Transcribing One of the Most Important Theological Documents in American Church History
Updated: Feb 10
Jonathan Edwards was a revivalist preacher who is often credited with sparking the First Great Awakening, a massive move of God that swept the nation (New England specifically) in the early to mid 1700's. Edwards wasn't a typical revivalist, though. He was one of those very rare blends of ministers who understood the power of God, yet was a savvy academic, truly one of the most intelligent men in the colonies at the time. His aptitude for reason and knowledge never overcrowded his reliance on the activity of the Spirit of God. In this man there was the right kind of mixture (Word & Spirit) to lead America's version of the greatest revival in world history. For the reasons I've mentioned, then, Edwards' written works are especially valuable, both for understanding this great move of God, and learning from someone who knew what they were talking about.
One of these valuable works was written both as a guide and a response to the many critics of the 1st Great Awakening. Because the outpouring of the Spirit was so intense at this time there were strange occurrences, unexplainable manifestations, unusual sounds and actions, and certainly many things that were foreign formerly to most Christians. A lot of these events were true and legitimate effects of God. Some of them were the work of the enemy. The Awakening's critics, however, were not typically able to distinguish between good and bad, but rather felt compelled to label it all as emotionalism, sensationalism, and a work of the devil in totality. Edwards' "The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God" was a reply to those critics. These "rules," as Edwards calls them, for determining between a true and counterfeit effect of God, are still very valuable to this day. To the best of my ability, I'm going to transcribe Edwards' rules in this blog in plain terms.
9 NEGATIVE MARKS
Unusual Occurrences - Nothing can be concluded, according to Edwards, by scrutinizing things that might qualify as "unusual." What the church or the people are "used to" should not and cannot be the metric with which a move of God is appraised. In other words, if it seems strange or unusual, that doesn't necessarily mean it's not God. If this was a proper measurement, as Edwards cites, then Pentecost would have been judged wrongly in Acts chapter 2.
Physical Effects - In the same way that an unusual occurrence shouldn't dictate our calculations, certain physical manifestations shouldn't either, like tears, trembling, groans, cries, agony, & the loss of bodily strength. Edwards' defense for this call to withhold judgment is that no such express rules to the contrary exist in scripture. In other words, scripture doesn't command us or even suggest to us that we should conclude something lacks the Holy Spirit because it accompanies certain physical attributes among people.
A Recognizable Change in Zeal/Affection - Edwards cites two scriptural examples to help explain this point.
a. In response to the pharisees in Luke 17:20, Jesus says that "once the kingdom comes people will not say, 'Look, here it is! or, 'There it is!' For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst."
b. from Acts 17:6 - "and when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city authorities, shouting, "these men who have turned the world upside down have come here also..."
Edwards' point is that a true work of God might have a recognizable outward effect... or it might not. If it were a pharisaical attempt to self-promote with pomp and pride, it would not be a true move of God. On the other hand, if this affection toward God caused a public stir, like in Acts 17:6, it could be.
"It is no argument that a work on the minds of people is not the work of the Spirit of God, in that it causes a great stir about religion." - Jonathan Edwards - The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God.
4. The Exercise of Imagination - Imaginative thought and expression should not be considered synonymous with a counterfeit move of God. Edwards cites two compelling reasons for this rule. #1. Comprehending things which are invisible (often times the things of God) cannot be done without imagination, & #2. Visions, trances, and transportations of the mind are all things that Edwards witnessed personally AND things that he saw recorded in scripture.
5. Following Another's Example(s) - A move of God in an individual cannot be disqualified or demeaned because it resulted from following another's good example. Edwards supplies plenty of scripture to back up this rule. Matthew 5:16, 1st Peter 3:1, 1st Timothy 4:12, etc... Further, Edwards likens the process of the great move of the Holy Spirit both in the book of Acts AND with America's 1st Great Awakening with this very order of things.
6. Unwise Conduct - Imprudent behavior, although not favorable, should not supersede a work of God in an individual. Along with Edwards' remark below, he draws on the scriptural example of Paul & Peter in Galatians 2:11-13. Paul rebukes Peter in this passage for his partiality against gentiles. But, as Edwards himself notes, "if a great pillar of the Christian church - one of the chief of those who are the very foundations of which, next to Christ, the whole church is said to be built - was guilty of such an irregularity; is it any wonder if other lesser instruments, who have not that extraordinary conduct of the divine Spirit he had, should be guilty of many irregularities?" In other words, if any unwise conduct should eliminate the authenticity of a move of God, then it should also in the case of Peter.
"We are to consider that the end for which God pours out His Spirit is to make men holy, and not to make them politicians.... A thousand imprudences will not prove a work to be not of the Spirit of God." Jonathan Edwards - The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God
7. Doctrinal Error - In the very same way as the point above, doctrinal error or theological mistakes do not necessarily nullify the work of the Holy Spirit in a person. Edwards states that infallibility is never to be expected of people as it were for the authors of the New Testament. He goes on... "And if many delusions of Satan appear, at the same time that a great religious concern prevails, it is not an argument that the work in general is not the work of God, any more than it was an argument in Egypt, that there were no true miracles wrought there, by the hand of God, because Jannes and Jambres wrought false miracles at the same time at the hand of the devil." In other words, the fact that errors or falsehood may exist does not mean that a work of God is occuring simultaneously.
8. Counterfeit Believers - "That there are some counterfeits is no argument that nothing is true; such things are always expected in a time of reformation." Edwards tackles the extreme argument that "because a counterfeit(s) exists, the whole movement is void" by recounting history's revivals. Each had innumerable examples of apostles (like Judas) or church leaders (like Nicolas of the Nicolaitians) who fell away into heresy. But, because Judas fell away into error and scandal certainly does not discredit Christ's ministry. Nor should the great power and multiplication of the Acts church be thrown out because Nicolas turned to abuse grace and play the part of a heretic.
9. Terrifying Preaching - An omission of the terrors of hell and the price of unrepentant sin is neither responsible nor completely straightforward for the preacher, Edwards argues. To omit this fact is doing the church a disservice, and to explain this fate in any way that isn't terrible and dreadful wouldn't be explaining it well at all. To omit it from teaching and preaching, too, would be omitting something that is plainly true and prevalent in scripture.
5 POSITIVE MARKS
Jesus is Exalted - The tell-tale sign of a true and authentic move of the Spirit, so long as it's given time to make its intentions known, is that Jesus is honored. Sooner or later the fruit of the move, whether accurate or counterfeit, will be made manifest. Does it honor Jesus or does it honor something else? (Philippians 2:11/1st John 4:2)
It Opposes Satan's Kingdom - How could we define Satan's kingdom? One in which sin is established, where destruction and death abound, and where accusation and worldly faculties are held in high esteem. Edwards sums up his point below, which can be condensed to simply this: sinfulness is exchanged for righteousness and worldliness is exchanged for heavenly citizenry...
So that we may safely determine, from what the apostle says (1st JOHN 2:15-17), that the spirit that is at work amongst a people after such a manner as to lessen men’s esteem of the pleasures, profits, and honors of the world, and to take off their hearts from an eager pursuit after these things; and to engage them in a deep concern about a future state and eternal happiness which the gospel reveals, and puts them upon earnestly seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and the spirit that convinces them of the dreadfulness of sin, the guilt it brings, and the misery to which it exposes must be the Spirit of God. - Jonathan Edwards - The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God
3. God's Word is Venerated - "A spirit of delusion will not incline persons to seek direction at the mouth of God." With this statement Edwards proves this point succinctly. It would be counterintuitive that a false spirit cause its exhibits to seek after and mature in the Word of God. Therefore, an apt test for the quality of a move of the Spirit is that it draws people in closer proximity to the Word of God, not further away from it.
4. Truth is Revealed - As the Holy Spirit is the "spirit of truth," Edwards explains, it would be natural then that an authentic move of the Spirit would lead people to true things, not falsehoods. If the move convinces its subordinates of the dangers of sin, the supremacy of God, the reality of eternity and judgment, etc. than it is indeed a true move of the Spirit.
5. Loving God and Others - The major tenet, according to 1st John 4, of those who are born of God and of His Spirit is that they love. But what of the world's version of love that might sound or seem good but might not actually be "good?" Edwards clears the air with this remark: "...the Christian virtue of humility shines in it [true love]; that which above all others renounces, abases, and annihilates what we term self. Christian love or true charity is a humble love."
To take such a profound classic as this great work from Edwards and make it digestible is no easy feat. I hope I've done this to some degree. It would do us good to remember this work and the many scriptural considerations that surround it as we welcome the Holy Spirit at Praise, and watch for and guard against anything that may jeopardize it.
JF D'ORSIE - COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR - PCC