Why Was the Preaching of Jonathan Edwards So Effective?

The name Jonathan Edwards is the first many people remember when discussing the Great Awakening. His signature sermon, Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God, delivered 8 July 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut, was electrifying; with wails and cries in the congregation and the fear of God on the lips of His people. It is the most famous sermon of the Great Awakening, a move of the Holy Spirit in which an estimated 5% of the population of the colonies found the Lord.

In a communications class today, however, Edwards might have received a failing grade on delivery. Most modern speakers are taught to speak from notes, to gesticulate, to vary the inflection of their voices, and to mix current events, humor, and even music and drama into their preaching. Edwards did nothing of the sort. He was an academic who spent most of his work hours in his pastor’s study. He wrote every speech, choosing each word with exquisite care, and read the sermon in a monotone voice. Edwards was so nearsighted that he kept his text close in front of his face to see it. Sinners has neither jokes nor anything calculated to identify with or engage the congregation. Churchill, the foremost orator of the first half of the 20th century, would probably have commended Edwards for reading his sermons but condemned him for his presentation.

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What Was the Most Important Part of Luther’s Theology?

Luther’s allegiance to the Holy Bible (solo Scriptura) as the ultimate source of authority in Christianity was the most important point of his theology. It is hard for Christians in the 21st century to imagine how the first 350 years of the faith must have been, when the only Bible available was the Old Testament, possibly the Apocrypha, the gospels and the letters of Paul, and some other letters. There was no firm agreement on what constituted the inspired Word of God, and therefore the dangers of heresy were great.

It is little wonder, therefore, that the church came up with a combination of means to judge whether a teaching was orthodox or not. Creeds such as the Apostle’s Creed, which summarized the key points of Christianity, a single bishop in each city who served as the source of authoritative interpretation, and an increasing understanding of which books belonged in the New Testament and which did not, were the means by which the early Church defeated Gnosticism and a host of other heresies that could have destroyed the new faith in its cradle.

The danger, of course, in using such a combination is that believers are tempted to put creeds or authoritative teachers above the Bible. This is exactly what happened. At the Council of Carthage in August 397, church authorities recognized (they did not determine) which books should form the New Testament. These books bore apostolic authority, were consistent with the teachings of the Old Testament, the Gospels, and other Christian teachings, and they were recognized throughout the church as God’s inspired truths.

After the Bible was completed, the reasonable thing to do would have been to recognize that the authority of creeds and bishops is derived from and therefore subordinate to the Word of God. Creeds are useful teaching tools but are essentially mini systematic theologies and therefore necessarily oversimplify or even distort the truths of the Lord. Bishops are usually well educated and faithful and their word can be trusted, but they are still sinful men and liable to errors of omission and commission. Creeds and bishops were still needed because in cultures with few books and little literacy it is important to have such lesser authorities, but God‘s word was the ultimate authority.

What happened, unfortunately, was that the authority of the bishops was magnified, not diminished, until church leaders were presenting as truth teachings that were clearly falsehoods, such as the practice of indulgences. Unbound to the Bible, creeds also proliferated and promulgated misinterpretations of it. Over hundreds of years, these errors gained the authority of tradition and tradition, not the True Word, became the ultimate source of authority. Believers suffered greatly from both of these errors for centuries.

Luther came at a time when mass printing and distribution was possible and literacy was rising fast. Over a millennium after Carthage, he and others rediscovered what should have been apparent all along. The Word of God, not creeds based on it or bishops and other churchmen explaining it, was the real source of truth. Everything believers teach and do must be measured against the only real source of authority, the Bible, and not the other way around.

Tradition still has authority and much of what we do in the modern church, such as worship services at 1100 on Sundays, midweek prayer meetings, and Christmas on December 25th, is based on it. Creeds still have authority, because they are quick and useful ways to teach important Biblical truths to men. However, the Bible is supreme. Luther recognized this, and all of his other great contributions, such as sola fide and sola sacerdos, came from that foundation.

The Conversion of Augustine

Augustine, one of the most prolific and the most famous of the church fathers, was born to a Christian mother (Monica) and pagan father (Patricias) in the small town of Tagaste (Souk Arras in modern Algeria) in 354. His devout mother provided a home where he was nurtured in the Lord, and Augustine had marked spiritual sensitivity, but he was dissatisfied by the simple country preachers near his home. Desiring to give him every advantage, Patricias and Monica sent Augustine to study in Madaura and Carthage (370-375). He read Cicero’s Hortensius and was captivated by the intellect and language therein, moving away from his Christian background and towards philosophy. Given to sexual temptation, Augustine took a concubine, who bore him Adeodatus. Augustine went through a phase when he embraced Manichaeanism, a belief of rational dualism, but grew disenchanted when his concerns could not be answered. Augustine migrated to magic and astrology, and then moved with his mother to Rome at the age of 28 (382).

Having teaching experience in Carthage, Augustine was made professor of rhetoric in Rome (384). He had largely broken with Manichaeanism and one day went to a speech by Bishop Ambrose in Milan, a famous Christian, intellectual and orator. Ambrose presented a much more intellectual and, to Augustine, a much more satisfying explanation of Christianity and Augustine was interested. Simplicianus, a presbyter at Ambrose’ church, met Augustine and decided to try to lead him to the Lord.The story of how the famous pagan orator Victorinus became a Christian was also a great encouragement to Augustine. In Confessions, Augustine later wrote that he “burned to imitate him (Victorinus).”

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Jesus, an Example of Mentoring Leadership

How did Jesus mentor His disciples? How did He mentor others? How should we mentor those who look to us for leadership?

One of the greatest strengths of mentoring leaders is the ability to teach.  To reproduce himself, a man must teach, by words and by actions, those who are learning from him.  Jesus taught large groups and the people marveled at the wisdom and authority of His words.  He was doing His most important work, however, when He was teaching small groups of His disciples and other followers (Luke 24:32).

Mentoring leaders also use gifts of exhortation to mentor those entrusted to them.  Exhortation includes encouragement and instruction to do the right and wise thing.  After Peter’s proclamation of faith in Matthew 16:16, Jesus encouraged him.  After Peter denied Jesus in Matthew 26:69-75, Jesus encouraged him again (John 21:15-17).  Many times in the gospels Jesus exhorted His disciples.  Such gifts as exhortation and teaching are evidence of excellent communication, in this case sharing leadership principles and examples to the next generation of leaders.

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