Introducing Edwards: Puritan Conversion

JEConversion cannot be manufactured! Salvation is all a work of God’s amazing grace. And yet how we seek out salvation is important. The Bible does call us to seek God’s salvation and yet often in the church today we tend towards one of two extremes: we either think we can control conversion, or we assume we must sit and wait. The Puritans offer us a better model for understanding conversion.

The Puritans of Edwards’ lifetime had turned conversion into a science…or at least that’s what they attempted to do. Conversion, of course, has always been a mysterious work of the Spirit of God. But the Puritans had developed no less than three principal steps in the process of conversion (sometimes there were more). First was “conviction” or “awakening” of a person to their state before God as a sinner and of the certainty of death. Second, was “humiliation.” Historian George Marsden notes:

Normally, following the first enthusiasm of their awakening, they would experience a backsliding into sin that would lead them to realize the terribleness of their sins and that God would be entirely just in condemning them to hell. (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 27)

This state was sometimes described as season of “terror.” To move beyond this stage, Marsden adds, “Potential converts not only had to recognize their guilt deserving eternal flames, but be ‘truly humbled’ by a total sense of their unworthiness” (28).

The third and final step was the most desired, and yet the most elusive. It was at this point that a person was in a place most ready to receive God’s Spirit. But there was no guarantee that they would. For all their diligent work in studying the signs of the Spirit in conversion the Puritans knew that they could not control or predict God’s Spirit. He would will to do as he saw fit. Though attempts to turn it into a science seem frustrated and confused, the Puritans understood several important things about conversion, which the Bible affirms.

First, conversion required sinners to see themselves as sinners before a Holy God. When Peter preaches the gospel to the crowds at Pentecost they cry out, “What must we do to be saved?” Peter urges them to “repent” (Acts 2:37-38). To see themselves as sinners before a Holy God and to cry out for mercy from Him. He repeats the concept again in chapter 3 verse 19. Paul states that God overlooked seasons of sin in the past in order that he might deal with sin in Jesus, but now is the time when God commands all men to “repent” (Acts 8:30). Part of conversion is certainly repentance.

Second, the Puritans understood that conversion could not be conjured up. Though they constructed a process, some with no flexibility to it, that led men to conversion, these men of the Scriptures knew that ultimately salvation was a gift of God’s grace. You could prepare yourself to receive, but you could no more force it to happen then you could raise yourself from the dead. George Marsden writes:

Unable to control God’s grace, one could at best prepare oneself to be in a position to receive it. So the steps leading through the gradual process of conversion were steps of “preparation.” The irony of the rigorous discipline was that one could not take any pride in successfully following it. One sign of being on the road to conversion was to strive fervently to keep God’s law, but it was only when sinners came to realize their total inability to succeed in keeping that law that they would be prepared truly to depend on God’s grace. Seldom has there been a spiritual discipline where so much effort was put into recognizing the worthlessness of one’s own efforts. (28)

Conversion is all of God’s grace. We can do nothing to earn it (Rom. 3:23-25; Eph. 2:1-9).

This is the religious context into wich Jonathan Edwards was born and raised. It is in this context that he encounters Christ. Both rigorous spiritual discipline and acknowledgement of God’s grace were part of his coming to Christ. Conversion was all of God, but the young man would encounter that God through seeking after Him.

We are often too quick to condemn spiritual discipline. Even the notion of turning conversion into a science seems distasteful to me. But the reality is that God has given us His Word, prayer, and the church as a means of seeking after Him. And if we are not willing to pursue Him why do we suppose He will grant us grace. Urge your non-Christians friends to seek after God, and perhaps in His grace the Lord will grant them conversion like He did young Edwards. Discipline is not the enemy of salvation if it leads us to recognize our inability to be disciplined enough, and our need for Jesus’s work. Grace and discipline went together in driving the Puritans towards Christ, they can still do the same for us today.

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