How George Marsden (and Jonathan Edwards) Saved My Life

  • February 23, 2014

JEIn the Spring of 2003 I was a young, zealous (and largely ignorant) junior in college. I was a ministerial student pursuing a double major in Christian Studies and History at a private historically Christian college in Mississippi. At the time, the school (and especially the Christian Studies department) was moderate at best and proudly liberal at worst, passionately advocating a mix of historic twentieth century liberalism along with late twentieth century mainstream evangelicalism.

I was confident that God had called me to some form of ministry in and through the local church, but at the time I was quietly ingesting some dangerous streams of thought. I was reading widely from Tillich, Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, and Bart Ehrman. In truth, the most conservative authors I read were Frank Stagg, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell. I believe that if pressed I probably would have pushed back against some of the more radical views of the authors I was being influenced by, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying their arguments, presenting perspectives that were wildly divergent from what I’d been taught in my local Southern Baptist church. I liked that I was being edgy and progressive in my reading habits, and I liked to think of myself as a growing intellectual who was moving beyond the confines of simple(ton) views about the Bible. I thought of myself as smarter than most of the saints I worshiped with who hadn’t had the opportunity to read what I was reading. I really was a little brat.

So it was with that outlook on life that I walked into a local bookstore looking for a new book. I was on a mission. I knew exactly which book I was going to get. A friend from school had recommended I buy and read a collection of essays and articles written by the Duke ethicist Stanley Haeurwas, an author I had already started reading. So in I walked and began skimming through the bookshelves.

Then I got stopped in my tracks. In one of those little moments that all our lives are made of that seem insignificant but in reality are life changing, I picked up a book that was on the “New Releases” shelf. It was a brand new biography of Jonathan Edwards (Jonathan Edwards: A Life) written by George Marsden. I knew Edwards’ name, but hadn’t read anything by him except “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in high school. So I picked the book up. I looked at it. I flipped through its pages. I read the first few pages of the book’s Introduction. Then I walked to the checkout and bought it, utterly forgetting the book that I’d walked in the store to purchase in the first place.

It didn’t seem like a big deal. It was a purchase made in the spur of the moment on a whim. Everyone who loves books knows that experience, and I thought it was just another time like that. In fact, however, it was earth-shattering. As I read through the story of Edwards’ life and thought my life and thinking slowly began to be revolutionized. I became, without even realizing it at first, gripped with Edwards’ vision of God and the Christian’s life. I was mesmerized by the combination of a commitment to and a passion for truth, God’s glory, sovereignty, joy, and missions. I was ruined. By the time I finished that biography I knew that I had never encountered a mind, man, or life like Edwards, and I knew I had to have more.

I was changed.

Now, in all honesty that book was just one of many that God used that year to bring me back from the brink. Within a few weeks of that visit to the bookstore a friend gave me another book by an author I had never read and I began in my devotions to read through Desiring God by John Piper. That summer I stumbled upon another history book titled By His Grace and for His Glory by a professor from Southern Seminary named Tom Nettles. All of the books (and others) blinded me to anything less than a glorious vision of God’s glory, grace, sovereignty, goodness, wisdom, and worth, and it started in one bookstore on that ordinary afternoon.

And I am forever grateful.

P.S. Seriously, pick up a biography of Edwards (there are several really good ones), and read the man himself – along with a heavy dose of Piper and others. You’ll be glad you did.

-Pastor Cade

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