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Revelation: The Necessity of Revelation

Miscellanies by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

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Edwards talks about the uniqueness of religion and the manner in which it is revealed to us necessarily.

127. Christian Religion. Necessity of Revelation. I suppose it will be acknowledged by the deists that the Christian religion is the most rational and pure religion, that is or ever was established in any society of men whatsoever, and that they will except only themselves, as serving God in a manner more according to his will than the Christian manner. But can any believe that God has so wholly thrown away mankind, that he has not so ordered it, that there ever yet has been any service or obedience paid to him in society, but what is odious to him and very dissonant to his will? That there never yet has been a society of men that have rightly paid respect to their Creator, the Supreme Being? Yea, so there have been, if any, not above twenty or thirty from the beginning of the world that ever gave the true sort of service to God? For I believe it will not be pretended that there were ever more than that number of deists in the world that have lived pure and moral lives, according to the dictates of religion.

It is easily proved that the highest end and happiness of man is to view God’s excellency, to love him, and receive expressions of his love. Therefore, his greatest business is to meditate and use means to understand God’s glory and express suitably his love to God. This love, including all those other affections which depend upon, and are necessarily connected with it, we express in worship. The highest end of society among men, therefore, must be to assist and join with each other in this employment. But how comes it to pass, that this end of society was never yet obtained among deists? Where was ever any social worship statedly performed by deists. And if there should be a society of deists that were disposed socially to express their love to God and honor him, which was would they go about to do it. They have nothing from God to direct them. Doubtless there would be innumerable jangles and perpetual dissentions about it, unless they were disposed to fall in with the Christian model. We may be convinced, therefore, that revelation is necessary to right social worship.

128. Christian Religion. The Uniqueness of the Christian Religion. There never was any religion but that which we profess, and those formed from it, that pretended to inform us of the nature of God, told us that there is but one God, gave an account of God’s works (how the world came into being), and how God governs it. [No other religion] discovered God’s great designs, what is his will and how he should be served. Or declared the reward of obedience and punishment of disobedience, the nature of man’s happiness, and the end for which he was made. [What other religion] gave us good moral rules, told us what will become of the world hereafter, explained how we came to be sinful and miserable, and how we may escape sin and misery and be redeemed? Or gave an account of the great revolutions of the world, the successions of God’s works in the universe, and where his true worshippers have been and what has befallen them? Or informed us how the world came to apostatize from the true worship of God. Christianity is the only religion that ever pretended that there should a time come when it should be the religion of the world in general.

129. Christian Religion. Concerning the Messiah and Judaism. The Jewish religion, as at present professed, most certainly differs from what reason evidently declares to be the essence of religion. It does not state aright the highest end and happiness of man, his chief business and greatest misery, and the true worship of God. Undoubtedly the Messiah was to come to advance the best interest and true happiness of mankind, which certainly consist in what the gospel declares our Jesus advanced, and not in what the Jews expect the Messiah will do. The Messiah undoubtedly was to be our king, in our highest and most important concerns. He was to be our deliverer from our greatest evils and enemies, which all must confess to be such concerns as the gospel says Christ was exercised in. It is also certain that if this is the chief business of the Messiah, he cannot effect it by an external, earthly government. The saving of us from sin, the making of us holy and spiritually happy, and bringing of us into favor with God, is not to be advanced by such means. I will say further that it is evident it could be done no otherwise than by satisfying God and interceding with him, by giving precepts, promises, and threatenings, by immediately changing the heart, and by restoring and conquering the invisible spirits that are hurtful to our spirits.

Not only may revelation be argued from the necessity we have of it, by reason of the darkness we have contracted by the fall, but seeing that man is created for that end for which he certainly was created, it would be a strange thing that there should be no mutual communication between him and his God.

132. Christian Religion. Necessity of Revelation. I am convinced of the necessity of a revelation by considering how negligent, dull, and careless about a future happiness, I should be, if I was left to discover that happiness by unassisted reason: especially if there were no revelation at all about what is pleasing to God, how he accepts our services, after what manner he loves his servants, [and] how he will pardon sin, etc.

977. Necessity of Revelation. The ancient heathens seem universally to have had the opinion, either by the light of nature or from tradition from the first fathers of mankind, that the gods did reveal themselves to mankind and that there was a necessity for such a revelation. To this purpose are those words of Cicero, de divinations, p. 206, “Deliberation, says Socrates, is proper for us, but concerning things which are obscure and uncertain, we ought to consult Apollo, whom the Athenians consult publicly, concerning matters of great importance.” And in another place, Cicero says thus: “ There is an ancient opinion drawn even from the heroical times that there is among men a certain divination which the Greeks call prophecy (or inspiration), that is [prediction] and knowledge of future things.” Barrow’s Works, vol. ii, p. 99…. The insufficiency of the light of nature cannot be better described than in the words of Cicero: “If we had come into the world,” says he, “in such circumstances as that we could clearly and distinctly have discerned nature herself and have been able in the course of our lives to have followed her true and uncorrupted directions, this alone might have been sufficient, and there would have been little need of teaching and instruction. But now nature has given us only some small sparks of right reason, which we do so quickly extinguish with corrupt opinions and evil practices, that the true light of nature nowhere appears. As soon as we are brought into the world, immediately we dwell in the midst of all wickedness and are surrounded with a number of most perverse and foolish opinions, so that we seem to such in error with our nurse’s milk. Afterwards, when we return to our parents, we are committed to tutors. Then we are further stocked with such variety of errors that truth becomes perfectly overwhelmed with falsehood, and the most natural sentiments of our minds are entirely stifled with confirmed follies. But when after all this we enter upon the business of the world and make the multitude conspiring everywhere in wickedness, our great guide and example, then our very nature itself, is wholly transformed, as it were, into corrupt opinions.” A livelier description of the present corrupt state of human nature is not easily to be met with. Clarke’s Evidences of Natural and Revealed Religion, p. 125.

The wisest of the heathens were never backward to confess their ignorance and great blindness (in moral and divine things), and that truth was hid from them, as it were, in an unfathomable depth. Nay, that even those things which of themselves were of all others the most manifest (that is whenever made known would appear obvious and evident), their natural understanding was, of itself, as unqualified to find out and apprehend as the eyes of bats to behold the light of the sun, as Aristotle owns.

1229. Necessity of Revelation. As we see that in this world the greatest prosperity does not always attend virtue, nor the greatest adversity always attend vice, but that it very often happens contrariwise. So the inward perturbation and remorse which arises from vice and the pleasures of reflection and self-approbation are by no means of themselves proper and sufficient sanctions of the law of nature. “Punishment annexed to this law ought to be proportionable to the violations of the law. Remorse of conscience is not always in proportion to the heinousness of crimes. For an old habitual sinner feels less remorse after the committal of the most enormous crimes than the raw, unpracticed sinner does after transgressions of a much more venial nature. So that the punishment grows less as the crime to which it is applied grows greater. Nature, left to itself, runs almost unavoidably into habits of wickedness, and as fast as it does so, it rids itself of its remorses, which ought still to be growing stronger and keener as habit tempts it to greater enormities. From hence it appears that some greater punishment, not diminishable by the decay of the moral sense, ought to be expected in order to prevent our falling into the grossest crimes or to make examples of us if we do.” Deism Revealed, vol. i, p. 124.

“The happiness of particular nations and earthly societies bears a most minute proportion to that of God’s universal kingdom, and yet it is confessed that the peace and pleasure which naturally attend the practice of virtue and the remorse which attend vice, are not sanctions of the law of nature sufficient for the defense and preservation of earthly societies and kingdoms. But human laws, enforced with the sanctions of civil punishments, must be added. If the laws of nature were sufficiently clear (as the deists say they are), those of society need never, in cases purely moral, tell us our duty. And if they were sufficiently enforced, society would have no occasion to institute other enforcements of much greater cogency in order to their being observed. Nay, if the law of nature were, in several respects of clearness, authority and obligation, perfect and sufficient, society itself would be altogether needless. Men would observe justice and practice beneficence towards one another without adventitious obligations. A lover of liberty would not care to enter into society to become subject to magistrates, to support expensive contributions, to tie himself up to burdensome forms, and stoop to the will of others, if he found he could live independent and converse and traffic safely with mankind in a state of nature. The arguments drawn from the supposed sufficiency of reason and nature, to invalidate the NECESSITY OF REVELATION, prove with the same force, be it more or less, that society is unnecessary. If the laws of nature be able to effect their own end and that end is moral instruction and obligation, then indeed there can be no sort of occasion for other laws, neither divine or human. However, it will be worthwhile to consider whether the evil dispositions and vices of men do not force them into society, and again, whether civil society, considered in itself, is at all able to remedy the evils they seek to shelter themselves from. If a law should come forth, although from a known authority and conceived in the plainest terms, forbidding murder under the penalty of all that severity which men are by nature disposed to exercise upon themselves after doing such an action, and [then] enjoining beneficence by a promise of all those rewards which men, after doing good offices, are enabled by nature to confer on themselves, it would be looked upon as a burlesque upon laws.” Deism Revealed, vol. i, p. 128-129.

1230. Necessity of Revelation. “It is very clear that natural religion has a necessary dependence on revelation and on that part of Christianity which may be called supernatural. For natural religion, in any sense, is but a name without a well-grounded hope of immortality, which no man ever had or, for aught we can tell, ever could have, if some superior being had not revealed it to him.

That man who does not believe in his own immortality, can never conceive himself to be anything else than a better kind of brute, concerned only in present and sensible things, given up to appetite and passion, and after a few years existence in vanity and vexation, perishing forever in the dreadful gulf of annihilation. Yet to believe in the immortality of the soul and to be convinced we shall account hereafter for our actions to Almighty God by any law, is to all men (for all have sinned), a most shocking article of faith if an atonement for sin is not also to be believed in. Because it affords us no other prospect but that of a judgment wherein as we must plead guilty and stand self-convicted, so there is nothing to prevent our being condemned by Almighty God to a punishment of which we know not the limits, either in point of severity or duration. Now the doctrine of an atonement carries us directly to that of Christ’s incarnation and a personal distinction in God. So that the mere light of nature, in our present circumstances, can afford us either no religion, or such a one as can serve no other purpose but that of driving a rational and thinking mind to despair.” Deism Revealed, vol. i, p. 172-173, edit. 2.

God must be considered not only as merciful but as just also and capable of inflicting punishments as well as dispensing rewards. If the subjects know they are forgiven, the penalties of the law are of no effect. Mercy shown publicly to all can hardly fail of encouraging all to transgress, should they be tempted to it.

And if there are any degrees of wickedness so great that the light of nature gives us no ground to expect pardon, how shall we know what those degrees are? Does the light of nature plainly point out the limits?

God is supreme monarch of the whole universe. It belongs to him to see justice done, to render to every man according to his deeds, in order to support the dignity of his laws on which the happiness of all the free and intelligent creation depends, and which if anyone might transgress with impunity on merely repenting, I cannot see how his kingdom can be preserved. Everyone will repent sometime or another if he thinks he is to be pardoned and thereby exempt from intolerable punishments, by which means it will come to pass that no one shall suffer. So the penal laws of God will be in vain, although the world shall be filled with wickedness, and by no temptation so much as by this very expectation of impunity on repentance, deferred as long as the delinquent pleases.

Let us know whether the law of nature promises pardon for sin, whether for all sins or only for some, and if only some, what those sins are, and whether absolutely or on certain condition, and if the latter, what those conditions are. These are points well worth inquiring after.

Besides, God’s assistance is necessary to true repentance. Before a sinner can begin to be the object of God’s favor, he must cease to be what he was before and commence a new man. None but the Creator can make a new man or a new creature. There is a degree of strength necessary to a true repentance such as no man is master of. Deism Revealed, vol. i, pp. 239-244.

Mere repentance can make no satisfaction to justice for injuries and offenses past. It can only put a man in the way of his duty for time to come, which he owes to God and which therefore can clear no scores with him. As to the reformation of a transgressor, together with his disposition to lead a new life for the time to come, it may be rendered very precarious by the supposed easiness of obtaining pardon. Man is frail, and in hopes of being pardoned again, he may again transgress unless his reason tells him he cannot be forgiven a second or third offense.

Although he who murders a man repents and for the time to come carefully avoids the least approach to such action again, yet in his latter behavior, he only does what it was always his duty to do and no more, but makes no atonement to his poor neighbor, whom he has deprived of life, nor to the community from which he has cut away a member, nor to God whose creature and image he has defaced. The deists can never show, on their principles, that the murderer or any other criminal can make the least atonement or reparation for either the offenses he commits against God or the wrongs he does to man in cases where restitution is out of the question. They say the observation of the natural law alone can render men acceptable in the sight of God and propose it as the only rule by which they are to act and consequently be judged. It is by this that according to the deistical hypothesis, all men must stand issue before Almighty God and be acquitted for the observation, or condemned for the transgression, of it. Now I appeal to experience and to the heart and conscience of every man, whether he does not live in the daily transgression, be it higher or lower instances, of those laws which he believes God requires the observation of at his hands, and whether after the most sincere repentance and the most thorough reformation he can make of his life and conduct, he finds not enough of evil dispositions and lapses to lament in himself and put him in mind that he is one of those debtors, who having nothing to pay in towards former accounts, is still adding to and increasing debt. Thus I think it appears pretty plainly that if all men have sufficient means of knowing their duty, as the deist insist they have, and if every man transgresses the rules of his duty as his conscience cannot but inform him he does, [then] the whole race of mankind is lost forever….

1297. The Necessity of Revealed Religion. Mankind need means of certainty, clearness, and satisfaction in things that concern their welfare, in proportion to the importance of those things: such as whether there be a future state of happiness and misery, what that state is; what the will of God is, what are the things which please him, what those things which will displease him and make us the objects of his anger and hatred, whether there be any reconciliation after we have offended, and how it may be obtained. We see that God takes care of mankind and all other creatures that usually they may not be without necessary means, by foresight or something equivalent, for their own preservation and comfortable existence, and that, in things of infinitely less importance.

But it is exceedingly apparent that without a revelation mankind must be forever in the most awful doubt with respect to those things. And not only those things — but if they are not led by revelation and direct teaching into a right way of using their reason, in arguing from effects to causes, etc., they would forever remain in the most woeful doubt and uncertainty concerning the nature and the very being of God.

This appears not only by the state of the heathen world, wise and unwise, learned and unlearned, polite nations and barbarous, ages after ages before the light of Christianity came abroad in the world, but also by what appears among those who in these late ages have renounced divine revelation, even the wisest and greatest of them, and such as are of the strongest and most acute abilities. By the account which Dr. Leland gives of the deistical writers of the last and present ages, Hobbes denied any distinction between soul and body, he denied a future state, and he held that we are obliged to obey an infidel magistrate in matters of religion, that thought is free, but when it comes to public confession of faith, the private reason must submit to the public. He owned the being of a God, but says we know no more of him but that he exists, and he held that God is corporeal: that by the law of nature all men have a right to all things, and over all persons, and that no way is so reasonable as for any man to anticipate, i.e. by force and wiles, to master all the persons of others that he can, so long as he sees no other power great enough to endanger him, and that antecedent to civil laws, all actions are indifferent, nothing being good or evil in itself.

Toland was of opinion that there is no other god but the universe, therein agreeing with Spinoza.

The Earl of Shaftesbury casts reflections on the doctrine of future rewards and punishments, as if it were of disservice to the interests of virtue.

The author of Christianity Not Founded in Argument *45* represents even natural religion as not founded in argument any more than revealed, and pretends that all attempts to prove the principles of natural religion by reason (and even the being of a God), have done more harm than good, and takes a great deal of pains to destroy all certainty of reason. He represents it as perpetually fluctuating, and never capable of coming to any certainty in anything, as though truth and falsehood were equally to be proved by it. He absolutely declares against instructing children in religious or moral principles as a wicked attempt to prepossess their tender minds.

Chubb shows himself no friend to the doctrine of a particular providence. He plainly intimates that he looks upon God as having nothing now to do with the good or evil that is done among mankind, and that men’s state and circumstances in the world are things which entirely depend on second causes, and in which providence doth not interpose at all. He endeavors to show that no proof can be brought for a future state from the present unequal distribution of things. He discardeth all hope of divine assistance in the practice of that which is good. He insists that prayer to God is no part of natural religion. He represents it as absolutely doubtful whether the soul be material or immaterial, or whether it be distinct from the body; and if it be, whether it be equally perishable with the body and shall die with it, or shall subsist after the dissolution of the body. These are points, he says, which he cannot possibly determine, because he has nothing to ground such determination upon, and at the same time declares that if the soul be perishable with the body, there can surely be no place for argument with regard to a future state of existence to men or a future retribution. It is easy to see that he inclines most to think the soul is material. He absolutely discards the proof of a future state from the present unequal distributions of divine providence.

He signifies that if there be a future retribution, it is most probable that only those shall be called to an account who have been greatly subservient to the public good or hurt of mankind. And as he supposes but few will be called to an account, so it is only for some particular actions — and that they will not be called to an account for foolishly using the names and terms by which the deity is characterized. The only offense against God is, he thinks, the want of a just sense of his kindness and the not making a public profession of gratitude to him. And whether this will make a part of the grand inquest, he declares himself unable certainly to judge, but he plainly intimates that he thinks it will not, since among men it has been looked upon to be a mark of greatness of soul to despise and overlook such ingratitude rather than to show any resentment at it. The only thing, therefore, for which he supposes men will be accountable is their injuries and benefits one to another, and those only when done to the public. He afterwards sets himself to show that things would be as well ordered in the world without the expectation of a future judgment as with it, and that the belief of it is no great advantage to society.

Mr. Hume declares that the knowledge of the relation of cause and effect is of the highest importance and necessity, and that all our reasonings concerning matters of fact and experience, and concerning the existence of any being, are founded upon it. Yet he sets himself to show that there is no real connection between cause and effect, and that there can be no certain nor even probable reasoning from the one to the other. He endeavors to subvert all proofs of a particular providence, of a future state, and of an intelligent cause of the universe. He speaks of the doctrine of the being of a God as uncertain and useless. He opposes the arguments from God’s distributive justice for a future state, and denies that we have any evidence of any further degrees of justice in God than we see exercised in this present state.

Lord Bolingbroke insists that we must not ascribe to God any moral perfections distinct from his physical, especially holiness, justice, and goodness; that he has not those attributes according to the ideas we conceive of them, nor anything equivalent to those qualities as they are in us, and that to pretend to deduce moral obligations from those attributes, or to talk of imitating God in his moral attributes, is enthusiasm and blasphemy; that God made the world and established the laws of this system at the beginning, but that he doth not now concern himself in the affairs of men, or if he doth, that his providence only extends to collective bodies but hath no regard to individuals, to their action or events that befall them; that the soul is not a distinct substance from the body; that the whole man is dissolved at death; that the doctrine of future rewards and punishments is a fiction that hath no real foundation in nature and reason, and that to pretend to argue for future retribution from the apprehended unequal distribution of this present state is absurd and blasphemous; that the sanctions of the law of nature and reason relate not to men individually, but collectively considered; that self-love is the only original spring from which our moral duties and affections flow; that polygamy is founded on the law of nature; that there is no such thing as natural shame or modesty. He intimates adultery not to be contrary to the law of nature, if it can be acted secretly. He seems to think that the law of nature forbids no incest but that of the highest kind, viz., the conjunction between fathers and daughters, sons and mothers. He insists that the ground of the obligation of the law of nature is not in being the work and appointment of God, but its being conducive to human happiness. He holds that the laws of nature in general, and the particulars of moral duty derived from them, are very uncertain, and in which men have always been very apt to mistake and make wrong conclusions.

These things from Dr. Leland’s view of deistical writers.

I think a little sober reflection on those things which appear among the deists, in weighing them together with the nature of things, may convince us that a general renunciation of divine revelation, after nations have enjoyed it, would soon bring those nations to be more absurd, brutish, and monstrous in their notions and practices than the heathens were before the Gospel came among them.

For: 1. These nations had many things among them derived originally from revelation, by tradition from their ancestors, the ancient founders of nations, or from the Jews, which led them to embrace many truths contained in the Scripture. And they valued such traditions. It was not in general their humor to despise such an original of doctrines or to contemn them, supposing they had their first foundation in divine revelation, but rather valued any doctrines highly on this account and had no notion of setting them aside in order to the drawing of everything from the fountain of their own reason. By this means, they had a great deal more of truth in matters of religion and morality than ever human reason would have discovered without those helps. But now the humor of the deists is to reject everything that they have had from supposed revelation, or any tradition whatsoever, and to receive nothing but what they can clearly see, and draw out the demonstrable evidence of, from the fountain of their own unassisted reason.

2. The heathens, by tradition, received and believed many great truths of vast importance that were incomprehensible, and that was no objection with them against receiving them (that they were above their comprehension). But now, it is a maxim with the free thinkers that nothing is to be believed but what can be comprehended, and this leads them to reject all the principles of natural religion (as it is called), as well as revealed. For there is nothing pertaining to any doctrine of natural religion, not any perfection of God, nor his very existence from eternity, but what has many things incomprehensible.

3. The heathens of old, in their reasoning, did not proceed in that exceeding haughtiness and dependence on their own mere singular understanding, disdaining all dependence on teaching, as our deists do, which tends to lead one to reject almost all important truth out of an affectation of thinking freely and independently and singularly. Some of the heathen protested their great need of teaching, and of divine teaching.

4. The heathens did not proceed with that enmity against moral and divine truth, having not been so irritated by it. They were willing to pick up some scraps of this truth which comes from revelation, and which our deists reject all in a lump. (See a further reason under the next number, viz., M 1298.)

Consider the following two works by Edwards that have been updated and republished for easy reading:

Ripe for Damnation: Sermons on the Book of Revelation – by Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). Are you hungry for more of Edwards’ sermons? On the book of Revelation? These new works are not found anywhere on A Puritan’s Mind, and there are new ones not found in his large 2 volume works. 4 deal with the plight of the wicked, and 2 deal with the bliss of saints in heaven. These sermons are powerful, practical, and biblical, glorifying the Lord Jesus Christ, and contain 2 never before published sermons.

Justification by Faith Alone – by Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). In this classic work, Edwards covers the intricacies of how believers are made righteous only through Christ’s merits, and that this justifying righteousness is equally imputed to all elect believers. This is accomplished by the condition of faith as an instrument.

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