In 1740, a mighty movement of the Spirit of God occurred in the Northampton, Mass., church where Jonathan Edwards was the pastor, as well as in churches in other vicinities. Compelled to deal with the issues raised by this work of the Spirit, Edwards wrote a small but significant treatise titled The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God.
It would seem that a strong movement of the Spirit would be cause for rejoicing among Christians everywhere. But the expressions of emotional fervor that were characteristic of the revival made it a matter of sharp controversy. Instead of rejoicing in it, many denounced it as the work of the devil. But Edwards disagreed. While he had no doubts about the ability of the devil to distort and discredit the work of God—Satan, he said, “trained in the best divinity school in the universe”—he was convinced that the grounds upon which the revival was being attributed to the devil were mistaken.
This controversy drove Edwards to the fourth chapter of 1 John, a chapter that begins with this exhortation: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
Edwards writes: “… we are to take the Scriptures as our guide in such cases. This is the great and standing rule which God has given to His church, in order to guide them in things relating to the great concerns of their souls; and it is an infallible and sufficient rule.… Doubtless that Spirit who indited the Scriptures knew how to give us good rules, by which to distinguish His operations from all that is falsely pretended to be from Him.”
Edwards divides his exposition of this matter into three parts. First, he gives signs that must not be considered as proofs that a revival is spurious or counterfeit. Included in this section are nine subheadings, under which Edwards takes on the major objections of the critics. He argues that effects on the body, imprudent and irregular behavior, errors in judgment, and even the falling into sin of professing Christians do not in any way prove that a work is not of God. The fact that the devil sows tares does not make the wheat less real.
Edwards rebukes those who regarded such things as infallible proofs of the counterfeit nature of the work. On the one hand he writes: “A thousand imprudences will not prove a work to be not of the Spirit of God” (Works, p. 264). On the other hand, he observes: “… indeed spiritual and eternal things are so great and of such infinite concern, that there is great absurdity in men’s being but moderately moved and affected by them …” (Works, p. 262).
He also writes: “Lukewarmness in religion is abominable, and zeal an excellent grace; yet above all other Christian virtues, this needs to be strictly watched and searched; for it is that with which corruption, and particularly pride and human passion is exceedingly apt to mix unobserved. And it is observable that there never was a time of great reformation to cause a revival of zeal in the church of God, but that it has been attended, in some notable instances, with irregularity, and a running out some way or other into an undue severity.”
While such things do not infallibly prove a work is not of God, Edwards also would be quick to argue the converse—that the presence of these things does not assure that a work is of God. We may at this point remind ourselves that the prophets of Baal abounded in emotional outbursts and all sorts of physical gyrations, but Elijah, who was downright tame by comparison, had the truth (1 Kings 18:26, 28, 36–38).
The second part of Edwards’ work is devoted to those signs that infallibly prove a work is of God. Five major signs are included, each of which is clearly supported by 1 John 4. According to Edwards, a work is most assuredly of God when:
1. It raises our esteem of Christ (vv. 2–3).
2. It operates against the interests of Satan’s kingdom (vv. 4–5).
3. It creates a higher regard for the Scriptures (v. 6).
4. It leads to truth and convinces of those things that are true (v. 6).
5. It creates a spirit of love for God and man (vv. 6–21).
A true work of God, then, is invariably Christ-exalting, Satan-defeating, Bible-revering, and love-generating.