The Doctrinal Book Most Significant to Me

Determining the single most pivotal theological work on my life and doctrine is rather easy. It was also my introduction to Jonathan Edwards. And while it took me three reads and about 18 months (2003–2004), with the help of lots of handwritten notes and drawings (including an upside down tornado inside the back cover, drawn from the bottom up), the connections finally came together, and my life and theology was forever changed.

The book, immodestly titled The End for Which God Created the World, was published posthumously in 1765. John Piper read it in his 20s. “Oh, man,” he recalled to me, “that book simply blew me away with the God-centeredness of God’s purpose in this universe.”

I felt the same thing. Eventually.

Accurately, the Yale editors later packaged the book with Edwards’ other ethical writings (yes, ethical writings), published in the works (vol. 8 [Yale, 1989], pages 403–536).

For me, fifteen years ago it providentially became the first book I read by John Piper, packaged together with Edwards under the newer title: God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Crossway, 1998). In those years, Piper (along with David Wells), was helping me see through the pressures and demands for short-cut pragmatics and felt-needs in ministry, to patiently trudge up into the mountains of divine revelation for a glimpse of the stunning glories of what Edwards’ beheld in Scripture as he contemplated God’s aims in making creation and us.

I bring it up today because I just discovered a paraphrased version of the work, something I could have made good use of fifteen years ago! If you make this essay the focus of your life and ministry, it’s not the only version of the work you’ll want, but The End for Which God Created the World: Updated to Modern English (2014), edited by pastor Jason Dollar, is a very good place to start, and a worthy attempt to simplify Edwards’ life-changing and virtue inducing treatise for a broader audience.

Jonathan Edwards on Twitter’s Purpose

Here’s a glimpse into Jonathan Edwards’s expectation for technological advance. Technology will offer us more contemplative margin in our lives. It will also empower communion among the global church as one large fellowship.

This is from miscellany 262, published in Edwards’s works, 13:369:

‘Tis probable that this world shall be more like heaven in the millennium [JE was postmil] in this respect, that contemplative and spiritual employments, and those things that more directly concern the mind and religion, will be more the saints’ ordinary business than now.

There will be so many contrivances and inventions to facilitate and expedite their necessary secular business, that they shall have more time for more noble exercises, and that they will have better contrivances for assisting one another through the whole earth, by a more expedite and easy and safe communication between distant regions than now.

The invention of the mariner’s compass is one thing by God discovered to the world for that end; and how exceedingly has that one thing enlarged and facilitated communication! And who can tell but that God will yet make it more perfect; so that there need not be such a tedious voyage in order to hear from the other hemisphere, and so the countries about the poles need no longer to lie hid to us, but the whole earth may be as one community, one body in Christ.

I love the idea of technology as things “by God discovered to the world.”

So what would Edwards say about Twitter? What would Edwards say about our technology and how it disburdens us for a life more consistent with the “undistracted life” of 1 Corinthians 7? How is his vision for global fellowship beginning to get realized through digital media? And what would Edwards say about the invasiveness and permutation of entertainment into every spare moment of our lives, which then squanders all the margin made techno-possible in the first place?

The Grand Secret of Becoming “Thoroughly Christian”

edwards

Whether it’s getting free from our worldly sin, or getting free from the shackles of self-righteousness, our solution is found in one “grand secret,” writes Jonathan Edwards (Works, 20:90–91):

There is a twofold weanedness from the world. One is a having the heart beat off or forced off from the world by affliction, and especially by spiritual distresses and disquietudes of conscience that the world can’t quiet; this may be in men, while natural men. The other is a having the heart drawn off by being shown something better, whereby the heart is really turned from it.

So in like manner, there is a twofold bringing a man off from his own righteousness: one is a being beat or forced off by convictions of conscience, the other is a being drawn off by the sight of something better, whereby the heart is turned from that way of salvation by our own righteousness. . . .

In these things, in renouncing the world to trust in Christ only as the means and fountain of our happiness, and in renouncing our own righteousness to trust alone in his righteousness, lies the grand secret of being thorough Christians.

Luminescence

Kyle Strobel, writing in the new book Advancing Trinitarian Theology: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (148, 152):

In [Jonathan] Edwards’s conception, God is not so loquacious as he is luminescent. Creation certainly pours forth speech, as the Psalmist declares (Ps 19), but it is written by the effusive overflow of God’s beauty. This speech is seen and not heard (or only heard as it is seen). The visual takes precedence in Edwards’s theology because of his doctrine of God, his understanding of the beatific vision, and its orientation for faith. One day believers will see “face to face” (1 Cor 13:12), so the spiritual sight of faith is the anticipation — through a glass darkly — of God’s beatific glory. …

Edwards ends right where he begins — with a God who is infinite happiness, delight, and joy. God’s life is, as it were, the truly religious life; God’s life is one of affection, delight, and the vision that “happifies.” God is the great contemplative, we can say, captivated with truth divine by consenting in union with Truth itself — the Logos. As Edwards claims, God’s excellency “is the highest theme that ever man, that ever archangels, yes, that ever the man Christ Jesus, entered upon yet; yea, it is that theme which is, to speak after the manner of men, the highest contemplation, and the infinite happiness, of Jehovah himself.”

God’s life serves as the archetype for perfect knowledge and therefore casts knowledge in a specifically affectionate and contemplative mold. This is why religious affection is a central issue for Edwards’s understanding of Christian life, knowledge, and conversion. To know God, one must know him as God knows himself — by gazing upon his perfect image in the affection and beauty of the Spirit.

Edwards and Theo-Drama

Edwards scholar Harry Stout, in the introduction to Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742, makes this insightful comment (pages 5–6):

Edwards’ history incorporated philosophy, theology, and narrative into a synthetic whole. Earlier he had established the proposition that “heaven is a world of love,” a metaphysical state infused with the innermost being and character of the Trinity. So too, he proposed, earth was a world of pulsating divine energy, and hell a perversion of love that set in motion the cosmic supernatural conflict between God and Satan with earth as the prize. What if the story of all three — heaven, earth, and hell — were integrated into one narrative, superior to systematic theology for its drama and to earthbound historiography for its prophetic inspiration?

While Edwards was intrigued by the idea of a narrative history, this does not imply that he was uninterested in theology or even that he would not identify himself as a preacher or theologian if forced to choose. In fact, Edwards often referred to his work as “divinity,” and produced several treatises, most notably Original Sin, Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, and The Nature of True Virtue, that take on the aspect of a systematic theology. It is rather to say that Edwards early on came to sense — especially in his sermons — that the most effective way to realize the theologian’s goal of knowledge of God was to abandon the synchronic methods of formal theology and “throw” the truths of “divinity” into the diachronic form of a history.

Enter: Edwards’ History of Redemption project.

Eschatological Joy, Daily Joy, and Spirit Indwelling

So often in Scripture the presence of joy comes along with the presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:52; 1 Thess 1:6; Gal 5:22; Rom 14:17; 15:13). Jonathan Edwards picks up and develops this link between the Spirit and joy all over in his works, particularly when he writes on the Trinity, heaven, and on the religious affections.

The link between the indwelling of the Spirit and our joy is especially noteworthy in an except like this one taken from his Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith (Yale 21:190):

What Christ purchased for us, was that we might have communion with God in his good, which consists in partaking of or having communion of the Holy Ghost. All the blessedness of the redeemed consists in partaking of the fullness of Christ, their head and Redeemer, which, I have observed, consists in partaking of the Spirit that is given him not by measure. This is the vital sap, which the branches derive from the true vine; this is the holy oil poured on the head, that goes down to the members.

Christ purchased for us that we should enjoy the love, but the love of God flows out in the proceeding of the Spirit; and he purchased for them that the love and joy of God should dwell in them, which is by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

The sum of all spiritual good which the saints have in this world, is that spring of living water within them which we read of, John 4:10–14; and those rivers of living waters flowing from within them which we read of, John 7:38–39, which we are there told is the Holy Spirit.

And the sum of all happiness in the other world, is that river of living waters which flows from the throne of God and the Lamb, which is the river of God’s pleasure and is the Holy Spirit; which is often compared in Scripture to water, to the rain and dew, and rivers and floods of waters (Isaiah 44:3, Isaiah 32:15, Isaiah 35:6–7, Isaiah 41:17–18 compared with John 4:14, and Isaiah 43:19–20).

Notice a few key points drawn together by Edwards:

  1. Our joy is expensive, and the high cost is purchased for us at the cross.
  2. The Spirit’s joy is Christ’s joy first, shared with us by virtue of our union with Christ.
  3. The indwelling presence of the Spirit is the origin of spiritual joy in our lives.
  4. And perhaps most interesting to me, joy — both our joy today and our joy eternal — are both deeply embedded in our union to Christ and in the purchased permanency of the Spirit’s indwelling in our lives now and forever. Which is why for Edwards there are such strong ties of continuity to be discovered between our present experience of joy in this world (no matter how disrupted and faulty and fallen), and our perfected joy that will be fully revealed in the next world.