This is continued from part two.
He believed that to keep the revival, and to consolidate the work God had done, the people needed to enter into a solemn oath and covenant before God. In March, 1742, he drew up such a document, which is recorded in full and took up four pages of the book. He first proposed it to key leaders, then to various groups in the church, then publically to the church, and put copies in the hands of the deacons, so that anyone in the church could read it. After that, he had everyone over 14 years of age subscribe to it by a show of hands, and then a special day for prayer and fasting was set aside, 16 th March, 1742, when everyone came before God to consecrate themselves in this solemn vow together. Thus He wrote:
...I led the people into a solemn public renewal of their covenant with God.
That covenant specified a great deal about the way Christians should live – and the kind of things we believe too. But what it did was to lock-up the way Christians should live and respond to God into a legalistic structure. In drawing up such a document, and having the people make a vow to God, with a long list of things they promised that they would and wouldn’t do, including the way they would treat other people, the way they would be honest in business, and the way in which they would keep themselves fervent in prayer, and attending to the call of God, only succeeded in putting on the people a legalistic obligation.
Yet this was contrary to the spirit of what had happened to them in the Awakening. The Spirit of God had come to town in answer to prayer, and had taken hold of all the people who had been lukewarm and backslidden, and the many unconverted, and taken hold of the faithful Christians as well, and brought them all into a tremendous relationship with God where they were full of love and on fire for God. They had become exactly the way you would want them to be. And then man, well-intentioned though he was, decided to keep the people the way they needed to be by making them take a very extensive, exhaustive, joyless set of vows that were supposedly the answer to them maintaining love and joy. But love and joy never come from vows, and joy is usually the first thing to depart when the law comes in, as does freedom.
In this covenant there was much said to the effect that they recognised that loving and serving God so fully would not be natural to them, and their hearts would want to get away from it, so they were asking God to obligate them to it. When you come to the end of the document, he has them promising:
“...to be often strictly examining ourselves by these promises...”
And then has them asking God,
...for Christ’s sake, keep us from wickedly dissembling these, our solemn vows;
In other words, keep our wicked hearts from trying to avoid these vows, and then he includes the oath with these words:
“...that He who searches our hearts, and ponders the path of our feet, would, from time to time, help us in trying ourselves by this covenant...”
Of course, you could read every statement in that document and agree that this is how we should live, and it would be great if we all did. But only grace can change lives and behaviour and bring in love, joy, freedom, passion, worship, and hunger for God as a permanent state of the heart. No form of law can ever achieve this, otherwise God would never have needed to say what He said in Jeremiah 31:31, and neither would we ever need the cross or a Saviour.
However, Edwards, with the accepted values of his time and the culture of his religious background, and having drawn up a lengthy document, met with all the people to make a legalistic vow as a covenant with God in the hope that this would maintain the revival, when in fact, this was the very thing that killed it, as we shall see.
After the recording of the vow in his Account, a double paragraph break occurs to begin a new section. It does not appear that he himself consciously connected what he had just written with what follows, but his next statement, written immediately after the vow, is this:
In the beginning of the summer of 1742, there seemed to be an abatement of the liveliness of people’s affection in religion...
This was perhaps some 10 weeks afterwards, yet the revival had immediately waned, and come to an end, and what he tells is a very sad tale. He went on to say:
...in general, people’s engagedness in religion, and the liveliness of their affections have been on the decline; and some of the young people especially have shamefully lost their liveliness and vigour in religion, and much of the seriousness and solemnity of their spirits.
It was the youth, and the younger adults and their children, who had specially been revived, many of whom now drifted back to old ways. He assured us that many also remained as solid, eminent Christians, as we would expect. But the revival was over, and all the power in soul-saving was gone. The making of that Solemn Oath and Covenant, along with all its vows, was the direct and immediate cause of the ending of the Great Awakening.
Here I have brought up two different kinds of events that occurred in the Great Awakening. Each of these kinds of things does something to change the faith of the people. They remove the freedom of Christ, empty the heart, and take away the hunger.
The first error was to declare, about something God was trying to do, that it was foolish man and not God. In calling the Spirit flesh, they were quenching the Spirit.
The second mistake was to recognise something that God was doing, but try to keep it and control it, or improve it, by fleshly means. This is an attempt to use the strength of the flesh to maintain the work of the Spirit. Both these dangers we must avoid.
You cannot take a system of law and impose it on revival to create some kind of spiritual order. It has to be a work of grace. We all need to find a greater grace from God than we do have, and we will only maintain what we have by walking in the way of grace.
Consider the effect of these two events. In the first case, the whole church in the whole country hears of these so-called delusions that get squashed by the leaders of the church. All the other believers are then frightened to move. Impressed on their minds all the more is that they cannot hear God for themselves, they have to rely on the minister. That has the effect of forcing them into a mould that locks them in. This takes away faith, freedom, and hunger, all three. If the revival at that point begins to fall off, it is not falling off because God is leaving; it is falling off because the people who were hungry are no longer hungry. The people who were enjoying freedom no longer think they have freedom. The people who had faith for God now have a lesser faith.
We find the same with the other story. This whole town of believers, who had been wonderfully enjoying God and the freedom that faith and grace had given, then stood up and took a vow to bind themselves by law and obligation to these things. Now they must try to maintain their revived hearts by following through with all the vows they made, but it is not possible, because the law removed the power, not to mention the joy which always leaves when the law comes in.
Vows and human covenants always take away freedom, and kill off faith and hunger for God. It is no wonder that the very next thing that Edwards describes in his Account, after outlining the Solemn Oath and Covenant, was that all the love and faith of the church seemed to have gone.
That is why I said earlier that the ongoing course of revival is more determined by what people do with it, than by what God does. Everything that God wants to do with us is by grace alone, and we have to be very careful not to lock ourselves into a legalistic Christianity.
When I first made this discovery about the devastating effect of vows and covenants from the tales of the Great Awakening, I was very, very surprised. And shocked! I thought impulsively, “It couldn’t be!” All my life, almost 40 years in churches at the time, we had included vows, pledges, covenants, and promises to God, in our service to Christ. My first reactive thought was, “Surely we are supposed to make promises and covenants in Christian service.”
I felt that way because I had been raised in The Salvation Army, and our lives were full of that kind of thing. From the Junior Soldier’s Pledge, in which you publically make brief, simple promises, to the Senior Soldier’s “Articles of War,” which is a really long document in fine print, in which you promise everything ‘holy’ imaginable about the way you will live and serve, and pledge to be faithful to the principles of the Salvation Army until you die. Not only that, when we became Salvation Army Officers, as we did at the end of 1975, there was a day called Covenant Day, as there always is for cadets about to be commissioned. This is the day devoted to worship and prayer in which, every one of you, at some point of personal surrender and final commitment, is to go forward and kneel and sign a covenant with God.
Whilst that covenant is only an attempt to help people feel devoted, and therefore more likely to be faithful to the ministry of Jesus Christ, statistically, the majority of people who sign that covenant do not last in the ministry. Certainly the ‘survival rates’ are no better for this than what other religious institutions might do. We were told in the college that, on average, more than half of us would leave the ministry within 10 years – this was in the context of exhorting us, quite properly, to guard our hearts.
But you can see why, with this background, I was incredulous at the thought that these things might be totally alien to spiritual victory in the New Covenant. There was only one thing to do. I immediately went to the Scriptures to search, not the Old Testament but the New, for the place of vows and covenants. And I was surprised again, for I discovered that they are non-existent.
I looked up all the associated words I could think of in the translation I was using for the purpose – “promise,” “promises,” promised,” (because we always think we should make promises to God), and “vow,” “pledge,” “covenant,” etc. What did I find? There are dozens of references to promises in the New Testament, and every single one of them is about promises that God makes to us. There was not a single verse I could find in the New Testament about us being asked to, or needing to, make promises to God.
Searching on the word covenant reveals that this word is used exclusively in the New Testament to discuss what God has said or done concerning us. There is no example of anyone in the New Testament making a covenant with God. It is always a case of God making covenant with us through the blood of His Son. And there is a Scripture that ought to make us pause with great caution: “Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established...” (Galatians 3: 15) This shows the very ongoing, binding nature of covenants.
For the word vow I found a few references. They generally have to do with Jewish Christians who were keeping Jewish customs. And in Paul’s case, it was supposed to help him stay out of trouble in Jerusalem by looking like a zealous Jew, but all it did was get him into worse trouble.
The more obvious example is that of the many widows in the early church who, with the loss of their husbands, had been left without means. Many of them were very needy, and the church did much to help them. We find a Biblical reference (1 Timothy 5:11-12) to a custom in the early church where some widows would apparently pledge to live the rest of their lives for the purpose of service to the saints and the church. Thus they had a sense of purpose, a helpful connection to being supported by the love of the church, but were to live exemplary and separated lives. Some of these in earlier times were apparently still young or at least of very active years, for Paul comments that some of them, after making a commitment to devote their lives for the service of Christ and the church, had married again, and given the enemy an opportunity for reproach upon the church. This had, apparently, much to do with the culture of the day in which they lived.
Paul was alarmed for the spiritual consequences of this, since making vows and then ignoring them would bring these women under condemnation, and they had failed to keep the first vow when they made a second one, the marriage vow. His advice to younger widows was to stay free of vows so as to get married and have children if there was the opportunity, without risking the condemnation of broken vows. Paul’s words at this point are not exactly a prohibition, but certainly reveal that people play with grave dangers when getting involved with vows.
If you make a vow to God, you are meant to keep it. Being a God of grace, He won’t let you just break a vow, but He will allow you to repent of a vow, and find in Him a release from it. That is different.
As I looked back on the course of my life I realised that just about every vow I ever made I have had to repent of, and be released from. There may be a place for vows, and perhaps sometimes God will call someone to a vow, but you had better be sure that it is of the Spirit – yet our tendency is to do these things in the flesh, out of a religious nature that takes pride in the flesh. There are huge dangers. Fortunately there is the grace and beauty of repentance, and with the Lord there is forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:14). Unfortunately, our foolishness has often cost us much by the time we get ourselves free from things the Lord never put upon us.
This discussion of vows and covenants continues in part four