Kyle Strobel led a breakout session at The Gospel Coalition’s 2018 West Coast Conference in Fullerton, California, titled “Jonathan Edwards, Love, and the Formation of the Christian.” He discussed Edwards’s understanding of love, Christian formation, theology, and spirituality, arguing that we need to develop a robust spiritual theology to help the church navigate existence—actual lived life with God in the Spirit.
As did Jonathan Edwards, Strobel worked to tie theology and praxis and to discourage the approach that leads to disparate disciplines. The practice of contemplation about God, then, becomes the beatific motivator for sharing in the life of God.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Kyle Strobel: I figured out I wanted to be a professor before I figured out what I wanted to teach. It’s a weird experience. I did a Bible bachelor’s degree and then I was doing an MA in New Testament. And I was told very clearly whatever you do, don’t do a PhD in New Testament. And that was the plan. And my dean at the time said, “If you want a job, don’t do it.” And I thought, “Well, I want a job, so I don’t know what to do.” What was interesting is I started studying spiritual formation, and that led me to theology. I might have the only person that has this story, but it was actually in studying Christian spirituality where I discovered that for the entire tradition until the enlightenment, theology and spirituality were one thing, not two, that you could not talk about one without the other.
In fact, if you tried to, both die in tragic sorts of ways. And I think precisely what has happened in much of evangelical theology in the 20th century is a death of theology and a spirituality that has so spun far off Christian theology that it ceased to be meaningfully Christian. I went to do a PhD in systematic theology at university of Aberdeen without ever studying theology before, and so I went with a lot of anxiety. If you could probably imagine that. I wasn’t sure what to do my topic on it, and I had never read Jonathan Edwards a day in my life. My supervisor who’s a Bonhoeffer scholar said, “Have you thought about doing something on Jonathan Edwards?” “No, what are you talking about?” He goes, “Well, Edwards is the kind of guy you’re looking for. You’re reformed, he’s reformed. He refuses to think that spirituality and theology are two different things.”
And so just to kind of appease him, I said, “Teacher, I’ll read a bit of him.” And I fell in love immediately, and in many ways I’ve never gone back. My hope at the time was to do something on the doctrine of sanctification that helped fund a view of the Christian life. To do that well, you have to stand on a lot of shoulders. Theologically, the doctrine of sanctification is pretty far down the chain. At the very least, you need to have up and running a doctrine of trinity, a doctrine of the creation, a doctrine of the God-world relation. You have to have a doctrine of regeneration and soteriology broadly, talking about justification. There’s a lot of work to do before you get down to sanctification and how that organizes an account of the Christian life. And so I went looking for a scholar who had done that work so I could stand on his shoulders or her shoulders as it were.
What I discovered is that no one in my mind had. And so I felt like I had to do that work first, so my dissertation actually became that work. And then I eventually turned my attention to the Christian life and wrote a book called Formed for the Glory of God, which is in my mind Jonathan Edwards’s view of a spiritual formation. Now, the language of spiritual formation is of course anachronistic. We didn’t use to use that language, but they talked about it all the time. We used to use words like experiential theology or experimental theology. We used to just use practical divinity. If you’re reading a Dutch reform theologian, they would call it Christian ethics, sometimes just piety or something along those lines. The word today that we use that is just kind of been baptized is spiritual formation. But it’s been curious. And one of the things I have found, I’m basically a Puritan, I’m an Edwards scholar, but he was basically a Puritan in his own way.
And yet I find when I use the word spiritual formation, even though it’s a generally accepted term in a certain angle of the church, I get attacked for doing so as if I were offering Roman Catholic theology or new age spirituality or something like that. It couldn’t be farther from the truth. One of the things that really worries me though is how much of our own Protestant spiritual tradition has been lost so much so that to say things we used to openly say 300 years ago would get you charged with being new age interestingly enough. One of the things I want to start with to consider about Edwards is one of the ways Edwards responded because Edwards in a lot of ways existed in a similar kind of situation. Edwards was the great theologian of the revivals. The revivals for us are unimaginable, we can’t even fathom that. Part of why it’s so unfathomable is because this is not yet America, it’s the colonies. Everyone had to go to church or they were fined.
You always had to just go to the church, there’s only one church in town, you had to go to the church. You didn’t get to choose anything, you didn’t get to choose who your preacher was. Then out of nowhere, an absolute whirlwind came into town by the name of Whitfield. And Whitfield was a totally different kind of preacher. You were used to hearing what we call Jeremiad sermons like sinners in the hands of an angry God. By the way, when Edwards preached Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, he didn’t actually think you could come to God out of fear, which is interesting. For Edwards, you can only come to God if you truly recognize him as beautiful.
And Edwards is generally considered to be the greatest theologian of beauty in the Christian tradition. He preaches sinners because he’s worried people have fallen asleep, and he needed to wake them up. He called them sermon proof. And actually he preached it in a different pulpit because what they found out is it’s harder to ignore someone that you don’t know very well. And so they switched pulpits. So Winfield comes to town and we field says the exact opposite of what you heard. You hear a Jeremiad, and it’s like, wake up, get your act together. You know what Whitfield preached? It’s not your fault, none of your pastors are Christians. That’s the problem.
Yes, that’s an easier message to hear. As Harry Stout at Yale says, it is only with the revivals that we’re able to say we the people. America was born in the revivals. And in many ways, evangelicalism was born with the same mentality. By backing the revivals, Edwards got shot in the back quite a lot. That’s what I feel about me and my compatriots who want to talk about the Christian life and use the word spiritual formation. For Edwards, all sorts of folks called the old lights accused him of all sorts of things. And it’s important how Edwards responds I think when we think about spiritual formation today, because here’s what they did, they pointed out, “Look at what’s going on in the revivals, look at the excesses that are going on.” Excesses by the way are people doing all sorts of extravagant sorts of things that were troubling.
Look at all the stuff that’s going on that are in doctrinal error, all the heresy that is going on. We have a really funny early kind of pre American accusation that at the end of the day they’re trying to kind of flatten out the … It was basically a socialist critique, pre-socialism in a sense that, no, no, we need to keep the hierarchies in place, you’re collapsing the hierarchies. And that was one of the critiques against the revivals. Edwards’s response is interesting, he does not deny. He goes, “Yeah, there are excesses. There’s things going on I find troubling. And I’d say the same thing about the spiritual formation movement as a whole. Yes, there’s doctrinal errors, true. Yeah, you can find them.” But Edwards’s view of this is interesting. He said, “If you ever find a true work of God, you know what you’ll find with it, excesses and doctrinal errors because Satan is ultimately only worried about trying to mimic and debunk a true work of God. It actually be more troubling if Satan doesn’t bother.”
For Edwards, you cannot simply point to excesses and doctrinal errors. You have to get to the heart of the biblical truth of what is actually happening. And that means you have to do a lot of searching out. You have to do a lot of wrestling. You have to actually have conversations with people. You actually have to get into the theology of the tradition. To reject a movement because it has errors and excesses for Edwards is to play into the hands of Satan in fact. He would see this as just folly. Instead, I think what we should do is we should follow the example of Edwards, of Baxter, of John Owen, of John Calvin, of Bavinck, and basically every theologian before the enlightenment.
We need to develop a robust spiritual theology to help the church navigate their lived existence, their actual lived life with God in the spirit. We have to be able to speak meaningfully about that, which means we’re going to have to buck quite a lot of the temptations we have in our training because most of us are trained in academic guilds, although we’re not in service to the academy, we’re in service to the church. I’m a preacher, I’m a theologian who’s in service to my congregation. That means though I’m by training a systematic theologian, I can’t do that in church because that’s silly. I don’t get to choose between the Bible and history and Praxis and spirituality and doctrine. We’re doing it all all the time, and yet all too easily we come to occlude ourselves in one Testament and pretend the old Testament isn’t Christian scripture.
We can think doctrine and not think about Praxis. We can be Bible folks without addressing the history of Christian spirituality and theology, it cannot happen. We would have never accepted this before the enlightenment. And basically what we’ve accepted by and large is a liberal view of education built by Schleiermacher, which pushes us farther and farther way into disparate disciplines that cannot even speak to each other any longer. We need a serious recovery of a robust spiritual theology because it’s holding together the entirety of Christian belief.
And today we have a litany of problems when it comes to Christian spirituality, the lived life of the Christian. We are inundated with self-help. If you could find a Christian bookstore somewhere, and if you could find the Christian living section, what you would find there would almost be solely self-help. Some of it is pretty high level, actually. Some of our theologians have written self-help books. It’s really just Aristotle dressed up like a Christian. Develop habits, habituate yourself into good character. That isn’t Christian, that’s-self help. It’s Aristotle, and Aristotle is brilliant. It’s brilliant self-help, but it’s self-help. It’s not a Bible doctrine of sanctification, that’s not holiness because holiness is not a synonym with virtue. What we discover is a whole discussion of practices and liturgy as formation that is more akin to magic than it is to the Christian understanding of sanctification. We have a whole discussion of spiritual formation as spiritual discipline, as if you can boil down the spiritual life to a bunch of practices we’re supposed to do.
Very quickly, those just become means to grow ourselves. Again, it just becomes a grand self-help project. What I want to kind of offer you is if you lived 300 years ago, I’m going to offer you the standard evangelical view of the Christian through a lens of Edwards. But first though, let me start really quickly with a great line from Richard Loveless. Richard Loveless used to be better recognized as a name. In his dynamics of the Christian love, he says a weird story, these one guys are the crazy kind of conversion story. Any he eventually converts out of Catholicism, which he had fallen in love with their deep spiritual tradition because he discovered Puritan spirituality, and he realized the Catholics have nothing compared to this.
And he was so excited at the depth and the riches of our spiritual tradition. And then he starts talking to pastors and he realized none of them had ever read it or knew anything about it. So Loveless writes in his book, The Dynamics of Spiritual Life. He says, there seems to be a sanctification gap among evangelicals, a peculiar conspiracy somehow to mislay the Protestant tradition of spiritual growth and to concentrate on frenetic witnessing activity, sermons on John 3:16 and theological arguments over eschatological subtleties. Now, he wrote that four decades ago, so it’s a bit out of date, but quite honestly not that out of date.
Even with the revival of spiritual formation, we still haven’t seen a revival of a really rich spiritual theology focusing on the nature of the processes and the kind of directives of redeemed Christian existence of what it means to live in Christ by the spirit of God. So put it differently, there still remains a gap, a sanctification gap in contemporary evangelicalism between the kind of expectation of the Christian life, what we expect to be going on in the Christian life, and an actual discussion that is both richly spiritual and richly theological about what is actually supposed to be happening. What Loveless knew, and what I have come to discover was that our forefathers in the faith, in the Protestant tradition understood this very well.
They considered the goal of theology to be Praxis actually. To quote Edward’s favorite book, Edwards said, the greatest book ever written outside the Bible is Petrus van Mastricht, Theoretica Practica. Those are important terms, theoretical practical. Theology is not either, it’s both theoretical and practical. We could say in our context, doctrinal spiritual, and that would work. This by the way is just being translated, the first volume just came out. It was Edward’s favorite book. Mastricht says the goal of theology is living unto God by Christ. That’s what the theologian does. The theologian for the church gives themselves, wields the fullness of their knowledge for the sake of living unto God by Christ.
So to provide an account then of the Christian life, if we’re going to think, where do we start? And I’ve already said there’s all sorts of background work we’re not going to get the chance to do. Next to sanctification, the closest kind of doctrinal issue you have to wrestle with is grace. If you go to a church, the first thing you should attend to before you ever talk to them about discipleship or the Christian life or any of it is to attend very closely, what do you think grace is? Because if they have a reductive view of grace, they will have a highly reductive view of the Christian life. In fact, it’ll be just self-help. Here’s what I usually hear. As evangelicals, we’ve gotten something of grace very right. We are the people that says as loud as you’ll hear, grace is gift, gift, gift.
And then we’ll ask, “That’s great, what have you been given?” It was free. Yeah, that’s a gift. What were you given? I didn’t earn it. You’re just defining gift again. We never actually say what the gift is. Think how weird that is actually. And because we don’t define the gift, what we would do is we reduce it down to the thing that’s true but minor. We won’t reduce it to something false, we’re not going to be that far off. So you know what people normally, they reduce it to forgiveness. So salvation becomes primarily about being forgiven and sanctification now is being good, getting my act together, it’s moralism.
For Edwards in pretty much the entirety of the Christian tradition, Grace is God’s self giving. God has given himself to you, that’s why Jesus shows up in history. That’s where the spirit descends at Pentecost. God has broken open his life in Christ and has called you into it. Grace is receiving literary the life of God. In Ephesians 2:18, one of the great gospel passages of Paul, he said, the gospel is, I’m paraphrasing now, because he doesn’t use the word gospel. I’m kind of making it a gospel passage. He says, “You have access to the Father.” Notice the good news about access to the Father. That makes all sorts of sense of Exodus and Leviticus. You have access to the Father in the son and by the spirit. It’s a Trinitarian form gift of salvation that gives you access to God. In Ephesians 4:18, he then laments about the Gentiles who do not know God, and he says they are alienated from God’s life.
What did they miss out on? The life of God. Because that was offered in salvation. To understand the Christian life, we have to embrace the depth of grace, that grace is God is self-giving. And therefore the spirit of God that we are given is a real participation in the holiness of God. When God says be Holy as I am a Holy, there’s no other way to be Holy in fact it turns out because you can’t generate holiness. You can’t try hard enough, you can’t be good enough because virtue doesn’t click over at some point into holiness, the only way for you to be Holy is for you to partake in God’s holiness, and that sounds like bad news until you discover that God gives the spirit of his holiness to you. Why? Because you’re called to partake in his life, to share in his very life.
That must order the entirety of what it means to be a Christian. This is why self-help ultimately gets you nowhere because self-help more often than not will be a response not to embrace grace and will be a kind of strategy to manage God rather than be with him and embrace his life. To discuss spirit formation then, let’s talk about the kind of life that shares in the divine life or as Second Peter 1:4 says, to partake of the divine nature. What is the divine nature? Calvin will say, it’s God’s life. Edwards will say, it’s God’s life. Owen will say it’s communion in God’s … This is the evangelical view, to share in his life. Therefore, notice that God unsurprisingly is at the center of all of this. Because Edwards understood the Christian life as receiving and sharing in God’s self giving, we have to kind of start with God and we have to work our way down to kind of go, what does it mean to embrace life with this God?
What we discover in Edwards is somewhat shocking, especially because of the reputation he has. Edwards is seen as someone who loves preaching about hell when he preached much more often about heaven. For Edwards, the first thing he says about God, literally the first line of his discourse on the Trinity, his work on the Trinity as this, when we speak of God’s happiness. That’s how he starts his work on the Trinity. When we speak of God’s happiness, the account he wants to give of it is that God is infinitely happy in the enjoyment of himself, in perfectly beholding and infinitely loving in and rejoicing in his own essence and perfections.
God’s life is a fountain of joy, eternal beatitude, he says, but it’s also contemplative. The Father gazes upon his perfect idea, which is the son, the son gazes upon the Father. Love is the spirit pours forth between them binding them together just as the spirit of love is poured forth into our hearts as Paul says in Romans 5:5. Edwards’s understanding of this divine blessedness utilizes a doctrine that we’re finally beginning to recover again, although it’s been a long time, which is the doctrine of the beatific vision. For everyone again, until relatively recently, no matter what strand of Christian tradition you were in, if you were asked, well, what is the end of the Christian life, the goal of the Christian life? It’s to see God face-to-face.
That’s what Paul tells us in First Corinthians 13:12, “Now we see through a glass darkly, then we will see face-to-face.” Now we know in part, then we know fully even as we have been fully known. Then we will be like him for we shall see him as he is we’re told in First John. The goal of seeing God is the goal of glory. But for Edwards profoundly, God’s own life is the beatific vision. It is the Father gazing upon the son, the son gazing upon the Father, love and beatitude flowing forth infinitely between them.
To use Edward’s own idiom, we could say that God’s life is religious affection in pure act. It’s the infinite actuality of love and blessedness and knowledge of God, and that God is so utterly full that he overflows. Now, several things kind of come to a head in this very kind of point. First and probably obviously, God’s really personal for Edwards. Secondly, God’s life is this eternal contemplative mutual gazing upon the Father. By the way, I hope that word doesn’t serve as a stumbling block for you, contemplation. Again, it’s a word that in our own tradition is one of the most fundamental words to talk about the Christian life. And at the end of the day, it’s really just a conceptual gloss of Psalm 27:4, con meaning with, templa meaning temple, with God in his temple to gaze upon the beauty of his holiness. To set your mind on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God as Paul says in Colossians 3:3.
Again, whether you’re reading Baxter or Calvin or Owen or Edwards, this is their understanding of the nature of contemplation. For Edwards, it’s God. God is gazing upon the son, the son is gazing upon the Father. They are existing in a profound and overflowing life of love. Notice that God’s life isn’t static here, but it’s dynamic. It’s an infinite sort of movement. It’s a little odd and a little different than Edwards grounds the beatific vision in God’s life. But what’s weirder about this is it means God’s life is true religion, what religion is for Edwards is God’s life. That’s what it is. What are we called to do? To know God and to love God? Well, who knows and who loves God? It turns out the Father and the son and the spirit infinitely, perfectly, fully overflowing with this knowledge and love called the glory of God and the fullness of God.
In Edwards’s words, the fullness of the Godhead is the fullness of his understanding consisting in his knowledge, and the fullness of his will consisting of his virtue and happiness. And therefore, the external glory of God consisting the communication of these, God’s life of knowledge and love overflows out of itself as son and spirit, knowledge and love. And therefore we come to see the image of the invisible God in the son, and we come to know the spirit of love who pours forth love into our hearts in the spirit. It’s to know not a different sort of life than God has, but it’s to come into kind of confrontation with God’s own life and the fullness of his life. This means that God’s life is the archetype for all true knowledge of God.
This means we can’t really know God speculatively. We can maybe construct philosophical arguments to get to a notion of deity, but not to get to notion of God. No one can then generate the Christian life, we can’t create it from within. Without the spirit, we have no foundation and holiness to share in. Without life in the son, we have no context by which to be with the Father. This is spiritual formation by grace alone through faith focus on the life of the sun. It is spiritual formation with the soul as of the reformation in mind. But because the archetype of God’s life is religious affection, religious affection being both knowledge and love vigorously poured forth.
For Edwards, if we want to know what the Christian life entails, we’re constantly setting our minds on things above. The movement of the contemplation is to attending to who God is. So Edwards says in his own words, “There is a distinction to be made between a mere notional understanding where the mind only beholds things in the exercise, the speculative faculty and then the sense of the heart. Where the mind doesn’t only speculate and behold, but relishes and feels.”
See, for Edwards wards, and again, for our tradition in general, you can try to know God’s speculatively, although that does nothing for you because what knowledge you would have then is the same knowledge the demons have, and it doesn’t do them very good. True knowledge of God is to share in God’s knowledge of himself. Well, what kind of knowledge does God have? It turns out he has affectionate knowledge, he has true religious affection. That you can’t only speculate about deity, but you have to participate in God’s overflowing love and overflowing knowledge and to be caught up in his life of these things. To know God requires a true knowledge of the heart, and therefore for Edwards necessitate seeing and knowing God as beautiful.
The focus of this vision, and by vision I mean Edwards’s vision of the Christian life is a real participation in God through the divine persons as they overflow through us in the economy and in salvation. Interestingly enough, following Calvin, this leads him to a vision of ascent that the Christian life is like an ascent to God. But as the reform tradition has always done since Calvin, they rework the notion of ascent relationally and interpersonally. Edwards states, “The way in which the saints will come to an intimate full enjoyment of the Father is not by the Father’s majesty, but by their ascending to him in their union with Christ’s person.” This ascent motif again is at the heart of a formed spirituality. It’s always an ascent to the Father, in the son, and by the Holy spirit. It is built on union but grounded in communion with God and inter-relational reality of sharing in his life.
This ascension follows the contours of Christ’s own life, of course, which is the book of Hebrews in fact, that we have one who’s not only raised but who’s ascended to the right hand of God. We have one who’s gone beyond the veil. We have one in the order of Melchizedek who’s now by the Father’s side who calls us to himself. This is why though the warning of Exodus is do not draw near lest you die, the command of Hebrews is now draw near. This ascension follows Christ’s life because Christ has modeled the descent to us in the incarnation and ascend back to the Father charting the territory that we follow in him.
“In as much as he was a divine person,” Edwards says, “he brought divinity down with him to us.” So he brought God down to man, and then he ascended to God. In as much as he was in the human nature, he carried up humanity with him to God. And of course, that’s just Colossians 3:3. What Christ has done is He sanctified space in the divine life for us to share. He sanctified space within himself. “We by being in Christ who is a divine person,” Edwards says, “do as it were ascend up to God through an infinite distance and have thereby advantage for the full enjoyment of him also.”
What this does by setting our minds on eternity where both God is and where Christ has led us is it means eternity grounds the present reality of the Christian by faith. And Edwards’s vision of eternity is that the eternal city is a city of love. “Heaven is a world of love,” he tells us. “Thus they shall eat and drink abundantly and swim in the ocean of love, be eternally swallowed up in the infinitely bright and infinitely mildness, sweet beams of divine love,” he says, “eternally receiving that light,” we’re receiving by grace, “eternally full of it, and eternously encompassed round with it and everlastingly reflecting it back again to the fountain of it.” Notice here, we’re receiving it, we’re being filled by it. It’s encompassing us all around and we’re reflecting it back, we’re overflowing back to the fountain.
This is what we know by faith that the Christian life is a life of love. It’s a life of faith and hope as well, but faith and hope can’t go to eternity of course. Faith and hope can’t get there because faith and hope both dissolve upon sight. Faith, hope, and love, abide these three, but the greatest of these is love precisely because love is the economy of eternity, and love is the only thing that continues. If this is our foundation, if we are truly kind of articulating a view of spiritual formation by grace through faith in Christ alone for the glory of God alone, we must raise the question then, “Well, what are spiritual practices about?” Because at the end of the day, that’s going to be a lot of what needs to be talked about. We’re called to do all sorts of things, go to church, read our Bibles, pray, worship, all these things, these practices we do.
How are these practices not simply self-help? How are they just what Aristotle said to do, habituate things to grow ourselves? This in my mind is one of the major problems we’re confronted with this, whether we’re talking about spiritual disciplines, practices, or liturgy. My worries at the end of the day I see very little other than Aristotle being sold, that we’re just offered habits to change our lives. But let me suggest that this isn’t Christian, and it’s certainly not how anyone in the Christian tradition has talked, at least in the West. In Edwards’s development of these things, he used a standard terminology. We never used to talk about spiritual disciplines, I really don’t like that language. I was recently kind of viciously attacked, I get attacks quite a lot for using the term spiritual formation.
And someone attacked me because I used the word spiritual disciplines and said this is just new age spirituality. Now, there’s several problems with that, one is which it’s not new age spirituality. So that’s one problem. But their evidence was they circled the table of contents in my book on Edwards where I used spiritual discipline in a chapter title, a chapter where I rejected the term. Isn’t it interesting that there’s a group of people out there that think they could try to demonize someone’s ministry without ever bother reading what they said? Fascinating. For Edwards, he wouldn’t have liked this word spiritual disciplines any more than I do because the term, you hear you’re supposed to do spiritual disciplines. We go, “I don’t know what discipline is.” I at least know what physical discipline is, the gym calls me January 2nd every year or something. Whether or not I do it, I know about it, I get the idea.
Physical discipline, you can work out. Well, let’s do the same thing spiritually. That must be spiritual, you’re going to work and you can grow yourself, right? No, that’s not the way we thought. We do means of grace. If grace is the self-giving of God, means of grace now are our postures taught to receiving the self-giving of God, to open and to share in God’s gift of himself to us. Edwards turns to three stories in scripture to illustrate this, I’ll use one. And it’s Elijah against the prophets of Baal. When you do a spiritual practice, whether it’s reading the Bible, listening to a sermon, praying, whatever it’s doing, you’re stacking wood and you’re drenching it with water. You have no ability to start fire, only God can do that. The only way that this becomes meaningful is if God by his grace offers the fire of love in the heart of the person. That’s it.
No amount of wood stacking gets you closer to developing yourself spiritually or to growing in holiness. Spiritual practices have no ability to grow you in holiness because holiness is sharing in God’s life. They’re relationally oriented to him because we’re sending in the son to the Father by the spirit of love. We are partaking in the life that God has broken open. And spiritual practices simply are means of sharing in that life of grace. Spiritual practices cannot form you, you cannot habituate holiness in this way. To use Paul’s language, we are called to present ourselves as living sacrifices. Romans 6 is just present yourself, Romans 12, present your bodies. Notice, it’s sacrificial imagery clearly and sacrifices were the way you drew near to God. That’s what sacrifices are, the way of drawing near. This is the language Paul uses to spiritual practice, present yourself.
Notice, there’s nothing about that that grows me. The problem with the sacrificial system is it got very quickly, easy to believe that doing this activity was placating a deity, which is why eventually God’s like, “I don’t want your stupid sacrifices, I want to contrite heart. You were supposed to be presenting yourself when you presented that animal, you weren’t supposed to be managing me. This is the problem with the sin in the garden that keeps radiating through time. When God shows up in the garden, Adam doesn’t say, “Thank the Lord, he’ll know what to do.” He says, “Quick, run, hide,” and he comes up with a speech designed to throw Eve and God under the bus, ways to clothe themselves in his presence. Much of our devotional life is this, again for the Puritans and for early evangelical spirituality, the hardest realization for the Christian is realizing it’s their devotional life where they’re most abandoning God. It’s in their devotional life where they’re actually hiding most, where they’re trying to manage God the most that even these are filthy rags.
But this whole view of spirituality is built on justification by faith. You’re not in God’s presence because of your savvy. You weren’t declared righteous because you are. It was in your sin that he died for you, and there’s now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. The movement is God-ward in truth because you have nothing to fear because Christ defines you, you don’t. That’s what grounds a distinctively Protestant understanding of spiritual formation. These practices of offering our lives to God to share in his presence and his mission in this world. In light of that, Edwards actually splits them into two. He had a whole list of spiritual practices that we give ourselves to. Towards the end, if you’re interested, in Formed for the Glory of God, the book, I go through a bunch of these.
But he breaks them down into two categories, the first he calls imminent acts. That’s imminent being I am, kind of internal acts we might think of them. And he says this, he says, “These imminent acts of grace are exercises of grace that remain in the soul. They begin and are terminated there without any immediate relation to anything to be done outwardly or to be brought to pass in practice.” In other words, there’s no other practical end in mind. His direct example is contemplation or meditation would be another one. The goal isn’t practical, the goal is to be in the presence of God trusting that it’s actually God’s presence that forms the soul. He knows this will lead to practical acts, but he knows the soul needs to be formed by God’s presence and his grace.
He says this is a whole series of acts we give ourselves to. They don’t have practical ends in mind other than being in the very presence of God. He says while they don’t lead an outward practice, they will as all grace does, will lead to it more remotely. And it’s more remotely because it’s direct and immediate kind of end is the formation of the soul in God’s presence. The second grouping of practices are oriented towards directly outward actions in his words. As he describes these, he says, “As when a Saint gives a cup of cold water to a disciple from the exercise of the grace of charity or voluntarily endorsed persecution in the way of his duty immediately from the exercise of a supreme love to God and Christ. Here is the exertion of grace producing its effect and outward actions.”
And this leads Edwards to actually talk about quite a lot, actually, a surprising amount, much more than we give credit for about direct social action, caring for the poor, meeting the needs of those around them. Edwards spends quite a lot of time talking to his people about these things. So if First Timothy 1:5 is correct that the aim of our charge is love. Well, then are these things forming us in love? And this is where I am particularly interested in what Edwards is up to in my own work. As an Edwards scholar, I’m always kind of doing different kinds of projects. This has now been an area where … For me, I actually don’t care about Edwards as a human being. And that’s not nice to say necessarily, but I care about the God he worshiped and how he worshiped him.
I’m not interested in biography, I’m interested in his theology. And what I do as a constructive systematic theologian, if I want to think about anything, justification, sanctification, beatific vision, I just start with Edwards first. And what I find is he always has something interesting to say. He’ll always push me in various ways, he’ll always show me things I’ve never seen before in scripture. And I’ll just stop reading him when that stop happening. I don’t think it’s ever going to stop happening quite honestly, but I have no other kind of investment in him as a person other than him training me to do theology in the mode of theology he did.
But lately, I’ve been interested in what it means to grow as a human person. What is the nature of a self, what we call theological anthropology. And so I started with Edwards. And what I found was astonishing. I showed it to a psychologist friend of mine. I showed him some quotes, I didn’t tell him where it came from, “What do you think of this?” And he read the quote, he goes, “When was this written?” I was like, “1730s.” He goes, “What?” He goes, “It took us 250 years to see this.” That often happens with Edwards in fact. Here’s what I found. For Edwards. He doesn’t think self-willing is bad. He said, “It is not a thing contrary to Christianity that a man should love himself, or what is the same thing, that he should love his own happiness.”
Christianity does not tend to destroy a man’s love to his own happiness, it will then destroy the humanity. And Christianity is not destructive of humanity. This is interesting. Edwards said, “There’s a viable kind of self-love that we have what we might call kind of a mere self-love. It’s not selfishness.” He recognizes what selfishness is. But from the Christian life, there’s a movement of love where God has given his own love to us in the spirit for the very purpose of displacing ourselves from the center of our lives and catching us up in his life. And what this does is it trains us in what Edwards calls enlarging yourself.
The self which he loves to when someone truly loves another in christian love is as it were enlarged and multiplied. So that in those same acts, when he loves himself, he loves others. Notice that he’s going to take very seriously you need to love your neighbor as yourself. He says, “Yeah, you need to internalize them in yourself loving.” You need to have a kind of self that can open wide in love to receive another internal to yourself. I was writing on this, and I was meditating on Corinthians, and I came to Second Corinthians 6, “Open wide your heart to us,” Paul implores them. “But you’re not able,” he says, “because of your affections.”
See, the Corinthians had loves of heart that were unable to open wide in love. And then in 7:2, he says, “Make room in your hearts for us.” See, here’s my worry. My worry is when we read Paul, we think Paul is writing hallmark cards. That’s nice, make room in your hearts for us. And he’s not actually talking about a reality that we can share in, as if he’s not saying more than just a nice sentiment. Edwards takes him very seriously here, and this opened up all sorts of scriptures. Why does it say that Jonathan loved David as his own soul? Why husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies? Why not love selflessly? It’s different than loving as your own party. That’s loving her within your self love.
Edwards grabs onto this. He says, “Selfishness is a principle which as it work confines a man’s heart to himself. Love enlarges it and extends it to others. A man’s self is as it were extended and enlarged by love. Others so far as the beloved do become parts of himself.” Edward’s model for this of course was God. God models this life to us, God breaks open his own life and gives it to us. This is why in John 1726 Jesus doesn’t pray, “Father, love your people.” He’s praised, “Give them the love with which you loved me.” The love which you loved me. That eternal, that infinite love of Father and son is broken open in Christ Jesus and by the spirit we are internalized into that love. This is why salvation is always seen as familial and is always seen as adoptive. We are adopted into God’s life in the son such that we share in Christ’s son-ship before the Father.
This is why when you receive the spirit, we’re told in Galatians 4, the spirit immediately cries out Abba Father from your depths. That’s not your prayer to pray, that’s Jesus’s prayer. And immediately you are internal to Christ praying to the Father. This is the foundation and funding of the Christian life. And what it does, it gives a shape of Edwards’s spirituality that is ecclesial. There’s a people of God opening wide in love, loving God and loving neighbor in such a way of being the kinds of people who can actually internalize another. It is easier to love at people than it is to truly love them in this way. It’s much more difficult to have the kind of heart that can open wide and love, to have the kind of love, the affections as Paul says in Second Corinthians 6 that allow the heart to open and to receive another.
The vision that Edwards gives us I think is so profound because from top to bottom it is driven by love. From top to bottom, it’s driven by a sharing in God’s life of love. And his recognition is that the formation of the person ultimately only happens in love, but it’s for the sake of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. And the vision he casts is a profoundly communal one. The way this is ordered is of course, you have the church that is providing the kind of governing rhythm of society. Then you have the family, which is a miniature church. The reformed actually saw the monastery as a good idea, but a really bad application. And he said, no, no, no, for the Puritans, the monastery is the family. This is the people of God that are governed by a rule of life that are kind of shepherded by an Abbot, namely the Father in that age. And then the individual Christian life was feeding back into these things, and they were all in this harmonious rhythm.
And the picture that Edwards gives, and I’ll end with this, the picture Edwards gives is this is one of my favorite of his. He talks about eternity as a kind of harmony. In eternity, there is the grand symphony of God. And we as those who have been redeemed have heard faintly this symphony playing, but we are like discordant notes who are learning a song we will sing for eternity. That song is the song of love that is driven by the world of love that is only about love because the fountain of love namely God himself is at the very heart of it. That is at least one instance of what a distinctively evangelical and reformed account of spiritual formation entails. And it’s that kind of spiritual theology that the church once again needs to do because we have great spiritual theologians in the 17th and 18th centuries, and then we just stopped. What are you thinking? Do you have any questions for me? Any thoughts?
Grace is God self-giving. It’s gift, but the problem with our definition is we don’t ever say what the gift is, we just say it’s a gift. Yeah, that’s good, we got the first part. But if you have a gift and you never say what it is, something has gone wrong. And the gift is God’s self. And this is why Jesus actually shows up in human history because God is giving himself to us.
That grace is God self-giving. If you want an overarching account of this, let me suggest two books. One book is what did we believe for the first 500 years of church history, and it’s called Life in the Trinity by Donald Fairbairn. Brilliant book. Then a second book, which is the exact same book. Literally it was written the same time so they didn’t have access to each other, identical book, but it only uses evangelical sources by Fred Sanders whose session is right there called The Deep Things of God. Though the same book, Don only uses patristic sources, Fred only uses evangelical sources. Remember what it means to be Protestant is not a rejection of the tradition, it’s a claim that we are the heirs of the tradition. Sola scriptura never rejects tradition, that’s new de scriptura. Sola scriptura is the claim that scripture is the highest norming norm but right below it is the tradition.
This is why Calvin quoted Gustin and Bernard more than anyone else. He was making the claim very clearly that we are the heirs of actual theology of the early church. Read Don and Fred’s book side by side, and it’s astonishing. And what I presented here, I gave Don a paper I wrote, and I wrote an article on Edwards’s view of salvation and I showed it to him. And he read it and goes, “This is exactly what I say the early church believed.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s exactly right.” And that’s the kind of vision we see here, and in all the great theologians. Yeah?
Speaker: You made a statement that holiness and virtue are not synonymous. So how are they related?
Yeah. So the way I want to order these things and I want to hold them very tightly together, I know I kind of put a divorce there. Virtue is the fruit of holiness. There’s a long story here I don’t want to get into, but one of the things that has happened in the academy is there’s been a recovery of Aristotle through Thomas Aquinas. And Thomas Aquinas has not been read well. Thomas has two forms of ethics acquired virtue, two forms of virtue, acquired virtue and infused virtue. Everyone can develop inquired virtue, we might think of that as character. That’s fine. There’s nothing Christian about it. We can habituate certain kinds of lives, we can do that. Infused virtue is by grace alone for Thomas. The Protestants because remember right after the early reformers, after the first generation reformers, reformed theologians took Calvin and the early reformers leapfrogged back over them, took all medieval theology and infused it as reformed scholasticism.
This is what John Owens is doing who steeped in Thomas Aquinas. And they’re saying, this is exactly right, that these infused virtues, although they didn’t like that language because they said the spirit is infused. And so what’s going on for someone like Edwards is the spirit is infused into the person. In other words, the spirit becomes so fundamental to the person, this the spirit is kind of at the core of our being now. And therefore, love, again, Romans 5:5 is pouring forth in our heart. And love refracts through the person as the virtues. But that means a kind of abiding God’s life and a bearing fruit of holiness, of virtue, I should say. It’s receiving our sanctification because remember that scripture is clear, you are sanctified. The primary mode of sanctification biblically is a past tense reality, what we used to call definitive sanctification.
And First Corinthians 1:30 will say Christ is your sanctification. There is a progressive reality to it, but that’s only built on the definitive truth that you have been sanctified. And that’s good because you need to be in God’s presence to be formed, and you can’t be in unless you’ve been sanctified. So the sanctification is for God’s presence, the fruit of that ends up bearing out in virtue. So what I would say about practices is the end is God, and derivative to that as virtue. It’s a secondary kind of affect of life with God. That still means we need to give ourselves. I think Willard rightly says, Willard does a different thing than I do, he’s a Wesleyan doing this. But Willard when he says grace is a poster earning not effort. That’s exactly right. But again, we have to reframe that because what I worry when I hear Willard when he talks about grace is that grace, he almost always uses deep personalized metaphors for it. It becomes like fuel.
No, grace is God self-giving. So the effort is more like marriage than it is like Aristotle, like constructing a life. Sanctification actually is a lot like marriage I think in the sense that you have been sanctified for further sanctification, just like you can’t be more or less married. You either are or you’re not. Day 20 is not more married than day one, but hopefully there’s a deepening of something going on, a forming of a person who’s in love. I think this is precisely why Paul turns to the union and marriage with our union with Christ as the great example. Not only one in one flesh, but one in spirit with him. And so we’d be saying to either partake in his life, and that requires, that means we’re giving ourselves, we’re putting off the old man, we’re putting on the new. The danger I think is to think somehow that putting on the new is just Aristotle.
This is clothing imagery, clothing imagery and scripture is to create a context to be with. Adam and Eve need to be clothed in their nakedness and shame so they could be with one another and with God. The prodigal needs to be clothed in a robe with a family to be received as a son by the Father. We are laid naked and exposed in the presence of God according to Hebrews 4, if we’d read scripture appropriately and hear the word of God. In our nakedness and shame, we’re not meant to cloth ourselves. We’re meant to put on the clothing of Christ so we can receive by the Father in Christ’s righteousness not our own. By putting off, again, clothing imagery, by putting off vice, I’m mortifying the flesh. No, I’m not going to do that, I’m exerting effort. I’m putting on virtue, I’m pressing into it.
Not because somehow I could just give enough fortitude to become virtuous, but in the putting on a virtue, what I’m embracing is life with God. There’s always a relational orientation of being with and drawing near. It’s always abiding that we bear good fruit. So at the end of the day, theologically I’m going to be a kind of virtue ethicist of a certain brand. I’m actually teaching a virtue ethics class and the tradition at Talbot next semester where we look at Aristotle and Aquinas and then Peter Martyr Vermigli, one of the great early reformers who was an Aristotle scholar. And then Edwards’s True Virtue. And for Edwards to quote probably the best book on his ethics, which is by Elizabeth Agnew Cochran, she calls her book Receptive Human Virtues, which is a brilliant title because that’s exactly right, the things we receive by grace alone. That is the … And again, that universally true post Augustinian kind of virtue ethics in the Western tradition in my mind. Yep?
Speaker: What would you recommend in terms of getting a basic framework from Edwards?
Kyle Strobel: From Edwards? Sanctification. This is a … So I’m a reformed theologian, so this hurts me to say. But this is something reform have done very badly on. Basically what happens to reforms, I won’t get into all the reasons why. I have a whole backstory of why I think this happened. But when you get to sanctification in a system, they have nothing left to say other than how it’s not justification. And this is why you get this misguided notion that it’s all progressive because they just took what justification is and made it opposite. Justification, static, immediate, declared, sanctification, progressive, developmental, all these things. What they then have to do is figure out a place where to talk about this stuff. So they developed a whole other category called either Christian ethics, the Dutch reform do this. And if you want to read something profound on that, Brakel, runaway bestseller in year 1700, A Christian’s Reasonable Service, four-year dogmatics that are infused with spiritual theology in profound ways.
They develop a whole category called the Christian life. And the problem is this, notice what’s happened is it’s been unmoored from a doctrine of sanctification. And as far as I can tell, and I haven’t read, although I can’t wait to read my friend R. Michael Allen’s book on sanctification in the Zondervan dogmatic series. And I can only imagine that it will be profound. But by and large, when I read the reform tradition on sanctification, there’s just nothing to say there, and it doesn’t actually feed into a direct account of the Christian life. Maybe I’ve missed something, that’s certainly possible. But by and large, I have not been thrilled with it. So for Edwards, you’re going to get a hold of account of just practical divinity. It’s not going to be located in a doctrine of sanctification. And so I think this is my next academic book. This is where I want to kind of think right now constructively like, we need a doctrine of sanctification, how do we do this? So this is an area I think there’s quite a lot of need right now.
Speaker 5: Will you do it?
Well, I don’t know if I’ll do it. I’d read R. Michael Allen’s book, I’m sure it’s profound. I don’t want to read it quite yet because I don’t want to get faint-hearted because I’ve got to write one and I don’t want to just say, he nailed it. That’s never a good book when all you’re just kind of saying the other guy got it right. Yeah?
My approach would not … One of the things I think conservatives, and I consider myself a conservative. One of the mistakes we’ve made I think is we tend to approach with stop it instead of doing what Edwards did, which is engage and help think will. Edwards constantly told people to take solitude retreats, for instance. The Puritan Isaac Ambrose took a month long solitude retreat every year. Silence and solitude are fundamental practice for them. So the question is how do we think theologically and biblically well about these and infuse them with it and really go after the technique driven reality? I worry about the experiential reality in the sense that, not experiential is bad, but I worry that we’ve tied experience to God’s presence as if our experience tells us something true about God, and that’s just not reality.
Again, First John 3:19 seems to presuppose that you can come into God’s presence and your heart will condemn you there. That’s curious. And I think as Christians that’s something we need to heed. And if our heart condemns us in God’s presence, well, John assumed that would happen. We need to take his advice, God is greater and he knows everything. Push us God-ward, don’t spin us back on technique or on resources. So first I’ll go there. Secondly, I worry there’s been a naiveté about some of these spiritual practices like where these things have become just like a buffet line from the tradition. And this is why I think, there also seems to be a naivete I think among many of us may be as evangelicals of thinking like that we can just kind of cloister ourself off from the tradition.
If you read any good Protestant spiritual classic, they’re steeped in the tradition. You read a book like Baxter’s, A Christian Directory endorsed by Keller as the greatest manual of biblical counseling ever produced, endorsed as samely interestingly by John MacArthur as a purely biblical account of the Christian life. Well, Baxter became a Christian through a Jesuit source. He has steeped in the nature of contemplation, and assumes quite a lot of Catholic spirituality in his account. It is a brilliant book. His exposition of the disease of melancholy, which is what we call depression is astounding. Half of it is totally usable today as it was 350 years ago. And so what we find in the tradition is we find these great thinkers who are imbibing very widely the entire spiritual tradition.
And Puritans would often republish Catholic spiritual classics and just change the name. So Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, they lopped off the last chapter on sacraments and said John Smith wrote, continually, constantly. They recognized that all are ours in Christ. They heated Paul’s command in First Corinthians that if this is good, we’re going to grab onto it. But what they did that we don’t do very good job of is when they did read this stuff, they read it as Protestants with real Protestant doctrine in mind. And when they took something over, they knew they had to kind of destroy it and recreate it in an entirely alien system. My worry is that we haven’t done that. And so now we’re just grabbing randomly these practices. We’re not thinking about why they made sense in their context or how they might work in a monastery and not work as a Protestant.
And we just start doing them hoping that we can kind of achieve something. And so this is why I think we need a robust spiritual theology. We need to constantly come back at this with, no, we have thought well above this, what’s the doctrine of grace? What is spiritual formation by grace through faith in Christ for the glory of God alone. What does that look like? And in fact, we have legions of examples of that. And then it’s just attending to, okay, how do we then judge what these spiritual practices are? When I was working on Formed for the Glory of God, by this I knew Edwards pretty well. So very little had surprised me when I was writing that book.
And I’ll close with this, two spiritual practices shocked me in a good way. One that I’ve totally embedded my own life because I found it so profound. One of the ways Puritans pray is by what they call a prayer of soliloquy. And it was modeled after the Psalms. So you notice the Psalms is talking to God, and then they start talking to themselves, oh my soul that is within me. So suddenly they’re breaking their soul up and speaking truth into their heart, and they’re attending to the kind of … They took very seriously Paul’s command in Colossians 4:2 to be watchful in prayer. And they’re sending some things down to the heart and being watchful of how their heart response. And so maybe I pray, Lord, without you I can do nothing, and then I need to attend because sometimes my heart is going to say, you’re a liar, you don’t think that for a second.
Father, look at this. Because what prayer was is a place to be honest, not a place to perform. It’s a very different thing. The second practice is a practice called conferencing. You would do this at least three times a week usually. You do it in your families, you do with a friend, and you often do with your pastor. There was two main questions that organized it, was the pastor right on Sunday? She have a lot of biblical knowledge, literacy going on. But the second question I love, what did your heart do when it heard the word declared? Imagine growing up in a home where your Father who would have been governing this was savvy enough to help a little five-year-old navigate their souls in God’s presence. What did your heart do? I liked it. Did you? Really? When my daughter had got caught doing something wrong when she was three and I walked in the room, she froze and the first thing out of her mouth is, “Daddy, do you want to talk about Jesus?” Bless her little soul, there’s a little Pharisee in us all.
Imagine a context where we were actually trained from birth not only a high level of biblical knowledge and navigating these things, but then also the ability to navigate my soul. When I heard that word, I was terrified. Okay, draw near. My heart condemned me, great. God’s greater, be with him. That encapsulates so much of their spirituality, but these are the kinds of resources we have that I think we’ve just kind of ignored tragically in my mind. Let me bless you as you leave. Father, Lord, bless these people, be with them and guide them wherever they find themselves as mothers and fathers, as pastors, as students, as lay leaders, wherever they are, Lord bless them and keep them, guide them in your way, teach them. And Lord may you lead them to love you and love their neighbor as themselves. In your name we pray, amen.