Jonathan Edwards and the Persnickety Problem of Protestant Penance

I’ve learned from my doctoral research that one should always begin by defining one’s terms. So here we go.

  • Jonathan Edwards: A Puritan from the mid 18th C. who wrote a wonderful book called The Religious Affections, which all Christians should read and memorize. Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch, but most Christians would benefit by reading it, and if the 18th century language scares you, check out Sam Storms helpful summary in his book Signs of the Spirit.
  • Persnickety problem: a difficulty that continually presents itself. I thought alliteration might help my blog hits go up. You think?
  • Protestant Penance: Here’s where it starts to get complicated. Protestants are those who broke away from the Catholic Church. And one of the chief reasons for doing so was their rejection of the Catholic idea of penance. The idea of penance was Christ’s death atoned for all past sins and all sins associated with natural guilt, but Christians must somehow deal with the sins they’ve committed after their baptism. I want to suggest that protestants—though they reject penance in theory—still struggle with this idea.

On many occasions I’ve heard people describe the ebb and flow of their spiritual walk like this: “In the midst of a painful struggle with sin, God gives me a great sense of God’s love and grace. I see myself as his child and feel overwhelmed by his grace, and I experience some degree of victory in the Christian life. But then I begin to sin again. This time I fall far deeper because I think to myself I’ve sinned even though I know so much of his love and grace. I feel ashamed. Like a dog with her tail between her legs, I just can’t come back to God until I’ve proven myself again.”

What’s going on here? I’ve always felt like something is amiss here, but I’ve never been able to put my figure on the root of it. Grace should motivate us to come back to God when we’ve sinned. Why, then, is grace the motivation for staying far away? Something I read in Jonathan Edwards suggested a solution. But before we get there, let me back up and explain something of his overall thesis.

Central to Edwards’ thesis is that our affections toward God ought to be based on the value, loveliness, and worth of God, in and of Himself. The idea of basing this on God in and of Himself is absolutely critical for Edwardian theology because it distinguishes real affections for God from feelings that would naturally arise due to our fleshly, sinful love for ourselves. Let’s say we love ourselves more than anything else (That is, we do the very thing that God commands us not to do). Wouldn’t we be inclined to look favorably upon anything that advanced this chief object of our desire, ourselves? Wouldn’t we like our teachers who equip our minds for greater understand? Wouldn’t we like our doctors who heal our bodies and protect them from disease? Wouldn’t we like our friends who make us laugh and relax us? I think we would. And what if God rescued our soul from an eternity of conscious torment? Wouldn’t we sing his praises at the top of our lungs? We might. But this doesn’t mean that we have a single ounce of real love to God. We only have the feelings that self-loving human would naturally have for a party that has just benefited them.

Conversely, real affections for God arise on account of us knowing that God is inherently lovely. This kind of love would still rejoice in the display of God’s grace and kindness in sending Christ to the cross even if we were angels who witnessed God’s actions, but didn’t benefit directly from them. This type of love to God is fitting to the worship which God deserves.

Also, loving God for who He is and loving Him for how he benefits us are not two totally different things. It is actually the case that only if we first consider God inherently lovely, in and of Himself, can He be any benefit to us. How so? Edwards explains that the real benefit of salvation is that we get God. Salvation is God with us. Our union with Christ. Being found in Christ. Knowing Christ in His death and resurrection. To think that salvation involves some material benefit that God gives us apart from the very nature of God Himself is to misconstrue the very heart of the Bible. So, if God is not valuable in and of Himself, salvation has no value. Sure, escaping hell has benefits. But, as more than one honest teenager has pointed out in Sunday School, an eternity of harp playing in the clouds is scarcely better than the flames. In other words, heaven just sounds boring, given the way many are inclined to think of it. The natural, selfish love that a man would have for his doctor who cured him would quickly turn cold when he discovered that the doctor cured him so that he could spend the rest of his life with the doctor in his office—unless the doctor had some magnificent quality in and of himself. Now you probably get the point. God has such magnificent qualities in and of Himself! Therefore, to spend eternity with this God is of great benefit.

It is not difficult to see how knowing God in this way naturally tends toward holiness. We naturally want to spend time with and reflect that which we value most. If we love God for the beauty of His holiness, we will want to reflect His holiness.

Here’s where I think Edwards is eminently helpful in the problem I described above. Remember the problem? Someone appreciates grace, but then sins against this grace and falls more deeply into sin.

Here’s the question that Edwards would ask: Do you want to be holy like God is holy because God’s holiness is supremely valuable? Or, is it merely because your participation in this holiness makes you feel like you have received God’s favor, you are part of a special group, and you’ve earned something valuable? If it is the former you value God in and of Himself. If it is the latter you value God only because he benefits you. Here’s another way to get at the question. Let’s say you have a really good day and don’t fall into your typical temptations. Which phrase would you identify with: I am Holy, or I am Holy? In the former the emphasis is on yourself. There is nothing intrinsically valuable about holiness, it is only that holiness is the means to getting something that benefits you. But in the latter phrase—I am Holy—the true value is on the holiness. There is something inherently desirable about holiness and your participation in it serves primarily to proclaim this value. How you answer that question makes all the difference in the world on your bad days. When you do fall into your typical temptations, what becomes of your value on holiness? Is all lost because the means to getting something that you wanted is gone? Or does the unholiness in yourself serve to draw more attention to the holiness in God and make you truly desire God’s holiness all the more?

Here’s where the problem of protestant penance comes in. If all is lost when we haven’t been holy, we tend to think of something extra we can do to earn back what we lost. We feel terrible not just in spite of grace, but actually because of grace because we value holiness only to the extent that we benefit from it and the availability of grace accents our lack of participation. Hence, we must feel miserable for a period of time, do extra holy acts, or something to convince God that we are really serious about holiness so we can get back what we had before. If, however, we value holiness because holiness is inherently valuable, the lack of holiness in ourselves will only serve to highlight the value of holiness in God. The more we sin, the more we will be drawn to the God who does not sin because we value His sinlessness.

(picture taken from


About mike

As a result of God's sovereign grace, Mike is--first and foremost--a Christian. He is the husband of a beautiful wife, father of five wonderful kids, and pastor of Greenbelt Baptist Church, in Maryland.
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