Although John Wesley was disappointed with the lack of response he received in Newgate Prison, London, there was another Christian working amongst the prisoners with great effect.
Sarah Peters, described by Wesley as caring, even-tempered and able to handle pressurised situations well, spent many hours talking with the condemned prisoners. When she died in 1748, John Wesley gave a tribute to her in his journal.
The tribute consists of the collected testimonies of some of those who were facing execution. Paying a heavy price for a range of different crimes (some of which would not receive such harsh sentences today), these men were lost and facing the reality of death. Sarah came, taught them the gospel of Jesus Christ and prayed with them.
Over the next few posts we’ll read some breathtaking statements that are her enduring legacy…
Convicted, tried and condemned and unable to have his sentence reduced, said:
‘I thank God, I do feel that He has forgiven me my sins: I do know it!’
Sarah asked him how he knew that. He replied, ‘I was in great heaviness, till the very morning you came hither first.
‘That morning I was in earnest prayer; and just as St Paul’s clock struck five, the Lord poured into my soul such peace as I had never felt; so that I was scarce able to bear it.
‘From that hour I have never been afraid to die; for I know, and am sure, as soon as my soul departs from the body, the Lord Jesus will stand ready to carry it into glory.’
For the next installment of this story read here (from John Wesley Journal, Vol 2, p.121, Baker Edition)
This is getting silly!
Having failed to secure a hearing with a Judge in Wednesbury, the crowd decide to march Wesley to a Justice of the Peace in nearby Walsal.
It’s not clear exactly what they thought they would accomplish; possibly to have Wesley censured for disturbing the peace.
(Read the first part of the story here and follow the links)
As news was being delivered to them that the second judge was already in bed and not willing to see them, it happened!
Two Mobs attack each other!
Wesley writes, ‘About fifty of them undertook to convoy me. But we had not gone a hundred yards when the mob of Walsal came, pouring in like a flood, and bore down all before them.
‘The Darleston mob made what defence they could; but they were weary, as well as out-numbered, so that in a short time, many being knocked down, the rest ran away, and left me in their hands.
‘To attempt speaking was in vain, for the noise on every side was like the roaring of the sea.
Yanked by the hair
‘So they dragged me along till we came to the town where, seeing the door of a large house open, I attempted to go in; but a man catching me by the hair, pulled me back into the middle of the mob.
‘They made no more stop till they had carried me through the main street, from one end of the town to the other.
‘I continued speaking all the time to those within hearing, feeling no pain or weariness.
‘At the west end of the town, seeing a door half open, I made towards it and would have gone in, but a gentleman in the shop would not suffer me, saying they would pull the house down to the ground.
‘However, I stood at the door and asked, “Are you willing to hear me speak?” Many cried out, “No! No! Knock his brains out! Down with him! Kill him at once!”‘ (From John Wesley Journal, Vol 1, p.437-438, Baker Edition)
We’ll pick up the final installment in the story next time…
Although the Methodists enjoyed great successes they also endured terrible persecution which lasted several years.
But God gave them power to press through into victories. Historian John Simon writes:
‘If Methodism had not come into contact with the mob it would never have reached that section of the English people which most needed salvation.’ [He’s not right here. All sections of English society needed (and still need) salvation. What he means is that the Methodists could never have reach the majority of the population, and thus influenced the culture of English life without facing violence – a sobering thought!].
‘The ‘Religious Societies’ shut up in their rooms, would never have reformed the country.
‘A superb courage, rarely equalled on the battlefield’
‘It was necessary that a race of heroic men should arise, who would dare to confront the wildest and most brutal of men, and tell them the meaning of sin, and show them the Christ of the Cross and of the judgement throne.
‘The incessant assaults of the mob on the Methodist preachers showed they had reached the masses.
‘With a superb courage, rarely equalled on the battlefield, the Methodist preachers went again and again to the places from which they had been driven by violence, until their persistence wore down the antagonism of their assailants.
Evangelistic progress in the West, and its downside
There’s little doubt that gains have been made in the Western church in terms of evangelism. While the work of evangelism has been roaring ahead in the Global South, we have been carefully seeking to engage our communities.
We are, I hope, doing so respectfully and with increasing fruit. We are creating a context in which objections can be raised and hopefully answered.
The appetite for apologetics in the church has increased. And enquirers are given time rather than exhorted to respond without much information. That’s good.
But, in the midst of our modest gains, there’s a downside. The trend towards apologetics has slowed the evangelistic process so comprehensively that some would be sceptical if a guest were to ask to become a Christian after a single sermon.
Alongside the tremendous success of multi-week evangelistic courses and seeker friendly sermon series in the Western church, we may doubt the possibility of God bringing saving power ‘right now’, as it were! We may also have become unnecessarily nervous of any ‘demonstrations of power’ in the evangelistic arena (cf. 1 Cor 2:4).
Do we still believe that someone’s heart can be ‘strangely warmed’ as they hear the gospel? Can we believe that during a single sermon ‘the Lord opens the heart to believe’? Would we, like Paul, baptise someone after such a short exposure to the Christian message? (see Acts 16:11-15)
We acknowledge that everyone goes through a process of discovery. Jesus Himself spoke about sowing and reaping. This is how the influence of the Kingdom of God expands (Matt 13:1-9, Mark 4:26-29).
But we must never forget that what’s being described is not a natural but a supernatural process.
When things were speeding up for John Wesley; when hundreds were hearing the gospel, experiencing the power of the Spirit and being converted, he was criticised for promoting it. Although he is responding primarily to concern about the power aspects of the meetings, his faith in the suddenness of genuine conversion is refreshing.
His defence, copied into his journal in May 1739, is helpful for us so that, while continuing to carefully instruct inquirers, we avoid the danger of lowering our expectation of God’s power in the gospel. (Rom 1:16)
John Wesley defends the work
Wesley writes, ‘The question between us turns chiefly, if not wholly, on matter of fact. You deny that God does now work these effects, at least that he works with them in this manner.
‘I affirm both, because I have heard these things with my own ears, and have seen them with my eyes.
‘I have seen (as far as a thing of this kind can be seen) very many persons changed in a moment from the spirit of fear, horror, despair, to the spirit of love, joy, and peace; and from sinful desire, till then reigning over them, to a pure desire of doing the will of God.
‘These are matters of fact, whereof I have been, and almost daily am, an eye or an ear witness.
‘…I know several persons in whom this great change was wrought in a dream, or during a strong representation to the eye of their mind, of Christ either on the cross, or in glory.
‘This is the fact,’ Wesley continued, ‘let any judge of it as they please. And that such a change was then wrought, appears (not from their shedding tears only, or falling into fits, or crying out: these are not the fruits, as you seem to suppose, whereby I judge, but) from the whole tenor of their life, till then, many ways wicked; from that time, holy, just and good.
‘I will show you him that was a lion till then, and is now a lamb; him that was a drunkard, and is now exemplarily sober; the whoremonger that was, who now abhors the very ‘garment spotted by the flesh’.
‘These are my living arguments for what I assert, viz. ‘That God does now, as [in the past], give remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost, even to us and to our children; yea, and that always suddenly, as far as I have known, and often in dreams or in the visions of God.’ (John Wesley Journals, Vol 1, Baker edition, p.195-6)
For more on the power of the Holy Spirit read here
Gathering Information on the health of the new believers
In John Wesley’s Journal entry for December 5th 1738 he writes,
‘About this time, being desirous to know how the work of God went on among our brethren in London, I wrote to many of them concerning the state of their souls.’ He then quotes from some of the replies he received.
The experiences described, and which he includes in his journal may well have been the perfect preparation for him to be positive about the outpouring of the Spirit that took place on January 1st 1739. This outpouring, during an all night prayer meeting, has arguably been portrayed as the beginning, the spark, of the Great Awakening in the British Isles.
[N.B. In sharing these quotes I am encouraging us to learn about the processes of church history. I am noting openness to the Holy Spirit exhibited by the early Methodist leadership – just on the eve of a mighty breakthrough that radically affected their generation. I am not endorsing Wesley’s later teaching on sinless perfection.]
Sealed with the Spirit
One of the letters Wesley quotes from includes the following remarkable statements:
‘Now St. Paul says, ‘After ye believed, ye were sealed with the Spirit of promise.’ So it was with me.
After I had believed on Him that ‘justifieth the ungodly,’ I received that seal of the Spirit, which is the ‘earnest of our inheritance.’…
‘then I began to feel the ‘Spirit of God bearing witness with my spirit, that I was born of God.’
‘Because I was a child of God, He ‘sent forth the Spirit of his Son into me, crying, Abba, Father.’ For that is the cry of every new born soul.
The love of God undeniably experienced
‘O mighty, powerful, happy change!…
‘The love of God was shed abroad in my heart, and a flame kindled there, so that my body was almost torn asunder.
‘I loved. The Spirit cried strong in my heart.
‘I trembled: I sung: I joined my voice with those ‘that excel in strength’
Hungering after God!
‘My soul was got up into the holy mount. I had no thoughts of coming down again into the body. I who not long before had called to ‘the rocks to fall on me, and the mountains to cover me,’ could now call for nothing else but, ‘Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly.’
‘Then I could cry out with great boldness, There, O God, is my Surety! There, O death, is thy plague! There, O grave, is thy destruction! There, O serpent, is the Seed that shall for ever bruise thy head!
The Lover and the Beloved
‘O, I thought my head was a fountain of water. I was dissolved in love. ‘My Beloved is mine, and I am his.’ He has all charms.
‘He has ravished my heart. He is my comforter, my friend, my all. He is now in his garden, feeding among the lilies.
‘O, ‘I am sick of love.’ He is altogether lovely, ‘the chiefest among ten thousand.’”
(From John Wesley Journals Vol 1, p.168-169, Baker edition)
Wesley makes no comment on the letters he quotes but leaves judgement to the reader.
Next time we’ll look at the historic gathering on January 1st 1739…
The disappointing ‘missionary’ attempt by the Wesley brothers to serve God in America made them realise they themselves were in real need of salvation (see, John Wesley: the non-Christian).
Charles, the First!
Charles was the first to experience the new birth, the main topic about which Whitefield was now preaching. He heard Whitefield in London and records at the time, ‘Mr Whitefield [preaches] not with persuasive words of man’s wisdom, but with the demonstration of the Spirit and with power. The churches will not contain the multitudes that throng to hear him,’ (Charles Wesley Journals, Vol 1. P.79 Baker)
The brothers had been impressed with the faith of the Moravians on board ship during a storm, and John had received a surprise grilling by the Moravian leader, Augustus Spangenberg, in America. Following these encounters they began seeking them out once they had returned to England.
The Moravian Peter Bohler was leading a regular meeting in London’s Fetter Lane. Dallimore writes, ‘Charles and John were in almost daily contact with Bohler.’
He asked Charles ‘Do you hope to be saved? He replied, ‘I do!’
‘For what reason do you hope it?’ ‘Because I have used my best endeavours to serve God.’
Charles reports, ‘He shook his head, and said no more. I thought him very uncharitable, saying in my heart, ‘What, are not my endeavours sufficient ground of hope? Would he rob me of my endeavours? I have nothing else to trust to.’ (Arnold Dallimore, Charles Wesley, Crossway, p.58-59)
Power on Pentecost Sunday
Charles had discovered the vital doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone as he read Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians.
‘21 May was Pentecost Sunday…[and] the day of Charles Wesley’s conversion.’ Charles said he felt the Spirit of God striving with his spirit ‘till by degrees He chased away the darkness of my unbelief. I found myself convinced…I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ.’
John, in his Journal records on that day, ‘I received the surprising news that my brother had found rest to his soul.’
Indeed, Charles wrote: ‘I was in a new heaven and a new earth!’ (See Dallimore, p.61-62)
John Wesley’s ‘heart strangely warmed’
Finally, three days later, at one of the Moravian meetings in Aldersgate Street, John Wesley got his breakthrough. He had already discussed Justification by faith with Peter Bohler, but this was different.
At 34 years of age (more than ten years older than Whitefield) he was finally born again.
He wrote in his journal:
‘In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.
I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given to me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.’ (John Wesley Journal, May 24th 1738, Vol. 1. p.103)
After this Wesley followed Whitefield’s example and began preaching both justification by faith and the new birth in the churches. And one by one, the Anglican church leaders resisted him. (see here for further examples of Wesley following Whitefield’s example)
It wasn’t long before these newly converted ‘Methodists’, George Whitefield and John and Charles Wesley, began to gather others together to seek God for greater blessings.
1739 was approaching, and little did these men know what a significant year it was to be!
To read something of the amazing influence of the Wesleys click here
So George Whitefield, merely months before becoming one of England’s youngest and most popular preachers, discovers that he needs to be born again in order to get right with God. He discovers that spiritual life is imparted by God through faith.
But strangely, he then acts in the opposite direction – throwing himself into a round of even more exacting religious exercises and good works, desperately trying to appease God.
Self-denial, satanic oppression, sickness and scaring Charles Wesley!
He increases his fasts, he stops eating fruit, giving the money he would have spent to the poor, he goes outside in rain and storm to cry out to God and confess his sinfulness.
Rather than finding relief from any of these exercises he becomes even more disconsolate, fearful and insecure. Feeling himself to be horribly oppressed by the devil he finally decides to ‘forsake’ all, including his new friends and stays in his study for days on end. He becomes physically ill and his tutor sends a physician.
His gloomy, depressed demeanour, the terrible loss of weight, all of this alarms the other students.
Charles Wesley is way out of his depth, doesn’t know what to do, and so refers him to his older brother John (already in his thirties, clearly the leader by this time, but not yet converted).
John painstakingly talks George down from the extremity of legalism in which he is bound and gives him Thomas a Kempis to read. Perhaps John realises even at this point that the strictness of the lifestyle he is promoting, the intensity of examination of every moment, is not working.
Locked in the second half of Romans 7
George seemed to have been caged in experience into what Paul merely illustrates in Romans 7:7-25.
There, Paul illustrates the inability of the Law to produce freedom from sin. Life is in the Gospel not in the Law. George Whitefield, having been awakened to the rightness of God’s Commands, then went on to try and justify himself through religious duty to fulfill those Commands. But Paul clearly demonstrates that the Law cannot produce life – only Christ can.
But, as in Paul’s illustration, so in real life, and as Whitefield was about to experience – the bondage of the cycle of sin and death is broken only by the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
Finally the breakthrough
Whitefield had come to that great pre-conversion cry, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me?’ (Rom 7:24)
In his Journal he records, ‘God was pleased to set me free in the following manner. One day, perceiving an uncommon drought and a disagreeable clamminess in my mouth and using things to allay my thirst, but in vain, it was suggested to me, that when Jesus Christ cried out, ‘I thirst!’ His sufferings were near at an end. Upon which I cast myself down on the bed, crying out, ‘I thirst! I thirst!’’
From Mourning to Dancing
Although it seems a small thing – to be desperately thirsty, and to somehow see that when Christ cried out that He thirsted, it was near the end of His anguish – yet, here’s the point, when George Whitefield cried out to God, God intervened and heard him.
‘Soon after this’, writes George, ‘I found and felt in myself that I was delivered from the burden that had so heavily oppressed me. The spirit of mourning was taken from me and I knew what it was truly to rejoice in God my Saviour; and, for some time, could not avoid singing psalms wherever I was…’
‘Thus were the days of my mourning ended. After a long night of desertion and temptation, the Star, which I had seen at a distance before [referring to the doctrine of the New Birth in Scougal’s book], began to appear again, and the Day Star arose in my heart.
Now did the Spirit of God take possession of my soul, and, as I humbly hope, seal me unto the day of redemption.’ (GW Journals, Banner of Truth, p.58)
Well, he had wrestled and struggled and, at last, discovered God’s free and Sovereign grace. Being now certain of the new birth in his own experience he began to proclaim the message of it to the English speaking world.
While George Whitefield was doing menial tasks for the richer students at Oxford University, his own interests became intensely focussed.
He discovered that his experience in the ‘public house was now of service to me’, in that he was able to serve others diligently and humbly. Yet he could not throw in his lot with the other servitors, whom he felt would become a bad influence on him.
He was aiming for higher things.
Religion vs. Being Born Again
He began to read the books that Charles Wesley, his new friend, lent him. One small volume had a real impact on him, Henry Scougal’s ‘The Life of God in the Soul of Man.’ (see Piper on Scougal)
Whitefield realised that, to get right with God, he needed to be born again, not merely to increase his religious efforts.
‘At my first reading it, I wondered what the author meant by saying, ‘That some falsely placed religion in going to church, doing hurt to no one, being constant in the duties of the closet [ie. private prayer], and now and then reaching out their hands to give alms to their poor neighbours.’
‘Alas!’ though I, ‘if this be not true religion, what is?’
An inward change of heart was needed. What Scougal called, the ‘union of the soul with God, and Christ formed within us.’ Whitefield writes, ‘a ray of Divine light was instantaneously darted in upon my soul, and from that moment…did I know that I must be a new creature.’ (GW Journals, Banner of Truth, p.47)
A pre-evangelistic flurry!
At last he’d seen it! Not religious duty, but the life of God coming and changing us! And he immediately began communicating it to others even though he had not yet experienced it himself!
Whitefield realised that the New Birth was absolutely central for an individual’s relationship to God and for any hope of getting to heaven. It was a clear-as-day revelation to him – and it was to become the pivotal emphasis in his preaching.
The New Birth not a New Teaching
This doctrine of the New Birth didn’t begin with Whitefield, of course, nor with Henry Scougal.
In John’s Gospel we’re told that a highly religious man, Nicodemus visited Jesus one evening to ask him questions. Nicodemus was a well known teacher, and was a respected authority on Scripture.
Yet Jesus cuts across Nicodemus’ expectations by telling him, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
Faith Comes to Life
The new birth is, as Whitefield discovered, an inner work of God. As you learn more about Jesus Christ, on hearing about His perfect life, His sacrificial death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead – faith is aroused! Faith that perhaps wasn’t there before!
As it begins to dawn on you that Jesus truly and specifically died on the cross for your sins, to forgive you of every one, and present you before God as holy – faith is aroused, and springs up!
This faith, as it comes alive causes a desire for Christ and for His forgiveness. We find ourselves being drawn to God! We long for His forgiveness and for His purposes in our lives. We are willing to turn from sin and live for Him.
My friend, you can discover right now what George Whitefield discovered hundreds of years ago: that God loves you deeply, that He is willing to forgive your sins, and bring you home to Himself. You can have a brand new start and come into a right relationship with God today.
Why don’t you ask God to turn you around and make you into a follower of Jesus Christ?
You’ll need to find a church. You can begin by looking here.
We continue our enjoyment of quotations from the 18th century spiritual leader, Jonathan Edwards.
In his sermons on 1 Corinthians 13, gathered together in a volume published as ‘Charity and its Fruits’, Edwards, the great soul-physician applies the light of Scripture to our innermost motives and thoughts.
The sermons speak directly to the heart and perhaps these few quotes will ignite a desire in you to read them in full.
‘A Christian should at all times keep a strong guard against everything that tends to overthrow or corrupt or undermine a spirit of love.’ (Edwards, Charity and its Fruits (Sermons on 1 Cor 13), Banner of Truth, p.23)
Seeing the Sovereignty of God when we are offended
‘Love to God disposes men to have regard to the hand of God in the injuries they suffer, and not only to the hand of man.’ (ibid p.79)
‘Let us not say in our heart, I will do to him as he hath done to me.’ (p.82)
‘The spirit of Christian long-suffering, and of meekness in bearing injuries, is a mark of true greatness of soul.’ (p.87)
On Overlooking Offences
‘It is from littleness of mind that the soul is easily disturbed and put out of repose by the reproaches and ill-treatment of men:
just as little streams of water are much disturbed by the small unevennesses and obstacles they meet with in their course, and make a great deal of noise as they pass over them,
whereas great and mighty streams pass over the same obstacles calmly and quietly, without a ripple on the surface to show they are disturbed.’ (p.87)
You can purchase Charity and its Fruits by Jonathan Edwards here
Here are some choice quotes from Jonathan Edwards. These thoughts and insights represent a sampling of his style both in the pulpit and on paper.
Most are pretty challenging and all show his eagerness to apply Biblical thinking to living the Christian life.
‘The humble man is…disposed to renounce all the glory of the good he has or does, and to give it all to God.’ (Charity and its Fruits (Sermons on 1 Cor 13), Banner of Truth, p.137)
On Martin Luther’s Aggressive Style
‘Luther, that great Reformer, had a great deal of bitterness with his zeal.’ (Edwards, Thoughts on the New England Revival, Banner of Truth, p.28)
Edwards on the Reasonableness of Passion when urging folk to escape the possibility of Hell
‘If any of you who are heads of families saw one of your children in a house all on fire, and in imminent danger of being soon consumed in the flames, yet seemed to be very insensible of its danger, and neglected to escape after you had often called to it–would you go on to speak to it only in a cold and indifferent manner?
Would not you cry aloud, and call earnestly to it, and represent the danger it was in, and its own folly in delaying, in the most lively manner of which you was capable?
If you should continue to speak to it only in a cold manner, as you are wont to do in ordinary conversation about indifferent matters, would not those about you begin to think you were bereft of reason yourself?’ (Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, from Edwards on Revival, Banner of Truth, p.107)
On a Man being powerfully filled with the Holy Spirit
‘There have been instances before now, of persons crying out in transports of divine joy in New England.
We have an instance in Capt. Clap’s Memoirs, published by the Rev. Mr. Prince, not of a silly woman or child, but a man of solid understanding, that in a high transport of spiritual joy, was made to cry out aloud on his bed.
His words are: “God’s Holy Spirit did witness (I do believe) together with my spirit, that I was a child of God; and did fill my heart and soul with such full assurance that Christ was mine, that it did so transport me as to make me cry out upon my bed with a loud voice, He is come, he is come!”’ (Edwards, Thoughts on the New England Revival, Banner of Truth, p.22)
You can purchase several books by Jonathan Edwards here
We’ve been enjoying Sarah Edwards’ articulate descriptions of being filled with Holy Spirit during the 1741-1742 revival in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Here, she concludes her experience…
Monday morning at the Edwards’ house…
‘So strong were my feelings, I could not refrain from conversing with those around me, in a very earnest manner, for about a quarter of an hour, on the infinite riches of divine love in the work of salvation.’
Carried to the fireside entirely without strength
‘[Then], my strength entirely failing, my flesh grew very cold, and they carried me and set me by the fire.
As I sat there, I had a most affecting sense of the mighty power of Christ, which had been exerted in what he had done for my soul…and of the glorious and wonderful grace of God in causing the ark to return to Northampton.’
Mrs. Edwards leaps for joy!
‘So intense were my feelings, when speaking of these things, that I could not forbear rising up and leaping with joy and exultation.’
The Following Sunday at church…a foretaste of heavenly glory!
‘When I heard him [the preacher, William Williams] say, that those, who have assurance, have a foretaste of heavenly glory, I knew the truth of it from what I then felt: I knew that I then tasted the clusters of the heavenly Canaan: My soul was filled and overwhelmed with light, and love, and joy in the Holy Ghost, and seemed just ready to go away from the body. I could scarcely refrain from expressing my joy aloud, in the midst of the service.’
This was not ‘mere excitement’
Over-emotional? Iain Murray, himself wary of mere emotionalism, writes, ‘her joy, it should be noted, was far from the exuberance of mere excitement.’ (Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards, Banner of Truth, p.196)
And her loving husband Jonathan writes of his wife’s ‘season in the Spirit’, ‘It was the greatest, fullest, longest continued and most constant assurance of the favour of God and of a title to future glory that I ever saw…in any person.’ (Quoted by Murray, p.195-6)
May God the Father bless you with similar assurances of His love for you in Christ, by the influence and power of the Holy Spirit.
Was Sarah Edwards an over-emotional person? Was she a kind of ‘balance’ for her supposedly unemotional, strict husband Jonathan Edwards?
Or was she an intelligent and articulate woman, highly respected in the community, who had the privilege of personal encounters with God?
Jonathan encouraged her to record her various experiences (covering two and a half weeks in 1742) for the edification of others.
Iain Murray calls her words ‘an amazing testimony to how much of heaven can be enjoyed upon earth.’ (Murray, Jonathan Edwards, Banner of Truth, p.193)
So without more ado, these are a few excerpts of her story…
The Presence of God
‘Under a delightful sense of the immediate presence and love of God, these words seemed to come over and over in my mind, ‘My God, my all;
my God, my all.’
The presence of God was so near, and so real, that I seemed scarcely conscious of any things else. God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, seemed as distinct persons, both manifesting their inconceivable loveliness, and mildness, and gentleness, and their great and immutable love to me.
I seemed to be taken under the care and charge of my God and Saviour, in an inexpressibly endearing manner; and Christ appeared to me as a mighty Saviour.’
The Dignity of a Royal Priesthood
‘The next day, which was the Sabbath, I enjoyed a sweet, and lively and assured sense of God’s infinite grace, and favour and love to me, in taking me out of the depths of hell, and exalting me to the heavenly glory, and the dignity of a royal priesthood.’
Intense admiration of God’s Grace
‘To my mind there was the clearest evidence, that God was present in the congregation, on the work of redeeming love; and in the clear view of this, I was all at once filled with such intense admiration of the wonderful condescension and grace of God, in returning again to Northampton, as overwhelmed my soul, and immediately took away my bodily strength.’
Back at the house…trying not to leap for joy
‘While I was uttering the words [of one of Isaac Watts’ hymns], my mind was so deeply impressed with the love of Christ, and a sense of his immediate presence, that I could with difficulty refrain from rising from my seat, and leaping for joy.’
When a revival of Christianity took place in Northampton, Massachusetts in the early 1700’s Jonathan Edwards unexpectedly became the apologist of the new movement, warts and all.
His discernment and level-headedness in the midst of much religious excitement and emotion have impressed Christian leaders ever since.
As a young Pastor in his early thirties he led the congregation and the town through a turbulent and spiritually explosive time with great ability.
Edwards defended the fact that a powerful apprehension of God’s glory does tend to affect people in noticeable ways, particularly in their emotions, but sometimes even physically.
Because this was a major cause of concern and criticism from those outside the town he tends to speak quite a lot about it when discussing that period.
‘Joy inexpressible and full of glory!’
He had himself experienced something of the overwhelming love of God. Iain Murray in his biography of Edwards records one such moment:
‘Another Saturday night (Jan 1739) I had such a sense, how sweet and blessed a thing it was to walk in the way of duty; to do that which was right and meet to be done, and agreeable to the holy mind of God; that it caused me to break forth into a kind of loud weeping, which held me some time, so that I was forced to shut myself up, and fasten the doors.
I could not but, as it were, cry out, ‘How happy are they who do that which is right in the sight of God! They are blessed indeed. They are the happy ones!’ (Quoted by Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards, Banner of Truth, p.146)
But not only had Jonathan had personal encounters of joy and delight in God’s presence; so had his wife!
And, certainly by the time he published ‘Religious Affections’ in 1746, he was surely drawing not only on his general pastoral experience but also on the experience of the woman he both loved and trusted.
He apparently urged her to write her story down. In this, and the next post, we’ll listen to her testimony of God’s presence and power. She was 32 when she wrote of her experience.
Justified by faith and free from accusation!
Having described her longing for a more profound experience of God’s grace, she began reading Romans 8 once again, and particularly Rom 8:33f
‘Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth.
Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’ (Rom 8:33-35 KJV)
‘The words…were impressed on my heart with vastly greater power and sweetness still. They appeared to me with undoubted certainty as the words of God, and as words which God did pronounce concerning me.
I had no more doubt of it than I had of my being. I seemed as it were to hear the great God proclaiming thus to the world concerning me; ‘Who shall lay anything to thy charge’, and had it strongly impressed on me how impossible it was for anything in heaven or earth, in this world or the future, ever to separate me from the love of God which was in Christ Jesus.
I cannot find language to express how certain this appeared…My safety and happiness and eternal enjoyment of God’s immutable love seemed as durable and unchangeable as God Himself.
Melted and overcome by the sweetness of this assurance, I fell into a great flow of tears and could not forbear weeping aloud. It appeared certain to me that God was my Father, and Christ my Lord and Saviour, that He was mine and I His.’ (From ‘The Narrative of Sarah Pierpont Edwards’, Jonathan Edwards , Family Writings and Related Documents (WJE Online Vol. 41) also for pictures above)
More next time…I’m struggling to keep these posts short!
Expanding our Expectations of what God might do through His Church
There’s a somewhat tired caricature of the Reformed believer as an overly religious and narrow-minded fundamentalist.
Such a person supposedly takes solace in the Sovereignty of God in light of the failure of the message he proclaims. After all, it is supposed, not many are being converted because it’s ‘not the will of God’…so goes the caricature.
But actually, as we have seen already from the writing of Jonathan Edwards, an affectionate love for the doctrines of grace not only expands our view of the majesty of God (in His transcendence), but also includes real, passionate, personal experiences of God (in His immanence, His closeness).
And a Biblical view of the nature of God both as the One who graciously forgives us and as the mighty Head of the Church, will enable us to believe Him for new and perhaps even greater seasons of blessing in the world, through the Church.
We can get nervous when we hear preachers telling us we could limit God, somehow restricting what He could or couldn’t do. That kind of talk grates on our understanding of God’s ultimate freeness and our ultimate dependance. Jonathan Edwards was not merely a theologian, He was directly involved in an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Northampton, Mass in the early 1700s and was a witness to what appeared to be a rapid acceleration of normal evangelistic processes. Here’s his view on these things:
The Church’s Past Experience not the Ultimate Guide
‘What the church has been used to, is not a rule by which we are to judge; because there may be new and extraordinary works of God, and he has heretofore evidently wrought in an extraordinary manner.
He has brought to pass new things, strange works; and has wrought in such a manner as to surprise both men and angels. And as God has done thus in times past, so we have no reason to think but that he will do so still.’ (Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, from Edwards on Revival, Banner of Truth, p.89)
‘The Holy Spirit is sovereign in his operation; and we know that he uses a great variety; and we cannot tell how great a variety he may use, within the compass of the rules he himself has fixed.’
Don’t Limit God!
‘We ought not to limit God where he has not limited himself.’ (ibid p.89)
This reminds me of Martin Luther’s famous phrase, ‘Let God be God!’
Edwards is exhorting us not to settle and bring our expectations down to our past experience. Rather, we are to trust God for new initiatives and breakthroughs, and even new outpourings of the Spirit, in the mission.
May God continue to help you as you receive His grace in your own life and seek to serve others with life changing message of His mercy in Christ.
You can read a review of Edwards on Revival here
Effects on the body are neutral from a Scriptural point of view
In his ‘Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God’ Edwards once again urges an impartial and judicious evaluation if such physical manifestations take place.
‘A work is not to be judged of by any effects on the bodies of men; such as tears, trembling, groans, loud outcries, agonies of body, or the failing of bodily strength.
The influence persons are under, is not to be judged of one way or other, by such effects on the body; and the reason is, because the Scripture nowhere gives us any such rule.’ (Jonathan Edwards, Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God’, from Jonathan Edwards On Revival, Banner of Truth p.91)
But Edwards ‘comes out fighting’ to defend the convictions the Spirit produces
So having stated that they are strictly ‘neutral’ in respect of Scripture he then strongly defends such experiences, even suggesting that it is foolish to be dismissive about them:
‘I do not know that we have any express mention in the New Testament of any person’s weeping, or groaning, or sighing through fear of hell, or a sense of God’s anger;
but is there any body so foolish as from hence to argue, that in whomsoever these things appear, their convictions are not from the Spirit of God?’ (ibid p.93)
and he continues,
‘indeed spiritual and eternal things are so great, and of such infinite concern, that there is a great absurdity in men’s being but moderately moved and affected by them.’ (ibid p.95)
Encouragement for Worship Leaders
To the delight of many current worship leaders, he, perhaps unintentionally, gives us a beautiful apologetic for exuberant worship when he writes,
‘And when was there ever any such thing since the world stood, as a people in general being greatly affected in any affair whatsoever, without noise or stir? The nature of man will not allow it.’ (ibid p.95)
While arguing that the effects on the body are not in themselves evidence of true conversion, Edwards is careful not to dismiss such effects automatically as being wrong, in and of themselves.
Whether Edwards desired it or not, he found himself pastoring people who claimed to be having wonderful encounters with God. Sometimes they cried, sometimes they remained silent and sometimes they seemed to lose all physical strength.
This was inevitably a concern both to him and to those who heard what was happening. And so, in seeking to discern the way God was working, Edwards finds himself defending the work of the Spirit while urging restraint on those affected by their experience of God’s glory.
As this is a common feature of times of revival we would do well to allow Edwards’ insights and comments to help shape our own opinion.
And in so doing, perhaps our minds and hearts might be prepared for fresh encounters with the ‘the glorious splendour of His majesty’ (Psalm 145:5)!
God’s Glory can ‘overbear’ the body!
In his ‘Treatise Concerning Religious Affections’, Edwards is keen to discern authentic spiritual encounters, and the fruit that follows such encounters. But he very definitely defends the role of emotion, or ‘affections’ as a key element in Christian spirituality. Sometimes these religious affections can overpower us physically.
‘And who that considers what man’s nature is, and what the nature of the affections are, can reasonably doubt but that such unutterable and glorious joys, may be too great and mighty for weak dust and ashes, so as to be considerably overbearing to it?
It is evident by the Scripture, that true divine discoveries, or ideas of God’s glory, when given in a great degree, have a tendency, by affecting the mind, to overbear the body.’ (A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, 1746, Section 2, Yale, http://edwards.yale.edu/)
Good Jonathan Edwards spends so much time considering these ‘power encounters’ that we will spend a few more posts listening both to his eye-witness accounts and to his judicious conclusions.
You can purchase Edwards on Revival here
You can read a review of Edwards on Revival here
In 1735 there was a sudden outpouring of grace on the town of Northampton. Many came to Christ under great conviction of sin and revelation of the sovereignty and justice of God.
Having described some of the struggles that some converts went through in terms of a realisation of their sin and guilt before God, Edwards describes the longed-for breakthrough of personal salvation.
‘Conversion is a great and glorious work of God’s power, at once changing the heart, and infusing life into the dead soul; though the grace then implanted more gradually displays itself in some than in others.’
In some, converting light is like a glorious brightness suddenly shining upon a person, and all around him: they are in a remarkable manner brought out of darkness into marvellous light.
In many others it has been like the dawning of the day, when at first but a little light appears…and gradually increases.’ (Jonathan Edwards, A Narrative of Surprising Conversions, from Jonathan Edwards On Revival, Banner of Truth, p.40, 41)
The Newness of things
‘Persons after their conversion often speak of religious things as seeming new to them; that preaching is a new thing; that it seems to them they never heard preaching before; that the Bible is a new book: they find there new chapters, new psalms, new histories, because they see them in a new light.’ (ibid p.44)
‘While God was so remarkably present amongst us by His Spirit, there was no book so delightful as the Bible.’ (ibid p.47)
A love for God
‘Many have spoken much of their hearts being drawn out in love to God and Christ; and of their minds being wrapt up in delightful contemplation of the glory and wonderful grace of God, the excellency and dying love of Jesus Christ; and of their souls going forth in longing desires after God and Christ.’ (ibid p.44-45)
A young peoples’ revival
In writing of the revival that broke out in 1735, Jonathan Edwards gives an objective yet compassionate account. The first changes visible were amongst the youth of the town, but the influence quickly spread to other age groups until he was able to make this astonishing observation:
‘In all companies…on whatever occasions persons met together, Christ was to be heard of, and seen in the midst of them.
Our young people, when they met, were [inclined] to spend the time in talking of the excellency and dying love of Jesus Christ…
Those amongst us that had been formerly converted, were greatly enlivened and renewed with fresh and extraordinary incomes of the Spirit of God.’ (Jonathan Edwards, A Narrative of Surprising Conversions, from Jonathan Edwards On Revival, Banner of Truth, p.13-15)
The work of the Spirit in Conversion is Varied
Edwards describes in general terms the order of events in those who were converted at this time:
‘Persons are first awakened with a sense of their miserable condition by nature, the danger they are in of perishing eternally, and it is of great importance to them that they speedily escape and get into a better state…
Some are more suddenly seized with convictions-it may be, by the news of others’ conversion, or some thing they hear in public, or in private conference-their consciences are smitten, as if their hearts were pierced through with a dart.
Others are awakened more gradually…’ (ibid p.23)
George Whitefield, the pre-eminent Evangelist of the 18th Century spoke in similar terms:
‘Therefore, far be it from me to confine the Almighty to one way of acting, or say, that all undergo an equal degree of conviction: no, there is a holy variety in God’s methods of calling home his elect.’ (From Sermon, The Holy Spirit Convincing the World of Sin, Righteousness, and Judgment)
Jonathan Edawrds describes different levels of alarm and concern experienced amongst the people, but the same objective – forgiveness – being reached by those who seek God’s mercy.
‘Some are from the beginning carried on with abundantly more encouragement and hope than others. Some have had ten times less trouble of mind than others, in whom yet the issue seems to be the same.
Some have had such a sense of the displeasure of God, and the great danger they were in of damnation, that they could not sleep at nights.’ (ibid p.24)
‘Many times persons under great awakenings were concerned, because they thought they were not awakened, but miserable, hard-hearted, senseless, sottish creatures still, and sleeping upon the brink of hell.’ (p.25)
Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit is active He would reveal to men and women the reality of their condition before God.
‘And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment…’ (John 16:8 NASB)
And, as Whitefield urged when he preached on that verse, it is in order that mercy might be obtained. Yet, what a challenge it is for us to read of the impact of conviction of sin on a whole town!
The people of Northampton in the 1730’s could thank God that they had at least one wise Christian leader in Edwards to help them find their way to the cross of Christ and receive forgiveness there.
Edwards in Revival
One of the contributory factors to Edwards’ depth and openness to the Spirit in his writings is simply the fact that he had experienced the power of God himself.
He was not merely an armchair theologian or commentator, writing from a remote perspective, without having seen the power of God at work in the conversions of men and women and the subsequent impact in a community.
This made a considerable difference in his ability to value peoples’ spiritual experience. To put it simply, he wasn’t freaked out by the operation of the Holy Spirit in peoples’ lives, and their various responses to His power.
Edwards was a participant as well as an observer. At just 33 years of age, he was an astute student of the ways of God.
From single to multiple conversions
It wasn’t long after the sudden conversion of a young lady that the whole town was in the grip of a full-scale revival. This was not a case of christian believers becoming more fervent in their faith. This was the major part of the population being suddenly drawn to God.
The impact on the town itself was palpable. The main topic of conversation was Jesus Christ and the way of Salvation. Hundreds were converted.
‘All other talk but about spiritual and eternal things, was soon thrown by; all the conversation, in all companies and upon all occasions, was upon these things only, unless so much as was necessary for people carrying on their ordinary secular business.’ (Jonathan Edwards, A Narrative of Surprising Conversions, from Jonathan Edwards On Revival, Banner of Truth, p.13)
‘But although people did not ordinarily neglect their worldly business; yet religion was with all sorts the great concern, and the world was a thing only by the bye.
The only thing in their view was to get the kingdom of heaven, and every one appeared pressing into it.
The engagedness of their hearts in this great concern could not be hid, it appeared in their very countenances.
It then was a dreadful thing amongst us to lie out of Christ, in danger every day of dropping into hell;
and what persons’ minds were intent upon, was to escape for their lives, and to fly from wrath to come.
There was scarcely a single person in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world.
‘The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner, and increased more and more; souls did as it were come by flocks to Jesus Christ. (ibid p.13)
The Town itself seemed altered
This work of God, as it was carried on, and the number of true saints multiplied, soon made a glorious alteration in the town…
the town seemed to be full of the presence of God: it was never so full of love, nor of joy, and yet so full of distress, as it was then.
There were remarkable tokens of God’s presence in almost every house. (p.14)
Our public assemblies were then beautiful; the congregation was alive in God’s service, every one earnestly intent on the public worship,
every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth;
the assembly in general were, from time to time, in tears while the word was preached; some weeping with sorrow and distress, others with joy and love, others with pity and concern for the souls of their neighbours. (p.14)
‘Remarkable Outpourings of the Spirit’
‘From the fall of man to this day…the Work of Redemption in its effect has mainly been carried on by remarkable pourings out of the Spirit of God.’ (Jonathan Edwards, Sermon: History of the work of Redemption quoted by Mark Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism, IVP, p.129)
Jonathan Edwards is generally regarded as America’s greatest theologian. His ability as both preacher and writer, and his impact of the lives of millions is unprecedented in American religious literature.
However, like Calvin and the Puritans after the Reformation, Edwards is often caricatured as a hard hearted and even cruel preacher (at face value, this is because of his most famous sermon, ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’).
However, anyone who has read his sermons or other works will be pleasantly surprised to find a diligent and humble observer of revival as well as a powerful and moving preacher of God’s word.
Setting the Scene
The town of Northampton, Massachusetts comprising of about 200 families, had seen several local awakenings before Edwards’ ministry. There had been several ‘harvests’, seasons of conversions and church growth, but nothing as extensive as that which took place in 1735.
Edwards writes, ‘Then it was, in the latter part of December that the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in, and wonderfully to work amongst us; and there were very suddenly one after another, five or six persons, who were to all appearances savingly converted, and some of them wrought upon in a very remarkable manner.’ (Jonathan Edwards, A Narrative of Surprising Conversions, from Jonathan Edwards On Revival, Banner of Truth, p.12)
The youth are the first to enter in
The awakening began amongst the youth. A young lady who was well known for her lack of respect for the things of God was suddenly converted and began to evangelise everyone she met.
Her conversion experience had an unexpectedly powerful impact on others. So much so that Edwards could write:
‘God made it, I suppose, the greatest occasion of awakening to others, of any thing that ever came to pass in the town…
The news of it seemed to be almost like a flash of lightning upon the hearts of young people, all over the town, and upon many others.
Many went to talk with her, concerning what she had met with…’ (ibid p.12)
Before the breakthrough of evangelism and mission which is commonly called The Great Awakening, there were already significant movements of revival. One of the significant influences on Whitefield and the Wesleys was that of the Moravian preachers and teachers.
The roots of the Moravian (from the province of Moravia, modern Czech Republic) church go all the way back to pre-Reformation days to John Huss, the leader and martyr from Prague.
A Pilgrim Community
They were, like Huss before them, considered heretics at that time. But even after the Reformation they had trouble on all sides. They didn’t fit comfortably with state church structures and became a kind of refugee community of faith, seemingly unable to settle peacefully even in Reformation countries.
They were persecuted and driven out of many places as they preached the gospel and built their homes.
Finally, after two hundred long years of wandering, in 1722 these religious refugees gathered at Herrnhut in Saxony (Germany) under the oversight of the godly and gracious Count Nicholas Zinzendorf.
This group were made up from several church backgrounds although some were from The United Brethren (a kind of remnant of the ‘original’ Moravians). They sought to live together in peace after so much persecution. But there were sharp disagreements amongst them. Zinzendorf had laboured to bring the various factions together for a Wednesday morning communion service on August 13 1727.
The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit
The squabbles came to an end when, after confessing their sins and seeking to be reconciled to each other, the Holy Spirit unexpectedly and suddenly fell on all of them. This was a tangible experience of power they had not previously known.
Zinzendorf described this day as ‘our Pentecost’. Christian David, one of their greatest evangelists, said:
‘It is truly a miracle of God that out of so many kinds and sects as Catholics, Lutheran, Reformed, Seperatist, Gichtelian and the like, we could have been melted into one.’ (R.E. Davies – I will pour out My Spirit, Monarch, UK p.76)
Various descriptions of these ‘baptisms of the Spirit’ have been recorded:
Zinzendorf wrote, ‘We saw the hand of God and His wonders…
The Holy Ghost came upon us and in those days great signs and wonders took place in our midst.
From that time scarcely a day passed but that we beheld His Almighty workings amongst us.’
An Overwhelming Flood of Grace
‘A great hunger after the Word of God took possession of us so that we had to have three services every day: 5am, 7am and 9pm…an overwhelming flood of grace swept us all out into the great ocean of Divine Love.’ (ibid p.77)
God is able to overcome our limitations. The power of the Holy Spirit fell mightily on a disunited, grumbling and hounded people. And what began as a localised ‘Pentecost’, with manifestations of God’s power and presence in a small community, soon sparked a major church planting movement.
Read the second part of the Moravian story: The Missional Impact of an Outpouring of the Spirit here
The English Puritans have a reputation. Within our popular culture, it’s not a good one!
These ‘Old Calvinists’ didn’t really hold back, and when they felt the souls of men and women were in danger. They cried, and called, and declared and wept – to try and turn people from sin to Christ.
Here is Ralph Venning again, urging his readers to change their beliefs and lifestyle. This is as ‘pure puritan’ as it gets, and while some of the statements are strong, they represent the passion of the Puritan preachers of the 17th century accurately.
On the Weakness of Punishment over the Power of Sin
‘Even the flood, which washed away so many sinners, could not wash away sin; the same heart remains after the flood as before.’ (p.46)
On the Deceitfulness of Sin
‘[Sin] It is like the pleasure of the man who receives much money, but it is all counterfeit.’ (p.210)
On the Eternal Consequences of sin
‘Sin costs dear, but profits nothing. They make a bad purchase who buy their own damnation.’ (p.201)
‘The torments themselves will be universal. It will not be merely one or two torments but all torments united. Hell is the place of torment itself (Luke 16.28). It is the centre of all punishments, sorrow and pain, wrath and vengeance, fire and darkness’ (p.84)
The Deceitfulness of Sin
‘Sin disappoints men; they have false joys but true miseries.’ (p.131)
On the Need to put our Trust in Jesus Christ
‘No matter how much you have, and how much you use it, [sin] will never satisfy, and therefore must vex you. No satisfaction, no profit! A man’s aim is satisfaction (Luke 12.19), but the eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear with hearing (Ecclesiastes 1.8). Now if these things cannot satisfy the senses (Ecclesiastes 6.7), much less can they satisfy the souls of men.’ (p.203)
‘Sin cannot fill up the boundless and infinite desire which is in the heart of man, but disappoints it.’ (p.207)
On the Goodness of God in the Gospel
‘The goodness of God leads you to repentance; he might have driven you into it by terrors, but he gently leads you…God waits to be gracious, and is patient…
He might have called and knocked at your door once and then no more, but he has stood and knocked and begged, and [has] given you space and means (Revelation 2.21; Luke 16.31)…If, then, you do not repent, it is a greater affront to God than was your former sin.
On Finding Salvation at last!
‘Repent and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out’ (Acts 3.19); they shall be as if they had not been…God looks upon men, and…if anyone repents, he will deliver his soul from going into the pit, and his life shall see the light (Job 33.27,28).
Indeed, God is not only merciful, but if we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1.9). How this obliges us to repent!’ (p.218-219)
All quotes are taken from ‘The Plague of Plagues’ Banner of Truth edition, now published as ‘The Sinfulness of Sin’.
The Main Problem of the Human Condition
Generally speaking, the puritans have been collectively dismissed as harsh and even obsessive in their views on personal morality! The very word ‘puritanical’ gives you the idea! But let’s not be too quick to write these guys off.
The puritans had a passion for the Bible, a passion for the Church and a passion for seeing the gospel impact every area of life.
They also had a frank view of the primary problem confronting mankind which they unashamedly declared to be sin. To a puritan who was committed to Biblical thinking this was a clear as day.
Mankind’s primary internal problem was sin, their primary enemy was sin, and their most significant hindrance in his relationship to God was sin.
The solution to this problem was not to be found in a strict morality but in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross. He died for sin, taking the weight of the just penalty of sin upon Himself, for our benefit. He did this so that, by repentance and faith, we might be forgiven and reconciled to God.
The hostility between God and Man would end, and sin could be defeated at last. And because He overcame both sin and death, we too might live a life pleasing to God.
The Plague of Plagues
It’s not altogether surprising then, to find amongst a bookshelf of puritan writings a volume entitled ‘The Plague of Plagues’ (1669), a startling assault against sin and its damaging effects on mankind.
Indeed, Ralph Venning, its author states that he was writing against sin because sin ‘is against man’s good and happiness.’
Venning, like Brooks, was educated at Cambridge University and pastored in London. He, like Brooks and others, was fired from his position in the Church of England, and became a minister of an Independent Church in London.
Here are some edifying examples of Venning’s clarity on the subtle dangers of sin. In urging his hearers to decide for Christ and holiness, he also restores clarity to the essential nature of mankind’s struggle against God’s goodness.
‘It cannot but be extremely useful to let men see what sin is: how prodigiously vile, how deadly mischievous and therefore how monstrously ugly and odious a thing sin is.’ (p.18)
‘It [sin] gives out false reports of God and goodness.’ (p.35)
‘Shall I not plead for God and your soul, and entreat you to be on God’s side, and to depart from the tents of wickedness? Poor soul! Can you find it in your heart to hug and embrace such a monster as this? Will you love that which hates God, and which God hates? God forbid!’ (p.36)
‘Oh, look to yourself, for sin, notwithstanding all its flattering pretences, is against you, and seeks nothing less than your ruin and damnation.’ (p.37)
‘Sin in the Christian is ‘a self civil war.’ (p.43)
‘Sin is the burden of every good man’s soul.’ (p.126)
All quotes are taken from Ralph Venning, The Plague of Plagues, now published as ‘The Sinfulness of Sin’ (Banner of Truth).
Joseph Alleine, one time Chaplain of Corpus Christi College at the University of Oxford, pleads with believers and non-believers alike. He urges believers to share the good news with those around them who as yet don’t understand the truth of the gospel. To those not yet safe, not yet at peace with God, he urges them to awake and seek God for His mercy in Jesus Christ.
It’s been a long time since a hero from Oxford sounded such a clear and distinct call. These quotes give us a good sample of Puritan Passion.
On the importance of Evangelism
‘Would it not grieve a person of any humanity, if in a time of raging plague,
he should have a remedy that would infallibly cure all the country
and recover the most hopeless patients,
and yet his friends and neighbours
should die by hundreds around him,
because they would not use it?’ (p.101)
On the need for a decision about whether to follow Christ
‘Set the world, with all its glory, and paint, and gallantry,
with all its pleasures and promotions, on the one hand;
and set God,
with all His infinite excellencies
and perfections on the other;
and see that you do deliberately make your choice.’ (p.108)
On Hell, and our need to escape it by trusting Christ
‘O how fearful would the cry be if God
should take off the covering from the mouth of hell,
and let the cry of the damned
ascend in all its terror among the children of men!
And of their moans and miseries,
this is the piercing, killing emphasis and burden:
‘For ever! For ever!’
As God liveth that made your soul,
you are but a few hours distant from this,
except you be converted.’ (P.132)
Next time we will hear from the great Puritan Pastor and physician of souls, Thomas Brooks.
(All quotes are taken from Joseph Alleine, ‘Alleine’s Alarm’, Banner of Truth Edition, 1978)
Inspirational Quotes from Puritan Works
I propose, over the next few posts to quote from those puritan authors who have had an impact on me. This merely serves as an introduction and is by no means exhaustive.
Spurgeon’s description of the works of Puritan pastor Thomas Watson is in many ways characteristic of much Puritan literature:
‘There is a happy union of sound doctrine, heart-searching experience and practical wisdom throughout.’ (Introduction, A Body of Divinity, Thomas Watson, Banner of Truth)
And the mighty Evangelist of the 18th Century, George Whitefield, wrote in 1767, ‘For these thirty years past I have remarked that the more true and vital religion hath [increased] either at home or abroad, the more the good old Puritanical writings…have been called for.’ (Quoted in J.I Packer, A Quest for Godliness, The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, p.46 )
Alleine (1634-1668) was chaplain of Corpus Christi College, Oxford University, and later served as assistant Pastor in Taunton, Somerset, England. He was also a keen evangelist. As with about a thousand other faithful Puritan pastors, he was fired and turned out of the Church of England in 1662, and was later imprisoned for continuing to preach the gospel. He died aged only 34.
These quotes are taken from his incredible book, ‘An Alarm Call to the Unconverted’ (BOT edition), which has recently been republished as ‘A Sure Guide to Heaven’. You can certainly feel his evangelistic passion in these few quotes, and they also provide a good example of puritan thinking and style.
Man like a choice instrument
‘Unconverted man is like a choice instrument that has every string broken or out of tune.’ (p. 52)
On the futility of religion to appease God
‘You can no more please God than one who, having unspeakably offended you, should bring you the most loathsome thing to pacify you; or having fallen into the mire, should think with his filthy embraces to reconcile you.’ (p. 55)
On continuing in sin
‘If you have a false peace continuing in your sins, it is not of God’s speaking, and therefore you may guess the author.’ (p.56)
‘To save men from the punishment, and not from the power of sin, were to do His work by halves, and be an imperfect Saviour.’ (p.65)
‘You cannot be married to Christ except you be divorced from sin.’ (p.107)
On the spiritual condition of those not yet made alive in Christ
‘In a word, he carries a dead soul in a living body, and his flesh is but the walking coffin of a corrupt mind that is twice dead.’ (p.82)
On preaching about Hell
‘I would not trouble you, nor torment you before the time with the thoughts of your eternal misery, but in order that you may make your escape.’ (P.100)