If you want to get to know Jonathan Edwards, read his sermons.
I once heard R.C. Sproul say he used to begin a course he taught on the preaching of Jonathan Edwards by telling the students, “In all probability this class is the most important and significant class you are ever going to take in seminary, not because of any word you will hear in this classroom from me, but instead because you are going to be exposed to the preaching and teaching of Jonathan Edwards.”
I don’t know if he was right about that particular class, but I definitely agree that Jonathan Edwards sermons are life-transforming.
If you are interested in studying Jonathan Edwards sermons, you have got lots of material to work with.
He gave his whole adult life to preaching and Edwards actually believed that ministers still have a job to do in heaven*, which means, if he’s right, who knows, he might be preaching still.
Which makes for a lot of manuscripts.
And while we don’t have access to the sermons he is preaching in heaven, and maybe even Edwards doesn’t need a manuscript there, we do have anywhere between 1200 to 1400 manuscripts of Edwards sermons available to us now.
(It’s not always clear if a document was one sermon or a series, that’s why I say between 1200 and 1400, but either way, that’s a lot of messages.)
And a lot of words.
If you have ever seen one of Jonathan Edwards’ typical sermons, at least at the start of his preaching career, they were anywhere from 40 to 60 pages long, with very little words.
(I know some people think Edwards was just a manuscript preacher, like he just looked down and read, but if you look at the manuscripts themselves, and how small his writing was, it’s hard to believe that would have even been possible, given how difficult some of what he wrote was to read.)
One of the most striking things about Edwards’ sermons is the way he conveys a sense of the majesty of God.
It’s one thing to dissect a text, and lay it out there, coldly, scientifically and it’s another to hold communion with God as the Spirit works through your study of His Word, to be as John Owen once put it, ‘sweetly wrapt up in the bosom of their Father’s love’ to have had, as Ebenezer Erskine once wrote, ‘sweet blinks and discoveries of God.’ It’s not that Edwards is just rationally and theoretically talking to you about God as a subject. It’s that it’s obvious Edward has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart. He’s delighting in the beauty of God. Right there in front of you. As he preaches. He’s not just giving you a scientific lecture on the properties of honey, he’s tasting honey, he’s putting honey on your plate for you to taste and enjoy yourself.
In Edwards words,
“If a minister has light without heat, and entertains his auditory with learned discourses, without a savour of the power of godliness, or any appearance of fervency of spirit, and zeal for God and the good of souls, he may gratify itching ears, and fill the heads of his people with empty notions; but it will not be very likely to reach their hearts, or save their souls. And if, on the other hand, he be driven on with a fierce and intemperate zeal, and vehement heat, without light, he will be likely to kindle the like unhallowed flame in his people, and to fire their corrupt passions and affections; but will make them never the better, nor lead them a step towards heaven, but drive them apace the other way.”
The preacher, of course, must make the truth clear. There must be a knowledge of the truth of the gospel, before one can enjoy it and see it as excellent. 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. He needs to make the truth of the Bible come alive.
This is part of the purpose of preaching.
As Martyn Lloyd Jones once put it,
“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.’ The real function of preaching is not to (simply) give information, 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.”
And over and over again, God used Edwards’ sermons to do just that.
It’s hard for me to pick a favorite, but one would have to be “the Excellency of Christ.” There are others who say, “A Divine and Supernatural Light” is the best place to start, and you can find those sermons and many, many others online, for free at the Jonathan Edwards Center’s website which is somehow connected to Yale, and you can also listen to some of his sermons at sermonaudio.com and on top of that, if you want to hear several pastors discuss his sermons you can find that at the East of Eden podcast.
And unfortunately, you don’t find a lot of books written on Edwards as a preacher, but if you want help, Douglas Sweeney has written a helpful book called Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word, Josh Moody, Burning Hearts, Preaching to the Affections, and John Carrick’s, The Preaching of Jonathan Edwards is just beautiful.
(*Miscellany 681, “…some in heaven will be a kind of ministers in that society – teachers, ministers to their knowledge and love, and helpers of their joy, as ministers of the gospel are here.”)