During the Q&A session after my guest sermon at Valley Bible Church in White River Junction, Vermont last Sunday, one fellow asked if gospel wakefulness might be experienced as one is impressed with the immensity of the holiness of God. Seems that Sproul’s The Holiness of God was instrumental in his own awakening to the wonders of Christ. I immediately thought of Isaiah in the temple, being “undone!” by his vision of God’s glory. And then yesterday I encountered an historical example of a fellow named Isaac Backus who found joy and freedom in his comparative smallness.

Isaac Backus was an 18th century New England preacher. Greatly influenced by the Great Awakening, he was a prominent Christian voice during the American Revolution. A Connecticut native, he pastored Middleborough Baptist Church in Middleborough, Massachusetts.

Though raised in a Christian family, Backus was converted in his moment of gospel wakefulness at 17 years of age, as the holiness of God gripped his soul. We find his own account of this moment reprinted in the memoir portion of Backus’s own Church History of New England from 1620 to 1804:

In May, 1741, my eyes were opened to see that time was not at my command, and that eternity was directly before me, into which I might justly be called the next moment. Then I knew what it was to work for my life for three months: until on August 24, as I was alone in the field, it was demonstrated to my mind and conscience, that I had done my utmost to make myself better, without obtaining any such thing; and that I was a guilty sinner in the hands of a holy God, who had a right to do with me as seemed good in his sight; which I then yielded to, and all my objections were silenced. And soon upon this, a way of relief was opened to my soul, which I had never any true idea of before, wherein truth and justice shine with lustre in the bestowment of free mercy and salvation upon objects who have nothing in themselves but badness. And while this divine glory engaged all my attention, my burden of guilt, and evil dispositions was gone, and such ideas and inclinations were implanted in in my heart, as were never there before, but which have never been rooted out since . . .

“And soon upon this, a way of relief was opened to my soul.” The immense holiness of God and his right to do with us what we deserve will only strike us as a relief if we see the gospel. Else they are a terror.

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2 thoughts on “Isaac Backus’s Gospel Wakefulness”

  1. Ryan says:

    Jared,I was that fellow. Thank you for your response to my question during the Q&A time. Sproul actually goes into some detail on the Isaiah passage, along with Peter's "Depart from me, Lord" (Lk. 5:8). A continuing refinement of my understanding of the holiness of God has certainly attributed to my Gospel Wakefulness.My prompt for the question to you was also my understanding of Calvin, whereas his first statement in his Institutes is: "Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves." And it seems that the rest of his work builds itself upon that statement. I find that my understanding of my own sinfulness is more refined against the backdrop of God's holiness (as you pointed out in your answer on Sunday).Ryan

  2. Roberta says:

    My prayer partner had a stroke and I held on to the vision of holding Jesus's hand as he pulled me through this time. Then I read Colossians 1:15-20. I realized I was holding on to the Holy God Jesus who holds all things together. The image of every molecule, proton, neutron, etc. being held together by the mighty hand of Jesus, I can't fathom it! It's too big to take in.

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Jared C. Wilson


Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter.

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