I recently listened to a *lecture in which the person speaking summarized what he’s learned from the preaching of Jonathan Edwards in the following four principles:
1. The goal of preaching is a sense on the heart
2. The strategy of preaching is the beauty of truth
3. The matter of preaching is the excellency of Christ
4. The result of preaching is the grace of true virtue
Bouncing off what he says in his lecture, let’s try to unpack each of those points one by one, starting in this post with the first:
1. The goal of preaching is a sense on the heart:
The goal of the sermon is not just to make the truth clear, it is to make the truth real.
The preacher, of course, must make the truth clear. That much is obvious. You can’t even begin to talk about a sense on the heart if the truth has not first been made clear. But, the preacher must not be content with only making the truth clear. He must seek after more than that, and pray after more than that, because of course God wants more than that. There’s more to knowing God the way God wants to be known, than merely knowing or being able to say the right things about Him.
It is a little, I suppose, like with one’s spouse. It is one thing to have a sheet of information about someone to memorize and to recite, and it is another to actually be married to them, to enjoy them, to delight in them, to know them.
Or, to use one of Edwards’ own illustrations, we might think about honey. It is one thing to have many people tell you what honey tastes like, that it is sweet, and to believe them, to have a rational understanding and belief that honey is sweet, for the truth to be clear to you, but simply knowing that because others told you is a different thing altogether than actually having tasted the honey yourself, for that’s when the truth has become real.
“There is a difference between having an opinion,” Edwards explains, “that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace…There is a wide difference between mere speculative rational judging any thing to be excellent, and having a sense of its sweetness and beauty. The former rests only in the head, speculation only is concerned in it; but the heart is concerned in the latter. When the heart is sensible of the beauty and amiableness of a thing, it necessarily feels pleasure in the apprehension. It is implied in a person’s being heartily sensible of the loveliness of a thing, that the idea of it is sweet and pleasant to his soul; which is a far different thing from having a rational opinion that it is excellent.”
Like some of us, Jonathan Edwards was preaching to people who had grown up around Christianity.
As a result, they knew many truths about the Bible. Many of them had an opinion that God was holy and gracious, who had a right rational judgment about God. But, for many, that is where it seemed to stop. They hadn’t been transformed by those truths. And this, Edwards saw as a problem.
A big one.
“…where there is heat without light, there can be nothing divine or heavenly in the heart; so, on the other hand, where there is a kind of light without heat, a head stored with notions and speculations with a cold and unaffected heart, there can be nothing divine in that light, that knowledge is no true spiritual knowledge of divine things.”
In Edwards’ mind it was clear, “He that has doctrinal knowledge and speculation only, without affection, never is engaged in the business of religion.”
Now, of course anyone who loves his congregation, wants them to be engaged in the business of religion, he wants the best for them, and so Edwards, had to think, what could possibly be the cause of this? Why is it that so many know the truths about God and about heaven and hell and yet, aren’t continually impacted by that knowledge?
In a sermon Edwards preached on Genesis 19:14, he provides an answer.
“The reason why men no more regard warnings of future punishment, is because it don’t seem real to them.”
Clearly, we won’t take warnings of future punishment seriously if we don’t know about them, if we don’t understand them, and if we don’t believe them. But, even if we do have a rational understanding of what the Scriptures teaches about eternal punishment, it still may not seem real to us, if we don’t have as Edwards puts it, “lively or sensible idea or apprehension of it.”
He writes, “Those things that we are daily conversant about, that we see and hear and feel, they seem real to us, as we have a plain and sensible idea of them. Thus by seeing a man, we get a more real and lively apprehension of him than by being told of him or seeing his picture. Those things that we are conversant with when we are awake seem more real generally than our imaginations when we are dreaming, because our ideas are abundantly more distinct and lively. Now the greater part of men have not a lively sensible apprehension of the wrath of God and of eternal punishment; it never was set before their eyes and brought into clear view. They have very little of a notion what the wrath of God is, and so it don’t appear very terrible to them. They have but a faint dull idea of the misery of the damned: and that is the reason that, when they are told of it, it don’t terrify them. It seems to them like a fable or a dream that makes very little impression upon their minds.”
The problem with living in this world is that spiritual realities often seem like a dream or a fable. And one of the solutions that God has provided to this problem, is biblical preaching. In preaching, God takes these truths and sets them before our eyes. The preacher must help his people see and feel what’s really real. And how does he do that?
We see that even in Edwards quote. They have little of a notion of what the wrath of God is. They have but a faint idea. They need light.
But also, heat!
In order to help make these truths real, Edwards said that the pastor must seek to “both a burning and shining light.” It is necessary that “his heart burn with love to Christ, and fervent desires of the advancement of his kingdom and glory,” and that “his instructions be clear and plain, accommodated to the capacity of his hearers, and tending to convey light to their understandings.” His messages, of course, must be clear. They must provide light. But they must also be moving. They must also be hot.
For as Jonathan Edwards, In Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England, explains, “Though…clearness of distinction and illustration, and strength of reason, and a good method, in the doctrinal handling of the truths of religion, is many ways needful and profitable, and not to be neglected…Our people don’t so much need to have their heads stored, as to have their hearts touched; and they stand in the greatest need of that sort of preaching that has the greatest tendency to do this.”
We get a clear example of how this approach to preaching impacted Edwards own ministry, as we look at his famous message Sinners in the Hands of Angry God. George Marsden explains, “Building on the widely held premise of New Englanders that hell was as genuine a reality as China, Edwards hoped to awaken people to what that awful reality must mean to them here and now. Language, as he saw it, was not just used to create ideas of reality, as Locke might describe it, but preeminently to arouse affections that would excite vital knowledge among the hearers. As he argued in A Divine and Supernatural Light, even devils had theoretical knowledge of many spiritual realities. His hearers needed to grasp truths with their affections, with their whole hearts, so that they would be moved by God’s Spirit to act on what they now saw vividly to be true. The seemingly inescapable biblical teaching of eternal punishment, as horrible as Edwards himself found it, could be a wonderful gift if people could be brought to stare into the fire. Only then could they begin to feel its meaning for them. Ironically, that terrifying vision could be the means God used to bring the joys of salvation.” (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, p.221)
And what was true of eternal punishment for Edwards, was true of every other doctrine as well. He wasn’t content with merely giving a Sunday School lesson about the sovereignty of God, he wanted to do everything in his power to preach in such a way as to make knowledge of God’s sovereignty and the many other great doctrines we find in Scripture, live.
Martyn Lloyd Jones agreed with Edwards. And perhaps his explanation of the purpose of preaching makes this point most clear. He once said, “Thomas Cartwright…said, ‘As the fire stirred giveth more heat, so the Word, as it were, blown by preaching, flameth more in the hearers than when it is read.’ That is, to me, a very striking and most valuable statement. It tells us, incidentally, something of the purpose of preaching. The real function of preaching is not to give information, it is to do what Cartwright says; it is to give it more heat, to give life to it, to give power to it, to bring it home to the hearers…He is to inspire them, he is to enthuse them, he is to enliven them and send them out glorying in the Spirit.”
(*You can find this lecture in Westminster Theological Seminary’s Media Center under “Jonathan Edwards: Preaching and True Virtue)