Charity, a More Excellent Way - Part One

(This week we continue our reading together of the Jonathan Edwards' classic, Charity and Its Fruits. We have just concluded the reading of the "Doctrine" portion of Lecture Two. We will continue with the "Application" portion of Lecture Two in next week's reading. This is the pattern we will be using for the entirety of the reading. The notes below will follow Edwards' own outline directly, with all direct quotes from the text in italics. My goal is to make each post edifying on its own, even for those who are not reading along with us. I will welcome your questions or comments in the form below.) 

Charity and Its Fruits
Lecture II. Part One
Charity More Excellent Than the Extraordinary Gifts of the Spirit

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” - 1 Cor. 13: 1,2
In the previous lecture our focus was on the fact that Christian love is the distinguishing virtue of a true Christian, and looked briefly at how that love manifests itself in action.  We found much opportunity for self-examination, and, I trust, plenty of room for growth.  In this lecture we move on in our exposition of 1 Corinthians 13: 1-2  to focus on the things which charity is compared against in the text - the very great things which it is said to be far greater than.


In our reading we found that Edwards is what is referred to in theological circles as a “cessationist.” This means he is, by Wayne Grudem's definition: “Someone who thinks that certain miraculous spiritual gifts (such as healing, prophecy, tongues, and interpretation of tongues) ceased when the apostles died and Scripture was complete.” Though it is not Edwards' purpose in these lectures to prove a case for cessationism (that was hardly necessary in his day, as his position was commonly held), his explanation for that position is as good as any I've heard. But, whether one agrees with him in this matter or not is not at all essential to the point he is making about Christian love, so try not to let any disagreement you may have on that matter cloud the main point.

I. “I would briefly explain what is meant by the ordinary and extraordinary gifts of the Spirit”

1) “The gifts of the Spirit of God are distinguished into those that are common, and those that are saving. By common gifts of the Spirit are meant such as are common both to the godly and the ungodly.  There are certain ways in which the Spirit of God influences the minds of natural men, as well as the minds of the godly....So there are common religious affections - common gratitude - common sorrow, and the like."

He means “common” in the sense of something that all mankind has “in common”. If you are anything like me, some of these concepts may be new to you, and may take some time to absorb. 
By "common gifts" he means gifts that may be experienced by any or all of mankind - not only Christians.  By "saving" or "special" gifts, he refers to those only experienced by Christians - mainly saving faith, Christian love, and other fruits which are evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

In case you have difficulty, as I once did, with the notion of God influencing the minds of unbelievers, I'll leave you with a few Scripture references to take into consideration: Isaiah 10:5-11 and God's use of Assyria; Isaiah 44: 28 and 45: 1-7, where God uses Cyrus, a heathen ruler, as His own instrument; 1 Samuel 10:9 and Saul; Exodus 3:21-22; 9:16; 14:4, Romans 9:17 regarding Pharaoh. John 11: 49-53 and the unwitting prophecy of Caiaphas. See also Proverbs 16:9; 16:1; 19:21. Jeremiah 10:23; Daniel 4 (the story of Nebuchadnezzar's madness); and John 12:39-40 where explanation is given as to why unbelievers will not believe.

2) “Ordinary and extraordinary”
"The extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, such as the gift of tongues, of miracles, of prophecy, etc., are called extraordinary, because they are such as are not given in the ordinary course of God's providence...But the ordinary gifts of the Spirit are such as are continued to the Church of God throughout all ages; such gifts as are granted in conviction and conversion, and such as appertain to the building up of the saints in holiness and comfort."

Here is where Edwards' terminology can get a bit confusing.  "Common gifts" are not the same as "ordinary gifts".  Keep in mind that when Edwards says "common" he means common to all mankind - not just believers.  When he says "ordinary", he means ordinary to believers.  Ordinary gifts are those given to all believers upon conversion.  They are the "ordinary" course of things for Christians.  Extraordinary gifts, on the other hand, according to Edwards are "common" gifts, in the sense that they are at times experienced even by unbelievers: "And the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit are common gifts.  The gifts of tongues, of miracles, of prophecy, etc., although they are not ordinarily bestowed on the Christian Church, but only on extraordinary occasions, yet are not peculiar to the godly, for many ungodly men have had these gifts. (Matt. 7:22-23)."

II.“That the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit of God are indeed great privileges.”

Here Edwards endeavors to show just how great a privilege the extraordinary gifts are - prophecy in particular: "...yea, this is one of the highest kind of privileges that God ever bestows on men, next to saving grace. It is a great privilege to live in the enjoyment of the outward means of grace, and to belong to the visible Church; but to be a prophet and a worker of miracles in the Church is a much greater privilege still...."  He goes on to speak of Moses, Daniel, and the apostles and the privilege it was for them to speak forth the words of God.

These are regarded as great privileges for at least two reasons:
  • "That there is in them a conformity to Christ in his prophetical office"
  • "These gifts have commonly been bestowed as tokens of God's extraordinary favor and love, as it was with Daniel."
III. “To shew, that though these are great privileges, yet that the ordinary influence of the Spirit of God, working the grace of charity in the heart, is a far more excellent privilege than any of them...This will appear if we consider":

1) “This blessing of the saving grace of God is a quality inherent in the nature of him that is the subject of it.”

Unlike extraordinary gifts, the grace of charity in the heart becomes part of the nature of the individual. Tongues are not a part of one's character. Miracles are not part of one's character - and can even be operated at times by those with no saving faith whatever. The ability to preach does not change the heart of the preacher. Saving grace, on the other hand, is a complete change of heart. It is a permanent change of the nature of the Christian, a quality that develops their character, from the inside, and ever increasingly into the holy character of Christ. Or, as Edwards so beautifully puts it:
"These extraordinary gifts are nothing properly inherent in the man. They are something adventitious. They are excellent things, but not the excellencies in the nature of the subject. They are like a beautiful garment, which does not alter the nature of the man that wears it. They are like precious jewels, with which the body may be adorned; but true grace is that whereby the very soul itself becomes as it were a precious jewel." (Emphasis in bold is mine.)

2) “The Spirit of God communicates himself much more in bestowing saving grace than in bestowing these extraordinary gifts...”
"The Spirit of God may produce effects in things in which he does not communicate himself to us. Thus the Spirit of God moved on the face of the water. But when the Spirit, by his ordinary influences, bestows saving grace, he therein imparts himself to the soul in his own holy nature - that nature of his, on the account of which he is so often called in Scripture, the Holy Ghost, or the Holy Spirit. By his producing this effect, the Spirit becomes an indwelling vital principle in the soul and the subject becomes a spiritual being...Yea, grace is, as it were, the holy nature of the Spirit imparted to the soul."
It is a favorite saying of mine that the Holy Spirit's first name is "Holy" for a reason; and that those who are indwelled by Him will eventually and inevitably become holy themselves.

3) “That grace or holiness, which is the effect of the ordinary influence of the Spirit of God in the hearts of the saints, is that wherein the spiritual image of God consists; and not in these extraordinary gifts of the Spirit.”
"The spiritual image of God does not consist in having a power to work miracles, and foretell future events, but it consists in being holy, as God is holy: in having a holy and divine principle in the heart, influencing us to holy and heavenly lives."
So just as miracles and prophetic words do not define the character of God, but are merely things He sometimes does, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in a Christian is not primarily evidenced by such abilities, but rather by the development of a holy and godly character. "But the moral image and likeness of Christ does much more consist in having the same mind in us which was in Christ; in being of the same Spirit that he was of; in being meek and lowly of heart; in having a spirit of Christian love, and walking as Christ walked. This makes a man more like Christ than if he would work ever so many miracles."

4) “That grace which is the effect of the ordinary influences of the Spirit of God, is a privilege which God bestows only on his own favorites and children, but the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit are not so.”
"The grace of God in the heart is a gift of the Holy Ghost peculiar to the saints; it is a blessing that God reserves only for those who are the objects of his special and peculiar love. But the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit are what God sometimes bestows on those whom he does not love, but hates; which is a sure sign that the one is infinitely more precious and excellent than the other. That is the most precious gift, which is most of an evidence of God's love. But the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit were, in the days of inspiration and miracles, no sure sign of the love of God. The prophets were not wont to build their persuasion of the favor and love of God on their being prophets, and having revelations; but on their being sincere saints."
I must admit that this concept was entirely new to me upon my first reading of this book, and it was only through reading the Scripture references he provided that I could be brought to accept his point. If this concept is unfamiliar to you, too, I suggest you also take the time to look up those Scriptures for yourself.(2 Peter 2:15; Jude 8-16; Rev. 2:14; Matthew 5: 1-8 [read with Judas in mind]; Psalm 15:1-5; Psalm 17:1-3. Consider also Saul, who was counted "among the prophets" but was no man of God.)

5) “From the fruit and consequences of these two different things, that the one is infinitely more excellent than the other.”
"Eternal life is, by the promises of the gospel, constantly connected with the one, and never with the other. Salvation is promised to those who have the graces of the Spirit, bu not to those who have merely the extraordinary gifts. Many may have these last and yet go to hell. And Christ tells us, that many who have had them, will, at the last day, be bid to depart, as workers of iniquity (Mt. 7:22-23). And therefore, when he promised his disciples these extraordinary gifts, he bade them rejoice, not because the devils were subject to them, but because their names were written in heaven; intimating that the one might be, and yet not the other. (Luke 10:17...)"
No doubt the gift which brings with it eternal life is greater than one which does not!

6) “Happiness itself does much more immediately and essentially consist in Christian grace, wrought by the ordinary influences of the Spirit, than in these extraordinary gifts.”
"Man's highest happiness consists in holiness, for it is by this that the reasonable creature is united to God, the fountain of all good. Happiness doth so essentially consist in knowing, loving, and serving God, and having the holy and divine temper of soul, and the lively exercises of it, that these things will make a man happy without anything else; but no other enjoyments or privileges whatsoever will make a man happy without this."

7) “This divine temper of soul, which is the fruit of the ordinary sanctifying influences of the Spirit, is the end [goal] of all the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost.”

The goal of the extraordinary gifts is "to promote the propagation and establishment of the gospel in the world. And the end of the gospel is, to turn men from darkness to light, and from the power of sin and Satan to serve the living God, i.e. to make men holy. The end of all the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit is the conversion of sinners, and the building up of saints in that holiness which is the fruit of the ordinary influences of the Holy Ghost....But the end is always more excellent than the means: this is a maxim universally allowed; for means have no goodness in them any otherwise than as they are subordinate to the end." (See Eph. 4:11-16)

In other words, the goal of the extraordinary gifts is to spread the gospel of salvation in Christ. When the gospel, by the power of the Holy Spirit, has done its saving work in the hearts of men, they will then begin to be transformed into the image of Christ, which is the ultimate goal. Extraordinary gifts are the temporary means to bring about the "ordinary" work of the Spirit in the lives of believers which will persist forever.

8) “The extraordinary gifts of the Spirit will be so far from profiting without that grace which is the fruit of the ordinary influences of the Spirit, that they will but aggravate the condemnation of those that have them.”

Edwards calls to mind the Parable of the Sower to explain such individuals:
"As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with much joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away...." Mt. 13:20-21

He refers then to the fate of apostates in Hebrews 6: 4-8:
"For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless an near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned."
"Such apostates, in their renouncing Christianity, must ascribe the miraculous powers which themselves had possessed to the devil. So their case became hopeless, and their condemnation must be exceedingly aggravated."

9) “Another thing that shews the preferableness of that saving grace which is the fruit of the ordinary influences of the Holy Spirit, to the extraordinary gifts, is, that one will fail, and the other will not.”
"They are only of the nature of means, and when the end is obtained they shall cease."


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