January 5, 2012

Jonathan Edwards and Broken Resolutions

by Nathan Busenitz

As we discussed last week, the seventy Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards exemplify an eternal and God-glorifying perspective that all believers ought to emulate.

But let’s be honest. A list of spiritual goals compiled by one of church history’s greatest heroes can be a bit intimidating, especially when there are seventy of them. When we make similar resolutions — and later fail to keep them — it can be downright discouraging to compare ourselves to someone like Jonathan Edwards.

Well, here’s a nugget of encouragement for you. Even a notable Puritan theologian like Edwards struggled to keep his resolutions.

As historian George Marsden explains about Edwards:

It was one thing to make such a thorough and impressive list of resolutions; it was another to keep them. This we know from his diary, in which he reported his efforts fairly regularly for the next year or two. Although he noted the spiritual highs that he later recalled, his diary also records many days of lows, “decays,” and lengthy times of inability to focus on spiritual things.  (A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards, 24)

Here is one such example from Edwards’s Diary:

The last week I was sunk so low, that I fear it will be a long time before I am recovered. I fell exceedingly low in the weekly account [regarding keeping my resolutions]. I find my heart so deceitful, that I am almost discouraged from making any more resolutions. — Wherein have I been negligent in the week past; and how could I have done better, to help the dreadful low estate in which I am sunk?

Sound familiar?

Like all believers, Jonathan Edwards experienced times of temptation, defeat, and discouragement. His ongoing fight against the flesh is reminiscent of the struggle Paul described in Romans 7. Edwards’s battle resonates with us because we wage that same war each and every day.

So, how did he overcome those times? Even after periods of failure and fatigue, what was the key to renewing his resolve?

The answer is as simple as it is profound. Jonathan Edwards realized that his resolutions failed when he tried to accomplish them in his own strength. They could not succeed unless he relied on God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit for their accomplishment.

In his Diary, Edwards explained that the key to his spiritual vitality was not the mere making of resolutions, but rather a full dependence on the Spirit and grace of God.

Here’s what he wrote:

I find, by experience, that, let me make resolutions, and do what I will, with never so many inventions, it is all nothing, and to no purpose at all, without the motions of the Spirit of God.  . . . There [must be] no dependence on myself. Our resolutions may be at the highest one day, and yet, the next day, we may be in a miserable dead condition, not at all like the same person who resolved. So that it is to no purpose to resolve, except we depend on the grace of God. For, if it were not for his mere grace, one might be a very good man one day, and a very wicked one the next.  (January 2, 1722)

Later that week, Edwards expressed his continual battle against sin with these words:

It used to appear to me, that I had not much sin remaining; but now, I perceive that there are great remainders of sin.  . . . Without the influences of the Spirit of God, the old serpent would begin to rouse up himself from his frozen state, and would come to life again. (January 5, 1722)

Here again, Edwards recognized that his sanctification was dependent on Spirit’s power.

In an extended section, during a time of spiritual discouragement, Edwards reiterated this point with vivid language:

It seemed yesterday, the day before, and Saturday, that I should always retain the same resolutions to the same height. But alas! how soon do I decay! O how weak, how infirm, how unable to do anything of myself! What a poor inconsistent being! What a miserable wretch, without the assistance of the Spirit of God! While I stand, I am ready to think that I stand by my own strength, and upon my own legs; and I am ready to triumph over my spiritual enemies, as if it were I myself that caused them to flee: — when alas! I am but a poor infant, upheld by Jesus Christ; who holds me up, and gives me liberty to smile to see my enemies flee, when he drives them before me. And so I laugh, as though I myself did it, when it is only Jesus Christ leads me along, and fights himself against my enemies. And now the Lord has a little left me, how weak do I find myself! O let it teach me to depend less on myself, to be more humble, and to give more of the praise of my ability to Jesus Christ! (January 15, 1722)

Edwards recognized that, without the armor of Christ and the strength that God supplies, he could not win the spiritual battle. Apart from divine grace and the power of the Spirit, he could not make himself holy — no matter how many resolutions he made. As he wrote on April 7, 1722, “I know, O Lord, that without thy help I shall fall, innumerable times, not withstanding all my resolutions, how often soever repeated.”

That perspective is helpful for us to remember, especially in a season full of resolution-making. Yes, we are to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Timothy 4:8). That means that to make spiritually-minded, God-glorifying resolutions is a good thing! It also means that the Christian life takes disciplined effort on our part.

But we need to remember that, while we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, it is God who is working in us to accomplish His perfecting purposes (Philippians 2:12–13). Unless we rest in His grace and walk in His power, we are doomed to discouragement and defeat.

When we are led by the Spirit, prayerfully submitting ourselves to His Word, we can be confident that God is molding us into the image of His Son. In that context, making and keeping resolutions is a wonderful part of the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life.

But when we try to better ourselves in our own strength, we will inevitably experience frustration and failure no matter how many resolutions we make. None other than Jonathan Edwards knew that to be true.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Nate,
    I appreciate your focus on the resolutions. There is obviously balance in our sanctification, and thanks for the warning against self-reliance.

  • I’m really thankful for this post as well. It’s true that reading Edwards’ list of resolutions makes him seem like a spiritual super-human. It’s encouraging to know that he struggled as well, and that he looked to the same sufficient Savior that I have to look to.

    I also appreciate that you have collected the relevant portions of his diary entries. These are connections that many of us would likely not have made if they weren’t arranged in close quarters like this.

    So, thanks man. 🙂

  • A very long time ago we had a disscussion about JE on the Shepherd’s Fellowship blog, and I posted these thoughts of mine about him and Benjamin Franklin. I was going to write somehting different, but I am so busy,and I wanted to at least say something because this is a really good article, Professor Busenitz. I wish that blog had not closed down. Mark Gaither (theologian and son-in-law to Chuck Swindoll) and George Mattern had so many good post and valuable things to say on that blog. I saved some things in word. Does anyone know if these posts can be retrieved?

    “While I was thinking about J.Edwards and his resolutions, it made me think of a cross comparison between JE and Benjamin Franklin. Benjamin Franklin devised similar resolutions, a calendar of virtues; temperance, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. He endeavored to live as uprightly as one could possibly live, in his own strength. But
    what makes these two men distinct from one another, is that JE was born again and BF was not. JE persevered in the faith and never gave up the battle of fighting sin, while BF’s attempts at righteousness were soon passed over, and he discovered that living with flaws was acceptable in his sight. One had the work of the Holy Spirit in his heart; the other found the futility of trying to be perfect in ones own strength…. exhausting.

    I pulled BF’s autobiography out to remind myself of this calendar he devised, because I had not read his autobiography since I was a small child. And if you or anyone gets a chance to read it for the first time or for the second, please read it. I was PLEASANTLY SURPRISED that he made mention of Mr. Whitfield, who we know better as the itinerant preacher of the Great Awakening, George Whitfield. The two were very good friends, and George W. made every attempt to see BF converted. It is a FASCINATING read. To think that these men’s lives providentially collided is just so INTERESTING. I had not expected this in the least when looking for this calendar of BJ’s, but the whole book speaks of BF’s life, which is intricately wound with religion, but was never able to penetrate his heart.

    Here is an excerpt in his words. “I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and though some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the Eternal Decrees of God, Election, Reprobation, &c. appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the sect…..

    There is so much more, but I hope people pull it up on the web, if they don’t have the book and read it. He even makes mention of Mr. Whitfield having a voice that could be heard for miles. This is something John Piper had an article about, I am almost certain it was George Whitfield, and Piper made mention of Mr. Whitfield’s strong and lucid voice that could be heard by large crowds for miles and miles. Even though BF did not agree w/ Whitfield’s flavor of Christianity, he admired the man greatly.

    If is so fascinating, I hope people read it, there is so much more he says about Whitfield. It always has fascinated me as to who of all the great thinkers of history actually believed in Christ. People can read or just scan the autobiography at: earlyamerica.com/lives/franklin/

    Don’t forget to look at BF’s chart of virtues and compare them to JE’s resolutions.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Mary,

      Thanks for your comment and the great comparison between Edwards and Franklin.

      The old Pulpit blog archives can be found at http://www.sfpulpit.com.

      NB

      • Thank you so much. I know about the old Pulpit Magazine, I will have to check and see if many of their posts are there. I also remember some of your articles on Shepherd’s Fellowship. Really good! 🙂

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