How Many Christians Are There in China?

“The (Protestant) Christian church in China is like a large, shallow, and very polluted lake. To be sure, millions attend meetings and call themselves Christians, but so many are there only for some kind of personal benefit, not because they love God or really trust in Christ alone for salvation from sin.” That comment from someone with extensive knowledge of the unregistered churches contrasts with an article I read yesterday, quoting the usual range of estimates of from 30 to 130 million believers in China.

Can Jonathan Edwards, the great 18th-century American theologian, help us with this question? Of course, he had no idea of what would happen among the Chinese, for Robert Morrison had not yet arrived in Canton, but a recent biography of him may help us think more clearly about the issue.

Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought, by Douglas A. Sweeney, sheds light not only on early American Christianity, but also on the nature of true faith. The author traces Edwards’ life, ministry, and thought, placing him in the context of New England Puritanism and drawing out lessons for us today.

The church stood at the center of New England life, physically, spiritually, socially, and politically. Congregational was established as the state religion of Massachusetts, so everyone was, at least theoretically, required to attend Sunday services. Membership in the church was necessary in order to vote or hold office, for these people held to an ideal of a holy commonwealth that would reflect the glory of God in all areas of common life. This nexus of politics and religion proved fatal to both, as it has ever since in American history (and not just in America!).

Churches were full on Sundays, and community life was ordered by the Scriptures to an extent seldom, if ever, seen in history. Did that mean that everyone was a true convert to Christ? Edwards’ life and career brought that crucial question to a head in a variety of ways.

Edwards’ father was a distinguished pastor, as was his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. Growing up in a devout Puritan home, Edwards early distinguished himself not only as a precocious student but also as a zealous Christian – or so it seemed. He prayed several times a day in private; organized a prayer group among other children; had emotional experiences of God. Destined like his father to be a preacher, he went to Yale to be educated at the age of twelve, which was the norm; after earning the B.A., he stayed on for two years to gain a Master’s degree.

At some point during graduate studies, he had an experience of God which he later considered to be the real beginning of his life with God. The beauty of God overcome him, reducing him to tears and filling him with an indescribable calm and joy and “a sense of the divine being.” In coming days, he meditated often upon the Scriptures, Christ, “and the work of redemption wrought by him. . . ; and the beauty and excellence of his person, and the glorious way of salvation, by free grace in him.” His life was changed forever, and increasingly reflected a peace, joy, and love of God and others that struck all those around him.

Sweeney follows Edwards as he serves as pastor to a church in New York, senior tutor at Yale, and then assistant to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. He particularly highlights Edwards’ extraordinary diligence in studying the Bible in preparation for his weekly sermons, which were tightly knit, logically powerful, and – above all – suffused with Scripture. He took great pains to present the teaching of the Bible with faithfulness, accuracy, and passion, for he aimed not only to impart knowledge but also to see people profoundly changed.

In time, revival came, as dozens, then hundreds, of his flock seemed to come under God’s gracious influence, most of them with emotional experiences that appeared to be from God. After a while, however, this died down, and all too many of them returned to the worldly ways that they had for a while renounced.

This happened more than once, causing Edwards to search the Bible for its teaching on the nature of true religion, and particularly what sorts of experiences and feelings (which he called “affections”) were definitely from God, and which were not necessarily a work of the Holy Spirit. His Religious Affections had a profound on me in the early days of my ministry, helping me to discern what he called “the distinguishing marks of the Holy Spirit” in those who claimed to have been converted.

After more than twenty years of extremely fruitful ministry, Edwards was driven out of his church by the leaders, who resented his constant call for true, heartfelt, devotion to God. For them, membership in the church, attendance at services, and outward morality were enough, but he kept insisting that true believers in Christ will love God for his own loveliness and goodness, not to gain some benefit; they will hate evil, and hunger for righteousness; they will feed daily upon his Word, turning away from frivolous entertainment. In short, they will manifest true faith by a life of true godliness.

Throughout the process of his expulsion, which took many months, these folks displayed the kind of pride, stubbornness, self-righteousness, unwillingness to listen, and even malice, that makes one wonder about their true spiritual condition. Indeed, one of their leaders later publicly confessed his sin in the matter and asked forgiveness in a letter that evinced deep contrition and shame.

Was Edwards himself without fault? Of course not. He had made some unwise moves; been more than a bit confrontational in his preaching; failed to spend enough time with the men in his congregation. He also realized that his earlier enthusiasm about the first revival was premature; he should have waited to see whether people’s lives had really changed before pronouncing on their spiritual state.

At any rate, his departure from the pastorate of a large church and moving to a small mission to Indians set him free to write some of his most profound works on sin and salvation, in which he elaborated the themes of God’s sovereignty, his grace, his beauty, and the fundamental change which the Holy Spirit will make in those who truly believe. Sweeny has written a beautiful, accessible life of Edwards that portrays the man, his ministry, and his thought, with particular focus on his immense labors in studying the Bible. He concludes with searching questions for his readers which deserve careful consideration.

Which brings me back to the original question: How many Christians are there in China? How many have been radically changed by the Holy Spirit; transformed from the inside out; driven to seek God and him alone; filled with an insatiable hunger for the Word of God and the pursuit of holiness?

Only God knows, of course, but the question should at least sober us and perhaps give us pause when we hear reports of tens of millions of people flocking to Christian meetings.