Let’s just say I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Jonathan Edwards. I encountered the 18th century philosophical theologian and pastor in college rhetoric class. His famous speech, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” was placed on the dissecting table thanks to its enduring influence as a marvel of American literary history. And dissected it was–primarily by me. My youthful genius found it distastefully taking advantage of the audience with scare tactics not much different than modern Hell Houses. In academic terms, the logos was shallow, the ethos self-defeating, and the pathos maybe even immoral. The impressive critique blossomed into my senior project, complete with a flame-animated powerpoint presentation.
Edwards and I didn’t meet again for several years. I aced my senior project and jetted off to Africa to herald happy news, while the angry preacher was filed away deep in the bowels of a dark closet. With miles and years between myself and the influential voices of my college days, I read the Bible and recorded notes about what it said. I added no special insight, but simply found myself flipping through cross-references and taking in the implications. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but several of the things Edwards had said sounded rather familiar to notions throughout the scriptures. God’s wrath did indeed seem to burn toward those not found in Christ. At the same time I was working among a people group who were nominally Christian and totally convinced they were going the right way. The popular temptation toward pluralism ( the idea that there are multiple paths to God) was more convenient to me than ever before. Yet the Bible would not let me surrender to it. And that cranky old Jonathan Edwards suddenly became the young genius I thought I was.
Despite our awkward new friendship, Edwards troubled me again when I considered some of his thoughts articulated in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. There he points not to the mind or will or emotions as the seedbed of human spirituality, but the affections, a person’s deepest desires. Once again, he made little helpful sense until the Bible made it an issue my soul could not ignore. Stumbling over and over with entangling sin and blatant imperfections, I was terrorized by the idea that maybe I wasn’t even in Christ. Certainly I wouldn’t keep looking at porn or ignoring opportunities to share the gospel if I was a true Christian! Yet the Bible pointed me to proofs of grace not just in my will, but in my desires. I lay awake at night in cold sweats hearing echoes from Matthew 7:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. One that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness (21-23).
My fever finally broke while considering the classic question, “If you died today and Jesus asked you why he should let you into heaven, what would you say?” I thought of my response: Because I put my hope in you. Then it hit me–it sounded like I was hoping in my hoping rather than his grace. I threw my hands in the air partly from discovery and partly from despair, and fell asleep comforted only by the mercies of God displayed in his Son. Strangely, it was a gracious moment.
So now it makes more sense when I read Edwards’ Religious Affections and he rules out every false hope that we often blindly hold up to prove we have new hearts. Strong desires, expressive emotions, wise words, apparent love, Bible knowledge, joyful convictions, zealous works, good reputation, and self-confidence are not always “decisive evidence that our affections are truly gracious”. This is not intended to drag out the angry God again, but, as the scriptures demand, to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). The saints who go marching in will be those who have first trembled at the end of themselves and any contribution they can make to their own salvation, and who there find Jesus awaiting them as a sufficient Savior.
What does this have to do with the call to mission? If this is the delicate nature of our salvation, the narrow gate that few find (Matthew 7:14), then how backward is it that we begin the conversation with evidence of calling to mission rather than calling to grace? Just how unqualified is a missionary who is at worst completely deceived about their salvation, and at best rather satisfied with it? Without a deep sense of planned, resurrecting, outrageous, overcoming, and forever grace, the man or woman on mission may continually substitute their labor as a contribution to their salvation rather than evidence of it. True missionaries are those who cannot get over the gracious call of God. It informs their desperation. It reforms their labors.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works, Titus 2:11-14