Jonathan Edwards: The Storm Clouds Gather.

“If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (2 Corinthians 11:30)

Having served the Lord for over two decades in a local church, Jonathan Edwards may have thought that he would enjoy as lengthy a pastorate as his predecessor at Northampton; his grandfather Solomon Stoddard who served over 50 years. This was not to be. 

Instead, Edwards entered a storm of controversy in 1749. It was not a sudden cloudburst but one which had been brewing for some time. The controversy centered on a New England custom called the Halfway Covenant. The tradition permitted a baptized person to have all the privileges of church membership although they had not openly professed conversion to Christ as Savior and Lord.

Edwards strongly objected to the Halfway Covenant. Edwards passionately believed that not only was a public profession of Christianity necessary for church membership, but also that a public profession of faith in Christ should impact one’s behavior in striving to live a holy life.

Edwards’ biographer Iain Murray explains, “His whole case was that the church must not allow a separation between a profession of Christ and conduct which supports that profession, because a profession of the essence of Christianity which should be required of candidates includes such truths as repentance and gospel holiness.”

Edwards biographer George Marsden writes, “That Edwards was willing to sail the foundering ship of his pastorate into the teeth of the storm, knowing well that he and his family were likely to go down, tells us much about his character. First, he was irremediably a man of principle. Once he arrived at a conclusion, he was not ready to give in. Like many eighteenth-century people, he believed that through observation and logic one should be able to settle almost any question. His own logical powers increased his sense that he could settle an issue by argument. Even after he had faced the force of his people’s animosities, he still remained hopeful that he might convince them if only they would read his treatise.  Edwards’ reverence for Scripture enhanced his sense of the authority of whatever beliefs he derived from it. His conviction that the life or death of eternal souls was at stake made him willing to risk his own welfare.”

The conflict between Edwards and those who embraced the Halfway Covenant resulted in Edwards’ dismissal as pastor of Northampton in 1750. As Edwards’ biographer Iain Murray explains, “Even though he saw it coming, and could speak so calmly in his Farewell Sermon, Edwards was undoubtedly shocked by the strangeness and the finality of his dismissal.”  

In writing to a colleague in Scotland regarding his dismissal, Edwards stated, “I am now separated from the people between whom and me there was once the greatest union. Remarkable is the providence of God in the matter. In this event we have the striking instance of the instability and uncertainty of all things here below” Edwards displayed a trust in a holy God that His sovereign plan was perfect, even though sinful, imperfect men carried it to completion.

How could such a thing happen? Marsden states, “That he was willing to risk comfort and status for high principle does not mean he was without fault. For one thing, his brittle, unsociable personality contributed to the breakdown of the once-warm relationship with the townspeople. Try as he might to temper his natural propensities by cultivating Christian virtues of gentleness, charity, and avoiding evil-speaking, he still seemed aloof. He was not able to build up the reserve of personal goodwill that more pastoral ministers enjoyed. Edwards was keenly aware of these failings, and as the disaster developed he suggested a number of times that he might not be suited for anything but writing.”

The Lord often uses His followers by their personalities, and sometimes in spite of their personalities. May we as believers in Christ exercise godly discernment in how we serve the Lord with our whole hearts. Have a blessed day in the Lord.

Soli deo Gloria!

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