What we can learn from Jonathan Edwards

According to biographer George Marsden, “he was the most acute early American Jonathan_Edwardsphilosopher and the most brilliant of all American theologians.”[1] Others have noted his importance as a preacher, writer, and leading voice in the Great Awakening. But above everything else, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) strove to be a pastor.

Edwards was only twenty-three when he became the assistant pastor of First Church of Northampton, Massachusetts, a Congregational church led by his maternal grandfather, the venerable Solomon Stoddard. Just two years later Stoddard died, leaving Edwards to shepherd the church alone. He would remain pastor of First Church until July 1, 1750. They were years of both revival and adversity. Epidemics of the late 1740s killed over a tenth of Northampton’s population. Edwards lost his own beloved daughter Jerusha, age seventeen, in 1748. Despite the brilliant success of his preaching, powerful people in the church maligned him as harsh and narrow-minded. His stubborn opposition to the Halfway Covenant caused his dismissal from the church. Edwards went on to serve as missionary, teacher, and pastor for a small group of Indians and whites in Stockbridge, wrote his most famous theological treatises, and briefly served as president of the College of New Jersey. On March 22, 1758, Edwards died of complications from a smallpox inoculation.

Considering all that he had to endure, what kept Edwards the pastor going? It certainly was not the numerical growth of the church or the admiration of people. During the Great Awakening Edwards did not even publish a report on the number of conversions that occurred through his ministry. Rather than relying on outward signs of success, Edwards sought to cultivate—through prayer, Bible study, and meditation— dependence upon God alone.

He was ruthless when it came to daily communion with God. “Throughout the day, his goal was to remain constantly with a sense of living in the presence of God….”[2] Edwards believed that his labors as a minister would be no better than his own fellowship with Christ. He spent most of every weekday absorbing the Bible, pondering its truths, making notations in his notebooks, and praying. From his days as a young intern in New York City, “a new master-interest possessed him: it was to enjoy the Word of God.”[3] Because of the abundance of time Edwards spent in the Bible, he “saturated almost every sermon, from text to doctrine to application, with scripture.”[4] Edwards wanted to know God personally and deeply, so that in turn he might live with all his might to the glory of God. Consequently, he experienced a level of intimacy with God that few in our fast-paced, pragmatic world understand. He describes this intimacy in his “Personal Narrative”: “The sense I had of divine things would often of a sudden kindle up, as it were, a sweet burning in my heart; an ardor of soul I know not how to express.”[5]

Edwards maintained a number of disciplines throughout his life that fueled his ministerial passions. He cherished his wife Sarah and helped her rear eleven faithful children. He had a high view of the Lord’s Day and kept it holy. He maintained close ties with colleagues in ministry, both in the colonies and across the ocean, not only to work with them for revival but to find encouragement through their friendship. He took extended rides on horseback and chopped wood to refresh his spirit and body. He spent time observing nature. He often contemplated heaven and the rewards that lay ahead for the faithful.

But above all, it was Edwards’ sense of the greatness of God and his conviction that the gospel would one day fill the earth that empowered him to be true to his calling. He was optimistic that, despite the troubles at hand, the Great Commission would eventually be completed. In 1747 Edwards wrote:

That the Spirit of God has been of late so wonderfully striving with such multitudes…is what I should take encouragement from that God was about to do something more glorious, and would, before he finishes, bring things to a greater ripeness, and not finally suffer this work of his to be frustrated and rendered abortive by Satan’s crafty management. And may we not hope that these unusual commotions are the forerunners of something exceeding glorious approaching, as the wind, earthquake, and fire at Mount Sinai, were forerunners of that voice wherein God was in a more eminent manner?[6]

What can contemporary church leaders learn from Jonathan Edwards the pastor? Modern paradigms of ministry are very different from the one Edwards inherited from his father, his grandfather, and the Puritans before them. Today’s pastors find themselves spread thinner than ever. They feel the weight of expectation to be successful fundraisers, motivators, communicators, long-range planners, marriage counselors, civic leaders, church planters, Bible scholars, vision casters, and—while they are at it—inspiring preachers and tender shepherds. Meanwhile they are expected to maintain the model devotional life, marriage, and family. How could looking back to Jonathan Edwards profit the twenty-first century American minister?

Chiefly, Edwards reminds pastors that their charge is first and foremost to preach the Word of God, with particular emphasis on the eternal realities of heaven and hell and the radical nature of discipleship. To care for the sheep, shepherds must feed them the Word. As a prerequisite, they must have a rich and full inner life. Edwards still speaks through his sermons and other writings because he was saturated with the Bible. He spent so much time studying and meditating upon scripture that he was thoroughly affected by its truth, enraptured with the love of God, and able to apply the Word with passion and vigor to his congregation.

If we must fault Edwards, it is for matters of style, not substance. Edwards might have remained longer in Northampton had he been gentler, more outgoing, and less impatient. But what offended the Northamptonites much more than Edwards’ bluntness and social awkwardness was his commitment “to enlighten them concerning the state of their souls; to open and apply the rules of God’s Word to them, in order to their searching their own hearts, and discerning their state.”[7] Too often do we hear today of ministers falling into sexual sin, compromising their ethical standards, plagiarizing the work of others, and watering down the gospel in order to enhance their appeal. We do not read of such things in biographies of Jonathan Edwards. Rather, Edwards remained faithful to the end. By persevering with integrity he loved his people. The well-known words of another famous minister, Robert Murray McCheyne, are relevant in this connection: “What my people need most is my personal holiness.” Edwards certainly gave his people what they needed most, even if they did not want it at the time.

The contemporary pastor needs to shut his ears to some of the modern definitions of success and concentrate on the simple, time-honored pastoral tasks: enriching his own soul on scripture and prayer; preaching to the mind, heart, and will of his parishioners; and knowing and being known by the sheep under his care. Obviously he will be stretched this way and that by the demands of ministry in a sin-ravaged culture that has wandered far from God. But the example of Jonathan Edwards should remind him to return to the study, the pulpit, the bedside, and the prayer closet to shepherd God’s flock. And if he does those things faithfully he is a success, whatever the results may be.

[1] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) 1.

[2] Marsden 133.

[3] Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2003) 41.

[4] Richard A. Bailey, “Driven by Passion: Jonathan Edwards and the Art of Preaching,” in The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, ed. by D. G. Hart, Sean M. Lucas, and Stephen J. Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 67.

[5] Jonathan Edwards, “Personal Narrative,” quoted by Sereno E. Dwight, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979) I.xiii.

[6] Jonathan Edwards, An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People, in Extraordinary Prayer, for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, in The Works of JE, II.294-95.

[7] Edwards, “A Farewell Sermon,” in The Works of JE, I.cci.

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