It is time to wish America’s greatest theologian a happy birthday. I had a piece of the cake this morning, after our Sunday school class on Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who was born three hundred years ago today in East Windsor, Connecticut.
The facts of Edwards’ life and the influence of his ministry are well known. Jonathan Edwards was a devoted minister, faithfully serving his congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts, for twenty-five years. He was a famous preacher, whose “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is still one of the most familiar sermons in American history. He was a prolific writer. His complete writings, now published in a major edition by Yale University Press, include A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737), Distinguishing Marks of the Work of the Spirit of God (1741), A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746), The Life of David Brainerd (1749), Freedom of the Will (1754), Original Sin (1758), and A History of the Work of Redemption (1774).
That’s not all. Edwards was a loving father of eleven, whose children and grandchildren made such significant contributions to American life that the clan can be considered a dynasty. He was a successful evangelist, whose gospel ministry was at the forefront of the international revival known as the Great Awakening. He was a compassionate missionary, reaching out to the Mahican Indians of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. And he was a learned scholar, who had just been named President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), when he suddenly died as the result of a smallpox inoculation.
Obviously Jonathan Edwards was an exceptionally gifted man—one of the greatest intellects in the history of our nation. But what has made his theology so significant for the life of the church?
The answer is that the whole of his life and thought was devoted to the glory of God. This was the theme of one of Edwards’ most important works, drafted near the end of his life. The book is called The End for Which God Created the World, and its thesis is very simple. According to Edwards, “The great end of God’s works… is indeed but ONE; and this one end is most properly and comprehensively called, THE GLORY OF GOD” [quoted in John Piper in God’s Passion for His Glory (Crossway, 1998), p. 246].
Perhaps more thoroughly than any theologian before, or since, Jonathan Edwards had worked out the implications of the first question and answer in the Westminster Shorter Catechism: What is the chief end of man? Answer: To glorify God and enjoy him forever. This was the great biblical truth that mastered his theology, motivated his preaching, and molded his ministry to his family and church. Edwards believed that the whole universe was designed to demonstrate the knowledge, power, sovereignty, and grace of God—in a word, his glory.
That conviction that all of life was for the glory of God did not come at the end of Edwards’ life, but was there from the very beginning—when he first came to faith in Jesus Christ. Since Edwards came from a pastor’s home, he was familiar with the Christian gospel from his earliest days. Yet it was not until his college years that he trusted Christ for his salvation. He had been wrestling with weighty theological questions, trying to understand the justice of God in the salvation of the elect and the reprobation of the wicked. Eventually he reasoned his way to accepting the absolute sovereignty of God. Yet he accepted this only with his mind, not in his heart.
It was not until the Holy Spirit warmed his affections to God that Edwards could truly be said to be a Christian. The breakthrough came while he was meditating on 1 Timothy 1:17: “Now unto the King eternal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever, Amen.” Edwards had read these words before, but this time, he wrote, “there came into my soul… a sense of the glory of the divine being; a new sense, quite different from anything I ever experienced before… . I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was; and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be wrapped up to God in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him” [quoted in George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 41].
In the days that followed, Edwards would walk out in the fields to be alone with God. “And as I was walking there,” he wrote, “and looked up on the sky and clouds; there came into my mind a sweet sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God that I know not how to express.” Edwards later observed that from that time forwards, he had “a more full and constant sense of the absolute sovereignty of God, and a delight in that sovereignty; and… more of the sense of the glory of Christ, as a mediator” [in Marsden, 54]. With his conversion came a passion for God’s glory.
This is the kind of theology we need today: theology for the glory of God. We do not live for ourselves, but for God, and the sooner we understand this, the better. The reason God created us—indeed, the reason he created the entire universe—is so that He would receive our praise. To know this is to know what life is all about. It explains why we work, why we play, why we worship, and why we serve God in the world.
The pursuit of God’s glory is at the heart of any life that is truly pleasing to God. The longer we live for Christ, the more his glory comes to dominate our horizon, until everything we do becomes an expression of our love for him. There are few better examples of how to do this than Jonathan Edwards. He was meditating on, writing about, and living for God’s glory right to the end of his life—a life that began three hundred years today, and that even now is still devoted to God’s praise.
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