The gospel-centered movement may be new, but gospel-centeredness itself isn’t a novelty. Love for the gospel lies at the center of the rich heritage of evangelicalism, reaching back hundreds of years.
I’m (very) slowly plodding through The Works of John Owen, the most important theologian in my Christian life. Tucked away in Owen’s 250 pages on The Nature and Causes of Apostasy from the Gospel (in Volume 7 of Owen’s works) is a short, but insightful, delineation of what Owen calls the “proper end and design” of evangelical truths.
The context is Owen’s treatment of the first (of six) causes of apostasy from the gospel, namely “that rooted enmity which is in the minds of men unto spiritual things, abiding uncured under the profession of the gospel” (p. 82). Owen demonstrates that when the gospel doesn’t fully penetrate a person’s heart, so as to bring about the intended transformation of the heart in particular ways, then the hostility of the unregenerate nature eventually rises up against the truth, even if there has been an outward profession of faith.
But in arguing for this point, Owen takes some time to articulate just what the intended effects of the gospel are – the “proper end and design” of evangelical truths. There are three of them, which I will state in my own words, followed by some excerpts from Owen.
1. Rest and Satisfaction in Christ
The first goal of the gospel is to “take off the soul of man from rest and satisfaction in itself” and to “seek after righteousness, life, peace, and blessedness, by Jesus Christ” (p. 83). The natural inclination of fallen human beings is to look inward, to ourselves and what we can accomplish, to find the solution to our various problems. The problems may be moral, psychological, or spiritual, but the core conviction of our untransformed hearts is to think, “I can do it. I can handle this.” So, we try to live better lives, to be better people, and to find within ourselves the resources we need for goodness and happiness (or in Owen’s words, “righteousness, life, peace, and blessedness”).
But the gospel “presseth to take men off wholly from their old foundations” (p. 84). It shows us our insufficiency and redirects our trust to Christ and his sufficiency alone. The gospel shows us that “present peace” and “future blessedness” are found not in ourselves, or anything we can do, but only in Jesus.
2. Renovation of the Soul
The second goal of the gospel is one I’ve written about more extensively: the “the renovation of our minds, wills, and affections, into the image or likeness of God” (p. 83). We are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ, says Paul (Rom. 8:29), and the primary means God uses to effect this transformation is the gospel, applied to our hearts by the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18).
But how does this actually happen in practice? Owen answers: “by presenting spiritual things unto us in that light and evidence, with that power and efficacy, as to transform us into their likeness” (p. 83). In other words, transformation happens when the truth of the gospel comes into our hearts with both clarity and efficacy, logic and fire, conviction and passion, Word and Spirit, light and heat.
3. A Heart for Worship
Finally, Owen says that evangelical truth “engageth the whole soul, in all its powers and faculties, through the whole course of its activity…to live unto God in all holy obedience” (p. 83-84). Worshiping God is the only rational response to the lavish mercies of God (Rom. 12:1). But when the gospel does it’s work in our hearts, worship is seen not simply as our duty to God (although it is), but as the natural reflex of our hearts in response to God’s revelation of his grace and mercy through the cross and resurrection of Christ and the gift of his Spirit.
Questions for Application
To return to Owen’s main point, let me end with some personal questions.
- Has the gospel produced these effects in your heart?
- Is your trust firmly fixed on Christ and his cross, or are you still looking inward for moral improvement and existential satisfaction?
- Are you being more and more transformed into the image of Christ?
- Do you look more like Jesus than you did a year ago?
- Do you delight to worship God?
- Do the lavish mercies of God beckon your heart to praise and enjoy him?
If not, maybe the gospel hasn’t penetrated deeply enough. Maybe there is still an “uncured enmity” or hostility to God and the gospel deep inside your soul. Be watchful. When this is the case, Owen warns, “spiritual truths are first neglected, then despised, and at last, on easy terms, parted withal” (p. 84). Religious people sometimes profess to believe without really believing. When they do, they first “stifle truth as to its operation” and eventually “reject it as to its profession” (p. 85). This is the natural course of apostasy from the gospel.
The only solution is to embrace the gospel more deeply, with an earnest desire for the Spirit to apply evangelical truths more deeply and powerfully to our hearts.
This post first appeared at Brian’s blog and is posted here with his permission.
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Throughout this series (http://servantsofgrace.org/an-attack-on-marriage-is-ultimately-an-assault-on-gods-character-and-gods-word/) and (http://servantsofgrace.org/teaching-feelings-opinions-or-the-inerrancy-of-the-bible/) we’ve looked at how inerrancy relates to the family and the church but today we will look at how inerrancy relates to outreach. Some people may think that outreach isn’t really related to inerrancy at all, but such people are gravely mistaken. If the Bible isn’t without error then that will affect how we engage in evangelism, discipleship, missions, and apologetics.
At present some Christians are focusing more on what they think about the Bible rather than what the Bible says about Adam being a historical person. If Adam isn’t a historical person then we will have issues with our understanding of sin, salvation, the Church, and all facets of ministry. Theology has consequences and denying inerrancy whether explicitly or implicitly is one of those issues that while not explicitly a gospel issue will have devastating effects on our understanding and implementation of the gospel into every area of our lives and or ministries.
Outreach and Inerrancy
The mission of God is to seek and save the lost and make disciples from every people group to the glory of God. Understanding inerrancy is crucial, because our understanding of this doctrine will affect how we evangelize, make disciples, and engage in apologetics. Inerrancy is so important, because it has a direct bearing on our understanding of God’s mission to save, sanctify, and glorify a people for His own possession and kingdom. Not only does inerrancy have a direct consequence on our understanding of issues related to the family, Church, and outreach, but in denying inerrancy we will have issues with every area of our theology.
As we have already learned, inerrancy is a very important issue– one that merits serious reflection and defense. The Church is called to preach the Word of God in season and out of season and to reach people in order that they may be transferred from the Kingdom of Darkness to the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. Since our outreach is so important may we never forget that in seeking to make disciples we should be driven not by our opinions or feelings, but by the Word of God that pierces the heart of hardened criminals and sinners and brings them to the knowledge of the Truth through the preaching of the Word of God.
The doctrine of inerrancy is important. Denials of inerrancy are denials of God’s truthfulness to us. God would be a liar if the Bible contained error. In addition, if one denies inerrancy, then the truth of the entire Bible comes under suspicion. Believers would be left without any solid foundation for faith. No one would be certain what was true and what was not. Lack of belief in inerrancy opens the door to denying the major doctrines of the faith. While this may not happen with each person who rejects an inerrant Scripture, it is the logical result of denying inerrancy.
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In the first post in this series (http://servantsofgrace.org/an-attack-on-marriage-is-ultimately-an-assault-on-gods-character-and-gods-word/) we learned about attacks on inerrancy as they relate to the family. In the second post in this series today we will learn about those who deny inerrancy by placing their feelings above the truth of Scripture.
Friedrich Schleiermacher was born November 21, 1768 and died February 12, 1834. Schleimacher began not with the Bible, a creed, or revelation, but with personal experiences that happened to the individual and the community. The influence of Schleiermacher is felt today among those who deny inerrancy by placing their opinions above the truth of Scripture. The same people who question inerrancy are those who typically have issues with the Church.
Many people are just like Friedrich Schleiermacher who think that their opinions about Scripture and the Church are authoritative. The fact is attacks on inerrancy from our culture and even within the Church are not new but rather old. Ken Ham points out that “our culture is filled with increasing numbers of people who do not believe the Bible is a credible book. As a result the culture has lost its faith in biblical authority.”[i]
Believing in inerrancy is vital to the ministry of the Church. Denying the authority of the Word of God has dramatic effects on how the preacher will preach to God’s people. Denominations that were once bastions of biblical orthodoxy are now laid in waste because they have rejected inerrancy in favor of what they believe. These people are often the one’s who don’t have an issue with the Church necessarily, but do have issues with the Word of God, because they believe that the Bible is a book full of errors. In doing this they follow in the steps of Schleiermacher who was known to place a high emphasis on how he felt rather than on what the Bible teaches.
Believing that the Bible is verbally inspired in every part and authoritative for our lives not only affects the preaching ministry of local churches, but also how ministry leaders minister to God’s people. For example, a blogger who denies inerrancy will write only about his/her thoughts about the Bible rather than coming under the authority of the Word and allowing the Word to take central place in his/her blogging ministry. The preacher who doesn’t believe in inerrancy will preach only his own opinion, but the preacher who believes in inerrancy will preach to make the point of the passage under examination the point of the sermon. The counselor who doesn’t believe in inerrancy will focus on self-help, but the counselor who believes in inerrancy will focus on what Scripture says about what the client is going through.
Christians have a superior Word than what is offered by human opinion. The Church has a superior Word because of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the reason why His Word is inspired, inerrant, sufficient and authoritative. It is because of this reason that Christians should dedicate their entire lives and ministries lives to studying, proclaiming, contending, and defending the Truth for all of their days.
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[i] Ken Ham and Bodie Hodge, How Do We Know The Bible Is True Volume 1 (ARK, New Leaf Press, 2011), 10.
Charles Spurgeon is considered the Prince of Preachers but what is often not known about him and his ministry is that he faced attacks on the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible he loved to proclaim to God’s people the world over. Spurgeon faced challenges from all corners with people who wanted him to compromise, and from evolution. Spurgeon in the midst of all of these challenges declared that “believers must never adjust the Bible to the age, but the age to the Bible.”[i]
Just as Spurgeon faced attacks on inerrancy, evangelical Christians are under attack by those who think that marriage should no longer be defined as between a man and a woman, but rather between any combination of man or woman. At the heart of these attacks is a rejection of what the Bible teaches which makes these attacks ultimately an attack on the authority and inerrancy of Scripture.
It seems to me that those who attack the biblical teaching on marriage want to re-write the Bible to suit their own view even while they suggest that the Bible doesn’t speak to the issue of marriage. The problem with all of this is the Bible does clearly speak to this issue. If one even skims over Genesis 1-3 it becomes clear that marriage is a God-ordained institution and therefore to be treated as such. Any attack on marriage is ultimately an attack on the God who created the world we live in and get to enjoy by His grace. An attack on marriage is ultimately an assault on God’s character and God’s Word.
Attacks on marriage and the Word of God are not new but rather as old as the Garden of Eden. The Word of God always stands in judgment of men never do men– stand in judgment of it. This fundamental fact reveals the problem going on inside and outside the Church in regard to marriage: that the issue of marriage is revealed in who is authoritative– man or God. Charles Spurgeon revealed the problem when he stated that, “He that reads his Bible to find fault with it will soon discover that the Bible finds fault with him.”
As the Word of God did its work in Spurgeon’s time, so today can evangelicals be encouraged that the Word of God is sharper than any two edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). The Word of God is the means that God uses by His Spirit to pierce the heart of the convinced atheist, rejecters like Judas, and deniers like Peter. “When people understand they can trust in the early chapters of Genesis, they can better understand and can be more responsive to the gospel—the gospel that is based on that history.”[ii] Evangelicals need to stand firm in the grace of God and the Word of God by looking to the example of men like Spurgeon and be encouraged that God, by His grace, is still working to bring people to Himself and build His church for His glory and praise.
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[i] Charles Spurgeon, An All-Around Ministry: Addresses to Ministers and Students (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1906), 230.
[ii] Ken Ham and Bodie Hodge, How Do We Know The Bible Is True Volume 1 (ARK, New Leaf Press, 2011), 9.
“I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins: return unto Me; for I have redeemed thee.”
THE INSTRUCTIVE SIMILITUDE
Attentively observe THE INSTRUCTIVE SIMILITUDE: our sins are like a cloud. As clouds are of many shapes and shades, so are our transgressions. As clouds obscure the light of the sun, and darken the landscape beneath, so do our sins hide from us the light of the Lord’s face, and cause us to sit in the shadow of death. They are earth-born things, and rise from the miry places of our nature; and when so collected that their measure is full, they threaten us with storm and tempest. Alas! that, unlike clouds, our sins yield us no genial showers, but rather threaten to deluge us with a fiery flood of destruction. O ye black clouds of sin, how can it be fair weather with our souls while ye remain?
THE NOTABLE ACT
Let our joyful eye dwell upon THE NOTABLE ACT of divine mercy—”blotting out.” God Himself appears upon the scene, and in divine benignity, instead of manifesting His anger, reveals His grace: He at once and for ever effectually removes the mischief, not by blowing away the cloud, but by blotting it out from existence once for all. Against the justified man no sin remains, the great transaction of the cross has eternally removed His transgressions from him. On Calvary’s summit the great deed, by which the sin of all the chosen was for ever put away, was completely and effectually performed.
THE GRACIOUS COMMAND
Practically let us obey THE GRACIOUS COMMAND, “return unto me.” Why should pardoned sinners live at a distance from their God? If we have been forgiven all our sins, let no legal fear withhold us from the boldest access to our Lord. Let backslidings be bemoaned, but let us not persevere in them. To the greatest possible nearness of communion with the Lord, let us, in the power of the Holy Spirit, strive mightily to return. O Lord, this night restore us!
(from Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening devotional, available FREE at Blue Letter Bible)
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The Puritans were the 16th century English Protestants and their successors in 16th-17th century New England, whose concern for church reform and spiritual renewal earned them the originally derogatory epithet, “puritan.” Unfortunately, when most people hear the word “puritan” they remember Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and associate the term with legalism, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and witch-hunts. And, of course, the Puritans weren’t perfect.
Yet, despite their imperfections, there is much we can learn from them today. J. I. Packer once compared the Puritans to the gigantic Redwood trees of California, saying: “As Redwoods attract the eye, because they overtop other trees, so the mature holiness and seasoned fortitude of the great Puritans shine before us as a kind of beacon light, overtopping the stature of the majority of Christians in most eras, and certainly so in this age . . . when Western Christians sometimes feel and often look like ants in an anthill . . .”
In my own sampling of Puritan writings, I have found much help for my heart and stimulation for my soul. Here are several reasons why I would suggest that pastors give renewed attention to the writings of the Puritans.
1. They lift our gaze to the greatness and gladness of God.
We are innately man-centered in our thinking about God. As someone once said, “God made man in his own image, and man returned the compliment.” In the divinely inspired words of the psalmist: “You thought I was one like yourself” (Ps. 50:21). But the Puritans lift our gaze upward to see God in his soul-satisfying transcendence. I’ll never forget the awe of God upon my soul after spending significant time reading in Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God, or the depth of joy in God that I discovered in the writings of Thomas Brooks and Jonathan Edwards.
For example, Edwards wrote: “The enjoyment of [God] is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, to fully enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams. But God is the fountain. These are but drops; but God is the ocean.”
2. They open our eyes to the beauty and loveliness of Christ.
The Puritans were as Christ-centered as they were God-centered. They loved Christ passionately and sought his glory tirelessly. Christ meant everything to them. Thomas Goodwin said, “If I were to go to heaven, and find that Christ was not there, I would leave immediately; for heaven without Christ would be hell to me.”
The Puritans saw Christ on virtually every page of Scripture. Thomas Adams wrote: “Christ is the sum of the whole Bible, prophesied, typified, prefigured, exhibited, demonstrated, to be found in every leaf, almost in every line, the Scriptures being but as it were the swaddling bands of the child Jesus.” We might occasionally question the accuracy of Puritan exegesis, but surely we can find no fault with their passion for Christ-centeredness.
They especially gloried in the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work. Jonathan Edwards, in a sermon on Isaiah 32:2, said: “Christ by His obedience, by that obedience which he undertook for our sakes, has honored God abundantly more than the sins of any of us have dishonored him, how many soever, how great soever. . . God hates our sins, but not more than he delights in Christ’s obedience which he performed on our account. This is a sweet savour to him, a savour of rest. God is abundantly compensated, he desires no more; Christ’s righteousness is of infinite worthiness and merit.”
3. They convict our consciences with the subtlety and sinfulness of sin.
There are not a lot of titles in Christian bookstores today that include the word “sin.” But the Puritans were serious about sin and wrote about it often, as just a few of their titles reveals (Ralph Venning’s The Sinfulness of Sin, Jeremiah Burroughs’ The Evil of Evils, Thomas Watson’s The Mischief of Sin.) Perhaps the books which have helped me most have been John Owen’s classic works on the mortification and temptation of sin. Someone once said that before reading Owen, one should prepare to come under the knife. To read Owen is to allow a doctor of the soul to do surgery on your heart. Owen said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” His counsel on how to kill sin and avoid temptation is the best I’ve read anywhere.
4. They ravish and relish the soul with the power and glory of grace.
Sometimes Puritans get a bad rap for being legalistic. And perhaps the accusation would occasionally stick – there was, after all, imperfect theology in the 16th century, too! But the Puritans understood the transforming power and glory of grace in dimensions that are often foreign to our own experience. Many contemporary books on dealing with sin simply give us lists to live by – things to do and not do. Even a focus on the spiritual disciplines can sometimes be bereft of any real dependence on grace. Contrast that with Owen who said, “There is no death of sin without the death of Christ . . . Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin . . . by faith fill thy soul with a due consideration of that provision which is laid up in Jesus Christ for this end and purpose, that all thy lusts, this very lust wherewith thou art entangled, may be mortified.” Owen does not fail to point the sin-fighting believer to Christ. On the contrary, he shows us that the only effective means of overcoming sin is by dependence on Christ and his cross.
5. They plumb the depths of the soul with profound biblical, practical and psychological insight.
The Puritans were not just theologians; they were pastors. They were physicians of the soul and exceptionally good counselors. My wife, who has occasionally read Puritans at my recommendation, has commented that the Puritans understand people and how they think.
One of the most practical of all the Puritan’s writings is Richard Baxter’s A Christian Directory. Tim Keller has called it “the greatest manual on biblical counseling ever produced.” This 900 page tome of fine print is divided into four sections: I. Christian Ethics, II. Christian Economics, III. Christian Ecclesiastics, and IV. Christian Politics. In layman’s terms, these four sections deal with the Christian’s personal spiritual life, home life, church life, and life in world.
Here are some examples of the kind of practical matters Baxter addresses and the pastoral advice he gives. Under “Christian Ethics,” are found 20 directions “to weak Christians for their establishment and growth;” 5 directions for “redeeming as well as improving time” (including #4: “thieves or time wasters to be watched against,” of which Baxter lists 12); 10 “directions for the government of the passions”; 10 pages on “directions against gluttony,” in which Baxter defines gluttony, lists 10 causes of gluttony, 20 reasons why it is such a great sin, and gives 14 practical “directions” against it; 16 directions against lust; 13 directions against excess of sleep, and so on! In section two, on “Christian Economics” are given similar directions for husbands, wives, parents, and children, in their specific duties towards one another. I surveyed a list of 10 directions for helping husbands and wives “live in quietness and peace, and avoid all occasions of wrath and discord” with one another, and have never seen anything more practical in a contemporary book on marriage.
6. They sustain and strengthen the soul through suffering with the sovereignty of God.
Because the Puritans were descendants of the English martyrs and were persecuted themselves (thousands of Puritan pastors were ejected from their pulpits in 1662), they were well acquainted with suffering. They knew the pain of affliction, yet they trusted the good providence of God in and over suffering. For the Puritans, suffering was purposeful.
Thomas Watson said, “God’s rod is a pencil to draw Christ’s image more lively on us.” John Flavel wrote, “Let a Christian . . . be but two or three years without an affliction, and he is almost good for nothing.” In another volume, Flavel said, “Oh what owe I to the file, and to the hammer, and to the furnace of my Lord Jesus! who has now let me see how good the wheat of Christ is, that goes through his mill, and his oven, to be made bread for his own table. Grace tried is better than grace, and more than grace. It is glory in its infancy.” Few books could be more helpful for pastors and believers than John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence, Thomas Watson’s All Things for Good, Thomas Brooks’ A Mute Christian Under the Rod, or Thomas Boston’s The Crook in the Lot.
7. They set our sights and focus our affections on eternal realities.
The Puritans lived with heaven and hell in view, and the aroma of the world to come pervades their writings. Richard Baxter, in The Saints Everlasting Rest, shows that the reason so many Christians are lifeless and cold in their love for Christ is because they live with heaven out of sight and mind. Baxter wrote, “If thou wouldst have light and heat, why art thou not more in the sunshine? For want of this recourse to heaven, thy soul is as a lamp not lighted, and thy duties as a sacrifice without fire. Fetch one coal daily from this altar, and see if thy offering will not burn. Light thy lamp at this flame, and feed it daily with oil from hence, and see if it will not gloriously shine. Keep close to this reviving fire, and see if thy affections will not be warm.”
Most of us are familiar with Jonathan Edwards’ frightening descriptions of hell from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But his vision of the glory of heaven is as attractive as his description of hell is repulsive. In his Miscellanies, Edwards wrote this of the glorified saints in heaven: “their knowledge will increase to eternity; and if their knowledge, their holiness; for as they increase in the knowledge of God, and of the works of God, the more they will see of his excellency, and the more they see of his excellency . . . the more will they love him, and the more they love God, the more delight and happiness will they have in him.” The Puritans remind us that heaven is not a life of disembodied bliss of harp-plucking in a cloud-filled, ethereal environment, but rather the experience of ever-expanding knowledge of God and ever-increasing joy in God.
The Puritans saw God, loved Christ, feared sin, were transformed by grace, were practical in counsel, endured suffering, and lived for eternity. When I read them, I almost always find the palate of my soul cleansed and my ability to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) enhanced. Dear brothers and sisters, read the Puritans! Your heart will be helped.
This article first appeared at Brian’s blog and is posted here with his permission.
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 J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990) 11-12.
 The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974 reprint) 2:244
 Quoted in Don Kistler, Why Read the Puritans Today? (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1999) 3.
 Quoted in Joel R. Beeke & Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006) xxi-xxii.
 Edwards, 2:930.
 John Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, in The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995 reprint) Volume 6, page 9. For a contemporary synthesis of Owen’s thought, see “The Spirituality of John Owen” in J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life John Owen on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990) 191-218 and Sinclair B. Ferguson, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995). More digestible is Kris Lundgaard’s The Enemy Within: Straight Talk about the Power and Defeat of Sin (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1998).
 Owen, 6:33, 79.
 Richard Baxter, The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, Volume 1: A Christian Directory (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997 reprint) blurb on dust-jacket.
 Thomas Watson, All Things for Good (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1986 reprint) 28.
 John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1963 reprint) 202.
 John Flavel, The Fountain of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977 reprint) 322-323.
 Richard Baxter, The Saints Everlasting Rest (Welwyn, UK: Evangelical Press 1978 reprint) 288.
 Miscellanies, #105 in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 13, ed. Thomas Shafer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994) 275.