Recently I read the life story of Jonathan Edwards. He was a pastor in New England who was instrumental in the First Great Awakening that saw revival come to the thirteen original colonies of Colonial America in the 1700s. Today Edwards is considered to be one of America’s premier pastors and his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is probably the most famous sermon ever preached in America. Today Edwards has enormous influence through his spiritual and doctrinal writings.
But that was not always the case. In his own state of Massachusetts he was widely discredited and ignored after his death. The only portrait we have of Edwards was painted through a Scottish benefactor who believed Edwards would one day be recognized by posterity as a great Christian leader. His own American countryman had no such concern to preserve his likeness for later generations. How did this come about?
In New England it was believed that Holy Communion was a converting ordinance, that is, that nonbelievers could become believers by participating in communion. The problem was that to partake of communion one had to be a member of the church. This led to the widespread practice of admitting people to membership who were nominal Christians who gave mental assent only to the teachings of Christianity but were not born again and gave no personal testimony of a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Edwards himself went along with this practice for years admitting unsaved people to church membership. He finally saw two errors which are widely taken for granted today.
One, if nonbelievers become church members they can be lulled into a state of complacency thinking that all is well with their souls when it is not. This can lead to false assurance causing them to think they are right with God when they are not. Two, if a church becomes filled with unconverted members they can become tools of the Devil. When issues arise that require spiritual thinking, the unconverted member has no capacity for that and can be used of Satan to bring compromise and division into the church. This actually happened in New England as many of those churches became Unitarians denying the Trinity and deity of the Lord Jesus.
Today the dangers of unconverted church members are clearly understood and Bible believing churches require a personal testimony of saving grace before admitting members. But in the 1700s when Edwards finally opposed the practice and spoke out against it he was forced to resign from his church after twenty three years as one of the most faithful pastors in America. Rather than continue a practice he knew was contrary to Scripture and harming souls, he resigned with no place to go. His own relatives were the leaders in the opposition to him causing long term rifts among his extended family. He was without income for six months with a large family to support. When Edwards finally found a new church it was a difficult ministry in frontier conditions with dangers from hostile Indians.
Once again we learn that a courageous Christian standing on the truth of Scripture often turns out to be right and a safeguard to future generations. Thank God for Edwards’s legacy for us today.
Your friend, learning from history, Pastor Brian (:-}).