Jonathan Edwards: The Life, the Man, and the Legacy
Desiring God 2003 National Conference
A God-Entranced Vision of All Things
The following is a lightly edited transcript of the audio.
I think if we could all be able to speak of our personal lives together there would be certain dates that would stand out, perhaps the time of our conversion, perhaps the days of our marriage, perhaps the death of some dear family member. But for Christians, as we were saying last night in the discussion, there are other dates that stand out. And among those dates so often has been the date when we were led to an author that did something to our lives so that we weren’t the same again.
Many Christians have written that in connection with the man whose birth we are commemorating born 300 years ago, the 22nd of June in the 1832 Robert Murray McCheyne wrote in his diary: “I bought Jonathan Edwards’ works.” It is a date he never forgot. The books were his companions for the rest of his comparatively short life.
One day in the year 1929 Martin Lloyd-Jones was waiting for a train in Cardiff, in south Wales. He found that he had time to spare and as pastors are inclined to do, he made his way to a second hand book shop, the shop of John Evans. And he wrote that down on his knees in a corner of the shop wearing his heavy over coat as usual, there he said: I found the two volume, 1834 edition of Edwards which I bought for five shillings. I devoured these volumes and literally just read and read them. And other lives could be similarly quoted. But remember this date.
A Borrowed Light
Now Robert Murray McCheyne, when he started to reads Edwards and to reads Edwards’ life, had an experience that maybe we have all had. It can be quite discouraging to read or to hear the biography of another Christian. McCheyne wrote: “How feeble does my spark of Christianity appear beside such a sun.” But then he went on to say: “But, even his was a borrowed light and the same source is still open to me.”
And that changes the whole perspective, doesn’t it? If Jonathan Edwards could speak to us, he would tell us that we are wasting time to look at the borrowed light. We must go to the source and that is what we are seeking to do together.
If you look at Edwards from the wrong standpoint, everything is wrong. Some people look at him in terms of a great 18th century figure, thinker, writer, preacher. And that is as far as they go. But we have to look at Edwards, first of all, as a sinner who, by the grace of God, was made a Christian and then called to be a minister of the Word of God. We have to see Edwards as a member of the kingdom of Christ and a teacher of divine Revelation. And when we come to him in that way, we find something that is abiding and permanent. Edwards said: “The wisdom of God was not given for any particular age, but for all ages.” That is what justifies, surely, our meeting.
I like the story of something that happened in Stockbridge in the year 1870. About 200 of Edwards’ descendants had met for commemoration. And we read that it was charming afternoon with polite addresses given and tea was drunk and all was pleasant. But there was one man there who was not at all comfortable in this situation and his name was Irenaeus Prime.
And because one speaker couldn’t come, Dr. Prime was given an opportunity to give a short address. And this is the gist of what he said. He said, “It is not good making a mere bow to past history. What Edwards preached is relevant to every age.” Quote, “It has the life of Christ in it. It subordinates reason to divine authority and adores the Holy Spirit. His theology has revivals and repentance and salvation from hell in it.” “And this made it,” he said, “and makes it and will keep it divine theology till Christ is all in all.” And suddenly, I think, the pleasant afternoon at Stockbridge came to life.
So we are to look at Edwards’ life, man and the legacy.
He was born about 70 years after the Puritans had first colonized what became New England. Did the first 12 of years of his life with his father Timothy, mother Esther Edwards. His father was the pastor of the church at East Windsor, close to the Connecticut River. His father was a faithful man, a good student, part time teacher, part time farmer. Mother busy as all mothers. She had four girls and then she had Jonathan and then she had another six girls. And these girls, it is said, were all six foot in height and so the local people used to talk about the 60 feet of Mr. Edwards’ girls.
They were certainly a large family. And besides the immediate circle, there was a larger family circle of his grandfathers. Both of them were still alive. They had been born in the 1640s. They were representatives for the old Puritan age. One of them, as you may well know, was Solomon Stoddard, who was the minister of the church at Northampton, the largest church, it is said, in New England.
Edwards had a happy childhood, a healthy childhood, and a lot of feminine company to look after him as a boy. When he was not quite 13 he went down river to the collegiate school of Connecticut, which became very soon after Yale College at New Haven. Two years after he had started at Wethersfield they went to New Haven and the famous Yale College was, thus started.
In the year 1720 when he had completed his BA studies it was decided that he would go forward for another two years to study his Master of Arts degree. The next year, the spring of 1721, he was 17 years old came the great turning point in his life. He had always been religious. He had made, as he said, a number of resolutions.
But the truth was that his natural pride had never been humbled and his heart had never been changed. But in the spring of 1721 he says: “I was brought to a new sense of things, to an inward sweet delight in God and divine things, quite different from anything I had ever experienced before. I began to have a new kind of apprehension and idea of Christ and the work of redemption and the glorious way of salvation by him.”
He went home that summer of 1721 and there is a beautiful passage in his writing in which he describes how everything seemed so different, even walking in the fields round their home, things weren’t the same. “As I was walking there and looking up,” he says, “to the sky and clouds, there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the majesty and grace of God that I know not how to express. I seemed to see them both in a sweet conjunction of holy majesty and majestic meekness, a high and great and holy gentleness in creation.” And simultaneously at this time it was born in his heart, his lifelong concern for the advance, for the promotion of the kingdom of Christ.
Before concluding his MA studies, a change of direction came. He was invited to go to New York to supply an infant Presbyterian congregation and happily he went and we have now in the Yale edition of Edwards’ works, some of the sermons he preached when he was only 18 or 19 years of age. They are remarkably mature sermons.
But for some reason his father wasn’t happy with having him so far away. I think he thought his preparation was not yet complete. So 1723 when he was 20 years of age, Edwards is back in Connecticut and in 1724 to 1726 he is acting as a tutor at Yale College. 1726 came a great milestone. His grandfather Solomon Stoddard at Northampton was now 83 years of age, in great need of an assistant. Thoughts turned to this young man in New Haven. So 1726 Jonathan Edwards joined his grandfather. The next year he was confirmed of pastor alongside him.
Revival and a Young Lady in New Haven
In the meantime something even more important had happened. As teenagers he had fallen in love with a young lady in New Haven, Sarah Pierpont, and they married in the summer of 1727. She was 17 years old. She wore a pea green satin brocade dress. And I have to tell you now that I am only giving you not even half of Edwards’ life, because at least half of the life is made up of Sarah and to get that half you are going to have to listen the talk by Mrs. Piper (the link is found at the bottom of the page). Sarah Edwards is a good half of Edwards’s whole life.
So they settled in a house on a rural lane in Northampton that later became King Street. Northampton was a town of about 200 houses, about 1000 or more people, men, women, children. The first settlers who went there were all given four acres of land each. They shared common pasture as well. When Edwards settled they were given 10 acres reflecting his position as a minister in the town. And so they settled down for what was to be 23 years of labor in Northampton.
First seven years hard work, much happiness. First child was born in 1728 and was followed soon by others. There were eight daughters and three sons. But as Edwards came to know the congregation, something gave him increasing concern. His grandfather had been the minister there for upwards of 60 years. And perhaps inevitably on account of his age, but Northampton had come, the congregation, to settle on its eminent reputation. Edwards did not find the spiritual state of the congregation what he had anticipated. His grandfather died in 1729 and so Edwards had the whole charge of the congregation.
It is quite clear form his sermons that he came to believe ether were numbers present, of course, there was only one church in the town and everybody in Northampton literally went to church, he came to believe that there were many nominal believers. Listen to a sentence or two from him. He says, speaking of some who were present, “They come to meeting from one Sabbath to another and hear God’s Word, but all that can be said to them won’t awaken them, won’t persuade them to take pains that they may be saved.” And often he feared these people weren’t even listening. “They are,” he says, “gazing about the assembly, minding this another person that is there. All they are thinking of their worldly business.”
This situation changed quite suddenly in 1734. A great and earnest concern about the great things of religion and the eternal world became universal in all parts of the town. The world was only a thing by the by. Edwards believed that some 300 people hopefully had been converted within six months. His hope was that the greater part of persons in this town above 16 years of age are such as have a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. For months the meeting house was filled with praise, with anxious souls, with men and women coming to profession of saving faith.
Edwards wrote a letter to Benjamin Coleman in Boston about what had happened. Coleman wrote back and asked him, “Could he make it larger?” And when Edwards made it larger, Coleman sent the letter to London and it was published as the title that was mentioned last night, “A Narrative of Surprising Conversions.”
The book was widely read. Wesley read it. Whitefield read it. And it instantly made Edwards and Northampton people that figured on the world stage. It had some consequence that hadn't been anticipated. It had, perhaps, more than one consequence. And they weren’t all positive. One negative consequence was this. Solomon Stoddard, the grandfather, had 12 children. They all married, many of them to other clergy. And a large part of the descendants were married to the Williams family.
For one reason or another at this time a sort of family disagreement arose between the Williams and Edwards. It would appear that the sudden celebrity of this young man perhaps did not go well with some of the other larger family. At any rate, the fact is that from about the time of the publication of this book on-wards, Edwards had difficulty from some of the wider family circle. We will come back to that.
But the sort of thing that happened was that when difficulties arose in the congregation there were family members, not actually in the congregation, but quite nearby, that didn’t help, to put it mildly.
The Bolt out of a Clear, Blue Sky
Revivals don’t last. Edwards says they are special seasons of mercy. And after the revival of 1734-35 events returned more to normal in Northampton. The usual pastoral difficulties arose. Some discouragement to Edwards. There was an element of party strife in the town that had gone on for some while and kept reappearing. This went on with ups and downs until 1740.
In that year, you may recall, one historian says, “Like a sudden bolt out of a clear, blue sky there came the Great Awakening. Concern, spiritual hunger, not simply in Northampton. It didn't begin in Northampton, but it spread from different points down the eastern seaboard. It was said in Boston that such was the consciousness of God and the fear of God that you could have left bars of gold on the pavement and no one would have moved them. The Great Awakening, 1740 to 1742.”
And Edwards was at the heart of it in New England preaching, traveling, itinerating, writing letters, going to New Haven, producing books. He talks about his prodigious labors. Somebody thought he would be dead before he was 40 years old. It is amazing what he was able to do. Two of his most important books came out of that time, The Distinguishing Marks of the Work of the Spirit of God and his Thoughts on the Revival on New England. He said:
“God is pleased sometimes in dealing full spiritual blessings to his people, in some respects, to exceed the capacity of the vessel in its present scantiness, so that he not only fills it, but he makes that cup run over. It has been with the disciples of Christ for a long season a time of great emptiness on spiritual accounts. They have gone hungry and have been toiling in vain during a dark night of the Church as a philosopher, the disciples of old (Luke 5).
But now, the morning having come Jesus appears to his disciples and gives them such an abundance of food that they are not able to draw their net, yea, so that their nets break and the vessel is overloaded.” That is his picture of the Great Awakening. They had been toiling, preaching faithfully. God in his mercy revived the Church and the nets broke and the vessels, the ships could hardly hold what came in. So it was a time of great blessing.
Cold Critics and a Candle in Hand
Now in that connection I must throw in a few words about Edwards as a preacher. The tradition is, or at least in some circles, I should say, the tradition has been that Edwards preached holding a candle in one hand and reading like this from his manuscript in there other. It is my conviction that that picture is pure legend and that it has arisen because some people foolishly thought it would emphasize the supernatural. And you imagine a man reading a manuscript, holding a candle and hundreds of people being moved. Well, you might not be able to imagine that and you don’t need to try, because that is not what happened.
There are a few eye witnesses to Edwards’ preaching and they tell us very clearly that that is not what they saw. One member of the congregation said it was Mr. Edwards’ habit to look straight forward when he preached. Someone else speaking similarly said, “He looked at the bell rope.” He certainly wasn’t squinting at a bit of paper. And what we know of others who write about his preaching and his own words say the same thing. Edwards says that preaching is for the impressing of divine things on the hearts and affections of men. And it is by the lively application of the Word to men in preaching God builds his Church.
Samuel Hopkins who heard him often said, “His words often discovered a great deal of inward fervor, without much noise or external emotion and fell with great weight on the minds of his hearers. He made little motion with head or hands, but spoke so as to discover the motion of his heart.”
And Edwards says, “He who would set the hearts of other men on fire with the love of Christ must himself burn with love.”
So the idea that Edwards somehow stood in the pulpit with paper pressed up to his eye and people had to listen patiently to him reading is not an accurate picture at all.
How does his preaching differ from what is so common today? Firstly, he had a better understanding of human nature. He believed that evangelism has to start where God starts. And God starts with conviction of sin. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Better understanding of human nature. And following that, Edwards’ preaching differs so much from what is common today by the emphasis in it on the wonder of the love of God. You see, it is only as we know our real sinfulness that we can begin to appreciate the marvel of the love of God and the marvel of the love of God runs through Edwards’ preaching.
And the third, last characteristic of his preaching I would mention is the evidence that went with it of the anointing and the authority of the Holy Spirit. And this is where I think it is sad the way some people write about Edwards. They want to know, what were his techniques? What were his methods as a revivalist? They think there is some kind of secret in the man that explains how he was so effective. And the answer is that Edwards, as the apostle Paul, preached in weakness and in fear and in much trembling depending on the demonstration and the power of the Holy Spirit.
“He who would set the hearts of other men on fire with the love of Christ must himself burn with love.” –Edwards
One old writer, Thomas Murphy, writing in the 19th century, puts his finger exactly on the right point. He says, explaining the Great Awakening, “It wasn’t in terms of the personalities of the preachers, but as a wonderful baptism of the Holy Spirit.” “The Church,” he says, “was orthodox before. She is now imbued with a life and energy that was irresistible.” And speaking of Edwards and his colleagues, “They were men who believed in refreshings from on high. They felt some of them in their own souls and they were ready for still more.”
Well, I can’t take more time on Edwards as a preacher, but that is a great theme and don’t be careful to examine everything that is said on that subject.
Well, as you know, times of blessing are often followed by difficulties. And after the Great Awakening Edwards faced to major difficulties. The first was this. In the wider life of New England there were cold hearted clergy who were never sympathetic with the Awakening. But in the course of time they began to express their criticisms. And their criticisms were along this line. They said that the trouble with this situation is that people are being manipulated by preaching that aims not for their reason, but simply at their emotions. There is a hysteria abroad. People’s imaginations are overheated, they said. And a lot of excitement and hysteria has just stirred up congregations.
Now unhappily, there were certain things that gave some credibility to that criticism. There were those who believed they were friends of the revival and, indeed, they were active in it who behaved so foolishly and unwisely that they brought discredit on everything that was happening. They gave fuel to the critics. Who were these people? Well, they believed, these people believed that the way to judge the Holy Spirit’s work is by the sensational. If somebody should collapse on the floor or someone should shout, something extraordinary should happen, the more sensational, the more evidence of the Spirit’s power.
You know, when that idea comes in, it can spread very quickly. We are all like sheep in spiritual things. And that idea began to take hold. So excitement of an unspiritual nature did appear and wild fire and fanaticism. And here was Jonathan Edwards now caught between two fronts. On the one hand these cold critics, clergy and some others and on the other fanatics, people with zeal, yes, and sometimes good people, but zeal without knowledge. And Edwards in his writings, as was mentioned last night, was seeking to deal with both sides.
In addition to that, there is something that happens in every true revival that we need to be aware of.
"In addition to the saving work of the Spirit of God and by which many are truly converted, there is always what the Puritans called a common work. That is to say, people get a taste of eternal things. They become serious. Their lives change. But they have never fundamentally become Christians. And, after a while, this common work of the Spirit doesn’t remain with them. They go back to the world or back to formal religion."
That happens in every revival. Edwards wrote these words, sadly, when he came to realize that even in Northampton the converts were not as many as he had first hoped. “It is,” he says, “with professors of religion, especially such as become so in time with the outpouring of the Spirit of God, it is as it is with the blossoms in spring. There are vast numbers of them upon the trees, which all look fair and promising. But yet many of them never come to anything.”
So the first difficulty was the opposition to the revival and the need to defend the truth of the work of God. The second difficulty was much more local and, in the end, I suppose it was more painful. I mentioned some of the wider family that were no help to Edwards.
Thrown upon the Whole Wide Ocean
In the 1740's there were problems that arose in the church as arise in every church. But these problems were definitely fermented by some cousins and members of family. And these came to a head on this issue. Solomon Stoddard believed that people should be permitted to come to the Lord’s Table and to be communicants without professing saving faith in Christ. Jonathan Edwards had come to the conclusion that that was a dangerous liberty, that those who come to the Lord’s Table should be converted people and they should at least profess saving faith in Christ.
You know and Edwards knew it is not our business infallibly to tell who is a real Christian. That wasn’t the issue. But the issue was whether people should be allowed to come who make no profession of saving faith in Christ? Edwards disagreed with his grandfather. I tell you his grandfather had been minister there for over 60 years. He was a legend. And all the grandfather’s children and cousins and grandchildren were all around. The idea that Jonathan Edwards would contradict his grandfather’s practice was unthinkable. So a great fury arose in the congregation and now one of his cousins was a member of the congregation, Joseph Hawley, and he took a leading part in opposition.
It all came to a head, as some of you will be hearing this afternoon, in the summer of 1750 when Edwards was voted out of his congregation that he had served for 23 years. The majority of the male members, 230 of them, voted for his dismissal. Twenty three voted against his dismissal. The women, let it be said to their honor, were not voting members, but in all truth, it is doubtful if it would have made any real difference.
So at 46 years of age Edwards suddenly came to an end of his work. He said, writing to a friend, “I am now, as it were, thrown upon the whole wide ocean of the world and know not what will become of me and my numerous chargeable family.” No financial arrangements for him were made. For a year there was nothing fixed or definite. He had some engagements. Then after a year had passed he took up the work in the tiny village of Stockbridge on the edge of the wilderness, just over 40 miles from Northampton. The only church that had expressed interest in him and it had only 12 families in the membership.
One thing that drew Edwards to Stockbridge is the fact that Indian people were resident nearby and there was an Indian school had been started there. And so Edwards in 1751 settles with his family in Stockbridge.
There is a seriousness that comes with tasting eternal things.
Let’s hasten over these years. They are too much to go into any detail. He went there expecting a haven of peace, not quite sure why he did expect a haven of peace, because members of the Williams family were also in Stockbridge. I suppose they had been genial enough when he was called there, but very quickly the old prejudice and opposition came up and for three years there was another sad struggle. This time the congregation sided with Edwards and so did the Indian people who loved him. And in 1754 after three years the Williams gave up in Stockbridge and removed.
It wasn’t the end of difficulties. He had financial problems. The next year, 1755, the outbreak of war with France, the whole frontier became a danger point. Attacks from the Indians. The French, of course, used the Indians to fight the New England settlers. We have a description by one of Edwards’ daughters, Esther, who meanwhile had married Aaron Burr, the president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton (about 1752). She came to visit her parents in 1756. She describes what it was like on the frontier, a sense of danger, concern, describes how her father calmed her and helped her. It is a beautiful passage in her diary.
But then the next year — and this is why I mention Esther — the next year Esther’s husband Aaron Burr died, 1757. And to Edwards’ astonishment and pain, the trustees of the College of New Jersey called him to be president at Princeton.
Edwards wasn’t enthusiastic. He wrote to them and said, “We have scarcely got over the trouble and damage sustained by our removal form Northampton.” Council of friends were called to decide the issue. They decided he should go to Princeton. It is the only time we read of in Edwards’ life that he actually shed tears. But in January 1758, the middle of winter, College of New Jersey anxiously waiting for him, he left Stockbridge, leaving most of the family and Sarah behind.
His last sermon in Stockbridge, “Here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.” And one of his daughters says that as he went out of the house and stood on the road, he turned around and he said, “I commit you to God.”
Next month when he was in Princeton, February, there was small pox in the town and he took an inoculation against it. The inoculation went wrong and the result was that Edwards died on March 22nd, 1758. Just before he died at the age of 54 he said to one of his daughters who was with him, “It seems to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you. Therefore, give my kindest love to my dear wife. And as to my children you are now like to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you to seek a father that will never fail you.”
Sixteen days later his daughter Esther died. Sarah hastened down from Stockbridge to look after the two orphan children that Esther had and she died the same year, October 1758, to be buried beside her husband at Princeton.
Now a little about the man, just a little. What kind of man was he? Well, we have three sources of information. First from the friends who knew him, a word or two. George Whitefield said, “A solid, excellent Christian. I think I have not seen his like in New England.”
Another man who visited the home in Northampton said, “A sweeter couple I have not yet seen, most agreeable family was ever acquainted with.”
He was tall, like his sisters, took exercise, horse riding, wood chopping in winter. He was by temperament retiring, reserved. He enjoyed cheerful conversation, but he was, perhaps, a little slow to engage in such conversation with strangers. When he died one of his friends wrote, “Always steady, calm, serene. As he lived cheerfully, resigned to the will of heaven, so he died.”
And then there are Edwards’ writings, which give us a view of him, too. Not that he spoke about himself. I don’t think there is a sermon of Edwards in which he ever referred to himself. But he had a diary, kept early in life and you know his resolutions. For Jonathan Edwards friendship with God was the great purpose of redemption, more communion with God, more holiness of life.
If we were to ask, what particular grace did he most aspire after? I think there might be a case for arguing that it was the grace of joy. Certainly he held that communion with God is the highest kind of pleasure that can possibly be enjoyed by the creature.
In his early sermons at New York, you see a young man overflowing with spiritual happiness. When he was 19 in New York he says in a sermon that it is a tendency of godliness to maintain always a clear sunshine of joy and comfort in it. And that was his experience at that time.
But while he always regarded joy as a most important part of the Christian life, he came to see that it is not to be taken as an accurate measure of growth in grace, because God has other things to teach us. And 37 years after he wrote about a clear sunshine of joy always, he wrote this to his daughter Esther, “God will never fail those who trust in him. But don’t be surprised or think some strange thing has happened to you if after this — she had had some spiritual blessing — if after this clouds of darkness should return. Perpetual sunshine is not usual in this world, even to God’s true saints.”
So if joy wasn’t the preeminent grace for Edwards, what was the preeminent grace? And I think there is no doubt about it. It was the grace of love. “All creature holiness,” he says, “consists essentially in love to God and to other creatures.” Love was the growing theme and passion of his life.
One of the books that should be there is called Charity and its Fruits, Love and its Fruits, an exposition of 1 Corinthians 13. It takes you right to the heart of Jonathan Edwards.
Sure proof of regeneration is that saints love God for himself. But Edwards, speaking personally, spoke of a little spark of divine love. His great ambition was for more.
“A Tyrant, Stiff, and Obnoxious”
So here are two sources of information on Edwards, what his friends said about him, things that we can glean in his own writings. And then a third source that I will have to mention very briefly those who said he was a tyrant. “He was stiff.” “He was obnoxious.” “He was implacable.” I am quoting words that were written by people at the time. Morose, some people called him and so on. And there were those that said about this teaching he would not admit any person into heaven, but those that agreed fully with his sentiments. He belonged to a school that lived in gloomy caves of superstition.
Well, I can’t take time to deal with those, but, you know, the explanation for those remarks I don't think is in the 18th century. It is actually in the Bible. “There is,” Edwards says, “a great enmity in the heart of man against vital religion.” And while Edwards wasn’t without faults, certainly, the hostility to him then and since in some quarters, I don’t question, is bound up with the real issue that we are always fighting and that is supernaturalism against naturalism.
The world does not like the idea that we are sinners dependent on divine grace. And the truth is that Edwards, far from being a mere traditionalist — and this is what people omit to understand — actually he was on the side of the critics of his theology when he was a young man. He tells us, “From my childhood up my mind was wont to be full of objections against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in choosing whom he would to eternal life. It used to appear a horrible doctrine to me.”
And then he says in a way he couldn’t understand at the time, “there came a wonderful alteration in my mind with respect to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty.” He now says he had a delightful conviction of its truth. And it came by an extraordinary influence of God’s Spirit.
“For Edwards friendship with God was the great purpose of redemption”
And I must add that you shouldn’t interpret my remarks to mean that Edwards thought that all his critics and opponents were not Christians at all. He didn’t think like that. He was genuinely full of charity himself and, I think, part of the most moving section of his life is the way that he deals so tenderly, not simply with the congregation at Northampton, but with relatives and others who were decidedly unfriendly to him.
Now, legacies, the legacies, three legacies.
Legacy One: Conversion is a Real Thing
The first. Edwards left us an invaluable witness to the nature of true Christian experience. And this, I think, is a key to understanding his life. Why did God permit this good man to experience such disappointments, such difficulties, such setbacks? And I believe that God permitted those circumstances to lead his servant to write for the benefit of the Church in later ages. In other words, the problems that he faced were all connected with the nature of real religion. How do you distinguish it from false? And Edwards’ experience brought him into that situation where this became a focus of his attention.
The book Treatise Concerning Religious Affections is the book that deals with that so fully. And I try to tell you what he means by affections, quickly. Edwards says that we are made up of two parts, basically, our mind and our will. Our mind perceives things and understands things and our will is that part that inclines us or disinclines us. By our will we love or we hate. Or by our will we desire or we resist. And he says that when the will is in vigorous exercise that is what he refers to as affections, zeal, love and so on, our affections. And the great point of his book The Religious Affections is to say that you don’t tell a Christian simply by what they know. That is speculative knowledge, essential though that is, but how do their wills incline? What are their affections?
In other words, he deals with what is a real conversion. And this is the sort of thing he says:
“How do we tell a real conversion? Well, it is not whether or not the person has had conviction of sin or not. People can have conviction of sin and never be regenerate. It is not whether conversion is fast, speedy. Stony ground hearers receive the Word immediately. It is not whether when people profess to be converted they have physical phenomena, they tremble or weep. No, Felix trembled. It is none of these things. The real evidence of conversion is the presence of regeneration and regeneration is a change of nature, a new life.”
“There are many,” he says, “who think themselves born again that have never experienced any change of nature at all. They haven’t had one new principle added. They think themselves made renewed in the whole man and they have never had one finger renewed, if I may use that expression.”
They that are truly converted are new men, new creatures, new not only within, but without. They are sanctified throughout. Old things are passed away. They have new hearts and new eyes, new ears, new tongues, new hands, new feet. They walk in newness of life and they continue to do so to the end of life. And the essence of regeneration is the restoration of the life of God in the soul. And that means a regenerate person is a God-centered person. A regenerate person is a person who worships God, who lives for God, who admires God, who loves God. That this what regeneration does. And so his argument is, the affections show the reality of regeneration.
And there is one thing that goes with that. If a man, a woman has become God-centered, it is sure that increasingly they are going to be humble people. “A humble spirit,” he says, “leads Christians to look upon themselves as but little children in grace and their attainments to be but the attainments of babes in Christ. And are astonished and ashamed of their low degrees of love and thankfulness and their little knowledge of God.”
So Edwards left the Church this legacy, that conversion is a real thing and that Church members should be converted people. And he not only taught this, but, he suffered for it. He could have gone on living comfortably all his days at Northampton if he hadn't been faithful to the truth.
Professor of Princeton some years ago said, “Jonathan Edwards changed what I may call the center of thought in American theological thinking. No one but a man of genius could have made this change of emphasis so potent a fact in American church history. And what was the change? More than to any other man, to Edwards is due the importance which in American Christianity is attributed to the conscious experience of the penitent sinner as he passes into the membership of the invisible Church. The doctrine of conversion was brought back into the center.”
And if I can put my hand on it, I wanted to give you a little quotation. It is from last week’s newspaper in Northampton, Massachusetts, October 3rd. And sad to say it is by the minister of the Edwards church in Northampton. And he said, talking about commemorating Edwards, that this was the thing that disturbed him and worried him, “The tendency by Edwards’ followers to divide people into categories of saved and unsaved.” Can’t think in terms of categories of saved and unsaved. Well, that is the issue. And Edwards has passed down that legacy to us.
Legacy Two: A Framework to Understand History
Second legacy, briefly, is this. Edwards has given us a framework in which to understand history and the future. When Winston Churchill was dying some 50 years ago he said, “I am bewildered by the world, the confusion is terrible.” And that confusion today is even in our churches. You know, various schools of prophecy have arisen and then declined, passed away. And there are Christians today who really doubt whether God is in control of history.
I say Edwards gives us a framework. Now I am not arguing that all Edwards’ views on unfulfilled prophecy are to be followed. Personally I think he was mistaken in the way he handled the book of Revelation. He handled it as a sequence of history that we can find as though time charts and we find where we are in it.
But this is the big thing. As Edwards looked at the whole Word of God and the promises of God, he had this irresistible conviction that God had great and glorious things to do and he believed that because the Scriptures says that Jesus shall have dominion from sea to sea and from the river unto the ends of the earth. The Father says to the Son, “Ask of me and I will give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” And he read in Romans chapter 11, “Would not have you to be ignorant, brethren. Blindness in part has happened unto Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles shall come in.” You know the passages. Passages in Scripture that don’t lead us to wring our hands in despair, but to believe that God is leading forward his work and that the nations of the earth are going to be blessed.
Edwards says, “The veil now cast over the greater part of the world will be taken away and it may be hoped that many of the Negroes and Indians will be divines and excellent books will be published in Africa and in Ethiopia, in Turkey and in other now barbarous countries. Brighter days are going to come. And how are they going to come? Not by social and political work, not by education, not by scholarship, preeminently, but the outpouring of the Spirit of God and prayer.
What Edwards had seen of God’s power through the preaching of the Word, he believed the world would yet see in a more extensive way than they had ever seen.
Now I have to throw in something here, terrible to mess this up. When he stilled lived at Northampton on May 28th, 1747 a young man of 29 years of age arrived in the yard on his horse. He had come from four years missionary work amongst the Indians often living with little food, with no shelter. Only once in four years did any white person make a journey to visit him. Sometimes he travelled up to 4000 miles in a year amongst the Indian people.
For over two years he had met solid indifference until in August of 1745, two years earlier, at Cross Week’s Own in New Jersey there had been a remarkable movement of the Spirit of God among Indian people who he describes as previously worshipping devils and dumb idols. “The power of God seemed to descend,” he says, “upon them.” “And in a short time an Indian camp became,” he said, “an assembly of Christians where there is so much of the presence of God and of brotherly love.” His name, of course, was David Brainerd. Two years later he rode back to New England, his own parents were dead and he was dying of tuberculosis. He arrived at the parsonage in Northampton.
As perhaps you know, parsonages in those days acted as motels and as hospitals, all kinds of things. There was already one minister in the parsonage who was ill. Sarah gladly welcomes this young man David Brainerd. He lived just till the October of that year and died in Northampton.
“The affections show the reality of regeneration.”
This is a remarkable thing. When he came on his horse, he had next to nothing with him, but what he did have was amazingly important. He had his journals and his diary. And before he died he committed these to Jonathan Edwards. And as Edwards read them he was persuaded that here was material that the world had to read. And so in 1749, two years later, Edwards published the first full missionary biography ever published, The Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd and that book showed people that the gospel could go into any stronghold of Satan and by the anointing of the Holy Spirit stronghold would be cast down. It was read far and wide. William Carey read it. Henry Martyn read it. It was carried to India and to China and around the world.
There is a direct link between Edwards in this difficult time in Northampton and the beginning of the great missionary movement of the 1790s.
So I want to throw in the point that reading Edwards doesn’t make men academics or scholastics. To read Edwards is really to gain a missionary spirit, to gain an evangelistic burden. That is why this conference is being held in these days.
Now another thought quickly here. I mustn’t give you the impression that Edwards was taken up with unfulfilled prophecy. He did think it was important, but not the most important thing. He knew that whether he lived to see another revival or not, eternity was at hand. When he preached his last sermon as he was dismissed in Northampton it was on 2 Corinthians 1:14, “As you have acknowledged us in part that we are your rejoicing, even, indeed, also ours in the day of the Lord Jesus Christ.” That is what he preached about. He didn’t condemn them for dismissing him. He didn't criticize them. He pointed them to the day when we will be gathered at the footstool of Christ. Eternity is a great thing.
You know, if you take eternity out of Edwards’ life, you could read it as a story of little success, a lot of disappointment. It is said when he died most of the American papers only gave him one sentence. Many of his books weren’t read. He left a great church for a tiny church in a corner of New England. Was he a failure? No. Edwards says, “I acted against all influence of worldly interest, because I greatly feared to offend God.” In other words, he was living for eternity.
Legacy Three: A God-ward Vision
The last legacy, briefly, is this. It has already been spoken of and will be spoken of further. Edwards has left us a call to cease from looking to men and to look to God. If you ask Jonathan Edwards, what is the greatest danger for the evangelical church? He would say it is the danger of pride. It was pride that brought the Northampton church down. It was pride that led the 18th century to think that they had reached what they called the Enlightenment. Pride is the greatest of all temptations. And the most subtle. Scholarship is good. Orthodoxy is good. Large congregations are good. But, you know, pride can ruin all of these things.
Ministers can idolize congregations. Congregations can idolize ministers. Pride in any form destroys, mars the work of God. Scripture says cease from man. Our Lord said, “Beware of man.” The Bible says, “What is man?” And the answer it gives is this. I give it to you in Edwards’ words. He says, “Man is a leaf, a leaf driven by the wind, poor dust, a shadow, a nothing. And of himself he says he was an empty helpless creature of small account and needing God’s help in everything.”
So there is one text above all others that summarizes Edwards’ life. Whatsoever ye do, whether ye eat or drink or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. Everything that God gives us, all that we are, all that we ever can be, all grace, all redemption, all revival is all given that we might be humbled and that God would be all in all.
And so, my friends, whatever you and I or our churches face in the future, whether brighter days or it may be harder days, there is one thing absolutely certain and that is God has to be glorified. And we have to say, “Not unto us, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory.” And the more we do that, the closer we will come to that great multitude in heaven who we read say, “Blessing and honor and glory and power, thanksgiving and might be unto him that sitteth on the throne and unto the Lamb forever and ever.” Amen.
Shall we pray?
Our gracious God and our heavenly Father, we thank thee that we can draw near in the name of thy Son that by his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray. Thou hast laid upon him the iniquity of us all. Lord, help us today to seek thee. May we not in all the business of these hours we are enjoying together may we not fail first to seek thee and to honor thee. And help us, oh God, that we may so know thee that we will see how utterly needy and poor we are. Help us to grow in grace. Help us to love thee. Continue with us, we pray, today in all our meetings and conversations together. We thank thee for this conference. We thank thee for those into hearts thou didst put this vision. We pray, Lord, that great good would be done in our individual lives, in our churches in thy kingdom far and wide. We ask for the pardon of our sins, giving thanks to thee for all things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
More Messages from Desiring God 2003 National Conference
Sarah Edwards: Jonathan’s Home and Haven (Noël Piper)
The Glory of God and the Reviving of Religion (J.I. Packer)