Jonathan Edwards: 4 Great Paragraphs
I recently suggested three reasons why you should read Jonathan Edwards. To further encourage you, here are four paragraphs that, I submit to you, capture the beauty and brilliance of Edwards’ work as a pastor-theologian.
Note that I’ve chosen from a range of his writings to give you a sense for what he sounded like in different contexts. I appreciate him not only as a preacher, but as a theologian, an aesthetician, and a letter-writer (I’ll explain below). I think, if you give him a chance, you will too.
The first paragraph comes from one of Edwards’ earliest sermons. The young pastor-to-be preached “God’s Excellencies” in 1720, setting out at the outset of his ministry the starting point for his life and thought: the transcendent beauty and greatness of God.
The beauty of trees, plants, and flowers, with which God has bespangled the face of the earth, is delightful; the beautiful frame of the body of man, especially in its perfection, is astonishing; the beauty of the moon and stars is wonderful; the beauty of [the] highest heavens is transcendent; the excellency of angels and the saints in light is very glorious: but it is all deformity and darkness in comparison of the brighter glories and beauties of the Creator of all, for “behold even to the moon, and it shineth not” (Job 25:5); that is, think of the excellency of God and the moon will not seem to shine to you, God’s excellency so much outshines [it]. And the stars are not pure in his sight, and so we know that at the great day when God appears, the sun shall be turned into darkness, shall hide his face as if he were ashamed to see himself so much outshined; and the very angels, they hide their faces before him; the highest heavens are not clean in his sight, and he charges his angels with folly. (Works 10, 421)
This is a fitting place at which to begin, because it shows in luminous detail the aesthetic theology of the young Edwards. He recognized early on what the sinful man cannot see: that the natural order is not an end unto itself, but is a channel that leads to worship of the maker of all things. All things pale in comparison to God, who looms magnificently large in this passage and so many other passages in the Edwardsean corpus.
On to our second paragraph. In my study of great leaders and thinkers, I find special enjoyment perusing the letters of the same. In letters to friends and family members, we see the worldview of the historical figure boiled down, and the personality on display. This is valuable in the case of Edwards, for true to his regional roots, he did not write a great deal about himself.
In Edwards’ interaction with his family, we gain a sense for his spiritual seriousness, but also for his tender love of his children. In a letter to his daughter Esther, dated May 27, 1755, we see both of these qualities on display:
Though you are a great way off from us, yet you are not out of our minds: I am full of concern for you, often think of you, and often pray for you. Though you are at so great a distance from us, and from all your relations, yet this is a comfort to us, that the same God that is here, is also at Onohquaga; and that though you are out of our sight and out of our reach, you are always in God’s hands, who is infinitely gracious; and we can go to him, and commit you to his care and mercy. Take heed that you don’t forget or neglect him. Always set God before your eyes, and live in his fear, and seek him every day with all diligence: for ‘tis he, and he only can make you happy or miserable, as he pleases; and your life and health, and the eternal salvation of your soul, and your all in this life and that which is to come, depends on his will and pleasure.
The week before last, on Thursday, David died; whom you knew and used to play with, and who used to live at our house. His soul is gone into the eternal world. Whether he was prepared for death, we don’t know. This is a loud call of God to you to prepare for death. You see that they that are young die, as well as those that are old: David was not very much older than you. Remember what Christ has said, that you must be born again, or you never can see the kingdom of God. Never give yourself any rest, unless you have good evidence that you are converted and become a new creature. We hope that God will preserve your life and health, and return you to Stockbridge again in safety; but always remember that life is uncertain: you know not how soon you must die, and therefore had need to be always ready.
Your tender and affectionate father, Jonathan Edwards. (Works 16, 666-67)
I realize that I have contravened the rules of the game and cited not one but two paragraphs. You must excuse me. I did so because this section shows what a godly father Jonathan Edwards was. If we only encounter the thundering Edwards of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” we will miss the fatherly side of the man. What a strong spiritual guide he was—speaking plainly but winsomely to his children to lead them to Christ. There is sobriety in these words, but also, in eighteenth-century form, deep affection and love.
In the third paragraph, we see that coming to faith, while our duty, is also our chief delight. In a little-known sermon called “The Spiritual Blessings of the Gospel Represented by a Feast,” Edwards unfolds the “glorious objects” of our spiritual focus:
There is every kind of thing dispensed in Christ that tends to make us excellent and amiable, and every kind of thing that tends to make us happy. There is that which shall fill every faculty of the soul and in a great variety. What a glorious variety is there for the entertainment of the understanding! How many glorious objects set forth, most worthy to be meditated upon and understood! There are all the glorious attributes of God and the beauties of Jesus Christ, and manifold wonders to be seen in the way of salvation, the glories of heaven and the excellency of Christian graces. And there is a glorious variety for the satisfying the will: there are pleasures, riches and honors; there are all things desirable or lovely. There is various entertainment for the affections, for love, for joy, for desire and hope. The blessings are innumerable. (Works 14, 285-86)
This is, simply put, a marvelous section on which to meditate. It shows us that pleasure is not meant primarily for sinners, but for believers. This was a subject of major inquiry for Edwards, and his collective thought on it renders him the best thinker in the Christian tradition on pleasure. Edwards shows us here (and in many other places) that humanity was made for delight. We did not receive affections in the fall, but the creation.
It is not wrong, then, for Christians to enjoy life; it is profoundly appropriate. If we are known for being anti-pleasure people, it is not Edwards’ fault, and it is certainly not God’s, as texts like Psalm 16:11 show. There is much to think about here, and to apply. In Edwards’ exposition of Godward pleasure, we unearth a promising apologetic in a pleasure-obsessed world. More than that, we discover a way of life.
In our fourth and final paragraph, we turn to Edwards’ meditation on heaven in his unforgettable sermon “Heaven Is a World of Love.” Few subjects are more poorly conceived by Christians than heaven. Edwards offers a biblical vision of the life to come in God. The chief point the pastor-theologian makes is this: love is the currency of heaven.
But here the spring shall become a river, and an ocean. All shall stand about the God of glory, the fountain of love, as it were opening their bosoms to be filled with those effusions of love which are poured forth from thence, as the flowers on the earth in a pleasant spring day open their bosoms to the sun to be filled with his warmth and light, and to flourish in beauty and fragrancy by his rays. Every saint is as a flower in the garden of God, and holy love is the fragrancy and sweet odor which they all send forth, and with which they fill that paradise. Every saint there is as a note in a concert of music which sweetly harmonizes with every other note, and all together employed wholly in praising God and the Lamb; and so all helping one another to their utmost to express their love of the whole society to the glorious Father and Head of it, and to pour backlove into the fountain of love, whence they are supplied and filled with love and with glory. And thus they will live and thus they will reign in love, and in that godlike joy which is the blessed fruit of it, such as eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath ever entered into the heart of any in this world to conceive [cf. 1 Corinthians 2:9]. And thus they will live and reign forever and ever. (Works 8, 385-86)
There is little we can or should add to this. It is a truly great paragraph, and a fitting one on which to close. Here, Edwards points us beyond our shallow visions of the ideal life, showing us what we are meant for: the unfettered experience of the love of God, flowing from the holy Trinity into our lives, rushing over us and consuming us for all eternity.
Want to read more of Jonathan Edwards? Owen Strachan has edited, along with Doug Sweeney, The Essential Edwards Collection. This series of five books covers Edwards’ life and major writings opening an accessible window into the heart and mind of the man credited for starting the First Great Awakening. Buy it from the Ligonier Store.