Monday, December 7, 2009

Charity, a Most Excellent Way - Part Two


(This week we continue our reading together of the Jonathan Edwards' classic, Charity and Its Fruits. We have just concluded the reading of the "Application" portion of Lecture Two. We will continue with the "Doctrine" 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.) 


Our study group in Chico is undergoing some growing pains.  One of our participants just gave birth to her first child this weekend!  Amid the flurry such an event inevitably causes among a small group of women, our study for this week was again postponed. Rather than keep our on-line participants on hold for a second consecutive week, however, I've decided to post this week's notes anyway. This may lead to another intermezzo next week, or perhaps not.  We shall see. For now, let's move on to the application portion of Lecture Two.

In the improvement* of the subject, I remark:
*When Puritans use the expression “improve on” they mean to apply the doctrine to our practice. So this is Edwards' way of introducing the application portion of his lecture. 

1.  If saving grace is a greater blessing than the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, we may doubtless hence argue, that it is the greatest privilege and blessing that ever God bestows on any person in this world.” 
"...the saving grace of God in the heart, working a holy and divine temper in the soul, is the greatest blessing that ever men receive in this world: greater than any natural gifts, greater than the greatest natural abilities, greater than any acquired endowments of mind, greater than the most universal learning, greater than any outward wealth and honour, greater than to be a king or an emperor, greater than to be taken from the sheepcote, as David was, and made king over all Israel; and all the riches and honour and magnificence of Solomon, in all his glory, are not to be compared with it."

"Great was the privilege that God bestowed on the blessed virgin Mary, in granting that of her should be born the Son of God....yet even that was not so great a privilege as to have the grace of God in the heart; to have Christ, as it were, born in the soul, as he himself dot expressly teach us..."

"As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, 'Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!' But he said, 'Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!'" (Luke 11:27-28)
"While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, 'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers!' For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.'" (Mt.12:46-50)

2. Hence these two kinds of privileges are not to be confounded, by taking things that have some appearance of an extraordinary miraculous gift of the Spirit, for sure signs of grace.

In other words, don't confuse charismatic gifts as trustworthy signs that you or anyone else is a true Christian. (Never forget the sober warning of Matthew 7:21).  As we discussed in last week's reading, Edwards was a cessationist and as such did not believe such "extraordinary gifts" as prophecy, tongues, working of miracles and the like continued in operation beyond the apostolic era. Nor did I find in my own reading any reports of encounters with such phenomena during the "awakenings" or revivals over which he presided. He did however come across folk who claimed any number of other extraordinary experiences. He had also, by the time these lectures were delivered, seen many of those who had professed faith during revival, and boasted such experiences fall away, or if they remained, exhibiting little or no evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. It is his concern in this section to ensure that these people not interpret their charismatic experiences as sure signs that they were truly converted.


 As far as the gift of prophecy is concerned, he makes his position quite clear: "...even if it were real, I say - for indeed we have no reason to look on such things, when pretended to in these days, as any other than delusion." He then goes on to list several of the phenomena being reported among his congregation, particularly at the time of the recent revival in their valley, things like: passages of Scripture suddenly coming to mind, visions, and hearing voices. He first explains that a Scripture which comes to mind suddenly is no more meaningful than a Scripture read in its due course, and then dismisses the value of them all by saying: "...for if they are real and from God, they are...no sure signs of grace."
"All the fruits of the Spirit, which we are to lay weight upon as evidential of grace, are summed up in charity, or Christian love; because this is the sum of all grace. And the only way, therefore, in which any can know their good estate, is by discerning the exercises of this divine charity in their hearts; for without charity, let men have what gifts you please, they are nothing."

3. If saving grace is more excellent than the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, then we cannot conclude, from what the Scripture says of the glory of the latter times of the Church, that the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit will be granted in those times.

At this point it is helpful to keep Edwards post-millennial eschatological view in mind. I will quote from Mardsen's biography:
“The basic outline of his interpretation was like that most commonly held among his peers. He did not expect to see the full-blown millennium at any moment soon, but rather he saw the revivals as the beginning of a momentous era of both triumph and strife that would culminate in the millennial peace. The last days would be ushered in by a great series of revivals and the ingathering of the gentiles and extraordinary anticipations of millennial spirituality. Yet these latter days would be days of unprecedented conflict as well.”
This definition of post-millennialism from Baker's Dictionary of Theology is also helpful:
“There are many evangelical believers who hold these post-millennial views and think of the millennium as a period in the later days of the church when, under the special power of the Holy Spirit, the work of God shall be greatly revived and believers shall become so aware of their spiritual strength that to a degree unknown before they shall triumph over the powers of evil. This 'golden age' of the church, it is held, will be followed by a brief apostasy – a terrible conflict between the forces of good and evil – and this in turn will be eclipsed by the simultaneous occurrence of the advent of Christ, the general resurrection and the final judgment.”

These are the “latter times” Edwards is likely referring to when he says: "Many have been ready to think, that in those glorious times of the Church which shall be after the calling of the Jews and the destruction of Antichrist, there will be many persons that will be inspired, and endued with a power of working miracles. But what Scripture says concerning the glory of those times does not prove any such thing, or make it probable."
On the contrary, he asserts, 
"Those times may be far the most glorious times of the Church that ever have been without them....if the Spirit be poured out in greater measure in his sanctifying influences; for this, as the apostle expressly asserts, is a more excellent way (1 Cor. 12:31). This glory is the greatest glory of the Church of Christ, and the greatest glory which Christ's Church will ever enjoy in any period. This is what will make the Church more like the Church in heaven, where charity or love hath a perfect reign, than any number or degree of extraordinary gifts of the Spirit could do."

4. What cause have they to bless God, and to live to his glory,who have received such a privilege as is implied in the influence of the Holy Spirit working saving grace in the heart.”
There are no other privileges known to man as great as to have the saving grace of God at work in one's heart - "They are as nothing compared with the privilege of being like Christ, and having his love in the heart."
Our astonishment at this great privilege should result in a great desire and sense of obligation to glorify God in our lives:
"Consider, you that hope in God's mercy, how highly he hath advanced and exalted you; and will you not be diligent to live for him? Will you dishonour Christ so as to regard him but little, not giving him your whole heart, but going after the world, neglecting him, and his service, and his glory? Will you not be watchful against yourselves, against a corrupt worldly, proud disposition, that might lead you away from God who has been so kind to you, and from the Saviour who has purchased blessings for you, at the cost of his own agonies and death?...What could God have done more for you than he has done? What privilege could he have bestowed, better in itself, or more worthy to engage your heart in thankfulness?...
"Oh, how should such as you, shew your sense of you high privileges, by the exercises of love!  love that is manifest toward God in obedience, submission, reverence, cheerfulness, joy, and hope; and toward your neighbour, in meekness, sympathy, humility, charitableness, and doing good to all as you have opportunity."
5. The subject exhorts all unrenewed persons, those who are strangers to this grace, to seek this most excellent blessing for themselves.
"Consider how miserable you now are while wholly destitute of this love, far from righteousness, in love with the vanities of the world, and full of enmity against God. How will you endure when he shall deal with you according to what you are, coming forth in anger as your enemy, and executing his fierce wrath against you."

If you are left at the end of this discussion worried, doubtful, wondering if you truly are a recipient of God's grace or not, there is great hope for you. Christ offers His grace freely and is seeking to bestow it on you! Run to him.  Believe the words of Jesus: "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out." (John 6:37)

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