The History of the Work of Redemption: Synopsis

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: [1] the Fall of man to the incarnation of Christ, [2] from Christ’s incarnation until his resurrection (His humiliation), [3] 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.


So You Wanna Be an Edwards Scholar? An Authoritative Introduction for Newbies

So, you’ve heard John Piper preach on Jonathan Edwards’s majestic view of eternal joy.

You’ve even followed that up by reading Desiring God and a couple other Piper books, all featuring dozens of quotations and snippets from the dead Puritan Pastor from Northampton. And now you’ve officially joined a growing cadre of pastors, scholars, and interested layman in declaring:

I want to be a Jonathan Edwards scholar! 

But with literally thousands of pages of material in print by and about Jonathan Edwards, with Edwards’s own works and books numbering in the dozens; all while hundreds of doctoral dissertations float around in the academisphere, and seeming innumerable websites devoted to the famed Colonial wig-wearer proliferate – just where does one actually begin anyways?

In this article, I want to suggest a few of the most important tips and strategies you will need to know in order to become a wizened Jonathan Edwards aficionado. 

Edwards Scholar

1. Read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” But Don’t Read it Alone. 

Probably everyone who  knows anything about Jonathan Edwards knows about his great sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. It’s true that Sinners is Edwards’s most reprinted piece, being contained in dozens of anthologies and collections. It’s also true that the preaching of Sinners at Enfield was one of Edwards’s defining moments in the First Great Awakening. Clearly it is a masterpiece of both rhetoric and a classic exemplar of period pulpit oratory, being filled with stunning and memorable imagery. But it is not true that this piece can be read alone. I was talking with an English teacher recently who taught American literature in the public schools for over 30 years, but had never read anything more from Edwards than Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Inwardly, I died for her, since Edwards has so many other well known sermons that balance the obvious horror in this great message.

I would recommend balancing Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God with a healthy dose of two other sermons. First, I recommend Heaven is a World of Love, the concluding sermon in Edwards’s series on 1 Corinthians 13, entitled Charity and Its Fruits. For one thing, Edwards’s view of Heaven will go far in showing his amazing ability to articulate the joys of Heaven too, beside the terrors of Hell. For another thing, Heaven is a World of Love will give the reader perhaps a better example of Edwards’s overall sermonic skills and tendencies, since the reader is not captivated exclusively by the striking imagery so dreadfully presented in Sinners.

A second sermon that perhaps even better illustrates the overall themes and emphases of Edwards’s preaching is A Divine and Supernatural Light. This particular sermon is probably closer to the very center of Edwards’s overall message to the people of his Northampton church and the Puritan listeners of his day. A Divine and Supernatural Light  contains many of the quotations and paragraphs that John Piper regularly uses in his sermons which may have even gotten you interested in studying Edwards in the first place. You will likely find this sermon both enjoyable and somewhat familiar.

Once you read these and a few more of Edwards’s most well known sermons (God Glorified in Man’s Dependence; The Excellency of Christ; God’s Sovereignty in the Salvation of Man etc.) you are probably ready to go on to a good biography or two.

2. Biographies. 

With a compelling historical figure like Jonathan Edwards, whose story is central both to the development of Reformed theology and to American history, there are no shortage of biographies available. Not only that, but many of the printed materials about Jonathan Edwards contain brief summaries of his life. Of course, you will want to be familiar with the shaping forces of what made Edwards who he really was – his period, his family life, and the pressures both ecclesiastical and familial which molded him.

So it’s probably time to settle down into a good biography.

I would recommend two (or three): The first is the masterful biography done by George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. This is probably the fullest treatment of Edwards that exists in print. In my own view, it excels all those that came before it. If you are daunted by the nearly 600 pages of detailed and documented information, thankfully Marsden has also given us a shorter treatment that I have reviewed here in his brief paperback, A Short Life. If both of those books whet your desire to delve into the biographical materials even further, I would also suggest you go on to read Iain Murray’s great book too for another perspective altogether.

3. The Online Edwards Center at Yale University. 

Now, having perused some of Edwards’s most famous sermons, and read a good biography or two on his life, you are ready to be truly inagurated into the fraternity that is Edwards scholarship by becoming aware of the greatest treasure trove available yet: the materials on the website of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University. 

Thankfully, the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University has done the whole world a major solid. The JEC has in fact, put everything – and I mean everything – online. For free.

This website has everything you will ever really need, all in one place. Do you want to dig into the Miscellanies? No problem. They are searchable here. Do you want to read Original Sin with the technical introduction to this important book? It’s here. Would you like to get into Edwards’s typological writings and read his Images of Divine Things? That too is all here. Complete and page numbered; ready for your academic citations. As a matter of fact, all 26 volumes of the printed works of Jonathan Edwards are online- free – for the taking. In fact, there are also enough digital volumes (not otherwise available in print form) to take you up to a grand total of 73 volumes of complete Works!

This of course is more than any mortal man can ever read in one lifetime, so you will have to be selective and take it at bite-sized chunks. Maybe we should talk about something more manageable… How about just an ordinary paperback?

4. Consider Print Paperbacks. 

If you are like me, you don’t just want to stare at a screen all day. You want something to hold in your hand. You want something you can take to the beach or tuck in your leather satchel without having to worry about eye-strain. As we all know, reading on the Kindle, tablet, or smartphone screen has its drawbacks for sure.

That’s why the Lord created paperbacks!

Once again, we find ourselves enjoying an over-abundance of blessing when it comes to studying Jonathan Edwards. Almost all of his major works are available in paperback editions, by a variety of publishers. Some are printed and laid out better than others, though, and the quality of readability varies. But at this point, the budding Edwards scholar should be choosing a few of Edwards’s most important works, and beginning reading them more thoroughly.

Personally, I recommend the Religious Affections. This is the Puritan Preacher’s attempt to help take a middle-of-the-road position on charismatic and emotional expressions, while still supporting the Revivals’ emphatically, despite their unusual manifestations. In short, this is one of his most important books.

In my opinion, all serious Edwards readers should have a copy of the Religious Affections, and begin underlining and annotating it. Understanding what Edwards says in this book (and also perhaps The Distinguishing Marks) is key to understanding Jonathan Edwards overall.

5. Familiarize Yourself with Edwards’s “Collected Works”

But should you find yourself wanting to have ALL of Edwards’s most important books and treatises in print form, you might want to consider obtaining either the Two Volume Set or begin collecting the authoritative Yale Works.

Let me differentiate the two.

  • The Two Volume Set. I have talked about this set previously here, so I won’t repeat what I’ve already said. But I simply must mention this: The Two Volumes has MOST of the major works of Edwards and certainly all of his most discussed and analyzed writings. However, it does have one major disadvantage – the print size (miniscule!) and quality are seriously lacking. Personally, I find this frustrating enough to cause me to pass it up every time I even think about pulling it off the shelf.
  • The Yale Works. The Yale Works is strong where the Two Volumes are weak – a great print quality, a nice large font, scholarly introductions to everything contained between two hard covers, and excellent background information. But this too has one major hurdle – the price is often prohibitive, costing nearly $100 or more per volume, although Volumes 1, 2, and 4 do come in paperback. Yikes.

6. Get to Know a Few Contemporary Edwards Scholars.

As you advance in your studies in Edwards, chances are you will find yourself becoming more and more familiar with some of your colleagues who have been reading and writing about JE for years. I am sure you will discover your own favorite authors as I have. Personally, I recommend delving into some of the works of the scholars that have been interviewed on this website including: Ken Minkema, Oliver Crisp, Rhys Bezzant, and Kyle Strobel.

7. Follow on Social Media.

Finally, let’s stay connected on social media. We live in a connected age. I have met and collaborated with several of the readers of this blog already. You can follow Edwards Studies both on Facebook and Twitter. I also have a series of short videos on YouTube that will give you 120-second introductions to some great JE stuff.

Happy studies!

George M. Marsden: A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards

A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards (Eerdmans, 2008) is, as the title suggests, a much briefer telling of the story of the life of Jonathan Edwards than the encyclopedic behemoth that George M. Marsden also published in 2004 for Yale University Press. The latter work, entitled Jonathan Edwards: A Life,  stands at over 640 pages, and enjoys the privileged status of being the definitive scholarly treatment of Jonathan Edwards biographies.

So, if you have read the much longer work, complete with its voluminous and copious footnotes and references, you are probably asking yourself these questions: First, is this simply a 150-page synopsis of what Marsden already wrote? Secondly, what else could Marsden say about Jonathan Edwards that he hasn’t already written elsewhere?

I asked myself those same questions.

As to the first question, I can say definitively, “No,” this is not a mere abridgment of the larger book. It is a complete rewriting and retelling of the life of the Puritan divine. As to the second question, I have to admit that the answer lies not so much in the fact that the books are radically different in content, as much as in the fact that the approach the author takes in the tiny volume is so fresh.

Let me explain.

I recently dove into the shorter work having already owned and mined the treasure in the larger work for several years. I liked the bigger book exceedingly and thought, “This is probably going to sound familiar – a deja vu.” I was skeptical at first. But as I began the very first chapter, I found myself enchanted by Jonathan Edwards and the story of his life all over again. The pages turned quickly. They were less filled with footnotes and marginalia. In fact, those entrappings, so appreciated by scholars and historians, do have a way of interrupting the flow of the story.

Clearly, the shorter work does not read like an academic treatise. Actually, that is its greatest strength. Instead, it reads much more swiftly, and almost sounds to the ear like a story being told in a classroom setting, or perhaps even around a coffee table discussion, or a campfire. One could probably even read this book aloud and keep a group of friends largely attuned for blocks at a time.

When describing this work, I want to keep using words like “charming” and “fascinating” to describe the tale as Marsden presents it here, even as I must make it clear that A Short Life does not lack the refined historical research which has become the hallmark of Marsden’s writing. It’s just not weighed down by it.

This work, much more so than it’s bigger brother, makes a good beach read or vacation paperback. It would also make an incomparable first introduction to the life of Edwards for laypersons. My guess is that people who read A Short Life will feel just as well baptized into the historical period in which Edwards lived as those who read other helpful introductions. At the same time, they will feel more as if they have heard a story well told. They will see Edwards as more than just a two-dimensional research interest, but as a three-dimensional man who struggled to be faithful to God in his own day and time.

I particularly liked the way that Marsden compared Edwards to Benjamin Franklin throughout the book. This foil between two strikingly different men works through the storytelling as the thread which binds the whole narrative together.

So should an Edwardsian read A Short Life even if he or she has already read the larger work? My answer is, “Yes.” Read it for pleasure. Read it for a refresher or first-time introduction. Read it on the back porch with a cup of sweet tea and prepare to be enchanted by Edwards’s story of fidelity, piety, and mission all over again.


Owen Strachan on the Legacy of Jonathan Edwards

In this short video, Owen Strachan talks about the series of five short introductions to the life and influence of Jonathan Edwards that he and his adviser Douglas Sweeney wrote together in 2010. These introductory booklets (about 160 pages each, compact layout) can be purchased together or separately.

If you have not yet checked out this series, the series titles consist of very short introductions to Edwards’s thought on: beauty, the love of God, the good life, true Christianity, and Heaven and Hell. 

Three Entry Level Introductions to Jonathan Edwards’s Life and Thought

In this brief video, I review three books that are excellent introductions to the life and ministry of Jonathan Edwards. The books reviewed in this video are: The Unwavering Resolve of Jonathan Edwards (by Steven J. Lawson), Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought (Stephen J. Nichols), and God’s Grand Design: The Theological Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Sean Michael Lucas). 


Natural and Moral Ability

Jonathan Edwards’s Freedom of the Will is certainly not the easiest piece of literature in the world, nor is it the most accessible treatise Edwards ever wrote. In fact, on my first pass through this incredible volume, I remember asking myself a few times during the journey “Is it over yet?”

Pressing on, though, we do come to some important insights as to the nature of the human will in relation to the sovereignty of God. As you may already know, Edwards had a very high view of the sovereignty of God, as a representative of high Calvinistic orthodoxy in his own day. In fact, Edwards argues in Freedom for a position called “compatibalism,” which is to say, that Edwards believes that God’s sovereignty is ultimately compatible with human freedom, rightly understood.


For Edwards, God is radically free. If we want to talk about free will as a philosophical concept, Edwards would suggest we begin with God’s free will. He alone determines the course of human events and indeed the outcome of all of our lives. But Edwards also believes that human beings always act in ways that are consistent with their own nature. We too are “free” to act according to our own impulses. Yes, God determines and controls all things, but nevertheless, humans are free to act in complete concert with their own strongest dispositions. In fact, we always act in harmony with our heart’s strongest desire at the time. But this, for us, is precisely the problem. We are sinners.

Here, Edwards introduces the concepts of moral ability and natural ability. Human beings, he says, are obviously limited in their natural ability. This corresponds to what we can do within our physical limitations in time and space. I cannot bench press more than 200 lbs any more, for example. Nor can any of us reading this blog post fly without the aid of aircraft. But moral ability has to do with what our soul will not or cannot do. A drunk (in Edwards own illustration) is certainly able to put down his beer (natural ability) but it may be that he does not have the spiritual capability to refuse another drop (moral ability).

This explains why some people receive the Gospel and others do not. Left to our own, we have the complete natural ability to receive Christ, but the problem lies in our lack of moral ability. Namely, our hearts are corrupt and will not come to Him for clemency. Edwards argues that what is needed is for the Holy Spirit to override that selfish impulse within us which refuses the grace of God by giving us a new living “principle” (Edwards’s stock term for spiritual quickening) in the very heart.

His own best illustration is as follows: Suppose there was a great king who had two men in prison. The first man desired to come and beg before the King. If he could, he would run straightaway to the throne room and beg for mercy and clemency. The problem in the first case, Edwards says, is that the bars and walls of the prison prevent him. He has the moral ability to repent, but not the natural ability. Some people, Edwards argues, mistakenly assume that Calvinism implies that God’s determination holds back willing penitents from repenting!

But this, however, is not really the case with fallen man.

No, for fallen man, the problem is exactly the opposite: Now suppose that the bars and prison door are wide open for our second hypothetical prisoner. Nothing hinders his coming straight to the King’s throne. The jail door is wide open. The guard beckons him on! Unfortunately, this second man hates the King. To repent would be utterly despicable in his own eyes. He would rather not bow the knee to the King, even if it meant his freedom. He would rather spit in the King’s face given the chance! His problem is not his natural ability – in fact nothing hinders his coming but his own heart. The problem is that he is not morally able to come. His is a spiritual problem indeed.

Thus, once again we see that divine grace is needful to change the heart of the prisoner. In this way, by distinguishing moral and natural ability, Edwards builds his case and upholds God’s sovereignty in salvation AND man’s responsibility to repent.

These ideas are not in conflict, but are in fact, “compatible.”

An Essay on the Trinity: Edwards and the Psychological Model (Synopsis)

An Essay on the Trinity is one of Jonathan Edwards’s shorter writings and part of his massive corpus of deep thinking about God’s being. Written some time in the 1750’s (probably) this essay, according to Paul Helm, was most likely held back from publication until long after Edwards’s death, since it contains what would seem to be, in some quarters, controversial thinking.

After all, in this essay, Edwards proposes somewhat of a modified “psychological model” for reflecting upon the interrelationship between the Three Persons of the Trinity, and their oneness and harmony. Although this concept (see below) had been espoused by one as eminent as St. Augustine many years before Edwards, Reformed theology in general as a tradition has not had much fondness or affection for “models” or “analogies” of any kind with regard to the Trinity; be that analogy the three-leaf clover, or water in its various forms (ice, water, steam), or the sun itself (fire, light, heat) etc.

Thus, a model of any kind attempting to describe the Trinity is shaky ground for some.

Edwards Studies

First, a little bit about this work: It is available to us in several different forms today, despite its late publication date of 1903. First, it comes in a nice, hardback 1971 volume edited by the aforementioned Paul Helm (pictured above, top). This edition comes to the reader alongside Edwards’s Treatise on Grace, and Observations on the Trinity (not to be confused with the Essay on the Trinity currently being discussed. Observations is primarily about the covenant of redemption, rather than God’s ontological being). Though I believe this monograph to be out of print, there are still several used copies to be found online or through used book sales. Fortuitously, my copy was signed by the editor (Helm) and dedicated to another theologian, John Frame! The second manner in which An Essay can be found is in various ebook formats like this one. Thankfully today, most ebooks grant us huge knowledge at our fingertips for mere pennies to the dollar.

Although Edwards likely intended its publication during his own lifetime, his sudden death prevented it from coming into popular view. (Edwards died in 1758). The work itself is but only thirty pages long, and can be read in one or two settings by the careful reader. In what follows, I will attempt to describe Edwards’s views of the Trinity as espoused in this short work.

First Edwards begins with the premise that God is infinitely happy in His own being. His opening salvo is filled with joy-language:

Tis common when speaking of the divine happiness to say that God is infinitely happy in the enjoyment of Himself, in perfectly beholding and infinitely loving, and rejoicing in, His own essence and perfections and accordingly it must be supposed that God perpetually and eternally has a most perfect idea of Himself, as it were an exact image and representation of Himself ever before Him and in actual view, and from hence arises a most pure and perfect act or energy in the Godhead, which is the Divine love, complacence and joy (1971, 99).

Here Edwards tips his hat to his main thrust and direction in this Essay. He is going to argue that when God thinks about Himself, He has a perfect self-understanding. He always thinks rightly and perfectly about Himself. This self-reflection brings Him great joy. Two aspects of this self-reflection are going to be emphasized over and over again in this essay: (1) God’s perfect knowledge of Himself and (2) God’s joy in this self-knowledge.

Now to the part that is controversial: Edwards believes that when God contemplates His own glory, this in part explains how the Son of God (the Second Person of the Trinity) can be eternally generated, without beginning or end. Note: Edwards does not use the word “create.” That would be to assert that one or more persons of the Trinity are creatures. Thus, this kind of argumentation is called the “psychological model.”

If God beholds himself so as thence to have delight and joy in Himself He must become His own object. There must be a duplicity. There is God and the idea of God, if it be proper to call a conception of that that is purely spiritual an idea (1971, 100).

Thus the Second Person of the Trinity, the Eternal Logos, is that perfect idea of Himself which God knows, perceives, and apprehends perfectly. As an infinite being, this results in a “duplicity” (his term), or another person being eternally generated in God’s self-understanding. Thus, this self-understanding is another “person” and is in some way distinct from the first. (Edwards is jealous NOT to lose the personality of the Three persons in his view on the Trinity!) He says in His own words,

Therefore as God with perfect clearness, fullness and strength, understands Himself, views His own essence…that idea which God hath of Himself is absolutely Himself…Hereby is another person begotten, there is another infinite eternal almighty and most holy and the same God, the very same divine nature (1971, 103, emphasis added).

He goes on to make the connection explicit between God’s self-knowledge and the Son of God,

And this person is the second person in the Trinity, the only begotten and dearly beloved Son of God; He is the eternal, necessary, perfect, substantial and personal idea which God hath of Himself; and it seems to me to be abundantly confirmed by the Word of God (1971, 103).

Whether or not this explains how God can eternally exist as Three Persons, I will let the reader decide. Obviously, Edwards includes much more nuance and thought than a brief synopsis like this one can contain in a simple blog post. But another question arises almost immediately. What about the Third Person of the Trinity? What about the Holy Spirit? To this point, Edwards has been emphasizing God’s self-knowledge. But in regard to the Holy Spirit, Edwards will now turn the attention to God’s joy in Himself. Listen:

The Godhead being thus begotten by God’s loving an idea of Himself and shewing forth in a distinct subsistence or person in that idea, there proceeds a most pure act, and an infinitely holy and sacred energy arises between the Father and Son in mutually loving and delighting in each other, for their love and joy is mutual…I think it is plainly intimated to us that the Holy Spirit is that love (1971, 108, emphasis added).

To summarize, it would be helpful to quote Edwards at length just one more time. This paragraph from page 108 of Helm’s 1971 edition I think is very clear:

The Father is the deity subsisting in the prime, unoriginated and most absolute manner, or the deity in its direct existence. The Son is the deity generated by god’s understanding, or having an idea of Himself and subsisting in that idea. The Holy Ghost is the deity subsisting in act, or the divine essence flowing out and breathed forth in God’s infinite love to and delight in Himself. And I believe the whole Divine essence does truly and distinctly subsist both in the Divine idea and Divine love, and that each of them are properly distinct persons.

Once again, whether this psychological model is convincing, I will let the reader decide. In layman’s terms what Edwards is saying here is simply this:

God is eternal. The Father is the “deity subsisting in the prime.” That is to say, the Father is who we think God is in standard theological definitions: eternal, omnipotent, holy, beautiful, and wise. In fact, God is so wise that when He thinks of Himself, His knowing and valuation is pure, holy, and precise. Unlike finite creatures, God’s self-knowledge lacks nothing. So glorious is His knowledge, that another “person” entirely is generated, the Son or the Logos. He is not created, but always was, is, and is to come. This must be, because God never began to think about Himself. Herein we have the Son. The Son is the Father’s pure, unmitigated, unfiltered self-knowledge.

But it does not end there.

Because God is a joyful God, truly rejoicing in His being (for His judgments and valuations are always morally perfect) He also takes great pleasure in the mutual recognition between Father and Son. This joy itself includes personality, and is the Holy Spirit, or we can say, God’s eternal joy and enjoyment between Father and Son. Thus, there is one God substantially, but because of the glorious infinity of God’s wisdom and joy, He eternally exists as Three Persons: God in the Prime (Father), God’s perfect self-knowledge (Son), and God’s joy in Himself (Holy Spirit).

See also my short video on Essay on the Trinity. 

The Religious Affections (Synopsis)

The Religious Affections (Synopsis)

The Religious Affections is for very good reason considered one of the most important works of Jonathan Edwards in particular and one of the most excellent and helpful treatises on Christian spirituality in general. Caught in both the glory and the drama of the First Great Awakening (1740-1742), Jonathan Edwards was tasked with the responsibility to defend God’s mighty outpouring of grace from both its detractors and its extremists. Ever the supporter of the revivals, and when necessary the revival’s internal whistle-blower, Edwards took it upon himself to help foster and defend the outpourings of God’s grace wherever he saw them being challenged.

In this 1746 work, Edwards greatly expands and reprises the goals of his earlier The Distinguishing Marksby attempting to show the true identifiers that demarcate real religious revival as opposed to counterfeits and impostors. In his prior piece, Edwards reduced true Christianity to five essential marks. True believers, he conjectured in his simpler piece, were those who: (1) loved Christ, (2) loved His truth, (3) loved the Word of God, (4) loved other believers while (5) hating the sin they found in their own lives.

In both works, he sought to define and defend true Christian experience. This was necessary both to defend the Great Awakening, and to distinguish it from its excesses and worst representatives, who, in Edwards’s opinion flew to unwarranted extremes. Edwards knew that the revivals were under spiritual – even demonic – attack from both sides. Some saw the revivals as bizarre manifestations of misguided religious zealots, perverting the decent and orderly doctrines of the Puritan fathers. Contrarily, others took their behaviors to uncalled for levels, verging on the bizarre, and critiquing anyone who didn’t experience the zeal they themselves had. Some revivalists even went as far as to publically call out ministers by name and pulpit who were not considered to be sincerely “converted” at all, since they did not participate fully enough in the revivals.

Originally, Religious Affections was a sermon series preached on 1 Peter 1:8, which says, “Though you have not seen him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (ESV). Today, the full-length treatise, one of Edwards’s best, is available as a paperback and as Volume 2 of the Yale Edition of the Works of Edwards. 

The growing fracture between “new” and “old lights” (pro and anti revivalism respectively) forced Edwards to expand and clarify his previous work. In Religious Affections, Edwards sets out to accomplish three major goals (1) he shows from Scripture that the religious affections (“the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul”) are indeed true manifestations of real Christian spirituality and of the holy life (2) he warns of a number of “experiences” that cannot either verify or falsify the reality of one’s professed conversion and (3) he enumerates several factors that are indicative of true conversion and regeneration. Chief among these last factors (as the quote below demonstrates) is the fruit of holy living—or Christian practice—carried out in the believer’s life.

It is helpful to clarify what Edwards means by “religious affections.” While some have suggested that they are equivalent to “emotions,” Edwards means something more profound, and closer to the deepest inclinations of one’s soul, that is, what one’s spiritual condition causes his or her will to love or hate, to affirm or reject. The word “passions,” too, would not have suited Edwards, as the passions were thought of in his day to mean primarily the lusts of the flesh. By affections, Edwards is speaking about the will’s own inclinations and dispositions to either approve or disapprove – to either affirm or loathe – stimulus as it is presented to an individual. The most fundamental concern in Edwards’s mind is to show how the Christian’s converted soul inclines toward the things of God (His holiness, loveliness, righteousness, personal piety etc.) while the soul of the unbeliever is primarily inclined to the self. Of course, this idea of the will having inclinations is greatly expanded in Freedom of the Will (1954) in which Edwards seeks to show how human choices are bound to the inclinations that are cherished in the deepest recesses of the heart.

As mentioned above, Religious Affections unfolds in three major parts. Part one defends the centrality of religious affections in general in true religion (read: Biblical Christianity). Love, joy, hope, the fear of the Lord, longing for God’s presence – all are truly and really representative of bona fide religion and authentic spiritual experience. This assertion refutes those who saw the dramatic outpourings of the Great Awakening as unnecessary excesses and strange extremes. His major thrust here is to show that those who have experienced grace, cannot help but respond to God’s grace in significant inward, and even outward, ways.

Part two demonstrates that there are many such manifestations of signs or apparent affections, however, which may – or may not – validate true Christian experience. Among these, Edwards lists outward expressions of praise, the shaking of the body or voice, and moving personal testimonies. There mere fact that a person says they have experienced grace does not prove it. Even if a person would see images of the crucified Christ in their minds, or have verses of the Bible strikingly impressed upon them, this would not in itself prove genuine conversion beyond doubt. These, after all, can all be fabricated or falsified.

Part three, then, shows what are the distinguishing signs of “truly gracious and holy affections.” Among these Edwards sees love for God’s holiness and obedience from the heart as being central to Gospel realities. Over and over in the last section, Edwards underscores the importance of the saint’s love for God’s glory above all things, as evidenced by deep humility, a love of God’s mercies and grace, and obedience in the Christian life.

By taking this approach, Edwards walks the tight rope of evaluating the revivals with both precision and grace. Clearly he is not fooled by any and all religious fervor and frivolity just because it bears the name of Christ upon it. Not all that glimmers is gold. Some gold is fool’s gold, a mere imitation of that which is precious and real. Obviously, Edwards is very open to what God was doing in his own time by connecting some of the admittedly unusual works of God’s grace with biblical examples and precedents. Men and women of biblical history fell down in the presence of the holy, shook with fear, and leaped for joy – why shouldn’t that still happen today? In fact Edwards argues that those who never experience moving tears of joy, or a personal conviction for their sins, or experience love towards their brothers as deep and abiding affections should give pause and consider again the state of their soul. Real Christianity is affective. There is no Christianity without these deep inclinations because Christianity, when real, does affect the person’s personal disposition to the holy!

Yet at the same time, Edwards also argues (especially towards the end of the work) that the ultimate proof is in the pudding. No matter how loudly a man shouts or how profusely he weeps publicly, he cannot claim to have been truly changed by grace if this transformation is impermanent or does not result in real, lasting Christian fruit in the basic areas of obedience, humility, service, and concern for others. In this way, Edwards showed, quite ably I think, that time itself would prove the real results of the revival. False professors would eventually be exposed as frauds when they were found to be without lasting fruit in their lives or barren from the attendant holiness that naturally springs forth from what Christ called the “good tree.”

This great work has a number of applications and uses. First and foremost the Religious Affections helps to delineate what true conversion looks like, both in Edwards’s day and in our own! In Edwards’s day it was hard to prove to others that one was truly “converted.” The difficulty was exacerbated by the throngs of professed conversions in the wake of the Great Revival of the 1740’s.  Church elders were slow to receive new members or communicants to the Table if they could not give a properly documented testimony.  Often, the Puritans looked for a series of finely ordered “steps” in one’s testimony of professed faith. The burden of proof lay heavy upon the person seeking church membership and communion. In fact, Edwards’s own mother did not receive the Lord’s Supper until well into her adult life! Edwards showed that real conversion can happen quickly and dramatically, but must also be substantiated over the long haul.

In our day, it is much easier—we must simply give an “altar call” story, or a similar anecdote of “accepting Jesus into our heart.” Perhaps where the Puritans erred in their rigorous demand for steps, we fall into the equal and opposite error by not listening closely enough in people’s testimonies for evidence of real repentance. Change. True, many people will be taken for true Christians just because they speak of “coming forward” or “receiving Christ” even though their lives do not seem to give, real, substantial, credible, longitudinal evidence of a transformed character. But Edwards is right to point toward the person’s lasting fruit in their walk. This alone will reveal the truth over time no matter how dramatic of a story or experience they can recount.

Edwards speaks to both extremes (too easy vs. too hard) by evaluating one’s profession of conversion experience by a truly Biblical grid of analysis. Edwards shows that true conversion does indeed transform both the inward man, in his “affections” (love, joy, fear of the Lord, etc.) as well as the outward man in living out the will of God in his daily experience. Pastors who are prayerfully evaluating their flock, as well as those unsure of their own salvation, will find this work deeply helpful in this regard.

While this particular reviewer is mostly sympathetic to Edwards’ position about conversion, many of my charismatic and Pentecostal friends will likely find some fault with Edwards’ teaching on the inner-life of spiritual experience. Throughout, Edwards is particularly hard on those who claim to have received such things as visions of Christ or strong “impressions” of particular Scripture passages upon the heart as being too easy to manipulate and falsify. While he is surely right in showing that these things cannot prove that one is a Christian, some readers (but not all) will feel he has gone too far in assessing the supernatural revelations of the Holy Spirit to the human mind in a negative fashion. Personally, I found Edwards insights on these matters to be desperately needed in a world of hyper-subjective excesses (“The Lord told me…” etc.) and non-falsifiable claims of religious experience, often bordering on the narcissistic and the bizarre.

Moreover, I found this book to be one of the greatest works of Edwards, and one of the best introductions to his thinking and theology. Much of this book (especially his non-polemical sections) can be read as devotional material. His emphasis on Christianity’s burning-heart piety (love, joy, fear of God etc.) reads like the work of a man passionate about Jesus and His intrinsic glory. It is with great reason that the Religious Affections has taken its place among the all-time spiritual classics.

“From what has been said, it is manifest that Christian practice, or a holy life, is a great and distinguishing sign of true and saving grace. But I may go further and assert that it is the chief of all the signs of grace, both as an evidence of the sincerity of professors unto others, and also to their own consciences” (p. 326-32).

–Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida

Where Do I Begin Studying Edwards? His Sermons.

In this short video, Matthew Everhard of gives a brief recommendation as to where to begin reading Edwards. If his sermons is the place you would like to begin, there is probably no better one volume introduction to begin with than the 2005 compilation of messages published in hardback by Hendrickson.

Here is the book on Amazon.

Where Should I Begin Studying Edwards?

In this video post, general editor Matthew Everhard gives a very brief introduction to an incredibly clear and easy book to begin studying Edwards! In fact, this book is so easy to read, it even has cartoons provided. That doesn’t necessarily make the thoughts of Edwards easier, but this is as good of an intro as you can get to the Northampton Puritan.

The book recommended here is James P. Byrd’s work Jonathan Edwards for Armchair Theologians. You can buy it here at