Five More Reasons Why You Should Read Jonathan Edwards

In the last post I sought to whet your appetite for appreciating the theological greatness and understanding the worthiness of studying Jonathan Edwards. We considered his love for the Trinity, how lively was his doctrine in his preaching, that he was innovative with Redemptive History, that his homiletic was suffused with a beautiful Christology and that he was deeply biblical--yet not naively biblicist. 

In keeping with the opening illustration from that first post, my desire is for this post to be a cup of water to keep you in the race. Maybe, you considered the reasons in the last post and began to tackle something in JE, but are starting to feel the intellectual burn. As you come around the turn try to lay hold of 5 more reasons why we should marinate in JE today: 

6) JE was a fit preacher. I don’t mean that he ran 5k’s (would’ve been hard to keep a powered wig in place). When we think of the homiletic of a particular preacher, we want to get at the central structures, the programmatic elements. While I’m sure much could and should be said about this in regards to JE, it is clear that he followed the typically Puritan Plain Style with its tripartite Exposition, Doctrine, Application/Use/Improvement sections. However, the idea of "fitness" permeates his sermons. In his 1731/32 sermon, The Warnings of Scripture Are in the Best Manner Adapted to the Awakening and Conversion of Sinners, JE explains:

“But God, who knows our nature and circumstances knows what is most adapted to them. He who made the faculties of our souls, knows what will have the greatest tendency to move them, and to work upon them. He who is striving with us to bring us to repentance and salvation uses the fittest and best means.”

For JE there was a fit, meet or suitable relation between the proper preaching of the Word and the working of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, this concept of fitness or “fit relations,” as he often called it, transcended his homiletic program and found a structural place in his soteriology (i.e. doctrine of salvation), as he spoke of the fit relations that exist, for instance, between union with Christ, faith, justification, and good works, or what he called, “evangelical obedience.” There is a necessary, non-causal conditionality or fitness that exists between justification and evangelical obedience. Likewise, there is a fitness that exists between the Word preached and the Spirit working in the hearers by giving them the “new sense of the heart,” whereby they can taste the sweetness of that Word. JE, while thoroughgoing in his application of this, was not being innovative, as we see similar convictions about the relationship between preaching and pneumatology in Puritans, such as Thomas Goodwin (1600-79). A casual survey of JE’s catalogue of reading reveals among his voluminous bookshelves, old Puritan William Perkins (1558-1602), who taught generations of Puritan preachers “Then let the gospel be preached in such a way that the Holy Spirit effectively works salvation” (The Art of Prophesying, 58). JE’s entire ministry of preaching was a loud “Amen!” to that.

7) JE had tasted and seen that the Lord was good. One of the true beauties of reading many of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand is the unmistakable language of intimacy, wonder, affection, and desire with which they would often speak of God. Just take a look at the opening pages of Augustine’s Confessions, or Calvin’s sections on Christology in the Institutes, or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, or Rutherford’s Letters, or Sibbes Works, and you will see what I am talking about. JE, was no exception. His was the “rhetoric of sensation,” as Perry Miller called it. Redeeming a Lockean philosophical category, JE preached in such a way that, even though his was not a commanding oratorical vocal style, people would, on the basis of his wordsmithing and imagery, truly feel, truly see, truly taste. No one speaks better, more compellingly of the “sweetness, the “loveliness,” and the “beauty” of Christ. John Piper has called a generation of YYR to delight in Jesus. But, he would be the first to tell you that JE is where this whole emphasis on delighting in the Lord, as Ps 37:4 would say, found such pervasive expression in, both treatise and sermon. In Religious Affections, in the second sign of truly gracious affections, JE speaks of the believers delight in the things of God, “True saints have their minds, in the first place, inexpressibly pleased and delighted with the sweet ideas of the glorious and amiable nature of the things of God. And this is the spring of all their delights, and the cream of all their pleasures: it is the joy of their joy (Yale Works of JE, 2.250). This has long been one of my vary favorite Edwardsianisms – "the cream of all their pleasures." Who says these kind of things?! Oh, may the triune God be the cream of all our pleasures in the Church today.

8) Because JE is hard to read. Yes, that’s what I meant to say. I praise God for the constant stream of books of popularized Reformed theology and the Christian life that come from publishers over the last many years. I really do! That said, like C.S. Lewis, I find my heart often singing with a pipe in my mouth, pencil in hand, working through a tough bit of theology (see his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation). J.I. Packer called John Owen “elephantine,” and admited that he liked to read him aloud, as this helps with the sometimes Latinesque density that makes the English sometimes cumbersome. I think the beauty often lies in the difficulty. It forces us to slow down, to engage, to think, to reread a line or a paragraph. It helps make better theologians of us all when we read stiff stuff think this; it's sort of like reading a Marilynn Robinson novel to make one a better writer. This has been the case for me whenever I read Calvin, Warfield, Vos and Van Til--to name a scant few. However, having read so very many pages of JE over the years, I have come to deeply appreciate how the complexity of his writing comports so well with the earnestness of his preaching and the abandon with which he lived toward God.

9) Because some of the most well-known and theologically faithful pastors and theologians have urged us to read JE. Where do I begin? How many of us started reading JE because we first read Gerstner, or Sproul, or Piper, or Storms, or lately, Nichols, Lucas, Ortlund, and the like. The year was 1991, yet I still remember it like yesterday. I filled out an order form from a Ligonier catalogue, slipped a check into an envelope, and drove to the Nashville post office. Thus began about a three week wait for the first volume of The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards. These were the days that made me love that mailman. I could quote a plethora of beloved theologians and pastors on the greatness of Edwards; however, I’ll offer one of my favorite encouragements to read JE from the good doctor, himself. The necessity of constant study for the work of the ministry remained one of Dr. Lloyd-Jones’ deepest convictions and was one of the main features of his own daily living. Next to his Bible it was probably Jonathan Edwards’ Works which provided the greatest stimulus to him at this date. While still in London he had asked a Welsh Presbyterian Minister for the name of books which would help him prepare for the ministry. One recommendation he received was Protestant Thought Before Kant, written by A.C. McGiffert. Although the book did not live up to his expectation, while reading it he came across the name of Jonathan Edwards for the first time. His interest aroused, Dr. Lloyd-Jones relates:

‘I then questioned my ministerial adviser on Edwards, but he knew nothing about him. After much searching I at length called at John Evans’ bookshop in Cardiff in 1929, having time available as I waited for a train. There, down on my knees in my overcoat in a corner of the shop, I found the two-volume 1834 edition of Edwards which I bought for five shillings. I devoured these volumes and literally just read and read them. It is certainly true that they helped me more than anything else’” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years 1899-1939, 253-54).

That should just about do it for any of us! Save up your five shillings, or whatever it takes, and get yourself the Works of JE.

10) Because not-so-well-known faithful pastors and theologians are saying we should read JE. Could it be that, if you love reading JE, there was probably a faithful pastor, laboring in a small church, doing the ordinary work of the ministry, who first let you borrow his two volume Hickman edition (with the promise that would bring it back unscathed!)? Or, perhaps, a seminary professor, who, though he will never be on the conference circuit, enflamed a love for Edwardsian sweetness and delight in you? Was it the preaching of your RUF campus minister, who kept quoting JE in big group, who made you want to go read the Northampton Puritan for yourself? These are the pastors and teachers who know you, and want so much for you to go deep. I wonder how many ordinary pastors have found fuel for faith and courage for the calling by pulling down a trusted volume of JE. For some twenty-five years, he has been for me a faithful traveling partner through the pleasures and pains of life and ministry. Years ago, I started a little JE sermon reading group in my home – Jonathan and Java. We met every two weeks, read three JE sermons between gatherings, and discussed his preaching, as we drank Starbucks. Those were some of the sweetest times of learning, growth, and fellowship. Come to think of it, you can pour a cup and listen to some faithful brothers discussing JE sermons at East of Eden: The Biblical and Systematic Theology of Jonathan Edwards. There are so many reasons to read JE today. I am sure many of you reading this could add your own thoughtful experiences and encouragements in reading him. Hopefully, what I have suggested sparks a desire, which can, in time, enflame full delight! May Augustine not be the last one to hear the call, Tolle lege!

David Filson