Sunday, February 26, 2012

Jonathan Edwards—A man who got "booted from his church"

Jonathan Edwards could have stayed quiet. His reputation was beyond reproach and his theological influence was spreading like “wildfire”. 

Yet conviction compelled him to do different, to take a different course. This is the testimony of Edwards explaining the issue and his own position:
“A very great difficulty has arisen between my people, relating to qualifications for communion at the Lord’s table (this is the issue). My honored grandfather Stoddard, my predecessor in the ministry over this church, strenuously maintained the Lord’s Supper to be a converting ordinance, and urged all to come who were not of scandalous life, though they knew themselves to be unconverted. I formerly conformed to his practice but I have had difficulties with respect to it, which has been long increasing, till I dared no longer to proceed in the former way, which has occasioned great uneasiness among the people, and has filled all the country with noise.”
For Edwards, his Grandfather’s approach was unbiblical and therefore, unacceptable. The next step was to encourage a change in church policy. Did he realize this step might cause tension between him and his people? Absolutely. But he never thought his job would be at stake.

Unfortunately, he was wrong.

Whether it was the policy itself or the people’s lingering attachment to Stoddard or Edwards’ inability to explain his case clearly, the congregants at Northampton went into an angry frenzy.

After weeks of trying to explain his side and correct people’s misunderstandings of his position, Edwards received the news that he was voted out of his Northampton church.

Below is Edwards’ farewell letter to his sheep,
“It was 23 years, since I have labored in the work of ministry in the relation of a pastor to this church and congregation…I have spent the prime of my life and strength in labors for you eternal welfare. You are my witnessed that what strength I have had, I have not neglected in idleness, nor laid out in prosecuting worldly schemes, and managing temporal affairs, for the advancement of my outward estate and aggrandizing myself and family; but have given myself to the work of the ministry, laboring night and day, rising early, and applying myself to this great business to which Christ has appointed me…
A contentious people will be a miserable people. The contentions which have been among you, since I first became your pastor, have been one of the greatest burdens I have labored under in the course of my ministry—not only the contentions you have had with me, but those which you have had with one another, regarding your lands and other concerns—because I knew that contention, heat of spirit, evil speaking, and things of the like nature, were directly contrary to the spirit of Christianity and did, in a peculiar manner, tend to drive away God’s Spirit from a people….
Let the late contention about the terms of Christian communion, as it has been the greatest, be the last. May God bless you with a faithful pastor, one that is well acquainted with his mind and will, thoroughly warning sinners, wisely and skillfully searching professors and conducting you in the way to eternal blessedness.
And let me be remembered in the prayers of all God’s people that are of a calm spirit, and are peaceable and faithful in Israel, of whatever opinion they may be with respect to terms of church communion. And let us all remember, and never forget our future solemn meeting on that great day of the Lord; the day of infallible decision and of everlasting and unalterable sentence. Amen.”
Notice that Edwards did not hide his sadness and disappointment from the people of Northampton, yet ‘his words are free of blame or accusation’ (words from Edwards’ biographer). It is clear that America’s greatest theologian was gracious and boldly truthful up to the very end.

But was it the end for Edwards?

Not really….not yet at least.

Edwards’ biographer explains,
“Meanwhile, strange though it seems, Edwards was still supplying the Northampton pulpit on frequent occasions. The manuscripts of twelve sermons which he preached in his former congregation between his ‘Farewell” in July and mid-November, 1750, still survive.”
Incredible. The congregants at Northampton not only kicked him out of their pulpit, but then begrudgingly ask him to preach when they couldn’t find a proper preacher to take his place.

Well, you might say….maybe the relationship between Edwards and his congregants wasn’t really that bad.

Sadly, the reader would be terribly mistaken. The account below provides overwhelming evidence of the Town’s aversion towards Edwards.
“Only a month after his dismissal the Town had denied him the use of the meadowland on which he had been dependant for the grazing of his sheep and other animals. At that time yet another committee had been formed and dispatched to the parsonage ‘to convince him (if they can) that he hath no right to that land’. When these men failed to convince Edwards, the Town settled their denial of the meadowland by vote.”
Unbelievable. First, they boot out America’s greatest theologian after 23 years of faithful pastoral ministry. Then they force him to give up the land used to feed his animals, which was the only means to sustain his family, both nutritionally and financially (present-day pastors should be thankful for severance pay). Finally, rubbing salt in the wound, they asked him to come back and preach.

And yet he accepted their invitation. Apparently, every time they asked.

What can we learn from this tragic event (in my opinion)?

If you must go, leave graciously.

Oh, how many pastors throughout the ages have failed to do this! Instead of ‘being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit’ (Eph. 4:3), they often have an insatiable desire to be right or to be vindicated.

I count myself blessed that God gave me a living example of this, my father-in-law. He served faithfully at the church God had called him to, only to be “shown the door”. This is not to say he was perfect through this process, but not once did he accuse, blame or breed divisiveness. Undoubtedly, his name was “drug through the mud” (especially since he lived in a town of less than 15,000 people), but he sought to ‘entrust his soul to a faithful Creator in doing what is right’ (I Peter 4:19).

Bottom line: If God is clapping, what else really matters?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Jonathan Edwards—A man who often studied for “thirteen hours a day”.

Every pastor-scholar must spend time in his study. No man who aspires to such a position can avoid it. Undoubtedly, there are some men who thrive on it. Others die trying (one of my older peers in seminary died during finals week). Yet few were like Edwards.

Edwards’ first biographer penned the words that would forever define him:
“He commonly spent thirteen hours, every day, in his study.”
Impressive, huh. Yet many fault Edwards for such diligence. They accuse him of being an “ivory tower” theologian, who was aloof and disengaged with the sheep he was called to “shepherd”. Is this assessment of Edwards correct? No….well, mostly no.

Here is a more balanced understanding of Jonathan Edwards:

First, Edwards’ study was always accessible to his family and his congregants.

Samuel Hopkins (Edwards’ first biographer) writes:
“He believed he could do more good conversing with persons under religious impressions in his study where they were treated with all desirable tenderness, kindness and familiarity.”
Was this a “cop out”? Some would say it was. Especially when it was common for pastors (of that day) to make a habit of visiting every family once a year.

Yet I would offer one argument in defense for Edwards, he was a man of serious temperament. Men like Edwards were often the most relaxed in the safety of their study, an environment that encouraged dialogue and reflection. He could “put his feet up” (as much as any Puritan did this) and ask questions of his congregants that were more ‘suited to their years and circumstances’.

Second, Edwards was given to hospitality.

There is no debate that Edwards loved to think, meditate and write. Yet this does not mean that when necessary, the pastor of Northampton would neglect treating his guests with honor.

Joseph Emerson, a fellow pastor, writes,
“Very courteously treated here. The most agreeable family I was ever acquainted with. Much of the presence of God here. Mr. Edwards was so kind as to accompany us over the Connecticut River and bring us on our way”.
Another account states that Edwards rode along with the great George Whitefield all the way to East Windsor (a trip roughly 70 miles on horseback), which likely took most (if not all) of one day.

Bottom line: There is no such thing as an "ivory tower theologian" who is given to hospitality. That is called a "contradiction".

Third, Edwards did household work.

Some portray Edwards as “absent-minded”, lost in the world of his mind, unable to interact with men of common rank and ordinary intelligence. Yet this assessment is again incorrect. Edwards could attend to crops, purchase cattle and even shop in Boston for his wife or the needs of his children. A better question is, “Did Edwards do this with regularity?” According to Hopkins, the answer is honestly, “No, he didn't”. 

He writes,
“It was a matter of policy that he normally left so much of everyday matters to his wife. She took almost the entire charge of the temporal affairs of the family, while he (Edwards) gave himself wholly to the work of the ministry, and entangled not himself with the affairs of this life.”
Sarah Edwards ran the home, but Edwards led the family. This is not debatable.

So what can we learn from Edwards today?

Don’t be lazy.

Whether Edwards was extreme or imbalanced is for historians to debate, but all would agree he was not lazy. His insatiable love for God and His Word drove him daily to his knees, desiring to be satisfied ONLY from the ‘words that proceeds out of the mouth of God’ (Matt. 4:4). Are 21st century Christians lazy? R.C. Sproul thinks so. He states:
“Here, then, is the real problem of our negligence. We fail in our duty to study God's Word not so much because it is difficult to understand, not so much because it is dull and boring, but because it is work. Our problem is not a lack of intelligence or a lack of passion. Our problem is that we are lazy. ”
This is why we look to Edwards, not just for an example of discipline, but as an example of someone who had great affections for Christ. These affections (bathed in diligence and discipline), led Edwards to personal holiness and this holiness made his light shine bright for Christ. His knowledge did not lead him out of this world but instead, the truth sanctified his heart and led him back into a world that was hurting and helpless in need of the gospel (John 17:14-18).

Don’t be deceived… was not the 13 hours a day that made him great; it was his unrivalled devotion to Jesus Christ.

Go take a walk with God.

The reader should not think that Edwards sat in his office for 13 hours a day. He often went on a walk during the days of summer and chopped wood in the cold, harsh winter. Why? To be alone with God. To think about Him. To reflect on the greatness and perfection of His attributes. To show his children the wisdom of God and that the Heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1).

He was often seen with a pen and ink in the woods, making sure he was ready for additional insights the Holy Spirit might grant to him on that particular day.

Some of my most profound times with God are during an isolated walk.

Let me challenge you: If the weather is ripe, go spend some time with the God of the Universe.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Jonathan Edwards—A man whose wife was godly and yet struggled as a “Pastor’s wife”.

Sarah Edwards, like most wives of the “giants”, were basically unknown. The reasons for this are many. They rarely wrote. They were “helpers” to their husbands first, which seemed incongruent to self-promotion. The secular and sacred culture of the previous centuries was typically “patriarchal”, which saw little worth in hearing from a “woman” and to publish anything from a woman would have been almost comical. Finally, families were normally large and women (with the help of servants) did all the domestic duties.

Yet, because of the contemporary interest of Edwards during his lifetime, Sarah was integrated through the pages of her husband’s biographies. Here are some observations from Samuel Hopkins (one of Edwards’ first biographer):
“She made it her rule to speak well of all, so far as she could with truth and justice to herself and others. Thus she was tender of everyone’s character, even of those who injured or spoke evil of her.”
He continues:
“In the midst of these complicated labors, Edwards found at home one who was in every sense a help mate for him, one who made their common dwelling the abode of order and neatness, of peace and comfort, of harmony and love, to all its inmates, and of kindness and hospitability to the friend, the visitant, and the stranger.”
So as we can see, Mrs. Edwards was godly. But as any Christian who is short of their glorification, she struggled with people’s perception of her and especially of her husband. Even Edwards admitted during the time of the Great Awakening that his wife “seems to have a disposition to censure and condemn others” (this is one of the only times Edwards is critical of his wife).

The quote below is from Sarah herself. This is at the peak of the Great Awakening (a time of unusual spiritual awakening during the 1730’s—1740’s) and Edwards is gone on a speaking engagement. It is subtle, but you can see her personal struggles (as a Pastor’s wife) and the jealous thoughts she is battling towards the evangelist Mr. Buell.
“I heard that Mr. Buell was coming to this town, and from what I had heard of him and of his success, I had strong hopes that there would be great effects from his labors here.
At the same time….it greatly concerned me to watch my heart and see to it that I was perfectly resigned to God, with respect to the instruments he should make use of to revive religion in this town, and be entirely willing, if it was God’s pleasure, that he should make use of Mr. Buell. “
In other words, the wife of the greatest American theologian is struggling that God may choose to use Mr. Buell rather than her husband to awaken the souls of men of Northampton, which was her hometown and Edwards’ primary sphere of influence.

It is interesting but it seems that Edwards did not share his wife’s concern over the means of the Spirit’s influence. His theology convinced him that not only does the Spirit blow wherever and towards whoever He wants (John 3:8), but like the apostle Paul in Acts 16, his role was just to proclaim the truth and leave the raising of a dead heart to the Sovereign God, who is rich in mercy (Eph 2: 4).

The question is, “Was Mrs. Edwards unusual?” or maybe, “Is this struggle typical for a pastor’s wife?” The answer to both questions is, “NO” and “YES”.

Here are some additional thoughts:

The wife of a Pastor also needs prayer and encouragement.

A pastor needs to be a man of prayer himself, but he should also be hungry for the prayers of God’s people. He needs God’s Spirit and His wisdom to preach, to counsel, to lead and to be morally pure. But does his wife need prayer? Surprisingly, scripture doesn’t speak to this directly. Yet I believe a Pastor’s wife needs prayer, especially if she struggles being “in the shadow” of her husband. 

At this point, I can almost hear a mature, experienced Pastor’s wife reminding me that the role of a wife is to be a “helper” to her husband (Gen. 2:18). She would also remind me that scripture is clear that her role is to be first, a helper and then second, a mother. Then, with those roles firmly in their place, wives should be diligent to use their spiritual gift/s to strengthen the body of Christ (I Cor. 12:7).

To that I say, “Amen”. Unfortunately, though, the reality is that the Pastor’s wife of 2012 likely needs more consistent encouragement than the Pastor’s wife of 1742. Why? Well, the words of Gloria Feldt (said in October of 2010), former head of Planned Parenthood, sets the philosophy of our day:
“They (stay-at-home Moms) make it harder for the rest of us to remedy the inequities that remain. We have to make young women aware of how their choices affect other women. It should be acceptable criticism to point out that, although everyone has the right to make their own life decisions, choosing to “opt out” reinforces stereotypes about women’s priorities that we’ve been working for decades to shatter, so just cut it out. And, the “individual choice” women have to become stay-at-home moms becomes precarious when they try to return to the workplace and find their earning power and options reduced. If we could see child-rearing as a necessary task and not an identity (i.e. a God-ordained gender role), and if we could collectively recognize that facilitating it benefits us all, we would go much further in guaranteeing women’s choices than we do when we are expected to uncritically celebrate every individual’s decisions.”
After reading this quote, I want to climb on top of a high-rise building and flip on the “Bat-Signal”, calling ALL Titus 2 women to pursue the young women / wives of modern day Gotham City.

You must disciple them. You must point them to God’s sufficient Word. Without these reminders, Christian marriages, Christian families and Christian children will simply mirror the chaos of the unbelieving world.

Jealousy and defensiveness are often the struggles of the Pastor’s wife.

Jonathan Edwards wasn’t liked by everyone. This is the reality for any Pastor “worth his salt”, who is faithful to proclaim the offensive aroma of the gospel of Christ (2 Cor. 2:15). Yet this reality was difficult for Mrs. Edwards.

I am sure she had thoughts like this.
“How could these people not appreciate and revere my husband who spent 13 hours a day “doing the Lord’s work?”
“Do you even know how blessed you are to have my husband?”
“If you only knew how many churches have inquired of his preaching, you likely would not complain so much.”
Another reality that besets a Pastor is envy towards other ministers, especially those that shepherd larger, more popular and more influential churches. But is this a struggle the wife also? You bet it is. A wife of a Pastor sees the daily struggle on her husband’s face. She tries to comfort him. Many nights she cleans the wounds inflicted by the teeth of angry sheep.

So don’t forget to call, e-mail, text, tweet and pray for your Pastor’s wife. She may be smiling on the outside, but on the inside, she may be feeling lonely or irrelevant or God forbid….listening to the Gloria Feldts of the world.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Jonathan Edwards—A man who viewed the doctrine of election as “sweet”

This title is likely to “grate” on some of you, especially for those who are still unconvinced of the “sweetness” of this doctrine.

But before you stop reading, please read Edwards’ words below:
“From my childhood up, my mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in choosing whom he would to eternal life, and rejecting whom He pleased; leaving them eternally to perish, and be everlastingly tormented in Hell. It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me.
But I have often, since that first conviction, had quite another kind of sense of God’s sovereignty than I had then. I have often since had not only a conviction, but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has very often appeared exceedingly pleasant, bright and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. But my conviction was not so.”
The journey of Edwards, in regards to the doctrine of election, may surprise some. For many, he is viewed simply as the man who preached the legendary sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. They would be shocked to hear of any internal struggle from the man who preached these words,

“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 to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.” (July 8th, 1741)
Yet he apparently did struggle.

So you may be asking, “What helped Edwards “turn the corner”? Not sure. But I will tell you what helped me “turn the corner”.

The Bible teaches the doctrine of election.

For years, I professed to be a Christian and rarely read the Bible. Even when I did “crack open” the text, much of it seems like a riddle or an exercise of “Mad Libs”. Then, at 23, I led a short-term Missions trip to Colombia and was forced to preach a few sermons and suddenly, the word of God came alive. Please understand, nothing mystical or ecstatic occurred. Just a growing affection for Christ and a concurrent love for His word.

This deeper zeal for scripture, though, had a cost. Illumination of the Spirit opens the heart, but also opens the eyes (I Cor. 2:12-13). Words like election and predestined danced before me, compelling me to look into the “black box” of the mysteries of God.

That is when (for me) the journey began. Fortunately, I had godly men along the way, reminding me of the sufficiency, authority, clarity and perspicuity of the Scriptures. They pressed me to apply proper bible study skills and remove myself (I.e. my presuppositions) from the expedition of proper interpretation. What did I find? The truth. Every word of the Bible comes from the “mouth of God”.

Election doesn’t have to mean double predestination.

It would be incorrect to conclude that my acceptance of the doctrine of election was like a “flip of a switch”. Yet there were “lightbulb” moments.

One of the “lightbulb” moments was when I realized the scriptures didn’t teach the doctrine of double predestination. For years, I thought that election meant that God actively chose some for salvation and actively chose others for Hell. To me, this made God seem unjust and unfair. 

Then I began to synthesize the biblical data, which led me to writing down these statements.

Everyone is a sinner (Romans 3:23).
God must punish sin (Hab. 1:13a)
God is perfectly just in eternally punishing every sinner (Romans 6:23a).
God chooses to show mercy to some (Rom 9:15).
God gives the rest what they want (Rom. 3:10-18).

Not convinced? Well, maybe this illustration will help. It helped me.

Picture a river. This river is heading towards eternal separation from God. Everyone is in it. God comes down and rescues some. The rest He JUSTLY leaves alone.

This illustration reminds me of what I deserve and how merciful and loving God is to save ANY of us.

John 3:16 "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Embracing the absolute sovereignty of God

If any of Edwards’ above statements help us understand his journey, it would be this: 
“Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God.”
This response does not come naturally for humans, even after their conversion. Why is this? I believe the primary reason is our chief sin, pride.

Pride does not want to be ruled. Pride wants to have all the answers. Pride has a sinful attachment to the concept of “free will”. Pride wants credit. Pride wants every part of salvation to be synergistic, rather than monergistic.

It is not a coincidence that most new Christians DO NOT ascribe absolute sovereignty to God. To them, they simply responded to the offer of salvation. They have never been introduced to the sovereignty of God in salvation and even if they were, it is unlikely they would embrace it until the Spirit clears out the sediments of their fleshly mind (Rom. 12:1-2).

Does this mean all Calvinists are humble and all Arminians are prideful? No, of course not. 

Does this mean all Calvinists are indifferent to evangelism and all Arminians share their faith? No, of course not.

But this does mean that the doctrine of election gives ALL THE CREDIT TO GOD since it is God who chooses to save an individual based on nothing more than His perfect will.

Romans 9:16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

Amazing grace.