Book Review: The God-Centered Life: Insights from Jonathan Edwards for Today, by Josh Moody
There was a time when studying Jonathan Edwards was regarded as an anachronism, a cause of embarrassment from a bygone era. In 1787, Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University, predicted that within one generation the works of Jonathan Edwards would be relegated to “oblivion… [in the] rubbish of libraries.” But the second half of the twentieth century saw an ever-increasing interest in the thought and life of the great pastor from New England, including John Piper’s epoch-making classic, Desiring God, which breathes in modern language the spirit of Edwards’ “God-entranced worldview.”
Coming on the heels of this half-century surge of interest in Edwards, Josh Moody’s succinct and clear work The God-Centered Life seeks to rigorously apply some of the best aspects of the life and doctrine of Edwards to our present world. Moody’s analysis is sharp, practical, convicting, and very helpful, especially for busy, harassed pastors who may be losing their way under the pressures of twenty-first century ministry.
Moody begins his work with a poignant chapter on how Edwards might have viewed present-day evangelical churches with their short and shallow sermons, their commercialism, and their pastors who act like business managers and salesmen rather than proclaimers of God’s inspired Word.
In the next eight chapters, Moody applies Edwards’ insights to eight vital areas of church life and ministry today, which he helpfully summarizes in the final chapter of the book, “The Edwards Message.” I will borrow Moody’s summaries of these eight lessons and add my own comments on each.
- Edwards taught us how “revival is biblical” (ch. 2).
Edwards saw revival as the act of the sovereign God in awakening souls to his reality and truth, saving them through the gospel, and he believed that God uses means to accomplish that end. Thus a pastor can and ought to seek revival through prayer and labor; when it comes, he ought to give full glory to God for giving it.
- Edwards taught us how “true experience of God is heart experience” (ch. 3).
Edwards established that the true nature of religion is in the affections of the heart. Then he fought a two-front war against the “Old Lights” who opposed all such affections, and the “New Lights-extremists” who felt that the more dramatic a display of bodily excitation, the better.
- Edwards showed us how to analyze new Christian movements by their fruit (ch. 4).
In our present context, more and more new movements are springing up, whether so-called “evangelical” or even cultish. The need for careful discernment is as great as any time in church history, and Edwards is a trustworthy guide. Moody points out that Edwards’ amazingly perceptive analyses of the awakenings of his age teach us how to differentiate the baby from the bathwater so that we don’t throw out both.
- Edwards identified the central problem of our humanistic age: it is insufficiently “God-centered” (ch. 5).
According to Moody, God-centeredness is the centerpiece of what Edwards has to offer the twenty-first century church. Here Moody is at his most helpful and most frustrating. It is helpful for Moody to bring up this issue as the key to everything. But, frustratingly, he then points to complex issues like the G8 Economic Conference, genetic cloning, stem-cell research, just wars, euthanasia, and more, and simply waves his hand: “Edwards’ God-centeredness gives not so much an answer to these questions as hints and suggestions of a different way of approaching them” (104). Given Edwards’ own labored application of doctrine to the practical areas of life, Moody’s light touch here shows how hard it is to be as rationally solid as Edwards was! So Moody’s biggest deficiency, I think, merely points out the value of his study.
- Edwards modeled consistency in teaching God’s Word even in so-called “secondary matters,” and explained how “secondary matters” can sometimes have “primary importance” (ch. 6).
In this chapter, Moody traces out the “Communion Controversy,” and shows just how vital it is to restrict the Lord’s Supper to the regenerate in the life of the church.
- Edwards exemplified that “effective leadership must be biblically intelligent leadership” (ch. 7).
Here Moody demonstrates with remarkable skill how diligently and thoughtfully Edwards united faith and reason in his ministry. Moody also argues that it was by his ability to press right doctrine as far as reason could go that Edwards left his greatest mark on the theological development of the Christian church.
- Edwards’ failings teach us that we must ultimately learn from God, not man, for “human leaders fail” (ch. 8).
Moody lists in detail some of the greatest faults he perceives in Edwards. These include Edwards’ defense of slavery, his poor management of a sensitive pastoral issue in Northampton, and his support of infant baptism. This chapter helps balance both Moody’s glowing confidence in Edwards as a trustworthy guide and our view of heroes from church history in general.
- He showed us that “family life and effective ministry are reconcilable” (ch. 9).
Moody provides some very sweet quotes reflecting the special relationship between Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, as well as the tender care with which he trained his children in godliness. Moody’s practical discussion of the intense pressures of pastoral life show how vital Edwards’ “severe balance” between pastoral and family responsibilities is.
In sum, Moody asserts that an “Edwards-influenced individual” would seek to be theologically careful and precise, getting past platitudes like “Jesus is the main thing.” Such a person would boldly preach heaven and hell and would be sold-out for the world missions movement. Similarly, an “Edwards-influenced church” would have a high regard for biblical teaching and a high view of church membership. It would be energetic in prayer, bold in evangelism, and discerning regarding which parts of evangelistic ministry must change, can change, or must never change. Moody concludes powerfully, “To be influenced by Edwards means, above all, to live a life of worship in which, instead of worshiping our work, working at our play, and playing at our worship, we radically and truly understand that the greatest experience and joy of life is found in God and him alone.”
Josh Moody has done the church a great service in giving us this book. It is a cogent and succinct summary of the central themes of the life of Jonathan Edwards, and Moody does his best work applying those themes to our present context better than any other author I have read. This book will handsomely repay the effort in reading it, and will help train a new generation of “Edwards-influenced individuals” who seek to live radically God-centered lives in our bewildering twenty-first century context.