Posted by: Philip Rushton | May 16, 2011

Beyond the Brimstone: How Jonathan Edwards challenges our objections to charity

For the past couple of weeks this blog has been exploring how we can best respond to the the needs of our community. By inviting you into this conversation I have hoped to encourage and inspire grass roots initiatives in our various spheres of influence. As I mentioned last week, while our institutional church will be able to take on a few relief and development projects, much or our impact in the community is going to come from the ‘organic church,’ which is the group of believers applying their faith in the specific contexts of their lives.

I’ve also started this conversation in order to invite you into the visioning process for our church. As I stir the intellectual pot and throw out ideas I hope to hear back from you and get your input. Many of you know more about the needs of our community than I do. Thank you for participating in the difficult process of visioning; your responses and ideas have been very helpful to me at this early stage of my pastoral work here in Longview!

This morning I’d like to continue this conversation on caring for the poor by exploring some common objections that we face when we seek to respond to those in need. To do so I will be drawing on a sermon by Jonathan Edwards titled, “The Duty of Charity to the Poor.” Yes, contrary to popular opinion, Edwards legacy goes beyond his harsh sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards theology is much more robust than your average ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher. He stands in a profound tradition of Reformed theology that takes cultural engagement very seriously.

Based on the parable of the good Samaritan, Edwards sermon, “The Duty of Charity to the Poor,” looks at the common objections people have when responding to those in need.

The first objection one might have is, “though they be needy, yet they are not in extremity.” What Edwards means is that we may refrain from helping people unless they are completely destitute. For example, we may object to helping a needy neighbor because they have a satellite dish on their house and can obviously afford entertainment. Edwards points out, however, that Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. He argues that we do not wait till we are completely destitute before we deal with the needs in our own household, so why should we have that standard for helping others.

The second objection we might put forward is that we “have nothing to spare.” However, Edwards points out that the parable of the good Samaritan teaches us that loving our neighbors will be costly. Edwards argues that when we say we can not help we are really saying, “I can’t help anyone without burdening myself.” Edwards says, “if we are never obliged to relieve others’ burdens but only when we can do it without burdening ourselves, then how do we bear our neighbor’s burdens, when we bear no burden at all?”

A third objection is that the person may be undeserving because of bad character. In response Edwards reminds us that “Christ loved us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very hateful persons of and evil disposition . . . so we should be willing to be kind to those who are very undeserving.”

A fourth objection we may have is to argue that the person in need has brought poverty on themselves through careless behavior. Edwards argues that we should continue to help those who have brought poverty upon themselves unless they continue to be delinquent. His reason is that ” Christ hath loved us, pitied us, and greatly laid out himself to relieve us from that want and misery which we brought on ourselves by our own folly and wickedness, we foolishly and perversely threw away those riches with which we were provided.” Furthermore, Edwards argues that we should continue to help those who remain delinquent for the sake of their family. Those in need should not be barred from charity because one person in the family is squandering the support.

The main point Edwards makes is that we should not object to helping those in need because Christ did not object to helping us when we were undeserving of his grace.

How do Edwards arguments challenge you?


  1. Well, I’ll try to get it started. I have to admit that I have felt each of those objections at one time or another, and still do at times. I can’t really disagree with Edwards’ arguments in my mind, but I still need to get that into my heart.

    I think the main challenge for me is to get past the thought that I have worked very hard to achieve success and that anyone else can do the same. But then God reminds me of His grace toward me and that changes everything.

    It’s hard to distinguish between “needy” and those who are abusing charity, but is it our job to make that distinction?

    Another thing I struggle with is how much do I give? We’re already giving a lot to things we feel committed to.

    Thanks for getting us to thinking outside of our small little spheres.

  2. Thanks for you questions / reflections Randy.

    You said: “I think the main challenge for me is to get past the thought that I have worked very hard to achieve success and that anyone else can do the same.”

    I think this is a really legitimate feeling / concern that a lot of us have when it comes to helping those in need. Sometimes it is frustrating for us to reach out to people that don’t seem to want or try to help themselves.

    One thing that I found helpful in Tim Keller’s book Generous Justice is that he reminds us that the causes of poverty are complicated and diverse. In scripture we see that poverty can result from oppression or injustice (Amos 5:11-12), calamity or disaster (ie Famine in Genesis 47), and personal moral failures (Proverbs 23:21). These are often intertwined and complicated. But I think this helps to protect us from an over simplistic diagnosis of poverty. Some people bring poverty on themselves but others are part of a system of oppression, or simply encounter a calamity that is out of their control. To me, the biblical teaching on poverty helps bridge the polarizing views we see in our political landscape. Conservatives blame personal / family breakdown, liberals blame social injustice, the Bible says it is often a complicated mixture and that some cases are different than others.

    You also asked: “Another thing I struggle with is how much do I give?”

    C.S. Lewis rule of thumb has always challenged me. He writes:

    ”I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare…If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us,… they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditures excludes them.”

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