“ ’Tis no sign that a work that is wrought amongst a people is not from the Spirit of God, That many that seem to be the subjects of it, are guilty of great imprudences and irregularities in their conduct.” (Pg. 115)
Writing about this section gives me some degree of pause, because I do not wish for anyone to misunderstand the point that Edwards is making. I do not want someone to receive the impression that he is making a case that sin within the church should be casually looked at, approved of, or even ignored. I will do my best to adequately represent his thoughts here in a clear and concise way. Keep in mind that as a puritan and a Calvinist, Edwards spent his life loathing his own sin and constantly threw himself at the mercy of the One whose grace would allow for more good works; works that Edwards understood would be genuine and acceptable to God the Father. Edwards starts by reminding us that the ultimate reason why God pours His spirit on us in the first place is to make us holy, not to make us politicians.
He says “‘Tis no wonder at all, that in a mixed multitude of all sorts, wise and unwise, young and old, of weak and strong natural abilities, that are under strong impressions of mind, there are many that behave themselves imprudently. There are but few that know how to conduct them under vehement affections of any kind, whether they be of a temporal or spiritual nature: to do so requires a great deal of discretion, and strength and steadiness of mind. A thousand imprudences won’t prove a work not to be the work of the Spirit of God; yea if there be not only imprudences, but many things prevailing that are irregular, and really contrary to the rules of God’s holy word. That it should be thus may be well accounted for from the exceeding weakness of human nature, together with the remaining darkness and corruption of those that are yet the subjects of the saving influences of God’s spirit, and have a real zeal for God.”
The word “imprudence” is used to describe acts of behavior that appear rash and careless. It seems to me that there have been occasions where I found words used in puritan literature that were used differently than they are currently used, because language is an evolving thing and their usage can change subtly. I went all the way back to the Robert Cawdrey dictionary of 1604 just to make sure that I did not have any misunderstandings about how this word was being used. I definitely don’t always trust my interpretation of old writings and have found old dictionaries to be very helpful at times in reassuring myself that I understand the way certain words are being used.
What Edwards is trying to point out is that within the church you had and will always have a wide variety of people that God has chosen to reveal himself to by the communication of divine saving grace. Absolutely every one of them, although regenerated, are not made perfect. Sin and corruption still lie within the heart of every Christian. Simply put, this is the reason why Christians still sin. There are those that believe when we are justified we are somehow given a righteousness of our own.However, that doesn’t seem biblically accurate to me. In Matthew 6:33, we are promised the righteousness of Jesus, not one that is of ourselves. The act of justification is a legal one, a forensic declaration whereby God declares us just in His sight. I believe that if the righteousness was truly ours, then as genuineChristians we should sin no more. This is obviously not the case. The process of regeneration and justification involves our sins being taken by Christ while His righteousness is given to us as a covering. As a Christian who still bears the marks of corruption, I am able to commune with God the Father because when he sees me he sees the righteousness of Jesus. The old hymn “nothing but the blood” begins to play in my mind as I think of this, because it speaks rightly of the alien nature of my salvation, or if you will, a righteousness that is apart from me that I depend upon in my daily walk with God.
Imprudent or rash- ignorant and sinful behavior is not the hallmark by which we are to judge whether or not God is operating within man in some capacity. We are all undergoing the process of sanctification and quite frankly, we’re not there yet. When I first read this chapter my mind immediately jumped to the example of the Corinthians, and apparently that’s exactly who Edwards also thought of because he proceeds to use what we know about them from scripture to outline the truth of his claims. I’m going to go ahead and provide a rather large chunk of his writings on this because I believe that they are fairly easy for everyone to understand, especially if you already have the basic context which I just laid out.
“There is scarce any church more celebrated in the New Testament for being blessed with large measures of the Spirit of God, both in ordinary influences, in convincing and converting sinners, and also in his extraordinary and miraculous gifts; yet what manifold imprudences, and great sinful irregularities, and strange confusion did they run into, at the Lord’s Supper, and in the exercise of church discipline, and their indecent manner of attending other parts of public worship, and in jarring and contention about their teachers, and in their exercise of their extraordinary gifts of prophecy, speaking with tongues, and the like, wherein they spake and acted by the immediate inspiration of the Spirit of god? And if we see great imprudences, and even sinful irregularities in some that are improved as great instruments to carry on the work, it won’t prove it not to be the work of God. The Apostle Peter himself, that was a great and eminently holy and inspired Apostle, and one of the chief instruments of setting up the Christian church in the world, and one of the chief of the Apostles, when he was actually engaged in this work, was guilty of a great sinful error in his conduct; of which the Apostle speaks, Galatians 2: 11-13 “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.” If the great pillar of the Christian church, and he who was one of the chief of those that are the very foundations on which, next to Christ, the whole church is said to be built, was guilty of such irregularity; is it any wonder if other lesser instruments, that have not that extraordinary conduct of the divine Spirit that he had, should be guilty of many irregularities? And here in particular, it is no evidence that a work is not the work of God, if many that are the subjects of it, or are improved as instruments to carry it on, are guilty of too great a forwardness to censure others as unconverted, thro’ mistakes they have embraced concerning the marks by which they are to judge of others hypocrisy and carnality; either not dually apprehending the latitude the Spirit of God uses in the methods of His operations, or for want of making due allowance for that infirmity and corruption that may be left in the hearts of the saints; as well as thro’ want of a due sense of their own blindness and weakness, and remaining corruption, whereby spiritual pride may have been a secret vent, this way, under some disguise, and not be discovered.If we allow that truly pious men may have a great deal of blindness and corruption, and may be liable to mistakes about the marks of hypocrisy, as undoubtedly all will allow; then ‘tis not unaccountable that they should sometimes run into such errors as these: ‘Tis as easy, and upon some accounts, more easy to be accounted for, why the remaining corruption of good men should sometimes have an unobserved vent this way, then most other ways, (tho’ it be exceeding unhappy,) and without doubt many holy men have erred this way.” (Pg. 116 – 117)
In just a cursory reading of Edward’s “The Religious Affections”, it was easy for me to see the contempt he had for the abundance of pride that humanity carries and cultivates within our hearts. He often referred to pride as “the secret language of the human heart”. When you really dig into his thoughts on this matter it becomes painfully clear that the scriptures attest to this, and as humans, often, our pride can be masked as outward expressions of humility. Pride is one of the most deceptive and pernicious afflictions that humanity suffers from and nothing is more odious or disgusting to God than when a man thinks too highly of himself. When we think highly of ourselves we ultimately strip honor and glory from the only one who actually deserves it. Many modern Christians attempt to elevate themselves to a place of spiritual maturity above the ignorant and immoral Corinthian, usually because of the verbal beat down of what now seems to be basic biblical common sense. In reality, the Corinthian church displayed one of the first examples of what spiritual pride is capable of doing to our mindsets and within our churches when left unchallenged and uncorrected.
There is no doubt that the Corinthian church was blessed with an abundance of miraculous gifts and outpourings of God’s Spirit, but it cannot go without note that it was also clearly one of the most immature. Edwards uses the term “strange confusion and irregularities” which was a very nice way of saying that they were severely messed up. Church discipline, the sacraments, indecent and chaotic forms of public worship, contentious groups pitted against each other regarding preferred teachers, incorrect application of spiritual gifts, incest, and lawsuits against each other were all prevalent within this church. Many people try to use the supernatural example set by the Corinthians as the norm for what all churches under the influence of the Spirit should look like, but this is ridiculous. The Church in Corinth wasn’t even a normal example in its own time period. In my opinion, the Church in Corinth was so infantile in its spiritual growth that God used the gifts just to hold it together. 1 Corinthians 4 makes it clear that the Corinthians were allowing the blessings thatthey had received both in wealth, status, and spiritual gifting to inflate their own perception of who they were spiritually. They equated their blessings with edification of their maturity. Thankfully Paul shuts it down and leaves us all with a good example of Christian humility and a much more sobering reality of what we should expect from our Christian walks.
We must be careful and discerning that the zeal we develop as a result of God’s graceful outpouring of blessings on us doesn’t turn into something destructive to the church. Edwards talks about this in a lengthy sentence that I’ll paraphrase for you. “Zeal is an excellent grace but left untended, it will merge with our corruption and passion to create unnecessary grievances”. Edwards uses the dietary contentions within the early church as an example of this. The early church exercised a great deal of energy fighting with each other over trivial matters in this respect.
“condemning and censoring one another, as not true Christians; when the Apostle had charity for both, as influenced by a Spirit of real piety: He that eats, says he, to the Lord he eats, and giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks. So in the church of Corinth, they had got into a way of extolling some ministers, and censuring others, and were puffed up for one against another: but yet these things were no sign that the work that was then so wonderfully carried on, was not the work of God.” (Pg. 117)
Zeal and passion are important for performing the work of ministry to great affect, but we must be discerning and keep our zeal and passion under control. If we are not careful we can easily get swept away by the flood of our own inability to think rightly about spiritual matters; and in turn become destructive to the very thing we think we are rightly engaged in. We see this in all manner of doctrinal movements since the beginning of the church. The devil loves to take this understanding of how easily we as people are moved by zeal and passion, and often likes to create polar opposites of a single central idea and pit the opposing sides against each other. Historically, movements centered around sound doctrine and Godly zeal for truth can turn into something akin to persecution amongst our own brethren, or even worse lead us into forms of immorality that Paul says isn’t even fit for the pagans. The point of this blog installment is to in some small way bring awareness to the audience that you and I don’t get to be the judge of where God is working in someone, something, or somewhere just because an abundance of sin seems to be present. We are by nature the very worst of hypocrites and must allow for the possibility of sin, even in the midst of a work of God.
This in no way advocates for the acceptance of sin within the church; on the contrary, sin is to be dealt with harshly and swiftly through church discipline. Too many however, often turn their nose up at a church or people who have a certain degree of sin or scandal in their lives when in truth, these are not things by which we are allowed to judge a work of God by.