July 08, 2012

Sinners in the Hands of a Compassionate Shepherd

Today is not only the first anniversary of Oliver's birth, it's also the 271st anniversary of the preaching of perhaps the most famous sermon in American history, Jonathan Edwards's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

I urge you to read it. It's really quite a shock to modern sensibilities. I mean, here's a preacher telling his congregation: You people deserve the torments of hell, and come to think of it, it wouldn't surprise me if some of you were there before sunup. Your damnation "will come swiftly, and in all probability very suddenly upon many of you. You have reason to wonder that you are not already in hell." Seeker-friendly it ain't.

This sermon is much maligned in our age, of course, often by people who have no idea that Edwards is not only America's greatest philosopher and theologian, but indeed is one of the greatest intellects America has ever produced. But if you'll take time to read the sermon closely, you'll see that Edwards isn't some sort of sadist obsessed with fire and brimstone (any more than the oncologist is some sort of heartless ogre who delights in giving grim diagnoses). No, for along with the bad news Dr. Edwards delivers the good news of what Christ has done to rescue us. Theologian R.C. Sproul says one scholar did a word study on Edwards's body of work and discovered that the two descriptive words he uses more than any other are sweetness and excellency.

Edwards cared about his sheep. Rather than giving people what they want -- catering to their "felt needs" -- he loved them enough to tell them their actual needs.

All of this came to mind recently when I experienced something so counter-cultural, so profoundly un-twenty-first-century-American, that it might as well have happened 271 years ago. The pastor of our little Presbyterian church made a house call to give our family a spiritual checkup.

Taking seriously his weighty responsibility to oversee the flock, he tries to visit every family in the church at least twice a year. He even sent along a list of questions beforehand so we could examine ourselves in the weeks leading up to his visit. Among them:
  • Do you know for sure that you are a Christian?
  • Are you engaged in regular Bible study? Alternatively, are you having difficulty with consistent Bible study and family devotions?
  • How is your prayer life? Do you pray regularly?
  • Can you point to areas of your life where you have grown recently?
  • Are there any areas in your Christian experience in which you are having problems?
  • Is there a particular temptation or sin that continues to defeat you spiritually?
  • What has God been teaching you about Himself lately? Or, what attribute of God has meant the most to you recently?
  • Are you able to share your faith with others? If not, would you be interested in learning how to share your faith? Would you like to be discipled?
  • If you have a family, how is your family doing spiritually? What are you doing with respect to family devotions (Bible reading, prayer, catechism, etc.)?
  • Do you see any evidence of grace in the lives of your children? Are they showing an increased interest in the things of the Lord? Do they like to pray and read the Bible? Are they baptized? Are they ready to make a profession of faith?
  • How is your relationship with your spouse? Children? Others?
  • How do others see your walk as a Christian (home, neighbors, work, church, etc.)?
  • How are you seeking to affect the world around you with your Christian faith? 
  • What kind of advice/counsel can we provide you with at this time?
    I'm not saying this is the only way to do pastoral ministry, or that pastors who don't make house calls are second-class shepherds. I'm just saying this is one sinner who appreciated the visit. In a culture where hyper-independent American evangelicals chafe under any sort of accountability, and too often in churches just about anything goes, I think this sort of oversight is healthy. Nothing could be more compassionate than a pastor imploring his people to examine themselves to see if they're in the faith. Jonathan Edwards could have told you that.

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