Encouragement from the past, for today
One of the great benefits – among many – of studying church history is learning from the lives of others. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is a great resource for finding encouragement during just about any stage of the Christian life. He was a pastor, theologian and philosopher, but most of all he was a follower of Jesus Christ who depended upon the Lord for every grace, every day. Here are five key points from his life that I pray will be encouraging to you in your walk with the Lord:
1. Be grateful for the grace you have received from God.
In the spring of 1721, Jonathan Edwards was reflecting on 1 Timothy 1:17 (KJV): “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” He later wrote: “As I read the words there came into my soul, and as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the divine being; a new sense, quite different from anything I ever experienced before. Never any words of Scripture seemed to me as these words did. I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was; and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be wrapt up to God in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him.” Nothing we experience can match the value of the grace that we have received in Christ. I encourage you to revisit your conversion and early days as a Christian with regularity.
2. Be intentional about living your whole life to the glory God.
As a young man, Edwards began compiling a list of personal resolutions which he committed to review each week in order to gauge his progress. The first of what would become 70 resolutions reads: “Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriad’s of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many and how great.” To be clear – you are not Jonathan Edwards and neither am I. The point is that we should think about how to live our lives in a way that balances our personality with our ultimate aims. My intention is that when I die or when Jesus returns, I want to be found faithful living for Christ so that I can say: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7); and that I might hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21)
3. Be in prayer for the Lord to work mightily in the local church.
Jonathan Edwards is often associated with the Great Awakening, but he actually experienced a number of awakenings, or revivals, in his church at Northampton, Massachusetts. In a work entitled, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, Edwards described the visible changes that occurred when the Lord brought many to saving faith: “The work of God, as it was carried on, and the number of true saints multiplied, soon made a glorious alteration in the town; so that in the spring and summer following, anno 1735, the town seemed to be full of the presence of God; it was never so full of love, nor so full of joy; and yet so full of distress, as it was then. There were remarkable tokens of God’s presence in almost every house. It was a time of joy in families on account of salvation being brought unto them; parents rejoicing over their children as newborn, and husbands over their wives, and wives over their husbands.” He continued, “The goings on of God were seen in his sanctuary (Psalm 68:24), God’s day was a delight, and his tabernacles were amiable (Psalm 84:1). Our public assemblies were then beautiful; the congregation was alive in God’s service, everyone earnestly intent on the public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth; the assembly in general were, from time to time in tears while the Word was preached; some weeping with sorrow and distress, others with joy and love, others with pity and concern for the souls of their neighbors.” One of the great joys of the Christian life is worshipping the Lord with his people in the local church, and one of our ongoing prayers should be that God might surprise us with His presence in a way that makes us more loving, joyful and reverent before Him.
4. Be a promoter of peace even when people are against you.
Although Jonathan Edwards is lauded by many as the greatest American theologian, he was not always treated with such respect by those who knew him. As a pastor committed to biblical fidelity, he found it necessary to challenge the practice of serving communion to people in his church who had not yet professed Christ as their savior. The idea of serving communion as a “converting ordinance” was introduced to the church by his grandfather and pastoral predecessor, Solomon Stoddard. The church not only rejected Edwards’s position – they fired him! Edwards preached his final sermon as pastor of the church in 1750, which contained the following warning to those who supported him throughout the entire affair: “And here I would particularly advise those that have adhered to me in the late controversy to watch over their spirits and avoid all bitterness towards others. Your temptations are, in some respects, the greatest, because what has been lately done is grievous to you. But however wrong you may think others have done, maintain, with great diligence and watchfulness, a Christian meekness and sedateness of spirit; and labor, in this respect, to excel others who are of the contrary part. And this will be the best victory, for “he that rules his spirit, is better than he that takes a city” (Pro 16:32). Therefore, let nothing be done through strife or vain-glory (Phi 2:3). Indulge no revengeful spirit in any wise, but watch and pray against it. And by all means in your power, seek the prosperity of this town. And never think you behave yourselves as becomes Christians, but when you sincerely, sensibly, and fervently love all men—of whatever party or opinion, and whether friendly or unkind, just or injurious, to you or your friends, or to the cause and kingdom of Christ.” Even in the midst of controversy, Edwards was careful not to develop a following around himself. We can practice the same humility by pointing others to Christ rather than ourselves.
5. Be mindful that you are a citizen of another world, a pilgrim looking for a city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
Edwards may be most famous for one sermon – “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” – but he preached more often on heaven. His thoughts about heaven are quite encouraging, as evidenced by the following excerpt from the beautifully tiled, “Heaven is a World of Love”: “There dwells God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, united as one in infinitely dear, and incomprehensible, mutual, and eternal love. There dwells God the Father, who is the father of mercies, and so the father of love, who so loved the world as to give his only-begotten Son to die for it. There dwells Christ, the Lamb of God, the prince of peace and of love, who so loved the world that he shed his blood and poured out his soul unto death for men. . . . And there dwells the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of divine love, in whom the very essence of God, as it were, flows out and is breathed forth in love, and by whose immediate influence all holy love is shed abroad in the hearts of all the saints on earth and in heaven. There, in heaven, this infinite fountain of love, this eternal Three in One, is set open without any obstacle to hinder access to it, as it flows forever. There this glorious God is manifested, and shines forth in full glory in beams of love. And there this glorious fountain forever flows forth in streams, yea, in rivers of love and delight, and these rivers swell, as it were, to an ocean of love in which the souls of the ransomed may bathe with the sweetest enjoyment, and their hearts, as it were, be deluged with love.” In times of discouragement, it is helpful to focus on the sure and certain future that Christ has secured for us.
These lessons that emerge from the life of Jonathan Edwards remind us of many encouraging truths. So, as you serve the Lord remember that you are serving in response to so great a salvation. Your whole life belongs to Him and He has graciously called you be part of the body, the church. You will have high highs and low lows, and yet neither your success nor your failures should define you. The bottom line is that you are a child of God and you are headed to a place you have never seen before but are longing to call home. Enjoy the journey. Finish well.