A God-Entranced Vision of All Things: Why We Need Jonathan Edwards 300 Years Later

Desiring God 2003 National Conference | Minneapolis

One of the reasons that the world and the church need Jonathan Edwards three hundred years after his birth is that his God-entranced vision of all things is so rare and yet so necessary. Mark Noll wrote about how rare it is:

Edwards’ piety continued on in the revivalist tradition, his theology continued on in academic Calvinism, but there were no successors to his God-entranced world view . . . The disappearance of Edwards’s perspective in American Christian history has been a tragedy. (Noll, “Jonathan Edwards, Moral Philosophy, and the Secularization of American Christian Thought,” Reformed Journal [February 1983], 26)

Evangelicalism today in America is basking in the sunlight of ominously hollow success. Evangelical industries of television and radio and publishing and music recordings, as well as hundreds of growing megachurches and some public figures and political movements, give outward impressions of vitality and strength. But David Wells and Os Guinness and others have warned of the hollowing out of evangelicalism from within.

The strong timber of the tree of evangelicalism has historically been the great doctrines of the Bible-

  • God’s glorious perfections,
  • man’s fallen nature,
  • the wonders of redemptive history,
  • the magnificent work of redemption in Christ,
  • the saving and sanctifying work of grace in the soul,
  • the great mission of the church in conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil,
  • the greatness of our hope of everlasting joy at God’s right hand.

These unspeakably magnificent things once defined us and were the strong timber and root supporting the fragile leaves and fruit of our religious affections and moral actions. But this is not the case for many churches and denominations and ministries and movements in Evangelicalism today. And that is why the waving leaves of present Evangelical success and the sweet fruit of prosperity are not as promising as we may think. There is a hollowness to this triumph, and the tree is weak even while the leafy branches are waving in the sun.

What is missing is the mind-shaping knowledge and the all-transforming enjoyment of the weight of the glory of God. The glory of God — holy, righteous, all-sovereign, all-wise, all-good-is missing. God rests lightly on the church in America. He is not felt as a weighty concern. David Wells puts it starkly, “It is this God, majestic and holy in his being, this God whose love knows no bounds because his holiness knows no limits, who has disappeared from the modern evangelical world” (No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?, 300). It is an overstatement. But not without warrant.

What Edwards saw in God and in the universe because of God, through the lens of Scripture, was breathtaking. To read him, after you catch your breath, is to breathe the uncommon air of the Himalayas of revelation. And the refreshment that you get from this high, clear, God-entranced air does not take out of the valleys of suffering in this world, but fits you to spend your life there for the sake of love with invincible and worshipful joy.

In 1735 Edwards preached a sermon on Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” From the text he developed the following doctrine:

Hence, the bare consideration that God is God, may well be sufficient to still all objections and opposition against the divine sovereign dispensations. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, 107)

When Jonathan Edwards became still and contemplated the great truth that God is God, he saw a majestic Being whose sheer, absolute, uncaused, ever-being existence implied infinite power, infinite knowledge, and infinite holiness. And so he goes on to argue like this:

It is most evident by the Works of God, that his understanding and power are infinite. . . . Being thus infinite in understanding and power, he must also be perfectly holy; for unholiness always argues some defect, some blindness. Where there is no darkness or delusion, there can be no unholiness. . . . God being infinite in power and knowledge, he must be self-sufficient and all-sufficient; therefore it is impossible that he should be under any temptation to do any thing amiss; for he can have no end in doing it . . . So God is essentially holy, and nothing is more impossible than that God should do amiss. (Ibid., 107–8)

When Jonathan Edwards became still and knew that God is God, the vision before his eyes was of an absolutely sovereign God, self-sufficient in himself and all-sufficient for his creatures, infinite in holiness, and therefore perfectly glorious — that is, infinitely beautiful in all his perfections. God’s actions therefore are never motivated by the need to meet his deficiencies (since he has none), but are always motivated by the passion to display his glorious sufficiency (which is infinite). He does everything that he does — absolutely everything — for the sake of displaying his glory.

Our duty and privilege, therefore, is to conform to this divine purpose in creation and history and redemption — namely, to reflect the value of God’s glory — to think and feel and do whatever we must to make much of God. Our reason for being, our calling, our joy is to render visible the glory of God. Edwards writes:

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 . . . . The refulgence shines upon and into the creature, and is reflected back to the luminary. The beams of glory come from God, and are something of God and are refunded back again to their original. So that the whole is of God, and in God, and to God, and God is the beginning, middle and end in this affair.

This is the essence of Edwards’s God-entranced vision of all things! God is the beginning, the middle, and the end of all things. Nothing exists without his creating it. Nothing stays in being without his sustaining word. Everything has its reason for existing from him. Therefore nothing can be understood apart from him, and all understandings of all things that leave him out are superficial understandings, since they leave out the most important reality in the universe. We can scarcely begin to feel today how God-ignoring we have become, because it is the very air we breathe.

This is why I say that Edwards’s God-entranced vision of all things is not only rare but also necessary. If we do not share this vision, we will not consciously join God in the purpose for which he created the universe. And if we do not join God in advancing his aim for the universe, then we waste our lives and oppose our Creator.

How to Recover Edwards’s God-Entranced Vision of All Things

How then shall we recover this God-entranced vision of all things? Virtually every speaker at this conference will contribute to that answer. So I will not try to be sweeping or comprehensive. I will focus on what for me has been the most powerful and most transforming biblical truth that I have learned from Edwards. I think that if the church would grasp and experience this truth, she would awaken to Edwards’s God-entranced vision of all things.

No one in church history that I know, with the possible exception of St. Augustine, has shown more clearly and shockingly the infinite — I use the word carefully — importance of joy in the very essence of what it means for God to be God and what it means for us to be God-glorifying. Joy always seemed to me peripheral until I read Jonathan Edwards. He simply transformed my universe by putting joy at the center of what it means for God to be God and what it means for us to be God-glorifying. We will become a God-entranced people if we see joy the way Edwards saw joy.

Joy Is at the Heart of What It Means for God to Be God-Glorifying

Listen as he weaves together God’s joy in being God and our joy in his being God:

Because [God] infinitely values his own glory, consisting in the knowledge of himself, love to himself . . . joy in himself; he therefore valued the image, communication or participation of these, in the creature. And it is because he values himself, that he delights in the knowledge, and love, and joy of the creature; as being himself the object of this knowledge, love and complacence...[Thus] God’s respect to the creature’s good, and his respect to himself, is not a divided respect; but both are united in one, as the happiness of the creature aimed at, is happiness in union with himself. (Ibid., emphasis added)

In other words, for God to be the holy and righteousness God that he is, he must delight infinitely in what is infinitely delightful. He must enjoy with unbounded joy what is most boundlessly enjoyable; he must take infinite pleasure in what is infinitely pleasant; he must love with infinite intensity what is infinitely lovely; he must be infinitely satisfied with what is infinitely satisfying. If he were not, he would be fraudulent. Claiming to be wise, he would be a fool, exchanging the glory of God for images. God’s joy in God is part of what it means for God to be God.

Press a little further in with me. Edwards makes this plain as he sums up his spectacular vision of the inner life of the Trinity — that is, the inner life of what it is for God to be one God in three Persons:

The Father is the deity subsisting in the prime, unoriginated and most absolute manner, or the deity in its direct existence. The Son is the deity [eternally] generated by God’s understanding, or having an idea of Himself and subsisting in that idea. The Holy Ghost is the deity subsisting in act, or the divine essence flowing out and breathed forth in God’s infinite love to and delight in Himself. And . . . the whole Divine essence does truly and distinctly subsist both in the Divine idea and Divine love, and that each of them are properly distinct persons. (“Essay on the Trinity”)

You cannot elevate joy higher in the universe than this. Nothing greater can be said about joy than to say that one of the Persons of the Godhead subsists in the act of God’s delight in God — that ultimate and infinite joy is the Person of the Holy Spirit. When we speak of the place of joy in our lives and in the life of God, we are not playing games. We are not dealing with peripherals. We are dealing with infinitely important reality.

Joy Is at the Heart of What It Means for Us to Be God-Glorifying

So joy is at the heart of what it means for God to be God. And now let us see how it is at the heart of what it means for us to be God-glorifying. This follows directly from the nature of the Trinity. God is Father knowing himself in his divine Son, and God is Father delighting in himself by his divine Spirit. Now Edwards makes the connection with how God’s joy in being God is at the heart of how we glorify God. What I am about to read has been for me the most influential paragraph in all the writings of Edwards:

God is glorified within himself these two ways: (1) By appearing . . . to himself in his own perfect idea [of himself], or in his Son, who is the brightness of his glory. (2) By enjoying and delighting in himself, by flowing forth in infinite . . . delight towards himself, or in his Holy Spirit. . . . God glorifies himself towards the creatures also [in] two ways: (1) by appearing to them, being manifested to their understanding; (2) in communicating himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing and delighting in, and enjoying the manifestations which he makes of himself. . . . God is glorified not only by his glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. . . . [W]hen those that see it delight in it: God is more glorified than if they only see it; his glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart. God made the world that he might communicate, and the creature receive, his glory; and that it might [be] received both by the mind and heart. He that testifies his idea of God’s glory [doesn’t] glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it. (The “Miscellanies”)

The implications of this paragraph for all of life are immeasurable. One of those implications is that the end and goal of creation hangs on knowing God with our minds and enjoying God with our hearts. The very purpose of the universe — reflecting and displaying the glory of God — hangs not only on true knowledge of God, but also on authentic joy in God. “God is glorified,” Edwards says, “not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in.”

Here is the great discovery that changes everything. God is glorified by our being satisfied in him. The chief end of man is not merely to glorify God and enjoy him forever, but to glorify God by enjoying him forever. The great divide that I thought existed between God’s passion for his glory and my passion for joy turned out to be no divide at all, if my passion for joy is passion for joy in God. God’s passion for the glory of God, and my passion for joy in God are one.

What follows from this, I have found, shocks most Christians, namely, that we should be blood-earnest-deadly serious-about being happy in God. We should pursue our joy with a passion and a vehemence that, if it must, would cut off our hand or gouge out our eye to have it. God being glorified in us hangs on our being satisfied in him. Which makes our being satisfied in him infinitely important. It becomes the animating vocation of our lives. We tremble at the horror of not rejoicing in God. We quake at the fearful lukewarmness of our hearts. We waken to the truth that it is a treacherous sin not to pursue that satisfaction in God with all our hearts. There is one final word for finding delight in the creation more than in the Creator: treason.

Edwards put it like this: “I do not suppose it can be said of any, that their love to their own happiness . . . can be in too high a degree” (Charity and Its Fruits). Of course, a passion for happiness can be misdirected to wrong objects, but it cannot be too strong. Edwards argued for this in a sermon that he preached on Song of Solomon 5:1, which says, “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love!” He drew out the following doctrine: “Persons need not and ought not to set any bounds to their spiritual and gracious appetites.” Rather, he says, they ought

to be endeavoring by all possible ways to inflame their desires and to obtain more spiritual pleasures. . . . Our hungerings and thirstings after God and Jesus Christ and after holiness can’t be too great for the value of these things, for they are things of infinite value. . . . [Therefore] endeavor to promote spiritual appetites by laying yourself in the way of allurement. . . . There is no such thing as excess in our taking of this spiritual food. There is no such virtue as temperance in spiritual feasting. (“The Spiritual Blessings of the Gospel Represented by a Feast”)

This led Edwards to say of his own preaching and the great goals of his own ministry:

I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with. (“The Spiritual Blessings of the Gospel Represented by a Feast”)

White-hot affections for God set on fire by clear, compelling, biblical truth was Edwards’s goal in preaching and life, because it is the goal of God in the universe. This is the heart of Edwards’s God-entranced vision of all things.

Perhaps the best way to unfold the implications of this vision is to let Edwards answer several objections that are raised.

Objection #1: Doesn’t this make me too central in salvation? Doesn’t it put me at the bottom of my joy and make me the focus of the universe?

Edwards answers with a very penetrating distinction between the joy of the hypocrite and the joy of the true Christian. It is a devastating distinction for modern Christians because it exposes the error of defining God’s love as making much of us.

This is . . .the difference between the joy of the hypocrite, and the joy of the true saint. The [hypocrite] rejoices in himself; self is the first foundation of his joy: the [true saint] rejoices in God. . . . True saints have their minds, in the first place, inexpressibly pleased and delighted with the sweet ideas of the glorious and amiable nature of the things of God. And this is the spring of all their delights, and the cream of all their pleasures. . . But the dependence of the affections of hypocrites is in a contrary order: they first rejoice. . . that they are made so much of by God; and then on that ground, he seems in a sort, lovely to them. (The Religious Affections, emphasis added)

The answer is “no”: Edwards’s call for a God-enthralled heart does not make the enthralled one central. It makes God central. Indeed it exposes every joy as idolatrous that is not, ultimately, joy in God. As St. Augustine prayed, “He loves thee too little who loves anything together with Thee, which he loves not for thy sake” (Ibid., emphasis added).

Objection #2: Won’t this emphasis on pleasure play into the central corruption of our age, the unbounded pursuit of personal ease and comfort and pleasure? Won’t this emphasis soften our resistance to sin?

There are many Christians who think stoicism is a good antidote to sensuality. It isn’t. It is hopelessly weak and ineffective. And the reason it fails is that the power of sin comes from its promise of pleasure and is meant to be defeated by the superior promise of pleasure in God, not by the power of the human will. Willpower religion, when it succeeds, gets glory for the will. It produces legalists, not lovers. Edwards saw the powerlessness of this approach and said:

We come with double forces against the wicked, to persuade them to a godly life. . . The common argument is the profitableness of religion, but alas, the wicked man is not in pursuit of profit; ‘tis pleasure he seeks. Now, then, we will fight with them with their own weapons. (“The Pleasantness of Religion”)

In other words, Edwards says, the pursuit of pleasure in God is not only not a compromise with the sensual world, but is the only power that can defeat the lusts of the age while producing lovers of God, not legalists who boast in their willpower. If you love holiness, if you weep over the moral collapse of our culture, I pray you will get to know Edwards’s God-enthralled vision of all things.

Objection #3: Surely repentance is a painful thing and will be undermined by this stress on seeking our pleasure. Surely revival begins with repentance, but you seem to make the awakening of delight the beginning.

The answer to this objection is that no one can feel brokenhearted for not treasuring God until he tastes the pleasure of having God as a treasure. In order to bring people to the sorrow of repentance, you must first bring them to see God as their delight. Here it is in the very words of Edwards:

Though [repentance] be a deep sorrow for sin that God requires as necessary to salvation, yet the very nature of it necessarily implies delight. Repentance of sin is a sorrow arising from the sight of God’s excellency and mercy, but the apprehension of excellency or mercy must necessarily and unavoidably beget pleasure in the mind of the beholder. ‘Tis impossible that anyone should see anything that appears to him excellent and not behold it with pleasure, and it’s impossible to be affected with the mercy and love of God, and his willingness to be merciful to us and love us, and not be affected with pleasure at the thoughts of [it]; but this is the very affection that begets true repentance. How much sovever of a paradox it may seem, it is true that repentance is a sweet sorrow, so that the more of this sorrow, the more pleasure. (Ibid.)

This is astonishing and true. And if you have lived long with Christ and are aware of your indwelling sin, you will have found it to be so. Yes, there is repentance. Yes, there are tears of remorse and brokenheartedness. But they flow from a new taste of the soul for the pleasures at God’s right hand that up till now have been scorned.

Objection #4: Surely elevating the pursuit of joy to supreme importance will overturn the teaching of Jesus about self-denial. How can you affirm a passion for pleasure as the driving force of the Christian life and at the same time embrace self-denial?

Edwards turns this objection right on its head and argues that self-denial not only does not contradict the quest for joy, but in fact, destroys the root of sorrow. Here is the way he says it:

Self-denial will also be reckoned amongst the troubles of the godly . . . But whoever has tried self-denial can give in his testimony that they never experience greater pleasure and joys than after great acts of self-denial. Self-denial destroys the very root and foundation of sorrow, and is nothing else but the lancing of a grievous and painful sore that effects a cure and brings abundance of health as a recompense for the pain of the operation. (Ibid.)

In other words, the whole approach of the Bible, Edwards would say, is to persuade us that denying ourselves the “fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25) puts us on the path of “pleasures forevermore” at God’s right hand (Psalm 16:11). There is no contradiction between the centrality of delight in God and the necessity of self-denial, since self-denial “destroys the root . . . of sorrow.”

Objection #5: Becoming a Christian adds more trouble to life and brings persecutions, reproaches, suffering, and even death. It is misleading, therefore, to say that the essence of being a Christian is joy. There are overwhelming sorrows.

This would be a compelling objection in a world like ours, so full of suffering, and so hostile to Christianity, if it were not for the sovereignty and goodness of God. Edwards is unwavering in his biblical belief that God designs all the afflictions of the godly for the increase of their everlasting joy.

He puts it in a typically striking way: “Religion [Christianity] brings no new troubles upon man but what have more of pleasure than of trouble” (Ibid.). In other words, the only troubles that God permits in the lives of his children are those that will bring more pleasure than trouble with them — when all things are considered.

He cites four passages of Scripture. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:11). “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2–3). “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41). “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (Hebrews 10:34).

In other words, Yes, becoming a Christian adds more trouble to life and brings persecutions, reproaches, suffering, and even death. Yes, there are overwhelming sorrows. But the pursuit of infinite pleasure in God, and the confidence that Christ has purchased it for us, does not contradict these sufferings, but carries them. By this joy and this hope we are able to suffer on the Calvary road of ministry and missions and love. “For the joy that was set before him” Jesus endured the cross (Hebrews 12:2).

He fixed his gaze on the completion of his joy. That gaze sustained the greatest act of love that ever was. The same gaze — the completion of our joy in God — will sustain us as well. The pursuit of that joy doesn’t contradict suffering, it carries it. The completion of Christ’s great, global mission will demand suffering. Therefore, if you love the nations, pursue this God-entranced vision of all things.

Objection #6: One objection that I will not answer now, but address Sunday morning in our worship together is this: Where is the cross of Jesus Christ in all of this? Where is regeneration by the Holy Spirit? Where is justification by faith alone?

That will be the note we end the conference on. Sometimes the more precious and important things you save for last. But tonight I end by answering one more objection.

Objection #7: Did not Edwards extol the virtue of “disinterested love” to God? How could love to God which is driven by the pursuit of pleasure in God be called “disinterested”?

It’s true Edwards used the term “disinterested love” in reference to God.

I must leave it to everyone to judge for himself . . . concerning mankind, how little there is of this disinterested love to God, this pure divine affection, in the world. (Original Sin)

There is no other love so much above the selfish principle as Christian love is; no love that is so free and disinterested, and in the exercise of which God is so loved for himself and his own sake. (Charity and Its Fruits)

But the key to understanding his meaning is found in that last quote. Disinterested love to God is loving God “for himself and his own sake.” In other words, Edwards used the term “disinterested love” to designate love which delights in God for his own greatness and beauty, and to distinguish it from love that delights only in God’s gifts. Disinterested love is not love without pleasure. It is love whose pleasure is in God himself.

In fact, Edwards would say there is no love to God that is not delight in God. And so if there is a disinterested love to God, there is disinterested delight in God. And in fact, that is exactly the way he thinks. For example, he says:

As it is with the love of the saints, so it is with their joy, and spiritual delight and pleasure: the first foundation of it, is not any consideration or conception of their interest in divine things; but it primarily consists in the sweet entertainment their minds have in the view . . . of the divine and holy beauty of these things, as they are in themselves. (Religious Affections)

The “interest” that he rules out does not include “sweet entertainment.” “Interest” means the benefits received other than delight in God himself. And “disinterested” love is the “sweet entertainment” or the joy of knowing God himself.

Objection #8: Doesn’t the elevation of joy to such a supreme position in God and in glorifying God lead away from the humility and brokenness that ought to mark the Christian? Doesn’t it have the flavor of triumphalism, the very thing that Edwards disapproved in the revival excesses of his day?

It could be taken that way. All truths can be distorted and misused. But if this happens, it will not be the fault of Jonathan Edwards. The God-enthralled vision of Jonathan Edwards does not make a person presumptuous, it makes him meek. Listen to these beautiful words about brokenhearted joy.

All gracious affections that are a sweet odor to Christ, and that fill the soul of a Christian with a heavenly sweetness and fragrancy, are brokenhearted affections. A truly Christian love, either to God or men, is a humble brokenhearted love. The desires of the saints, however earnest, are humble desires: their hope is a humble hope; and their joy, even when it is unspeakable, and full of glory, is a humble brokenhearted joy, and leaves the Christian more poor in spirit, and more like a little child, and more disposed to a universal lowliness of behavior. (Religious Affections)

The God-enthralled vision of Jonathan Edwards is rare and necessary, because its foundations are so massive and its fruit is so beautiful. May the Lord himself open our eyes to see it in these days together and be changed. And since we are great sinners and have a great Savior, Jesus Christ, may our watchword ever be, for the glory of God, “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).