Jonathan Edwards

The Surprising Antidote to Your Doubt

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Editor’s note: This month at GCD you will be seeing articles from our team of Staff Writers and other contributors on a handful of topics that Jonathan Edwards introduced in his own Resolutions. The aim of this series is to help you see how a gospel-formed resolution can help you flourish in your love for Christ and for others next year. Click here to see all articles in this series.


If you ever wonder how to get a bad rap with posterity, you need look no further than Jonathan Edwards, one of modernity’s favorite Puritan whipping boys. An 18th Century pastor, theologian, and missionary, Edwards has gained a negative reputation as the foremost of hellfire-and-brimstone preachers and the paragon of everything our culture finds faulty with religion. If it’s considered anathema today—like a repressive puritanical morality, an overemphasis on sin, guilt, and judgment, or a sadistic glorification of divine violence—it’s probably been pinned on Jonathan Edwards at some point.

SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF AN ANGRY GOD?

My first exposure to Edwards came in high school literature with the assigned reading of his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Tackling the sermon as a read-aloud, our teacher prodded the class to preach with zeal: “Read it with passion! With fury in your eyes and fire in your belly!” His appeal to dramatic flair was mostly lost on a languid group of hormonal juniors, none of whom were eager to stand out amongst their peers. But the bias against Edwards—and the old-fashioned, bigoted, puritanical religion he represented—was clear.

In recent years, a popular backlash against “angry God” Christianity has risen not only from secular quarters but also from within the walls of the church. Consider a recent title from Brian Zahnd entitled Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, one in a long line of attempts to correct what is believed to be a backward and destructive theology and replace it with a non-violent, singularly loving, atonement-free gospel.[1]

For many of us, the appeal of a gratuitously loving God in the face of Edwards’ seemingly angry and bloodthirsty deity is irresistible. The angry, severe, cold god we grew up with has left us harboring neuroses too various to number. The god many of us have pictured from childhood was more like a domineering or demanding father than a gentle and loving friend. He reigned with an iron fist, rode on a heavenly cloud, and longed for a chance to exact vengeance on sinners and saints alike. This is a god whose stratospheric expectations left us cowering in fear, hopeless victims of his capricious anger and violent wrath.

But this portrayal of God is a gross caricature of Edwards and his theology. In contrast to this popular depiction, we might consider one of his seventy “Resolutions”:

“25. Resolved, to examine carefully, and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt of the love of God; and to direct all my forces against it."

We get a glimpse here of a young man—about 19 years old at the time of writing—enraptured by and devoted to God’s love. This might surprise anyone whose truncated impressions of Edwards have been informed by critics rather than a fair hearing of one of America’s greatest (and most warm-hearted) thinkers.

At root, Edwards had a comprehension of God’s love far richer and deeper than our modern understanding. The kind of love we expect and demand from God is lacking in anything negative, unattractive, or displeasurable. We desire a God who requires nothing of us, corrects nothing in us, and gives us everything we want. However, when we begin with ourselves and measure God by our own desires, we have a tendency to force him into a mold of our own making. We want a god that fits in our pocket—one we can take out when we want him, and put back when we’re through.

GOD’S WRATH MAKES HIS LOVE MORE BEAUTIFUL

But the God of Edwards—and, I would argue, of the Bible—doesn’t fit in our pocket. He neither exists nor acts primarily for our self-esteem. He acts for his own glory. And sin is, ultimately, an affront to that glory. The God with whom we have to deal is nothing like us. He is completely holy and requires absolute obedience. This is the God Edwards found in the Scriptures—the God who caused him to tremble and who is not to be trifled with.

It is only against the backdrop of the fierce wrath of God that divine love poured out on God’s enemies makes sense. Indeed, the central paradox of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is that “God hath had it on his heart to show to angels and men, both how excellent his love is, and also how terrible his wrath is.”[2] This theme of God’s patient kindness and love—a kindness that leads to repentance (Rom 2:4)—motivates and animates the entire sermon with Gospel power.

C.S. Lewis elucidated the relationship between wrath and love along a similar vein:

“I quite agree that the Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in the dismay I have been describing, and it is no use at all trying to go on to that comfort without first going through that dismay.”

THE SURPRISING ANTIDOTE TO DOUBT

In my own life, I have often struggled to accept God’s love for me. I've questioned how he could possibly love me, given my unworthiness and constant failure. I assume God foregoes actual affection for me and settles for mere tolerance. I feel like I'll end up sitting at the kids’ table at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.

All of this self-abnegation, of course, seems humble, but it's actually a false kind of humility undergirded by a pride that says: “God’s grace is not big enough for me. His love is not expansive enough to fully include me.” I think my sin—as heinous and wrath-deserving as it is—is more powerful than God’s justifying grace. But this kind of passive pride actually degrades the work of Christ and undermines a biblical understanding of grace.

And this is where Edwards’ twenty-fifth resolution helps me. When I doubt God’s love—a weakness the 19-year-old Edwards apparently shared with me—the place I am directed to look is to the wrath of God. Why? Because when I truly understand the wrath of God against his enemies, then I am able to truly understand my desperate place without God’s merciful intervention. It is only God’s unmerited favor and gracious pleasure—that is, his free and inscrutable love towards me—which is able to save.

And what does it save me from? According to the Scriptures, God’s love saves me from God’s wrath: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom 5:8-9).

HOW TO CONQUER DOUBT

Here is a profound and freeing truth: the love of God saves us from the wrath of God through the death of the Son of God. God’s love is excellent in itself, but it becomes exceptional and incomprehensible to human sinners in light of the wrath from which we are saved.

When you are prone to question God’s wrath or doubt his love, the antidote for both is to look to the cross, not as a place where God affirms your infinite worthiness, but as a place where he displays his infinite wrath against sin in concert with his infinite love for his fallen creation.

Whenever you doubt the love of God, look to the cross. For the cross is where God’s wrath is appeased, his love is displayed, and his enemies become his children.


[1] Derek Rishmawy offers a helpful (but long) review of Zahnd’s book here.

[2] Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” July 8, 1741.

 

 

Mike Phay serves as Lead Pastor at FBC Prineville (Oregon) and as an Affiliate Professor at Kilns College in Bend, OR. He has been married to Keri for 20 years and they have five amazing kids (Emma, Caleb, Halle, Maggie, and Daisy). He loves books and coffee, preferably at the same time.

Never Lose One Moment of Time

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Editor’s note: This month at GCD you will be seeing articles from our team of Staff Writers and other contributors on a handful of topics that Jonathan Edwards introduced in his own Resolutions. The aim of this series is to help you see how a gospel-formed resolution can help you flourish in your love for Christ and for others next year. Click here to see all articles in this series.


There is no lack of content on the topic of time in pop culture. From Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” there is an oft-repeated chorus of lament that once a minute is lived it cannot be relived.

Science fiction explores the would-be-worlds in which time travel exists in stories like H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, or the more lighthearted Back to the Future. Oh, what we would change if only the possibility to return to past moments existed!

The reality is that the past stays in the past, and a minute wasted can never be reinvested. The old adage “time is money” is a half-truth when applied to our vocations, but the equation falls desperately short in terms of currency. It is possible for one to waste an entire fortune and somehow regain their riches, but each hour of our lives wasted is lost forever.

In a recent film called In Time, the audience is cast into a world where the currency of the day is time added to one’s life. The characters in this alternate universe are genetically engineered to expire after their twenty-fifth birthday but are able to cheat this fate as their employers pay them in minutes added to their lifespan. The depravity is all-too-real as the vast disparity between the virtually immortal rich and the poor who are literally living paycheck-to-paycheck.

How would we live differently if we knew exactly how many minutes we had until we died?

NEVER LOSE ONE MOMENT

This brings me to a resolution of Jonathan Edwards that the 21st-century human may find most convicting:

"#5 - Resolved, never to lose one moment of time, but to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can."

At first glance, this resolution appears to come from another voice in the stream of productivity gurus. Time is juxtaposed with profit, so we’re tempted to only think in terms of maximizing efficiency.

But Edwards didn’t desire to live his life in a way where he makes the most money. Instead, he aimed to make much of his Messiah. If we start working overtime in our careers or doubling down in the stock market, it is not God’s kingdom we’re seeking, but mammon’s.

Time well spent has nothing to do with Wall Street and everything to do with worship.

THIS IS THE DAY THAT THE LORD HAS MADE

Anyone who has ever mourned time wasted by mindlessly scrolling through social media knows that there are more noble tasks with which to spend our time. Christians have long been noted for their frivolity when it comes to financial generosity and their prudence when it comes to sexual desire. In the 21st century, what if they also became known for their insistence on making the most of their time?

Returning to the world of science fiction, one of the most gut-wrenching glimpses into the priceless nature of our finite time is in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Upon arriving back on their ship after a stint where time passes differently, the main characters learn that twenty-three years have passed. From their perspective, they were gone for only a handful of hours. There is a palpable sense of grief in the characters that the viewer experiences as well; grief over the loss of time and the life that could have been lived.

To the outside world, time spent reading and re-reading Scripture, praying to our unseen Creator, and seeking silence and solitude to commune with our Savior should speak volumes. But I fear that many Christians have syncretized biblical faith with 21st-century self-worship. When taking selfies is a higher priority than taking a Sabbath from our self-absorbed lives, little distinction can be made between the Church and the surrounding culture. Edwards’ resolution hits the self-absorbed Christian (myself included) right in the gut.

What a blessing from God that every moment spent seeking him is a moment well spent. No one on his or her deathbed will regret one nanosecond spent in Word or worship. Mark Twain brilliantly quipped on our deaths, “We’ll be mourned for a day, and forgotten for a lifetime.” Yet we still feel that pull to post one more selfie.

No one can rob us of time pursuing our Creator, that is, no one but ourselves. Those in prison and torture camps can be deprived of everything, but not their ability to pray and commune with God. In God’s economy, one can even see the deprivation of all material comforts as a blessing that forces one to pursue God undistracted.

LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE

Our hearts sink when we hear stories of men and women serving forty years of a life sentence only to be freed when new forensic breakthroughs reveal they were innocent all along. But there are worse things than the innocent rotting away in a jail cell.

Richard Wurmbrand, the founder of Voice of the Martyrs, chronicles the torture he experienced while imprisoned for his faith in communist Romania. While reading of his experience, one is overcome by the evidence of Christ’s work in Wurmbrand’s life. It would be all too easy for the careless onlooker to classify his time spent in confinement as the brutal robbery of a decade and a half of his life. But because of his intense affections for God and love for his neighbor—including his savage communist jailers—he never lost hope that God would redeem his lost time for a greater purpose. In his own words:

“A total of fourteen years in prison passed for me. During all this time I never saw a Bible or any other book. I had forgotten how to write. Because of the great hunger, doping and tortures, I had forgotten the Holy Scriptures. But on the day that I fulfilled fourteen years, out of oblivion came into my mind the verse: ‘Jacob worked for Rachel fourteen years and it seemed to him a little time because he loved her.’ ”[1]

Wurmbrand’s life is a testament to one who takes Jesus’ commands seriously. In picking up his cross daily, he considered the lives of his jailers more important than his own. He was all too willing to give up his life, and he did—fourteen whole years of it—in order that others might see the all-surpassing glory of his savior.

A PRISON OF OUR OWN MAKING

There is a parody of Wurmbrand’s imprisonment that is taking place in millions of households across the world. There, people are enslaved, not by brutal guards, but by the backlit screen of their smartphones. The sun rises and sets in the backdrop and another day fades away like smoke. The real tragedy is that the enslavement is a welcome one.

How I wish I was immune to this phenomenon. I’m all too familiar with the dopamine hit that mindlessly unlocking my iPhone brings. I need Jesus’ grace and the indwelling Spirit to reorient my life around things of ultimate importance.

Worldly values, committed to the kingdom of self, see Wurmbrand’s imprisonment and willing use of his life to support the persecuted Church, as a waste. But the follower of Christ knows better. Not one minute of torture will go wasted in the coming kingdom; God will redeem it. I suspect Wurmbrand himself does not know just how many guards were moved by his selfless love and witness in the rat-infested hole he was kept in. As we get glimpses of the already-but-not-yet kingdom, we see a different economy of time where worship and self-denial are the wisest uses of it.

I pray God would give me the grace to begin making that my reality now!

How about you?

This world is passing away and will soon be eclipsed by the realization of Christ’s kingdom. Those who enter into it will see things for what they truly are: every moment dedicated to self will be burned away, but every moment spent pursuing the King is a moment invested in eternity.

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:15-16).


[1] Wurmbrand, Richard. Tortured for Christ, 1967. pg. 53

Sean Nolan (B.S. and M.A., Clarks Summit University) is the Family Life Pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in Forest Hill, Maryland. Prior to that, he served at a church plant in Troy, New York for seven years and taught Hermeneutics to ninth and tenth graders. He is married to Hannah and is raising an army of toddlers. He blogs at Family Life Pastor. You can read all of Sean’s articles here.

The Power of Gospel-Formed Resolutions

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Editor's note: This next month at GCD you will be seeing articles from our team of Staff Writers and other contributors on a handful of topics that Jonathan Edwards introduced in his own Resolutions. The aim of this series is to help you see how a gospel-formed resolution can help you flourish in your love for Christ and for others next year. Click here to see all articles in this series.


January 1 is a great day for introspection if you allow for it. Regardless of how you spent your final evening of last year, the clock has moved and today is a new start, a new year, a fresh beginning. In some South American contexts, the celebration of New Year’s gives a startling depiction of this transition. Life-sized models are stuffed with hay, newspaper, and an assortment of fireworks and other combustibles to be burned in effigy at the stroke of midnight. Often, masks representing particular political or cultural celebrities are placed on the doll to personify the year left behind. It’s a way of cleansing—burning away the previous year with its trials and difficulties and making room for a new, more hopeful year.

As the New Year comes into reality, there can be a sense of concern about the year ahead. What will the next 365 days hold for us? Will they be profitable? Will they be well spent? Will they hold joy and happiness, or despair and difficulty? Add to that concern a layer of shame that takes form in our hearts when we consider the missed opportunities, lack of progress, or downright failures we experienced in the year prior. I didn’t lose the weight I said I would, nor did I complete reading the Bible in its entirety. I didn’t pray. I didn’t give as much as wanted to. I didn’t defeat that habitual sin that has plagued my character.

Expressions like these squirm their way into my heart and mind every year. Usually, somewhere around mid-to-late December, I begin strategizing to tackle the year ahead differently. I develop a battle plan for things like personal Bible engagement and prayer. I stand on the scales and consider my overall hearth, and make a few dedications to drop the weight this year and exercise. I’ll even clean out my smartphone from all the excess applications and distractions so that I can be more focused and productive. I am willing to guess that many of us do similar activities. It has been a cultural phenomenon for years to make “New Year’s Resolutions.”

THE LAW OF THE RESOLUTION

I’ve wavered back and forth on the helpfulness of things like New Year’s Resolutions in my life. In some ways, we know they can be helpful and even formational for us as they give some definition and boundary to our lives. On the other hand, our resolutions can be disastrous when we fail to keep them. Those lingering feelings of guilt and shame are leftovers from last year’s failed resolutions. An even greater danger lurks in the heart of someone who has kept and accomplished their resolution—prideful self-righteousness.

Resolutions, some would argue, are essentially another form of legalism. They compile a list of “dos” and “don’ts” that limit the life of a follower of Jesus. Resolutions can become boundaries that limit the freedom of life in Christ with all its delights. The person who resolves to lose weight becomes a slave to food choices, exercise, and culinary asceticism. Those who resolve to undertake a spiritual discipline immediately become subject to the rituals of that discipline and sacrifice their freedom to appease the demands of the spiritual. Within the culture of any community, even the church, a group of practitioners or non-practitioners of any given resolution can quickly devolve into tribal gangs opposed to one another over such things as who does eat something, and who does not.

If this were the case, it would seem inherent to the freedom of human responsibility that resolutions should be left alone because they create an unnecessary legalism and separation. Even the danger of a legalistic following of a resolution can, within the church, destroy the bonds of unity and peace that the Spirit of God gives to his people. Resolutions, seen in this way, can be disastrous and therefore should be dismissed altogether.

JONATHAN EDWARDS’ RESOLUTIONS

But what if these types of resolutions were shaped and informed by the gospel? Could they then become some sort of meaningful and formative enterprise into which the Christian can find true growth and freedom? Could they be a means of development and joy, even grace, among a people of God? I believe so—as long as one understands and approaches resolutions from a posture of humility informed by the gospel.

Jonathan Edwards is a classic example of this sort of humble, gospel-centered resolving. Before he hit the age of twenty, Edwards found it important to create a set of governing principles to shape his character, practice, and piety. While one could imagine that Edwards’ resolutions were the product of a young and ambitious mind that never saw the light of practical day, it seems that these resolutions were foundational anchors to Edwards’ everyday life. His life exhibited growth in grace, temperance, and passion for the Lord.

But how did Edwards walk with these resolutions throughout his life? Was his resolve a product of mere white-knuckled willpower and obedience to a law he created? The evidence seems to point as far away from this perspective as possible. Edwards own introduction to his resolutions demonstrated the posture of his heart in achieving these resolutions:

“Being sensible that I am unable to do any thing without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him, by his grace, to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake”.[1]

Edwards’ ability to live out his resolutions was not a result of an extraordinary capacity towards regimented and obedient life. They were birthed by a greater ambition that had come to him through the gospel. For Edwards, his life was all about living to the glory of God in all things. The very first resolution he makes states, “Resolved, That I will do whatsoever I think to be most to the glory of God.”[2] Or, to say it another way, Edwards’ life was to be lived for “Christ’s sake.”

And yet, living for the sake of Christ and the glory of God fully required something deeper of Edwards: a clear understanding of his incapability of living that life apart from the supernatural enablement of the Spirit of God through the grace of God in Christ Jesus. He declared, “I am unable to do anything without God’s help.” It was clear in Edwards’ head that these resolutions were unattainable as goals for life apart from the power of God. Living to the glory of God, as desirable an end as that is, is unreachable because of our sin apart from God’s kindness towards sinners, which he displayed in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

GOSPEL-FORMED RESOLUTIONS

This is where our own resolutions can be informed. I want to better glorify God in my own life this year. I know there are areas of my heart, mind, and body that need to come under the transforming power of the gospel. I know I am accepted by God because of the perfect life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and that I am gifted with the Holy Spirit as both a guarantee and down payment of my redemption. He indwells me in order to craft and cultivate character within my life that glorifies Christ. Therefore, I can resolve to practice—or not practice—certain things, not in an effort to earn my right standing before God, but so that I can be more in tune with and shaped by the holiness of God to be more like Christ.

I can say with Edwards, “Resolved, Never to do any thing out of revenge[3]” and know that, if I do well in that regard this year, I am growing in Christ-likeness because I’ve tasted the goodness of God. I can also rest assured that if I fail (more like, when I fail) in this, I am still loved and accepted by the Father, and can confess and repent and resolve again with the power of God enabling me to get up and keep going.

In light of the gospel, these resolutions become tools by which we “make every effort to supplement your faith with goodness…” (2 Pet. 1:5). These resolutions are the vehicles that aim the trajectory of our lives to “strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). They give tangible, personal particulars to the call to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12).

Gospel-formed resolutions can be a helpful means putting to death the old person so that we can put on the new person of Christ-likeness and grow into godliness. Perhaps the first resolution we should adopt is to make a stuffed mannequin of ourselves, burn them at the stroke of midnight, and resolve to embrace the gospel and all its hope and security for the year ahead. We could resolve with great ambition to live for the sake of Christ under the power and influence of the Holy Spirit all our days. How the world would change.


[1] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), lxii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., lxiii.

Jeremy Writebol is the Executive Director of GCD. He is the husband of Stephanie and father of Allison and Ethan. He serves as the lead campus pastor of Woodside Bible Church in Plymouth, MI. He is also an author and contributor to several GCD Books including everPresent and Make, Mature, Multiply. He writes personally at jwritebol.netYou can read all of Jeremy’s articles for GCD here.