The Preaching of Jonathan Edwards (Part 3/3)

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

 

Preaching “Affectively” (Like Edwards)

The first thing that we might say about Edwards is that his preaching was designed to be affective (not to be confused with effective). That is, his sermons were aimed like an arrow resting on a taut bow string at the very heart of the man. In his great work, The Religious Affections, Edwards describes the affections as, “No other than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.”[1] The word “inclination” is probably key here, as affections are different from mere emotions. Neither are they passions.[2]  Early on in the treatise, Edwards names off and briefly comments upon ten examples of the sorts of religious affections he is talking about: fear, hope, love, joy, hatred, desire, sorrow, gratitude, compassion, and zeal.[3] We might observe in his preaching patterns that every sermon was designed to stir, perturb, or provoke one or more of these affections.

In his powerful and provocative work entitled The Supremacy of God in Preaching, John Piper mentions ten ways in which Jonathan Edwards preached the gospel with both power and authority: 1) By stirring up the holy affections of his hearers, 2) by enlightening the mind through logical consistency, 3) by saturating his messages with Scripture, 4) by employing analogies and images that captured the imagination, 5) by using threats and warnings consistent with Scripture’s balance of Law and gospel, 6) by pleading for a response from his hearers, 7) by probing the inner workings of the heart, 8) by yielding to the Holy Spirit in prayer, 9) by being broken and tenderhearted as a minister and, 10) with an intensity commensurate to the message of the gospel itself.[4]

In one richly compelling chapter, Piper discusses the way that “gladness” should infiltrate the very act of preaching itself. He says, “A pastor who is not manifestly glad in God does not glorify God. He cannot make God look glorious if knowing and serving this God gives no gladness to the soul.”[5] Here, Piper intimates that even the act of preaching should be joyful. He draws a very strong distinction between joy and flippancy, but nevertheless he argues persuasively that delivery of joyful news should be done joyfully. If a runner brought news of a victory in battle, would not his face, body, and general comportment reflect the tenor of the news that he brought? What other way can good news be communicated but by an advocate that is himself set free by the joy of the freedom he proclaims? Piper sums this truth up rightly when he says that, “One reason an essential element of love is the enjoyment of our work is that you can’t consistently give what you don’t have. If you don’t give gladness, you don’t give the gospel, you give legalism.”[6]

Piper is wise to remind us that even when we are called to preach the difficult and hard truths of the Christian faith, we should do so with joy on our faces. There is no reason why sermons on holiness, obedience, suffering, and even the wrath to come must be delivered with deep frowns and sorrowful eyes. As a matter of fact, even Edwards’s most notoriously dark sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” concludes with a joyful invitation to repentance and new life. Though many know of Edwards’s frightening imagery of backsliding and hellfire, not many are as aware of his concluding imagery at the end of the sermon. This great image is one of Christ opening a window or door and beckoning as many as are called to enter into this way of salvation. We note again the language of happiness and joy in the conclusion as Edwards pleads with sinners to repent:

Many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God.[7]

 

I think Edwards realized this same truth that Piper expounds in The Supremacy of God, when the Northampton pastor once preached, “And how joyful will it be to [pastors] to consider that they have been the instruments of so advancing the kingdom and glory of their Lord in the world and bringing home those to Him that He has purchased with His blood.”[8] Again he asks, “Is not that honorable to such little, inferior creatures as we to be employed to do that which, when done, rejoices the heart of the Son of God?”[9] If we are to do Edwardsean preaching, not only should we preach joy, but we should preach joy, joyfully. We should preach dread, dreadfully. We should preach love, lovingly.

Preaching Doctrine (Like Edwards)

Revisit, if you will, that image of a pastor today trying to imitate Edwards with his wig and 90 minute sermon, thick with doctrine. Probably the reason that such theologically rich preaching would be ill-received today is that pastors have unwittingly trained our people not to expect it. In this way, a vicious cycle ensues. Pastors give their congregations less and less doctrinal substance, virtually “un-training” their people to receive it. This thereby lowers their expectations and demands for the same. One wonders what would happen if pastors were more intentional about re-asserting doctrine into our sermons the way that Edwards did.

Including a doctrinal section in one’s sermon is not unique to Edwards. (Almost all Puritans commonly did the same). But it is consistent with nearly every single one of Edwards’s extant sermons. In almost every manuscript sermon of the Northampton divine,[10] Edwards gave a very succinct definition of a Christian doctrine drawn from the scriptural text about which he spoke. Edwards, like all of the Puritans of his age, was constant in his use of doctrinal content in his sermons and writings.[11] As was consistent with the Puritan model of “text, doctrine, application,”[12] his sermons stated up-front, and in his own words what doctrine he was preaching on, making his theological goals overt and clear to his audience. In this way, Edwards safe-guarded what is true, pure, lovely, and commendable (Philippians 4:8). Moreover, his congregation learned to discern the true from the false.

Remember, in the Puritan age fathers regularly catechized their family and children by reviewing the sermon on the Lord’s Day afternoon, expecting even young ones to learn the doctrinal context that was given by the minister.[13] This is most easily done, of course, if the doctrinal statement of the sermon is given explicitly rather than being given implicitly or merely assumed throughout the course of the weekly sermon. Edwards’s doctrinal statements were always well-crafted, and were meant to be memorized and absorbed by the minds of both the educated and the neophytes in his congregation.

Looking at a couple of his doctrinal assertions, we realize just how much care and shaping he put into his formative, propositional truths. For instance, in Charity and Its Fruits, his doctrine for the occasion was gloriously simple: “Heaven is a world of love.”[14] On an earlier occasion, his doctrinal statement in his sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:3 must have struck many hearers like a dagger to the heart “That all that man can do, and all that they can suffer, can never make up for the want of sincere Christian love in the heart.”[15] I can only imagine fathers noting these poignant words in their notebooks and returning to the Sabbath day meal table to discuss this rich axiom with their families over dinner.

Sometimes Edwards’s doctrinal statements were much more complicated. In his series True and False Christians from Matthew 25:1–12, he gave this more extended, two-part doctrine for the church to learn: “I. That the visible church of Christ is made up of true and false Christians. II. Those two sorts of Christians do in many things agree, and yet in many other things do greatly differ.”[16] While far wordier than the two examples mentioned above, this statement too is rich with insight, waiting to be explicated in discussion by families in the home. This two-part statement begs to be dissected: What do we mean by the “visible church?” In what ways are true and false Christians alike? In what ways are they different? Thus, by crafting very well intentioned and carefully honed doctrinal statements, Edwards both encouraged and enabled his people to think carefully on the doctrinal content of the weekly sermon.

If we are to help our people discover real and lasting joys in Christ, we will have to help them to discover the joy of Christian doctrine. Far from being perceived as “unnecessary” or “a divider” between Christian denominations, the Bible itself views doctrine as something intricately valuable to faith and growth in sanctification. In the seven uses of the word “doctrine” in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus in the ESV, the Apostle used the term in an unequivocally positive light. Paul bids his young co-laborers for the gospel to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), “adorn the doctrine of God our savior” (Titus 2:10), and to hold firm to sound doctrine to enable the church to discern truth from error (1 Timothy 1:10, 1 Timothy 6:3). Doctrine is rarely if ever seen in the Bible as being unnecessarily divisive, but rather as a faithful, God-honoring summation of the faith “once for all given to the saints” (Jude 3).

Inspired by the clarity of Edwards and his peers in the doctrinal portions of Puritan sermons, I have recently been motivated to try something similar. After an opening illustration aimed at introducing the passage at hand, and giving the congregation some background information on the text which we are studying (the first part of the tripartite Puritan formulation), I have attempted stating a doctrinal assertion as Edwards does. I began articulating a particular truth in one or two lines, and informed the congregation that this is the immediate subject matter of the sermon. Intentionally, I place the doctrinal proposition on the Power Point in the view of all as I preach, and encourage the congregation to write it down and discuss it later as a family.

For instance, in a sermon on Luke 12:22–34, I recently defined the doctrine of worry as follows: “Worry is a creaturely lapse of trust in either God’s sovereignty over creation, or His benevolence towards those He loves.” In this way, worry is defined as a problem as it relates to God as our divine protector and Father, rather than merely a troubling feeling or emotion that we all experience. On a sermon on Luke 15:1–15, I defined irresistible grace as “Christ’s persistent pursuit of rogue sinners, resulting in their gracious capture and joyful return home.” In an Edwardsean way, I made a special effort to show how this doctrine is joyful, rather than merely engaging in an intellectual wrestling match about the divine decrees. In a sermon on Luke 4:16–30, I defined preaching as “a Spirit-empowered means of grace, in which promises and warnings of God are declared, resulting in either transformed lives or hardened hearts.” This doctrinal definition also helped me to form the three parts of my sermon more clearly: first, a discussion on the “means of grace,” second an explanation of the promises and warnings of God, and third an application that reminds hearers that preaching either transforms our lives or hardens our hearts. In this case, the doctrinal assertion also served as the outline for the sermon, even ending with what Edwards might have called the “use of examination,” to determine whether or not the preaching of the Word was hardening or softening the hearts of the hearers.

Concluding this section, I should say that I have observed anecdotally that giving a well-reasoned doctrinal statement at the beginning of the sermon helps in several significant ways. First, it helps the preacher to better articulate his outline and formulate his own trajectory for the sermon. As I noted above, a well-formed doctrinal statement may actually become the very outline of the message. Second, a succinct, well-crafted doctrine allows the congregation to learn or review a doctrinal formulation in the fresh words of the preacher. Once or twice, I have also placed my own doctrine next to a more standard formulation from the Westminster Confession or Heidelberg Catechism. In this way, the congregation gets two perspectives by which to approach the same concept. Finally, by introducing a doctrinal proposition at the beginning of the sermon (even if it is not stated as such) the preacher is better able to ensure that his overall preaching ministry is informed by the great truths of the Christian faith, rather than steered and directed by the perceived needs of a very impatient and self-centered culture. I believe this also allows us as Christians to experience our joy in Christ and the gospel, as over against other more humanistic loci.

We Will Never Be (Exactly) Like Jonathan Edwards

The bottom-line is that we will never be quite like Jonathan Edwards. He was a unique genius in his own age and time that we are unlikely to be able to replicate. Most of us were not given his intellectual abilities, nor were any of us perched on the unique stage of redemption history at the cusp of the Great Awakening as he was. Probably we should never wear a wig into the pulpit or preach a 90-minute sermon. (Unless styles and conventions suddenly change dramatically in our times!). However we can be like him in a great many other ways. We can live as preachers who faithfully feed our congregations with Bible-saturated messages and sermons week in and week out. We can serve the local church with the ordinary means of grace as he did, offering our people a rich diet of Word and Sacrament. We can make our doctrinal statements in our sermons clear and helpful for our people to apprehend and apply. More than that, we can preach the very same good news of the Gospel with all the affective power of voice, body, and intellect that God has given each of us. This, even if we do not have Edwards’s intellectual prowess or Whitefield’s command of voice and pulpit presence. Indeed, we can preach affective sermons that are aimed at the hearts of our people; that the Gospel may pierce deeply and profoundly, trusting that He will pour out His blessings upon our generation, even as He did among the Colonies so gloriously in times past.

[1] WJE 2:96.

[2] “In eighteenth century parlance, passions were irrational and out-of-control emotions that were to be avoided at all costs; and affections were not irrational, but rational, deeper springs of action.” Sean Michael Lucas, God’s Grand Design: The Theological Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 92.

[3] WJE 2:102.

[4] John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 81–106.

[5] Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, 53.

[6] Ibid., 53.

[7] Nichols, A Guided Tour, 201.

[8] Edwards, The Salvation of Souls, 81.

[9] Ibid., 86.

[10] There are some occasions in his longer series such as Charity and True and False Christians in which he does not give a doctrine because he is following up on a previous sermon and instead giving extended application or “improvement” of a doctrine given previously, possibly earlier in the same day.

[11] J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 277–290.

[12] Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 99–101.

[13] Ibid., 104.

[14] WJE 8:368.

[15] WJE 8:176.

[16] Edwards, True and False Christians, 64.

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