Introducing Jonathan Edwards
How would you introduce Jonathan Edwards to a seventeen year old?’, I was asked in 2003 on the tercentenary of the great man’s birth. I am not sure if a particular seventeen year old was in mind, but as we remember Edwards again 350 years after his death, I would like to try to answer that question.
irst, the easy way to begin is to read what others have said about him. Stephen Nicholls’ Jonathan Edwards: a guided tour of his life and thought1 would be the place to start. For a fuller account, go to Iain Murray’s excellent Jonathan Edwards: A new biography.2
Second, appreciate Edwards himself! This article is intended to help you do just that.
A sense of the glory
He was born in October 1703. At seventeen he was at college in New Haven, Connecticut – an extremely able pupil as one might expect. It seems fairly certain that in 1721, before he was eighteen, he was converted and came into the ‘new sense of things’ of which he later wrote.
He said, ‘I was indeed brought to seek salvation in a manner that I never was before; I felt a spirit to part with all the things in the world for an interest in Christ’.3
He describes how, on one occasion in Spring 1721, while reading 1 Timothy 1:17 (‘Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever, Amen’), ‘there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before’.4
From this, Edwards grew in his appreciation of and love for Christ – and found also that all of creation seemed to show forth ‘God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love’. But nothing gave him as much pleasure as meditating on Christ himself.
Even before his conversion Edwards had been able to appreciate God’s handiwork. From an early age he was fascinated by science and in his late teens wrote a dissertation on the flying spider.
He reflected both on the wisdom of the Creator in providing the spider with the means to produce – and fly through the air on – its web; and also on the ‘exuberant goodness’ of the Creator in providing not only for the necessities but also for the pleasure and recreation of all creatures, even spiders.5
Edwards demonstrates here that God also reveals himself in nature, though not as clearly as in his Word and not in a way that can save.
He was also well up in the ideas of his day. Much of his life’s work was a biblical and rational defence of Christianity, and of genuine Christian experience, against its opponents both in philosophy and in the professing church.
After his student days, Edwards pastored a church in New York, then served as a tutor at Yale College, after which he began his main life’s work as minister in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Here he saw periods of wonderful revival which inspired some of his greatest writings. He married Sarah and brought up eleven children. Surprisingly, we might think, he was ejected by the church after a dispute about the qualifications needed for a person to partake of the Lord’s Table. Edwards was prepared to stand by his convictions even when it hurt.
His work, however, was not finished. He went to the frontier town of Stockbridge as a missionary to the Indians and there also wrote some of his most important books.
He was appointed President of Princeton College just weeks before his death in March 1758, from a smallpox inoculation. His last recorded words were: ‘Trust in God, and you need not fear’.
Third, after you have a feel for Edwards and his times, tackle something by Edwards himself. Start with his Resolutions and advice to young converts.6 The Resolutions are seventy goals and guidelines which ‘serve as a personal mission statement’7 and show how zealously he strove for holiness even as a Christian aged nineteen or twenty.
The Resolutions should, perhaps, be read with regard to their spirit rather than obeyed to the letter.
The Advice shows him later, with some years of pastoral wisdom, advising a young Christian in her walk with the Lord. Recurrent themes include a hatred of sin and a turning from it (true repentance) together with trust in and love for Christ (true faith).
One paragraph begins, ‘Don’t slack off seeking, striving and praying for the very same things that we exhort unconverted persons to strive for, and a degree of which you have had in your conversion.
‘Thus pray that your eyes may be opened, that you may receive your sight, that you may know your self and be brought to God’s feet, and that you may see the glory of God and Christ, may be raised from the dead, and have the love of Christ shed abroad in your heart’. No easy-believism here!
Heaven, revival and conversion
After these short practical works you could try ‘Heaven a world of love’ – the final sermon in an exposition of 1 Corinthians 13 entitled Charity and its fruits.8I challenge anyone not to be moved by its beauty and grandeur as a description of heaven and of love.
You may also like to dip into some of his ‘Miscellanies’ (occasional notes he made on many subjects) on heaven.9 These will show how Edwards, by using his immense intellect and his powerful spiritually-minded imagination, seems to extract every possible drop of goodness from Scripture. Be inspired – but remember the distinction between Scripture and imagination!
Try, then, something on revival – such as Jonathan Edwards on Revival,10a compilation of three of his best known writings on the revivals he experienced and observed.
Then I would encourage you to read a sermon in the second volume of the Works (page 12). It may be difficult, but it is invaluable in many ways. Firstly, it shows Edwards utterly committed to truth.
The sermon’s full title is ‘A Divine and supernatural light, immediately imparted to the soul by the Spirit of God, shown to be both a scriptural and a rational doctrine’. For Edwards, what is scriptural is rational.
In other words, it is God’s truth, it makes sense and (to the extent it can be grasped by our minds) it can be understood. Edwards subordinated reason to revelation but he had huge confidence in the reasonableness of God’s revelation and the capacity of the born-again mind to grasp it.
He answered questions others did not think of asking. It was in this respect that he was said to be ‘more rational’ than other Calvinists. But he also insisted that where we cannot understand, we must submit to God’s Word anyway.
Secondly, he taught utter dependence on the Spirit. He was convinced that no one becomes a Christian unless God illumines the heart by the Spirit through the Word. Being born again involves ‘a true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the Word of God’.
Elsewhere he calls this a ‘new sense of things’, a Spirit-given understanding of God and his Word, and a new relationship to God – which brings with it a new approach to all of life.
Lastly – if you’re feeling adventurous – try The religious affections.11It is long and demanding, but as an examination of what is real and counterfeit in the spiritual life it is unsurpassed.
In Spirit and truth
Finally, remember that though it may be hard at times to grasp Edwards’ theology, it is far more important to be grasped by Edwards’ God. Edwards was never interested in the intellectual alone – he always insisted that true Christianity, though based on and conveyed by the Word of God, is experienced.
Here, perhaps, lies his greatest value for us today – he was a man of truth and Spirit. Neither arid intellectualism nor experience without doctrine is any substitute for that ‘new sense of things’ created by God’s Spirit.
In The religious affections he wrote: ‘holy affections [i.e. true, Spirit engendered emotions] do not only necessarily belong to true religion, but are a very great part of it … And as true religion is of a practical nature, and God hath so constituted the human nature that the affections are very much the spring of men’s actions, this also shows that true religion must consist very much in the affections’.12
The affections are really the will excited by that which flows from God. The will is the ‘spring’ of our actions. True religion, he insists, is ‘practical’. True affections will be seen in practice – above all, in love to God and man.
Edwards stretched his mind to explore God’s revelation as far as he could, believing it to be his reasonable worship; but he did so under the authority of the Word of God and in dependence on the Holy Spirit.
No other Christian preacher exhibited greater intellectual rigour and dependence on the Spirit; none was so used by the Spirit in expanding our theological horizons and in revival blessing on his own ministry. However old or young we may be, or whatever our era, he teaches us to love God and our neighbour, to worship in Spirit and truth.
1. Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001. Other readable modern introductions are: The God-centred life: Insights from Jonathan Edwards for today (Josh Moody, IVP 2006); and A God-entranced vision of all things (ed. John Piper and Justin Taylor, Crossway 2004).
2. Banner of Truth, 1987.
3. Quoted in Murray, op cit, p.33.
4. Ibid, pp. 35-36.
5. See Nicholls, Jonathan Edwards: A guided tour, pp. 165-66.
6.Jonathan Edwards’ Resolutions and Advice to Young Converts, ed. Stephen Nicholls, (P&R 2001).
7. Ibid, p.10.
8. Published by Banner of Truth.
9. The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Banner of Truth edition, 1974), vol. 2. p. 617. You could probably borrow these volumes from your minister! From now on I refer to them as the Works.
10. Published by Banner of Truth.
11. Banner of Truth (paperback edition, 1986). For an abridged version of this work in contemporary language see Gerald McDermott’s Seeing God: Twelve reliable signs of true spirituality (IVP, Downer’s Grove, 1995).