There is nothing like a good examination of conscience.
I say this in a very different spirit than that of one who has just enjoyed a homemade meal. And yet, after all is said and done, I have been nourished. On the daily commute, I listen to audio books, and it so happens that I recently began Edwards’s Religious Affections. It was an unexpected Lenten grace.
What I thought was to be a treatise on the inner life of the Christian was instead a convicting examination of the profound importance of Christian practice.
A few years ago, it would have been easy to hear Edwards as an enemy to the doctrine of grace, a man of works righteousness. Instead, I heard in his work the divine prerogative to walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16).
In fact, a great part of the power of Edwards’s work lies in its ability to free one from the “excuses of grace”–a tendency to overemphasize my good intentions and small doings, and to minimize sin, lethargy, and spiritual fruitlessness.
In some sense, that has been the risk of grace from the very beginning (Romans 6:1). And in today’s culture of ‘grace’, it is almost the sin of doubt to be brought low by an examination of one’s daily practice. To examine one’s own outward walk can come close to a kind of Pelagianism. Even when I do perform such an examination, I am prone to:
- exaggerate the good
- minimize the bad
- credit myself from the past
- project good deeds into the future
Here in was for me the gift of Religious Affections.
The great freedom and power of Edwards’s work is to distinguish works righteousness from an examination of Christian practice. In doing so, he makes clear that, while we are not saved by our works, it is our practice which is the surest sign of God’s work in us. Edwards shows through scripture and common sense that it is our daily practice which is the best sign of “truly gracious and holy affection.”
You may bethinking ‘well, duh,’ but I am slow of hearing, and Edwards did some much needed clearing away of objections. In listing such objections to the significance of Christian practice and then detailing the nature of such a life, I was repeatedly encouraged to ask disturbing questions. Among some of the most powerful reflections stirred in me were these:
- Whom have I made time for recently when it was not to my convenience or benefit?
- Whom have I befriended or been patient with other than those who please my affections or flatter my self-image?
- In what areas have I demonstrated self-control: in speech, in bodily pleasures, in humor?
- When have I restrained anger or my tongue and showed respect, love, and kindness instead?
- Have gratitude, praise and blessing, rather than curses, been on my lips?
- Have my thoughts and words been about those things which are above and not of loose and idle talk?
- Have I given of my substance or only of my excess?
- Do people look at me and give thanks to my Father who is in Heaven?
In a sense, I could summarize what I got out of Edwards’s work in this manner:
- It is not enough merely to desire to please God.
Good intentions often lead nowhere, and desire alone does not provide me with a path to follow. Without a guide or path, I choose my own measure and my own way. In doing so, I can get pretty smug and self-assured.
Whenever I think God-and-I are taking names and kicking butt for the kingdom together, I have lost sight of what is my joy and peace: that He has graciously given me the ability and opportunity to do his work and to be of service to his children.
It is only in such a spirit of gratitude that I abide in His love.
The reading brought me quite low, and part of me kept wondering whether it was a healthy text for me to be reading. I have to say that I do not believe the core of salvation, faith in Jesus Christ, is quite so simply or obviously transformed into works. And without such a core (which is salvation), all the works in the world are but empty instruments.
Yet, I believe this would be a point of agreement between Edwards and myself. Ultimately, godly sorrow won out (2nd Corinthians 7).
Edwards’s work was a great reminder to truly seek those things which proclaim Jesus’ good name. For me, it is not enough to vaguely pursue holiness. I need concrete guides and reminders, from God, from Scripture, from living people, and elsewhere. And all this must finally culminate in deeper conversation with my Father, from whom, alone, will come any inner transformation. For a short but encouraging piece on this, check out an old post from my pastor, Nate Shurden’s blog.
Ultimately, it is God who will bring this work of His to completion.
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