Reader responds to Ausbun column

by By John Suttles

Editor’s Note: John Suttles wrote this response to a recent Pastor’s Corner column.


A recent article in the Religion section of the Times-Herald by Pastor Daniel Ausbun of Moreland attempted to demonstrate the ongoing influence of Jonathan Edwards on the religious life of America.

While Pastor Ausbun might be commended for the intent of his article, its content and conclusions are, in several instances, materially incorrect and seriously flawed. To point out all the errors would consume far too much space, however, two especially stand out. Concerning these two a corrective is most necessary in order to “set the record straight” about some important facts of religious history.

His first serious error comes in his attempt to explain Edwards’ impact on preaching a personal salvation. As he puts it, “Edwards preached a ‘born again’ experience in order to receive salvation.” True enough, but he then goes on to contend that prior to Edward’s preaching, all Christian faith was a matter of “association and family affiliation.” He concludes with the assertion, “personal conversion wasn’t the religious norm until the [Great] Awakening.”

While statements such as these last two may make for a good story, they are simply not true.

Any careful student of religious history would know that one of the great truths brought back to light in the Reformation of the 1500s was that of personal justification by faith in Christ through grace alone. The five “Sola’s,” brief statements that became the touchstone of that movement, make this abundantly clear. Thus, he is simply wrong in his implication that the necessity of individual conversion to Christ was some novel idea first developed by Jonathan Edwards.

Even a casual review of the writings of ministers from the dawn of the Reformation -- Luther, Calvin, Tyndale, Melancthon, and Bucer to name but a few -- would demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt their consistent emphasis on the absolute necessity of personal repentance and faith in salvation.

In the 1600s the Puritans in England constantly and tirelessly preached the glorious message of “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Who can read the biography of John Bunyan, or Jeremiah Burroughs, or John Dod, or Richard Sibbes -- again to name but a few of those mighty Puritan preachers -- and not be convinced that they were the subjects of a personal experience of conversion?

For Pastor Ausbun to rashly declare that there was no concern for personal conversion until Jonathan Edwards came along is to be sadly misinformed or willfully uninformed about the writings and teachings of Protestant church leaders during and since the Reformation.

The second serious problem is his emphasis upon the “emotional” aspect of conversion. No less than four times in the article reference is made to emotionalism -- the emotional response of Edwards’ congregation to his preaching, Edwards weeping at George Whitefield’s preaching, Edwards’ stress upon “a personal emotional response to the Gospel,” and his definition in parentheses of Edwards’ term religious “affection” as “emotion.”

Mr. Edwards himself would likely take great exception to such an emphasis. In fact, he did! In his great work on this very subject titled “The Religious Affections,” written in 1746, he spends more than 50 pages discussing what are NOT signs of true religious affection and they include great effects on the body, great fervor, an appearance of love and joy, much time and much zeal in religious activity, great expressions of praise, and even a moving testimony.

None of these, said Edwards, are a sure sign of a person having been “born again.”

Edwards concludes rather with this: “distinguishing marks of true saints [are] longing after a more holy heart, and after living a more holy life.” This is far from the emotionalism that is so esteemed in most churches today as the indisputable evidence of having been “born again.”

Edwards own definition of the “affections” describes them as being rooted in the will, not in the emotions. To then equate affections with emotions is to do a grave injustice to Edwards’ own expressions on the matter.

It is always right to honor great men, especially those who were great in faith and piety, and to recognize their influence upon succeeding generations. To do so, however, by “changing the narrative” to suit a particular conclusion, does a dishonor to the man and to truth. 

Jonathan Edwards deserves to be honored and also deserves not to be misrepresented.

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