Awakening an Interest in Evangelism and Edwards

Founders Journal · Summer 2003 · pp. 19-24

Awakening an Interest in Evangelism and Edwards

Peter Beck

In the closing years of the twentieth century and the opening rounds of the twenty-first, there has been a veritable explosion of interest in evangelism. A recent visit to an online bookstore revealed that there are at present nearly 2300 books available about evangelism. People are turning to gospel gurus left and right in their search for the perfect presentation, the most welcoming invitation, and the most adroit introit to the witnessing encounter. Given the explicit command of our Lord Jesus Christ, we should not be surprised by this interest. In fact, we should be quite pleased that modern Christians are seeking to fulfill the Great Commission in such large numbers.

However, our enthusiasm for evangelism must be tempered by a concern for biblical accuracy and doctrinal integrity. The primary way in which we are to ensure that our evangelistic fervor is well founded and guided is by turning to the Scriptures. There we find both the mandate and the message of our evangelistic call. Another way in which we can check our modern methods is to compare them with the effective models of those who have gone before. Augustine, Calvin, Carey, and Spurgeon all have much that they can teach us. The same can be said of Jonathan Edwards, America’s theologian, who saw over 300 come to a saving knowledge of Christ in six short months. It is to the evangelist of the First Great Awakening that we turn our attention.

Sinners, Seeking, and Salvation

While Jonathan Edwards never embraced Baxter’s call for door-to-door encounters with his parishioners, he was very much concerned with the condition of their souls. Edwards never tired of showing his hearers the errors of their ways and calling them to seek their salvation. An example of this call to seek can be found in the famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God,”

And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day whereinChrist has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in callingand crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many areflocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God.[1]

For some, Edwards’ evangelistic call for sinners to seek their salvation seems out of place, contrary to his Reformed theology. Given Edwards adherence to the doctrines of grace, they ask, how could he expect fallen sinners, trapped in their sin, to embrace a gospel that they, by nature, reject? Yet, it is this doctrine of seeking that makes Edwards’ model of evangelism so intriguing and effective. In it, Edwards recognized man’s sinful condition for what it is-total. Moreover, he addressed the gospel call to the total man, not just felt needs but real needs, all the while depending upon God’s sovereign grace to complete its work.


The nature of fallen humanity, Edwards believed, is totally corrupt and ruined by moral depravity. He explained the effect of man’s depravity in this way,

They are naturally, totally blind, wholly without any light…deprived of spiritual light…They never understand the meanings of the things that are [crucial] concerning Christ and the vital religion. They have many clear and plain instructions, an abundance of them, but they are never plain to them.… They never understand the way of salvation by Christ tho’ they have it so often described.… They are like dull scholars that go to school many years but never learn to read.[2]

The sin renders the heart “dull and stupid to any sense or taste of those things wherein the moral glory of the divine perfections consists.”[3] Moreover, man’s sinful nature, which streams from him like bitter water from a poisonous stream in the form of sinful acts and thoughts, leaves him unable and unwilling to choose that which is right. As a result, fallen man finds himself “utterly unfit to enter into the kingdom of God.”[4]


According to John Gerstner, the doctrine of seeking was “the keystone of [Edwards’] evangelistic theory.”[5] Seeking involves the pursuit of God’s gracious gift of regeneration. In seeking, the sinner attends to the means that God has appointed for salvation. He will place himself under the sound preaching of a godly pastor. True seekers should participate in the sacraments of the church that portray the gospel-baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The seeker should pray. He should study the Scriptures in order to understand God and his own sinful condition. However, seeking does not guarantee that salvation will be found for that is God’s choice alone. Yet, Edwards argued that there is no salvation for those who do not seek.

There are many other things besides faith,which are directly proposed to us, to be pursued or performed by us, inorder to eternal life, as those which, if they are done or obtained, we shall have eternal life, and if not done or not obtained, we shall surely perish.[6]

To that end, Edwards appealed to the heart, the mind, and the will of sinners, calling them to seek, to enter “the door of mercy” when it is offered to them, and find their salvation.

Moving the Heart

“The things of religion take place in men’s hearts, no further thanthey are affected with them,” Edwards wrote in Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival.[7] “Our people don’t somuch need to have their heads stored, as to have their heartstouched,” Edwards continued.[8] Apart from a change of heart there is no salvation.

Never was a natural man engaged earnestly to seek his salvation: never were any such brought to cry after wisdom, and lift up their voice for understanding, and to wrestlewith God in prayer for mercy;and never wasone humbled, and brought to the foot of God, from anything thatever he heard or imagined of his own unworthiness and deservingsof God’s displeasure; nor was ever one induced to fly for refuge untoChrist, while his heart remained unaffected.[9]

The evidence of heart that has been moved toward God, Edwards taught, is a recognition of the depth and despair of one’s sinful nature. True seekers reflect upon and consider their wretched condition. Persons who are seeking ought to endeavor to be convinced and convicted of their sin.

In the renewal of the heart, legal humility follows upon the heels of conviction. Seeing the sinfulness of his heart, a person has every reason to humble himself and lie low before God: “Such thoughts as these make the proud heart…come down low before the throne of grace.”[10] Humility “prepares the heart for God’s grace and makes it better.”[11] Humility leads to repentance. Edwards continued, “When once the heart has been thus broken for sin, it shall be forsaken; when once the sinner hath thus seen the vileness of it, he takes his leave of [it]-bids it an eternal adieu, desires to have no more to do with it.”[12] That is, the heart is turned and the life is changed.

For that reason, Edwards specifically addressed the hearts of sinners in his evangelistic messages. “Sinners at the same time that they are toldhow miserable their case is, should be earnestly invited to come andaccept of a Saviour, and yield their hearts unto him, with all thewinning, encouraging arguments for ‘em so to do, that the Gospelaffords,” Edwards wrote.[13]

Changing the Mind

Not only must the heart be moved, the mind of the sinner must also be changed.

For although to true religion, there must be indeed be something else besides affection,…there must be light in the understanding, as well as an affected fervent heart, where there is heat without light, there can be nothing divine or heavenly in that heart.[14]

To effect this change, Edwards argued for the powerful application of preaching to the natural man’s mind. The preacher’s job, and the evangelist’s, is to explain the truths of Scripture clearly and apply them as salve to human soul.

To which I would say, I am far from thinking that it is not veryprofitable, for ministers in their preaching, to endeavor clearly anddistinctly to explain the doctrines of religion, and unravel thedifficulties that attend them, and to confirm them with strength ofreason and argumentation, and also to observe some easy and clearmethod and order in their discourses, for the help of the understanding and memory . . .[15]

Edwards argued in Miscellany 539, “The knowledge of the rational arguments [presented in preaching]…prepares the mind for grace.”[16] Moreover, he encouraged his audience, pleading “all that desire ever to be savingly profited by the Word to get the understanding of it. With all your gettings, get this understanding.”[17] By this means God delivers sinful men from their ignorance.

To some sinners who seek, God imparts the saving, spiritual light of his Spirit according to his gracious purposes. In this, the Spirit unites with the mind of man and makes use of those resident faculties that sin had rendered useless. Spiritual light, Edwards argued, “reveals no new thing to men, but only gives a due understanding of them.”[18] In this way, the sinner who truly seeks develops a new and “realsense and apprehension of the divine excellency of things revealed in theWord of God.”[19]

When the mind of the fallen man has been thus awakened, Edwards said, his principles are restored, his mind enlightened, and he acquires the spiritual knowledge which transforms the heart and changes the will.

Altering the Will

Salvation mandates an outward expression and work of the will, Edwards taught. It is the conjoining of affections of the heart and spiritual knowledge that motivates the sinner’s will, enabling him to embrace his only hope, the gospel.

Edwards defined the will as “that by which the soul chooses.”[20] Edwards understood the operation of the will to be the outworking of human inclinations. Informed by the response of the heart and mind, these inclinations direct the actions of the seeker by leading him to choose one way or another. This choosing, so informed, always inclines to the greatest apparent good, according to the present state of the soul. Therefore, the sinner, his heart and mind totally incapacitated by his depravity, can and will only choose evil. The regenerate, once his heart has been warmed and his mind changed by the effective work of the Spirit through God-given means of grace, can and will make a choice for the better.

In the salvific process, the will, now quickened by the Spirit, is not only able to respond to God’s gracious offer, it has finally been made willing. The preacher’s call to seek becomes attractive to them; it becomes the greatest apparent good. “‘Tis plain from the Scripture that it is the tendency of true grace to causepersons very much to delight in such religious exercises.”[21] The person whose will has been altered will be henceforth inclined to do those things that are God-honoring and God-seeking. With his will now truly free, he seeks those means appointed by God to affect his salvation.


Edwards longed to shepherd his hearers through the door of mercy and see them embrace their Savior. He urged them to seek their salvation while remaining firmly committed to his Calvinistic understanding of the human nature. Sin has maimed the individual, heart, mind, and will. This depravity and its resultant destruction demand that man must be changed before he will be willing to flee to take hold of eternal hope.

This change, Edwards believed, necessitates intervention. The evangelistic sermon, used a tool by God, offers the preacher such a means. The preacher and his sermon, presenting the gospel in spoken form, become the means by which God imparts his saving grace to the individual who is otherwise bound by sin and devoid of hope.

Therefore, when he preached, Edwards sought to present the gospel and man’s dreadful condition in such a way as to effect a change of heart in his listeners. However, religious emotions, in and of themselves, fail to produce the necessary change. There must be an accompanying change of the mind as well. Once the heart has been touched and the mind changed, the will will follow. But man’s seeking is not enough. For the sermon to accomplish its mission of leading the lost to the door of mercy that they might enter in, Edwards maintained, one thing remained-God’s divine intervention, that divine and supernatural light that truly moves the heart, changes the mind, and alters the will.

In this way, Edwards held comfortably in tension the doctrines of man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty. He called on man to do the only thing within his power, seek after his salvation, and he counted on God to do everything within his power: change the fallen man. He was a Calvinist and he was consistent. He called men to seek.

It is the work of seeking salvation in a way of constantobservance of all the duty to which God directs us in his word. If wewould be saved, we must seek salvation. For although men do notobtain heaven of themselves; they do not go thither accidentally, orwithout any intention or endeavors of their own. God, in his word,hath directed men to seek their salvation as they would hope toobtain it. There is a race that is set before them, which they must run,and in that race come off victors, in order to their winning the prize.[22]


1Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in Jonathan Edwards: Basic Writings, ed. Ola E. Winslow (New York: Penguin Books, 1966), 165.

2Edwards, “Tho a People that Live Under Means Are Wont in General to Seek and Hope for Salvation, Yet ’tis the Elect Only that Obtains It and the Rest are Blinded [1740],” Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven.

3Edwards, Religious Affections, vol. 2 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Works], ed. by John E. Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 301.

4Edwards, Original Sin, ed. by Clyde A. Holbrook, Works 3 (1970):279.

5John H. Gerstner, Jonathan Edwards: Evangelist (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), 71.

6Edwards, “Justification by Faith Alone,” in Sermons and Discourses: 1734-1738, ed. by M. X. Lesser, Works 19 (2001):152.

7Edwards, “Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England,” in The Great Awakening, ed. C.C. Goen, Works 4 (1972):297-298.

8Ibid., 388.

9Edwards, Religious Affections, Works 2:102.

10 Ibid.

11Edwards, “That If We Would Be in the Way of God’s Grace and Blessing We Must Wait upon Him in His Own Way and in the Use of His Appointed Means [n.d.],” Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven.

12Edwards, “True Repentance Required,” in Sermons and Discourses: 1720-1723, ed. by Wilson H. Kimnach, Works 10 (1992):515.

13 Edwards, “Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival,” Works 4:391.

14Edwards, Religious Affections, Works 2:120.

15Edwards, “Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival,” Works 4:386.

16Edwards, “Means of Grace,” entry no. 539, The “Miscellanies,” Entry Nos. 501-832, ed. by Ava Chamberlain, Works 18 (2000):87.

17Edwards, “Profitable Hearers of the Word,” in Sermons and Discourses: 1723-1729, ed. by Kenneth P. Minkema, Works 14(1997):264.


Edwards, “False Light and True,” in Sermons and Discourses: 1734-1738, ed. by M. X. Lesser, Works 19 (2001):8.

19Edwards, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” in The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader, ed. by Wilson H. Kimnach, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Douglas A. Sweeney (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 127.

20 Edwards, Freedom of the Will, ed. by Paul Ramsey, Works 4 (1957):137.

21 Edwards, Religious Affections, Works 2:163.

22Edwards, “The Manner in Which the Salvation of the Soul is to be Sought,” in Seeking God: Jonathan Edwards’ Evangelism Contrasted with Modern Methodologies, ed. by William C. Nichols (Ames, IA: International Outreach, Inc., 2001), 221.