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5 Things Jonathan Edwards Teaches Us about the Christian Life

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This is a guest post by Dane Ortlund. He is the author of Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God.


Jonathan Edwards for the Rest of Us

For many of us, Jonathan Edwards is a skinny white guy who never smiled, except when talking about hell. If we know anything more, it’s:

  • that he wrote a lot of really dense books
  • that he talked a lot about the glory of God
  • that he was part of the Great Awakening
  • that John Piper likes him a lot

And that’s about it.

But there are riches to be mined in Jonathan Edwards far beyond what you may have been exposed to. Reading Jonathan Edwards is not for historians and professors mainly, but for the rest of us.

Here are five things Edwards teaches us about the Christian life—your Christian life.

1. If you’re a Christian, you don’t realize how radically different and freshly empowered you now are.

When sinners repent and believe for the first time, it often feels as if nothing much has happened, and it often looks as if nothing much has happened. Our wrinkles don’t go away. Our Myers-Briggs personality profile doesn’t change. Our IQ isn’t improved. Our driver’s license photo looks the same after conversion as before, just a few years older and grayer.

Similarly, a foreigner who has just attained citizenship in their country of residence will not feel or look much different, upon receiving formal declaration of citizenship. Yet they now belong to an entirely new nation. More than this, they now have all the rights and privileges that belong to citizens of that nation.

Edwards teaches us that the quiet, seemingly innocuous change that takes place in the new birth is of eternal—even cosmic—significance. A fallen sinner has just become an invincible heir of the universe. The Holy Spirit has just taken up permanent residence in the temple of this soul. In new birth, Edwards writes, the Christian “is a new creature, he is just as if he were not the same, but were born again, created over a second time.”

For a Christian to wallow in sin and misery is for a butterfly to crawl miserably along the branch as if it were still a caterpillar.

2. Even if you’re a Christian, you don’t realize how radically fallen and blindly dysfunctional you remain.

If we understate the positive change in new birth, we also tend to understate the fallenness that remains. But Edwards knew of the strange dysfunctions that remain among all of us, including true believers. He saw it in himself.

Edwards spoke frequently, for example, of the lurking dangers of pride: “It is a sin that has, as it were, many lives. If you kill it, it will live still. If you suppress it in one shape, it rises in another. If you think it is all gone, it is there still. Like the coats of an onion, if you pull one form of it off, there is another underneath.”

We often don’t feel the weight of our sin. Why? Because of our sin. The disease is itself what prevents us from detecting the disease.

How do we get out? One answer is: read Jonathan Edwards. His sermons will do wonders to re-sharpen your blunted conscience and re-sensitize your heart to its fallenness.

3. Authentic discipleship to Jesus Christ calms and gentle-izes (not radicalizes and excites) Christians.

Edwards is famous for his hellfire sermons, but it is striking to trace the evolution of his preaching over his three decades in the pulpit. Scholars point out that the hellfire sermons were more typical of the young Edwards and gradually decreased over his career, while other themes grew increasingly strong: the beauty of Christ, the loveliness of holiness, the calmness of a justified life, the gentleness of God.

A sermon that nicely sums up the core of Edwards’ ministry is “The Spirit of the True Saints Is a Spirit of Divine Love,” based on 1 John 4:16. There we read statements like:

  • “The very nature of God is love. If it should be enquired what God is, it might be answered that he is an infinite and incomprehensible fountain of love.”
  • “He who has divine love in him has a wellspring of true happiness that he carries about in his own breast, a fountain of sweetness, a spring of the water of life. There is a pleasant calmness and serenity and brightness in the soul that accompanies the exercises of this holy affection.”
  • “God in Christ allows such little, poor creatures as you are to come to him, to love communion with him, and to maintain a communication of love with him. You may go to God and tell him how you love him and open your heart and he will accept of it.”

That, more than anything else, is the pulsating core of Edwards’ ministry. Radical godliness is not obnoxious, showy, or boisterous. It is quiet, gentle, and serene.

4. Christianity is gain, and only gain.

Toward the end of his life, Edwards was kicked out of his church by a vote of ten to one—by professing Christians, upstanding church members. This, and other trials he encountered during his life, lead me to conclude that the lofty vision of Christian living that he has left to us is not naïve idealism. He felt the pain not only of rejection, but of rejection by close friends and family members who were part of his church. And yet, having his eyes opened to present pain did not close his eyes to future glory.

Why? Because we will have God, in heaven, unfiltered, forever. Consider the following breathtaking statement:

The glorious excellencies and beauty of God will be what will forever entertain the minds of the saints, and the love of God will be their everlasting feast. The redeemed will indeed enjoy other things; they will enjoy the angels, and will enjoy one another: but that which they shall enjoy in the angels, or in each other, or in any thing else whatsoever that will yield them delight and happiness, will be what shall be seen of God in them.

Christians leave nothing behind when they die. All is gain.

5. Revival is not what you think it is.

When evangelicals today hear the word “revival,” we generally picture tears, loudness, animated preaching, exuberance, humiliating confession of sin, and so on. Some of these things may be present in revival, perhaps, but Edwards came to long for revival because he saw that it is not a move from the ordinary to the extraordinary so much as a move from the sub-ordinary to the ordinary. We become human again. We breathe once more.

Edwards witnessed two revivals. One was local, contained to New England, in the mid-1730s. The other, six years later, was transatlantic and became known as the Great Awakening. Edwards made the fascinating observation that, in the first revival, God’s people tended “to talk with too much of an air of lightness, and something of laughter,” whereas in the second revival “they seem to have no disposition to it, but rejoice with a more solemn, reverential, humble joy.” The first revival’s joy was real but frothy. The second revival’s joy was deeper and more calm.

Simply put, revival isn’t weird. True revival is rehumanizing. It re-centralizes not the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit so much as the ordinary fruit of the Spirit.


Dane C. Ortlund (PhD, Wheaton College) is Senior Vice President for Bible Publishing at Crossway. He is the author of several books, including Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God, and serves as an editor for the Knowing the Bible study series. He lives with his wife, Stacey, and their four kids in Wheaton.

 

August 26, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Church History,Life / Doctrine,The Christian Life | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:15 am | 1 Comment »

Why I Love George Whitefield

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This is a guest post by Lee Gatiss, editor of The Sermons of George Whitefield.


This year it’s the 300th birthday of the great 18th century evangelist, George Whitefield. He’s less famous than his contemporary, John Wesley, because he didn’t really write hymns and didn’t start his own denomination.

So what’s to love about George Whitefield?

1. He was confessional.

Whitefield was loyal to the Church of England’s Reformed foundations. He had subscribed to the Thirty-nine Articles, and the Book of Common Prayer, and he did so without equivocation or double-speak. “Would we restore the church to its primitive dignity,” he once said, “the only way is to live and preach the doctrine of Christ and the Articles to which we have subscribed. Then we shall find the number of dissenters will daily decrease and the Church of England become the joy of the whole earth.”

He thought it was hypocrisy worthy of hell to claim officially that such Articles were one’s inspiration and guidance for ministry (in order to be ordained) but not actually to believe and teach their confessional content.

The education he provided for the children at the orphanage he supported in Georgia was a confessional education: all students were to learn the Thirty-nine Articles, and they were also to read “publicly, distinctly, frequently, and carefully” the set Anglican Homilies throughout the year. Whitefield was not a novel preacher: he believed and proclaimed the Reformed and evangelical faith on which the Church of England had taken its stand since the Reformation.

2. He was a cavalryman.

Augustus Toplady narrates how his hero Whitefield once tried to persuade him to become an itinerant preacher. He encouraged the younger man with promises of greater fruitfulness should he leave his parish and travel more. Yet as Toplady told Lady Huntingdon, “I consider the true ministers of God as providentially divided into two bands: viz., the regulars and the irregulars.” Some such as Whitefield were akin to cavalry and others, like Toplady, were more like sentinels or guardsmen watching over a more circumscribed district.

Whitefield was never the ordinary vicar of an ordinary parish. But he thrived on the edges of the establishment, taking the gospel to people who might otherwise never hear it. He was banned from using some Anglican pulpits, by bishops who were nervous about his youthful over-exuberance or by vicars wary of his overly dramatic and sometimes condemnatory attitude (sometimes rightly!). Undaunted, he took to the fields and preached to massive crowds.

An ordinary parochial ministry within the structures of an ordered denomination is of immense value and usefulness. But there is also space in God’s army of evangelists for cavalrymen like Whitefield (provided, of course, that they don’t undermine or undervalue the ministry of local churches).

3. He was convincing.

Finally, Whitefield was a convincing, convictional preacher. He didn’t preach to encourage people to join discussion groups. He didn’t ask people to go away and think about Jesus. He urged people, passionately, to come to Jesus and be saved.

“But alas! I shall return home with a heavy heart, unless some of you will arise and come to my Jesus. I desire to preach him and not myself. Rest not in hearing and following me. Behold, believe on and follow the Lamb of God, who came to take away the sins of the world.”

His preaching was strong and clear. He preached from the heart, to the heart: “O, my brethren, my heart is enlarged towards you! Tears, while I am speaking, are ready to gush out. But they are tears of love and joy.” Yet, “if any here do expect fine preaching from me this day,” he once preached, “they will, in all probability, go away disappointed. For I came not here to shoot over people’s heads but, if the Lord shall be pleased to bless me, to reach their hearts.”

The Reverend George Whitefield is not as famous today or as well regarded as he might be. But he will have a reward in heaven, because he pointed people to the only man who truly deserves to be celebrated.


Lee Gatiss (PhD, Cambridge University) is director of Church Society (ChurchSociety.org) and the editor of the two volume set, The Sermons of George Whitefield. He and his wife, Kerry, have three children.

August 22, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Church History,Life / Doctrine | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:30 am | 1 Comment »

Reformed Catholics

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This is a guest post by J. V. Fesko. He is the author of The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context & Theological Insights.


Heirs of the Reformation

In our present day, people within the church may recognize that they are the inheritors of the Protestant Reformation. When Martin Luther tacked his 95 Theses to the castle door at Wittenberg on October 31st in 1517, he started something that we here in the twenty-first century are the beneficiaries.

In fact, there are numerous denominations that lay claim to the title of Reformed. In our own day, Reformed defines a set of beliefs about doctrine, life, and worship, typically codified in a number of Protestant confessions and catechisms. Most Presbyterian denominations adhere to the Westminster Standards and those that descend from the Dutch Continental tradition adhere to the Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort).

But I suspect that if you approach the average Reformed church member and ask them what Reformed means, they might not be able to tell you. The term has taken on a life of its own, but read within the context of the sixteenth century it was part of a broader phrase.

Reform Rather Than Innovation

If you reform something, it means that you did not create de novo, or from scratch. But rather, you take something that has already existed and you improve, correct, or adjust it. You remove errors, incorrect ideas, or mistakes. You reform it.

In this case, sixteenth century Christians were reformed Catholics. When the Protestant reformers sought to reform the church, they didn’t wipe the slate clean and start over—they didn’t reinvent the wheel. Rather, they identified those problematic elements within the church’s theology and corrected them.

Case in point, many of the controversies between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation were over matters pertaining to salvation. Matters pertaining to predestination, the role of faith, justification, and sanctification, were front and center. There were not great conflicts, for example, over the doctrine of God or the doctrine of Christ.

You can see this pattern in the Westminster Confession. In the Confession’s chapter on Christ (WCF 8), for example, you largely find a series of affirmations that reach far behind the sixteenth century and extend back to the great creeds of the ancient church, the Councils of Nicea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon. These were ecumenical councils that anyone, Protestant or Roman Catholic, would and should affirm.

In fact, when you read the works of the theologians who wrote the Westminster Standards, they have numerous positive references to Roman Catholic theologians on many areas of agreement, such as Thomas Aquinas and elements of his doctrine of God. The theologians at Westminster recognized that he was a brilliant man, but they also had words of criticism for his doctrine of justification.

Reformed Catholics

The theologians of the assembly wanted the world to know that they weren’t schismatics seeking to build a church upon their own peculiar ideas, but that they were part of the one catholic and universal church. But within their own historical context, they were also keen on conveying the message that there was error within the church that required remedy—numerous doctrines required greater and faithful alignment with the teaching of Scripture. Hence, they believed that they were Reformed Catholics.

We must embrace the reality that as heirs of the Protestant Reformation, we are not schismatics but rather Reformed Catholics. We have embraced the corrective measures the sixteenth-century reformers offered, and we are continuing to seek greater fidelity to Scripture.

So if someone asks you, “Are you a Roman Catholic?” Feel confident that you can respond, “No, I’m a Reformed Catholic. There are many elements that I have in common with Roman Catholics, but there are key differences that separate my church’s beliefs from those of the Roman Catholic Church.” You then have likely created an opportunity to answer the likely ensuing question, “Oh? What are those differences,” at which point you can discuss the wonderful truths of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone!

Therefore, don’t cede the title of Catholic—embrace it but with the theologians of the Westminster assembly add the qualifier that you are a Reformed Catholic.


J. V. Fesko (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is academic dean and associate professor of systematic and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California. In addition to serving as an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, he is the author of a number of books related to the Reformation, including The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights (excerpt).

 


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June 26, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Church History,Life / Doctrine,Salvation,The Reformation,Theology | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:30 am | (3) Comments »

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

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This is a guest post by J. V. Fesko. He is the author of The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context & Theological Insights.


The End Is Coming

There’s an old R. E. M. song that says, “It’s the end of the world, and we know it, and I feel fine . . .” I don’t care to engage in the exegesis and worldview of this particular song but rather use this line as an apt description of the understanding of the end of the world according to the Westminster Standards.

Many people likely read the concluding chapters of the Westminster Standards and note is subdued tones, its careful statements, and its rather generic conclusions about the end of the world. In a word, Jesus returns, evil is subdued, and Christ collects his bride to dwell with him for eternity. But what we might not realize is that numerous theologians of the period, even many who contributed to the creation of the Standards believed that the end of the world was soon upon them.

As theologically sober as many of these great theologians were, there are a number of them who sat in the assembly who believed that, according to their careful exegesis, the world would end within the next generation.

On the one hand, such a belief isn’t all that unusual. I think every generation as always believed that it was the terminal generation, the last group of people who would witness the end of the world and the return of Christ. But the theologians of Westminster were dead serious about this belief. One of them, Thomas Goodwin, had exegetically calculated that the end of the world would occur in 1666, or there about. He believed this was the case because the number of the beast is 666 (Rev. 13:18), but that the Jews often reported numbers without the first digit. Hence, 666 = 1,666. For this, and other reasons, Goodwin was convinced in 1644 as he sat in the hallowed assembly, that the world would end a mere 18 years later.

Appropriately Vague and Calm

At first, we might blush at such a conclusion and poke fun at Goodwin’s exegesis. We now, of course, have a much sober exegesis of the Scriptures. But there are two important points from which we have a great deal to learn, even if we demure from Goodwin’s exegetical conclusions.

First, notice that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms say nothing about the specific timing of the end of the world. They simply rest upon the most basic and fundamental scriptural truths about the end of all things. As tempting as it might have been to declare the end of the world was upon them, the theologians at Westminster were careful not to go beyond Scripture.

Second, if you were absolutely convinced that the world would end within the next twenty years? What would you do? Build a mountaintop fortress? Stockpile canned food (Beenie-weenies always fill the void), and seclude yourself from the world to ride out the impending chaos? Ensure you have enough ammo to ride out the apocalypse? Or would you seek to reform and maintain the truth of the gospel within the church?

I think that few of us would have the spiritual calm and peace knowing that the end of the world was soon upon us and set about to write a confession of faith and catechisms so that people living within the last twenty years could better know who Christ is and how to live their lives.

Pastoral Priorities

For whatever exegetical foibles some of the theologians of Westminster might have had, they certainly had their pastoral priorities straight. They were sober in their corporate claims about the end of the world, and they sought to edify the church in preparation for Christ’s return. They were not induced to sloth but to zealous labor to purify the bride of Christ.

In a word, it was the end of the world as they knew it, and they felt fine because they sought to be faithful to Christ in their efforts to serve him, his gospel, and his church.


J. V. Fesko (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is academic dean and associate professor of systematic and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California. In addition to serving as an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, he is the author of a number of books related to the Reformation, including The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights (excerpt).

 


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June 24, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Church History,Life / Doctrine,The Reformation,Theology | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:30 am | 0 Comments »

Is the Pope the Antichrist?

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This is a guest post by J. V. Fesko. He is the author of The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context & Theological Insights.


Say What?

I can remember one of the members of my congregation asking me in a somewhat sheepish tone, “Do we still believe that the Pope is the antichrist?” He was referring to the original 1646 version of the Westminster Confession that states the following: “There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God” (25:6).

I informed this church member that when American Presbyterians adopted the Westminster Standards in 1789, they changed them in a few places and they deleted this reference to the Pope as the antichrist. He seemed greatly relieved because it appeared as an embarrassing gaffe on the part of the original framers of the Standards.

Whether or not the Pope is the antichrist is a question for another day. Though, I believe the proper way to frame the question is not whether the Pope is the antichrist, but whether he is an antichrist. In other words, anyone who leads people away from the gospel of Christ participates in the spirit of antichrist (1 John 2:18).

Nevertheless, why on earth would the theologians at Westminster make such a statement?

A Trip to the 17th Century

Answering this question requires us to enter into the seventeenth century, something that is probably, at many levels, like a foreign country to us. Presently, especially in this country, theology doesn’t impact foreign policy in a big way. People can sit down in a coffee shop and discuss theological differences and ideas over a half-caf latte without fear of danger, violence, or bloodshed.

In the seventeenth century, on the other hand, things were quite different. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were periods marked by theological conflict that often wrote checks cashed in blood. Theology was so ingrained into the life and culture of the time that there was no such thing as the separation between church and state. Cities and entire countries usually either aligned themselves with the Roman Catholic Church or with the Protestant Reformation.

Political Concerns

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, for example, the King of Spain launched an attack against the Protestant nation—his desire was to return England to the fold of Rome and under the supremacy of the Pope. Spain was defeated, of course, in the famous “Protestant wind,” which largely destroyed the Spanish Armada. The Pope even issued a decree that stated that loyal Roman Catholics need not render their allegiance to Elizabeth, whom he considered a bastard queen and one who had led an entire nation astray theologically.

In 1605, a Roman Catholic by the name of Guy Fawkes hatched a plot to plant explosives in the basement of Westminster Abbey so that when King James and Parliament first gathered for their opening session, he would literally blow the roof off the building. In the wake of the king’s death, Fawkes hoped to engineer a coup and install a Roman Catholic king upon England’s throne.

Spiritual Concerns

However, the concerns about Roman Catholicism were not simply political but also theological. Protestant theologians viewed the Reformation as a recovery of the gospel. Sinners were not saved by a combination of Christ’s work and the sinner’s obedience, the alchemy of grace and works to produce the gold of salvation. Rather, salvation was by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (Eph. 2:8-10).

The Council of Trent (1547), the official meeting and authoritative declaration of the Roman Catholic Church, condemned the idea of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone by God’s grace alone. In the minds of many, the far greater concern was that the Pope was leading millions of souls astray into the very gates of hell itself.

Compounded by the many wars on the continent, such as the Thirty Years War, rumored assassination plots against Protestant rulers, Protestant theologians believed they were engaged in the final battle of the ages—the battle of antichrist against the church of Christ. They sought, therefore, to protect the church from the perceived threat and declared that the Pope was the antichrist. This opinion was quite common and met with little dissent.

Theology Matters

As much as we might raise our eyebrows at such firm convictions about the identity of antichrist, we have something to learn from these past events. While we might not worry about theology becoming violent warfare and have the luxury of discussing and debating eternal matters without much fear, we should recognize that theology matters.

We may discuss weighty matters in a serene setting, but we should not forget that eternity is in the balance. True, God is sovereign and his plans will never be thwarted, but we should remember that, humanly speaking, when we discuss the gospel with someone heaven and hell are in the balance. In a word, our doctrine impacts our lives. Decisions and ideas we embrace now matter for eternity.


J. V. Fesko (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is academic dean and associate professor of systematic and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California. In addition to serving as an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, he is the author of a number of books related to the Reformation, including The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights (excerpt).

 


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