In a previous post, I lamented the fact that Jonathan Edwards died prior to writing his unfinished masterwork, a God-centered biblical theology and world history, integrated by Christ’s work of redemption. But God, despite removing Edwards from this world, did not leave us without a witness.
Almost 20 years before his death, Edwards preached a 30-part sermon series on A History of the Work of Redemption, which was published after his death by his friend John Erskine and his son Jonathan Edwards Jr. While most Edwards’s scholars believe that the unfinished masterwork would have been in some ways different from the earlier sermon series, I think we are warranted in viewing the sermon series as an early skeleton of Edwards’s vision.
A Look at Edwards's Sermon
Edwards’s text for the entire sermon series was Isaiah 51:8:
For the moth shall eat them up like a garment, and the worm shall eat them like wool: but my righteousness shall be forever, and my salvation from generation to generation.
Keying in on this last phrase, Edwards derives the following doctrine: “The Work of Redemption is a work that God carries on from the fall of man to the end of the world.”
In speaking of the work of redemption, Edwards principally means the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but also includes all of God’s actions, both eternal and temporal, that preceded and prepared for the coming of Christ (like election, creation, and God’s work in the Old Testament), and all of God’s actions subsequent to the coming of Christ (like the Holy Spirit’s work in the world following Pentecost).
Three Keys to Understanding History
In this sermon, Edwards provides us with three keys to his understanding of history.
- All of history is redemptive history. As he says, “The various dispensations of God that are [between the fall of man and the end of the world] do belong to the same work, tend to the same design, and have all one issue and therefore are all to be reckoned but as several parts of one work, as it were several successive motions of one machine to strike out, in the conclusion one great event.” This means that everything in history can somehow be connected with the God’s great work of redemption in Christ.
- This great work is carried on through the application of redemption to individuals throughout history. Since the fall of Adam, God has been converting, justifying, sanctifying, and glorifying the saints. In this way, the work of redemption is carried on “by repeating after continually working the same work over again, though in different persons from age to age.”
- God has been steadily saving a people through one great plan worked out in successive eras of history. Edwards likens this to the building of a great structure, in which “the workmen are sent forth, then the materials are gathered, then the ground fitted, then the foundation is laid, then the superstructure erected one part after another, till at length the topstone is laid. And all is finished… The glorious structure will then stand forth in its proper perfection.” It is this latter, successive erection of a glorious temple that Edwards is chiefly concerned with in A History of the Work of Redemption.
Joe Rigney is Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary
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