Jonathan Edwards and Why I am a Cessationist

“If we aren’t really speaking in tongues, and if the Holy Spirit isn’t causing people to faint and act that way, what are we doing, then?”

Scripture demands we test the spirits to discern if they originate with God (1 John 4:1). The Israelites’ greatest threat wasn’t from the pagan culture outside their camp, but from false prophets within—many of whom drew larger crowds and were better known than genuine prophets.

 

I’ve been a Southern Baptist all my life, and my Pentecostal/charismatic friends in high school good-naturedly referred to my congregation as “the frozen chosen.” I never fully understood what they meant by that phrase until I attended, at the invitation of a friend, a charismatic revival service.

At First Baptist Church, we sang from the hymnal and quietly listened to the preached Word. The closest thing to disorder was an occasional “amen” or “preach it, brother” during the sermon.

It’s a vast understatement, then, to say the charismatic experience was brand new for me.

On the first night, I heard numerous messages in tongues. I witnessed seemingly uncontrollable laughter (“Holy Ghost laughter,” they called it), fainting spells, intense weeping and wailing, prophecies ranging from predictions of deliverance from headaches and cancer to forecasts of God’s wrath on select American cities. I watched a man and woman run laps around the sanctuary. In the corner, a younger man bounced up and down, convulsing as if he’d grabbed hold of a live electrical wire. In a pew behind me, a woman was engaged in what appeared to be jumping jacks, arms windmilling vigorously as she praised the Lord.

At one point, an older woman asked if I’d like to have hands laid on me to have my needs met. Despite significant neediness, I nervously declined.

After a couple of these meetings, my friend—a continuationist—sought my impressions. I expressed deep discomfort with what I’d seen, but admitted I wasn’t certain whether such manifestations represented a genuine work of the Spirit. I was skeptical but didn’t want to dismiss all I’d seen as purely carnal for fear of opposing a work of God.

He posed another excellent question: “If we aren’t really speaking in tongues, and if the Holy Spirit isn’t causing people to faint and act that way, what are we doing, then?” I told him I wasn’t sure, and today, though I remain a fairly convinced cessationist, I still wonder what’s behind such profound agitations of the body and emotions.

This was the mid-1990s, when similar things were seen among Pentecostal/charismatic groups in places like Toronto and Pensacola. Many behaviors were being credited to the Holy Spirit, from miraculous healing to “holy laughter” to “surfing in the Spirit”—even to claims of gold dust and angel feathers falling from the sky.

Such controversial manifestations are occurring today in venues like Bethel Church in Redding, California, and in various other charismatic churches and organizations across the globe.

Test the Spirits

While some of these manifestations clearly seem beyond the pale of Scripture, their persistence among evangelicals continues to raise the questions my friend posed more than two decades ago: What’s behind these behaviors? Are they products of a genuine outpouring of God’s Spirit, or do they simply arise from unbridled emotion or the power of suggestion? Are they Satanic counterfeits, as some have suggested?

Scripture demands we test the spirits to discern if they originate with God (1 John 4:1). The Israelites’ greatest threat wasn’t from the pagan culture outside their camp, but from false prophets within—many of whom drew larger crowds and were better known than genuine prophets.

On the surface, the golden calf incident had all the trappings of genuine revival with its large, noisy, even celebratory crowd (Exod. 32). But it was the opposite of a life-giving, Spirit-led worship service.

Edwards’s ‘Distinguishing Marks’

We are by no means the first to wrestle with these questions. Every revival since Pentecost seems to have been a mix of gold and dross, wheat and chaff—sometimes requiring deep biblical and theological reflection to tell the difference.

Such was the case in the 1730s and 40s during the famous revivals in America and England known as the First Great Awakening. The preaching of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), George Whitefield (1714–1770), and many others resulted in a profound outpouring of the Spirit, with thousands converted on both sides of the Atlantic.

While many were clearly under the influence of the Holy Spirit, Edwards and others admitted there were distortions and problems during the revivals. This included radical emotional and physical manifestations similar to those described above. Some church leaders criticized the revivals for such excesses, dismissing them as “extraordinary enthusiasms.” Others rejected it outright as a work of Satan.

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