Papers from Hillsdale College (1998)
REL 319 -- Eighteenth Century Theology:
Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

God's Sovereignty: The Root of Evangelism

by Katy Shamess

Near the end of the eighteenth century, a young Baptist minister named William Carey suggested that his church begin to send missionaries to people who had not heard the gospel. The elders of the church confronted him with the most damaging argument against evangelism that the world has ever faced. "Sit down, young man," they said. "When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine" (Travis 323). Fortunately, Carey ignored their words, but the reasoning behind this rebuke still threatens the modern evangelical church. If one accepts the doctrine of divine sovereignty and therefore, predestination, many people question the church's role in evangelism. Jonathan Edwards, several years prior to Carey's request, addressed this very issue. A powerful defender of the sovereignty of God, Edwards nonetheless supported the efforts of missionaries. According to Edwards, the sovereignty of God actually requires a Christian to go forth as a witness to the unreached. Although the doctrine of divine sovereignty states that God decides whom He will save, Jonathan Edwards contends that the true Christian, in response to God's sovereign power, must be a witness to the world in order to be obedient, and therefore, to glorify God.

In a seemingly unending series of sermons and treatises, Jonathan Edwards addresses nearly every theological question imaginable, but no sermon exists in which he directly addresses how to reconcile God's sovereignty with His commandment that His people be witnesses to the world. However, he actively supported missionaries, the most notable being David Brainerd, and spent several years among the Indians in Stockbridge himself. He was also an active participant in and a catalyst of the Great Awakening in New England, during which time he helped to fan the flame of revivalism. In the midst of these revivals, Edwards received the brunt of the criticism concerning the validity of the conversions. In response, he wrote several papers and sermons defending the results of the revivals and the methods employed to bring about the conversions. From these works, one discovers that Edwards viewed evangelism as an indispensable part of the Christian life because it brings glory to God and is an act of obedience.

In his writings and sermons, Edwards firmly establishes the idea that God has absolute sovereignty over the world. Any Christian should admit that God is all-powerful. He created the world and everything in it. God is holy and perfect. He makes no errors, and He can not abide any sinful being near Him. A God so worthy of glory can choose to order the world He created in any way that He sees fit, even if it does not appear right to men. Since He is all-powerful, God may also deal with those men however He wishes. Since man is sinful, God must condemn him in order to remain consistent with his perfect nature. Edwards explains, "The sovereignty of God is his absolute, independent right of disposing of all creatures according to his own pleasure" (Sermon IV, 850). He could allow all men to perish eternally, but in His sovereign mercy, He chooses to offer grace to some people in order that men would see his glory and worship Him. The extension of grace to sinners comes solely from God. Edwards warns, "Those who are in a state of salvation are to attribute it to sovereign grace alone, and to give all the praise to him, who maketh them to differ from others" (854). This act of mercy is a condescension for God; by saving some, He chooses to bind Himself to men, creatures who are infinitely inferior to Him. All of this, however, happens only because God decided that it should.

Because God possesses this sovereign control over his creation, Edwards believes that He is worthy to be glorified. In fact, Edwards contends that God's purpose in creating the world was to bring glory to himself. Edwards explains, "Whatsoever is good and valuable in itself, is worthy that God should value it with an ultimate respect. It is therefore worthy to be made the last end of his operation" ("End" 97). The only thing good and valuable in itself, as already demonstrated by his sovereignty, is God. Therefore, to be consistent with his own nature, God has to make his own glory his last end. Edwards goes on to say that God created the world in order "to communicate himself, or diffuse his own FULNESS" (100). By communicating his greatness to his creatures, God receives glory, which is the goal toward which he works. He also employs his elect toward this end, for the redemption of sinners is another means by which God is glorified (110). Therefore, all of the elect should strive to be mediums by which God's completeness, through the redemption of sinners, is conveyed to the world. However, though Christians may be the means by which other people hear the gospel, only God can give faith (Packer 97). That faith is given to some and withheld from others in such a way that God receives glory. Romans 9:22-23 asks, "What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath--prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for his glory?" God's elect could not comprehend God's merciful acts if He granted mercy to everyone. However, to those who confute God's right to choose to whom He will show mercy, Deuteronomy offers a reply: "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of the law" (29:29). It is impossible to know the mind of God, but that does not change the fact that God's people must obey his commands. Since He says to his people, "You will be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8), each Christian must take the responsibility of evangelism on himself.

Edwards, who recognizes the "infallible and sufficient rule" ("Marks" 260) of Scripture, urges Christians to base their beliefs on God's Word instead of church tradition. Not only is God's word perfect, but it is all that a Christian needs to determine how he should act. If one truly examines Scripture, he has no choice but to obey Jesus's commandment in Matthew 28: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." Besides directing the elect to be His witnesses, this verse also requires that they obey God's commands. During the Great Awakening, people followed this directive. For the first time in New England, the regenerate were coming to God in large numbers. Many people observed the large number of converts, however, and condemned their conversion experiences as false simply because they were so different from anything that the Puritan community had seen before. In response to this attitude, Edwards composed a treatise entitled "Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God" to describe the reliability of signs that a conversion was of God. Edwards first cautions against rejecting signs of conversion when they do not seem to follow the normally expected pattern. He warns against rash judgments, for "what the church has been used to, is not a rule by which to judge" (261). Due to God's absolute sovereignty, He is not bound to work in people's lives according to any kind of set pattern. Edwards offers a brief reminder concerning the extent of God's power: "We ought not to limit God where he has not limited himself" (261). Instead, His sovereignty allows Him to work in ways that are totally unexpected in order to demonstrate his divine authority.

Many of Edwards' signs that a work could be from the Spirit point to the notion that God uses people to convey his power to the unsaved. This requires obedience. For instance, he highlights the fact that Christ's kingdom came to earth and caused a great stir. In Acts 17:6, officials from Thessalonica refer to Paul and Silas as "these men who have caused trouble all over the world." Without question, they "caused trouble" because they followed Jesus's commandment that they be his witnesses to the world. This commandment, though, applies to every Christian. Edwards urges his contemporaries to be more like Paul and Silas, for they "filled the world with noise, and gave occasion to some to say of the apostles, that they had turned the world upside down" ("Marks" 262). When God's people go out into the world and preach the gospel as they are commanded to do, Edwards believes that the unsaved will take notice; therefore, a great commotion is not indicative of a false revival, but may actually point to a work of the Spirit.

Furthermore, a Christian endowed with the virtues of Christ will overflow with love to the unsaved. Edwards' treatise on The Nature of True Virtue explains more fully why it is necessary that Christians act as missionaries. Edwards emphasizes that men are incapable of doing anything in themselves that will benefit God. Men can not do anything that God needs because He is complete in Himself, "yet we may be the instruments of promoting his glory, in which he takes a true and proper delight" ("Virtue" 125). Christians promote God's glory only when they give love and respect to Him. That love is simply a reflection of God's love for men. Edwards contends that "true virtue consists in love to being in general." He explains, "No one act of the mind or exercise of love is of the nature of true virtue, but what has being in general, or the great system of universal existence, for its direct and immediate object: so that no exercise of love, or kind affection, to any one particular being, that is but a small part of this whole, has any thing of the nature of true virtue" (123). God's love is toward being in general, not toward any particular person; a true Christian possesses some knowledge of God's heart. Therefore, a Christian's focus should also be on the greatest good of mankind. In fact, Edwards believes that "the good of a particular being, or some beings, may be given up for the sake of the highest good of being in general" (123). To one of God's elect, the highest good that can be shared with another is the truth of salvation. The ability to share with others the news of God's grace is a sign of the indwelling of the Spirit, and a display of the virtue that David Brainerd defined as "acts that flow spontaneously from the indwelling spirit of grace" (Pettit 13). People who are truly regenerate will share the news of the gospel with others because the Holy Spirit will compel them to do so. Edwards asserts that if Christians have knowledge of hell and know that most people go there, "it would be morally impossible for us to avoid most earnestly setting before them the dreadfulness of that misery" ("Marks" 266). A person who is truly regenerate will share his faith with those who do not have it because it is the best thing for humankind in general. In his biography of David Brainerd, Edwards identified this benevolence toward being in general with true sainthood (Pettit 13). His definition of sainthood is negotiable, but it is difficult to dispute the Christian's responsibility to share the knowledge of salvation that could help to save another.

Edwards also believes that, in order to give glory to God, the Christian's actions should clearly demonstrate God's character and his desire to save all men. The apostle Paul concisely explains how a Christian is supposed to behave: "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1). As the elect grow more like Christ, they begin to resemble Him. Since all people learn by the example of their peers, it is extremely important that a Christian's life reflect Christ. For this reason, evangelism encompasses more than just foreign missions. One can be a missionary in his own home as well as in a faraway land. People will follow a godly person's example if that person is truly obeying Christ. This fact becomes quite evident in Edwards' defense of the conversions occurring in his own town. In his "Narrative of Surprising Conversions," Edwards once again writes to defend the revival in which he was a prime factor. In it, the story of a young woman's conversion stands out as an shining example of the ways in which God works through his elect. Her conversion, which Edwards deems "a glorious work of God's infinite power and sovereign grace," seems to set the whole town on fire. Edwards says that "many went to talk to her, concerning what she had met with,"and that, when in company with her, every conversation seemed to turn to Christ. It amazes Edwards that the experience and lifestyle of a single person could have such an impact upon an entire town. However, he qualifies his story with the reminder that people received the Spirit "according to the measure of the gift of Christ" ("Narrative" 348). Though God has ultimate control over people's souls, the positive example of other Christians serves as a spark to set them on the path to salvation. God grants the Christian the ability and the desire to follow Christ's example, and to be an example both through word and action.

Though the command to evangelize applies to all of God's elect, Edwards makes some important distinctions between individuals. Some, like himself, God calls to be ministers in the pulpits, while others, such as Brainerd, have to go to foreign people and teach. The obligation to witness to the unsaved rests with every believer (Packer 46). Regardless of a Christian's specific calling, however, the guidelines that Edwards defines in "The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister" apply to any Christian who desires to obey God. He refers to the story of John the Baptist as an example of a godly minister, for he was chosen by God "to give his people the knowledge of salvation" (Luke 1:77). Now, there is no question that God could have shown the Israelites the truth of salvation without the help of John the Baptist, but he chose to use John to help him. In verse 76 he explains, "And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him." John, like all Christian missionaries, was commanded to share the gospel so that God could prepare Israel's hearts for Jesus's message. Edwards uses the analogy of a light to describe the function of his missionaries in the world. This analogy comes directly from Jesus, who says, "let your light shine before man, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:16). The elect are "subordinate lights," sent forth "to shine with the communication of his light, and to reflect the beams of his glory on the souls of men" ("Minister" 956). If Christ is the sun, then his missionaries are the beams of light sent to illuminate all parts of the earth.

In "True Excellency," Edwards continues his light analogy to emphasize that missionaries need to be able to share their faith. These attributes are the qualities of a "shining light." First of all, as a shining light, John the Baptist was more deeply versed in the gospel than any of the prophets who had come before him. His words have more impact because they are firmly rooted in the gospel; the truth of his statements can be easily verified. Edwards urges all ministers of the gospel to have a clear understanding of the Bible, and to be able to explain it clearly and concisely ("Minister" 955). An understanding of the Scripture, however, is worthless if one does not know how to teach what he knows to others and reach them on their own level. In order to testify accurately about Jesus Christ, the minister has to be a good conversationalist as well (958). Knowledge of divine things may be inexhaustible, but God can only work through that knowledge if it is shared. Finally, the shining light must know what religion is. This statement is probably in response to the controversy regarding conversion of ministers in New England. Edwards emphasizes that the shining light is "one that is truly acquainted with that Savior and way of salvation, that he is to teach to others, that he may speak the things that he knows, and testify the things that he has seen (957). It is the duty of the Christian, as Edwards' shining light, to learn how to explain his faith to someone else, using his knowledge of the Bible.

Next, Edwards expounds upon the requirements of a burning light, which refers to the spiritual life of a missionary. First, this minister has to have a spirit of "true piety." This piety displays itself in several ways. The pious minister will be consumed with love for Christ. That love for God will overflow into love for men, and the minister will have a burning desire to share his knowledge with the people who are lost. All of this, however, he does with the hope of advancing Christ's kingdom. His role as a burning light is also displayed in his fervent zeal for the kingdom of God. The Christian who desires to follow God on the mission field must, first of all, have a strong prayer life. He has to pray for and with the people to whom he ministers. Not only will his prayers be strong, but his preaching will be powerful. His life is marked by the "unfeigned earnestness and compassion with which he invites the weary and heavy laden to their Saviour" ("Minister" 957). Some people, for instance, will be so greatly moved by the power of preaching that they "are apt to engage in talk with every one they meet with" ("Narrative" 356). Finally, the burning light is a compassionate counselor to other Christians ("Minister" 957). Although Edwards spoke this sermon as the inauguration sermon of a New England minister, the precepts set forth are really just a brief overview of God's plan for a Christian in the secular world. Edwards believes that every Christian has the obligation to be a witness of Christ's love to the world.

The author of the universe is infinitely worth of the love of his creation. He commands his people to follow his plan in order that He may be glorified. God does not require anything from His creation, but He asks for obedience. To be obedient, one has to follow the mandate of the Great Commission. In doing so, men bring glory to their sovereign Creator. To the men who tried to keep William Carey from reaching out to those who had never heard Jesus's message of salvation, Jonathan Edwards offers this advice: "Let us all be hence warned, by no means to oppose, or do any thing in the least to clog or hinder, the work; but, on the contrary, do our utmost to promote it" ("Marks" 272). God's sovereignty does not remove the need for evangelism, but actually creates it.

Works Cited

Edwards, Jonathan. "The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God." The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. 2. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1997. 257-277.

---. "The End for Which God Created the World." The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. 1. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995. 94-121.

---. "Narrative of Surprising Conversions." The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. 1. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995. 344-359.

---. "The Nature of True Virtue." The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. 1. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995. 122-142.

---. "Sermon IV." The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. 2. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1997. 849-854.

---. "The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister." The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. 2. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1997. 955-960.

Holy Bible. New International Version. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995.

Packer, J.I. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991.

Pettit, Norman. Introduction. "The Life of David Brainerd." By Jonathan Edwards. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. 7. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985. 1-85.

Travis, William. "William Carey: The Modern Missions Movement and the Sovereignty of God." The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will. Vol. 2. Ed. Thomas R. Schreiner & Bruce A. Ware. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995. 323-336.

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Last updated: 25 May 1998