Easing our way back into Edwards

If you've been following along with our study through Jonathan Edwards' Charity and Its Fruits, you know we are just wrapping up a hiatus of a few weeks.  With the New Year stretched out before us, and no pregnancies at work in our Chico study group, we should from here on out be advancing forward at a more steady pace, Lord willing.  In yesterday evening's class we picked up where we left off - at the application portion of Lecture Two.  Since I already posted the class notes for this particular section before the hiatus, I'd like to take some time this week to focus on one question that arose during this week's discussion.

In our reading, Edwards makes this key point: "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."  Rather:
"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 man have what gifts you please, they are nothing."
(See 1 John2:7-11; 1 John 3:10-24; 1 John 4:7-21; James 2:14-17; Matthew 7:22-23)

Specifically, Edwards brings up a particular phenomenon sometimes experienced by Christians - genuine or not - the sudden coming to mind of a passage of Scripture.  Apparently, in the course of revivals he presided over, many became very elated over this experience, attaching much significance to it, even to the point of thinking it the sign of their conversion, or of their ongoing favor with God.  Over the course of time, however, Edwards witnessed many of those "converts", some of the most vocal in their experience of this "extraordinary impression made upon their minds" revert to lives characterized by sin and showing no evidence of Christian love.  But, because they had these experiences they continued to trust that they were truly in Christ, and that His Spirit was at work in their lives.  In short, they looked to what they saw as "gifts" of the Spirit as evidence of their conversion rather than the "fruit", which are summed up in love.

We are never to look at a particular experience, either a supernatural one, such as a prophecy, dream, or speaking in tongues, or, for that matter, a prayer we prayed once upon a time, as proof that we are saved. If we are saved, we look to Christ for our salvation, and we keep looking to Christ as long as we live; and the outward evidence of such trust in Him will be Christian love.

Now, to our question.  One of the ladies raised a concern about Edwards' statement which I think definitely warranted further clarification and discussion.  She wondered if he was implying that God does not lead His people by bringing Scripture to their minds.  And I need to be sure we are clear - this is definitely not the point Edwards is making.  To be sure, as God's inspired word to us, Scripture is the primary means by which the Holy Spirit transforms God's people. (Rom.12:2; 2 Tim.3:16; Rom.10:17) He is merely saying, that such an experience is not a reliable evidence of conversion.  In fact, Satan himself is known to quote Scripture to influence individuals when it suites his deceitful schemes (see Mt. 4). I would add that Scriptures coming to mind is is an experience common to anyone who is well-versed in Scripture, for whatever reason. It's not altogether different than having small events bring to mind familiar pieces of music, or songs, or the characters or events of favorite books, or movies, which happens to me all the time. Our brains, ever devoted to helping us make sense of things, are inclined to make associations between our present circumstances and whatever information we've already stored there.

Edwards deals with this particular phenomenon only briefly in this text, but addresses it at much greater length in his work Religious Affections, where he has this to say, and here I will quote at some length:
"When persons' affections are founded on imaginations, which is often the case, those affections are merely natural and common, because they are built on a foundation that is not spiritual; and so are entirely different from gracious affections....These imaginations do oftentimes raise the carnal affections of men to an exceeding great height [cause high emotional response]; and no wonder, when the subjects of them have an ignorant, but undoubting persuasion, that they are divine manifestations, which the great Jehovah immediately makes to their souls, therein giving them testimonies, in an extraordinary manner of his high and peculiar favor [in other words, that almighty God is singling them out for special attention]....
 There is, on the other hand, a truly spiritual way in which God uses Scripture in the minds of His people which can, at times, be very exciting, but for all the right reasons.  Edwards contrasts the two kinds of experiences here:
...the immediate suggesting of the words of Scripture to the mind, has nothing in it which is spiritual....It may be so, that persons may have gracious affections going with Scriptures which come to their minds, and the Spirit of God may make use of those Scriptures to excite them; when it is some spiritual, sense, taste or relish they have of the divine and excellent things contained in those Scriptures that is the thing which excites their affections, and not the extraordinary and sudden manner of words being brought to their minds. They are affected with the instruction they receive from the words, and the view of the glorious things of God or Christ, and the things appertaining to them, that they contain and teach; and not because the words came suddenly, as though some person had spoken them to 'em, thence concluding that God did as it were immediately speak to 'em.  Persons oftentimes are exceedingly affected on this foundation; the words of some great and high promises of Scripture come suddenly to their minds, and they look upon the words as directed immediately by God to them, as though the words that moment proceeded out of the mouth of God as spoken to them: so that they take it as a voice from God, immediately revealing to 'em their happy circumstances, and promising such and such great things to them: and this it is that affects and elevates them.  There is no new spiritual understanding of the divinie things contained in the Scripture, or new spiritual sense of the glorious things taught in that part of the Bible, going before their affection, and being the foundation of it: all the new understanding they have, or think they have, to be the foundation of their affection, is this, that the words are spoke to them, because they come so suddenly and extraordinarily.  And so this affection is built wholly on the sand: because it is built on a conclusion for which they have no foundation.  For, as has been shown, the sudden coming of the words to their minds, is no evidence that the bringing 'em to their minds in that manner, was from God. And if it was true that God brought the words to their minds, and they certainly know it, that would not be spiritual knowledge; it may be with out any spiritual sense.  Balaam might know that the words which God suggested to him, were indeed suggested to him by God, and yet have no spiritual knowledge. So that these affections which are built on that notion, that texts of Scripture are sent immediately from God, are built on no spiritual foundation, and are vain and delusive.  Persons who have their affections thus raised, if they should be enquired of, whether they have any new sense of the excellency of things contained in those Scriptures, would probably say, yes, without hesitation: but it is true no otherwise than thus, that when they have taken up that notion, that the words are spoken immediately to them, that makes them seem sweet to 'em, and they own the things which these Scriptures say to 'em, for excellent things, and wonderful things....all the sense they have of any glory in them is only from self-love, and from their own imagined interest in the words: not that they had any view or sense of the holy and glorious nature of the kingdom of heaven, and the spiritual glory of that God who give it, and of his excellent grace to sinful men, in offering and giving them this kingdom, of his own good pleasure....On the contrary, they first imagine they are interested, and then are highly affected with that, and then can own these things to be excellent.  So that the sudden and extraordinary way of the Scriptures coming to their mind, is plainly the first foundation of the whole; which is clear evidence of the wretched delusion they are under." (All emphasis is mine.)

Edwards has much more to say about the matter in his Religious Affections, a resource which I highly recommend, by the way, and about which I've written extensively in this blog. But, for today's point, I'll end there.  The point here simply put is this, love God's Word for what it has to say and obey it as you find it.  Don't love it more at the moments it pops into your head, thinking "Aha, this is proof He cares for me! Wow, God SPOKE to me!" Edwards to this would likely say, "It was proof He cared for you all along and He has been speaking to you all along - every time you heard or read the Scriptures. It should not mean any more to you because you feel you've suddenly received it "Special Delivery".  If you won't believe it as you read it, or hear it taught, in the normal course of things, you've no more reason to think you really love it or believe it when it comes via "miracle". (See Luke 16:29-31; Mt. 12:38-39)

Next week we will be reading the "doctrine" portion of Lecture Three: "The Greatest Performances or Sufferings in Vain Without Charity". Join our discussion here next Thursday.


Lisa notes... said…
Very well stated. I look forward to hanging out with you and this study again.

And I'll continue to pray for you as you grieve the loss of your dear mom. Especially as I'm walking through the valley with my own father now... One day at a time. Fear no evil.

Laurie M. said…
Thanks Lisa, for everything.

I'm sorry to hear about your father. I've caught hints something was amiss, but not what it was. May the Lord bless you and comfort you.
Anonymous said…
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Just a quick observation from life:
those who try to prove favour with God by pointing to, for example, speaking in tongues, or gifts of healing, etc, are of all Christians, the most unsure of their standing...because for them their acceptance by God and people, primarliy hinges on these things instead of on the perfect and finished work of Jesus Christ.

A very timely message - thanks, Laurie!

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