So before I tackle blogging on Jonathan Edward’s “The religious Affections” I would like to take a step back and explore his first work on the subject called “The Distinguishing Marks Of A Work Of The Spirit Of God”. To my understanding it was written in 1741 after the initial revival that began in 1733 had already occurred and the second round of yet greater revival was only just beginning. The religious affections which I have previously mentioned was written later in 1746. I decided that to better understand The Religious Affections it would benefit me to explore this first work in an attempt to understand his preliminary thoughts before I write about his finished thesis. It is my understanding that he changed his mind in some respects to this original work and the book closest aligned to his final thoughts was “The Religious Affections”. Edward’s having personally experienced unprecedented revival within his community and surrounding towns, was in a unique position to analyze the many unusual spiritual workings that manifested amongst the town members much to his surprise. The time period he lived in was full of danger and always under threat of war from neighboring Indian tribes and as well as the French. Attacks on settlements happened from time to time and its residents both young and old were either killed or relocated to French/Indian settlements in Canada. As if this didn’t provide enough stress, the health of individuals was not to be taken for granted as each new day brought with it the possibility of illness culminating in the loss of a child or spouse rather unexpectedly. Simply put, life was not to be taken for granted and no one was guaranteed tomorrow. They experienced the reality of death far more frequently than our own culture and subsequently were more somber and mature in their worldview. They were far less focused on entertainment and down time and far more engaged with education and survival. The Puritan culture was a culture of order. They were not easily handed over to personal whims and fanciful experiences. Church services were not lively and temperance was to be maintained at all times. This is the bare minimum that can be offered as a historical back drop to this time period, but I offer what I do to make the point that these people were far more serious than most in our own society and rightly so. It will be hard for us to understand the mindset of those that began to criticize the things they were seeing during the course of revival but as I began to analyze some of Edward’s initial arguments I realized that his logical and methodical pattern of thought provided clues as to specific arguments he must have been facing by those that were untrusting of such lively and energetic responses to the things of religion. Revival shook the apathy and stoic nature of such a reserved people and certainly threw them out of their comfort zone. Revival, despite the opinions of many who have never studied it, is not some quiet movement that brings with it a few tears and peaceful smiles. Revival brings with it conviction of sin. Men quake and lose strength in the presence of a Holy God operating in their midst. When the Holy Spirit brings revival He often moves like a wildfire racing at speeds we can’t escape often in directions we can’t predict. Revival is not a gentle breeze to be enjoyed on a spring day, it’s a hurricane that targets sinful structures in our lives that God requires torn down so that new structures might be built in there place. It is a refining fire that separates dross from metal purifying the product. Revival is a wonderful work of God whereby He changes hearts. He effectually livens the human will from a state of spiritual death to a state that is inclined to Him and freely desires His ways. He breathes life into dead men and changes the entire moral climate of a culture. This is painful, terrifying and often leaves many bewildered at it’s circumstances but those that experience true revival and are savingly converted have experienced a sweetness of God that few can comprehend. Edwards witnessed just such an event. I believe God has used Edwards to document the awakenings that occurred within his life time to help future generations within the body of Christ better discern spiritual workings so that we are better equipped to identify the counterfeits that mimic true spiritual works and ultimately poison the church deceptively. I’m going to be referencing my copy of this work found in the Library Of America’s Edition of “Edwards: Writings From The Great Awakening” pg 99 – 167. I can’t stress enough how much I would prefer the reader to explore Edward’s work first hand. “The Distinguishing Marks Of A Work Of The Spirit Of God” is available for free online in many places and you can reference the quotes I make at anytime. The ideas I’m presenting are simplified versions of Edward’s original points and I in no way intend to take credit for the thought processes presented. I just want anyone and everyone to benefit from his work if reading his writings are not an option or feasible for the average person. I’m acutely aware that if you don’t understand something at it’s deepest level then you can’t always simplify it without distorting the truth. I fear I don’t always understand Edward’s at the deepest level, although I have really tried, and it is entirely possible that I could be mistaken at some points in my analysis. I will only expound on what I am reasonably assured I have a decent grasp of and I hope some will benefit from what he originally wrote presented through my own commentary. Now lets look at what this man of God actually had to say.
In the first part of “The Distinguishing Marks Of A Work Of The Spirit Of God” Edwards begins the conversation by listing specific signs that were neither evidence for or against proving an authentic work of God. These were things commonly seen during the time of awakening that people had mixed opinion over but simply by their own merit would not allow someone to authenticate the work by. In other words he listed signs within works that we could see that don’t necessarily indicate one way or another if what we’re seeing is or isn’t a work of the true Spirit of God.
- (Quote pg. 101) “Nothing can certainly be concluded from this that the Work that appears is carried on in such a way very unusual and extraordinary”
“what we have been used to, or what the church of God has been used to, is not a rule by which we are to judge whether a work be the work of God, because there be new and extraordinary works of God.”…… “he has brought those things to pass that have been new things, strange works; and has rot in such a manner as to surprise both men and angels.” (Pg. 101)
We are not allowed to judge whether a potential work of God is legit based solely on the previous experience of what we’re used to. Just because what we’re looking at is new to our experience and sensibilities does not negate the possibility that God is working. I don’t mean to insinuate that experience isn’t important in discernment of spiritual works but to rebuke a work because it manifests in an entirely new and extraordinary way is not a solid foundation for sound disputation.
I read a book called “The Cosmic Chess Match” by LA Marzulli sometime around 2011 and it’s been hard for me to view the cosmic landscape much differently since he introduced me to that term. Seems only wise to me that God would reveal new methods and strategies in offense and defense at different points in history. If you and I only played chess with a preset pattern of predictable moves our opponents would adapt and defeat us every time we met at the table. Or if you rather, imagine a football team that only used 3 plays over and over, or a boxer that only threw jabs and a left hook. These hypothetical challengers would never be champions because the opposition would always have the counter plays ready and winning would come quite easy for them.
Romans 11:33 says “ Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”
Considering the world we live in is part of a spiritual turf war it only makes sense to me that God would make moves and counter moves on the battlefield that would intentionally catch both men and angels by surprise. He is a masterful strategist by which nobody else Spirit or flesh compares. We must understand that God has a wide variety of tools at his disposal and as Edward’s says “We ought not to limit God where he has not limited himself.” Furthermore, future prophetic events in scripture openly depict specific things that have yet to come to pass that will manifest in ways not yet seen.
“and as God has done thus in times past, so we have no reason to think but that he will do so still. The prophecies of scripture give us reason to think that God has still new things to accomplish and things to bring to pass that have never yet been seen.” (pg. 102)
I assume, based on the methodical approach to arguing all angles, that there were people refuting what they were witnessing not only because it was new but also because the work was immediately and dramatically affecting the minds of many and that the immediate nature of the work was evidence that it was wholly ungodly and rooted in something unholy. They had been so used to very slow temperate spiritual activity that the signs in question were proof that it couldn’t be of God, thus the reason Edwards needed to show that the new and immediate nature of a work can’t be used to prove either way.
Edwards goes on to list examples of ways spiritual works were seen exerting extraordinary influence on the minds of people and how these things were also not evidence against a work of God.
- “Extraordinary conviction of the dreadful nature of sin”
- Very uncommon sense of misery related to realizing they were without Christ.
- Extraordinary views of the glory of divine things and depending on the degree to which they saw divine things subsequent affections of fear, sorrow, desire, love and joy proportionately followed.
- That these changes in people occurred very quickly and unexpectedly.
- That a great number of people were affected simultaneously in a variety of equally unusual ways, unusual but still without violating scripture, most of them being young in age.
“These things are no argument that the work is not a work of the Spirit of God.” (Pg. 102)
He goes on to stress and emphasize as a crucial point that in no way would any of the unusual signs within works violate scripture at any point if indeed it was a true authentic work of God. In fact the extraordinary and unusual nature of the works, if they were in agreement with scripture, only argued in favor of it being a true authentic work of the Spirit of God. Edwards acknowledges the difficulty people have in accepting strange things. Anybody who’s ever dabbled in the world of Christian fringe can appreciate that from personal experience with the outside world. If it was a good argument that because something was new or strange that it couldn’t be of God then that would have to be consistent with what we see in scripture and when it comes to the early church and the gifts bestowed to the Apostles that is simply not the case. What happened in the life of the early church was new to everybody and had manifested to a degree not previously experienced. God’s work was put on full display with more power and visibility than ever before. It affected many in a variety of ways also not previously seen. Men were to great degrees hardened while others to great degrees were convicted of sin in such powerful ways that entire cities and nations were transformed in very short periods of time. It was the unusual nature of God working that surprised the Jews. For some of them, no matter how amazing a sign or work may have been displayed in its operation on people who they witnessed affected, they were left completely baffled and confused and quite frankly scared to lose their own authority.
“But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”- Acts 2:13
“And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.”- Acts 26:24
“We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.” – 1 Cor. 4:10
(Pg. 103) “and we have reason from scripture prophecy to suppose, that at the commencement of that last and greatest outpouring of the Spirit of God, that is to be in the latter ages of the world, the manner of the work will be very extraordinary, and such is never has yet been seen; so that there shall be occasion then to say as in Isaiah 66:8
“Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment? For as soon as Zion was in labor she brought forth her children.”
Edwards concludes this particular series of thoughts by leaving the future wide open to the possibility that even more extraordinary works of God could manifest in proportion to the extraordinary nature of events and changes to the state of our world that have yet to come to pass.