Our Weakness, Christ's Strength

Jonathan Edwards became an international figure after his work A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton was published in London by Isaac Watts in 1737. In this essay, Edwards described the tremendous spiritual awakening the he had witnessed in the Connecticut River Valley beginning in 1734. Though it was an amazing period, with great outpourings of the Holy Spirit, yet the flames of that revival were tragically doused in 1735 after Edward's uncle Joseph Hawley committed suicide. The following sermon, Our Weakness, Christ's Strength, was preached in the wake of the suicide, during a time when the people of Northampton were confused and distressed.


The sermon, along with more background information, is found at The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University. Edwards' original manuscript can be seen and studied at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The first page, unfortunately torn, is pictured here (notice the mention of Hawley scrawled across the top of the page):

The entire sermon has been reproduced here with minor aesthetic edits for an online environment.


OUR WEAKNESS, CHRIST'S STRENGTH


Romans 5:6 For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.


The Apostle, in the foregoing chapters, having insisted on the doctrine of justification by faith alone, he here, in the beginning of this chapter, takes notice of these happy fruits of this justification by faith. He mentions some fruits of it, viz. "peace [with] God [through our Lord] Jesus Christ," and access to God and righteousness, ["and rejoicing in hope of the] glory of God," and glorying "in tribulations [also]."


And having mentioned glory [in tribulations as the] fruit of our justification [by faith], he is [making a further] point, probably [that in] tribulation one [learns patience; and he proceeds to] explain [the triumph of hope over the] evil of [the world].…; i.e. experience of God's past goodness and faithfulness, will beget hope in his promises for the future, and of more complete salvation, when tribulation shall be at an end. "And hope maketh not ashamed," because a true Christian's hope is attended with love, a hope of salvation; and glory is attended with love to that being that [had] purchased [our] salvation; and love will make [us not] ashamed of suffering, and bearing [tribulations for the] person beloved.


[In the words of] the text is declared the [death of Christ for the ungodly, because] Christian hope works love. Hope, or the salvation [of the ungodly, was purchased by] the wonderful love [of the Lord Jesus Christ, who died to purchase] it.… [It is upon the first part of the verse] only that I would insist on now, viz. our being without strength.


And the doctrine I would draw from the words may be this, viz.


DOCTRINE.


We are all in ourselves utterly without any strength or power to help ourselves.


I. Show in what respects we are without strength or power to help ourselves.

II. Give reasons.


[I.] We, as we are in ourselves, are utterly without any strength or power to help ourselves.


First. We have no power or strength in ourselves, to obtain that good that we stand in necessity of. We are creatures made capable of happiness and misery, and, as we are such, there are good things that we stand in absolute necessity of, and cannot do [without]; as we are in our fallen [condition, and destitute] of that good. We, as we [were in a primitive] state, had the good that [God gave us. But] we have lost all we have [been given by God] ourselves, and make ourselves [the poorer for it]. We are now poor, [weak, feeble] creatures. [Man] is [in] a miserable, destitute condition, [made] destitute of all that good we stand in greatest necessity of. And we can't help ourselves. We have no strength to obtain it: 'tis far above [us, and] out of our reach.


We need the favor of God, but we can't purchase it. We have no price to offer for it, and we can't get a price. If we go to work never so diligently, and lay out our utmost strength, we can never get anything that will do to offer to God. We can't commend ourselves to the favor of God: we can do nothing to recommend ourselves.


We need something to stand us in stead, when we come to die; for when we die, we must leave all those things. And we need some other enjoyment [near] to go to, that we mayn't be wholly destitute, when we go into an eternal [life]; but we have no might to obtain [such a] thing. We need something [given us] that may be a foundation of comfort to us, when [we] come to pass through that dark valley of the [shadow] of death; but we have no strength to [obtain] anything. We [need something to he help] us, some [consolation] while we live. [Man is such a] creature that has nothing [of peace or] contentment to his mind [and heart]. He is left to wander [about; he cannot] show us any good, having nothing to give him any true rest. But we can't by our strength obtain anything. If we are left to ourselves, we may wander about all our days, from mountain to hill, seeking rest and finding none. We can't procure or purchase for ourselves the blessings we need. We can't purchase heaven, the favor of God, and light of his countenance, and comforts of his Spirit; neither can we qualify ourselves for them, when they are purchased. We can neither be our own saviors; neither have we any power in ourselves to accept of a savior, when offered to us. We have no power to bring our own hearts to a close with the redeemer and his redemption. Our minds are full of darkness; and we can't cause light to shine in them, any more than we can do as God did in the beginning of the creation, when he said, "Let there be light."


We need holiness. Without holiness we can't have happiness, but must be miserable. But we have no power to make ourselves holy, or work any holy inclination or affection, or exert any one holy act, any more than a dead body can raise itself to life.


Second. We have no strength to deliver or defend ourselves from evil. We have, by our apostasy from God, involved ourselves in great calamity. We have brought innumerable evils upon us, and we have no might to deliver ourselves from any of them. We have brought ourselves under the power and dominion of sin, and we can't deliver ourselves from this bondage: we can't break its cords. Our souls are stained and polluted; but we can't wash out the stain, and we can't cleanse ourselves from the pollution. Job 9:30–31, "If I wash my hands with snow water, and make my hands never so clean; yet shall thou plunge me in the ditch, and mine own clothes shall abhor me."


We have brought guilt on ourselves, and we can't deliver ourselves from it. We can't make any atonement for it. If we should offer thousands of rams, and ten thousands of rivers of oil, and our first born for our transgressions, and the fruit of our bodies for the sin our souls, it would be of no avail (Micah 6:7). If we should weep an ocean of tears, and should spend all our lives in mourning in secret, and should weep tears of blood, or give our bodies to be burned, it would not do away the guilt of our sin. We cannot, by all our cleansing, cleanse away the guilt of sin. Jeremiah 2:22, "Though thou wash thee with nitre, and take thee much soap, yet thine judgment is marked before me, saith the Lord God."


As we are by nature, we have the wrath of God abiding on us; and we have no might to deliver ourselves from that wrath.


We naturally lie exposed to all manner of future evil, and we have no strength in us to defend ourselves from any of it. We are in danger of hell, and have no might to fly from it. We have many cruel enemies of our souls, and we have no power to stand against them: they are stronger than we: we are nothing in their hands, if left to ourselves: we are before them but lambs and kids before ravening wolves and roaring lions.


[II.] Reasons


First. Mankind, as they were in their first estate, were weak, dependent creatures. Indeed all created beings are dependent beings: the angels who excel in strength are so. Man as a creature is absolutely dependent on God for his well-being: he must receive his happiness immediately from God, [and] is dependent on him especially for spiritual good. But man was not only a creature, but he was a creature far more feeble than many other creatures. God put great honor upon him. He was little lower than the angels in honor, but he was far below them in strength: he was but a feeble creature in comparison of them. He was but flesh and blood, which, it is intimated in Scripture, is far weaker than those beings that are mere spirits (Ephesians 6:12). And Isaiah 40:6, "All flesh is grass."


Man, as he dwells in flesh, dwells in an house of clay, and has his foundation in the dust. Hence the devil, the enemy of mankind, was a much stronger and subtiler being than man was in his primitive state, as it proved.


Second. Man has lost his primitive strength by the fall. He was altogether a dependent being then, and was a feeble creature in comparison of some other creatures; and the strength he had, was a communicated, derived strength. But he has lost the strength now: he has destroyed and undone himself: he has deprived and confounded his whole nature.


He is now a poor, weak, sickly creature; and not only so, but a dead creature. All his faculties are weakened. He has darkened his understanding, and lost his primitive wisdom, and is become exceeding foolish and blind, and easily deceived, and led aside. All his affections are corrupt, and alike swayed one way or another.


Man has lost his spiritual strength against evil, or to the performance of any good. Man in his first estate might have asserted his own liberty, but now he is brought into slavery, and the frame of the body, the organ of the soul, is now corrupted and broken. It is but a poor, broken, ruined frame, subject to that weakness and those disorders, whereby the soul is under great disadvantage.


By the infirmity of the body, the soul is clogged, and is often darkened and misled, and exceedingly hindered, in its operations.


Man in this state is but a poor creature indeed. His strength is "dried up like a potsherd." He is but a poor, little worm. Job 25:6, "How much less man, that is a worm? and the son of man, which is a worm?"


There is difference among men in some respects. Some have greater natural abilities than others, and some have greater acquired knowledge; some obtain the character of wise men, and are called great men; and many look upon themselves much above their fellow creatures. But they are all poor, feeble worms. Job 11:12, "Vain man would be wise." Psalms 62:9, "Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie: to be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity." Psalms 39:5, "Verily every man at his best estate is altogether [vanity]."


The wisest and greatest of men, they are but as a leaf that is driven of the wind, and as the dry stubble. Their strength is nothing. They are as unable to help themselves, as a poor infant would be, if it should be cast out on the open field, in its blood in the day that it was born. Man has no more strength to help himself or defend himself, than the grass or flower of the field has to defend itself from the mower's scythe. Isaiah 40:6, "All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field."


APPLICATION.


Use I, of Instruction: Hence we may learn what a proud creature man is that is so prone to self-dependence, and to conceit of his own strength; that so seldom looks to God for help, and [is] so little sensible of a dependence on God.


How little do men think that they every moment depend on God. They are preserved, and kept alive, and kept out of hell. But how little do they think that 'tis God that keeps them. How little do they think how many evils they are liable to every day, unless God keeps them.


And when they are seeking their own good and happiness, how little sensible are they of their absolute dependence on God. How is it the manner of men in such cases to be trying in their own strength.


And when they are under conviction of their guilt, and the misery of a natural condition, how prone are men to be thinking that they can make themselves better, and can recommend themselves to God, or make some atonement for sin, when we can't do it, any more than we can create a world. How difficult a thing is it to convince men of the insufficiency of their own reason and abilities, to help them out of a natural state. These poor, feeble creatures look very big upon themselves. They little think how it is God that every day keeps 'em from falling into the most heinous wickedness imaginable, by the restraints that he lays on their corruptions; and how it is God that every moment keeps them from being destroyed by the devil, who, if God should give permission, would immediately fall upon them as a roaring lion. This arises from the grand conceit we naturally have of ourselves, and our ignorance of our own weakness.


Use II may be of Exhortation:


First Exhortation: Not to depend on ourselves, but God.


1. To those that are in a Christless condition, that are seeking an interest in Christ, to look to God alone for help. Labor to obtain a deep sense of this that you have now heard of, viz. what a poor, helpless creature you are. Have your eye continually to God for his help in the whole affair, and in all that you do in that great work of seeking salvation.


Take heed that you don't depend on your own strength. When praying and reading, or whatever duty you engage in, let it be with a sense of your own impotency. Don't go forth in your own strength.


Go to God with all your difficulties. When you meet with temptation that you can't well get rid of, go to God to help you. When you find cause to complain of a hard heart and a blind mind, go to the fountain of life and light. When you are under temptation to discouragement or despair, go to God for help, in a sense of your own helplessness. Here I would offer some things to your consideration: first, to influence you not to depend on your own strength; and, secondly, to move you to look to God and depend on him.


(1) That you may not depend on yourself, consider


I. Your own blindness. Your own wisdom is exceeding insufficient to guide and direct you, in that great affair of seeking salvation. Whether a man be wise or not wise, if God should leave him wholly to himself to follow the conduct of his own wisdom in this affair, he would soon fall into all manner of mischief: he never would go in the right way. A sinner, while under convictions and seeking conversion, is in a wilderness, and is as insufficient to guide himself without God's counsel, as a little child would be, if he should be left alone far off in the woods. And how often is it so that sinners under conviction, know not where to go, nor which way to turn. And oftentimes they think they go rightest, when they are most wrong; and think they are nearest home, when they are furthest off.


'Tis a great and terrible wilderness, a land of pits, and of drought, and fiery flying serpents. And if men don't follow the pillar of cloud, don't look to God for his guidance and direction, but will follow their own reason, they will soon fall into some of those pits, and be destroyed by those fiery flying serpents.


Your blindness and foolishness is such that, if God don't guide you by his wisdom, you will most easily be deceived and misled. 'Tis the easiest thing in the world for the enemies of our souls to delude us, and lead us astray. If God don't guide [us], they will find it easy work to make us think, what they have a mind we should think: as if a subtile man should meet a little child in the wilderness, it would be an easy thing for to deceive the child, and lead it where he pleased.


The wisdom of the wise is confounded, and brought to nought in this affair. Our own reason, let it be more or less, is not to be depended on in this great concern; but God must be sought out for his gracious direction. The wisest men here are sometimes deceived and misled by a thing of no force or weight, a mere shadow. A man is but a miserable creature indeed, if God leaves him in the wilderness to go according to the guide of his own wisdom. In order to persons being truly wise, they should be sensible of their own blindness. 1 Corinthians 3:18, "Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise, let him become a fool, that he may be wise." John 9:39, "For judgment I am come into this world, that they that see not might see; and that they that see might be made blind": that they [that] are sensibly blind, are so to their own apprehensions, might see; and those that think they see, might be made blind.


2. Consider what corruption you have in your heart. There is all manner of corruption, and there is corruption to a dreadful degree. You depend on God to keep you from falling into all manner of wickedness. We have heard of great and dreadful acts of sin and folly that others have been guilty of; and we wonder at them, and are not sensible that we have such wickedness in our own hearts; and how 'tis owing to restraining grace that we have been kept from doing as others have done. Either God has restrained us by his Spirit or by his providence, by withholding those opportunities and temptations that they have had, or some other way. 'Tis wholly owing to God, and not to ourselves, that we han't done the like thing. 'Tis surely owing thus to God, and not at all to ourselves, if we han't committed adultery, or sodomy, or buggery, or murder, or blasphemy, as others have done, or that we han't destroyed our own lives.


We are not apt to [be] very sensible that our being kept from such things, is owing to any divine restraint. We are ready to think that it is not in us: we are ready to think that we are wiser than others, and that we have more wit than to do so and so. 'Tis so foolish, and tends so much to man's temporal, as well as eternal hurt. But this is an argument of our folly and danger, too: that we ascribe our preservation thus to ourselves It argues ignorance of ourselves, and of the sin and folly of our own heart.


What is man, and what will he not do, if God leaves him? That must be given as the reason, why we in any instance han't sinned as others have. Genesis 20:6, "I withhold thee from sinning against me."


3. Let it be considered, how powerful and subtile are the invisible enemies of our souls that are continually watching for our hurt. I Pet. 5.8, "The devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about, seeking whom he may devour." We are nothing in the devil's hands, if God should leave us: he will quickly devour us. If God had left us, and not taken care of us, we should have been destroyed by him long ago: he would have had us with him in hell long before this time, if God had not kept us. If God should forsake us, the devil would have easy work with us: he is too subtile for us, and would easily deceive the wisest of us, and lead us into our own ruin: he is too strong for us. If he found us left to ourselves, he would ruin us with what temptation he pleased: he could easily cloud our reason, and distract our mind, and hurry us into what mischief he would: we should none of us be any more than infants in his hands. And it's because God's mercy towards us don't cease, that we ben't already tore to pieces by him: and we shall be destroyed by him before tomorrow morning, if God don't keep us.


The devil is perpetually at hand to do us mischief, watching an opportunity. Yea, there are many devils about us; and if they don't destroy our bodies, they'll find many ways eternally to undo our souls, if God leaves us.


And he'll easily find ways utterly to confound those that are under conviction, and are seeking their salvation. How sottish therefore will be a person's dependence on his own strength in such a case as this. Ephesians 6:12, "We wrestle not against flesh and blood." We are poor creatures that are "crushed before the moth"; how much more, before the Prince of Darkness.


We don't see the roaring lions that are about us, and how strong and mighty they are, and how cruel they are, and how they stand ready to devour us, the first moment that God should give 'em permission. If we did, we should see what need we have of divine help.


4. Consider how many kinds of mischief you will be exposed to, if you have no defense but your own strength. You will be liable to lose all convictions and grow senseless. You will be liable to a false hope. {You will be liable} to some heretical opinions. {You will be liable to} turn deist or atheist. {You will be liable to} blasphemy. {You will be liable to} despair, and to put an end to your own life. There is no fatal mischief, but what you will be liable to fall directly into.


(2) And in the second place, to encourage you to God, and to trust in him for help, consider


I. That God is able to help you. He can do all things. He can enlighten you, and guide you in the right way: though it be a great and terrible wilderness that you travel in, yet your God can lead you in the right way to Canaan.


God can restrain your corruptions; and not only so, but he can mortify and subdue them. He has all things in his hands, your reason and all your faculties: he has Satan in his power: he is stronger than he. 1 John 4:4, "Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world." Satan can go no further than God shall permit him. God holds that roaring lion as it were on a string. And let him be never so fierce, and in so great a rage, he can't go beyond his tedder.


If you trust in God, you shall be delivered from all evil, and you shall dwell in God's secret hiding place, and be safe under the shadow of his wings. And he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler. You need not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrows that flieth by day. You shall, through Christ's strength, be able to quench the fiery darts of the devil. God will give his angels charge concerning you, to keep you from evil. And you shall have Satan subdued under your feet. You shall tread upon the lion and adder, and trample the young lion and the dragon under feet. (See the Psalms 91.)


2. There is a sufficient mediator. And though we are without strength, yet Christ has died for us, as 'tis said in the verse wherein is the text. He is sufficient in his purchase, and he is sufficient in his power. The Captain of our salvation is able to overcome that potent adversary of our souls. He came into the world to destroy the works of the devil, as 'tis said, 1 John 3:8, "For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil." He is ready to pity, and to help the helpless. Our refuge must be in him, and in him alone we should put our trust. This is the true David who delivers the lamb out of the mouth of the lion, and out of the mouth of the bear.


2. The exhortation may also be to the godly, continually to look to God, and trust in Christ. You are as dependent on God as others, and stand every whit in as much need of God's help and his influence. You stand in need of restraining grace, as well as unconverted persons; and therein you are liable to fall into dreadful sin, and to be guilty of exceeding great folly, to the dishonor of God, and to the wounding your soul, as well as others. And if God did not uphold you, you would be liable to fall into the greatest imaginable mischief, and even to be utterly ruined and undone to all eternity. Satan has desired to have you that he may sift you as wheat. And though God has promised that he will never leave you thus to perish, and your dependence is on Christ's intercession, yet that is no argument that you must not have your dependence still on God to preserve you from it; but, on the contrary, is an argument why you should.


Second Exhortation: If it be thus {not to depend on ourselves, but God}, then let us ascribe all the glory, of the promoting of religion amongst us, to God only. We may infer from the doctrine, that 'tis God only that has done it, inasmuch as we are without strength, and are unable to do anything of ourselves. It would be highly offensive to God, and justly so, if we should assume any of the honor of such a work to ourselves. All means and endeavors were in vain, till God was pleased to set in. The same means were used before, as have been used now; but yet of late there has been more done in a week than used, at some other times, to be done in some years; whereby God makes it most evident, how the work is his, and not man's, that we may ascribe all the glory to him.


And ought not the late awful period, put us of this town upon examining ourselves whether or no we have not been guilty of assuming some of the glory of the late flourishing of religion amongst us to ourselves? God has in some respects distinguished us from our neighbors in the pouring out of his Spirit, in that this work, that God is carrying on in this part of the land, first began here. And God made the prevailing of religion here in some measure a means of awakening the neighboring towns. Let us examine ourselves whether or no we han't been in some measure proud of it. Have we not been ready to glory in it, to speak of it—some of us before those of other towns—with a disposition to assume some of the glory to ourselves, and with something of an air of boasting? Have we not at least had it in our hearts? Han't we been ready from hence to set up ourselves above other people, if not in our talk, yet at least in our thoughts? Has not there been something of this nature, or that has had such a look with it, to be taken notice of in us? God has of late awfully rebuked us, and as it were spit in our face, in that such a thing should happen amongst [us] in one of our principal men, and the instances of this nature being repeated once more, that without doubt will be made use by some many to reproach this town withal. No such thing has happened in any other town but [this]; which should certainly put us upon inquiring whether or no we han't been seeking honor and renown in the country to ourselves from that, the glory of which belongs alone to God. God is very jealous of his own honor: he has often told us that he is a jealous God, and that his glory he will not give unto another. We ought therefore greatly to humble ourselves, and be sure [to] let us see to it that humility prevails and flourishes amongst us with other religion. If we think that there is more religion here than in other towns, let it appear by there being more of [a] Christian, humble spirit than in other towns. Let us be more and more of a disposition to lay ourselves low, and to ascribe glory to God only. Let each one of us search and try our ways, and labor to become more as little children, to be low before God, and to walk humbly amongst men.

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