For me, Jonathan Edwards is the most important shaper of my life and theology of any other human being outside the Bible, with the possible exception of my father. I say possible exception of my father because I don’t think we remember most of the shaping that our parents do, so it’s hard for us to assess the depth and degree to which our parents shape us. But if I leave my father out of the count, Edwards is the most important shaper of my thinking and my enjoyment of God. So the debt that I am paying in these days of his 300th birthday is a deep one.
Here’s the way I plan to approach it. I would like to tell you his story in a few minutes, just to walk you through his life for those of you who may not know who he is. Then, I’ll walk you through my life of encounter with him. So first I’ll speak about his life first, then my life with him, and then I’ll bring it to the point of the God-enthralled vision of reality that he had.
The Life of Jonathan Edwards
He was born in 1703 in Windsor, Connecticut, the only son of a pastor who had 10 daughters. It was a tall family and his father Timothy used to boast, or lament, that he had 60 feet of daughters. He taught Jonathan Latin when he was six and sent him off to Yale when he was 12. He graduated from Yale in 1720 and gave the valedictory address in Latin, and then he continued his studies two more years there. Then he took a pastorate in New York for a very short time in a Presbyterian church, and then he came back and was a tutor in Yale for several years.
In 1723, when Edwards was 20 years old, he met Sarah Pierrepont. On the front page of his Greek grammar, he wrote the only kind of love song that he was capable of writing, and here’s what he wrote. It’s inside the flap of his Greek testament of all places for a love song:
They say there is a young lady in New Haven who is loved of that Great Being who made and rules the world, and that there are certain seasons in which this Great Being in some way or other invisible comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight and that she hardly cares for anything except to meditate on him. She has a wonderful sweetness, calmness, and universal benevolence of mind, especially after this great God has manifested himself to her. She will sometimes go about from place to place singing sweetly and seems to be always full of joy and pleasure and no one knows for what. She loves to be alone, walking in the fields and groves and seems to have someone invisible always conversing with her.
She was 13 years old when he wrote that and he was 20, and the result was that they got married some years later.
Pastor, University President, and Victim of Small Pox
He became the pastor of Northampton, and after that he was fired 23 years later from his church. You see I’m collapsing this down into a very quick summary. The reason he was fired is a mixture of things. It was personal blunder as a pastor, which we won’t go into the details of, but I think he would probably acknowledge that. There was an insensitivity, a bad judgment call in some disciplinary things, and a theological difference that broke the camel’s back in his view of the Lord’s Supper. So he was dismissed after 23 years, which is especially meaningful to me since I have been at my church for 23 years. You never know what might happen.
In 1758, he died. But in between the death was an eight-year tenure as a missionary pastor in a small town called Stockbridge, where he was a pastor of a little church and cared for the Indians and catechized the boys. Then he went down to Princeton to be the president, and after he was there for two months, he got smallpox by taking a vaccination, however they did it in those days. It was very experimental and it backfired and he got the disease. His throat swelled and he couldn’t take fluids in order to kill the fever.
As he saw the end of his earthly pilgrimage coming near at age 54, he said this to Lucy, his daughter who was with him (Sarah was still back in Stockbridge packing to come down):
Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you, and therefore give my kindest love to my dear wife and tell her that the uncommon union which has so long subsisted between us has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual, and therefore, will continue forever. I hope she will be supported under so great a trial and submit cheerfully to the will of God. As to my children, you are now to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you to seek a Father who will never fail you.
He died and it was March 22nd, 1758. His wife was told by a letter from the physician, and on April 3rd she wrote to her eldest daughter, Esther, these amazing words. I close this little life part with them because not only are they very moving, but they are an embodiment of Jonathan Edwards’s theology. A theology of the sovereignty of God is a precious thing in times like this if your God is good. She wrote to her daughter:
What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. Oh that we may kiss the rod and lay our hands on our mouths. The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness that we had him so long. But my God lives and he has my heart. Oh, what a legacy my husband and your father has left us. We are all given to God, and there I am and love to be.
That’s absolutely true when she says, “Oh, what a legacy her husband left to us.” If you don’t know Edwards, not all of you will enjoy reading him, but some of you may find life there that is absolutely the deepest sweetest life that you can find because it so amazingly mediates Christ and the Scriptures and the cross.
Encountering a Great Vision of God
So let me back up now, or maybe go forward, and walk you through my encounter with Jonathan Edwards chronologically and let you just hear me encounter the books that I’ve read over the years winding up where I am today and what I love so deeply about the vision of God that this man had.
When I was in seminary, a very wise teacher, who’s gone to be with the Lord now, told me that it would be a smart thing to do if we all were to pick out one great mind and focus on him and master his thinking in theology, in the Bible — one great mind, like a Luther or a Calvin or an Augustine or an Edwards. He said to choose one great mind instead of always dabbling on the surface, just reading widely. The reason most people read widely is because they want to tell people the names of the books that they’ve read recently, and if you read deeply, and therefore not widely, you just don’t have much to talk about except reality and truth.
So the advice was to sink a shaft in the earth and you might strike oil, whereas just raking along the top all the time in many many places you’ll find leaves. I thought that was very good advice, and so I have undertaken to read Edwards ever since then, which was now 30-plus years ago.
Knowledge as the Fuel of Worship
I went to seminary not having a clue who Edwards was except for that sermon which Mark is going to preach. I’d never read it because it’s only printed in pieces in high school anthologies, and they’re generally the pieces that will turn as many people off as possible. Nobody in secular education likes Jonathan Edwards, except for his philosophical genius, which they have a hard time putting together with his radically biblical, God-centered theology.
So I came with a very prejudiced, jaundiced view of Edwards to seminary, and the first thing I read was in Jeffrey Bramley’s church history class, “The Essay on the Trinity”, which was an effort to conceptualize, as much as a human can with biblically informed thinking, how to conceive of a three in one. How is God three and how is God one?
I found it conceptually very helpful. I won’t go into the detail except to mention one methodological, practical thing that has to this day helped me tremendously in my walk with God and my worship of God. He was criticized in that book, or in response to that book, for trying too hard to understand the Trinity and removing mystery. His response to that was two things. First, he said the Bible reveals vastly more than we imagine about God as three in one, and we have scarcely begun to probe the depths of what is really there for us to understand by revelation.
Second, he said there is plenty of mystery left after he was done with his little efforts. In fact, he said that we will intensify our worship more if we press in and up as far as we can rather than stopping early and saying, “Isn’t it a mystery? Let us all bow down in worship.”
Now, the way that landed on me 30 years ago was very significant because there were people in my class in seminary who had a very anti-intellectualistic, anti-rational kind of attitude. They thought, “Stop questioning, probing, digging, and trying to understand, because worship comes from the great unknown and mysterious. If you could understand God, why would you want to worship him? He would be equal with you.”
Further Up and Further In
That never quite sat right with me. You can’t sing too many worship songs about what you don’t know about God. I mean, maybe you can write one or two. You can write one or two songs about how little you know of God and feel really little and worshipful, but you can’t write more than two or three.
Worship does not primarily flow from what we do not yet know. Worship primarily flows from what we have been able to see of the wonder. It just seems so strange to me that people would be pushing on ignorance for the sake of worship, saying, “Just don’t go there, don’t rise there, and don’t climb there because you get to the top, you won’t worship. You’ll stand on top of God.” I just thought, “There is no danger of that happening.”
In fact, I have a conception of eternity that is spending about 10,000 years climbing the Alps of God’s all-satisfying glory, discovering new things all the way, and at the last year of the 10,000, pulling myself up over the crest and looking, and there stretches 10,000 miles of another mountain range that disappears into the sky. And you spend another 10,000 years climbing and discovering new things about the glory and wonder of God, and you pull yourself up over 20,000 years into eternity and there’s another one. That will happen forever and ever and ever. You will never be bored in heaven. An infinite God revealing himself to a finite mind requires eternity.
It’s the knowledge of God, not the ignorance of God, that inspires God-exalting awe and worship. That’s what I got methodologically and personally from “The Essay Concerning The Trinity”.
The Sovereignty of God
The next book I read was Freedom of the Will. I found it totally compelling philosophically and in perfect harmony what was emerging in my mind as a biblical theology of freedom and the will and sovereignty of God. It is, if you don’t know the book, a classic defense of Calvinism, though he says this in the preface:
I should not take it at all amiss to be called a Calvinist for distinction’s sake, though I utterly disclaim a dependence on Calvin or believing the doctrines which I hold because he believed and taught them, and cannot justly be charged with believing in everything just as he taught.
So yes, it’s fair historically to call him a Calvinist, but he does not want to be typed and he shouldn’t be typed. He breaks a lot of molds.
Here’s the thesis of the book. This is from his own writing, page 87:
God’s moral government over mankind, his treating them as moral agents, making them the objects of his commands, counsels, calls, warnings, is not inconsistent with a determining disposal of all events of every kind throughout the universe in his providence, either by positive efficiency or permission.
That’s a long sentence to say this: the book is written to defend that God can beckon you to come with open arms authentically and be the one who ultimately and decisively decides whether you come. That’s what he wrote to defend. It seems absolutely paradoxical and contradictory to many people. If it does to you, and you’re of a philosophical ilk, then read the book. It is the hardest book probably to get through. It is very weighty. It’s probably the most compelling thing that’s been written on that, or the most rigorous thing.
I say that with some support because you mentioned David Wells coming shortly. David Wells, at a conference at our church, said that when somebody asked him what books have influenced him most, he says, “Jonathan Edwards on the will was the watershed event of my life.” So when he comes, you ask him to tell you about that event, and it may be for you as well. If you struggle with the sovereignty of God and the free will of man, then read that book.
He argues that the will is determined by motives and motives are not ultimately controllable by men, but are given. That’s the thesis. I think it’s biblical and I commend it to you. That’s all that I read in seminary of Jonathan Edwards, which is where I first began to read him.
The God-Centeredness of True Virtue
Here’s what happened next. Noël and I got in our ‘65 fastback Mustang and drove up the coast from Pasadena across the top of the United States down to Barnesville, Georgia, after I graduated from Fuller in June of 1971, and we had there several weeks before we were to get on the airplane to go to Germany and study for three years. So I sat on the swing in the carport, I guess you’d call it, under a huge hickory tree and read The Nature of True Virtue and was blown away by the God-centeredness of what virtue really is and really must be.
Her’e a little aside. I don’t remember too many sentences in the book. I just remember that when I was done, the frame of mind that I was in concerning virtue as a certain kind of moral beauty and symmetry in the universe that I wrote a poem called “Georgia Woods”. I was just sitting there and I was so overwhelmed by the sheer reality of the beauty of virtue that I looked on the woods in a different way. Noël’s mom’s place is a little knoll just totally surrounded by woods and a little clearing at the top, and that’s where I was reading this.
Perhaps the best way to say what I learned from The Nature of True Virtue is this: if you leave God out of your definition of what is virtuous — let’s say somebody says, “Now define for me virtue and what constitutes a virtuous act” — Edwards would say, “Though you define it so as to encompass the entirety of the universe in your goodwill, you are infinitely parochial.” That’s his phrase. Though you define the nature of true virtue such that it encompasses the entirety of the universe — all angels, all demons, all planets, all stars, all humanity, all time, minus God — you have become infinitely parochial.
I mean, when you read things like that, you just have to step back and catch your breath and say, “Is that serious?” Then the obviousness of it lands on you. I mean God, as a reality, simply one day said, “Let there be a universe,” and it happened. But God is absolute reality. The universe is totally contingent upon his moment by moment holding it in being by his thought. It’s sort of a shadow. It’s a little thing that he just decided to do one day. We’re impressed with it. It’s very big, billions of light years across, and if your concept of virtue can embrace all of that with goodwill and not God, you are infinitely parochial. Everything minus God is tiny and distorted and false. Everything minus God is false. That’s what I got from The Nature of True Virtue.
Charity and Its Fruits
Then we were in Germany, and in Germany I read three more works of Edwards and several biographies. I read a biography by Hopkins and Henry Bamford Parkes. One of the most memorable readings was with Noël, sitting on our little beige couch. It was used furniture we picked up in our little flat in Germany, and I was trying to be a good husband, married now for about four years, setting a good pattern early on. Our first son was about to be born, and I wanted to set a good pattern of having devotions and reading something substantial with Noël. It’s easier to do when you don’t have kids, I admit, but get started early if you’re young and newly married. What I said maybe we could read was Jonathan Edwards’s Charity and Its Fruits, a 330-page exposition of First Corinthians 13, which we did out loud to each other. And we both agreed it was unbelievably verbose and unbelievably beautiful. Love shown beautifully through Edwards’s exposition of First Corinthians 13.
One little paragraph from that book, though it’s not the best paragraph, but it’s Washington here so I chose this one. It’s kind of a political city and people think about this sort of thing. I want you to know Edwards, though he was a man who knew his hell, he knew his heaven, he knew his heart, he also knew his society:
A man of a right spirit is not a man of narrow and private views, but is greatly interested and concerned for the good of the community to which he belongs, and particularly of the city or village in which he resides and for the true welfare of the society of which he is a member. A man of truly Christian spirit will be earnest for the good of his country and of the place of his residence and will be disposed to lay himself out for its improvement.
So he had a public heart as well as an intensely personal one. That was Charity and Its Fruits.
God’s Passion for His Glory
The second one in Germany was in a pantry. We had this flat. It had a hallway and a bathroom next to it. I could tell you an interesting story about my little son. In fact, I will tell you the story. It’s totally irrelevant, but I feel like telling it.
My son was born and he cried a lot. I was a new daddy, and I didn’t know what you’re supposed to do. I would carry him, and we would walk back and forth in the hall. When you get to the hall, the bathroom was here and there was this electric water heater hanging on the wall. That’s the way they do it in Europe, by and large. You heat the water right there from the heater on the wall. It had a red light on it, and in the dark all you could see was the red light. I would turn it on and stand and walk with him, and here’s this little child under one year old on my shoulder. We did that for months. He was about 10 years old when he said the next thing. One night, Noël was putting him to bed, and he says, “What was that red light?” He was under one year old when he saw that. That has nothing to do with anything I’m saying here at all. I just thought it was unbelievably interesting. She explained to him that when he was little he saw that red light every night.
Here was the kitchen. I’m doing the apartment so you can picture this pantry. You walk into the kitchen, and then the way they built this building is that off the kitchen out from the building was a cold pantry. It was not heated, and you put your food out there. Now they had turned it into a little room with a heater in there, and that was my study. It was probably about five feet wide and eight feet long, something like that, and that’s where I read the most important book probably that I’ve ever read outside the Bible — namely, The End for Which God Created the World.
When I wanted to pay a tribute to Edwards and reissue one of his books, that’s the one I chose. I put my own appreciation of Edwards on the front of it. It’s called God’s Passion for His Glory. Now let’s linger on this one because this begins to shape the God-entranced worldview that I love so much.
Edwards’s answer to the question of why God created the universe is that he created the universe to display the fullness of his glory for his people to know, praise, and enjoy — to display his perfections, his beautiful perfections, for us to know and to praise and to enjoy. Here’s a very important paragraph.
It appears that all that is ever spoken of in Scripture as an ultimate end of God’s works is included in that one phrase, the glory of God. In the creatures knowing, esteeming, loving, rejoicing in, and praising God, the glory of God is both exhibited and acknowledged. His fullness is received and returned. Here is both emanation and re-emination. 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.
Glorifying God By Enjoying Him
Those kinds of sentences in a pantry in Germany back in 1972 or 1973 that took my breath away. They simply took my breath away. But Edwards puts a twist on it. Mark Dever asked me today in an interview, why I might have a big celebration of Edwards this year but probably will not have the same big celebration of John Calvin in 2009 at his 500th birthday? I simply said that the impact of Calvin on me has been nothing like the impact of Edwards, and this twist I’m about to talk here isn’t in John Calvin anything like it is in Edwards, and to me it was what made all the difference.
The twist is this, Edwards did not just stress that God created the universe for his glory, nor did he just stress that the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Rather, Edwards taught more clearly than anybody I have ever read, that God created us with the chief end of glorifying him by enjoying him forever. This I do not find in other reformed thinkers. It is everywhere in The End for Which God Created the World and elsewhere if you’re watching for it. So when the catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” Edwards would not stumble over my paraphrase: “The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever.”
Now I’ll read you that from Jonathan Edwards himself lest you think I’m making it up. Because that insight that God is glorified in my being satisfied in him — that’s my way of saying it — is just a Piper rhyme to express an Edwards truth and a biblical one. So here’s the Edwards version of it. He didn’t bother himself with rhymes:
God glorifies himself towards the creatures also two ways: (1) by appearing to them, being manifested to their understandings; (2) in communicating himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing and delighting in, and enjoying the manifestations which he makes of himself.
Here’s the key sentence:
God is glorified not only by his glory’s being seen but by its being rejoiced in.
That was an absolutely life-changing sentence for me. God is glorified not merely by his glory being seen, known, and articulated accurately in good theology, but also by its being delighted in. In other words, delight in the glory of God is not a little, peripheral thing. The Germans would say anhängsel. It doesn’t dangle out there, as if it’s a little non-essential thing. It’s built into the fabric of the universe.
The Vital Place of Emotions
Emotions in Edwards are cosmically important. I’d never read anything like that. I had read about emotions. They were always the things that made people say, “Watch out for your emotions.” Nobody had ever done a serious thing about emotions, and here came this massive statement. I’ll keep reading:
When those that see it (the glory of God) 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 the heart. He that testifies his idea of God’s glory doesn’t glorify God so much as he that testifies also of his delight in it.
That’s the most important paragraph in Edwards that I ever read. It changed everything. All I have done for 30 years is try to unpack that paragraph in everything I’ve written and in all my preaching. I just want to help people get the idea of God right and then get their hearts right through an appropriately vigorous delight so that God gets his whole glory from the church for which Christ died to bring this about. An un-enjoyed God looks beggarly.
Do you think this is a small thing? You may say, “Well, I’m not wired that way. I’m an intellectual person. I’m not an emotional person, or whatever.” Well, I’m not asking for a certain personality, and neither was Edwards. His was very different. He was pretty staid in his preaching, not like me flailing around up here with my arms. But there was an intensity and a depth of spiritual feeling in Edwards that was great. Not enjoying God is not a Christian option in his universe.
The Gift of Sight
That was the second book that I read, which explains the existence of the third book that I read. If you want a place to start in Edwards, start here — namely A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. That was his mature assessment of what had happened in the revival that he was, under God, the instrument of — the Great Awakening in New England. He wrote — I think it came out in 1746 and he preached it in 1742 — and he was analyzing what was authentic in this revival, what was not authentic, what was true faith and true grace in the heart, and what was false and hypocritical grace in the heart. And he wrote this book.
Back to the apartment. If you take a left at the end of the hall and you go into the living room, which was all one piece with the bedroom, over on the other side was a rocking chair that I bought for Noël so she could rock her first baby. We gave that to Karsten now, and he has our first grandson as of a couple of weeks ago. I sat in that rocking chair on Sunday night, when she wasn’t there, for about a year reading the Religious Affections as my Sunday night worship.
I read it that slowly. It’s about 400-plus pages, and I just read a few pages and paused, trembled sometimes, wept sometimes, and laughed sometimes. Because what you’re doing is you’re coming alongside a man who — for whatever divine, providential reason — had been given the gift to see in the Bible what most people don’t see.
One of the reasons we have teachers in the church is that some have been given to see, and when they say, others see. God doesn’t just deal with individuals, saying, “Now you go to the Bible and you’ll see all you need to see, and you go to the Bible and you’ll see all you need to see.” He puts us in churches, and he puts elders and teachers in churches, and then he grants those elders gifts of teaching, and part of the gift of teaching is to see what others don’t see and to say, and then to have lights go on in those times.
So I did that with Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections, and I would just guess that at the root, the reason he had to eventually write a book like this is that he had elevated affection so highly. He had made it essential to the universe. He had made it essential to God’s reason for creating all things. He better write a book on the affections because he elevated them to an incomparably great place in Christian thinking and in reality.
Implications of a God-Entranced View of Reality
So that was the end of my reading of Edwards in Germany, and I’m going to stop there. I’ve read lots more since then, but now I’m going to just unpack implications for the last few minutes. I’ve got five or six implications of this God-enthralled vision of reality.
1. Pursuing Our Joy
Number one, we must always pursue our own and others’ joy in God as a solemn duty.
If emotions/affections have the place in God’s economy that Edwards has just described them as essential to glorifying God your indifference to whether you pursue your joy in God is sinful, wrong, and destructive to your own soul. You may not be indifferent to whether you are pursuing joy. Here’s the way Edwards put it for his own preaching. This just blew me away early on in my preaching life, 20-plus years ago when I read this. I think I’ve got it memorized, but I’ll make sure I get it just right:
I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as I possibly can . . .
Now that just sounds like some charismania manipulator who’s going to use the music, going to use the little lights, going to use everything with the thought, “I’m going to get these people whipped up to a frenzy and then they’ll give. So we’ll spread the money out on the platform and put a big gold chair back here.” Let me go back and try to finish that quote:
I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as I possibly can, provided they are affected with nothing but the truth and with the affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.
This man throws away no words. Truth and light coming into the mind should produce tremendous affections that are shaped and formed by the nature of the truth. If it’s a truth about hell, an appropriate affection would be trembling, fear, sorrow, grief, weeping, or terror. If it’s a picture of the glories of heaven, it would be exultation, praise, delight, treasuring, and wonder. So if you find your people laughing at the wrong time, it may be that you’ve given bad light or you haven’t cared about bringing your ability to work the audience underneath the truth of Scripture.
Any skilled communicator can produce pretty much whatever he wants to produce in terms of tears or laughter, and there’s a great sense of power in that. When you can make people laugh, there’s power. When you can make them cry, there’s power. But if you say, “I am about truth, and I would like to say it as well as I can say it faithfully to the Scriptures,” and then you see people rise in their affections, you may be thankful and give God glory.
Workers for Your Joy
Here’s the way the apostle Paul put it, lest you think Edwards was doing his own thing apart from Scripture. Second Corinthians 1:24 says:
Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy . . .
Have you ever thought the apostolic mandate was, “We are workers with you for your joy”? If you asked, “Paul, why do you do what you do?” He would say, “I do it to make people happy.”
Philippines 1:25 says:
Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith . . .
Those are two mega-governing statements. First, what’s his apostolic mission? He is a worker with them for their joy. And what was his reason for staying on earth instead of going to be with Jesus? It was to advance their joy. Those are big statements. Edwards has not gotten things biblically out of proportion here.
Enflaming Spiritual Affections
Just yesterday, or was it the day before, I was getting ready for this and I remembered Don Westblade, who used to go to Yale but teaches at Hillsdale College now. He worked with the manuscripts of Edwards and he sent me an unpublished sermon — at least I don’t think it’s been published yet — on Song of Solomon 5:1. I remembered that, so I got in the filing system and I dug it out and read parts of it. I want to just give you some flavor about how Edwards did his Christian Hedonism. How he did his preaching in view of this reality of how you must pursue your emotions — that is, you must pursue your joy in God. You must elevate the intensity of your delights in God if you would honor him.
The text is Song of Solomon 5:1. And you all know this is a love song. This is an intensely sexual love song. It says:
I came to my garden, my sister, my bride,
I gathered my myrrh with my spice,
I ate my honeycomb with my honey,
I drank my wine with my milk.
Eat, friends, drink,
and be drunk with love!
That was his text. He’s a puritan. He restated the doctrine. He always stated the text with a little exposition, stated the doctrine, and then he explained it. Here’s the doctrine:
Persons need not and ought not set any bounds to their spiritual and gracious appetites.
That’s the doctrine of the sermon. He said, “Persons need not and ought not (duty) set any bounds to their spiritual and gracious appetites.” Now here are a few quotes from the sermon:
Neither are persons to rest in any past or present degree of gracious appetites or enjoyment of the objects of it, but to their utmost to be increasing the same, to be endeavoring by all possible ways to inflame their desires, and to obtain more spiritual pleasures. God designed man for this happiness. He intended that those appetites should be satisfied. He promised that such hungering and thirsting should be fulfilled. Men therefore ought to endeavor that they obtain the satisfying of them. Let those appetites be never so strong and vigorous, yet they will not be equal to the merit of their objects.
Let’s back up and get that one again. The objects are God, Christ’s salvation, and the glories of the spiritual realities of heaven and God’s presence. He says:
Let those appetites never be so strong and vigorous yet they will never be equal to the merit of their objects. When men’s appetites are violent towards earthly enjoyments, they are beyond the desert of their objects. Those things are not worth so eager a desire of a rational creature. Temporal pleasures are not worthy that the soul of man should be wholly possessed and governed by the desires after them, but tis not so with respect to spiritual enjoyments. They are of so exalted and excellent a nature that it is impossible that our desires after them should exceed their desert. Yea, they cannot be equal to it. Our hungering and thirsting after God and Jesus Christ and after holiness can’t be too great, for the value of these things are infinite. Endeavor therefore to promote spiritual appetites by laying yourself in the way of allurement.
I mean, who preaches like that? Who does theology like that? Who rises into heaven like that?
2. Exposing Hypocrisy
The first implication was that we should pursue our own and others’ joy in God as a solemn duty. Number two, the meaning of hypocrisy is exposed more accurately and profoundly with this insight — that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him — and shows that true religion is joy in God.
Hypocrisy is exposed with greater insight. Now let me illustrate what I mean. Edwards was able to penetrate to the deceptiveness of the human part unlike anybody I’ve ever read, and here’s the quote that I think needs to be trumpeted from the housetops in self-esteeming America.
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 inexpressively 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 much of by God, and then on that ground he seems a sort lovely to them.
That is devastating. Let me say that last part again:
Hypocrites first rejoice that they are made much of . . .
I have heard the cross turned inside out like this so often. People say, “Look, he died for you. You must be a diamond in the rough. You are infinitely valuable because he paid an infinite price for you.” And the whole design of the cross becomes making much of people. When a person hears that gospel, they might by grace be saved. But often, they probably feel a natural love of being made much of wakened. It feels really good. Who doesn’t like to be made much of? For that reason the cross and God seem a sort lovely to them, and they say, “Sure, I’ll believe that.” A person who is God-oriented because God is man-oriented is man-oriented, and probably not yet a believer.
Edwards was enabled by these insights to go so deep into my heart there as I read The Religious Affections that there were times when I was really scared, and that was good for me. If we enjoy God because he makes much of us as the foundation of our joy, then we are enjoying ourselves and our worth and our pride more than we are enjoying God. So the implication of that is to go hard after God for the beauty that he is. Plead with him, like Psalm 90:14 says:
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
3. Clarifying the Gospel
Number three: this truth that God glorifies himself in our delighting in him clarifies what the gospel ultimately is.
It clarifies what the gospel ultimately is. The gospel is not ultimately that we are made much of, or that we are forgiven, or that we are justified, or that we are regenerated, which is a controversial thing to say. Ultimately is the determining word there. The gospel, the good news, is not ultimately that my sins are forgiven and that I stand just before God. The way I have felt that recently and the power of it is this, I have been forced to say by Edwards, who cares about being forgiven? Why do you care? If you know you have sinned, if you know you’re guilty, if you know that there is judgment hanging over you, why do you care about being forgiven?
Now there are some really inadequate answers to that which will not get you into heaven and will not honor God. One of them is, “I like being forgiven because hell is hot and long and I don’t like pain.” That’s not a good answer. It’s not an adequate answer. It’s not a wrong answer, it just doesn’t honor God at all. It just honors your dislike of pain. Another one might be, “I hate guilt feelings. I don’t like to wake up in the morning and feel rotten. I like to feel good when I get up in the morning, like I don’t have any guilt on me anymore. I hate getting up feeling bad. So if you’ve got a message that’ll fix that, I’ll buy that.” There’s no honor for God in that, just your capacities for feeling happy in the morning.
When you analyze every aspect of what the New Testament calls “gospel” and you press it to be good news it’s because every one of them — forgiveness, justification, propitiation, redemption, salvation, reconciliation — gets us to God to enjoy, and that glorifies God. If you use them just to get you out of bad feelings or out of hell and God is of little or no interest, God isn’t honored.
Sometimes I’ll ask my people, just to provoke them, would you feel satisfied if you could go to heaven and have perfect health and all the toys you’ve ever dreamed of having here, perfect weather, all the natural beauties that are possible, all the friends and all the acquaintances you’ve ever wanted, all of them delighting in you fully, minus God? Would that be okay? Would you want to go there? Would that be adequate for your soul? I fear that so many professing Christians would say, “I guess that’s where I am because that’s the way I’ve always thought about heaven. I get to meet mom again, and I won’t get sick anymore, and the weather will always be good, and if you’re a Muslim, there will be a lot of virgins there if you died in the right way.”
None of that, whether the Christian or the Muslim view, honors God. It honors golf and weather and health and friends and virgins, that’s what it honors. It won’t honor God. What honors God is when he’s your treasure, he’s your joy, he’s your hope, and he’s your delight. You want to go there because he’s there.
Why Are You Here?
I picture myself knocking on the door of heaven after I die, and God opens the door and says, “Why are you here?” If I say, “Hell is hot and long, and this is the only alternative. I’d just as soon be here. I would really, really prefer to be here than there.” I think the door’s going to shut in my face because I didn’t honor him at all by that statement.
The right answer is that he opens the door and he says, “Why are you here?” And you say, “Because you are here. Where else would I want to be? You are my life. You’re my hope. You’re my joy. I was designed for you. Discovering the fullness of your perfections and your glory and your magnificence is what eternity is all about, isn’t it? If it’s not, where can I find it? It’s you.” He will get a big smile across his face and say, “Whoa, thank you. I am very honored by that. Please come in.” Oh, how crucial are the affections for God.
4. Clarifying the Cross
This is almost the same as number three, but I want to make it explicit. Number four: this insight of Edwards that delighting in God glorifies God clarifies for us what the cross of Christ, the death of Jesus, accomplished.
We were talking over supper tonight about Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, which is slated to come out next Lenten season. It is just one amazing display of the horror of the sufferings of Christ in his last hours. We were talking about the pros and cons and appropriateness of not having any language in the movie that you can understand, at least that was his first conception. It was going to be Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin with no subtitles. There will be subtitles as I understand it, but the first thought there was just the visual impact. We were talking about it and wondering, “Is that a good idea?” It’s not a good idea if you only see Jesus suffer and don’t know why he suffered. You need to know why he suffered.
First Peter 3:18 puts it like this:
For Christ also suffered once for sins (not repeatedly, once was enough because he was the Son of God), the righteous for the unrighteous . . .
Here comes the key sentence that makes it good news. If we stopped right here, it would not be good news. It hasn’t said anything that makes me happy yet. I want to be eternally happy or it’s not good news. I mean, if I die and go to hell, that’s not good news. I want to be eternally happy and have good news, and what gets me there is the last phrase. I’ll read the whole thing again:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God . . .
Why did Christ die? To bring sinners, by the virtue of his own righteousness and blood, into the presence of an infinitely glorious, holy God without being incinerated.
Safe in God’s Awesome Majesty
I was in a hurricane in 1980-something down in Pensacola, Florida. It was just like the one that came through here, though probably not quite that big. We ended up back in a bedroom, and got down on the floor, not near windows, and it came through with about 80-mile per hour winds. It toppled big trees and chopped off half the corner of the bedroom where we were with one big giant 300-year old pine tree, and then it stopped. We walked outside, and do you know where we were? We were in the eye of the storm — blue sky, not a breeze blowing. The radio was saying, “You have 20 minutes, and it’ll be harder on the backside.”
There we were in the middle of a hurricane, totally safe and comfortable. That’s the way I feel about a cross-prepared entrance into God. He is a massive hurricane of holiness. The holiness would be beautiful if I could just be safe in it, which I would never be if I went there with my sins. But if I could have my sins forgiven by faith in a Redeemer, which is what Christ offers, then he would take me into the presence of the Creator of the universe, whose glory outstrips the glory of all that he has made infinitely, and I will take an eternity to satisfy my soul beholding him. So the cross is clarified in what it achieved.
5. Demonstrating Genuine Love
Number five: Edward’s insight into the nature of my joy’s relationship to the glory of God shows what love is and how the cross is a supreme act of love.
We already said most of this, but let me just stress it. If love is not being made much of, what is it then? Love is, at great cost to yourself, doing whatever needs to happen to help another person be enthralled with what will be infinitely satisfying, namely God. Love is doing whatever it takes that you can do at great cost to yourself — it might cost you your life — to enthrall another person with what is eternally satisfying, namely God.
In America, we’ve been taught for 50 years that love is the opposite — namely, love is doing all that you can do to enthrall people with themselves. There’s a whole gospel built around solving every child-rearing problem, every marriage problem, every educational problem, and every urban-kid problem by helping people be enthralled with the fact that they are somebody. That’s tragic.
What human beings need, whether it’s in the urban center or the suburbs, is to be enthralled with a reality outside themselves so that they forget about their honking self and love God. I know this is what they know, because if you ask a person why they go to the Grand Canyon or why they go to the Alps or why they go to the Rockies or why they go to a movie that’s just a big huge display of grandeur, they will not say, “Because it increases my self-esteem.”
They won’t know quite what to say because they don’t know why they’re there. All they know is something’s going on in here really good as they stand by the canyon and it falls away, it makes them feel small, makes them feel vulnerable, makes them feel fragile, and it’s really good. It’s really good. If they stand before the Alps, they feel tiny. What if that fell over on them? They know they’re standing there because they chose to come, they paid big bucks to get there, and it’s not because it makes them feel big and important and like somebody.
There’s a deep, sweet, wonderful, common grace lesson there. God is whispering, maybe shouting, “I made you for me. This mountain is a little echo of me. The Grand Canyon is a little echo of me. Even the Lord of the Rings is a little echo of me. It’s just a little echo.”
Made to Admire Greatness
We’ve seen both of The Lord of the Rings movies on our anniversary, or a day before or after. We went out to eat after The Two Towers, and I said to Noël, “You know what I really like about that is what it says about Jesus. Because when I see the magnitude of that movie — I mean, I know it’s all little models and squeaky little things — of the war, with 10,000 orcs and the rocks and the white horse just arriving at the nick of time and everything in you is saying, ‘Yes, this is glorious!’ that says to me, just look there, it’s happening in New Zealand. New Zealand is a little, teeny country on planet earth, and planet Earth is a little tiny-weeny planet in this solar system, and this solar system is a little teeny-weeny solar system in the Milky Way, and the Milky Way is a little teeny-weeny galaxy in this universe, and Jesus Christ flung it out with the word of his power.”
That’s what movies do for me. I love as much grandeur as you can get onto a screen, but I just transpose the music upward. Everything I see on planet Earth that’s beautiful and glorious moves me to try to do the 10 to the 23rd power multiplication of Christ.
To be loved is to be helped, at the cost of his Son’s life, to enjoy making much of him forever. To be loved is to be helped to be enthralled with what will satisfy me most deeply forever.
6. The God-Centeredness of Heaven
Finally, number six: this insight of Edwards enabled him to describe heaven in a fully God-centered way and to account for how our enjoyment of one another now and in heaven is not idolatry.
Listen to this concluding quotation. I quote it and I think we’ll be done. I hope I can do justice to it because when Edwards got going, it was amazing.
The redeemed have all their objective good in God. God himself is the great good which they are brought to the possession and enjoyment of by redemption. He is the highest good and the sum of all that good which Christ purchased. God is the inheritance of the saints. He is the portion of their souls. God is their wealth and treasure, their food, their life, their dwelling place, their ornament and diadem, and their everlasting honor and glory. They have none in heaven but God. He is the great good into which the redeemed are received at death, and which they are to rise to at the end of the world.
The Lord God, he is the light of the heavenly Jerusalem and is the river of the water of life that runs and the tree of life that grows in the midst of the paradise of God. The glorious excellencies and beauty of God will be what will forever entertain the minds of the saints, and the love of God will be their everlasting feast. The redeemed will indeed enjoy other things. They will enjoy the angels and will enjoy one another, but that which they will enjoy in the angels or each other or in anything else whatsoever that will yield them delight and happiness will be what will be seen of God in them.
So if your mind and heart tonight are veiled to this experience, come to Christ. Because the Bible says when you come to Christ, the veil is lifted.