(Note: The following article was originally written for our American Church history curriculum, which we use during our Focus Hour every Sunday morning at 9:30-10:20am. You may access the curriculum in its entirety here.)
The Theological Scientist
Who was the most brilliant mind that America ever produced? Some might say Thomas Edison. Others, Benjamin Franklin. While these two men were certainly inventive, if not ingenious, most scholars agree that the greatest mind in American history belonged to Jonathan Edwards.
A humble minister at a New England church in Northampton, Edwards expressed incredible intelligence in philosophy, metaphysics, and science. In fact, one might suggest that there were closer similarities between Edwards and Isaac Newton than with Whitefield or Wesley. In an age of rationalism, where Western societies desired to have scientific assurance of truth, Edwards wrote and preached in such a way that could assure others that their salvation from God was as sure as the stars moved or the rivers flowed.
The Old Versus the New
Edwards began a revival in 1736 under the banner of what became known as "New Light Calvinism." The "old light" Calvinism of the Pilgrims and Puritans believed in God's salvation by grace alone. However, there was never truly any assurance of exactly who was a recipient of God's grace. Since old Calvinism seemingly taught that there was nothing anyone could do to receive salvation, knowledge of whether or not someone actually had salvation could never truly be known. The most anyone could do is live a good life in hopes that this revealed God's grace entering into one's life.
Jonathan Edwards helped change that mindset. He changed God's grace from a force of fear to an agent of joy. One could rejoice in the comfort that they did not need to do anything to feel more saved, but merely needed look to Jesus' work on the Cross by faith and rest in that.
Grace that Demands a Response
This idea that one could experience joy and peace by recognizing that their salvation was made sure by faith literally caused a frenzy. People began convulsing in tears as they realized the joy that grace could afford. Literally a third of Northampton made a testimony of newfound faith in Christ. Edwards approached God's Word with the same exactness and precision as he did with science. Yet, ironically, it sparked an emotional revival in America that helped redefine Christianity from a set of beliefs to hold to a message that required a personal response.
No other sermon better illustrated this than the most famous sermon of the past five hundred years: "Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God." Today the sermon is used as an example of religious dogma and backwards thinking. But when read in context, it reveals itself as a progressive, if not merciful, plea to respond to God's love. Edwards preached to an audience that already knew all the answers. What they didn't realize was that the message of God's grace demanded a response, and that the only appropriate response was faith.
(Note: to read a portion of Edwards' sermon, go to the link above to access the curriculum. For more discussion on the Great Awakening and American history, join us on Sundays at 9:30am.)
Resting in Him,