Getting to Know Jonathan Edwards

This week we’ll be learning about Jacob’s Ladder, and how Christ fulfilled the dream that Jacob had had hundreds of years before He stepped foot on earth.  The man who probably best described this vision and its full meaning, was Jonathan Edwards.

Most modern Christians have never studied much of what Edwards had to say, or who he was.  So I thought it would be helpful to provide a brief sketch of who this brilliant man was, so that you may more fully appreciate what he has to teach us in our study through the book of John.  To do this, I’m going to post below some excerpts from a few sources, but mostly from John Piper’s short Biography of the man which can be found by clicking here.

Chuck Colson says this about Edwards, “The western church – much of it drifting, enculturated, and infected with cheap grace – desperately needs to hear Edwards’ challenge. . . . It is my belief that the prayers and work of those who love and obey Christ in our world may yet prevail as they keep the message of such a man as Jonathan Edwards.”

Edwards was an 18th Century puritan preacher who is perhaps best known for his sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Many of you were probably made to read this sermon in high school – even if you went to a secular school.  Edwards is often demonized as a puritan who was himself angry at sinners, and concentrated most of his preaching powers on scaring people into the kingdom of heaven.  The truth, as is often the case, couldn’t be further from this ill-conceived caricature.

As John Piper says, “Most of us don’t know that he is considered now by secular and evangelical historians alike to be the greatest Protestant thinker America has ever produced. Scarcely has anything more insightful been written on the problem of God’s sovereignty and man’s accountability than his book, The Freedom of the Will.”

In his book, ‘The Unwavering Resolve of Jonathan Edwards’, Steven Lawson notes that, “All Christian writing is influenced, to one extent or another, by the theological foundations upon which the author stands. Edwards’ writings, including his ‘Resolutions,’ rested squarely upon ‘Reformed theology in its English Puritan form.’ This theological system, which emphasized God’s glory and absolute sovereignty,’ provided a structural framework for Edwards’ thought.’ In short, Edwards was a ‘convinced Calvinist’; he had drunk deeply from the wells of Scripture and had tasted the supreme authority of God to his soul’s satisfaction.”

The influence that Edwards had on America, and the cause of Christ here in the relatively young colonies was profound.  As Piper says, “Does any of us know what an incredible thing it is that this man, who was a small-town pastor for 23 years in a church of 600 people, a missionary to Indians for 7 years, who reared 11 faithful children, who worked without the help of electric light, or word-processors or quick correspondence, or even sufficient paper to write on, who lived only until he was 54, and who died with a library of 300 books – that this man led one of the greatest awakenings of modern times, wrote theological books that have ministered for 200 years and did more for the modern missionary movement than anyone of his generation?”

For current leaders like Piper, Edwards has been a great source of inspiration.  “Alongside the Bible, Edwards became the compass of my theological studies. Not that he has anything like the authority of Scripture, but that he is a master of that Scripture, and a precious friend and teacher”, Piper says.

Piper describes the balance between studying the Bible and practical living as portayed by Edwards:

Edwards did not pursue a passion for God because it was icing on the cake of faith. For him faith was grounded in a sense of God which was more than what reason alone could deliver. He said,

A true sense of the glory of God is that which can never be obtained by speculative [reasoning]; and if men convince themselves by argument that God is holy, that never will give a sense of his amiable and glorious holiness. If they argue that he is very merciful, that will not give a sense of his glorious grace and mercy. It must be a more immediate, sensible discovery that must give the mind a real sense of the excellency and beauty of God. (Works, II, 906)

In other words, it is to no avail merely to believe that God is holy and merciful. For that belief to be of any saving value, we must “sense” God’s holiness and mercy. That is, we must have a true delight in it for what it is in itself. Otherwise the knowledge is no different than what the devils have.

Does this mean that all his study and thinking was in vain? No indeed. Why? Because he says, “The more you have of a rational knowledge of divine things, the more opportunity will there be, when the Spirit shall be breathed into your heart, to see the excellency of these things, and to taste the sweetness of them.” (Works, II, 162, see p.16)

But the goal of all is this spiritual taste, not just knowing God but delighting in him, savoring him, relishing him. And so for all his intellectual might, Edwards was the farthest thing from a cool, detached, neutral, disinterested academician.

As we continue to learn and to study together, I hope you will continue to grow by reading and meditating upon the Word of God, but will also take some time to reflect upon the great lessons we’ve learned from men like Jonathan Edwards.

To ready more about this great Godly man, see below for some resources:

‘The Unwavering Resolve of Jonathan Edwards’ – Steve Lawson’s short Edwards Biography

‘Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography’ – Biography by Ian Murray

‘The Freedom of the Will’ – Edwards’ most famous book on Election

‘Religious Affections’ – The book that probably most influenced Piper’s view of God and what it means to be joyful in God.

‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ – famous sermon by Edwards on the need for repentance and salvation by Jesus Christ

‘The Spirit of Revival’ – Longish article by RC Sproul on the marks that identified the revival that Edwards lead in the 18th Century.

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