The End for Which God Created the World

A Reader’s Guide to a Christian Classic

Article by

Professor Emeritus, University of Northwestern

Why would anyone exert the time and energy required to read Jonathan Edwards’s Concerning the End for Which God Created the World? This may be the most difficult and challenging text you will ever read. But after the Bible, it may be the most important piece of literature ever written. It really promises to change everything for you.

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) was a pastor, theologian, and philosopher in Colonial America. In 1755, he completed his dissertation after 35 years of development, which was then published posthumously in 1765. Looking back over the more than forty years since I first read it, I can say that this short book has profoundly and permanently affected me for good. As a result of reading End of Creation, I changed careers, earned a PhD, and took up teaching Edwards as a profession. You might wonder why this book upended my life (in the best sense possible). Because the God who Edwards showed me is breathtaking.

So, I believe the wisdom of Proverbs 2 applies to Edwards. When you read End of Creation, study it, “making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding [because] if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2:2–5). With a pencil in your hand and prayers in your heart, pay close attention to what Edwards says. The work is worth it when you see the God he saw. Finally, bear in mind that no one has ever fully comprehended End of Creation his first time through.

Two Aims of the Essay

What makes this work so difficult? Edwards penned End of Creation with three goals in mind. Edwards’s first goal was to know God experientially because he saw that kind of knowledge described and promised in the Bible. As a pastor, this concern drove him to understand, explain, promote, guide, and defend a view of authentic Christian experience as a work of God. He connects that experience to God’s ultimate end in creation, and shows how God is ultimately motivated by his own “supreme self-regard.”

What does Edwards mean by “supreme self-regard”? God loves God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength. Far from making God supremely selfish, this self-regard flows from God’s intra-Trinitarian love. The Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, through the Holy Spirit. The triune God of the Bible is eternally and fully satisfied, possessing in himself alone all existence, beauty, power, knowledge, truth, goodness, and happiness (not a lighthearted cheerfulness, but a deep fulfillment and complete well-being).

“The triune God of the Bible is eternally and fully satisfied.”

Grasping this truth makes a big difference in understanding Edwards’s first goal of showing that genuine Christian experience is a gracious and free work of God. God delights in his own fullness and shares that fullness with his people. That reality affects how we understand faith and fuels our motivation to seek to know God.

Edwards’s second goal was to undermine the influence of a destructive and contrary view of religious experience by refuting the views of God’s end and motivation it presupposed and promoted. Edwards demonstrates that God’s ultimate end in creation cannot be something God lacks, nor can it be more valuable to God than God’s initial state without creation. To state the issue succinctly: if God creates for an ultimate end, which by definition implies that the person acting does not now possess what he seeks, how can God be absolutely self-sufficient (needing nothing)? Edwards tackled this problem head-on, claiming in his finished work,

[I]t has been particularly shewn already, that God’s making himself his end, in the manner that has been spoken of, argues no dependence; but is consistent with absolute independence and self-sufficience. (God’s Passion for His Glory, 180)

If you can keep these goals in mind, the exercise required to grasp Edwards’s tight reasoning becomes significantly easier.

Why Not Begin with Scripture?

Edwards’s dissertation comprises an introduction and two chapters. In chapter 1, Edwards considers “what Reason teaches” using deductive arguments that build on the assumptions and concepts developed in the Introduction. To readers today, this may seem like a strange way to begin a book. However, the expression “what Reason teaches” signifies a mindset and a way of discovering truth and settling disputes that had swept through Europe and America by mid-eighteenth century.

Beginning around 1594 and ending in 1734, a process occurred that altered the entire background against which Christian theologians, pastors, and philosophers debated about what to believe and how to live. The struggle during this process was over what would serve as the final arbiter or authority in matters of faith. Would it be tradition and authority, personal inspiration, Scripture, or reason?

“The heart of God’s purpose in creation lies in the heart of God himself as Trinity.”

It’s safe to say that by the mid-eighteenth century, reason had become the dictator of truth. It’s crucial to appreciate how thorough and widespread this reliance of reason was in the mid-eighteenth century. Reason was the battleground where the wars were being waged, and so, to achieve his goals, Edwards adopted two parallel — and complementary — ways of arguing: (1) from what reason teaches and (2) from what Scripture teaches.

Edwards continues in chapter 2 with an exposition of relevant Scripture because he believed that God’s word is “the surest guide” on these matters. And while both methods converge on the same answers regarding the end for which God created the world, the method of Scripture followed in chapter 2 yields more truth — truth inaccessible to reason alone. Thus, while he begins his argument in the rationalist discourse of the age, Edwards culminates his argument with Scripture, demonstrating his unwavering commitment to the rule of faith. Edwards believed what he wrote about reason’s “dictates,” but he insists that what reason dictates on the matter is at best incomplete.

Why Would God Create Anything?

A fair interpretation of Edwards, therefore, requires us to trace the steps in his argument according to reason and understand the harmony between God’s self-sufficiency and his acting for ends. However, since we can’t trace the full argument here, I’ll just whet your appetite with where Edwards ends. We might summarize his argument like this:

God’s “original ultimate end” in creating and sustaining the world is God’s Holy Spirit indwelling the redeemed, thereby enabling and empowering their experience of God’s own knowledge, love, and joy, so that their words, deeds, and emotions redound to the praise of his glory.

In short, Edwards argues that God created to share his Trinitarian fullness with creatures.

Edwards insists, “That which God had primarily in view in creating” — namely, God’s ultimate end — “must be constantly kept in view, and have a governing influence in all God’s works, or with respect to everything he does towards his creatures” (God’s Passion, 134). If, as Edwards claims, God’s end in creation determines all of his works toward his creatures, then this dissertation is among his most important works (if not the most important). In End of Creation, we not only have the proverbial “Big Picture”; we have the biggest picture. It applies to everything.

The heart of God’s purpose in creation lies in the heart of God himself as Trinity. As the apostle John reveals, the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father (John 17:23–26). This love that characterizes the Trinity is what God “communicates” to the redeemed in sending them the promised Holy Spirit. Edwards delights in the fact that God’s inclination to create and sustain the world derives from the pleasure God takes in his “internal glory” — that is, God’s self-knowledge, holiness, and happiness — eternally increasing in “a society of created beings” (149). Thus, “God in seeking his glory, therein seeks the good of his creatures,” and “God in seeking their glory and happiness, seeks himself” (176).

Rewards of Climbing the Mountain

Over decades of teaching, I have had the privilege of walking through End of Creation with hundreds of students. We worked our way line by line through this most difficult work of philosophical and biblical theology.

After that arduous journey, some students have reported that now they grasp just how safe they are in Christ. “He is faithful, not for anything I do, but because of God’s faithfulness to himself.” Some have found a liberating sense of personal value. “I see now that I am a product of God’s creational, providential, and redeeming action. My identity is a reflection of the attributes of God that are involved in God’s works. I really honor him and accentuate his role by taking refuge in him to be for us as he promises to be in his names.”

Others have gained a new appreciation for nature, seeing that all of it reflects who God is, like a divine performance. As works of performance art, each instance of God’s works of creation, providence, and redemption is valuable and valued by God solely in virtue of the value of God’s attributes that are jointly responsible for their coming to be. They often report how this heightened awareness has brought them to reframe all of life’s ambitions and questions in terms of God’s purposes for them. Not every student is affected in these ways. Some students are provoked (even shocked) into fully grasping the present-tense reality that God is acting. Some love the fact; others, as we would expect, reject the idea altogether.

Yet, even with the occasional outliers, I’ve seen the positive effects over and over again. Through studying Edwards by the illuminating grace of the Holy Spirit, most thoughtful readers come to a new and deeper sense of God’s greatness and gladly join the eternal choir singing, “Worthy is the Lamb” (Revelation 5:12).

The Way of Allurement

Finally, reading Edwards is an exercise in opposites. On the one hand, every time I read End of Creation, I feel a new anticipation for fresh vistas onto the greatness and love of God. On the other hand, his writing style and rational arguments can feel like wading through wet concrete. At times, his language begins to sound as if he is saying the same thing over and over again. To follow each step in the path of his thought is relentlessly demanding. And yet, like no other book (besides the Bible), all the hard work is worth it when the God whom Edwards loved gives you a glimpse of the God whom Edwards saw.

Elsewhere Edwards charges us, “Endeavor to promote spiritual appetites by laying yourself in the way of allurement. We are to avoid being in the way of temptation with respect to our carnal appetites. But we ought to take all opportunities to lay ourselves in the way of enticement with respect to our gracious inclinations” (Sermon on Canticles 5:1).

Working your way carefully through Concerning the End for Which God Created the World is certainly one way of laying ourselves in the way of allurement.