The History of the Work of Redemption (published posthumously in 1773; now Volume IX of the Yale Works), is Jonathan Edwards’ attempt to retell the entire story of human history from the divine perspective of God’s sovereign plan. It is a meta-narrative that intends to cast the unfolding drama of redemptive history as a coherent, divinely driven unity, expressly controlled and compelled by God’s glorious determination. As such, it is unabashedly a theocentric retelling of human history, and a direct counterattack to the prevailing, contemporary Enlightenment view that mankind is driving its own history, propelled by the twin oars of human virtue and innovation.
Originally a sermon series preached in 1739, Edwards had great plans for his History. Before his untimely death, Edwards had planned to convert this sermon series, existing now only as a compilation of sermon manuscripts, into a comprehensive theology that would be classified in today’s rubric as “biblical theology.” His desire was so great to complete this work, that it almost prevented him from accepting the position of President of Princeton College (then, the College of New Jersey). Complimentary to other printed theologies available in his day that approached doctrine more systematically, such as Calvin’s Institutes, and Watson’s Body of Divinity, Edwards was hoping to create an authoritative, chronological work. Here, he would progress from creation through the fall, developing the themes of the major covenants, culminating in the coming of Messiah, and then driving victoriously towards the consummation of all things in the eternal age.
Jonathan Edwards Jr, his son, described the blueprint of the Puritan divine’s would-be magnum opus as follows:
“A body of divinity, in a new method, and in the form of a history; in which he was first to show, how the most remarkable events, in all ages from the fall to the present times, recorded in sacred and profane history, were adapted to promote the work of redemption; and then to trace, by the light of scripture prophecy, how the same work should be yet further carried on even to the end of the world.”
As a sermon series, Edwards preached some thirty messages on the text “For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool, but my righteousness will be forever, and my salvation to all generations” (Isaiah 51:8). His thesis which he carries on throughout the entire 1739 preaching series was “The work of redemption is a work that God carries on from the fall of man to the end of the world.” Typically, he describes this work as a “grand design,” always emphasizing that God is the driving and determining cause of all things. Interestingly, Edwards does not begin in earnest with creation (but might have if he had completed his full project) but rather starts the second sermon in earnest with the Fall, after a brief overview of his goals in the first message.
Edwards then divides biblical history into three primary epochs:  the Fall of man to the incarnation of Christ,  from Christ’s incarnation until his resurrection (His humiliation),  from thence to the end of the world.
Period One Edwards subdivides, primarily along the lines of the historical covenants; Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. He includes the captivity in Babylon. “Types of Christ,” or ways that Christ is forefigured in the Old Testament are replete throughout. He labors to show the revealing and fulfilling of Biblical prophecy, especially as it portends to Christ as the Messiah. Towards the close of the first triad, Edwards includes a section on “improvement” (or application) as all Puritan sermons would. It is notable, however, that the application sections are lighter than most Edwardsean sermons.
In Period Two, Edwards primarily focuses on themes related to the atonement, or the “purchase” (his term) of redemption fulfilled in Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Edwards believed the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to be central to the Biblical drama of history. The Old Testament had anticipated His coming; the New Testament sought to apply His life, death, and resurrection to believers’ souls and lives. Without any doubt, Edwards viewed the Christ Event (as one of my professors winsomely used to call it) as the pin that holds all of history together as a cohesive unity. No event, no matter how small, fails to point in some way to the centrality of Christ and His cross.
In the third Triad, Period Three, Edwards not only fills out the other major portions of the New Testament drama, i.e. the Ascension of Christ and the work of the Apostles, but he also takes the work beyond the Apostolic Age, and into post-biblical history, incorporating other major events into one sweeping narrative. Thus, he appends the destruction of the Empire of Rome, the rise and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, and exalts the work of the Protestant Reformers. He views these events as the continuing story of redemption, not at all separated from the events recounted authoritatively in Scripture. As a post-millennialist, Edwards anticipated great success in the Gospel mission of the church. As a revivalist, Edwards continually shows his fascination – even absorption – with those times in which true religion is greatly fanned into flame. Of course, Edwards believed himself to be living in such a time, and from our contemporay position of retrospective, we must agree.
Throughout, there are strong motifs of spiritual warfare. However this “warfare” is not the trite, egocentric prayers for daily victory over petty sins that many believers engage in today; but rather the large-scale, cosmic conflict between God’s gloriously advancing army versus Satan’s feeble, but indefatigable resistance. The inevitable smashing of the Devil’s terrorist troops – more like guerrilla warfare than a fairly contested battlefield conflict – is a foregone conclusion, but must be played out in real-time.
As Edwards concludes the sermon series – remember: the final work was never completed as he envisioned it to be – he closes with improvements on the authority of Scripture, and warnings against apostasy and false religion (read: Roman Catholicism and “Mahomatism,” the latter already being perceived as an existential threat to Christendom). He ends with a glorious section on the joys of Heaven for those who repent and believe in the beautiful work of redemption purchased through Christ’s blood.
We are left to wonder what might have happened had Edwards finished his work and lived longer into his presidency at Princeton. Students of Reformed theology in particular and evangelicalism in general might have well become the heirs to one of the most significant works yet written in the young American Colonies. However it was not to be. If Edwards would be consistent with the premise of his own extant drafts in sermonic form, he would be compelled to admit that it was not part of God’s “grand design” for the book to ever be completed as he hoped.