The brilliant pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was a principal figure in America’s First Great Awakening. In 1741 he wrote The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. In this essay, Edwards wanted his readers to know, “what are the true, certain, and distinguishing evidences of a work of the Spirit of God, by which we may safely proceed in judging of any operation we find in ourselves, or see in others” (87).
He begins his essay by stating that certain signs, events, experiences, or phenomena might be indicators of the Spirit’s movement; they might not. One cannot say for sure. Edwards then presents five signs which are indeed sure and certain evidence of the Spirit’s work.
Based on his exposition of 1 John 4:1-6, a sure and certain evidence of the Spirit’s work,
- brings people to a deeper understanding of, devotion to, and conviction that Jesus is the Christ and has come in the flesh
- resists the interests of Satan’s kingdom, which encourages sin and nurtures people’s worldly lusts
- gives rise to a greater regard for the truthfulness and divine authority of the Scriptures
- leads persons to truth, convincing them of those things that are true
- fosters a greater love for God and for people in general.
Throughout the essay Edwards makes the point that Satan cannot and will not produce these signs in people. In regards to the unusual physical responses that happen to some people in response to preaching, Edwards wrote,
“when there is an extraordinary influence or operation appearing on the minds of a people, if these things [the sure signs mentioned above] are found . . . we are safe in determining that it is the work of God. . . . These marks . . . plainly show the finger of God, and are sufficient to outweigh a thousand such little objections, as many make from oddities, irregularities, errors in conduct, and the delusions and scandals of some professors” (118-19).
He then makes some practical observations.
- Genuineness of the Spirit’s work can be ascertained,”when it is observed in a great multitude of people of all sorts and in various places, than when it is only seen in a few, in some particular place, that have been much conversant one with another” (122).
- Intense bodily responses can be understood as either “great distress from an apprehension of . . . sin and misery,” or “a sweet sense of the greatness, wonderfulness, and excellency of divine things” (123).
- “there have been very few in whom there has been any appearance of feigning or affecting such manifestations, and very many for whom it would have been undoubtedly utterly impossible for them to avoid” (124).
- As a rule, those experiencing these bodily reactions, “appeared to be in the perfect exercise of their reason; and . . . I never yet knew one lastingly deprived of their reason” (124).
- Young people respond to the movements of God according to their present levels of maturity; “[they] have less steadiness and experience, and being in the heat of youth are much more ready to run to extremes” (129).
- When ministers do not provide sufficient guidance, people wander into excess (129).
Edwards exhorted his readers: “Let us all be hence warned, by no means to oppose, or do any thing in the least to clog or hinder the work; but, on the contrary, do our utmost to promote it” (130). He recognizes that seeming chaos and messiness might be noticed, but a “work of God without stumbling-blocks is never to be expected. . . . There never yet was any great manifestation that God made of himself to the world, without many difficulties attending it” (133). Decorum and propriety must be sought, but when the Spirit moves His stirrings may not always look pretty. No genuine revival is free from “difficulties” and “stumbling blocks.”
The essay concludes with a series of warnings against,
- misconduct and confusing behavior
- spiritual pride that comes from experiences
- putting experience over human learning
- making judgments about hypocrites or unsaved.
In 1743 Edwards wrote a second more fully developed essay on the nature of revival: Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England. His writings on this topic continue to speak with timeless relevance. His profound spiritual discernment serves as a helpful litmus test whenever great movements of the Holy Spirit are claimed in our present generation.