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The “Religious Affections” of a Global Christian

The “Religious Affections” of a Global Christian

Introduction

Ted Esler

Jonathan Edwards has been called the greatest mind in evangelicalism. His numerous writings and theological discourses have influenced generations of Christians. What shocks me about Edwards’ legacy is that modern theologians ignore his contribution to missionary work.[1] Edwards was a missionary. His theology was driven by a missionary heart. It could be argued that his greatest writing occurred while he was a pioneering missionary among the Housatonic Indians. He spent seven years at this missionary outpost, roughly from 1750 to 1757.

Edwards is most famous for his role in the Great Awakening. This incredible movement of God is among the greatest outpourings of the Spirit in world history. During this movement of God some were taken up with what was called “enthusiasm.” Today we would call it fanaticism. Absurd things were being done in the name of God and Edwards wanted to keep these “enthusiasts” from heaping shame on the revival. He wrote “The Religious Affections,” to separate the true manifestations of the Holy Spirit from those taken up with emotion.[2] Edwards’ attributes of a true Christian have been a source of inspiration and challenge for many over the past two centuries.

As one of the leaders of a missions team in a local church I have considered the task of imparting a missions vision to our congregation. What is the goal for our team? How do we answer the question, “What are the attributes of a person in our church who understands God’s heart for the world?” Taking a cue from Edwards we could ask, “What are the ‘Religious Affections of a Global Christian’?” I have developed this short list, intended to inspire and challenge our missions team, using Edwards’ framework.

1) Global Christians are filled with compassion for the lost, whoever they are and wherever they are.

Mark 6:34 – When Jesus went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd…

Global Christians recognize that there is a battle for the hearts and souls of people with eternal consequences. This is a hard truth which is not popular in contemporary society. It is not popular because it is dogmatic, black and white, and carries the specter of judgment. Brothers and sisters in Christ, I so wish I could write something besides this, but I cannot. The extent and scope of scripture which relates this difficult and hard concept is deep and wide. If the death of Christ has any meaning to us, we must embrace the serious condition of those who don’t know Him.

This type of compassion is not satisfied by meeting the physical needs of a person but considers their spiritual condition as paramount. Certainly the job of the Christian is to provide a cool cup of water – but never to the exclusion of extending eternally significant Living Water. Jesus’ heart was moved with compassion because he saw people as his heavenly Father saw them: as lost sheep in need of a Shepherd.

How many New England sermons can you recall reading in your youth? I know of only one, critiqued by my eighth grade English teacher: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In this sermon Edwards powerfully paints a picture of the sinner cut off from God and subject to judgment. Compassion for the lost flows in part from the horrific realization that without Christ we are lost sheep and a certain judgment will come. This is why Edwards calls redemption the “chief work of providence towards the moral world.”[3]

God is so worthy of our joy-filled worship and devotion. For anybody, let alone entire nations and people groups, to miss this delight is tragic. Edwards writes that God glorifies Himself “communicating Himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing, and delighting in, and enjoying, the manifestations which He makes of Himself.”[4]

As a father I so much want my children to experience the good things in life. I am filled with compassion for them when they are hurt, and filled with compassion for them when they succeed in something. My desire is to see them completely fulfilled in life and enjoy happiness and success. Global Christians are filled with compassion for the nations, that they might “enjoy Him forever.”

2) Global Christians see the world through the lens of redemptive history.

Genesis 50:20 “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”

A Global Christian looks in history past to see God working His plan of redemption and forward in anticipation of what God will be doing to bring about His ultimate purposes. How does one hold out hope when sold into slavery by ones own brothers? Who wouldn’t despair over an unjust accusation? What keeps a man going after years in prison? The knowledge and trust that God is working and willing history to His good pleasure.

In 1739 Edwards wrote an article entitled Personal Narrative in which he records his own spiritual journey. He states, “I had great longings for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in the world; and my secret prayer used to be, in large part, taken up in praying for it. If I heard the least hint of anything that happened in any part of the world that appeared in some respect or other to have a favorable aspect on the interests of Christ’s kingdom, my soul eagerly catched at it; and it would much animate and refresh me.”[5]

When refugee columns march, when walls of separation fall down, and when famine strikes, what comes to your mind? Do you eagerly look for God’s hand in the midst of this strife? Global Christians filter the world through this lens, the lens of redemptive history, which sharpens and focuses the image where others see nothing.

A great joy in my life has been to participate in the teaching of the “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement” course taught throughout the United States. During this course many students see, for the first time, God’s missionary heart as woven through the scriptures. While many believers understand the gospel in terms of their own “personal salvation,” so few see God’s purposeful and deliberate plan to redeem the nations to Himself. Global Christians see history as God’s canvas upon which He paints His glory for the nations to behold.

3) Global Christians joyfully sacrifice for the expansion of God’s kingdom.

2 Corinthians 9:7 Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

In “Obligations to Charity,” Edwards reminds us of a timeless truth: “Consider that what you have is not your own; i.e. you have only a subordinate right. Your goods are always lent to you of God, to be improved by you in such ways as he directs.”[6] Most of us believe that Christians must give to see the Kingdom of God advanced. Global Christians actually act on that belief. They realize that God owns all we can touch and see – we’re managing His resources. The words of the world’s foremost financial consultant, Jesus Christ, are to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20). That is an exciting “futures market!”

Ministry takes money – Global Christians joyfully sacrifice for it. Sacrificing is not giving what you can afford. It’s affording yourself the opportunity to go without something so that others can hear the gospel. What is the point of the “widow’s mite” parable in Mark 12 (repeated in Luke 21)? Did she give after she had met all other obligations and saved for her retirement? Was she a “major donor?” No – the point is not the amount given, but the amount sacrificed.

It is not difficult to list a number of sobering statistics regarding the lack of giving toward missions, particularly missions that reach the least reached people groups in the world. Global Christians are not motivated by these grim statistics, however, they are motivated by their love for God and His heart for the nations. They consider it an honor and a privilege to sacrifice for the expansion of the Kingdom. They are not under compulsion to give: they joyfully give and this pleases God.

4) Global Christians pray for the world.

Zechariah 8:20-22 Thus saith the LORD of hosts; It shall yet come to pass, that there shall come people, and the inhabitants of many cities: And the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, Let us go speedily to pray before the LORD, and to seek the LORD of hosts: I will go also. Yea, many people and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the LORD.[7]

In 1748, Edwards wrote an essay on the need for prayer. In those days titles were more than catchy marketing slogans. It was entitled, “A Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People, in Extraordinary Prayer, for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth.” He laid out a systematic call to prayer based on the verses above.

Edwards made some observations regarding prayer. He saw prayer as a duty, not only in a general sense, but more specifically as it relates to bringing about the gathering in of nations to the Kingdom of God. He writes that these verses “…speak of an extraordinary spirit of prayer, as preceding and introducing that glorious day of religious revival, and advancement of the church’s peace and prosperity.”[8]

Further, Edwards recognizes that prayer seeks God Himself as its object. “God himself is the great good desired and sought after.”[9] He then parallels this with the Great Commission itself: “And when God, in answer to their prayers and succeeding their endeavours, delivers, restores, and advances his church, according to his promise, then he is said to answer, and come, and say, Here am I; and to show himself, and they are said to find him, and see him plainly (Isa. 18:9).”[10] This is the same thought captured by John Piper, “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.

In other words, God is the object of our prayer and answer to our prayers for the nations. As we seek him in prayer, he answers by revealing himself to us and others that seek him resounding in ever greater worship and adoration of the Most High. Prayer is theo-centric and missional by its very nature.

Edwards knew the power of prayer for he chronicles the start of the Great Awakening to the prayers of Scottish churches and pastors. They organized concerts of prayer which become a prayer movement in “Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, and in North America.”[11] These small bands of prayer warriors met on Saturday evenings to beseech the Lord of the Harvest to rain down revival and the spread of the gospel among all nations.

Before we leave this topic of prayer I must share one last quote with you. John Sutcliff edited a re-printing of Edwards “Humble Attempt” in 1789. Over two hundred years later, his call to prayer is ever applicable:

“O for thousands upon thousands, divided into small bands in their respective, cities, towns, villages, and neighborhoods, all met at the same time, and in pursuit of one end, offering up their united prayers, like so many ascending clouds of incense before the most High!” [12]

Global Christians hear the call to prayer and fall to their knees.

5) Global Christians consider their own role in reaching the world for Christ.

Matthew 18:19-20b Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you;

Edward’s ministry was not without controversy. In 1750 his own church dismissed him from the pastorate. Their reason: Edwards had become convinced that church membership should be tied to signs of conversion instead of being simply a citizen’s right. In those days one could not be a full member of the community without being a church member and it was too much for the congregation at Northampton when Edwards begin interviewing candidates regarding their walk with God. He was fired.

For the next six months Edwards investigated various options for ministry, including the option of taking another church in Northampton. However, Edwards had been visiting a missionary outpost among the Housatonic Indians (some Mohawks were also moving into the area). He prayerfully considered his options, and chose to be a missionary among these unreached peoples. Edwards demonstrated with his own life decisions that each of us is called by God to consider our role and contribution to the Great Commission.

Not everybody will be like Edwards and become a missionary. However, a common sentiment is that one must receive some sort of specific call in order to serve cross-culturally. The reality is that each of us should have a specific call to whatever type of work God has designed for us. Equally true is that vocation is only one part of participation in the Great Commission. Nobody is exempt from contributing to the work of God in the world. It is a sad fact that few ever seriously consider their own role in this, the greatest of endeavors.

In 1806, Samuel Mills led a prayer meeting in Hoosack, Massachusetts. He and four others were praying when a heavy rainstorm struck. They dove under a hay stack, perched off the ground with a pole. As they prayed, they realized that they were always praying for missions but never asking themselves what their role in missions would be. They began doing this, and the Student Volunteer Movement was born.[13] Global Christians recognize that God is not asking just for our compassion, understanding, prayer, and money; God is asking us for our very selves.

What would happen if our natural inclination was to serve cross culturally unless we were specifically called to a “home assignment” in the Great Commission? In 1734, when the first wave of the Great Awakening began to spread across New England, Edwards was involved in the formation of a new missionary agency, the Stockbridge Mission (he would later serve in that agency).[14] Even as a “support person” before he went out as a missionary, Edwards showed his concern for the unreached Indians.

Perhaps you will never actually go as a cross-cultural missionary. It is no second-class role to be a sender, especially if that is God’s ordained role for you to fulfill. Global Christians know that each of us has a part in reaching the world for Christ.

Conclusion

Imagine for a moment the rustic conditions of New England in the 1750’s in Northampton, the town where Edwards was a pastor. Now move your thoughts to life on a mission station, even more rustic, at the far reaches of known European settlement. Not only did Edwards face a language barrier, a huge cultural chasm, and disease, he had a discouraging and on-going dispute with the congregants of his past church. There were bands of marauding Indians that came through their small settlement. He was frequently ill and battled against the land-hungry whites who eventually forced many of Indians to leave the area. Despite all of this, Edwards taught the Indians, led a small congregation of whites, did fundraising, explored future missionary sites, and wrote theological dissertations.

In and age of extreme sports and a lust to experience all life has to offer, nothing satisfies like the Great Commission. Some do great things in the pursuit of adventure; others have adventure while pursuing great things. Jonathan Edwards is an early American hero and example to us. He lived a life worthy of the label, “Global Christian.”

[1] A few years ago I was a seminarian and took a course on systematic theology. I was quite surprised to find that there wasn’t a single systematic theology textbook available which lists “missions” as its own subject. Not only have modern theologians dismissed Edward’s missionary call, but others as well. B.B. Warfield’s account Edward’s of life in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, has the following sections: 1. The Period of Edward’s Preparation, 2. Edwards the Pastor, 3. Edwards the Theologian, and 4. The New England Theology. Evidently, Warfield did not consider Edwards ministry among the Indians worth mentioning (From the Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Volume IX, Studies in Theology, pp.515-538).

[2] Edwards actually wrote a number of essays on this topic throughout his life, including “Marks of a Work of the True Spirit,” and “Signs of Godliness.”

[3] Edwards, Jonathan, “The End for Which God Created the World,” The Complete Works of Jonathan Edwards, Banner of Truth Trust, 1974, p. 120.

[4] As quoted by Ronald E. Davies, Jonathan Edwards: Missionary Biographer, Theologian, Strategist, Administrator, Advocate – and Missionary, International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April, 1997. Authors note: This is the single best article that I have found regarding Edwards and missions. I use it heavily in the preparation of this article.

[5] “Personal Narrative,” in Jonathan Edwards: Representative Selections, ed. Clarence H. Faust and Thomas H. Johnson (New York: American Book Company, 1935), p 64. As referenced by Ronald E. Davies, Jonathan Edwards: Missionary Biographer, Theologian, Strategist, Administrator, Advocate – and Missionary, International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April, 1997.

[6] Edwards, Jonathan, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume II, The Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1974, p. 165. This quotation appears in an essay on “charity,” but the principle holds equally true for supplying the needs of missionary efforts.

[7] I felt the need to quote this reference as Edwards did using the King James Version. Other references are from the New American Standard Bible.

[8] Edwards, Jonathan, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume II, The Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1974, p. 281. Italics are preserved from the original.

[9] Ibid. Italics are preserved from the original.
[10] Ibid. Italics are preserved from the original.
[11] Ibid., p 284.
[12] Ibid., p 279.

[13] Howard, David M., Student Power in World Missions, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, William Carey Library, Pasadena, CA, 1999.

[14] Davies, p 60.