Revival in the Hands of a Sovereign God: Jonathan Edwards on the Great Awakening

If there were a gene for revival, Jonathan Edwards surely had it. From his father Timothy, Edwards learned how to become a great preacher, to be ambitious, and a learned theologian; and from his maternal grandfather Stoddard, Edwards gained an ineffable revivalist zeal.Of all of Jonathan Edwards’ works there is one that stands above the rest as it pertains to providing a biblical and balanced view on the way God works on the affections of man, and how those affections are rightly displayed. This work is known as a Treatise on Religious Affections. Originally a series of sermons on the proper place of religious affections in the Christian life, Edwards later expanded them and it was published in 1746. The book is divided up into three parts. In part one, Edwards establishes the legitimacy of religious affections, in part two he provides balance by arguing that outward displays of the affections do not immediately equate to a work of God, and then in part three he provides what are distinguishing signs of truly gracious and holy affections.

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Edwards opens up the treatise by showing that the affections were specifically built into the human being by the creator in order that the fullness of the born again person would experience the goodness and holiness of God. He writes, “The Author of human nature has not only given affections to men, but has made them very much the spring of men’s actions,” therefore, “human affections do not only belong to true religion, but are a very great part of it.” Throughout the treatise Edwards sought to show that throughout “the Holy Scriptures when God moved upon his people there was always a move upon their affections, be it fear, hope, love, hatred, joy sorrow, gratitude, compassion, and zeal.” 

Perhaps the greatest contribution is what it does to defend revival against those who disregard the affections and those who abuse them through perverted displays of the affections. He does this by showing what signs are indeed the direct result of God’s Spirit working among a people and which ones are not. There is one common thread that runs through the twelve signs put forth by Edwards; that God is both the author and the object of the affection. For Edwards any notion of this massive of a movement towards God could not be the product of carnal methods on carnal men. His deeply Calvinistic convictions would simply not allow for it. On this matter he writes: 

 Never was a natural man engaged earnestly to seek his salvation; never were any such brought to cry after wisdom, and lift up their voice for understanding, and to wrestle with God in prayer for mercy; and never was one humbled, and brought to the foot of God, from anything that ever he heard or imagined of his own unworthiness and deserving of God’s displeasure; nor was ever one induced to fly for refuge unto Christ, while his heart remained unaffected.

For Edwards the great awakening of hearts towards Christ, and those whose lives revealed true conversion through their obedience to God’s word was a clear sign not of savvy new methods implemented by men, but a work of the Sovereign God on the affections.

Edwards never deterred from his conviction that true revival (something that unlike many then and since have been able to clearly define) has a single Agent, the Sovereign God of all Creation. For Edwards these revivals were constant displays of God building His church and pressing it towards its eschatalogical age of peace. In spite of the detractors on the outside of the Awakening, and those that claimed they were in, but found themselves perverting the great work of God; Edwards provided clarity in a time of confusion.

It was not Whitefield’s great preaching, the use of multiple itinerants, or vivid language in sermons that led to the Awakening, these were all just instruments of God to bring a great revival that spanned from Britain to across the Atlantic in the colonies. After fully investigating the movement of God throughout history and comparing them to what was happening in the awakening, Edwards writes, “Therefore, if what has been said before be sufficient to determine it to be, as the main, the work of God, then it must be acknowledged to be a very wonderful and glorious work of God.” Jonathan Edwards, The theologian of revival as Martyn Lloyd Jones referred to him as, had come to a clear conclusion. Revival was no evangelistic campaign, it was an outpouring of the Spirit of God. It was revival in the hands of a sovereign God.

Edwards, Jonathan. A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. Accessed on October 18, 2018. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/affections.i.html.

Edwards, Jonathan. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1. Accessed on October 19, 2018. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works1.ix.ii.iv.html.

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