A pastor of a small town church has noticed that non-Christians suddenly feel an urge to attend his church. At the same time the worship services are greatly enlivened, with more sincere praise and singing. Sometimes, the preacher would have to stop the sermon because of loud weeping and sobs. Visions and trances became commonplace. All of a suddenly, people get convicted of sin and of God’s love and mercy. Even many of those who are in town on business could feel the presence of something so attractive that they found it hard to resist. Many backslidden came back, people got converted on a daily basis and those who did went immediately to proclaim the good news to others.
Yet others became suspicious of the whole affair. A pastor of one of the most influential church in the region contended that religion was primarily a matter of the mind, not emotions, and was characterized by self-control and moral behavior.
Sounds familiar? When I first read this, it reminded me of a Toronto revival, which was labeled as a demonic deception by many in the conservative Christian world. Yet, the story is about the first Great Awakening revival (1740-1742), the small town pastor is Jonathan Edwards, one of most famous puritan theologians of all times, and the critic is Charles Chauncy.
Yet, as always happens, revival has ended and Spirit withdrew its power. Surprisingly, many people who were just so excited about their new found faith started to fall away. So, maybe Chauncy was right and emotions cannot be trusted? Yet there were others who kept their faith. What would you do if you were Edwards? Staunchly defend you revival as authentic or admit your mistake?
Edwards did neither. Instead, he wrote a book, “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections”, in which he addressed two important issues that arose in relation to his experience. First, what is the nature of true religion? Is it only about the mind or our emotions also play a role? Second, by what criteria can one distinguish a true and false Christian, a person who has been an object of Spirit’s regenerative work from another subjected to Spirit’s non-saving activity?
These questions are something that have been on my mind for a long time. In the next series of posts I want to slowly walk through the Edwards’ book and help us apply its lessons to our lives.