Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Plea To Delight In Scripture

Over the next few months we will be looking together at a series on the overview of the Scriptures supremacy in the life of the Christian. And I want to begin our series with a plea: treasure and delight in God’s word! Before we even get to any understanding of the overview of the Christian Scriptures, I want to plead with you to delight in them. I want to begin by first aiming primarily at your heart and then later at your mind, building a greater foundation for our understanding of Scripture. For when something occupies our heart it inevitably occupies our mind; the same cannot be said in reverse.

But first we must give reason for why “treasuring” and “delighting” is the desired response from God for our reading of Scripture. The Psalmists lead us to see God’s word in its proper context, as a word from the Lord to be both treasured and delighted in:

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul…more to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. (Psalm 19:7a,10)

In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word. (Psalm 119:14-16)

The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces. (Psalm 119:72)

The image of the Bible the Psalmists paint is a grand mural of human affections. The words chosen to display the proper understanding of how we view God’s word are not weak; they do not use words here that connote a lukewarm affection. Instead the words chosen convey the utmost affection. God’s word is to be more desired than any wealth, or any sweetness to the tongue. It is to be not obligingly read but delighted in, to come bounding toward with a sense of joy over the privilege to read the very words of God to us. Jonathan Edwards, the great New England preacher, exhorts us to be like-minded with the Psalmists:

But that treasure of divine knowledge, which is contained in the Scriptures, and is provided for everyone to gather himself as much of it as he can, is a far more rich treasure than any one of gold and pearls.”[1]

Edwards and the Psalmists knew the reason we are to hold Scripture in such high regard for our lives is because the word of God is the only thing that can transform our lives from what they are to what they were created to be! We have a created purpose to live in relationship with God almighty. To delight and treasure Scripture then is to simply delight and treasure God Himself. To delight and treasure Scripture is to prefer God and His word over anything else the world paints as desirable for the purpose of your life; it is to reclaim from the outset that God has created you with a greater purpose than that which the world purports your purpose to be.

Chances are we don’t wax eloquently about our love for the Scriptures. We probably don’t refer to our Bible as our delight and treasure in conversation. Maybe we should. What if Scripture was truly a delight to take up and read instead of something we come to as an obligation, as something we are supposed to read as Christians (Pharisaic legalism)? What if instead we took up God’s word out of delight, how would our reading of God’s word change our relationship with God? Here’s what would happen: If we delighted in God’s word we would therefore delight in God Himself because the words contained within are God-breathed, they are the words of the Lord Himself. Take a love-letter for example. When the recipient reads the letter they are delighting in the words on the page, but the delight is not in the words only, the delight that transpires is directed towards the author of the letter, showing their affection for the recipient. So too a delight for Scripture dashes a lukewarm love of God and inspires a person to treasure Him.

You were created to treasure God with your life. As I have been aiming at the affections of your heart, to delight in God’s word and therefore to delight in God, Jesus also has much to say about your heart. In Matthew 6:21 He says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” What we treasure aligns the center of our being, our aim in life. I want you to treasure the Lord and so does Jesus! He states His greatest desire for your life in Matthew 22:37, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” In order to “love the Lord your God with all your heart” he must be your treasure because what you treasure aligns your whole heart. Heart and treasure and inextricably linked and the aim of delighting in Scripture is that it would lead you to treasure God.

As we look forward to how the rest of this series might awaken an affection for God’s word and God Himself within you, I leave you with the story of Augustine of Hippo’s conversion in AD 386. Augustine had struggled with the search of truth for years. It brought him eventually one day in a garden in Milan, Italy to break down into tears where he was in the midst of wrestling with the truths of the Christian Scripture. While on a bench in the garden God brought him to see the capital T truth of the Gospel:

“I wept, my heart crushed with very bitterness. And behold, suddenly I heard a voice from the house next door; the sound, as it might be, of a boy or a girl, repeating in a sing song voice a refrain unknown to me: ‘Pick it up and read it, pick it up and read it.’ Immediately my countenance was changed…taking this to be nothing other than a God-sent command that I should open the Bible and read the first chapter I found…I seized it, opened it, and read in silence the first heading I cast my eyes upon: Not in riotousness and drunkenness, not in lewdness and wantonness, not in strife and rivalry; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh and its lusts (Rom. 13:13-14). I neither wished nor needed to read more. No sooner had I finished the sentence than it was as if the light of steadfast trust poured into my heart, and all the shadows of hesitation fled away.”[2]

It was a delight to pick up the Bible, not a begrudging duty, that led Augustine to become a giant in Christian history with respect to delighting in God. Augustine fell in love with the Lord and with His Scripture. Through the Scripture, God became Augustine’s highest delight.

Do you love God? Do you want to know Him? Do you want to earnestly say He is your treasure? Then heed the call of the Psalmists crying out to you to delight in God’s word, heed the call of the neighboring children in Milan to “pick it up and read it.” I pray that God would awaken a delight in your hearts for His revealed word. I pray that he would incline you to wear out the pages of your Bible. Wipe off the film of dust possibly covering your Bible and embark on a journey of delight, a delight in God’s word and therefore a delight in God.

*     *     *

JT Holderman is Assistant Pastor of Bellevue Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Gap, PA.

[1] Jonathan Edwards, The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1999), 36.

[2] Augustine, Confessions (New York: Knopf, 2001), 182-183.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Prayer for Those Who Pray: In Time of Trial

By Dr. Wilfred A. Bellamy

My heavenly Father, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, help me to approach you with deepest reverence. I am in awe of you, guard me that I may not presume upon you, or question you, or instruct you, but rather may I come humbly and yet with holy boldness.

You are fully beyond the grasp of my understanding. Your thoughts and your ways are beyond my finding out. Help me not to guess your intentions but to bow in obedience to the lot that you have cast for me. In all of this I love you supremely, I extend my love to you, and gladly and gratefully receive your perfect love. I acknowledge that it is in love that you are silently planning for me. This is personal, awesome, I cannot comprehend such grace.

When I consider the love of the Lord Jesus Christ manifest at Calvary, your love expressed in Him and through Him, my heart melts. He is mine and I am His, given to me as well as for me – what a great concept that is! I am never so much mine as when I am His or so much lost to myself until I am lost in Him; then I find my true manhood.

But I must confess that my love is sometimes frosty, sullied by the complexity of the moment. It is not always the love of warmth and softness toward you, and often I do not understand you. May your love be more revealed in all its fullness in me. May it be more fervent and glowing. May it be seen by those who see me and may they know that it is the reflected light of the Lord of glory.

So make my life fruitful that by living in your love my character may be transformed from day to day. May I become the perfect copy of my Master and my Lord. Help me to overcome the burdens, my challenges to faith, my pain, my bereavement, that I may see beyond them to “Jesus, Lover of my soul,” and bear witness to the one who owns me, the one to whom I am surrendered, who has laid claim to my life and will sustain me to the end of life as I know it – and then usher me into His immediate presence in great glory and majesty.
“O Lord Jesus, let me sense your Presence,O Divine Spirit, rest upon me,O Holy Father, look on me in mercyFor the sake of your well-beloved Son.”


-Rev. Dr. Wilfred A. Bellamy PH.D. is an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP). 

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Joys and Possibilities of Open Space: A Review of the ESV Wide Margin Reference Bible by Crossway

ESV Wide Margin Reference Bible
When I opened the box containing the new ESV Wide Margin Reference Bible, I was awestruck by all that clean, wide-open space. Broad one-inch margins surround the text of Scripture in all directions like a snowy meadow. That vast landscape surrounding my favorite Bible translation prompted three nearly simultaneous thoughts:

What possibilities! 

What an opportunity! 

What in the world am I going to write in those margins? 

Before I provide a technical analysis below of the beautiful setting of the ESV Wide Margin Reference Bible (hereafter: WMRB), let me dream for a few moments about what can be done with an edition of the Scriptures that is set up for copious note taking.
ESV Wide Margin Reference Bible: Brown Trutone Cover

Obviously, the wide margin design is purposefully geared towards those who want to actively record thoughts, observations, and otherwise interact with the text before them. Some of my first ideas were obvious. I could use it for sermon outlines! But then again, I'm more of a full manuscript preacher. Certainly one could use a Bible like the WMRB to take notes during church. But since I'm a pastor, I don't sit in the pews but a few times a year.

So I dreamed bigger. Here are a few of my best thoughts and brainstorms so far...

1. Personalized, One-of-a-Kind, Study Bible. Since I am in a doctoral program at Reformed Theological Seminary, I could use a Bible like the WMRB as my everyday Bible for the course of study in which I am engaged. As a doctoral student, I have the privilege of studying under some of the best scholars in the world. Since I am still early on in the degree and my dissertation reading is still dawning, why not use this Bible as the indelible chalkboard on which my mind is shaped for the next three to four years? I think anyone entering a formal course of Biblical or theological study should consider having a Bible expressly devoted to his accumulated knowledge. I wish I had done that much earlier in my formal studies.
Wide Margin Reference next to ESV Personal Reference Bible

2. Mission Trip Bible-Journal. When this idea struck me, I sorely regretted that I didn't have a Bible like the WMRB back in 1999 when I spent six months in the jungles of Equatorial Guinea in Africa. I could have used it as a veritable prayer journal to amplify my devotions, record names, and intercessions for those people groups I came to love. It could have become a verbal image gallery of my memories of living and serving in the third world.

3. Family Heirloom. As a father of three, I am in the stage of my life where I am thinking about legacy. How do I pass on my accumulated knowledge, my moral compass, and my doctrinal convictions to my children? I could use a Bible like this to record my learning experiences right next to the texts of Scripture that God impresses on my heart. Prayers for each of my children written in the margins could become like a living commentary of their Christian heritage. Again, if I had started earlier, what a treasure I could have written into those margins! New moms and dads should consider this early on.

4. I could take this Bible to Israel next year for our trip to the Holy Land. Imagine having an edition of the text like this just to record thoughts and ponderings about the land in which Jesus lived, taught, died, and ultimately rose. As I travel from city to city next March--from the Galilean hills to Jerusalem itself and finally to Mount Calvary--I could take as many notes about the hills, seas, rivers, landscape, horizons, and sunsets as my little hand could scrawl. If I could draw (I can't!) there's room for sketch making. What a valuable treasure it would be for the rest of my life to look back on my firsthand descriptions of a journey to the topography in which the drama of redemptive history unfolded.

What do you think? How would you use a wide margin edition? Add your ideas in the comment section below!


Technical Review
ESV Wide Margin Reference Bible: Brown Trutone

As with the last Bible I reviewed from Crossway, the WMRB is truly a magnificent production. The paper used is quite nice, but unfortunately, not as stunning as the ESV Single Column Legacy. I've never seen anything like that before or since. Nevertheless, it does not feel cheap like gift paper. It's crisp. It has some substance to it.

The line matching technology now used regularly by Crossway, and present in the WMRB, makes that annoying "ghosting" effect minimal. By placing the text on both sides of the page exactly in line (as much as possible) the effect is very noticeable: a cleaner, whiter appearance. Very little show-through. If you've never owned a Bible with line matching before, you probably don't know what you are missing. If you have, you'll never go back to mismatched line printing again!

The binding is Smyth-sewn in the WMRB, meaning that this edition will not fall apart in clumps, since it is not held together by glue. It signatures are sewn together with thread making this Bible durable under modest to high stress such as packing and unpacking regularly. This will ensure that a Bible like the WMRB has longevity--especially if it is going to be toted around the world or passed on as I suggested above. I was particularly impressed with the limpness and flexibility of the binding right out of the box. Open flat to Genesis 1:1 out of the box? Check! It won't take long to break this puppy in. It already came ready to use.
ESV Wide Margin Reference: limp and limber out of the box. 

The two column format is pretty standard, but with one variation--the reference notes are placed on the bottom of the right column instead of the inner or outer margin. I will have to get used to that. I do like two column setups. For some reason, I can remember where passages are in the Bible better than in single column editions. I think that is because the brain has more "locations" in which to store the text I am trying to recall. Interestingly, science is now confirming that we do learn better with 3-D spatial materials such as books rather than 2-D screens.

The cover I received is the brown Trutone. Honestly, it's gorgeous. Some folks are high quality leather only people. I understand the goatskin obsession. I have some of those. But I must say this is one of the best Trutones I've seen. It looks rich, dark, and feels sturdy. It has some moxy to it, in a good way. I doubt this cover is going to flake or fall apart anytime soon. At 9.25 X 6.5 this is a large Bible.

I love the fact that Crossway resisted the urge to stamp some kind of logo or design on the cover as they do so many other editions. I think it looks manly this way. Like it has some bravado. The stitching around the edges is enough to make the financially responsible Trutone "imitation leather" stand up without shame next to a high quality Bible cover.

Now that I mention quality leather, this actually might be an edition that you would want to pop for the high quality lid.

--Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church. He is an avid reader of the Puritans, a big fan of Jonathan Edwards, and the author of Hold Fast the Faith: A Devotional Commentary on the Westminster Confession of 1647. 

Book Reviews: Jonathan Edwards, "Sermons on the Matthean Parables" Volumes I, II, & III (Wipf and Stock Publishers)

I am here reviewing all three volumes of sermons in this new series on the Matthean Parables by Jonathan Edwards, published by Wipf and Stock, and edited by Kenneth P. Minkema, Adriaan C. Neele, and Bryan McCarthy.

I say "new" because these sermons have been essentially hidden from modern audiences since they were originally preached in the early to mid 1700's. Thankfully, as of 2012, they have finally been transposed to printed form from their original manuscripts in Edwards' own puzzling handwriting. 

For decades and even centuries, these manuscripts have been stored away, deep in the vault of history, now currently resting in the caring hands of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University.

Today, these powerful sermons can again lift Edwards' voice and be heard anew, in some cases more than 270 years after they originally thundered from the Northampton Church pulpit. Since then, almost no human eyes have viewed them since the Colonial Congregationalist penned them himself. For this reason, these three paperback volumes are a true treasure chest, replete with jewels and gems for advancing Jonathan Edwards studies. 

The whole series, I think, will significantly move forward our understanding of Edward's theology of regeneration and conversion, not to mention his theology of, and first-hand participation in Great Awakening-era revivalism. 

Each of the three volumes is a compendium of multiple sermons on one particular parable. Often, Edwards' sermons were preached over various occasions (called "preaching units") and took on a life of their own, far beyond the typical hour-long sermonic format, so commonly known among the Puritans. Such is the case with these sermons: they are really each a greatly extended but cohesive literary whole, preached upon a particular pericope of Scripture. 

Each sermon series (in one case, 19 preaching units!) treats of multiple theological doctrines, and contains various of Edwards "uses," or applications. Of course, they were originally preached over the time-frame of multiple weeks and even months, often containing both morning and afternoon/evening oratories. 

Volume One focuses on the "Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins" (Matthew 25:1-13). Here, Edwards intends to show the similarities and distinctions between those who virgins who have oil in their lamps and those who do not. In this way, Edwards draws some distinctions between the Church Visible, and the Church Invisible. His primary thrust is to show that there are many professing believers who would appear to be genuinely converted, and yet do not have the new principle of inner life, given only by the sovereign hand of God. 

Volume Two treats of the "Parable of the Soils" (Matthew 13:1-23). Predictably Edwards discourses at some length the four general responses that hearers have to the Gospel as originally given and explained by Jesus. Interestingly, this sermon series was preached immediately after George Whitefield had come through Northhampton. The sermon series itself more than hints at Whitefield's revivalistic power and affect, and the people of Edwards' congregation's reaction to the same. This volume contains an additional text by Whitefield, a brief treatise on how to "hear" a sermon. 

Volume Three is in regard to the "Parable of the Net" (Matthew 13:47-50). Here Edwards powerfully describes the doctrines of grace as it relates to as-yet unregenerate men being forcibly pulled from their natural element (like fish from the sea) and prompted to die to self and live the new life of conversion in Christ. This third volume, although much more in outline form than the others, has the added distinction of being preached at the same time that Edwards was preparing The Religious Affection for publication. For this reason, the reader gets a unique look into what Edwards was stewing on during this great book's final preparations. 

What ties these three volumes together and makes them interesting historical and exegetical material is their relationship to the events of the Great Awakening. Each volume was preached at a unique time in early colonial revivalism history. Additionally, the series taken together gives the modern reader a view of Jonathan Edwards' theology of the Kingdom, since Minkema and Neele have wisely chosen a set of sermons  for publication that are moored to theological motifs held in common by each parable. 

Readers will find these sermons to be a very helpful companion as they read other works of Jonathan Edwards such as The Religious Affections which deal with very similar topics and themes, if only in a more didactic form. For many, the sermons will actually be easier to read than his treatises. 

One weakness should be mentioned. I am not sure why the editors chose to include the very same opening article on "Edwards the Preacher" by Wilson H. Kimnach in all three volumes, but alas, they did. Perhaps they thought that some readers would not buy the whole set and would need the same article printed separately in each volume. For my own part, I would have preferred that they included different prefatory materials in each book. Together they could have done more to prepare and educate the reader as to the historical context of the sermon series. 

Moreover, this set of three books will be an incomparable treasure to all Edwards scholars, as it was to me. The very idea that I am reading today what was hidden for centuries was enchanting. Scholars, pastors, and students of revivalism alike will all greatly benefit from these faithful, historic proclamations of Gospel truth!

--Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Book Review: John Bunyan: "Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners"

John Bunyan. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Electronic edition, transcribed by David Price (The Religious Tract Society, 1905 Edition). 

Grace Abounding is the spiritual autobiography of John Bunyan, the author of the perpetually best selling The Pilgrim’s Progress. In this work, Bunyan gives the reader his torturous experience of blasphemy, conversion, sanctification, and his long quest for personal assurance of salvation. In this work, Bunyan admits to experiencing the most arduous spiritual exertions that a believer might encounter. Time and again, Bunyan experiences a familiar cycle of guilt, grace, gratitude, and glory—only to fall back into despair once again.
Reading this work as the companion to Pilgrim’s Progress will show discerning readers exactly where Bunyan derived his colorful ideas for his great allegory; they are drawn from the costly experiences of following Christ in his own life. Both books finally end in grace—Christian enters the Celestial Gates, and Bunyan is given full assurance in Christ before his death. Ultimately, albeit through much suffering and persecution from both men and devils, Bunyan does find peace and serenity at the cross, trusting Christ alone for his righteousness, although is spiritual turmoil is extreme.

The final chapters are really appendices to the main body, recounting Bunyan’s criminal trials and prison experiences, as well as that of his wife. These too, are the fountain of much pure devotional water to the thirsty modern pilgrim.

The beauty of this work is the Bunyan describes so poignantly what we all experience in our lives: doubt, despair, fears, and failures. Surely this work would give greater confidence to any “sinking and drowning” modern believer. He or she will find in John Bunyan a true companion for the many of us who suffer bouts of doubt, especially as it regards our own salvation.

This work is certainly a well-needed corrective to our modern understanding of salvation. Many today feel that their Christianity is assured by their having walked an aisle, said a sinner’s prayer, or even having been raised in a Christian home. Bunyan’s grappling match with his own salvation will provide for us an example of a man who refused to put his trust in anything but the crucified and risen Christ.

As this is recognized as a literary masterpiece, there is very little to critique here. Perhaps some readers will become frustrated with Bunyan as he seems to wrestle repeatedly with sins and doubts that he has already defeated before through the grace given by the Holy Spirit. But is this really any different from our own experiences? More likely, readers will find that Bunyan is a true companion in the path of discipleship, and a kindred spirit with our own inner confliction with sin and guilt in our own time.

Best Quote: “I never saw those heights and depths in grace, and love, and mercy, as I saw after this temptation; great sins to draw out great grace; and where guilt is most terrible and fierce, there the mercy of God in Christ, when showed to the soul appears most high and mighty.” (Location 1219).

--Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. 

A Transformed Session

By Dr. Wilfred A. Bellamy

In recent months I have been drawn to study the role of Ruling Elder in the Church. There are two reasons for this. The first is that in teaching Ecclesiology one must turn to the Session and church governance in general. The second is that in preparing to teach Deuteronomy one cannot escape the role of Moses the leader and his need for assistance in the task.

But to the root of the matter. In the opening of 1 Timothy 3 the Apostle Paul goes immediately to the heart that is set – the epithumeo – the burning desire to be an overseer – episkopos – one who is committed to look out for others. Before he leads us to any other qualifications he shows us the principle, the Ruling Elder is primarily not for himself but for others.

It therefore occurs to me that even as Moses said to the Lord’s people: “You are too heavy a burden for me to carry alone,” (Deuteronomy 1:9) so the model for leadership and discipleship is established for the Church, and is implicit in Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 3:1. Here the injunction of Matthew 28:19 to “make disciples” takes on a broader and more compelling perspective.

However, what has taken place in the Church over the years, and most especially in recent times, is that the Session, the Ruling and Teaching Elders together, has changed its role. The Session in many if not most of our Reformed and Presbyterian Churches has become either the Board of Directors, the organizational and strategic or financial planning committee of the church, or, worse yet, the supporters of the Pastor in doing whatever he deems right for the congregation.

Leadership in the sense of spiritual leadership, being shepherds and disciplers of others, seems to be less and less the goal or intent of the Session. The fervor and vibrancy of the people of God appear to be a diminished purpose of the Session while more mundane matters have assumed the ascendency.

When Moses determined that he could not manage alone he struck a nerve. Many a Pastor must agree that his aloneness in his task leads to a degree of busyness that denies effectiveness. Common sense says that there is no way that he can disciple a congregation alone, however skilled he may be or however hard he tries. So the net effect of such a Pastor is that he will gradually find himself discouraged while his congregation agrees that he is being ineffectual.

So where does the solution lie? If we return to 1 Timothy we can conclude that the breakdown begins when the Ruling Elder assumes his role without first understanding that he is to “look out for others.” The Scripture explicitly says so. He must also be “apt to teach” – not necessarily to stand before a class and teach a portion of Scripture, even though that would be advantageous, but to teach by discipling, by caring, by modeling, by witnessing the grace of God in Christ before individuals. Perhaps this might be in a one-on-one relationship in mentoring another believer toward maturity, or in gathering a small group and providing guidance and instruction regarding their walk of faith. There may be times when a Ruling Elder will take a person aside for advice, or a young person who needs correction.

There are many in congregations who privately have doubts concerning their relationship with Christ. Others may have serious questions regarding points of doctrine that puzzle them, while others may be thinking about seeking another fellowship where certain aspects of teaching or practice may not apply. There are a host of reasons why the people of a congregation need someone to whom they can turn for help, someone whom they know and can trust, and someone who will neither ridicule nor avoid answering their questions. Someone who is already among them.

Here is where the Session becomes the “lookers out for others.” Here is true discipleship. This is not the meeting to discuss the business of the church, but a manifestation of true spiritual leadership, being engaged with the members of the congregation, demonstrating care and concern, and training in righteousness.

So the question before us is: “Can a Session that has shifted away from its primary purposes be recovered to become a discipling group of spiritual leaders in the church?” That’s a tall order. First the Pastor must embrace the idea and, as Moderator of the Session, initiate change. Next, the congregation must be made aware of a change in perspective that they can endorse. Then when nominations take place these matters may be considered. Further, a purposeful intentional beginning must take place as Ruling Elders demonstrate their newer role by becoming concerned and interested men in the lives of the membership.

Now we know. The Pastor cannot be held accountable for all the spiritual ministry of the church. It is foolish to imagine that this is possible. Moses couldn’t do it and Paul certainly established a pattern, before God, that no one else would have to try and do it. The church needs its Elders, but it does not need them to be only the determining committee of the church, it needs them to “look out for them.”

-Dr. Wilfred A. Bellamy, is an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and a former missionary to Nigeria. 


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Book Review: "The Religious Affections" by Jonathan Edwards

Overview: The Religious Affections is for very good reason considered one of the most important works of Jonathan Edwards in particular and one of the most excellent and helpful treatises on Christian spirituality in general. Caught in both the glory and the drama of the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards was tasked with the responsibility to defend God’s mighty outpouring of grace from both its detractors and its extremists.

In this great work, Edwards sets out to accomplish three major goals (1) he shows from Scripture that the religious affections (“the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul”) are indeed true manifestations of real Christian spirituality and of the holy life (2) he warns of a number of “experiences” that cannot either verify or falsify the reality of one’s professed conversion and (3) he enumerates several factors that are indicative of true conversion and regeneration. Chief among these last factors (as the quote below demonstrates) is the fruit of holy living—or Christian practice—carried out in the believer’s life.

Application: This great work has a number of applications and uses. First and foremost it helps to delineate what true conversion looks like. In Edwards’ day it was hard to prove that one was truly “converted.” Often the Puritans looked for a series of finely ordered “steps” in one’s testimony of professed faith. The burden of proof lay heavy. The difficulty was exacerbated by the throngs of professed conversions in the wake of the Great Revival of the 1740's.  In our day, it is much easier—we must simply give an “altar call” story, or a similar anecdote of “accepting Jesus into our heart.” Edwards speaks to both extremes by evaluating the conversion experience with a truly Biblical grid of analysis.

Edwards shows that true conversion does indeed transform both the inward man, in his “affections” (love, joy, fear of the Lord, etc.) as well as the outward man in living out the will of God in his daily experience. Pastors who are prayerfully evaluating their flock, as well as those unsure of their own salvation, will find this work deeply helpful in this regard.

Critique: While this particular reviewer is mostly sympathetic to Edwards’ position about conversion, many of my charismatic and Pentecostal friends will likely find some fault with Edwards’ teaching on the inner-life of spiritual experience. Throughout, Edwards is particularly hard on those who claim to have received such things as visions of Christ or strong “impressions” of particular Scripture passages upon the heart as being too easy to manipulate and falsify. 

While he is surely right in showing that these things cannot prove that one is a Christian, some readers (but not all) will feel he has gone too far in assessing the supernatural revelations of the Holy Spirit to the human mind in a negative fashion. Personally, I found Edwards insights on these matters to be desperately needed in a world of hyper-subjective excesses ("The Lord told me..." etc.) and non-falsifiable claims of religious experience, often bordering on the narcissistic and the bizarre.  

Overall: Moreover, I found this book to be one of the greatest works of Edwards, and one of the best introductions to his thinking and theology. Much of this book (especially his non-polemical sections) can be read as devotional material. His emphasis on Christianity's burning-heart piety (love, joy, fear of God etc.) reads like the work of a man passionate about Jesus and His intrinsic glory. It is with great reason that the Religious Affections has taken its place among the all-time spiritual classics. 

Best Quote: “From what has been said, it is manifest that Christian practice, or a holy life, is a great and distinguishing sign of true and saving grace. But I may go further and assert that it is the chief of all the signs of grace, both as an evidence of the sincerity of professors unto others, and also to their own consciences” (p. 326-32).

--Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida