What is the good that makes the gospel good news?
If the present, and especially the future, that the Christian gospel offers is undesirable, unimpressive, boring, bland, and unenjoyable, then how good is the good news? Is it only good in contrast with the active misery and punishments of hell? Or, does the good news positively reflect, and welcome us into, the very heart of the God who is Goodness himself?
At bottom, the good news that stands behind and beneath the Good News is what we might call “the God-centeredness of God.” Our Creator’s “supreme regard to himself” makes possible, solidifies, and guarantees his loving and gracious posture toward sinful creatures who are united to his Son by faith. And perhaps no other good news upholds the very foundation of good in the Good News itself like answering the question, What makes God happy?
Why Did God Create the World?
Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), remembered as “America’s Theologian,” authored books, essays, and sermons that have been read for generations, and freshly discovered in recent decades. But given its topic and its quality, Edward’s posthumously published Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World has yet to receive its due. As Stephen Holmes observes, and laments, “there is so little attention paid to this Dissertation in the secondary literature” (God of Grace and God of Glory, 45, note 45), and yet it addresses many of the same challenges we still face today.
Biographer George Marsden recognizes the dissertation as a “counterattack against some of the most prevalent assumptions of modern thought” (Edwards: A Life, 459). Edwards is “attempting to undermine the foundations of what had gone wrong in modern thought” (459) including its “fashionable scheme of divinity,” which still remain in the air we breathe.
In the final paragraph, Edwards mentions his concerns with “our modern free-thinkers who do not like the talk about satisfying justice with an infinite punishment” (God’s Passion for His Glory, 251). We still know the type. And with it typically comes a focus on the love or grace of God that is implicitly, if not explicitly, man-centered. In Edwards’s day, moral philosophers and writers — like Alexander Pope, whose Essay on Man was “the best-known popular expression” — were “increasingly speaking of the deity as a benevolent governor whose ultimate interest must be to maximize human happiness” (Marsden, 460). Edwards countered with the clear emphasis of the Christian Scriptures from beginning to end: the glory of God.
His response was not to reduce or minimize the love of God toward his people — including God’s grace and forgiveness and mercy and goodness — but to locate it properly in the full sweep of Scripture. And in doing so, we find that our God shows us a divine love and favor for his church that does not diminish but grows in the soil of God-centeredness — good news beneath the Good News, guarding the true gospel from the would-be poison of modern man-centeredness.
What Does Reason Teach?
The dissertation contains a brief introduction, to clarify terms, and only two chapters. Chapter 1 considers what human reason alone teaches; Chapter 2, God’s revelation in Scripture.
Reason alone, Edwards concedes, is not enough to make his case, but it can answer objections. Chapter 1 culminates with four objections and his responses — with the fourth being the one he will mention again at the end of the dissertation, and expound upon further in his companion work on The Nature of True Virtue.
What is this fourth objection? It is one that many still feel and voice today: that God’s supreme regard to himself takes away from (Edwards says “derogates”) his goodness and love toward his creatures. If God, goes the objection, “makes himself his end, and not the creatures, then what good he does, he does for himself, and not for them; for his sake, and not theirs.”
Here we are right at the heart of what Edwards means to make plain in this dissertation and in True Virtue: that God’s supreme regard to himself and his genuine love toward his creatures “are not properly set in opposition . . . these things, instead of appearing entirely distinct, are implied one in the other” (God’s Passion for His Glory, 176). Chapter 1 ends with Edwards acknowledging that revelation in Scripture, to which he now turns in Chapter 2, “is the surest guide” and yet “the voice of reason” can be valuable in showing “that what the word of God says of the matter is not unreasonable.”
What Does Scripture Teach?
In the second and longer chapter, Edwards turns to what Scripture teaches concerning God’s ultimate ends in creating the world. Note an important distinction here: that God has one supreme or chief end (singular) in creating the world does not mean that he does not have other ends (plural). Indeed, as Edwards will show from Scripture, God has multiple ultimate or last ends which he finds pleasing in themselves, including loving his people.
Edwards begins (Section 1) with the Alpha and Omega, first and last texts that show God making himself his own last end in creation. Section 2, then, takes a step back to lay out twelve positions for a right understanding of Scripture on this theme. Here he introduces key interpretive principles he will return to in dealing with particular texts in Section 3. For instance, God’s ultimate end in providence also would be an ultimate end in creation. So too would be God’s revealed end in the moral world (ethics), in his providential use of the world, in his main works of providence toward the moral world, in the goodness of moral agents, in what he commands of moral agents, in the goodness of the moral world, in what is sought by exemplary saints, in what is longed for in the hearts of saints in their best frames of mind, and what was sought by Christ. Section 3 then demonstrates that in these many ways God’s ultimate aim is his glory, or importantly, his name.
Section 4 turns to “places of Scripture that lead us to suppose that God created the world for his name, to make his perfections known; and that he made it for his praise.” Now Edwards expands the field of relevant texts to include not only God’s name but also his praise, as well as his perfections, greatness, and excellency which are spoken of like his glory.
Love as End and Means
Section 5 is the heart of the dissertation in addressing the modern question we still hear today: Does God’s supreme regard to himself undermine, and even ruin, his love toward his creatures? Edwards answers with texts of Scripture in which God’s goodness toward the creature (that is, his love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, salvation) is “one thing which God had in view as an ultimate end of the creation of the world.” The ten parts of Section 5 include, first and foremost, that God is pleased, in itself, to do his creatures good — which, he says, “is not merely subordinately agreeable, and esteemed valuable on account of its relation to a further end, as it is in executing justice in punishing the sins of men; but what God is inclined to on its own account and what he delights in simply and ultimately” (220–221). In other words, God genuinely loves his people. He is pleased in itself, not simply in service of his glory, to love them. He truly delights in his people “simply and ultimately.” And he loves them enough not to leave his love unrelated to his great “further end” but to love them both as end and means.
“Does God’s supreme regard to himself undermine, and even ruin, his love toward his creatures?”
So too (Part 2) God is pleased in the work of redemption itself as an ultimate end. Here Edwards visits the love of God, and love of Christ, texts we rehearse often in the modern world: John 3:16; 1 John 4:9–10; Ephesians 2:4; as well as Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 5:25; John 17:19. Edwards even presents Christ’s sacrificial work of “labors and extreme agonies” as satisfying in itself (Isaiah 53:10–11), “not merely as a means, but as what he rejoices and is satisfied in, most directly and properly” (223).
Third, forgiveness and salvation are for the sake of God’s goodness or mercy, meaning for his name. Fourth and fifth, Christ governs the moral universe and the whole creation for the good of his people. Sixth, God judges the wicked for the happiness of his people. Seventh, speaking again of the church (“them who are to be the eternal subjects of his goodness”) “the whole of creation, in all its parts is spoken of as THEIRS” (227). Eighth and ninth, all God’s works are good and merciful to his people, and have been preparing a kingdom and glory for them. Finally (Part 10), related to Christian ethics and the companion dissertation to come on true virtue, the good of men is an ultimate end of moral virtue.
That One Phrase
In Section 6, Edwards draws together the strands of what is meant in Scripture by the glory and name of God. To this point, he has been considering what Scripture speaks of as ultimate ends in creation; now he moves to ask what they are. First, glory of God can (1) refer to what is internal (excellency, dignity, worthiness; great possessions, or fullness of good), or (2) the (external) exhibition or communication of internal glory; or (3) the view or knowledge of God’s excellency (that is, in the sight of the beholder); or (4) signify or imply praise. “Name of God” often indicates his glory, sometimes his praise, and especially is used for the external manifestation of God’s goodness.
In the final Section (7), Edwards argues that the ultimate end of the creation of the world is one (not many), and that one end is best captured as the glory of God. “All that is ever spoken of in the Scripture as an ultimate end of God’s works, is included in that one phrase, the glory of God” — that is, the “true external expression of God’s internal glory and fullness.”
Given how many conceptual threads Edwards has drawn together (glory, name, praise, goodness, grace, mercy, love, Christ, church), we might ask why Scripture contains so many different expressions for one supreme and ultimate end. “It is confessed,” he writes, “that there is an obscurity which is unavoidable, through the imperfection of language to express things of so sublime a nature. And therefore the thing may possibly be better understood by using a variety of expressions” (242). Yet these do amount to “one thing, in a variety of views and relations” (243).
This one thing, to express it afresh yet again, is “God’s internal glory or fullness existing in its emanation.”
Good News: God Loves Himself
Why marshal such energy and focus, 250 years ago or today, to argue something so obvious to most faithful readers of Scripture? Surely, many would say with Holmes, “Scripture is constantly clear that God makes Himself His end” (50).
“Our God seeks our good in seeking his glory — and we seek his glory in seeking our full and final good in him.”
This issue is a watershed, not just then but now, and not just between the contrasting theological instincts of Arminians and Calvinists, but reveals how seriously we take the Scriptures — and how functional they are in our theology and lives. Edwards serves the church in his day, and ours, with his intellect, keen observations, insights, and logic, but most of all with his knowledge of the Scriptures and by compiling into one place, in such short space, the overwhelming testimony of God himself as to what makes him happy and why he does all that he does.
It is profoundly good news that the true God — the God who is and who loves his people — does have “supreme regard to himself” and that his own God-centeredness is not in opposition with his love and mercy, but the very foundation beneath and force behind it. Such a God, who really does make much of us through his goodness and grace, is also such a God who can be our supreme joy both now and forever.
And in an often-overlooked insight in Edwards’s dissertation — which he himself does not nearly make as much of as he could — our joy in such a God not only delights and satisfies our souls, but also glorifies him. In fact, as John Piper, captures it, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
Our God seeks our good in seeking his glory — and we seek his glory in seeking our full and final good in him.