The Preaching Ministry of Jonathan Edwards (Part 2/3)

(Publishing Note: This article by Matthew Everhard appears in full in the Westminster Society Journal, volume 2, Means of Grace. Westminster Society Press, Summer 2018).

Preaching a “Big God” Theology

Edwards’s goal was to declare the sovereignty of God in all things. He preached what today might be called a “Big God” theology. Edwards’s Trinitarian theology permeates all of his preaching. Every sermon was carefully crafted to let his people feel the power of God’s judgment, dread the holiness of his righteous standard, weep for the guilt of their own sin, and cling to the cross of Jesus Christ as their own hope. The God of the Bible wasn’t merely tangential or peripheral to his preaching; it was central. By beginning and ending with God rather than the needs and feelings of man, Edwards kept his sermons focused on the pure fountain and source of all joy and dread, God. Themes of salvation, atonement, revival, and repentance in his preaching all pointed to the greatness of God’s dominion.  Edwards knew that if his people were to experience true joy in this mortal life, it would come through real encounters with the Resurrected Christ, not by the oratory of the Enlightenment preachers, who extolled man’s virtue, intelligence, and volitional freedom. In a way, the form of the sermons themselves were merely circumstantial to the encounter that God would have with his people in the very event of the preaching act.  Even when George Whitefield came through town, Edwards reminded his people that the truest and purest joys and fears were to be found in what Whitefield spoke and preached, not in the manner that he taught it or the richness of his voice.[1] Edwards wanted his people to discover and encounter God Himself in a saving way that would last eternally, not merely through motivational speeches or “pick-me-ups” which would fade away in a matter of weeks or even years.

Thus, Edwards held a high view of preaching, possibly even an exalted one. Wilson H. Kimnach, writing the introduction to the Matthean Parables series, says in his brief essay “Edwards the Preacher” that “the preacher is, then, a ‘chosen one’ with a distinct charisma as a result of his call to serve Christ.”[2] Edwards believed that it was the pastor-preacher who is designated with the divine role of declaring God’s greatness to His people.  He then becomes a chief ambassador of joy for the King. Gary Crampton, in his interesting book, A Conversation with Jonathan Edwards quotes the Puritan as saying, “Ministers are God’s messengers, sent forth by Him; and in their office and administration among their people, represent His person, stand in His stead, as those that are sent to declare His mind, to do His works, and to speak in His name.”[3] Speaking on another occasion in the context of a discussion of the minister’s divine commission to represent the authority of Jesus Christ through the written Word preached, the Northampton Divine said:

But if it was plain to them [his congregation] that I was under the infallible guidance of Christ, then I should have more power. And if it was plain to all the world of Christians that I was under the infallible guidance of Christ, and that I was sent forth to teach the world the will of Christ, then I should have power in all the world.[4]

Clearly then, when Edwards thought of himself and other ministers of the gospel, he saw himself as a divine commissioner with representative and delegated authority, to declare both the Law and the gospel of God. When he spoke the deep truths of Scripture, he recognized that he was tasked with giving a human voice to the divine Word. He knew that these truths set people free from the law of sin and death, and therefore he savored his role in their ransom. For this reason, Edwards practically expected the dynamic power of God to be at work in and among his people as the Word went out, even though the power to call the fire from heaven did not reside in him, but in the Spirit. Perhaps this is why Edwards was used of God in two significant revivals and wrote some of the most important works on revivalism. He spoke a message of God, fully expecting to be used as God’s very mouthpiece, yielding the results of the harvest that the Lord ordained.

In probably one of his most illustrious quotes on the nature of gospel preaching, Edwards says in his sermon “Christ the Example of Ministers”:

Ministers [should] travail for the conversion and salvation of their hearers. They should imitate the faithfulness of Christ in his ministry, in speaking whatsoever God had commanded him, and declaring the whole counsel of God. They should imitate him with the manner of his preaching; who taught not as the scribes, but with authority, boldly, zealously, and fervently; insisting chiefly on the most important things in religion.[5]

In brief, Edwards preached so that his people would be forced to encounter God. Yet these divine meetings occurred through what are called today “the ordinary means of grace”; Bible reading, preaching, prayer, and the right administration of the sacraments. Personally, I sense that there are some who would still find Edwards’s “Big God” theology compelling even today. Perhaps you are among them. Edwards would be delighted that many still share his conviction that the pulpit of the local church is still the divinely ordained means of communicating God’s truths to the world.

Preaching Today

But if we are honest, doing what Edwards did verbatim would not “work” today. Suppose your pastor entered the pulpit with a white powdered wig, a black Geneva gown, and read a 60 to 90 minute sermon from handwritten notes. I get uncomfortable even imagining what would begin to happen in the pews if I tried that in my congregation.  I would guess that our Wi-Fi network would max out as people deftly checked their phones. I can imagine peoples of all ages making multiple restroom breaks just to help the time pass. I can imagine the nursery team being overwhelmed due to the length of the service, and sending up signal flares to call for backup! What I cannot imagine is visitors returning to the church the following week. No, we would be foolish to try to emulate Edwards’s methods, even if we fully imbibe his theology. We don’t live in Edwards’s day and shouldn’t pretend we do.

That being said, thinking about most American Evangelical preaching today is alarming. I doubt Edwards would have even recognized it as “preaching.” There are many storytellers, but few expositors. Many “big personalities,” but not much “Big God” theology. I fear greatly that we live in an age that is in danger of being swept up in the teachings of men who have the winsome power of a George Whitefield, but without his hearty and faithful doctrine. The Church of Jesus Christ today has a plethora of men who are able to gather large crowds to hear them preach (read: give motivational talks), who purchase their DVD’s, and who tune in to their podcasts. And yet their doctrine is as thin and dry as a wafer. I have previously written on this topic in my article “The Cool Pastor,” in which I express serious concern about the way that cultural Christianity has created a seemingly unlimited number of celebrity pastors for itself, only to find their teaching void of rich, biblical content.[6] Much of the preaching given by leaders in the evangelical church today has so far departed from the Puritan style of preaching doctrinal content as to have become unrecognizable in homiletical style and form. Not only are specific doctrinal assertions absent from most sermons, but many pastors view doctrine in general as unhelpful, confusing, and irrelevant. Many have forsaken expository preaching or verse-by-verse preaching en toto as a means of communication. Andy Stanley, for instance, writes:

Guys that preach verse-by-verse through books of the Bible—that is just cheating. It’s cheating because that would be easy, first of all. That isn’t how you grow people. No one in the Scripture modeled that. There’s not one example of that. All Scripture is equally inspired, but not all Scripture is equally applicable or relevant to every stage of life. My challenge is to read culture and to read an audience and ask: What is the felt need? Or perhaps what is more important, what is an unfelt need they need to feel that I can address? Because if they don’t feel it, then they won’t address it.[7]

Whether or not Stanley’s remarks about verse-by-verse preaching as “cheating” can be considered tongue-in-cheek, his view sadly reflects a perspective on preaching held by very many people today: surely there must be something more helpful and important (read: entertaining) than merely preaching the Bible a line at a time, right? My concern is that this point of view which Stanley has articulated is far too common.

At the same time, there is a ray of hope. Many of us are going ad fontes, back to the original sources. Ministers and lay people alike are being transformed by going back to more ancient sources of inspiration. Edwards studies, for instance, are burgeoning in many academic spheres. Reprints of his written works are selling well too, and some publishers, like Crossway for instance, are bringing more Edwards-related materials to the fore every year. Twenty-six volumes of his works have already been published by Yale University, and the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University Online is continually adding newly transcribed sermons and other writings to their digital database, bringing Edwards’s thoughts on the centrality of God into the homes of billions around the world. There are even podcasts devoted to discussing and promoting his teaching and discussing his sermons point by point.[8] Let’s spend the rest of this article looking at two specific ways that we can learn from Edwards as preachers and parishioners (even if we never don a wig or black gown).

 

[1] Jonathan Edwards, Sermons by Jonathan Edwards on the Matthean Parables: Divine Husbandman (On the Parable of the Sower and Seed), vol. 2, eds. Kenneth P. Minkema, Adriaan C. Neele, and Bryan K. Kimnach (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 25–30.

[2] Jonathan Edwards, Sermons by Jonathan Edwards on the Matthean Parables: True and False Christians. vol 1. On the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Edited by Kenneth P. Minkema, Adriaan C. Neele, and Bryan K. Kimnach. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 2.

[3] Gary Crampton, A Conversation with Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 48–49.

[4] Edwards, True and False Christians, 2.

[5] Edwards, Sermons, 455.

[6] Matthew Everhard, “The Cool Pastor: Oxymoron or Just a Regular Moron.” The Aquila Report. November 24, 2013. Accessed August 16, 2017. http://theaquilareport.com/the-cool-pastor-an-oxymoron-or-just-a-regular-moron/.

[7] Andy Stanley, “Andy Stanley on Communication. Part Two.” The Exchange: A Blog by Ed Stetzer. March 5, 2009. Accessed May 17, 2015. http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2009/march/andy-stanley-on-communication-part-2.html

[8] For instance, the Reformed Forum has a podcast show entitled “East of Eden” in which the works and theology of Jonathan Edwards are discussed exclusively.

 

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