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10 May, 2010 / theexpositor

Stalwarts of the Faith-Jonathan Edwards

written by Dr. Victor Sheperd, Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Tyndale, and Adjunct Prof. of Theology at University of Toronto.

"It is Edwards’s sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, that so many have fastened on as the excuse for disregarding him as the conscienceless exploiter of people’s emotional vulnerabilities. Or rather it has to be the title of the sermon, since virtually none of those who disdain him as mean-spirited and heartless have even bothered to read the sermon! Neither do they know that so far from manipulating the heart-strings of his hearers with rhetorical trickery, he read the sermon word-for-word, hunched over the lectern, rarely lifting his head to look at the congregation — and all of this in a drone-dull monotone guaranteed to anaesthetize the most watchful. The result? New Englanders convulsed as the Spirit convicted them of their sinnership and their precariousness before the Holy God whose judgment cannot be deflected. (Sinners, it should be noted, is only one of 1200 manuscript sermons by Edwards housed in the library of Yale University.)

One of 12 children, the precocious youngster began learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew at age five. By 13 he was a student at Yale, a graduate at 17. After two years of school teaching he moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, as assistant pastor to his grandfather.

The spiritual tepidness of the congregation there dismayed him. Driven back to the resources acquired during his theological training, Edwards preached repeatedly on the Reformation pillar of "justification by faith": sinners are set right with God as they gratefully embrace in faith the provision God’s grace has wrought for them in the mercy of the cross. His expositions appeared hopelessly ineffective in the face of the desiccated hearts of his hearers — except that their hearts were tinder-dry and could therefore be ignited! A spiritual quickening smouldered in the congregation for several months and then flickered into flame. Neighbouring congregations came alive as the Spirit thawed the frigid and illumined the shuttered. Suddenly the quiet conversions of individuals and the gradual renewal of congregations exploded into the "Great Awakening" of 1740. No single metaphor seemed sufficient to describe it. Avalanche, landslide, tidal wave, prairie- fire: no expression, however suggestive of immensity, relentlessness and power does justice to the development.

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