There is great interest in Christian spirituality today but not always great clarity as to what it means. Jonathan Edwards and other 18th-century evangelicals frequently used “true religion” as their preferred term to describe the spiritual life. In his famous work, Religious Affections, Edwards declared, “So holy desire, exercised in longings, hungerings and thirstings after God and holiness, is often mentioned in Scripture as an important part of true religion.”
My interest in Christian spirituality prompted me to publish The Emergence of Evangelical Spirituality: The Age of Edwards, Newton, and Whitefield (Paulist Press, 2016). It is a transatlantic collection of writings that includes, sermons, hymns, letters, diaries, memoirs, missionary tracts, and theological treatises. It focuses on three flawed men—Edwards, John Newton, and George Whitefield—whom God used in the 18th century to help define a healthy, balanced, biblical spirituality.
Edwards, Newton, and Whitefield illustrate the nature and dynamics of true religion, and also reveal potential blind spots in our desire to become conformed to Jesus Christ.
Edwards and True Religion
The writing of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) clarifies the role of experience. Contemporary Christians often fixate on experience in a way that could lead to an incomplete understanding of God.
Some believers appear overly consumed by the affective or emotional sensations of faith and are in a continual search for those warm feelings. Others are equally attracted to the intellectual truth or wisdom of the gospel and eagerly pursue new insights to stimulate their minds. Edwards welcomed both dimensions and stressed the reality of true religion’s experiential nature.
Edwards’s perennial bestseller was Memoirs of David Brainerd. Throughout this moving account, Edwards helps readers grasp the fullness of a balanced experience that takes seriously the great truths of Scripture and also integrates them into the affective depths of the heart. The intensity of Brainerd’s study of Scripture produced holy affections that lead him to find rest and comfort in Christ.
In his Personal Narrative, Edwards argues that true religion engages in prolonged study and meditation on Scripture, and ponders the great theological doctrines of Christianity. Edwards cultivated a sweetness through contemplative desire and enjoyment that lovingly gazed (Ps. 27:4) on the beauty of Christ and was consumed by the awesome glory of our triune God. The contemporary church could benefit from such a balanced approach that integrates mind and affections.
Newton the Spiritual Director
John Newton (1725–1807) encourages us not to grow faint or apathetic in the face of spiritual barriers. His journey also reminds us of the danger of spiritual blindness. After his conversion, Newton still piloted slave ships until an epileptic seizure forced him to retire. While his newfound faith motivated him to create public worship aboard the ship and treat slaves humanely, Newton did not at first fully grasp the evils of slavery. Later, Newton strongly supported William Wilberforce’s abolition efforts in Parliament. This and other struggles sensitized his soul to the larger dynamics of spiritual maturity.
Newton was a prolific letter writer, and his correspondence covered a wide range of devotional topics. He titled one collection of letters Cardiphonia, or the Utterances of the Heart, which indicates the nature of his writing. These letters addressed the ministry of the Spirit, how to read Scripture, the importance of discernment, hindrances in prayer, dynamics of the soul in Christian growth, and countless other topics useful for readers today.
His reputation as a letter writer prompted others to name him “the evangelical spiritual director.” Newton reminds us that we have blind spots and need skilled mentors to expose them and encourage our spiritual maturity. Newton joined with peers to discuss the nature of their experience of following Jesus Christ. Not only did ministers gather together, they encouraged church members and others to do the same to deepen their growth in godliness.
Newton reinforced the truth that the human heart is divided (Ps. 86:11), and encouraged the necessity of forming accountability groups to maintain a healthy and vibrant piety that loves God and neighbor.
Whitefield and Orthodoxy
George Whitefield (1714–1770) instructed his hearers and readers in the importance of orthodox theology. Many contemporary Christians fail to appreciate the value of understanding theology and thinking biblically. This is essential not only for pastors and ministry leaders but also for every follower of Jesus.
When Whitefield joined John and Charles Wesley in a spiritual group at Oxford, all were ignorant of a theological understanding of true religion. Whitefield in particular devoted himself so intensely to cultivating his spiritual life that he nearly killed himself. Excessive asceticism forced him to drop out of the university and return home to recover his health. Through this process and reading Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man—a gift from Charles Wesley—Whitefield discovered that true religion begins with union with Christ, not strenuous individual effort.
Scougal’s classic work is based on Galatians 4:19: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ be formed in you.” This awareness corrected Whitefield’s distorted theology that had placed sanctification before justification. With renewed clarity, he grasped that one must first be converted and conscious of being justified and in union with Christ before seeking to grow in sanctification.
Throughout his life, Whitefield sought to think theologically. When others challenged him, he assessed and corrected his teaching once he understood its error. This was especially true earlier in his ministry as he was still shaping the contours of his theological convictions. We shouldn’t understood this as a confused mind vacillating between opinions, but a refinement of biblical commitment. Indeed, Whitefield resisted efforts of those who sought to restrict his preaching’s scope by narrowing God’s gracious gospel invitation.
Tragically, however, it must be said both Edwards and Whitefield contradicted their biblical ideals in their support of slavery and personal owning of slaves. Their blind spots, even as champions of orthodoxy, do not invalidate their work. But they do demand that we humbly return again and again to the Spirit-inspired Scriptures as the only unerring authority.
The declining numbers of Christians in the Western world are disturbing for those who take Jesus seriously. One way to regain a vibrant and true piety is to learn from these 18th-century evangelicals, despite their flaws, and recover a true religion expressive of the basic biblical principles of the gospel.