Jonathan Edward’s Preaching—An Evaluation of Select Sermons

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Perhaps Jonathan Edwards is the Puritan preacher best known to Americans today. As one of the major figures in the First Great Awakening, it is easy to understand how he came to have the influence he did in American Christianity. And indeed, his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” has become famous not only amongst students of theology, but also students of literature. But opinions regarding Edwards’ preaching are not consistently favorable or negative. There is disagreement even among those who base their opinion primarily upon “Sinners.” Some think it is a masterpiece, filled with great images and designed to scare even the hardest heart out of hell. Others criticize it for being overly harsh and wonder where God’s grace is. But many, while admitting that Edwards could be a little extreme in his hell-fire preaching, will still defend him on the basis of his many other sermons: “Sinners” represents well Edwards hell-fire sermons, but many of his sermons do not fit into that category. So then, what can be learned about Edwards’ preaching by examining a selection of his sermons?

Edwards was not a Lutheran. This fact is clear even before reading his sermons. As a product of New England Calvinism, he may not have even had much exposure to Lutheran theology, if any. Therefore, it cannot be expected that his sermons will meet Lutheran standards. However, he does have the clear Word of God and ought to be held to the same standards as any other preacher. Consequently, the sermons here examined will be evaluated not only stylistically and thematically, but also doctrinally and in regard to the distinguishing between, and proportioning of, law and gospel.

The sermons selected for evaluation are the following: “Christian Happiness,” “The Way of Holiness,” “Life Through Christ Alone,” “Christ’s Sacrifice,” “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth,” “Sinners in Zion,” and “The Blowing of the Great Trumpet.” The first four of these were written in the midst of Edwards’ early years as a preacher (1720-1723), the time during which he was at a Presbyterian congregation in New York. The remaining three are from the period of the Great Awakening (1739, 1740, and 1741, respectively), while he was the pastor in Northampton, Massachusetts. The selection of these seven sermons was made with only the hope of obtaining a broad sampling. They probably ought not to be taken as representative of all of Edwards’ sermons, but they can give a starting point for determining what he proclaimed.

Before examining any sermon specifically, Edwards’ style can be described in a general manner. He is a student of the Puritans, and he follows the examples that they left for him. He uses Puritan plain style preaching—his goal is not to impress his educated hearers and leave the uneducated entirely clueless. He does use lots of imagery within his sermons, making it easy for one to picture the things he describes and potentially imagine oneself as the subject. He begins each sermon by reading the text, which is usually just one verse. Then he opens the text by explaining its relation to the surrounding verses and to the historical background of the text, if applicable. He may also draw a few initial points from the text in this introductory section. In the second section, he states the doctrine of the text—this could perhaps be equated to the theme of the sermon. Following this, he follows a tight outline as he explains all of the implications of the doctrine. The third section is called application. There he improves upon the doctrine, or explains how it may be used in the lives of the people. Usually, he first explains what it means to the unbeliever, and then he draws additional lessons for the believers.

Isaiah 3:10—“Say ye to the righteous, that it shall be well with him: for they shall eat the fruit of their doings.”

The doctrine of this text, according to the sermon, “Christian Happiness,”[1] is “A good man is a happy man, whatever his outward circumstances are” (297). Although there may be concerns regarding Edwards’ choice of the word “good,” which will be discussed later, this seems to be an appropriate theme for the sermon. And Edwards does well to carry this theme throughout the sermon. He also uses a captivating introduction in order to bring the hearers attention to the main point. He reasons that God only commands what one who is reasonable should want to follow, for it is ultimately for his own good (296). He implies that anybody who would rather not obey the commands of God is an unreasonable being, hardly better than the beasts. Who then would not have attentive ears to hear how God can benefit him?

Throughout the sermon, Edwards makes several good points of law. He explains how men face afflictions in the world (297). He tells his listeners not to fear; men are weak and unable to over come afflictions, but the righteous have the wisdom necessary to find happiness in spite of the afflictions (301-303). He follows each of these points with comfort: affliction is not truly harm, but rather a strong medicine, meant for one’s ultimate good; more important are the spiritual joys (the forgiveness of sins) and the eternal blessings, upon which the righteous ought to focus (298-299). And fortunately, God is so good as to tell unto us the right truth, that we may be happy (304). What then should one do when afflicted? Religion and godliness are the answer; turn to them. If you are one of the ungodly, be reasonable and leave behind old ways; if you are one of the godly, continue in your godliness (304-306).

There is a lot of truth to what Edwards says within this sermon, but he leaves some questions unanswered. Who exactly are the righteous, the good, the godly? And how does an individual become such a person? Is it by good works? Is it by faith? Is it by reason?—that is almost what seems to be the answer in this case, but not definitively so. As a good Calvinist, he surely believes that salvation is a work of God alone. But in this sermon, there is no answer to either question. And in the end, whether a Christian or not, the hearer is turned towards the exercise of godliness.

Apart from the focus upon the law, there is minimal doctrinal concern within this sermon. Edwards does, however, seem to place a strong emphasis on the capabilities of man’s reason. He says, “God always deals with men as reasonable creatures, and every [word] in the Scriptures speaks to us as such. Whether it be in instructing and teaching of us, he [gives us] no commands to believe those things which are directly contrary to reason.” Yet, according to Calvinists, the biblical teaching of the real bodily presence in the Lord’s Supper is contrary to reason. Edwards fails to realize that human reason is fallen and cannot comprehend all of Scripture.

Isaiah 35:8—“And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein.”

Edwards says in the sermon, “The Way of Holiness,”[2] that the doctrine of this text is, “Those only that are holy are in the way to heaven” (470). Again, this theme is carried well throughout the sermon. This can be seen in the outline, which follows:

Introduction: There is only one highway to God’s Kingdom, and the wicked will not be on it (469).

Doc. I. What is holiness? “Holiness is a conformity of the heart and the life unto God” (471). “Holiness is a conformity unto this copy: he that copies after Jesus Christ, after that copy which he has set us and which is delivered to us by the evangelists, is holy” (473). “Holiness is a conformity to God’s laws and commands,” i.e., having them in one’s heart (473).

Doc. II. The unholy are not in the way. Their lack of holiness may be inward (hypocrisy) or outward (no fruits). They must repent (474).

Doc. III. There are four reasons why the unholy cannot enter heaven: “[God’s] justice…’obliges’ him to punish sin eternally” (474); the unholy would defile God’s holiness; they would defile heaven and its happiness; and as sinners, because of their miserable sinfulness, they must be miserable (475).

App. I. Many are deceived (476).

App. II. The godly must examine themselves, lest they too are deceived—they ought to look for these things: likeness of mind to God’s, resemblance to the life of Christ, agreeableness to the Word, comparableness to the lives of the biblical saints, and resemblance to the saints now in heaven (476-478).

App. III. Thus, be holy (478).

Indeed, the outline follows the theme of the sermon very well. However, having seen the outline, it should be quite obvious that the law dominates this sermon. In fact, there was only one sentence of the sermon that contains a hint of gospel:

But even here, the gospel is overshadowed by the law. And then, one must ask, who exactly are the sanctified? That question is answered nowhere in the sermon; rather, the hearers are left with the command, “be holy.”

In addition to the general absence of gospel within this sermon, there are some doctrinal concerns. The previous quotation has already betrayed Edwards’ belief in a limited atonement: only the sins of the sanctified have been washed away; Jesus died only for the elect. Secondly, the doctrine of justification is slightly distorted. Edwards writes:

Yes, repentance is required for salvation, insofar as it is a part of faith. But holiness does not gain heaven. Heaven is full of those who were sinners on earth, for justification is by faith, not a holy life. The third doctrinal concern is the lack of assurance. Edwards tells his listeners to “see if you can see any resemblance in your life to the life of Christ,” but then he goes on to say, “it is not supposed that ever any copy comes near to the original” (477). It is quite true that no life truly resembles that of Christ, so how then can that be of any assurance?

John 6:68—“Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”

The first sentence of the sermon, “Life Through Christ Alone,”[3] is one that will get people thinking right away: “The least happiness or the least misery that is eternal is more to be regarded [than] the greatest happiness or the greatest misery that is but temporal and will have an end” (521). Edwards then goes on with an excellent explaining of the text and describing of its background, before coming to the doctrine of the text, which is, “It is by Christ alone that eternal life is ever communicated to men” (522). Already this sermon sounds like a gospel-centered sermon. In fact, nearly every word of the doctrine section is beautiful gospel. He even included statements such as this: “[Christ] is the lamb slain from the foundation of the world, in whose blood the godly have been washed and with whose righteousness they have been clothed—never ever have been or ever will be saved any other way to the end of this world. There is none else can communicate eternal life to us, or deliver us from eternal death” (523).

This statement is not only a gospel statement, but it shows that Edwards has the doctrine of justification correct here, although he believes the atonement is limited to the “godly.” Prior to this, he also shows a proper understanding of justification by stating that Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Job, Samuel, David, and the prophets were all saved by faith alone (523). There is, however, a doctrinal concern in this sermon. He seems to indicate that man has an active role in conversion:

But the only person who can make such an act is one who has already been converted.

Unfortunately, after Edwards does a wonderful job of preaching the gospel, he turns back to the law, for the whole section of application is either a command to those not trusting in Christ to trust in Him, or a command to those who do trust to continue doing so, lest they stray to hell (527-531). This sermon has a great deal of gospel in it, but the large and final concentration on the law ends up predominating.

Hebrews 9:12—“Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.”

The sermon, “Christ’s Sacrifice,”[4] proposes the doctrine of this text to be, “Jesus Christ is both the only priest and sacrifice by which eternal redemption is obtained for believers” (596). This theme is carried very nicely through the whole sermon. This can be shown by its outline:

Introduction: An excellent explanation of the doctrine of sacrifices (594-596).

Doc. I. Christ is the only priest—no other religion’s priests are true; no relatives can serve as one’s priest; not eve one’s self can serve as his priest.

Doc. II. Christ is the only true sacrifice.

Doc. III. Because of Christ serving in these roles, redemption is won (597-600).

App. I. Man originally didn’t need a sacrifice; man was the one who made the need for a sacrifice; man was unable to fill that need; but Christ can fill it.

App. II. Thus, prayer should only be made in Christ’s name, hope should only be placed in Christ, and thanks should only be given to Christ.

App. III. Trust entirely in Christ—how? Think of sin and punishment, then recall Christ’s invitation.

App. IV. Believers be consoled and give thanks (601-604).

This sermon is a very didactic sermon. Because of this, neither law nor gospel is heavily stressed. In fact, there are some fairly strong statements of gospel within the sermon. He says:

Of course, here limited atonement is professed once again by saying that only believers are redeemed. This doctrine is clearly taught again later on, where Edwards actually applies the gospel to the hearers more strongly than anywhere else:
Perhaps this is one of Edwards’ best sermons because of the excellent applications of Christ’s sacrifice to the individual. However, it is sad that this consolation is available only to the believer. Those who do not believe have not been redeemed: “He has purchased eternal redemption for whom? Alone for those that will receive this eternal redemption at his hands” (603).

Hebrews 5:12—“For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.”

In the sermon, “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth,”[5] Edwards states the doctrine of this text as, “Every Christian should make a business of endeavoring to grow in knowledge in divinity” (85). This is another very didactic sermon, which explains what divinity is and why it is necessary to know it. Overall, it is a fairly decent sermon, with minor concerns. One such is the need for a somewhat stronger emphasis upon the gospel. An example of a typical statement of law in this sermon is as follows:

On the other hand, an example of a gospel statement reads like this:
This gospel statement does answer the law statement, however, it lacks one thing. It claims that God has given the knowledge that Christians are to pursue, but it never tells of what that knowledge consists. It never proclaims Jesus’ death to the hearers.

One other concern with this sermon is its Reformed understanding of the sacraments. Edwards says, “So the sacraments of the gospel can have a proper effect no other way, than by conveying some knowledge. They represent certain things by visible signs. And what is the end of signs, but to convey some knowledge of the thing signified” (88). Rather than bringing forgiveness it self to the believer, the sacraments merely bring the knowledge about that signified.

Yet, there is an important point within this sermon, from which many today ought to learn. In American Christianity today, it seems that many have distorted views of the doctrine of the ministry and the doctrine of vocation. They claim that disciples need to be disciplined followers of Christ who stand up to fill numerous servant roles within their congregations, rather than focusing upon their own vocation, thus relegating the pastor to some sort of manager. Edwards would have them think otherwise. He says, “The name by which Christians are commonly called in the New Testament is disciples, the signification of which word is scholars or learners. All Christians are put into the school of Christ, where their business is to learn, or receive knowledge from Christ, their common master and teacher, and from those inferior teachers appointed by him to instruct in his name” (96).

Isaiah 33:14—“The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?

The title of this sermon, “Sinners in Zion,”[6] may hint at what is to come. In the introduction, Edwards discusses the verses surrounding the text, and then brings his focus to lie on only the verses of law. The doctrine of the text continues that focus: “The time will come when fearfulness will surprise the sinners in Zion, because they will know that they are going to be cast into a devouring fire, which they must suffer forever and ever, and which none can endure” (267).

The law continues in the doctrine section with a description of an hypothetical dying man who is terrified.

Because of the doctrine of the limited atonement, there is no objective justification upon which the individual may trust. Why was this dying sinner not told that he was forgiven? Why didn’t his pastor give him the gospel?

But that is just the hypothetical situation. How does Edwards apply it to his hearers? He says:

The only gospel offered in this sermon is an opportunity. Nowhere is there mention that Christ has saved anybody, just that God is now providing an opportunity.

Finally, supposing the gospel of opportunity offers at least a little comfort to the hearers, Edwards takes it all away later in the sermon. He says, “And ‘tis not to be supposed that all that are now seeking will hold out. Some will backslide; they will be unsteady. If now they seem to be pretty much engaged, it won’t hold” (282). This may be true indeed, but if it actually encourages people, their motivation will be law alone, which does not result in true good works.

There are places in this sermon where Edwards preaches some very vivid and effective law, but why does he not follow that up with even more vivid and effective preaching of the gospel, specifically the glories of heaven that have been won by Christ’s death on the cross? Additionally, the law in this sermon is very generic. Edwards never accuses the sinners of any sin worthy of condemnation, he just condemns them as sinners. From what are they to turn?

Isaiah 27:13—“And it shall come to pass in that day, that the great trumpet shall be blown, and they shall come which were ready to perish in the land of Assyria, and the outcasts in the land of Egypt, and shall worship the Lord in the holy mount at Jerusalem.”

The doctrine of this text, according to the sermon, “The Blowing of the Great Trumpet,”[7] is, “The preaching of the Word may fitly be compared to the blowing of a trumpet, and especially as that was used among the Israelites of old” (440). Again, Edwards does a good job of carrying this theme throughout the sermon. And he uses the whole of the brief doctrine section to catalogue the various uses of trumpets in the Old Testament (440-443). He even claims, in the midst of this, that the Feast of Trumpets, the first day of the seventh month, signifies both the creation of the world and the birth of Christ (442).

Within this sermon, he properly explains the doctrine that Scripture contains both law and gospel, which have their own purposes: “Hear the awful trumpet from Mt. Sinai that warns of wrath and eternal damnation, that made all the people in the camp to tremble, and will make your heart to tremble, unless it be harder than a rock. And hear also the joyful trumpet at Mt. Zion that offers mercy, and calls and invites you to come” (445). Not only does he describe the gospel, but he proclaims it too: “This is a joyful voice {calling us to the glorious gospel feast}. Therefore hearken to this voice, and come to this glorious Person that was dead and is alive, that died for sinners and {is now the King that God has set on his holy hill}” (446). This isn’t the strongest gospel statement he ever makes in his preaching, but considering the law is not overly heavy in this sermon, he places the overall focus on the gospel.

There is one doctrinal concern within this sermon. That is its postmillennialism. Edwards writes, “[The blowing of the trumpet in the jubilee year] represents the preaching of the gospel at the beginning of the jubilee of the world… We know not but that this [the Great Awakening] may be the beginning of the sound of that trumpet of the great jubilee of the world, or a forerunner of it” (442, 444). He fails to see that the millennium is nothing other than the New Testament period. The great trumpet has been blowing since the time of Christ, gathering the people from all the nations. It is not yet to be blown, nor was the Great Awakening a forerunner of it.

SUMMARY

In some respects Jonathan Edwards was excellent at writing sermons. He wrote with a style that was easy for the people to understand, but at times, contained very vivid imagery and illustrations. When he intended to do so, he was able to preach law in its full severity, and when he does proclaim the gospel, he can preach it very sweetly. He draws a theme out of the text upon which he is preaching, makes an outline from that theme, and keeps the sermon very tightly organized and easy to follow. For the most part, he solidly teaches justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Because of these things, Edwards’ sermons definitely have some value both to the student of theology and to the student of literature.

However, the negative aspects of his sermon are very discouraging. Amongst the concerns of lesser importance, the two that most detract from his preaching are the focus on the law and the limited atonement. Even though, occasionally, a sermon may reverse the trend, the law is, overall, clearly predominant, placing the hearers focus not upon Christ, but upon works. Additionally, the Calvinist teaching of the limited atonement destroys almost any consolation that his limited amount of gospel can bring to his hearers. Because of these two faults, the sermons best be left on the students’ desks, not taken into the pulpit.

Footnotes

1. Jonathan Edwards, “Christian Happiness,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 10: Sermons and Discourses, 1720-1723, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 294-307.

2. Jonathan Edwards, “The Way of Holiness,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 10: Sermons and Discourses, 1720-1723, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 465-479.

3. Jonathan Edwards, “Life Through Christ Alone,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 10: Sermons and Discourses, 1720-1723, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 519-532.

4. Jonathan Edwards, “Christ’s Sacrifice,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 10: Sermons and Discourses, 1720-1723, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 592-604.

5. Jonathan Edwards, “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 22: Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742, ed. Harry S. Stout, Nathan O. Hatch, and Kyle P. Farley (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 80-102.

6. Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in Zion,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 22: Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742, ed. Harry S. Stout, Nathan O. Hatch, and Kyle P. Farley (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 262-284.

7. Jonathan Edwards, “The Blowing of the Great Trumpet,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 22: Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742, ed. Harry S. Stout, Nathan O. Hatch, and Kyle P. Farley (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 436-447.

Bibliography

Edwards, Jonathan. “The Blowing of the Great Trumpet.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 22: Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742. Edited by Harry S. Stout, Nathan O. Hatch, and Kyle P. Farley. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. p. 436-447.

_______. “Christ’s Sacrifice.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 10: Sermons and Discourses, 1720-1723. Edited by Wilson H. Kimnach. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. p. 592-604.

_______. “Christian Happiness.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 10: Sermons and Discourses, 1720-1723. Edited by Wilson H. Kimnach. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. p. 294-307.

_______. “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 22: Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742. Edited by Harry S. Stout, Nathan O. Hatch, and Kyle P. Farley. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. p. 80-102.

_______. “Life Through Christ Alone.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 10: Sermons and Discourses, 1720-1723. Edited by Wilson H. Kimnach. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. p. 519-532.

_______. “Sinners in Zion.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 22: Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742. Edited by Harry S. Stout, Nathan O. Hatch, and Kyle P. Farley. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. p. 262-284.

_______. “The Way of Holiness.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 10: Sermons and Discourses, 1720-1723. Edited by Wilson H. Kimnach. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. p. 465-479.

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Rudisill, Dorus Paul. The Doctrine of The Atonement in Jonathan Edwards and His Successors. New York: Poseidon Books, Inc., 1971. p.1-34, 113-115.

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Last updated: 02-28-06