Sunday Notes: Resolutions - Lessons Learned from Jonathan Edwards and the Puritans
It is the New Year, and the topic on many minds is that of resolutions. Weigh-loss, exercise, and quiting cold-turkey.
Perhaps you've already broken yours.
Why can't we seem to keep resolutions? How do we choose good resolutions? What is even the point of resolutions?
This post won't answer all of those questions. But let's choose a starting point for the discussion.
I was asked two Sundays ago to give a biography on Jonathan Edwards. Among many other things, he is famous for writing some very stirring resolutions, and overall, his life certainly matched his resolve. I'm not expert on the life of Edwards, nor am I accustomed to teaching biographical surveys, so it was an interesting challenge.
Nonetheless, I find Edwards to be a very interesting brother from generations past: inspirational in spots, convicting in others, and yes, questionable in still others.
John Edwards? Isn't he that nasty Puritan? Here are my notes from Sunday.
y real interest in Edwards began when I took a class at the Master’s College on the nature of true revival. It was basically an exposition on one of Edwards’ greatest works, Religious Affections. The same genuineness of faith Edwards spoke of in that book (and others) is necessary for keeping the lofty resolutions he strove toward.
So, why Jonathan Edwards? Most of us probably have an image of a stiff, dour fellow who liked to preach a great deal of fire and brimstone, systematically condemning his congregation along with the rest of the world. His sermons kept small children awake in the dark of night, terrifying them of the God of wrath and vengeance awaiting them. The drawings we have of Edwards don’t help: a man with cutting eyes and pursed lips standing ready to find all forms of joy and snuff them out. And why not? Depending upon the historian you read, Edwards could be classified as the last of the Puritans, of that lot believed (thanks to folks like Hawthorne and his Scarlet Letter) to have continued in the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
The concept of Edwards as such a condemnatory chap isn’t helped by the fact that each of us endured his fearful sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” at some point in high school as an example of eighteenth-century religious literature. I have here a book published by Soli Deo Gloria called Unless You Repent: Fifteen Previously Unpublished Sermons on the Fate Awaiting the Impenitent. Such preaching was, in reality, only a fraction of his preaching, but we highlight such damnation homilies and believe that it was the core of Edwards’ ministry; it was not.
The stereotype of Edwards (and the rest of the Puritans, for the most part) is far flung from the historical facts. True, they did some things that we would not be proud of today. But let us first find the baby in the bathwater by considering the ways in which the Holy Spirit moved in these people living in different times. In this way, I hope that this short biographical sketch would help you to consider ways in which you can make God-glorifying resolutions for the new year and keep them.
First, who were the Puritans?
- The best understanding of the Puritans is that they were part of the Reformation effort in England (spilling later into America).
- The name “Puritan” was, very much like today, a derogatory term. It was coined in 1560’s.
- J.I. Packer in the Forward to “Worldly Saints” (by Leland Ryken) wrote, “it was always a satirical smear word implying peevishness, censoriousness, conceit, and a measure of hypocrisy” (ix).
- Hypocrisy? Yes, on all sides, Puritans were also charged with overindulgence. They were liken those religious people we all know who preach against every sin in other people while simultaneously enjoying such activities. The Puritans were said to be given to drink, feasting, parties, sports, and shows of wealth. What gave them the right to preach?
Misunderstandings and Disagreements
- It’s easy to build pre-conceived notions based on bad past experiences or ideological/theological disagreements. Perhaps if everyone had resolved to be teachable, then the Puritans would have been more understood.
- They had two things against them, however.
- The Puritans were nonconformists:
- They distained the Catholic influences in the Church or England
- They wanted a “pure” faith. They even removed all art and music from their worship services so as to not to distract or influence preaching and teaching. (However, they were not saying they were anti-music and art, and they took these paintings and organs into their homes.)
- They had noble goals for their church services: make them all about God. But it was different than what the other churchmen were doing. Sometimes a resolved, godly life breaks from molds and tradition. (One does not have to remove the paint and the piano from church to do that, either.)
- The Puritans were Calvinists:
- Since the early days of Christianity, England has always been a “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” kind of people.
- Part of the reason the KJV of the Bible was commissioned was to combat the Geneva Bible of the Puritans, which many saw as “too Calvinistic.”
- Protestants took to persecuting Puritans in England (including Mary Tudor and King James I), and this was one of the causes prompting many to leave England. Those who left were resolved to create a center of godly worship and evangelistic outreach. Sometimes those resolved to seek the glory of God in their lives should leave for new mission fields.
- Some stayed: they were resolved to make a change in England. Sometimes those resolved to seek the glory of God in their lives should stay and lovingly fight for their brothers and sisters.
Unfortunately, there is not time to keep our study in England. The Pilgrims we all know and love were an offshoot of the Puritans, and they arrived at Plymouth in 1620. Other Puritans arrived in 1630, and the Pilgrim colony was eventually absorbed into the Puritan colony. Six years later, Harvard was founded with the express purpose of training up Gospel preachers.
Clearing Things Up
Leland Ryken in his Worldly Saints (pp. 2–7) helps to clear many of the misconceptions of the Puritans.
- Far from being prudish, the Puritans had a high and even cheerful view toward marital sex.
- Though a serious people, they also made merry and believed such to be a natural extension of Gospel-living.
- The black attire of the Puritans was their “Sunday best.” The rest of the week was colorful and in tune with the fashions of the day.
- They enjoyed sports and recreation and saw them as blessings from God.
- They viewed hard work as a moral virtue, but were wary of the dangers of wealth.
- They enjoyed art and music, even having dances and encouraging personal pursuits.
- They had a high view of education and human reason that is driven by God.
- Puritanism was a movement for young people—it was progressive and vibrant, not old and stale.
- Puritans were lovers of natural beauty, both in the human body and in their environments.
- They were more tolerant toward opposing viewpoints than other religious groups of their day. They didn't go as far as we would like, but keep in mind that they were on the leading edge of their day. Nobody was tolerant, but the Gospel did something for these believers.
- Yes, they were often overly strict with themselves about their moral and spiritual activities.
- They were people who understood and were open to human affections. They were not stoics.
- Neither were they moralists. They were not preachers who simply tried to change behavior to create a society based on preconceived cultural norms. They knew well that a person can be moral but still be without faith.
- They were sometimes self-loathers, recognizing their own sinfulness and keeping it in perspective.
- The Puritans were a people devoted to delighting in God’s presence: a people with a God-centered life.
- They did not believe a person has a “religious life” (Sunday) and a “secular life” (Monday–Saturday). They believed all life was God’s: civilly, morally, and spiritually.
- They tried to see past what is “trivial” and view God in the commonplace experiences of life.
- They looked forward to each moment in life as being momentous—a teachable moment that could even affect eternity.
- They were expectant—times were changing and they awaited to see what God would do next.
- They were practical about their faith’s application. Cotton Mather said, “Consider it till you have resolved on something. Write down your resolutions” (214).
- They sought to get back to the basics of a changed heart and a pure and undefiled religion of the Apostles.
- Though the Christian life has many paradoxes (law and grace, head and heart, work and rest, etc.), the Puritans sought to live balanced lives, embracing the paradoxical.
- They were simple, yet they had a dignified, God-exalting simplicity, not a seperationistic one.
- They were a people whose lives were founded on God.
It is a this point I hope you are beginning to have some ideas for resolutions. But lets keep moving forward, as we haven't even spoken about Edwards yet.
Things began to change in the 18th century (1700's). Culture was moving away from both Catholic and Protestant moorings. Enlightenment thinking was alive and well.
- Church attendance began to wane.
- Churches were teaching messages that strayed further from their Reformation roots.
- This included Harvard. In fact, Yale was built in 1701 to carry on Harvard’s original mission.
- Society formerly founded on Puritan ideals now adopted the fashions of Britain, given to austere displays of wealth.
- Newspapers (like the internet) brought new ideas into New England and even openly challenged preachers.
- It was in this setting Edwards was born, October 5, 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut.
Edwards: What’s so great?
- Among other things, Edwards is known as
- “Prince of the Puritans,” also “last of the Puritans”
- “Greatest philosopher of American history”
- “Greatest evangelical theologian of American history.”
- “Greatest pastor and preacher of American history.”
- Martian Lloyd-Jones: throughout all of history, Edwards is the man most like the apostle Paul and overshadows even Luther and Calvin.
- He was the grandson of the famous Solomon Stoddard. Jonathan’s father was a Harvard grad and pastored for 60 years.
- Jonathan was one of eleven children, but he was the only boy! He had a lot of mothers.
- At an early age he showed talent in the languages, grasping Greek and Latin, as well as showing a scientific interest in the world around him.
- Went to college at 13. Though father was from Harvard, he decided to send his son to Yale in order to receive the godliest education possible. Got his BA in 1720 and finished at the top of his class. Stayed at Yale to study for his master’s degree, receiving it in 1723.
Edwards the Scientist
- He wrote an essay on flying spiders he tried to get published in the British journal
- Edwards went unpublished, unfortunately, because someone else beat him to the scientific punch.
- (There is no doubt early America would change if Edwards became a scientist by profession rather than a preacher of the Gospel.)
- Studied Newtonian physics and kept a journal with theories as to how they might tie together with God’s sovereignty.
- His spiritual batteries were often recharged by simple strolls through nature: he could see the beauty, love, joy, and happiness of God in the creation and found ample opportunity to worship.
- This was by no means an unintellectual man. Those seeking the glory of God can find His wonders while studying science. No Christian should ever view faith as a repression of reason and intellect.
- Edwards struggled with his faith at a young age, going through periods of deep conviction. He also had a desire to please his parents with his conversion, but that is not the way it works.
- Edwards struggled with the same kinds of questions we all do at some point
- Why do bad things happen in the world?
- If salvation is by grace, then why doesn’t God just save everybody—why do some go to Hell?
- • In 1721, he was considering the words of 1 Timothy 1:17, “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” He later wrote,
As I read [these] words, there came into my soul…a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense quite different from anything I ever experienced before…. I kept saying and as it were singing over those words of Scripture to myself and went to pray to God that I might enjoy Him…. From that time I began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by him. And my mind was greatly engaged to spend my time in reading and meditating on Christ, in the beauty of his person and the lovely way of salvation by free grace in Him (from Jonathan Edwards, A Personal Narrative).
—As quoted in Meet the Puritans, 196.
- A year later, Edwards becomes an interim pastor. Of this first ministerial stint in 1722, Edwards wrote, “I went to New York to preach and my longings after God and holiness were much increased. I felt a burning desire to be in everything conformed to the blessed image of Christ...how I should be more holy and live more holily…. The heaven I desired was a heaven of holiness, to be with God and to spend my eternity in holy communion with Christ” (Meet the Puritans, 197). Does this sound like a dour individual or someone who is captivated by the presence and glory of God?
- It was in the New York interim pastorate, after being a Christian for only a year, Edwards begins his resolutions. He read them every week for the rest of his life. Number 1: what will most glorify God?
- Consider this contrast: Benjamin Franklin.
- Franklin’s virtues were designed for self-fulfillment.
- Edwards wrote his resolutions to bring himself under the will of God—Resolution 43:
Resolved, never, henceforward, till I die, to act as if I were any way my own, but entirely and altogether God's
Some big dates:
- Married Sarah in 1727, who he had befriended when he was 19 and she was 13.
- 1729 assumes pastorate in Northampton at 26, the most prestigious pulpit in New England.
- At 29, he addressed the grads of Harvard, an honor conferred on very few. His message was so powerful that his message was transcribed and he became known all over the Colonies and over the ocean.
A Spiritual Wake-Up for the Colonies
- During his pastorate at Northampton, he was troubled by the spiritual indifference of the congregation. He preached on individual sins and urged repentance and faith in the Gospel. The Spirit began to move.
- 1735, George Whitefield came to town. Within 10 weeks Whitefield had visited 7 colonies and preached to thousands (this is before football stadiums). His farewell sermon in Philadelphia hosted 35,000 people—at a time when there were less than 35,000 living in Philly. Within this short span, Whitefield was heard by half of the population of the colonies, and was more recognizable than George Washington. Between 1735–36, thousands came to Christ.
- Edwards became the most strategic pastor and the leading church historian for revival. He reported that his town full of joy and affections for God.
- Edwards continued to preach. His call for repentance found its climax in messages like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which he was not able to finish for the people wailing and calling out “What shall I do to be saved?”
- Before Edwards and Whitefield, church attendance in the Colonies was abysmal, hovering in the single digits. During the Awakening, attendance increased by the thousands (with the surprising result of the Baptist and Methodist denominations rising to the prominent positions in American church history that they did). 10% of colonials came to Christ.
- In 1741, he preached “Distinguishing Marks of the Work of the Holy Spirit” because there was so much conflict from all of the new believers going back into churches and confronting those who were not saved.
- The Awakening met opposition by some of the mainline denominations who thought the whole thing to be a passing fad. Edwards spoke in defense for the revival God wrought and even wrote the Religious Affections showing the connection between the heart and the head when it comes to genuine faith. Interestingly, all of the churches that opposed the First Awakening are the same ones that abdicated the Christian faith a century later.
Wear Yourself Out
- Edwards later landed into hot water with his own church when he held to believer’s communion, teaching that only the saved should partake of the Lord's Table (the traditional view of that church had been that communion was open to all as a form of witness or evangelistic message). What’s more, he refused to baptize any baby if the parents could not present evidence that they trusted in Christ. Rumors about alleged misconducts flew. He was relieved of his position in 1750.
- They ripped his heart out. He was pastor of Northampton for a total of 22 years. He was at the helm of one of the greatest outpourings of the Spirit in history. He grew close to so many, but only a small percentage supported him.
- He was a resolved man, though. He would not let this experience keep him from serving God he loved. We too will face heartache in the church... are we resolved to persevere through it?
- Through these painful experiences, he continued in his resolution to serve the God he loved.
- In 1950 took to evangelizing the Indians, pastoring among them and continuing to write. Among other accomplishments, he wrote The Freedom of the Will during this period.
- He accepted the call to become president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton in 1758. Princeton was launched because Yale had now begun to follow Harvard downhill, and a new institution needed to pick up the mantle.
- However, only after a few months, he died at the age of 55 after receiving the new swine flu smallpox vaccine.
Hopefully this short biography will encourage dissuade you from having negative overall view of Edwards and the Puritans.
Edwards was a man who loved God’s glory and loved to serve. Though this does not answer the how of resolutions, hopefully it will whet your appetite to resolve for God's glory. Sometime in the next couple of weeks, I will post an addendum to this study: Gospel-Driven Resolutions. Stay tuned for that.
Short bibliography for more on Edwards:
- Beeke, Joel R., and Randall J. Pederson. Meet the Puritans. 2006. Reprint, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2007.
- Murray, Iain. Johnathan Edwards: A New Biography. 1987. Reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2003.
- Marsden, George M. "A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards." Read by Grover Gardner. Unabridged. Hovel Audio.
- Lawson, Steve. An Introduction to Jonathan Edwards. Message delivered to Crossroads ministry at Grace Community Church, 18 Feb, 2005.
- Lawson, Steve. Lessons from Church History: Jonathan Edwards. Message delivered at the Resolved Conference at Grace Community Churc20 July, 2007.