"Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generation. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God." – Psalm 90:1-2 (ESV)
Recently I have been reading The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, written in the mid-1700s. The writing style is old; Edwards is extremely verbose; I highly doubt a publisher would print the book if presented to him today by an otherwise unknown writer. Yet the book continues to be printed and read because…well, because it was Edwards who wrote it. Cornelius VanTil spoke of trees that bear fruit that only giraffes can reach. The rest of humanity waits for the overripe fruit to finally drop to the ground. Edwards offers fruit that is high…way up high. And for those who are willing to try and get it while it is still ripe, the benefits are great. But boy is it hard!
Though the book was written to help stave off the critics of the Great Awakening, Edwards' scope is much greater than merely giving a defense of an 18th century revival. Edwards wanted to use the revival as a starting point to address true and false religion. About halfway through the book is an excellent section on "evangelical humility." What Edwards means by this term is true humility in the face of our Creator and Sustainer God. Here he compares real love for God with "self-love." True love for God, and that which stems from evangelical humility, is an adoration for God because of His being, nature, character and activity. Self-love on the other hand may express love for God but it is but the by-product of an affirming love and care for one's self. Edwards writes,
But the exercises of true and holy love in the saints arise in another way. They do not first see that God loves them, and then see that He is lovely, but they first see that God is lovely, and that Christ is excellent and glorious, and their hearts are first captivated with this view…and then, consequentially, they see God's love and favor to them.
The point is that there are two very different points from which we might approach people in regards to the propagation of divine truth: the one starts with God and his character, the other starts with us and our need for self-love (affirmation). Islam starts from the first with its declaration "Allahu Akbar" (God is great). Evangelicalism, ever since the days of Bill Bright and his well-used "Four Spiritual Laws" gospel tract (which has as law #1: God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life), starts from the second. And while Jonathan Edwards was no friend of Islam, with its denunciation that Jesus was in fact the Son of God, on this single issue Edwards would say we have much to learn from Islam.
Bill Bright's tract came out in the early 1970s…nearly 50 years ago. Americans since that time, for some reason, have been in need of self-esteem, love, and affirmation in a way that no previous generation either expressed or received. Maybe it is tied into the high incidence of divorce and so many children feeling abandoned. I don't know. But the effect of this has been a skewing of the gospel message. The gospel message is great not because it brings affirmation to us (that God loves us) but because it is centered upon a great God, with a great plan, to send a great Son to save a fallen world. The gospel is all about Christ, not about us. It is about his work, his obedience, his defeat of Satan and his victory over death on a cross. Let's not confuse the message.
I will still use Bill Bright's tract. But I believe we still need to hear the words of Jonathan Edwards…as ancient and verbose as they may be.