The first Great Awakening, as it’s called, took place between 1735-43 in the greater New England Area. It was during this time that many churches saw a large number of conversions and a significant uptick in sincere religious concern and devotion. Jonathan Edwards is recognized by historians as one of the means by which God sparked this spiritual awakening. Through Edwards’ biblically-rooted, carefully-argued, heart-searching sermons on the horrors of hell and the glories of Christ, God worked real revival among the people of New Haven, Connecticut and beyond. It is without dispute that something unique and supernatural occurred during these few years that bore lasting fruit.
Although Edwards was grateful to God for this revival and one of its biggest advocates, he was also careful to warn his people of the dangers that attend genuine works of God like the one he and his congregation were experiencing. Most importantly, people needed to discern between Spirit-wrought affections for God that only true Christians experience and natural religious affections that are common to all people. Some folks may assume they are under the saving influence of the Spirit because they are active in religious duties, or they are able to talk about biblical truths with some eloquence, or they have “assurance” of their right standing with God. In other words, Edwards warned his people to examine themselves so they wouldn’t be self-deceived about their spiritual state.
Spiritual Pride in New Converts
But of all the vices that may ensnare someone who has come under some gospel influence, spiritual pride, according to Edwards, is the most deadly. Edwards observed the tendency of pride to upend good beginnings in a professing believer, causing them to quickly vaunt themselves as spiritual experts and to denounce all other Christians as carnal, false, and hypocritical. Beyond this, some newly converted men would immediately take to teaching, preaching, and writing, and due to their lack of training and maturity, would not possess the requisite theological clarity and biblical balance for public ministry. Gilbert Tennent, another leader in the Great Awakening, wrote a letter to Edwards about this very concern:
As to the subject you mention, of laymen being sent out to exhort and to teach, supposing them to be real converts, I cannot but think, if it be encouraged and continued, it will be of dreadful consequence to the church’s peace and soundness in the faith. I will not gainsay but that private persons may be of service to the church of God by private, humble, fraternal reproof and exhortations; and no doubt it is their duty to be faithful in these things. But in the meantime if Christian prudence and humility do not attend their essays, they are like to be prejudicial to the church’s real well-being. But for ignorant young converts to take upon them authoritatively to instruct and exhort publicly, tends to introduce the greatest errors and the grossest anarchy and confusion.Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, 221.
Edwards would even write a personal letter to a young man who had started to preach in his local congregation, but who was not fit to venture such a work at his stage of spiritual development. Instead, the young man should seek faithfulness in a private ministry, not a public one. Edwards writes,
You ought to do what good you can, by private, brotherly, humble admonitions and counsels; but ’tis too much for you to exhort public congregations., or solemnly to set yourself, by a set speech, to counsel a room full of people, unless it be children, or those that are much your inferiors, or to speak to any in an authoritative way.Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, 223.
Satan’s Most Effective Tool
Underlying these tendencies to exalt oneself into a place of authoritative teacher was a mixture of ignorant zeal and pride. It was precisely the concern that pride would disrupt God’s work in a new convert that Paul addressed when he instructed Timothy on how to identify elders. One qualification was that an elder could not be a new convert because he would become “puffed up with conceit” (1 Tim 3:6). A new believer did not yet have the inner spiritual resources to conduct a pastoral ministry without succumbing to pride. He would easily think too highly of himself and too highly of his gifts, and thus become susceptible to error, theological imprecision, and foolishness, wreaking untold damage on the congregation.
In his essay, “Undiscerned Spiritual Pride,” Edwards warned his readers that spiritual pride is Satan’s most effective tool to undermine a work of God.
The first and worst cause of errors, that prevail in such a state of things, is spiritual pride. This is the main door by which the devil comes into the hearts of those who are zealous for the advancement of religion. It is the chief inlet of smoke from the bottomless pit, to darken the mind and mislead the judgment. This is the main handle by which the devil has hold of religious persons, and the chief source of all the mischief that he introduces, to clog and hinder a work of God. This cause of error is the main spring, or at least the main support, of all the rest. Till this disease is cured, medicines are in vain applied to heal other diseases.Jonathan Edwards, “Undiscerned Spiritual Pride,” Works, 1:399.
According to Edwards, spiritual pride was the “chief source of all the mischief [Satan] introduces to clog and hinder the work of God.” How can Edwards make such a comprehensive statement? Because pride keeps us from knowing the truth because we think too highly of the knowledge we already have (Prov 18:2; 18:13). Pride causes us to seek glory for ourselves so faith gets choked out (John 5:44). Pride gives us a sense of spiritual superiority, so we fail to learn from others (John 9:34). Pride makes us feel self-sufficient, so we rely upon ourselves and our finite, fallen minds which inevitably leads us into error (Prov 10:17; 1 Cor 4:8; cf. Prov 3:5). Where pride prevails, fruitful ministry will be hindered (James 3:13-17).
Who is Most Susceptible to Spiritual Pride?
Ironically, those who are most zealous for the glory of God are the ones who are most vulnerable to spiritual pride. We see this vulnerability in Peter. He was zealous for Christ, and he exalted himself as an eminent disciple who surpassed the others in courage and loyalty to the Savior. Immediately after Jesus prophesied of the disciples’ temporary defection, Peter declared, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matt 26:33). Only hours later, however, Peter’s courage would evaporate in the face of mild persecution as he denied Christ three times.
Pride makes us think highly of ourselves and our gifts, and it causes us to think far less about our weaknesses and blind spots. When we have an inflated view of ourselves, we will be in imminent danger of making spiritual shipwreck. Men who are passionate for Christ and desire to proclaim the truth ought to slow down, pursue faithfulness in their private ministries, and place themselves under the instruction and care of their pastor. Remaining well-rooted in a local church and submissive to one’s elders is essential for guarding oneself from pride because, as Edwards observes, “Pride is much more difficult to be discerned than any other corruption, because its nature very much consists in a person’s having too high a thought of himself.” We need the loving, wise exhortations of our pastors who can help us see the places we need to grow (see Heb 3:12-15; 10:24-25; 13:17). We can’t see all our faults by ourselves, and only the insight of mature, godly leaders can help a pastoral-hopeful determine if he is fit for ministry.
Humility is essential for pastoral ministry, and it should be the aim of every pastor to instill the importance of humility into every pastoral hopeful he encounters. Humility is vital because a man cannot rightly teach the Word of God unless he is rightly taught the Word of God, and one cannot be taught unless he is humble. “Nothing,” Edwards notes, “sets a person so much out of the devil’s reach as humility, and so prepares the mind for true divine light without darkness and so clears the eye to look on things as they truly are.” Edwards is simply reflecting on what Scripture clearly teaches: “[God] leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Ps 25:9). Stated more broadly, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Barren, short-term, self-centered ministries will grow in the soil of pride. But fruitful, enduring, Christ-centered ministries will abound in the rich soil of spiritual humility. May God grant us to walk in humility so that we might taste the pleasures of divine wisdom and a fruitful ministry.