Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Death of Faithful Ministers

I recently picked up a copy of The Salvation of Souls: Nine Previously Unpublished Sermons on the Call of Ministry and the Gospel by Jonathan Edwards. I got it for about $15, so I figured $1.60 per sermon is not too bad. For those who care, here is a short review of the first sermon:

"The Death of Faithful Ministers a Sign of God's Displeasure"
Why did the editors of this book (Bailey and Wills) choose to put this sermon first? I'm not sure.
A bigger question: If I heard this sermon preached today what would I think about it? I'm not sure.

In the introduction, the editors tell us that Edwards preached this sermon around the time three very popular ministers died. So, we learn that Edwards was motivated by current events and the desire to speak truth to the questions people were asking.
In Edwards own words, here is the main point of the sermon: "It is a manifestation of God's displeasure against a people when he takes away from them many that have been useful and serviceable amongst them."
In other words, these currents events are God's judgment upon us. If we don't humble ourselves and seek God's mercy, something really bad is about to happen.

Edwards bases his doctrine on several OT references, particularly the Babylonian Exile.
Edwards begins by affirming the sovereignty of God over each person's life. I found this section to be most helpful. He says, "God fixes every man's limits and designs the particular time of his death." From this, he infers that when God takes a person by death it is often in respect to what is about to happen or the people around them at the time. Then, he infers that when this happens involing people who are helpful to society (ministers), it is a sign of God's displeasure. He concludes by pleading for people to humble themselves under God's authority.

My questions swirl around proposition #3: the death of faithful ministers is a sign of God's displeasure (the title of the sermon). I wish Edwards had said, "Many times the death of faithful ministers is a sign of God's displeasure." Could not the death of faithful ministers be a gift of God's grace to the people? For example, as good and godly as Solomon Stoddard was, he does not compare to Jonathan Edwards. It was Stoddard's death that thrust Edwards into the Northampton pastorate. It looks to me like God was seeking to bless the people at Northampton by giving them a pastor who was to fuel the Great Awakening.

I'm not being critical of Edwards, just asking questions about what we mean when we say things. Did Edwards mean that when any good minister dies, it is always an act of judgment by God? I have trouble believing that. Would his sermon not had the same effect if he just made that a possibility instead of a gospel truth?

Would love to hear your thoughts.


Richard A. Bailey said...

I happened across your site from that of Scott Lamb and was pleasantly surprised to see your current post regarding Salvation of Souls. So, as one of the editors and transcribers, allow me to jump in with you. Why is this sermon first? Simply put--chronology. We aimed to include the sermons in the order in which JE preached them. Sorry, no grand scheme there. As to your other point, JE seemed to be like most other preachers of his day, namely, prone to interpret "calamities" as signs of God's displeasure with his chosen people. Harry Stout's The New England Soul, among other volumes, might be a wonderful place to see similar interpretations in the jeremiads of New England's puritan preachers.

As to comparing Stoddard to JE, I understand your point, but even JE recognized the extent to which his maternal grandfather had provided much of the foundation (both good and bad, for that matter) for his own pastorate in Northampton. Stoddard, as you certainly know, had experienced several similar "refreshings," as JE called them.

justin said...

Wow. When I posted my few thoughts, I had no idea one of the editors would be commenting. I guess I'm glad I didn't know because then I would have tried to act smart and impress. Lord, kill my pride!

Thank you Richard A. Bailey for commenting and clearing up some of my questions.

Richard A. Bailey said...

I'm certainly not discouraging you to criticize JE when he needs it, Justin. I hope you find the volume challenging, as well as encouraging. And I look forward to seeing more of your reflections on it. Thanks.