Four Wrong Responses to the Gospel Call

Jonathan Edwards, most noted in literature for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,”  and in history for his part in the revival known as “The Great Awakening,” is still regarded as one of America’s greatest thinkers.

I love Edwards’ sermons. He uses words to construct vivid imagery, his sub-points leave little doubt about what he means by his main points, his genuine love for Christ and people is evident in his work, and through his writings I always see wonders of God’s glory.

The evangelistic message of Jonathan Edwards

In his book, “Jonathan Edwards, Evangelist,” Dr. John H. Gerstner, a notable scholar on the works of Edwards, set out to capture, “The evangelistic message of Jonathan Edwards,” (p. 12).

Gerstner devotes the bulk of his book to Edwards’ thoughts about the “right steps” to salvation: the divine initiative, conviction, seeking, regeneration/conversion, illumination, and justification, conversion/sanctification, and perseverance. It should be noted that these steps are not necessarily linear. Some are simultaneous, overlapping, and ongoing as in the “already/not yet” sense.

Helpful Terms

Two chapters, however, are devoted to Edwards’ beliefs about “wrong steps” toward salvation. Edwards organizes the results of these wrong steps and presents them as four kinds of wrong responses to the gospel message. Before I give Gerstner/Edwards descriptions of these four types of wrong responses, you need to know what Edwards meant by a few terms. (Note that some quotations are those of Gerstner’s summary of Edwards and others are of Gerstner quoting Edwards directly. The absence of quotation marks indicates my own summary.)

Hardening is …

  • that process of reaction to the Holy Spirit’s gospel overtures by which a naturally sinful and hostile person becomes more sinful and more hostile,” p. 48.
  • the reaction of unbelievers to the “gracious overtures of God” that is worse than the reaction of those who have never heard the gospel call – “worse than the sins of unenlightened heathen … ,” p. 53.
  • “’The aggravated misery of many unbelievers” who “though they hear and see much of God’s wonderful works of salvation yet they never believe but despise and wonder and perish.’” This misery follows from the “failure to cultivate the gracious convictions that God gives” with the result that a person’s “last condition is worse than the first,” p. 56.
  • a premonition of a possibly impending doom,” p. 55.

Conviction is …

    • a deeper and more durable realization that certain doctrines … are true,” p. 41.
    • human reactions to the working of the divine Spirit, who ‘doth the finishing strokes’ on Christ’s salvation,” p. 41.
  • a work of the Spirit on the unchanged nature of fallen man.” “Men are not able to be saved without this work, but they could have this work of the Spirit all their lives without ever being saved,” p. 42-43.

Awakening …

    • follows from “a divine initiative” that takes place (before regeneration – new birth) “when the dead, sleeping soul is first disturbed;” an outward call that “may or may not be followed by an inward call” but that “always precedes that inward call if given,” p. 18.
    •  follows from convictions that in turn follow the hearing of God’s Word, p. 44.
    •  is a sudden awareness that you are on the “broad road to destruction” and that there is a “possibility of changing” direction, p. 58.
  • occurs when the “Spirit of God begins to apply the Word to the hearts of men,” p. 40. Being awakened, a sinner may:
      1. be offended at, resent, and reject his convictions” – he may be hardened;
      1. attempt to bride or ‘flatter’” his conscience “so that he may feel peace again;
      1. may be unable to silence conscience … and yet not be willing to meet its demands either;” or
      1. may “try to compromise, granting many of the demands of conscience and the gospel, but not all;” or
    1. may be converted, p. 45.

These five (4 wrong and 1 right) responses made by awakened sinner (described by Edwards and compiled by Gerstner) are further detailed below.

Four Wrong Responses to the Gospel Call

Wrong Response #1 – You don’t believe.

People who respond this way …

  • hear the outward call of the gospel but react against it in one way or another.
  • never understand sovereign grace.
  • continue in their obvious resistance and become more and more hardened.
  • are finally “judicially hardened” by God (given over to hardening by God’s decree; abandoned by God), p. 54.
  • perish in their hardened condition.
  • are under “an aggravated degree of divine condemnation” (p. 54).

Wrong Response #2 – You pretend to believe.

People who respond this way …

  • appear to accept the gospel but do not – are hardened but do not appear hardened.
  • seem to be friendly toward the gospel but are actually hostile to it.
  • are thought by others to be true Christians.
  • have a false assurance – they themselves think they are true Christians and may feel secure in their salvation.
  • may, in their pretense, feel comfort and joy and have an expectation of heavenly reward.
  • are seldom ever truly converted – their false assurance is fatal.

Wrong Response #3 – You vacillate between belief and unbelief.

People who respond this way …

  • are awakened enough to be brought to a point of decision but are indecisive about the truth.
  • are aware that they can and should change but are strongly dictated by their fleshly desires.
  • hesitate rather than believe – are unresolved.
  • tend to entangle themselves in mysterious doctrines and lay road blocks in their own path to salvation.

 Wrong Response #4 – You partially believe.

People who respond this way …

  • have been awakened, but not thoroughly – they are not converted.
  • seem to have decided to flee wrath, to abandon the old road, to break with sin” and “do break with … almost all of their sins, but not all.”  “It is as if they had begun to flee the city of destruction and have hesitated at the very gates,” p. 59.
  • May “do moral duties, avoid vicious practices, attend on religious opportunities, receive the ordinances, and even go to the small, private meetings,” p. 60.
  • stop short of enough” because they like “the nature of sin and the consequences of virtue,” p. 61.
  • spend away their time in wishing … and not doing and still continuing in the way that leads to destruction,” p. 60
  • serve “their own self-interest, and not the will of God,” p. 62.
  • use God as “an appendage to their lusts,” p. 62
  • cannot “trust that God will reward their self-denials” – fear that they will “miss out on life,” p. 62.

What is the right response to the outward gospel call?

Belief!  Belief follows when the Spirit illuminates “the minds of men savingly,” p. 119.  To understand in detail what Edwards means by “illumination” I highly recommend reading Edwards’ sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light.” Gerstner, who did read the sermon, compiles Edwards’ thoughts (see below) to summarize the illumination process that results in true belief – salvation (a.k.a. conversion, regeneration, new birth).

Knowledge of God’s worth (illumination) …

 “comes by reason, the natural reason, but the ‘beauty’ or ‘excellency’ or ‘amiableness’ of this knowledge is not seen by natural reason until the divine and supernatural light reveals it – to natural reason.  This divine light comes from God and its experience in the regenerate is called ‘the sense of the heart’ in distinction from the ratiocination of the mind.  Though distinct from the discursive intelligence, it is not, however, separable from it.  Only when there is previous doctrinal knowledge in the mind, by means of natural reason, can the ‘sense of the heart’ reveal its beauty,” p. 120.

Praying that God will grant you to see Himself through Christ as more worthy than anything else in this world so that you will respond rightly to the gospel call.

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Edwards, Jonathan, The aggravated misery of many unbelievers appears in that though they hear and see much of God’s wonderful work of salvation yet they never believe but despise and wonder and perish, sermon on Acts 13:41, delivered March 13, 1737, accessed available from Yale Library at

Gerstner, John H., Jonathan Edwards, Evangelist, Orlando, FL: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, reprinted 1996.

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