August 14, 2014

Anniversary Week: 1740

Stephen Nichols
Anniversary Week: 1740


For our fourth top-five moment in church history, we're moving ahead, a bit closer to the modern age. The date for today is 1740. This date is significant in that it marks what historians call the "Great Awakening." The Great Awakening was a sweeping revival, and is sometimes seen as limited to New England, but it was much bigger than that. It was an event that not only encompassed all of the American colonies—from New England to the South—but it was also a transatlantic phenomenon. So, we must cross the Atlantic to see this as an event that also took place in old England, not just New England.

In England, the primary figures in the Great Awakening were George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers, John and Charles. But there was also a figure in the colonies—Jonathan Edwards. There were a host of secondary characters as well, but these four are probably enough to consider today.

Whitefield had created a stir in England with his sermon "The Almost Converted" or "The Almost Christian." He would preach this in the Anglican churches, and he would talk about someone who was an "almost Christian," but who was not actually a Christian. One who, as we might say, was a "nominal Christian"—who was simply resting. They'd attend church. They were baptized as an infant. They were on a church's membership rolls. Whitefield would remind them that these things do not necessarily make them a Christian.

So, as he preached this sermon, he found himself uninvited from preaching in various pulpits. John Wesley followed suit. He was preaching a sermon by the same title, and so both Whitefield and Wesley found themselves kicked out of churches. So, they went to the open fields. There, Whitefield and Wesley, and John Wesley's brother, Charles, would preach to crowds of tens of thousands. It was a time of great revival in England.

Also, in New England, there was a time of great revival. A few years before, in the 1730s, there was a revival along the Connecticut River Valley. But in 1740, the Spirit of God seemed to be stirring all across the colonies. A significant figure in this revival was Jonathan Edwards. It was at this time, of course, that he preached his famous sermon—probably one of the most read sermons of all time—"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

That sermon has very somber reminders of the fate of sinners under the wrath of God, but it is also full of gospel promise. In fact, one of my favorite lines from that sermon is one that doesn't always get very much attention. It is often obscured by lines such as, "The bow of God's wrath is bent." Of course, Edwards gives some spine-tingling images. He says that we are all like a spider dangling over a precarious web—over a pit by just a mere web. In that same way, we are dangling over the pit of hell. At any moment, the web could snap, and we would meet our end.

Those are the type of lines that get all the attention, but my favorite line from the sermon comes near the end. Edwards says, "The door of God's mercy is thrown wide open, and Christ stands in the door and says to sinners 'Come.'"

It is a sermon that not only reminds us of the wrath of God, but it also reminds us of the precious promise of the gospel—that in Christ our sins have been atoned for, our sins have been paid for, and in Christ, our sins can been forgiven, and we can be reconciled to a holy God. We who are sinners and who were once far off from God can be reconciled to Him.

That was the message of Edwards; that was the message of the Great Awakening. It had a significant impact not just in the church, but in the culture too, to the glory of God.