringing abject misery: “Sin is the Ruin and Misery of the Soul; it is destructive in it’s Nature; and if God should leave it without Restraint, there would need nothing else to make the Soul perfectly miserable.”

Edwards was not hesitant to describe eternal punishment pursuant to a literal hell:

“Almost every natural Man that hears of Hell, flatters himself that he shall escape it; he depends upon himself for his own Security; he flatters himself in what he has done, in what he is now doing, or what he intends to do; every one lays out Matters in his own Mind how he shall avoid Damnation, and flatters himself that he contrives well for himself and that his Schemes won’t fail.”[7]

It was the wrath of God against sin that was the thematic impetus for the Great Awakening:

“The Use may be of Awakening to unconverted Persons in this Congregation. This that you have heard is the Case of every one of you that are out of Christ. That World of Misery, that Lake of burning Brimstone is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful Pit of the glowing Flames of the Wrath of God; there is Hell’s wide gaping Mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, not any Thing to take hold of: there is nothing between you and Hell but the Air; 'tis only the Power and meer Pleasure of God that holds you up.”[8]

In stark contrast to the emphasis on God's holiness and the destructive consequences of sin, there is an increasing tendency in our time to place the main focus on subjective human feelings. For example, Joel Osteen, pastor of the largest U.S. church, rarely mentions the word "sin" at all, because it is considered too negative a subject for his audience. And John Piper does not mention the word "sin" once in his summary of his Christian Hedonism, as posted at the bottom of the article Five Heresies of Christian Hedonism.[9] The following is a summary of three key points of John Piper's five points of his "philosophy" and the main reasoning behind his book, Desiring God[10]:

1. The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful.
2. The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God.
3. The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.

While there is no doubt that our personal greatest happiness is found in God, a desire to be happy is not presented in scripture as the main biblical foundation for seeking God and presenting the gospel or for living the Christian life. And core essential aspects of the gospel highlight that “Christ died for our sins”[11] so that we “should not perish”[12] and that both the love of God and the fear of God's wrath are valid motives for seeking redemption and preaching the gospel:

“And of some have compassion, making a difference: And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.” (Jude 1. 22, 23 KJV)

Edwards in his A.G. sermon downplays the affections and cares of the natural man and human wisdom:

"Natural Men’s Prudence and Care to preserve their own Lives, or the Care of others to preserve them, don’t secure ‘em a Moment ... There is this clear Evidence that Men’s own Wisdom is no Security to them from Death."

In his sermons, Edwards downplayed human primal urges and human wisdom in a pattern in keeping with Paul's growth in experience in preaching the gospel. Paul acknowledged that the message of Christ crucified was ultimately so simple as to appear foolish to the philosophical Greeks that he preached to:

"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” (1 Corinthians 1:18,19)

While Edwards used a critical biblical description of fallen humanity (Isaiah 57:20) as a basis for his presentation of the gospel, Piper plays up a humanistic description of mankind's yearning for happiness as his main starting place. While Edwards focused on biblical descriptions of God's wrath against sin and the requirements for salvation so that hell and torment can be avoided, Piper focuses on a feeling of happiness as a central motive, and as the main goal in glorifying God. Scripture urges Christians to test what is being taught and to check teachings against patterns and principles that are presented in the whole of scripture. If some new philosophy or theme is not in both the Old and New Testament, and if Jesus did not demonstrate it, if the book of Acts does not display it, and if Paul did not preach it, then it should probably be reconsidered.

How would the Holy Spirit not be grieved by the preaching today that often downplays or ignores the issue of sin that is central towards the conviction of sin and repentance?

The value of a spiritual awakening cannot be underestimated. The only answer to our increasingly deep corruption in society seems to be a spiritual awakening, and the effective presentation of an accurate gospel message is an important aspect of this. Teachings based on personal fulfillment in God will probably not be as effective as preaching the full gospel message and allowing the Holy Spirit to convict of sin. Edwards documented joyful religious experiences that occurred during spiritual awakenings and showed a sequential pattern of prayer for awakening, preaching of holiness, conviction of sin, repentance, and resultant joy.

John Piper, inspired by Edwards' writing on joy, based his philosophy of hedonism on seeking happiness in God above all else. Piper does not adequately distinguish between the root of holiness and the fruit of holiness. Ultimately, Scripture teaches that our abiding in Christ is the rock and the root of our Christian life, not our abiding in feelings in God that may come and go. If our doctrine places too much importance on feelings in life or feelings as a heavenly goal, we actually grieve the feelings of the Holy Spirit. Read carefully the context of Ephesians 4:30 in which the Holy Spirit is grieved:

"And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption." (Ephesians 4:30 NIV)

This chapter warns of unsound "winds of doctrine"(Ephesians 4:14), warns against seeking after "desires" and urges believers to "be like God" in "true righteousness and holiness," as shown:

"You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness."

This "new self" is further described as an immediate state of becoming a new creation[13] upon being born again spiritually.[14]. This is not something a believer should long for in terms of feelings, but something a true believer already has and the emphasis is on the renewing of the mind and thought patterns[15] in order to live in the light of this truth. And so one of the main aspects of Christian growth is learning spiritual truths and applying them to life on a daily basis. The importance of the Holy Spirit as our guide through the entire process cannot be overemphasized. The Spirit first convicts us of sin towards salvation[16] and then guides into all truth[17]. Though we become new creatures, we daily struggle with the sin nature and the process of sanctification. We all do, and we all fall sometimes, whether we admit it or not.[18]

If salvation is based mainly on the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and the conviction of the Holy Spirit is based mainly on preaching the gospel of repentance from sin, then how would the Holy Spirit not be grieved by the preaching today that downplays repentance from sin and focuses foremost on seeking pleasure? This is not a rhetorical question. This is a question that people should address if their paradigm differs significantly from the effective gospel paradigm in the book of Acts.

When Paul preached to the Athenians in Greece, he was very seeker-friendly and philosophical in in his approach towards adapting the gospel to their way of thinking. But only a few believed and no church was founded in Athens because not enough believers repented and became Christians. It was after this experience that Paul went to the Corinthians and preached the simple and "foolish" gospel of Christ crucified. The gospel message style and pattern in Acts and the New Testament, in general, relied on the Holy Spirit who convicts people of sin. When the message in society and in churches avoids sin and more resembles the promotion of idolatry than teaching against it, look out. This could symbolize the cycle of freedom and bondage Israel went through seven times as the people repeatedly fell back into heavily idolatrous lifestyles.
The seven historical cycles of idolatry and repentance in the Old Testament underscore that revivalism is a valid and biblical concept. The contextual pattern of spiritual renewal in the Bible was always based on grief over sin, and never a quest for personal fulfillment and happiness. This is true in both the Old Testament and in the book of Acts. Repentance in sackcloth and ashes was symbolic of an appropriate grief over sin and a necessary aspect of turning to God, which is mentioned at least 23 times in the Old Testament[19' and by Jesus also[20].

As someone that is interested in apologetics, my tendency to focus on logic can cloud the simplicity of the gospel of Christ crucified for our sins and risen to save. However, I do not claim that my approach or paradigm should be accepted by all Christians, as John Piper and others do with their doctrines. If a Christian teacher is adamant that his "philosophy" applies to all Christians, this opens a teacher up to a greater responsibility of supporting his or her claims logically and by scripture.  

The Holy Spirit conviction of sin is based on acknowledging the seriousness of sin against God's perfect holy and unchanging nature. God's name as the great "I am" of Yahwey signifies that His objective and unchanging being and nature, in and of itself, is the fixed setting and foundation of truth, not His feelings. And even as a diamond shines all the more brilliantly when set within a black backdrop, so does the grace of God and holy nature of God shine all the more when presented in a balanced and contrasting context of this dark backdrop of the sin nature. With these things in mind, it seems that even if God desired to bring a great awakening to the United States, there is a question if God would be hindered from this based on the human focus on feelings and the obsession with being happy. Novel trends in churches haven't changed the primacy of historical biblical patterns and examples, and so far have not created the types of strong and vibrant spiritual communities that have been seen in the past.

Given the extreme emphasis on being happy in many churches, does it appear as though a spiritual awakening in the US would even be possible in the context of scripture and historical awakenings? 

If anyone disagrees with anything I've written, I welcome constructive dialogue, especially on important issues of doctrine.

(C) Richard H. Warden


[1] Wikipedia, Great Awakening
[2] Jonathan Edwards, A Narrative of Surprising Conversions, from Jonathan Edwards On Revival, Banner of Truth, p.23
[3] Acts 2:40 "With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day." (NIV)
[4] "Test all things; hold fast what is good." 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (NKJV)
[5] Acts 17:11 "Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." (NIV)
[6] Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. A Sermon Preached at Enfield, July 8th, 1741.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Rick Warden, Five Heresies of Christian Hedonism
[10] John Piper, Desiring God, Revised Edition (Colorado Springs: Multnomah) 28.
[11] 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 1 "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures" (NIV)
[12] John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."(NIV)
[13] 2 Corinthians 5:17 "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:[a] The old has gone, the new is here!" (NIV)
[14] John 3:3 "Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again." (NIV)
[15] Romans 12:2 "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will." (NIV)

[16] John 16:8 "And when he comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God's righteousness, and of the coming judgment." (NIV)
[17] John 16:13 "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come."
[18] Romans 7:24 "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?" (NIV)

[19] Bible-Knowing Jesus, 23 Bible Verses about Sackcloth And Ashes
Luke 10.13 "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes." (NIV)

Tags: Jonathan Edwards gospel, Great Awakening preaching, seeker friendly preaching, preaching and conviction of Holy Spirit, conviction of sin in Awakening, gospel message style and pattern in Acts, Edwards' famous sermon of angry God, secret to revival, move of God, testing teaching, false teaching, foundation of truth

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