Edwards on the Poor

I’m reading Tim Keller’s convicting book Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just and am learning a lot about a balanced view of what is today called “social justice.” I’m finding that my experience with this book is a little similar to when I first became a Calvinist; now I can see helping the poor “on every page” of the bible, just like how I first saw (and still see) election. It’s amazing to see how consistently both testaments are equally concerned with issues of poverty.

A key source that Keller uses is not Dorothy Day or Gustavo Gutierrez, but the eighteenth-century pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards. In particular, Keller quotes from Edwards’ 1703 sermon “The Duty of Charity to the Poor” (you can find it here, at Yale’s Edwards Center site). I’m amazed at how strong Edwards is on helping the poor, in almost any circumstance. Many of the arguments and justifications I’ve had for not helping the poor have been soundly challenged by Keller and Edwards–I’m quite thankful for this.

Here’s a sample quote from Edwards, that Keller cites:

Speaking against the argument that we shouldn’t help those who continually “bite the hand that feeds them” (my words), Edwards says,

If they are come to want by a vicious idleness or prodigality, yet we ben’t thereby excused from all obligation to relieve ’em unless they continue in it. If they don’t continue in it, the rules of the gospel direct us to forgive ’em; and if their fault be forgiven ’em, then it won’t remain to be any bar in the way of our charitably relieving of ’em. If we do otherwise, we shall act very contrary to that rule of loving {one another} as Christ hath {loved us}: as we observed, not in degree, but [in the] manner of our expressing {love}. Now, Christ has loved us, pitied us, and greatly laid out himself to relieve us from that want and misery that we brought on ourselves by our own folly and wickedness. We foolishly and perversely threw away those riches that we were provided with, upon which we might have lived and been happy to all eternity. (Jonathan Edwards, “The Duty of Charity to the Poor” in Mark Valeri ed., Works of Jonathan Edwards Volume 17: Sermons and Discourses, 1730-1733 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999], 401-402.)

Note how gospel centered this is, and how personally it is directed to the hearer (or reader) of the sermon. It really leaves Christians with no excuse. Here we have one of the greatest minds in Christian and American history, whose writings on the Trinity, the Freedom of the Will and Original Sin explode all our categories, and yet he is profoundly concerned to make sure that his theology “comes out the tips of his fingers” (to paraphrase Doug Wilson). This is a great example of how theology in all its depth is also deeply practical, and how God is concerned for the poor.


1 Comment

Filed under books, jonathan edwards, poverty, quotes, sermons, social justice, tim keller

One response to “Edwards on the Poor

  1. Pingback: Out And About 11/14/2011 » All Things Expounded

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