If you were to line up all 15 billion or so people who have ever lived in order of most godly to most vile, whereabouts would you place Jonathan Edwards? I’m not asking for exactitude, just a rough estimate, rounded off to the nearest billion.
Factors you might want to consider include: Edwards (1703-58) repented and embraced the grace of Christ as a young man, worked as a faithful and exemplary pastor for decades, preached arguably the most influential English sermon ever (one credited with starting the Great Awakening), raised a dozen godly children, was a devoted husband, wrote countless helpful theological works, volunteered to be a frontier missionary to a tribe of Native Americans, and all the while recognized his utter dependence on God and modeled humility and purity.
My guess as to where Edwards features in the godliness line-up would be somewhere in the top—I don’t know— two billion, to be safe? I’m certain we would all agree that he should be at least in the upper half of the virtue queue. (The list includes all the Amalakites, Nazis, serial killers, bohemian hippies, and all the lukewarm Christians in history).
The reason I ask is because I was quite taken aback when I read where Edwards ranked himself…
Jonathan Edwards ranked himself dead last.
He wrote in 1725: “I have had a vastly greater sense of my own wickedness, and the badness of my heart, than ever before my conversion. It has often appeared to me that if God should mark iniquity against me I should appear the very worst of all mankind—of all that have been, since the beginning of the world to this time, and that I should have by far the lowest place in hell.”
When I first read this the thought occurred to me that surely he was given to hyperbole, or at worst this was false humility. I mean the list at that stage, though it didn’t include Hitler and Ted Bundy, it did cover the people before the flood who “only did evil continually” (Gen 6:6), oh, and Judas Iscariot. But then I remembered someone else whom I consider to be a paragon of godliness, and in the heady upper climbs of the top most echelons of sanctification: the Apostle Paul. But Paul also ranked himself least of all people, dubbing himself as “the chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15).
Is it possible that the godlier you become, the more repulsive your sin is to you, the more sensitive you are to your sin, and the more you grieve over your sin? There are a handful of top tier folks who think so.
They think repentance or mourning of sin is but one act. … It is a dangerous mistake, for we need to know that a true sorrow for sin, true repentance , is a continual act that must abide all our lives.”
The more a true saint loves God, the more he mourns for sin.”
J. C. Ryle:
I am convinced that the first step towards attaining a higher standard of holiness is to realize more fully the amazing sinfulness of sin.”
A. W. Pink:
It is not the absence of sin but the grieving over it which distinguishes the child of God from empty professors [of faith]”
As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.” (2 Cor 7:9)
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4)
Donald Whitney’s excellent little book, Ten Questions to Diagnose your Spiritual Health, has a chapter in it titled “Do you still grieve over your sin?” In it Whitney makes a compelling argument that the more spiritually mature you become, the more in tune you are with your sin, and the more you mourn over it. But he anticipates this objection: is it healthy to focus on sin rather than grace? His answer is simple: you need to do both. The more you mourn your sin, the more enraptured you are with the grace of Jesus to die for you and forgive you, and in turn the more sanctified you grow. When you grieve over sin, you fight temptation more vehemently, and thus experience quicker growth in godliness.
Whitney does warn against overly introspective meditation that leads to unproductive spiritual depression; as did Paul: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor 7:10)
But he also believes the church today is not in any danger of overemphasizing a sensitivity to sin, but if anything needs a reminder of sin’s seriousness to balance out the emphasis on grace.
I know this post might induce a seizure in Tullian Tchividjian. He is famous for his commendable crusade to re-introduce a focus on what Christ has done for us, vis-à-vis the perceived preoccupation in church with what we need to do in sanctification. I’m not sure what circles he moves in, but the evangelical province I inhabit may benefit from a tad more: “Hey, Christlikeness doesn’t happen by osmosis, it helps if you set your alarm clock, read your Bible, pray, and maybe serve in the church once in a while…” and less “Meditate on what Jesus has done for you, and the rest will fall into place.”
I’m curious to know if you agree with me that grieving over sin is a healthy diagnostic of your spiritual health. Just bear in mind if you disagree all I can say is I’m sorry, but I don’t feel that badly about it.