Jonathan Edwards and Social Issues
Social issues per se, or culture, are not prominent in Edwards' writings. Discussions of social issues and public policies and programs have about as much place in his writings as they do in the New Testament. Which does not mean that what he wrote was irrelevant to public life and culture, any more than that the New Testament is irrelevant. It was relevant - and is relevant - the way physics is relevant to space travel and bridge building. And the way microbiology is relevant to a ten-day round of tetracycline or the purification of drinking water.
It mattered to Jonathan Edwards, just as it should matter to us, whether a culture is diseased and scarred by fraud and bribery and wife-burning and witchcraft and foot-binding and marital unfaithfulness and teenage promiscuity and pervasive pornography and vigilante justice and rape and murder and theft and sloth and misogyny and pedophilia and dozens of forms of insolence and arrogance. Jonathan Edwards could not imagine a Christian being indifferent to the morals and manners of his own city or country. He said,
The spirit of charity, or Christian love . . . disposes a person to be public-spirited. A man of a right spirit is not a man of narrow and private views, but is greatly interested and concerned for the good of the community to which he belongs, and particularly of the city or village in which he resides. . . . And a man of truly Christian spirit will be earnest for the good of his country, and of the place of his residence, and will be disposed to lay himself out for its improvement.
That quote from a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 gives us a glimpse into the cultural scope of Edwards' concern for the world. But even that quote doesn't come close to the scope he really believed in. Edwards knew something that many social activists and culture-watchers in America - evangelicals and others - don't seem to know or care about, namely, that cultures and societies and peoples who have no Christian presence at all in them cannot even begin to experience social or cultural transformation. In other words, Edwards was deeply committed to world evangelization and cared as much (or more) about the advance of the kingdom among unreached peoples of the world as he did about the morals of Northampton, Massachusetts. He wrote to the evangelist George Whitefield in 1740,
May God send forth more Labourers into his Harvest of a Like Spirit [with you], until the kingdom of Satan shall shake, and his proud Empire fall throughout the Earth and the Kingdom of Christ, that glorious Kingdom of Light, holiness, Peace and Love, shall be established from one end of the Earth unto the other!
Transformation Requires Penetration
In other words, if you had asked Edwards, What is the really pressing, crucial issue of culture transformation in the world?, I think Edwards would have said, "The really pressing issue is penetration of a culture with the glorious God-centered gospel of Christ, because without penetration there is not the slightest hope of transformation."
I think Edwards would have considered it astonishing how many Americans say they care about social justice and cultural issues, but who don't seem to have the slightest concern for, say, the 579 people groups listed by the Joshua Project 2000 who "do not have a known church planting effort in their midst" - that is, 2000 years after the giving of the great commission by the Lord of the universe, there is not a single church, or a band of disciples or a solitary missionary in their midst. Not to mention several thousand other peoples with a barely discernible Christian presence and witness. Such peoples cannot even begin to trust Christ for the power and wisdom and love to transform darkness into light.
Jesus said to the apostle Paul on the Damascus road, "I am sending you, [to the gentiles, the nations] to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God" (Acts 26:17-18). Edwards knew that this was the only way transforming light would come to the peoples of the world - namely, by missionaries being sent with a message of truth about the triumph of Jesus over sin and Satan and death.
If Edwards were alive today, he would probably be on the internet this week, following what is happening this very moment (June 30-July 5, 1997) in Pretoria, South Africa, namely, GCOWE '97, the Global Congress on World Evangelization, with 4,000 pastors and mission executives and business people and leaders in theological education working toward strategic partnerships for the sake of completing the task of world evangelization.
These are the evangelicals who have a really "public life." If there is a problem today with privatistic religion, the worst form of it is not with pietistic evangelicals who don't care about block clubs and social justice and structural sin. The worst form is with evangelicals who think they are publicly- and socially-minded when they have no passion for millions of perishing people in cultures which can't begin to enjoy transformation because they have never experienced penetration with the gospel of Christ.
So the first message of Jonathan Edwards to modern evangelicals about our public lives is: Don't limit your passion for justice and peace to such a narrow concern as the church-saturated landscape of American culture. Lift up your eyes to the real crisis or our day: namely, several thousand cultures virtually unpenetrated by the gospel, who can't even dream of the blessings we want to restore and enhance for ourselves. That is his first message.
Embracing God for the Wrong Reasons
But even that is not the main thing Jonathan Edwards would want to say to us. Because the real narrowness of our souls is not signified by our failure to embrace the city and the nations, but by our failure to embrace God as God in all of our other embracing. Edwards' diagnosis of the narrow and confined and selfish interests of human nature is that we are all idolaters of the self and are only interested in ourselves, or - as an extension of ourselves - our own family or our own city or our world or even our God - to the degree that we see even God as a reflection of our own value. In other words, even embracing God can be narrow and limited and confined and merely selfish, if we embrace him only because he makes much of us.
In 1738, Edwards preached a series of messages on 1 Corinthians 13, later published under the title, Charity and its Fruits. His sermon on verse 5, "Charity . . . seeketh not her own," is entitled, "The Spirit of Charity, the Opposite of a Selfish Spirit." In it he gives his diagnosis of the human heart. It all began with the fall of man into sin in the Garden of Eden:
The ruin that the fall brought upon the soul of man consists very much in his losing the nobler and more benevolent principles of his nature, and falling wholly under the power and government of self-love. . . . Sin, like some powerful astringent, contracted his soul to the very small dimensions of selfishness; and God was forsaken, and fellow creatures forsaken, and man retired within himself, and became totally governed by narrow and selfish principles and feelings. Self-love became absolute master of his soul, and the more noble and spiritual principles of his being took wings and flew away.
What's important for our purposes here is that in the fall - that is, in original sin - the human heart shrank; it contracted to "the small dimensions of selfishness;" it forsook God and became the slave of private, narrow, limited self-love. This is the main problem of the Christian and his public life - whether modern or ancient. We love ourselves in a narrow, confined way, and are indifferent to others and society and the nations and God, except perhaps as they enhance our esteem or our private pleasures.
But now this raises a question - a problem for someone like me - who likes to use the term "Christian Hedonism" to describe Biblical obedience, and to describe the theology of Jonathan Edwards. Christian Hedonism implies that all true worship and virtue involves the pursuit of our ultimate satisfaction - which sounds very much like a form of self-love.
Even the title of this message (which I did not choose) forces this issue with the words, "Enjoying God, and the Transformation of Culture." The term "Enjoying God" seems to muddy things by implying I should get some pleasure for myself, when Edwards says that the very essence of human depravity is our bondage to "self-love."
If we tackle this problem head on, we will get very close to the heart of Edwards' ethics and see what a truly public-spirited person is.
Self-Love - a Negative Definition and a Neutral Definition
The first thing to say is that Edwards uses the term "self-love" in two very different ways - one negative and one neutral. The negative use is the most common. Here's what he says: "Self-love, as the phrase is used in common speech, most commonly signifies a man's regard to his confined private self, or love to himself with respect to his private interest." That's what he means by "self-love" in diagnosing our depravity.
It's virtually synonymous with selfishness. People who are governed by this self-love, he says, "place [their] happiness in good things that are confined or limited to themselves, to the exclusion of others. And this is selfishness. This is the thing most clearly and directly intended by that self-love which the Scripture condemns." He says this is what Paul has in mind when he says in 1 Corinthians 13:5, "Loves seeks not its own." That is, true, spiritual love is not governed by a narrow, limited, confined pursuit of one's own pleasure.
But Edwards also used the term "self-love" in a neutral way that does not necessarily involve sin, though it might. He says,
It is not contrary to Christianity that a man should love himself, or, which is the same thing, should love his own happiness. If Christianity did indeed tend to destroy a man's love to himself, and to his own happiness, it would therein tend to destroy the very spirit of humanity. . . . That a man should love his own happiness, is as necessary to his nature as the faculty of the will is and it is impossible that such a love should be destroyed in any other way than by destroying his being. The saints love their own happiness. Yea, those that are perfect in happiness, the saints and angels in heaven, love their own happiness; otherwise that happiness which God hath given them would be no happiness to them.
In other words, self-love in this second, neutral sense is simply our built-in capacity to like and dislike, or approve and disapprove, or be pleased or displeased. It is neither good nor bad until some object is fastened upon as liked and approved and pleasing. If the thing fastened upon is evil, or the fastening upon it is disproportionate to its true worth, then our being pleased by it is shown to be corrupt. But the sheer faculty of desiring and liking and approving and being pleased is neither virtuous nor evil.
He goes on to defend from Scripture this legitimate neutral use of self-love.
That to love ourselves is not unlawful, is evident also from the fact, that the law of God makes self-love a rule and measure by which our love to others should be regulated. Thus Christ commands (Matt. 19:19), "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," which certainly supposes that we may, and must love ourselves. [Note: this has nothing to do with the latter-20th-century notion of self-esteem. Edwards is miles apart from that notion.] . . . And the same appears also from the fact, that the Scriptures, from one end of the Bible to the other, are full of motives that are set forth for the very purpose of working on the principle of self-love. Such are all the promises and threatenings of the word of God, its calls and invitations, its counsels to seek our own good, and its warnings to beware of misery.
So Edwards sees that the Bible is replete with commands for us to "seek our own good" and with warnings to "beware of misery." This means that God's word assumes the legitimacy of the principle of self-love in the simple meaning of desiring and being pleased by what we think is good for us. This, he says, is virtually synonymous with the faculty of the will. Self-love is to the soul what hunger is to the stomach. It is simply there with our creaturehood; it's the inescapable desire to be happy.
The Essential Evil of the Human Heart
So now, when we compare these two kinds of self-love, we can see more clearly what Edwards really sees as the essential evil of the human heart and the great hindrance to a public life of virtue. What is evil about self-love is not its desire to be happy - that is essential to our nature as creatures, whether fallen or not - what is evil about self-love is its finding happiness in such small, narrow, limited, confined reality, namely, the self and all that makes much of the self. Our depravity is our being exactly the opposite of public-spirited (if we understand "public-spirited" broadly enough).
So self-love is a natural trait that man has by virtue of creation, and it has become evil because of its narrowness and confinement. We are evil because we seek our satisfaction in our own private pleasures but do not seek it in the good of others. We cherish our health and our food and our homes and families and jobs and hobbies and leisure. And we do not seek to expand that joy by drawing others into it. Our self-love, our desire for happiness, is narrow and confined and limited.
If self-love were not narrow, but broad, it would not necessarily be bad. For example, Edwards said, "Some, although they love their own happiness, do not place that happiness in their own confined good, or in that good which is limited to themselves, but more in the common good - in that which is the good of others."
But that raises a serious question: If true virtue is the broadening of self-love so that what makes us happy is not just our private pleasures, but the good of others, then how broad and inclusive does self-love have to be before it stops being narrow and becomes true virtue? How public and social or even universal must self-love be to count as virtue and not vice?
What makes this question so crucial is that Edwards knows that there are great acts of moral courage and sacrifice that are not truly virtuous. "If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing" (1 Corinthians 13:3). There are acts that seem to be noble, but are not virtuous. So what's wrong with these broad acts of self-love that even sacrifice life for others?
Edwards gives a stunning answer, which is why he is the great man that he is and why he is the man we need to listen to today. He said,
If there could be a cause (like self-love) determining a person to benevolence towards the whole world of mankind . . . exclusive of . . . love to God . . . [and] supreme regard to him . . . it cannot be of the nature of true virtue.
He says that self-love is confined and narrow and selfish - and not virtuous - until it embraces or delights in the good of the whole universe of being, or more simply, until it embraces God. If self-love embraces family, but not God, it is not virtuous. If it embraces country, but not God, it is not virtuous. If it embraces all the nations of the world, and not God, it is not virtuous. Why not? Edwards simply says, until self-love rises to embrace God, it embraces "an infinitely small part of universal existence." In other words, to delight in the good of all the universe, but not to delight in God, is like being glad that a candle is lit, but being indifferent to the rising sun. Apart from embracing God as our chief delight, we are (quite literally) infinitely parochial.
Virtue Can't Be Defined Without God
What Edwards is doing here - and this is the great achievement of his life, and the great message to modern evangelicals - is to make God absolutely indispensable in the definition of true virtue. He is refusing to define virtue - no matter how public, no matter how broad - without reference to God. He means to keep God at the center of all moral considerations, to stem the secularizing forces of his own day. And the need for such vigilance over God-centeredness is even more necessary today. Edwards could not conceive of calling any act truly virtuous that did not have in it a supreme regard to God. One of the great follies of modern evangelical public life is how much we are willing to say about public virtue without reference to God.
So what Edwards was trying to do in his definition of depravity - by focusing on the negative, narrow, confined, constricted sense of self-love was to show, in the end, that every act of love performed without a supreme regard for God as the object of delight has no true virtue in it. In other words, his treatment of self-love, like everything else he wrote, was aimed at defending the centrality and supremacy of God in all things. The only public life of an evangelical that counts as virtuous is one that savors and celebrates the supremacy of God as the ground and goal of its public acts.
Now one might think that Edwards has pushed the God-centeredness of virtue as far as it can go. What more can he say about the public virtue of Christians that would exalt God more or make him more central in it? Well, he has not gone as far as he can go. There is one more crucial question he raises about self-love and public virtue.
Self-Love Needs Transforming Grace
He asks, What if self-love does rise high enough and expand broadly enough to embrace the world and even God? Is there any reason to think that this embracing of God might not be virtuous? His answer is, Yes. He points out that "self-love" - even the neutral kind that is not evil in itself, the kind that is simply a love of happiness - is still a merely human and natural trait. It is not spiritual. It is not wrought by the Spirit of God. It does not require a work of special grace. This means that if embracing God can be accounted for merely from the root of such self-love, then it will be a merely natural thing wrought by what is resident in human nature. And though God be at the top of it, he will not be at the bottom of it. Man will be. If that were possible, we will have wrought our own virtue. And God would not be supreme in the cause of virtue, even when being the apparent goal.
I say "apparent goal" because what Edwards shows is that when self-love alone is at work to produce virtue, without any special saving, transforming grace - without the awakening work of the Holy Spirit - then self-love inevitably embraces God not for the beauty of his glory in itself, but for the natural benefits God gives. Mere self-love savors the gifts of God without savoring fellowship with God himself. And this, Edwards says, is not a true embracing of God himself. It is an embracing of the self, and of God only inasmuch as he makes much of the self. It is not true virtue, though it can be very religious. Here's the way he puts it:
This is . . . the difference between the joy of the hypocrite, and the joy of the true saint. The [hypocrite] rejoices in himself; self is the first foundation of his joy: the [true saint] rejoices in God. . . . True saints have their minds, in the first place, inexpressibly pleased and delighted with the sweet ideas of the glorious and amiable nature of the things of God. And this is the spring of all their delights, and the cream of all their pleasures. . . . But the dependence of the affections of hypocrites is in a contrary order: they first rejoice. . . that they are made so much of by God; and then on that ground, he seems in a sort, lovely to them.
In other words, self-love alone simply cannot produce true virtue - private or public - because it is merely natural and has no truly spiritual or supernatural taste or perception of divine beauty. Because of the fall, self-love is blind and seared in its capacity to discern and delight in the glory of God. It is, as the apostle says, not merely natural, but "dead in trespasses and sins." "The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him and he cannot understand them" (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Another way to say it is that self-love moves us to embrace what we perceive will make us happy, but self-love does not have the power to make what is good and true and beautiful look attractive. Self-love alone may move one person to make money, another to seek power, another to be a philanthropist, another to steal and kill, and another to pray and read the Bible and preach. But it is not self-love that decides what appears to the mind as most attractive and valuable.
Embracing God for His Gifts or for Himself?
So what does make the difference whether self-love embraces God or embraces money? Or more radically: what makes the difference whether self-love embraces God for his gifts or for himself?
Edwards answer is regeneration, new birth - a supernatural work of the Spirit of God in the soul, giving it a new capacity to see spiritual beauty and to savor the glory of God as something real and pleasurable in itself.
The first effect of the power of God in the heart in REGENERATION, is to give the heart a Divine taste or sense; to cause it to have a relish of the loveliness and sweetness of the supreme excellency of the Divine nature.
Self-love cannot give itself this taste or sense of divine beauty. That is why self-love cannot be the bottom or the final foundation of true virtue. "Something else," Edwards says, "entirely distinct from self-love [must] be the cause of this, viz. a change made in the views of his mind, and relish of his heart whereby he apprehends a beauty, glory, and supreme good, in God's nature, as it is in itself." Very simply, a capacity to taste a thing must precede our desire for its sweetness. That is, regeneration (or new birth) must precede the pursuit of happiness in God.
The Foundation of True Virtue
And therefore, regeneration is the foundation of true virtue. There is no public virtue without it. True virtue not only embraces God as its highest goal - and thus escapes the curse of infinite parochialism - it also confesses that God is the root and foundation of its origin. Here's the way the apostle Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 4:6, "It is the God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ." God touched the blind eyes of self-love and gave it an irresistible view of his own glory in the face of Christ. He did not kill self-love; he transformed it into a spiritual hunger for the glory of God.
So Edwards says, "The change that takes place in a man, when he is converted and sanctified, is not that his love for happiness is diminished, but only that it is regulated." Self-love now has a new spiritual, supernatural taste for what will truly satisfy. Self-love now says to God, "Thou dost show me the path of life; in thy presence there is fullness of joy, in thy right hand are pleasures for evermore" (Psalm 16:11).
The message of Jonathan Edwards to modern evangelicals concerning our public life is not mainly a message about what social cause to trumpet, or even what unreached people to adopt and evangelize, as utterly crucial as these are. His main message is that, if we would not be infinitely parochial, and failing in true virtue, our private life, our public life, and our global life must be driven not by a narrow, constricted, merely natural self-love, but by passion for the supremacy of God in all things - a passion born in supernatural new birth by the Holy Spirit, giving us a new spiritual taste for the glory of God; a passion sustained by the ongoing, sanctifying influences of the Word of God. And a passion bent on spreading itself through all of culture and all the nations until the kingdom comes.
"For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen" (Romans 11:36).
© Desiring God. Used with permission. Website: desiringGod.org.