Christians around the world adore Jonathan Edwards. Some hate him. He is a teacher of Christian doctrine that continues to gain a hearing, despite being dead over 250 years. He was a brilliant mind, arguably the greatest ever produced in America. Edwards served as president of Princeton University, but he also pastored a small church.
Edwards walked with his congregation through life and death, doing the hard work of laboring alongside a group of people composed of blacksmiths, shop owners, and farmers. He preached sermons to common folks. He didn’t strive to impress them with his knowledge, but brought the Scriptures to life with clarity so they could understand and obey.
We often know Edwards for his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” This is warranted, as the sermon is gripping to read, and deploys imagery and metaphor in powerful ways. Students read this sermon in high-schools and universities around the world. Our soft and quickly offended culture criticizes it as “hellfire and brimstone” or too exclusive about Jesus being the only way to Heaven. Yet many find the sermon convicting. God has used it around the world to bring countless sinners to faith.
This wasn’t his only sermon. He preached many sermons on a variety of subjects. In those sermons, he displays a skill for using stories from one part of the Bible as an example for understanding another part of the Bible. He used metaphors and imagery to bring clarity to biblical precepts. He did this with spiritual disciplines.
Spiritual disciplines are those practices and habits of the faith that we engage in as believers to know God and enjoy fellowship with Him. People call them “rhythms of grace” or “disciplines of godliness.” They are important for nurturing our faith and growing into maturity. These disciplines include the practice of reading and memorizing Scripture, prayer, fasting, corporate worship, solitude, serving, and financial giving. Spiritual disciplines are a vehicle for a greater destination. Reading Scripture is not to check a box, but to commune with God. Prayer is not about reciting words, but enjoying fellowship with God.
Edwards used a couple of stories from Scripture to explain how spiritual disciplines work in the Christian life that are still powerful instructors for us today.
One story is from John 5, about the pool of Bethesda. The locals believed an angel of the Lord stirred the waters of the pool, giving them healing power. Many invalids, blind, lame, and paralyzed, stayed by the pool hoping for healing when an angel stirred the waters. Jesus approaches a sick man who can’t get to the water. Jesus asks him if he wants to be healed. Of course, he does! But he complains he can’t access the water. Then Jesus heals him.
Edwards highlights that the water of the pool has no special power. It’s only effective and fruitful if God uses it to heal. It is only as God supplies power to the water that healing can occur. Likewise, this is what spiritual disciplines do. By themselves, they have no power to change us or draw us near to God, but as God uses them (and He does) they are transformative. Like the pool in Bethesda, prayer, Bible reading, and other means of grace are efficacious because God supplies the power. So, we should get ourselves into the waters often.
A second story Edwards uses to teach about spiritual disciplines is John 2 and the turning of water into wine. When the wedding party runs low on wine, Jesus’ mother approaches him to do something. He tells them to fill the large jars with water. It is only after water fills the jars that Jesus turns the water into wine. He didn’t have to have water in the jars. He could have commanded wine into the jars, and before the last breath escaped his mouth from saying it, they would be filled to the brim. But Jesus commands their obedience, and only after they do it does he supply a supernatural power.
Spiritual disciplines work the same way. They require our action. We must fill the jars with water. If we are faithful to use the means he supplies, Jesus transforms our work to produce fruit. The Lord makes our Bible reading, prayer, and fasting transformative. He supplies power. He transforms what we place in the jars.
These powerful examples from Scripture, pointed out by Edwards, spur us on to pursue Christ every day. We abide in Him daily. That happens as we use the means of grace He has supplied us. Our engaging in spiritual disciplines does nothing unless God supplies the power to them. And He does. That’s when they become powerful ways by which we grow in faith and mature as Christians. Get to the pool and cannonball in. Fill the jars. Then pray God will use them to draw you near to Him.