David Brainerd was clearly very dear to Jonathan Edwards.
The young evangelist to the native Indians, whose journal has become one of the most endearing classics of missionary devotion/biography, held a special place in Jonathan Edwards’s heart. For one, the young Brainerd had a special relationship with Edwards’s daughter Jerusha, who nursed him during his dying days. For two, Edwards edited Brianerd’s journals himself, becoming his best selling book during his own lifetime. For three, Brainerd died in Edwards’s own home and the Puritan preacher performed his funeral sermon on October 12th, 1747, three days after the young evangelist died from tuberculosis.
This funeral sermon, entitled, True Saints, When Absent from the Body, Are Present with the Lord, is contained in the Hendrickson edition of Jonathan Edwards’s sermons, and is a stellar example of a Puritan funeral sermon. Like most Puritan sermons, it was long, filled with doctrine, avoided sentimentality and superficiality at all costs (so ubiquitous in modern eulogies today), and was aimed to pierce the heart.
Edwards is working upon the text of 2 Corinthians 5:8 which says, “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.” As with almost all sermons of Jonathan Edwards, he does not depart from his standard tripartite formulation of text, doctrine, application. So, in the opening paragraphs, Edwards gives a brief contextual analysis from the Apostle Paul’s Corinthian correspondence. In so doing, Edwards reminds his hearers of the Apostle’s own courage in facing both danger and death in order to bring the Gospel to places where it has yet to be heard. Edwards’s own hearers would have no doubt made immediate connections to Brainerd’s own life and ministry among the Indians.
From this, Edwards deduces the following doctrine: “Departed souls of saints go to be with Christ in the following respects…” Then Edwards gives several implications including: “they go to dwell in the same abode with the glorified human nature of Christ” (p. 417); “the souls of true saints, when they leave their bodies at death, go to be with Christ, as they go to dwell in the immediate, full and constant sight or view of him” (p. 420); “departed souls of saints are with Christ, as they enjoy a glorious and immediate intercourse and converse with him” (p. 422) and a few others.
What Edwards is trying to do here, approaching from multiple angles, is to assure his hearers that those who have been converted to Christ, do immediately and without hindrance go directly into the blessed and glorious presence of Jesus Christ, the God-Man, who reigns in Trinitarian splendor with the Father and Spirit. There is no waiting. There is no delay. There is no place of purgation (contra: Roman Catholicism). After death, comes the blessed state.
As he gives this great assurance, Edwards ruminates on one of his favorite theological doctrines: the Beatific Vision. This is the concept that Heaven largely consists of a joyous, active, gazing upon the eternal beauty, majesty, and wonder of the divine nature of Jesus Christ. Far from “eternally green golf courses” and cartoonish views of heaven as clouds, harps, and halos, Edwards reveals the very thing that makes Heaven so heavenly – Christ is gloriously, dominantly, present.
Their beatifical vision of God is in Christ, who is that brightness or effulgence of God’s glory, by which His glory shines forth in Heaven, to the view of saints and angels there, as well as here on earth. This is the Sun of righteousness, that is not only the light of the world, but is also the sun that enlightens the heavenly Jerusalem; by whose bright beams it is that the glory of God shines forth there, to the enlightening and making happy of all the glorious inhabitants. (p. 420).
In this way, True Saints, becomes a joyful expression of eschatological gospel realities. Edwards makes sure his hearers know that this is not a somber occasion, but one for true rejoicing for God’s people. He stocks the sermon with language of “Christ’s kingly majesty,” “ineffable delight,” and “infinite complacence.”
By way of application, Edwards looks to the gifts and graces that Brainerd had which showed his own longing for Heaven most clearly. We note that it is not until late in the sermon that Edwards even mentions Brainerd specifically. This sermon is more about Jesus Christ then the deceased, that much is clear. When Edwards does draw the young missionary into the view of the mourners gathered through his oratory, he shows many of the ways that Brainerd lived in such a manner as to bring the heavenly Beatific Vision into better perspective through the missionary’s mortal pilgrimage here on earth.
He mentions several things in particular: Brainerd’s natural talents of mind and social disposition, his extraordinary piety as a lover of Jesus Christ, and especially his willingness to endure loss and hardship for the sake of the Gospel. In one place, Edwards extols,
He in his whole course acted as one who had indeed sold all for Christ, and had entirely devoted himself to God, and made his glory the highest end, and was fully determined to spend his whole time and strength in his service (p. 439).
By this point, many hearers in the congregation (not to mention modern readers) have not only heard a good bit about Heaven, but in a uniquely Edwardsean way were able to “see” and “taste” it. Not only that, but they have been given an example of a man (Brainerd) who lived in such a way through his selflessness and sacrifice that those beauties and joys were shown manifestly in his life.
Edwards then concludes the sermon with a post-script. In this portion, (noted separately on pages 444 – 448 of the Hendrickson edition), Edwards gives a fuller treatment of the details of Brainerd’s life than he was able to do in the main portions of the spoken sermon.