It is easy for man to let go of truth if his commitment lies elsewhere. This is the challenge Jonathan Edwards faced as he began his final address on July 1st, 1750 to the congregation he pastored for 23 years. This was no ordinary last sermon. Edwards, known largely for his influence during the Great Awakening, was in fact being kicked out of his church by his own people! While this notecard reading, monotone speaking great preacher and theologian of Christian history stood before those who wanted his ouster, surely he stared into the eyes of many with whom he shared meals, prayed ceaselessly for, and watched grow from infancy to adulthood. He spent the prime of his life toiling day and night for the benefit of their souls, and here he stands no longer wanted by them. What caused this sudden change of heart?
As the momentum of the Great Awakening revival began to slow, the desire for godly living and devotion to Christ also appeared to fade. The “Halfway Covenant” was announced in order to accept people into church membership though they may have not confessed Christ or shown evidences of a renewed and regenerated heart. The people wanted the benefits of membership but their hearts wanted little to do with Jesus. Edwards, distraught by the lack of earnestness among his people, prayed and pleaded with others to pray for his church. Unwilling to accept the Halfway Covenant, Edwards told his congregants that only those who made a confession of faith in Jesus could take the Lord’s Supper. And just like that, his own church voted him out after 23 years of faithful ministry.
Edwards’ final sermon has been on my mind for the past few weeks as my brothers in the elder track and I read it for one of our sessions. On my first read, his words seemed rather strong – and with a subject that includes “meeting one another before Christ’s tribunal at the day of judgment” it’s not hard to see why. But as I gained a better sense of the sermon, it was apparent that his words were soaked in an enviable devotion to God and his people. For Edwards, being called by God to these people meant caring for their souls. He knew that what they needed was not a pastor who would merely give them the small words of man that ignored the realities of eternal life. They needed the steadfast truth of God’s Word. Anything else would not be worth saying. Heaven, hell, and eternity were not nebulous ideas to Edwards. They were real to him and he wanted these people, from whom he would soon depart, to understand the gravity of that great day when they together will stand before God.
Paul knew that there was more beyond the superficial responses of those who gave a cold shoulder to holy living (Eph 6:12; Gal 5:17). Edwards also realized that there was more at stake than just a majority vote; there was a rejection of God himself. Our flesh will want to reject that which our hearts know to be true and good. And I am more convinced today than yesterday that what we need to lead us to the Great Fountain of Life is the pure, robust, and uncompromised truth of the glorious gospel of Christ. Not gimmicks. Not tips for a successful life. Not small words that makes us feel better about ourselves.
So as I’ve been mulling over pastoral ministry, Paul’s words, Edwards’ sermon, and a sermon I myself am preparing for a seminary class on “false teachers and sound doctrine,” it may not be a shock to you that I feel engulfed by the weight of this thing. But the weight I feel, I believe, is a good one – and one that I want to sit under. It is one that is growing my devotion and surrender to God and his truth. It is one that makes me believe stronger that the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) needs to be preached, even when it is not easy or fashionable. It is one that is anchoring my heart to the truths of the gospel and the realities of what this fallen world actually needs (Rom 1:16). Jesus himself was faced with rejection, even unto death, when people were confronted by him with the condition of their hearts. But he did not falter and he did not thin out his message. As I said at the start, it is easy for man to let go of truth if his commitment lies elsewhere. Pray, brothers and sisters, that our commitment in all that we do, would be ultimately for Jesus and not for this world, though out of love for it. Pray that God’s church would be filled with bold pastors, enabled by the Spirit, who love and teach the complete gospel. And may we be encouraged as we fix our eyes on Jesus, who even when faced with death, committed his will to the Father (Matt 26:39), in love for sinners such as us.