Jonathan Edwards on the True Excellency of the Gospel Minister

A lot has changed since 1743 — but not everything.

The "true excellency of a minister of the gospel" is the same today as it was back when Jonathan Edwards preached an ordination sermon by the same title for a young Presbyterian pastor in Pelham, Massachuesetts.

Though in our own day we're surrounded by an abundance of resources and leadership tips, we'd do well to hear Edwards as relevant now as he would have been if we were sitting under his counsel 269 years ago.

Below is an outline of his sermon, "The True Excellency of a Minister of the Gospel."

Sermon Text — John 5:35

"He was a burning and a shining light; and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light." (KJV)

There are two initial observations:

  1. Jesus declares what he has taken notice of in John ( cf. John 3:29–30; Luke 1:17)
  2. The purpose for why Jesus does this is to show how great and excellent a person John was and therefore why he was worthy to have his testimony received by the Jewish hearers.

The method of the sermon is described by Edwards in seven steps that I've organized within his two categories of explanation and application.


I. Christ has designed the appointment of the order and office of ministers of the gospel that they may be lights to the souls of men.

Edwards writes,

But God in infinite mercy has made glorious provision for the restoration of light to this fallen dark world; he has sent him, who is the brightness of his own glory, into the world, to be the light of the world. "He is the true light, that ligheth every man that cometh into the world" [John 1:9], i.e. every man in the world that ever has any true light. But in his wisdom and mercy, he is pleased to convey his light to men by means and instruments; and had sent forth his messengers, and appointed ministers in his church to be subordinate lights, and to shine with the communications of his light, and to reflect the beams of his glory on the souls of men. (88ff)

II. A "burning light" implies two things.

  1. his heart be filled with much of the holy ardor of a spirit of true piety
  2. he be fervent and zealous in his administrations

III. A "shining light" implies three things.

  1. he be pure, clear and full in his doctrine
  2. he be discrete in all his administrations
  3. he be holy in his manner of life (examples to the flock)

IV. To be both a burning and shining light is manifest two ways.

  1. His ministry is acceptable and amiable in the sight of God and men.
  2. He will be likely to answer the ends of his ministry: by this means his ministry will not only be amiable, but profitable.

Edwards on the need for light and heat,

If a minister has light without heat, and entertains his auditory with learned discourses, without a savor of the power of godliness, or any appearance of fervency of spirit, and zeal for God and the good of souls, he may gratify itching ears, and fill the heads of his people with empty notions; but will not be very likely to reach their hearts, or save their souls. And if, on the other hand, he be driven on with a fierce and intemperate zeal, and vehement heat, without light, he will be likely to kindle the like unhallowed flame in his people, and to fire their corrupt passions and affections; but will make them never the better, nor lead them a step towards heaven, but drive them apace the other way. (96)


V. How much it concerns gospel ministers to be burning and shining lights.


And hereby our ministry will be likely to be as beneficial as our office is honorable: we shall be like Christ, and shall shine with his beams; Christ will live in us, and be seen in his life and beauty in our ministry, and in our conversation, and we shall be most likely to be the means of bringing others to him, and of their receiving of his light, and being made partakers of his life, and having his joy fulfilled in them. (98)

VI. How gospel ministers go about becoming burning and shining lights.

  1. be diligent in study
  2. be diligent in the work of ministry to which you are called
  3. be very conversant with the Holy Scriptures (i.e., know the Word). He explains, "Ministers, in order to their being burning and shining lights, should walk closely with God, and keep near to Christ; that they may ever be enlightened and enkindled by him" (100).

VII. What local congregations can do for their pastor

  1. pray for him
  2. be grateful