What Made Jonathan Edwards a Christian Hedonist?

Lanier Theological Library | Houston


Seventy-two times in the book of Ezekiel the prophet says that God does what he does “so that you might know that I am the Lord.” Ten other times he says, “I am the Lord.” Terrible punishments and thrilling salvation are both “that you may know that I am the Lord.”

  • “They will know that I am the Lord, when I have made the land a desolation . . . because of all their abominations.” (Ezekiel 33:29)
  • “You shall know that I am the Lord, when I deal with you for my name’s sake, not according to your evil ways, . . . O house of Israel.” (Ezekiel 20:44)

To feel the full impact of this, we need to reflect on the fact that when the word “Lord” occurs in the Bible in all caps, it is translating the personal name of God, “Yahweh” (or Jehovah).

No Mere Title

This is not a title like King or President or Governor. This is a personal name like “James” or “Mary.” And like many given names, it has a meaning — just as if you were to name your daughter “Charity” because you pray she will grow up to be a loving and caring person. Yahweh is the personal name that God gave himself, and it has a meaning. So, whenever it is used, the people will remember with whom they are dealing. It is built on the Hebrew verb for “I AM.” The meaning is explained in Exodus 3:13–15,

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”

Therefore, Ezekiel is not saying 72 times that God intends for you to know that he has the title “Lord.” He is saying 72 times that we must remember he has the name “Yahweh.” He is reminding us over and over and over again, “Never, never, never forget you are dealing with the God who absolutely is. He is who he is. He does what he does. He wills what he wills. He has mercy on whom he has mercy. He hardens whom he hardens. Who he is is not owing to anything before him. He does not conform to anything outside himself. He is not striving to become something he would like to be. He is ultimate, unoriginated, absolute, independent, final reality.”

Everything Depends on Him

Seventy-two times Ezekiel will remind us that God is the ultimate, absolute, all-important, primary reality that should dominate our consciousness more than anything else: When you look at your watch, because that watch is dependent — the God who made it is not. When you let your eyes scan the galaxies at night, because they were flicked out with God’s little finger and are totally dependent on his thought for every millisecond of their existence — but God is not dependent at all on them or anything else. When you look at the people in your life, because they are totally dependent on God, and sustained by God, and designed for God, and governed by God — but he is not dependent, or sustained, or designed, or governed by them or anyone else.

“No one outside the Bible has shaped my Christian Hedonism more than Jonathan Edwards.”

The point of Ezekiel’s saying over and over and over again, “You shall know I am Yahweh,” “You shall know I am Yahweh,” “You shall know I am Yahweh,” the God who absolutely is — the point of saying it over and over again is that we should live in the conscious awareness that the supreme reality in the universe, in America, in Texas, in our families, in our bedrooms, in our minds is Yahweh, the God who is. Nothing is more important. Nothing is more pervasive. Nothing is more relevant. Nothing is more glorious. Nothing is more beautiful. Nothing is more satisfying.

The Seed of Christian Hedonism

The reason Jonathan Edwards has such a dominant place in my life is because outside the Bible no one in the last fifty years has helped me live in the light of Ezekiel’s vision of God’s all-encompassing Godness more than Edwards. Nobody that I have ever read or met is more God-besotted than Edwards. Nobody that I know of has a more God-entranced view of the world. Nobody combines the heights of God-exalting emotion with the depths of God-exalting knowledge the way Edwards does. And no one has helped me more than Edwards to see and experience the relationship between the supremacy of God and the satisfaction of my soul. In other words, no one outside the Bible has shaped my Christian Hedonism more than Jonathan Edwards.

The most important one-sentence summary of Christian Hedonism, which carries in it all the implications of radically pursuing our joy in God, is God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in God. In other words, the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s mandate to live constantly in and under and for the supreme importance and centrality and glory of God’s absolute being will not happen where humans are half-hearted about the pursuit of their soul’s satisfaction in God. Few people, if any, have made this clearer than Edwards.

God glorifies Himself toward the creatures in two ways: 1. By appearing 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. When 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.

This is the seed and summary of Christian Hedonism: “God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in.” All I do is make mine rhyme: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in God.”

Let It Grow

Once you plant that seed in your mind and water it with a little reflection, the implications for your life spring up and grow in every direction, like branches laden with delicious fruit. For example:

Persons need not and ought not to set any bounds to their spiritual and gracious appetites. . . . [Rather they ought to] be endeavoring by all possible ways to inflame their desires and to obtain more spiritual pleasures. . . . Endeavor to promote spiritual appetites by laying yourself in the way of allurement. (Sermon on Canticles 5:1)

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”)

Or this implication for his own preaching:

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.

So, a Christian Hedonist is a person who lives to maximize the depth, the height, and the duration of joy in God in all the ways that God in Christ has made this possible. And my contention is that Edwards not only is a Christian Hedonist, but that he is one of the most God-besotted, God-enthralled, God-centered Christian Hedonists who ever lived. And that, even though he was a mere New England pastor, who died 260 years ago, and never traveled outside his native New England, and got voted out of his church after 23 years of ministry, and served as a missionary to a handful of Indians for seven years, and died when he was 54 years old with only 300 books in his library, he is worthy of our most careful attention.

Christian Hedonist or Not?

The way I would like to give him this careful attention is first by letting him respond to two arguments that have been raised against my claim that he is a Christian Hedonist. And then, secondly, by listening to Edwards respond to objections that have been raised over the years to Christian Hedonism as I have tried to explain it.

“God is glorified not only by his glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in.”

So, first, two arguments against his being a Christian Hedonist. The two objections that have been raised to argue that Edwards was not a Christian Hedonist are that

  1. he criticized a life devoted to “self-love,” and
  2. he promoted a life devoted to “disinterested love.”

And the assumption is that if you reject “self-love” and you commend “disinterested love,” you can’t be a Christian Hedonist.

The problem with the first argument is that Edwards used the term “self-love” in two senses — approving one and rejecting the other. And the problem with the second is that Edwards’s meaning of the phrase, “disinterested love,” is not what twenty-first century people think it means, but totally confirms his Christian Hedonism. Let’s take them one at a time.

Self-Love

Edwards uses the term self-love negatively to refer to selfishness — meaning the narrowing down of what pleases us to our own private pleasures without making the good of others part of our happiness. And he uses the term self-love positively simply to refer to our desire to be happy. The former he rejects as sub-Christian; the latter he celebrates as not only permitted, but necessary, for human life, including all Christian virtue.

So, in the negative sense, he says that people who are governed by self-love

place [their] happiness in good things that are confined or limited to themselves, to the exclusion of others. And this is selfishness. This is the thing most clearly and directly intended by that self-love which the Scripture condemns. (Charity and Its Fruits, 164)

Of course, he says, no one should live that way. But then he explains another use of the term self-love, which explains why he is a Christian Hedonist. He asks, “Ought man love God more than himself?” He answers like this:

Self-love, taken in the most extensive sense, and love to God are not things properly capable of being compared one with another; for they are not opposites. . . . Self-love is only a capacity of enjoying or taking delight in anything. Now surely ’tis improper to say that our love to God is superior to our general capacity of delighting in anything.

It’s like asking, “Should my happiness in God be more intense than my happiness? Should I love God more than I love?” These are nonsense questions because they attempt to contrast two things that are not distinct: the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of happiness in God.

So, self-love is rejected by Edwards as evil when it means the confinement of our desire for happiness to our private good. But when it means the love of happiness without that confinement, and with God as its chief object, then self-love is not only permitted; it is necessary to an eternal life of joy that the Bible promises. So, the self-love that Edwards approves is desiring your greatest happiness and finding it in God and all that he is for us in Christ. Which is exactly what Christian Hedonism believes.

Disinterested Love

But what about the second argument against his being a Christian Hedonist; namely, commending a life of “disinterested love” to God and to Christ? This phrase sounds to most modern ears like “love” for God that is interested in no benefit or joy from knowing God. But Edwards shocks us out of our error by referring not only to “disinterested love,” but also “disinterested delight.” Which to us sounds like an oxymoron — like bored enthusiasm, or sad happiness.

But that just shows us how careful we have to be not to jump to conclusions when we see apparently non-hedonistic terms. Listen to this quote comes from Religious Affections:

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 [our spiritual delight], 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 or contemplation of the divine and holy beauty of these things, as they are in themselves.

So, disinterested love to God cannot be contrary to Christian Hedonism because it consists in the sweet entertainment the mind has as it contemplates God’s beauty. If you took away this “sweetness” and “delight,” there would be no love left — it’s the essence of what love to God is. So, what Edwards means when he commends love that is “disinterested” is that we love God — delight in God, enjoy God, find God to be our supreme Treasure — first and foundationally for himself, not for his gifts. And that happiness in God is not only right; it is essential to what love for God is.

So, my conclusion is that these two objections from “self-love” and “disinterested love” fail to overthrow Edwards’s Christian Hedonism. They confirm it.

Edwards Answers Our Objections

Now the last way I want to pay close attention to Edwards is by listening to him respond to objections that have been raised over the years to Christian Hedonism, as I have tried to explain it.

Objection #1: Doesn’t Christian Hedonism 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.

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.

“Christ died so that God would be eternally glorified through his saints being supremely satisfied in him.”

So, no, Christian Hedonism does not make me 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” (Confessions, 10.29).

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, as Paul makes so clear in Colossians 2:23. 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 promise of superior pleasure in God — not by a religion of willpower. Willpower religion, even when it succeeds, fails, because in succeeding, it gets glory for the will, not God. 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.

In other words, Edwards says that the pursuit of pleasure in God is not only not a compromise with the sensual world, but is the only weapon 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, you will do well to get to know Edwards’s vision of the purifying power of pleasure in God.

No, Christian Hedonism does not play into the sensual corruptions of our culture. It points to the one power that provides God-exalting freedom; namely, the promise of superior pleasures in God.

Objection #3: Surely contrition and sorrow for sin is a painful thing and will be undermined by this stress on seeking our pleasure. Surely the beginning of revival is brokenhearted contrition for our sin, 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 that person tastes the pleasure of having God as a treasure. You can’t feel remorse for not having what you don’t want. I know this sounds paradoxical: pleasure makes the pain of brokenheartedness possible. In order to bring people to the sorrow of contrition, you must first bring them to see God as their supreme delight so they can regret that he has not been so. 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 soever 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.

“The power of sin comes from its promise of pleasure. Defeat it with the superior promise of pleasure in God.”

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 contrition. 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 until now have been scorned.

No. Gospel-shaped contrition is not undermined by Christian Hedonism. It is made possible by revealing what we missed.

Objection #4: Surely elevating the pursuit of joy to such 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 and paves the way for joy. 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.

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) keeps us on the path to “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.”

Edwards explains the paradox of self-denial in another way: “There is no pleasure but what brings more of sorrow than of pleasure, but what the godly man either does or may enjoy.” In other words, there is no pleasure that godly people may not enjoy except those that bring more sorrow than pleasure. Or to put it in the astonishing way that makes it understandable: Christians may seek and should seek only those pleasures that are maximally pleasurable — that is, that have the least sorrows as consequences, including in eternity.

We are called to diminish everything that diminishes God and destroys the soul.

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 losses and 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.” 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 goes on to say, “Reproaches are ordered by God for this end, that they may destroy sin, which is the chief root of the troubles of the godly man, and the destruction of it a foundation for delight.”

“There are overwhelming sorrows in the Christian life. But our joy in God can carry our every last concern.”

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 5:11–12). “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 losses and 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.

Objection #6: 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.

I don’t presume that Edwards lived up to all his teachings. He himself would not have claimed this. No preacher does. He fell remarkably short on the issue of slavery in his day. But the seeds of brokenheartedness for such failures are deeply embedded in his own Christian Hedonism.

Objection #7: Where is the cross of Jesus Christ in all of this? Where is justification by faith alone? Where is regeneration by the Holy Spirit?

The answer is that the wrath-absorbing death of Jesus Christ crucified (propitiation), and the act of God becoming one-hundred percent for us, not against us, through faith alone (justification), and the creation in us of a new heart of faith in Christ (regeneration) — all of that Edwards makes plain is the great and indispensable foundation of eternal happiness with God. There is no Christian Hedonism without it.

“Christ died so that God would be eternally glorified through his saints being supremely satisfied in him.”

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. . . . 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 shall 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.

This is what Christ died for: that God would be eternally and supremely glorified through the saints being eternally and supremely satisfied in him. This is the goal of Christian Hedonism and the goal of Jonathan Edwards. And this is the goal of God through Christ in his great work of redemption.