Salvation and Jonathan Edwards

Question
I am sure you heard of Jonathan Edwards and wanted you to comment on his language upon his conversion. I think you know the story about how he was on his horse, and seeing God's beauty he started meditating on this and his heart and mind were warmed with God's beautiful attributes — how he saw beauty in that and not just God's love. In other words, he mentions loving God for only loving us and the benefits he gives us is a self-love and not true saving faith. I guess it is possible to just love God for his benefits ONLY, like escape from heaven or hell. Maybe this is what Edwards meant, but as long as there is some spark of seeing God's beauty (like his love for us through his mercy) doesn't that still count? We can't see all of his beauty from the start can we? Yet, Edward's way was opposite, as this came before conversion, not after. Can you explain this as he says people who just only love God for loving them and the benefits are self-lovers and not saved.
Answer
Thanks for your question.

Edwards wrote about his conversion and life experiences in a number of places (e.g., The Works of President Edwards). While he talked about the significance of identifiable conversion experiences, it seems to me that he described his own conversion as a fairly long process punctuated by memorable events. I'm not entirely sure he could even identify a precise moment he came to saving faith. I don't think Edwards would have insisted that an apprehension of God's beauty is necessary for salvation. He wrote about discerning true and false conversions in The Distinguishing Marks …. In section 2 of that work, he mentioned five marks of true conversion (he also talked about self-love that masquerades as saving faith). I would summarize those five marks as being:

  1. Belief in and esteem of the historical Jesus reported in the Gospels.
  2. Repentance from sin.
  3. Belief in the truth and divine inspiration of Scripture.
  4. Recognition and embracing of truth.
  5. Love for God and humanity.
Edwards described these things as increasing as a result of conversion. He expected that none of them would be fully developed at the moment of conversion, but simply that they would be greater than they were before conversion. Moreover, his broader teachings indicate, in my estimation, that he expected these qualities generally to increase over time.

With regard to these distinguishing marks, I think it's important to note that Edwards was mostly explaining how someone that was already part of the visible church could be confirmed in saving faith. This was as much a pastoral concern for him as it was a theological concern. His goal was to provide practical guidance for the churches where new converts were members.

I think these are reasonable standards to use to evaluate questionable professions of faith, especially when made by people we already know. But I don't think these same standards can rightly be applied to all new professions of saving faith. There's no indication, for instance, that the apostles withheld baptism from the converts made on the first Christian Pentecost until those converts demonstrated increased love for God and humanity (Acts 2). In fact, at Cornelius's house, Peter didn't even both to finish his gospel presentation before baptizing the lot of them (Acts 10).

While I would hesitate to define the bare minimum of saving faith, I feel comfortable with the general definition that it is: (1) accurate belief in God and the person and work of Jesus; (2) confession of and repentance from sin; and (3) trust that God will mercifully grant forgiveness and life. None of these elements can be perfect this side of glory, but they should all be present in some form.

So, can we be saved without an apprehension of and appreciation for God's beauty? Absolutely. After all, until we're glorified our salvation will always be a work in progress. Hopefully, we'll grow in our understanding of God's beauty and other attributes throughout our present lives. Later, when we're glorified, we'll have an uncorrupted understanding of God's beauty. But even that is likely to grow throughout our everlasting lives.

In this sense, even though true conversion doesn't necessarily include an appreciation for God's attributes, it bears the seeds of everything good a human being might be or do. These seeds grow at different rates in different people, and they won't reach their fullness until we're glorified. So, while a lack of growth should cause us to consider and perhaps repent, it isn't proof that we aren't saved. On the other hand, real growth, paired with saving faith, should assure us that we're spiritually maturing and becoming more like Christ.

I hope this is helpful.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.