The Vanity of Jonathan Edwards

I read from Stephen Nichols (in Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edwards’s Vision of Living in Between) that Jonathan Edwards was voted out of his church after moving the church to closed communion. The change backfired in part because Edwards failed to cultivate deep friendships within his congregation that would support him through such a major change. He certainly has such friendships, but they tended to be with other ministers via correspondence.

This struck me profoundly.

I’ve heard it said that some ministers are great preachers, while others are great pastors. The adage contains plenty of truth. While I would never call myself a “great” preacher, I certainly know that I am a better preacher than a pastor. Like Edwards, I am more comfortable around books than people. And while this was an area of failure for Edwards and an area of targeted growth for me, I can’t help lamenting the vanity of it all.

Edwards was a certainly a great writer and preacher. Indeed, he could be called one of the greatest American minds, and the benefit and blessing of his studies continue to endure. In fact, although I have yet to read anything by Edwards, I am a secondhand product of his legacy. Piper’s concept of Christian Hedonism played a significant role in reawakening my faith, and Edwards was a prime influence upon Piper’s development of that idea. Thus, in some ways, the Father used Edwards mightily through Piper to mold my faith.

But Edwards also succeeded in another realm: as husband and father. With eleven children, the Edwards’ home was busy to say the least, yet he made time to lead them in the Word and to open his home in hospitality. Nichols states:

All accounts concur: this was a home where love reigned (p. 42).

In short, Edwards succeeded as a preacher, writer, husband, and father, yet in part, he failed as a pastor. Of course, it is easy to write this off as being simply the will of God. Or we could call it yet another example of the scourge of humanity in a post-Genesis 3 world. After all, even the godliest of men had their failings. We’re broken people in a broken world. What’s new?

But have you ever really let that truth sink in?

Despite his best efforts and successes, Edwards will always be remembered as a flawed man with failures to his name (the owning of slaves being among the most glaring). Life is a balancing of many spinning plates, and some will break. We will never fully practice all of the doctrines that we believe. That inevitability is easy to understand but difficult to make peace with. Our greatest works are never enough to offset our failures because the failures don’t magically cease to exist. We will fail. Our efforts will never be sufficient. We cannot be good enough. We will never be enough. Attempting otherwise is a striving after wind. This is the vanity of life, and it is a grievous evil.

Of course, we say that is why grace is so wonderful. We are failures who cannot hope to truly succeed, but Christ’s death has paid the penalty of our sins while granting us His own righteousness.

This is the gospel, the good news.

Yet how often do we really let that bad news sink in first?

The gospel shines brightly against the backdrop of sin, brokenness, and despair, but I rarely take the time to truly despair of myself apart from Christ. This often leads to an underappreciated gospel.

But why did Edwards’ failure strike me so deeply?

I think it’s the combination of studying through the book of Ecclesiastes and feeling a similarity to Edwards. Like him, I am a husband, father, and pastor. I also feel the pull in my soul to write about the glories that I find in Scripture. And I understand the comfort of a richly composed page juxtaposed against the anxiety of being around others. I feel the same pull for time as him. How can I maximize my efforts as a husband without neglecting my children? How can I be a great preacher without neglecting the necessity of pastoring? How can I prioritize writing without compromising every other arena of life? When my body is laid in the ground, what areas of my life will be remembered as triumphs? Which will be my greatest failures? What actions of mine will stand as an eternal testament to my sinfulness? If Ecclesiastes teaches anything, it’s that this is all vanity, futile and a grievous evil.

As briefly mentioned, stewing in this vanity helps my perception of grace. All too often, I claim that I live for the glory, worship, and exaltation of God, but my motives are all too self-aggrandizing. Cognitively, I know my sin and my need of a savior, but there must be a hole in my heart because that truth continues to leak out.

The glories and exaltation of self are a mirage, careful compositions that are littered with clashing chords. I think of myself as Mozart when I am little more than a toddler slapping the keys. God, however, has been playing greatest masterpiece ever designed, and by His grace, I am given the honor of being used as a single note within that magisterial symphony of history.

In Christ, we become instruments, failures and all, for magnifying His greatness.

O then for grace to see the vanity of self clearly that I might behold more of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ!

 

Thus in recognizing our lowliness, ignorance and vanity, as well as our perversity and corruption, we come to understand that true greatness, wisdom, truth, righteousness and purity reside in God.  – John Calvin

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