I am currently teaching an elective on Jonathan Edwards at New St. Andrews, and something we recently covered made me realize the ways in which historic evangelicals need to speak and be heard, and need at the same time to listen carefully.
The Reformation was a revival of true gospel preaching, and such gospel preaching always comes down to the point of decision. Good preaching is aimed at the will; all good preaching aims at conversion. If the people are not converted, they need to be. If they are, then a message aiming at true conversion will encourage them, not beat them up. As Luther put it, we are called to a lifetime of repentance.
Good preaching reminds every Christian soul that we live before the God who sees and knows the heart, and who will sift those hearts in the great day of judgment. The problem arises when the need for true conversion is moved from the declaration of the gospel to the membership interview. The former declares the truth with the understanding that only God can see the heart. The latter, in the name of God seeing the heart, pretends that the minister and elders can see the heart.
If it is true that not every member of the visible church will be in glory, and it is true, then there must be a demarcation between those covenant members who are going to Heaven and those who are not. That demarcation is called heart conversion, or regeneration. All genuinely Reformed believers acknowledge the reality of this. The practical, pastoral issue concerns whether that true heart conversion is measurable by human beings. Can we detect it in a certain enough way to be confident that we are letting only the regenerate come to the Table (or, in baptistic churches, to baptism), and are successfully keeping the “not known to be regenerate” away from the Table?
These questions go back to the Halfway Covenant, in the years before the time of Edwards. Now in the popular understanding, the Halfway Covenant was a downgrade of spiritual standards. In reality, it was an attempted upgrade, an upgrade that failed, one that backfired. This is how.
In Calvinist churches on the Continent, membership was based on 1. a profession of faith in Christ and 2. an outwardly obedient life. For the first, you told everyone you believed in Jesus. For the second, you didn’t spend all your time in saloons and shooting out street lights. Here is John Calvin: “we recognize as members of the church those who, by confession of faith, by example of life, and by partaking of the sacraments, profess the same God and Christ with us” (Institutes, Vol. 2, pp. 1022-23).
But by about 1636, some American churches had begun requiring some more than this (not something less). They wanted a testimony from each prospective member, a testimony relating their personal experience of salvation. The same would go for someone wanting to be a "full" member, in the sense of coming to the Table. Without that personal testimony, they were denied. But they had been baptized. And so what happened when they grew up (which happens more quickly than you might think) and married, and wanted their children to be baptized? What do you do? You have a baptized man and woman, professing faith in Jesus and in the truth of the Christian religion, who are living sober and decent lives, and who could join any Calvinistic church in Europe. They want to have their child baptized. What do you do? The Halfway Covenant said okay, all right already.
“Church members who were admitted in minority, understanding the Doctrine of Faith, and publickly professing their assent thereto; not scandalous in life, and solemnly owning the Covenant before the Church, where they give up themselves and their children to the Lord, and subject themselves to the Government of Christ in the Church, their Children are to be baptized (Halfway Covenant, 1662).”
The minister before Edwards was his maternal grandfather, Rev. Stoddard. Now Stoddard was in some respects a proto-liberal. Don’t make too much of that, but it should be noted. He was right about some things. He said, for example, “No man can look into the heart of another, and see the workings of a gracious spirit.” He leaned against the Halfway Covenant, adopting open communion in 1677. He believed that communion was a converting ordinance, and he was opposed to the idea of church covenants as being judicial in nature. He was therefore against church discipline generally. There he was wrong, and Edwards was right.
Edwards was right that church membership brought with it certain judicial responsibilities, and he was very cautious in how he tried to bring the Northampton church back to a tighter line. But he was at heart a revivalist, which meant that the tighter line was still drawn in the wrong place, at the point of membership interview.
A distinction should therefore be kept sharp between the preaching of the Word, and the shepherding of souls. The Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, but this does not mean that a minister can see hearts. When it comes to the division of soul and spirit, the Scriptures are sharper than a sword. But at the same point, fallible ministers can be as sharp as a pound of wet liver. But the fact that he cannot see this or that heart exhaustively should not prevent him from preaching the Word searchingly.
We lean the opposite direction, to protect ourselves against the errors of that other guy, who is leaning the other way. Some men see tyrannical pronouncements over the hearts of others in membership interviews, and so they refuse to declare the authoritative word of God from the pulpit -- unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Other men know that they should declare this searching word from the pulpit, and they therefore assume to themselves the same prerogatives in the pastor's study. Oh, the vanity of man! When Scripture says that "all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do," the "him" there does not refer to the clerk of session.