Strachan, PhD candidate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Doug Sweeney, professor of church history and the history of Christian thought at the same school, argue that “by observing how Edwards handled this issue [nominal Christianity] in his own time and ministry, we will find encouragement and a biblically grounded example to guide us as we confront the same challenge today” (p. 24).
In chapter 1, “The Contemporary Problem of Nominal Christianity,” the authors identify factors that have contributed to the practice of nominal Christianity in evangelical culture. They assert, “Two things are immediately clear: the state of maturity of many Christians is quite low, and many churches are failing to educate their people in the basics of Christianity” (p. 27). The authors provide statistics and quotations in support of this claim. While none of this evidence is surprising, it is still quite sobering and convicting. The authors trace the problem back to the rise of the Enlightenment in eighteenth-century Europe, arguing that this was the point at which Christianity began to be labeled as “superstitious.” With the rise of rationalism, orthodox Christian faith was marginalized. Pragmatism and postmodernism are present-day effects. The authors end this chapter (and each of the following chapters) with a section entitled, “Embracing True Christianity.” They synthesize the content of the chapter and give “action steps” for the reader. In this chapter they exhort churches, denominations, and families to examine themselves in light of the material presented.
In chapter 2, “The Problem of Nominal Christianity in Edwards’s Day,” the authors look at Jonathan Edwards’s own assessment of the spiritual health of his congregation. The authors state, “Even in the happiest moments of his career, it seems, Edwards often had to confront religious declension” (p. 57). This chapter illustrates Edwards’s sober and difficult experience with nominalism. From his writings the authors conclude that while nominal Christians “sample” the good things of God, “they are not so convicted by judgment as to repent of their sin, they are not so gripped to embrace Christ” (p. 69). The authors thus establish an Edwardsean view on what true Christianity is not. They close the chapter by exhorting readers to “embrace true Christianity” by identifying with Edwards, looking beyond themselves, and not merely focusing on distortable surface-level characteristics.
In chapter 3 the authors give an Edwardsean response to nominal Christianity. Here they focus on the positive characteristics of true vibrant Christian faith. Strachan and Sweeney look at sections from a varied collection of Edwards’s works, arguing that “we see that while Edwards took pains to establish what true Christianity was not, he also took special care to sketch out an exciting portrait of true Christianity that will, now as then, help us to recover a richly biblical understanding of conversion and the change it effects” (p. 75). The authors pay special attention to the 1741 text, Distinguishing Marks of a True Work of the Spirit of God. They give a brief yet comprehensive overview of Edwards’s five distinguishing signs that mark a believer, with significant portions from the original work. The authors conclude, “He shows us that the Christian life is the personal experience of God’s grace and goodness. Though we all wrestle with sin until we go to glory, the true Christian bears marks of conversion and offers the world a picture of a very different way of life” (p. 94).
Chapter 4 gives examples of true conversion as chronicled in Edwards’s writing. They examine the lives of David Brainerd and Abigail Hutchinson, focusing on their humble and steady commitment to God. The authors state, “Brainerd and Hutchinson are not ‘all-stars,’ after all, [they were] humble ordinary people saved by the grace of God who lived extraordinary lives due to their pursuit of the Savior. . . . They urge us today to recognize the power of true conversion and the potency of a life devoted in entirety to the work of God” (pp. 120–21). The authors emphasize that Edwards’s picture of Christianity is not an unreachable goal.
The final chapter discusses Edwards’s dismissal from the Northampton church and its relationship to the pastor’s view of true Christianity. The authors give the background and highlights of the infamous “communion controversy,” insisting that “conversion was never theoretical for the pastor; it was always practical, a matter of first concern” (p. 126). They argue that this controversy boiled down to different understandings of Christianity. They wisely point out that while Edwards submitted a biblically sound argument, he was not completely blameless. Multiple times he “fanned the flame” of controversy in his published works on the matter. But in the end Edwards’s motivation was his deep concern for his parishioners’ spiritual lives.
This book is intensely practical and relevant to today’s evangelical Christian culture. Those not familiar with Jonathan Edwards will appreciate the fact that Strachan and Sweeney engage deeply with many of Edwards’s works in a readable style. This book is ideal for discussion in small groups or Sunday school classes. Strachan’s and Sweeney’s Edwardsean concern for spiritual growth is both refreshing and desperately needed. All those who share this concern will find this book helpful and edifying to the body of Christ.
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