Learning from Jonathan Edwards

I recently finished Doug Sweeney’s book Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought. Although it’s only February, it has been one of the best books I’ve ready all year. Like most pastors, I admire Edwards for a number of reasons. Here are three:

His intense devotion to Christ. You don’t have to read much of Edwards to see that his love for Christ was immense. For example, in his “Personal Narrative,” he wrote about the thoughts that consumed him after reading 1 Tim. 1:17, which says, “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” :

As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from anything I ever experienced before Never any words of scripture seemed to me as these words did. I thought to myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be rapt up to him in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him forever! I kept saying, and as it were singing over these words of scripture myself; and went to pray to God that I might enjoy him.

Edwards didn’t only experience this kind of joy in reading Scripture. He was alert to the glory of God all around him. He used to love to go for walks in the woods and enjoyed being around nature. At another point in his “Personal Narrative” he wrote, “God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature.” As a pastor, I hope to enjoy this kind of intense devotion to Christ, and to have eyes to see and enjoy God’s beauty all around me.

His faithfulness in pastoral ministry. Edwards began pastoring his first church at nineteen years of age. The church was located in New York, and he was called to minister to a people who had recently been involved in a church split. He wasn’t there long, however. While there he urged the people in the congregation to reconcile with their previous church and pastor. And they took his advice. What pastoral maturity in a nineteen year old! And what humility for the people in the congregation to listen to this young pastor.

After his time in New York was over, he returned to Northampton, Connecticut, and began his long pastorate of twenty-four years. During this time, he preached faithfully, was involved in revivals, and wrote theological treatises that are read to this day. Not only this, but he also counseled people, and saw to it the best he could that the people under his care were living lives that validated their profession of faith.

His strong doctrinal convictions. I mentioned above that Edwards wrote several doctrinal treatises. While this is true, most of the larger works were completed after he was fired by his congregation. That’s right. America’s best theological mind and America’s most famous pastor at the time was fired from his congregation. And it was due to his strong theological convictions. The church’s previous pastor, Solomon Stoddard (who was also Edwards’s grandfather!), used to allow anyone—whether Christian or non-Christian—to receive the Lord’s Supper. He did this because he believed it was a “converting ordinance.” After many years of allowing this to take place, Edwards began to voice his disagreements to the church board. They urged him to explain his views in an essay, which he did as fast as he could. When the Board read his paper, they were aghast. They began to work to get Edwards removed from his position. Without going into all the details, suffice to say that Edwards was summarily relieved of his duties.

He accepted this with humility and preached his farewell sermon on June 22, 1750. Edwards didn’t use his last sermon as their pastor to berate his people. Instead, with much grace and pastoral sensitivity he admonished them to love each other. As is to be expected, not everyone in the congregation thought Edwards should be fired; a number of people agreed with his position. Edwards knew those people would have a difficult time getting along with those who were advocating for his dismissal. He encouraged those people with these words:

But however wrong you may think others have done, maintain, with great diligence and watchfulness, a Christian meekness and sedateness of spirit: and labor, in this respect, to excel others who are of a contrary part: and this will [be] the best victory: for “he that rules his spirit, is better than he that takes a city” [Prov. 16:32]. Therefore let nothing be done through strife or vainglory: indulge no revengeful spirit in any wise; but watch and pray against it . . .” (You can find this sermon online or in The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader).

For these reasons (and many others) I admire Jonathan Edwards and his ministry.

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