Clarity and Worship in the Depths: Reading Jonathan Edwards in 2018

This post will not be a biography of Edwards, nor a detailed explanation of his genius. Writing any of those would either be beyond my expertise or time allotment. Instead, my aim is to describe why I believe Edwards is so unique, what it was like to read him in 2018, what I read by Edwards this year, and why I am thankful for God giving him to his people. In the next post, I’ll also compare him briefly to C.S. Lewis since I read this both this year. I will not jot down any specific thoughts or ideas from his works. I do not have time now, and I hope next year to go back through my highlights in his books and write about them on this site.

Clarity and Worship in the Depths

Before I list and summarize the books I read this year by Edwards below, first I would like to describe why this man of God is so unique and powerful, and what it was like reading him. I took some time thinking about how to succinctly describe his writing and thoughts. The best I could come up with is “clarity and worship in the depths.” This describes Edwards’ writing and preaching. He plunges the depths of a certain theological topic, or question, or application, and he does so with extreme clarity. No stone is left unturned. This is one of the chief brilliances of his intellect: his ability to interrogate an idea and uncover connections and results I’d never consider on my own.

Yet it isn’t merely clarity, it’s worship. He doesn’t write in prayer form like someone like Augustine, but you can tell his big God is hovering over all his words. He reveres God, he esteems God as most important, and he loves God. Don’t let anyone fool you by handing you “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and saying that that random 1700’s preacher was a joyless curmudgeon. That’s terribly false. He was intellectual, and he did address people seriously, but oh how he loves God and people. For example, he is serious about the distinguishing marks of genuine salvation in Religious Affections not because he just wanted to argue. Rather, it was because in the midst of revival he was seeing so much go on, and he loved people too much to just say that their affections were genuine when they might not be; and on the other hand, he wanted to provide help for assurance for others. He was a man of love—love to his big, beautiful God first and foremost, and then love to others. So, as you are reading his works you not only discover glories of God, but you sense this devotion and love. You see how stunning God is, and then you notice how devoted this man is first and foremost to his God and then how that affected how he related to God’s world and God’s people. It leads you to worship the same, big, life-altering God Edwards did.

This is especially evident in the sermons. Often he’d lead me to pray and worship because of what he was saying. It was clear and organized, but above all it was awe-inspiring towards God. Yes, Edwards was the brilliant instrument; but you can’t read Edwards and just be amazed at Edwards. It’s his God that shines. Hence, worship.

But besides this clarity and worship, it has to be said that it is his content that makes him so influential even today. Specifically, his emphasis on God’s glory, his analysis of genuine results of true faith, his defending of original sin, his convincing logical arguments against what was and is called ‘free will,’ his explanation of conversion, his discoveries of the wonders of Christ, and his meditations on the grandness of God are what set him apart. He said it all with clarity, and it leads his readers to worship, but the what (or better yet, the who) he spoke of is more important than how. But the how—with clarity and worshipfulness—is still remarkable.

Finally, as for any negatives, I would say the only one I can think of is his writing style itself. He isn’t a good nor poor writer per se. He just…writes. When you read his writing, you see how brilliant he is in how he thinks new thoughts, sees new connections, makes acutely good arguments, and then organizes it all. But what is not impressive is his sentence and paragraph structure. Instead, it seems he has all these brilliant ideas organized well, but then he just writes. This is especially so in three of his treatise books, The Freedom of the Will, Religious Affections, and Original Sin (Original Sin being the hardest to read out of them all). His sentences are often quite long. And he sometimes repeats himself. To be sure, this is because he’s developing a thought or argument, or giving numerous examples—all supporting his content. But he does not seem to care a bit about the writing itself. (Contrast that to C.S. Lewis, who I think lacks clarity often but always has solid writing style.) Was this a big negative of Edwards? Definitely not. It made him harder to read at times due to long, comma-excessive sentences. But other times it honestly made him easier to read. He reads more like listening to some brilliant man talk who is focused on content and not on any sort of rhetoric. When that happens, often they are clearer because they could care less how fancy or styled they sound; they solely care about communicating ideas. This is Edwards.

Jonathan Edwards’ Major Works Read in 2018

More could, should, and has been said about this brilliant man of God, but I do not have the time nor talent for it here. So, with all that said, here now are the books I read from Edwards this year with a short summary of each. See my previous post for what order I read them in. But here I’ll list them in order of ‘tiers.’ I’ll rank them according to how notable I thought the work was. Tier 1 will be the best; tier 3 the lowest. (That being said, these tiers are in relation to Edwards’ himself! Tier 3 for him would easily be over the tier 1 of most theological authors!)

Tier 1

  • The Freedom of the Will - The work originally had a much longer title. I’ll mention it here because it is surprisingly helpful and apt. It was: An Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of the Freedom of the Will which is Supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame. That’s a great summary of the book. In the work, Edwards argues convincingly why the idea of free will “which is supposed to be essential to moral agency” is not only unnecessary, but unreal and impossible. He explains that people think we must have a certain autonomous, indifferent, uninfluenced free will in order to be responsible—to have “virtue and vice, reward and punishment, praise and blame”—but that’s false and surprisingly illogical because such ‘free will’ does not exist (in us nor in God!). That’s the point of the book. Edwards does argue for a real ‘freedom of the will’ in the book, but this freedom is not autonomous nor indifferent nor uninfluenced, like many ‘free will’ proponents argue (that in truth does not exist). Instead, Edwards shows that the real freedom in our wills is doing what we want to do; this we (and God) have. (See his book for more.) Most of the book is philosophy, but then it is brilliantly supported by the Bible. I’ve been Reformed for many years, but when it came to denying ‘free will’ and supporting unconditional election, I almost always used to say that it is beyond our ability to understand. Now, with this book, I see why this alone makes sense. It isn’t illogical. Yes, there’s still some mystery. But it is the other side—which requires an autonomous, indifferent, uninfluenced ‘will’—which is quite illogical. His view is the only side which makes sense of reality and the Bible. Edwards, I think, convincingly proves this.

  • A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World - Edwards in this shorter work argues that the entire universe—and us in it—exists for God’s glory. What makes this work unique is how he argues the truth of this. In the first half, he does so only using philosophy. It’s brilliant. But then in the second half, he goes to the Bible because he admits that philosophy means nothing unless it is supported by the Word. In this section specifically, he proves that the universe was and is created for God’s glory.

  • Sermons of Jonathan Edwards (A collection of three sermon books: Sovereignty Sermons, Christ Exalted Sermons, Revival Sermons) - Some of his sermons belong to tiers 2 or 3, but overall, they belong up here. The same brilliance that appears in his treatises appears in his sermons. There’s no watering it down for the congregation. And history shows the fruitfulness of such depth-filled preaching. Some of his sermons are like small treatises on certain topics. Other sermons of his, particularly those he preached during times of revival, were less brilliant and more application-focused. Yet overall, his preaching is top tier in terms of brilliance. In fact, I’d recommend anyone who is interested in reading Edwards to start with his sermons. The sermons I’d start with would be (in no particular order): “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence,” “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” and “The Excellency of Christ.” But other great sermons are, “Praise, One of the Chief Employments of Heaven,” “God’s Sovereignty in the Salvation of Men,” “Christ’s Agony,” “The Character of Paul an Example to Christians,” “Christ, the Example of Ministers,” “A Farewell Sermon,” and of course, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (which deserves to be fully read, not referenced in parts—it is quite a striking sermon).

Tier 2

  • A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections - Two quick thoughts about this famous book. First, I was surprised how applicable to today it is. For some reason, I thought it’d be more esoteric, an inapproachable theological book. But it wasn’t. He is investigating how to tell what genuine religious emotions are—something which might even be more applicable today (especially with the rise of the influential Pentecostal and Charismatic movements) than it was back then. So, I was pleasantly surprised by this. As a result, I will visit this book often throughout ministry. In fact, because of this, it might be the book by Edwards I look through most in ministry. Second, although I didn’t expect it to be as applicable to today, I did expect it to be by far his best work. That I did not find to be true. It was still brilliant, but I thought this and Original Sin were dragged out and more boring to read at times. That being said, the content of it—although dragged out sometimes—is precious. I’m so thankful Edwards thought so long and hard about this. I believe on almost everything he is right. And because of the presence of the rocky and thorny soils all around and in our churches, this book is very helpful. It’s tier 2 simply because it dragged on a bit and I wasn’t as stunned at it as I was at the works listed above.

Tier 3

  • The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended - This was maybe the most difficult book I’ve ever read. For starters, it’s long and is not in print anymore, except in his complete works or by self-publishers online. I took the latter route, and so it was visually and textually a mess. But more importantly, it just is much less polished than any of his other works. It is his defense of the doctrine of original sin, but it specifically was a response to someone during his day who was denying it. As a result, often he has these long, laborious quotes from this other theologian just to disprove him and disagree with him. So it was about half defending original sin with the Bible, and about half disagreeing with this man. Yet still, in spite of all this, there were still a handful of awe-moments. Moments where he surprised me with brilliant thoughts. For example, he had about four pages systematically going through how the Bible uses the word ‘death’ and how that relates significantly to original sin and hell. Or another time he argues convincingly why infants are sinful according to the Bible (and he does not just prooftext!). So, this was hard to read, but it was still worth it. I’m not sure I’ll read it all the way through again for a long time, but I'll reference my highlights again soon.

  • The Nature of True Virtue - In this work his argument is that all true virtue stems from love towards God. I liked a lot of it, and many love this work. but i’ll be honest: the main reason it is tier 3 is because I didn’t fully get the argument. I took my time with it; I highlighted and summarized each chapter; but I don’t see how he get to his final point. I agree with him, especially because of certain Bible verses. And as with all his books, he doesn’t just quote the Bible and tell people they just must believe it. Instead, he argues philosophically. He did the same here; I just didn’t fully get how it all connected in his argument. Again, he made some great points, but it didn’t all link together in a cohesive argument like his other treatises (even Original Sin) did. I want to read it again to get it. It was sill worth reading this time for sure.

  • A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God - This is the book (or, long letter) which began Edwards’ fame during his life. In it, he is recounting the surprising revival which was taking place in his hometown. He divides his letter into three parts: in part one he introduces it all; in part two he describes general themes of what the revival is like; in part three he gives two longer specific examples of people. This work isn’t stunning, but it is historically and theologically interesting hearing him describe true revival, especially in parts two and three where he gives much theological insight.

Edwards’ Books Still to Read in the Future

I have many words from Edwards still to read (unlike C.S. Lewis, of whom I read virtually all his works this year). Listed above are his major works and sermons, but there’s still much more. In particular, there’s three more I didn’t get to: First, he has his famous Charity and Its Fruits collection of sermons. Second, there is his A History of the Work of Redemption which was to be his magnum opus but wasn’t completed before his death (oh, how I wish the Lord didn’t take him before this was finished! But as he wills…). Then third, there’s his famous The Life and Diary of David Brainerd. And even besides these three, there’s numerous miscellanies and other sermons. I look forward to reading more from his pen in the future.

4 Reasons Why I Am Thankful to God for Jonathan Edwards

Much more should be said about such a giant, but I’ll conclude explaining four reasons I’m thankful for this man.

First, I’m thankful for him because of his influence on John Piper. Piper has influenced my faith more than any other teacher or pastor, and going into this year I knew he was strongly influenced by Edwards. After reading Edwards’ major works, I can see why. Piper’s emphases on joy, glory, and God’s bigness all stem from Edwards (well, from the Bible, but particularly as excavated by Edwards).

Second, I’m thankful for Edwards because of his God-centered, compelling logic. Even non-Christians who read him and know of him admit he was a genius. You read his writings and it is evident. His logic is tight and compelling. What makes him unique is that he is a God-fearing, God-glorifying, God-revering genius. He’s distinctive in the way he takes that genius and applies it to the Word and theology. How easy it is in history for those who are most brilliant to neglect God! But here is the opposite. Edwards is a man who is gifted by God with an incredible intellect and uses that intellect for God’s glory. He uses it to analyze and adore God’s glory. This is special. I’m thankful for his logic—for his connections, thoughts, ideas, and corollaries—but I’m especially thankful for the God-centeredness of it all.

Third, I’m thankful to God for Edwards because of his awe-inspired worshipfulness. See above for more on this. He led me to worship God over and over—whether it was in his sermons, or in his logical brilliance on God, his glory, and his ways.

Fourth, I’m thankful to God for Edwards because of how he excites in me a desire for God, and particularly for heaven (because God is there and will be here in the new heavens and new earth). There’s just something about the way he thinks, writes, and preaches that stirred my soul. Edwards thought with such clarity about God, spoke highly of God, and excited in me a desire for that God. He sparked a longing to have more of him now, but especially to be with him forever. Knowing he has been dead for over 200 years, I often thought that this man—this man with such genius, glorious thoughts about God—is now with God. In light of all this, Edwards made me more okay with death. He made me able to strive to live more sacrificially and loving while here on earth for this short time. And, in the spirit of his Resolutions, he made me want to resolve to live more for Christ.

God gives us great gifts in people. I felt this with Edwards in his writing and preaching. I will probe his thoughts more and more—both in these major works again, and in his other writings—until the day I die. And then, I’ll get to meet this man face to face in the presence of his great God. I look froward to it.

See my next post for comparisons between C.S. Lewis and Jonathan Edwards.