Kyle Strobel, professor of theology at Grand Canyon University, has provided readers with a helpful “updated, unabridged, and enlightening version of Jonathan Edwards’s Charity and Its Fruits” (back cover). According to Strobel, Charity and its Fruits provides the “best way to get into Edwards’s thought” (331). Strobel helps to illuminate the heart-warming theology of Edwards and provides a marvelous introduction into the theology and practice of arguably one of American Christianity’s greatest minds. For this great mind, the notion of “religion” was not merely a throwaway expression or abstract concept. Regarding Edwards’s use of the word “religion” Strobel states:
“Religion has come to be seen as synonymous with religiosity. This was far from Edwards’s understanding as you can imagine. Edwards frequently uses the word religion as a synonym for virtue, the Christian life, and even, at times, Christ. There was a false religion and there was true religion, to be sure, but religion was not simply defined by things people do; it was understood as the appropriate response to God….The term, for Edwards, denoted our whole posture, life, and devotion to God in christ. In light of this, religion might be closest to what we might today refer to as the Christian life, Christian spirituality, or spiritual formation, assuming those terms are used with distinctively Christian (and Protestant) content. Even moving beyond heaven, we could say that for Edwards, religion is ultimately God’s life. As the Father and the Son love one another infinitely, so believers are brought into that Father-child loving relationship through the Son by the uniting power of the Spirit.” (30)
Is it possible for Christians to reclaim this understanding of the word religion? Why does it matter? I believe we should reclaim this way of understanding religion. Where religious liberties are consistently threatened and New Age spirituality infiltrates much of (Christian) culture, the proper understanding of religion is necessary for forming basic Christian identity. Christians should reclaim and employ the Edwardsian concept of religion. Let’s take a look at just a few ways in which Edwards uses the word “religion.”
- “The very notion of religion or worship is the creature’s exercise and expression of respect to the Creator. But if there be no true respect or love, then all his religion is but seeming religion, and there is no real religion in it, and therefore it is vain.” (45)
- “How much such a spirit unfits persons for the duties of religion. All undue anger indisposes us for the pious exercises and the active duties of religion. It puts the soul far from that sweet and excellent frame of spirit in which we most enjoy communion with God, and which makes truth and ordinances most profitable to us” (191)
- “The sufferings which are in the way of our duty come of the difficulties which attend religion. This is the cost of being religious. He, therefore, that does not comply with this cost never complies with religion to any effect. As a man who wishes his house to be built, but is not willing to comply with the cost of building, does in effect refuse to build. He who does not receive the gospel with its difficulties does not receive it as it is offered. They who do not receive Christ with his cross as well as crown do not truly receive him.” (230)
Edwards’s use of religion distinguishes between true and false religion, much in the same way Jesus did in the gospels. This is religion which has as its ground in the love of God in Christ. True love, or charity, produces fruits which are pleasing to God, edifying to man, and formative for the individual. This religion is infused with the understanding of “the most perfect and excellent instance of humility that ever was”—namely Christ. Edwards states, “The gospel leads us to Christ, as an humble person. Christ is one who is God-man, and so has not only condescension which is a divine perfection, but also humility which is creaturely excellence” (156). He goes on to say, “The gospel yet further tends to lead us to humble exercises of love as it leads us to love Christ as one that was crucified for our sins. Christ’s being crucified is a great argument for the humility of us who are his followers; but his being crucified for our sins is a much further argument for it” (157). The essence of true religion is identification with the crucified and risen Christ and the fruits which it produces in the life of a believer by faith. This is religion. This is the virtuous life of following Christ, displaying the humility of Christ in the pursuit of being like him.
Should we recover this meaning of religion? I think we must. We should want to let people know that we are religious, and in fact, hold to true religion. Religion implies obligation and submission, which are two postures inherent in Christian faith and living. Religion, as Edwards envisions it, is nothing but the highest life of virtue—the pursuit of Christ-likeness. It is the life of love fully lived. While the Spirit endears our hearts to true fruit which is pleasing to God, He brings about a change which allows us to pursue that which is most worthy to pursue. This is how Edwards conceives of religion, and perhaps its time we recovered this understanding in our own faith and practice.