If you love to think about God, you will love Jonathan Edwards.
I don’t know there have been many others who have thought as deeply about God as he did.
This was his life-dominating passion.
You could say Edwards was a man of one great idea, and that idea was God.
In fact, you know sometimes how, when you are reading the Bible and you are in a difficult passage and you don’t know what to get out of it, you just say, what does it say about God, I mean, at least I can start there, and you know if you do that, you are going to get something good.
The same is pretty much true with Jonathan Edwards. In that, if you ever wonder what he’s about, you are in a difficult section or something, you can guess it has something to do with the supremacy of God and you’re most likely right.
“The essential principle in Edwards thought” George Marsden has written, “was the sovereignty of God.”
And it’s just not that he thought about God either, or that he was this genius thinking deep thoughts about God, it was that he loved God.
That’s what makes him so compelling. It’s not just that he shines light, he provides heat.
He loved God’s being God.
For him, this was one the pivotal moments in his conversion. I always think it’s interesting to hear people’s conversion stories, how they came to Christ, especially great men of God, like Luther, Augustine or Edwards. Biographical details like dates and such are fine, but tell me about their relationship with God, at its beginnings, because, you often find themes that come up later in their life. Like, with Edwards you see one of the key moments in his conversion story was when he came to find “an inward sweet delight” as he describes it, in the sovereignty of God.
“The absolute, unlimited, independent right of God to do with His creatures whatever He wants.”
There was a long time, where Edwards struggled to submit to God’s sovereignty, he thought this was a horrible doctrine, he fought against it, but somehow, and he can’t really explain how, while he was a student at Yale, as he meditated on the Scriptures he became convinced God’s sovereignty was right and just, and not only that, God brought him to the place where “he had not only a conviction,” he says, “but a delightful conviction.”
“The doctrine has often appeared exceedingly pleasant and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God.”
He was reading 1 Timothy 1:17, the way he tells the story, and though he had heard these words many times, the implications of the mind-blowing greatness of the eternal, all wise, God exploded off the page at him. As he read Paul’s words, ‘there came into my soul, “ he says, “and as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the divine being; a new sense, quite different from anything I ever experienced before.’ He was so much enraptured that, as he put it, ‘ I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be wrapped up to God in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him.”
Which is strong language of course.
It was as if he had been overwhelmed with the glorious majesty of God as King and really from his conversion on, he spent the rest of his life chasing more and more glimpses of God’s beauty in the face of Christ, and his life work, as one man writes, became in essence, a massive attempt to reestablish a God-centered perspective within a culture that was increasingly minimizing the significance and supremacy and majesty of God.
For Edwards, there were only few things that mattered and certainly nothing mattered more than a right view of God.
“It is of exceeding great importance that we should have right notions and conceptions of the nature, attributes and perfections of God. It is the very foundation of all religion, both doctrinal and practical.”
Which sounds sort of academic, I suppose, but for Edwards, this was thrilling.
“How good is God, that He has created man for this very end, to make him happy in the enjoyment of himself.”
This is what God’s been doing, for all eternity. God’s been delighting in His perfect view of Himself. It’s like God’s life is this eternal beholding of His own beauty and excellence.
According to Edwards,
“God the Father is infinitely happy in the enjoyment of Himself, in perfectly beholding and infinitely loving, and rejoicing in his own essence and perfections as put on display to his understanding in God the Son, and the Father by the Holy Spirit, loves and rejoices and is satisfied in this display of His perfections in the Son. “
And we get to do that. That’s the thing. We get to participate in that.
“This is the highest theme that man, that angels, that even the man Christ Jesus ever entered upon, God, it is a theme which is to speak after the manner of men, the highest contemplation, and infinite happiness of Jehovah.”
“Although we are but worms and insects, less than insects, nothing at all, yea, less than nothing, yet God has so dignified us, that he has made us for this very end, to think and be astonished in his glorious perfections.”
Even as young man, maybe twenty, twenty, he preached a sermon on Psalm 89:6, one of my favorites, called God’s excellences, in which he tries to show just how far God is exalted above his creatures, and to motivate those listening to think deeply about God, he begins by laying out some of the reasons why it is so important we think correctly about Him.
“It’s impossible,” he says, “that we should love, fear and obey God as we ought, except we know what he is, and have a right idea of his perfections, that render him lovely and worthy to be feared. Yes, it is impossible that we should worship him, for it is not he that we worship, except we know what a being he is, it is something we know not what, it is not Jehovah.”
Which of course is the problem in so much of Africa.
There’s a lot of talk, but not much learning, especially not learning about God, and without a knowledge of God, there might be a lot of activity, but there isn’t any real worship, because you can’t worship someone you don’t know. And you’ll never really even begin to know God, unless you see Him as supreme, and sovereign, right there at the center of everything.
This for Edwards, I think, is fundamental.
We can’t know God, unless we know, He is God.
The sovereignty of God is not some minor doctrine. His absolute majesty, his right to do with His creatures what He wants, this is essential for delighting in the gospel.
For us to know the love of God, we have to appreciate the wrath of God, and for us to appreciate the wrath of God, we have to see we deserve it, and for us to see deserve it, we have sense in our hearts that God is the most glorious and majestic King.
“To those that are afraid of being damned” Edwards writes, “Let them see and own that it would be most just with God forever to cast them into hell. Don’t be inventing these and those excuses for yourselves, don’t meditate upon the good things you have done, the care you have taken to avoid sin, and the pains you have taken to do as God commands; but own that God may justly cast you into hell forevermore, notwithstanding all that you have done, notwithstanding all your care and pains. Don’t think with yourself, that I had such strong temptation, I was under such and such disadvantages to do my duty, and I have been sorry for it since, and it would be very hard if I should forever [be] made to lie in the fire of hell for that: for if you had had such a sense of the infinite majesty and authority of God as you ought to have, you would have had more care; you would not have given way to those temptations…you would have done anything and suffered anything rather than have disobeyed the infinitely excellent and glorious God and the sovereign of heaven and earth. Men deserve eternal punishment for being so senseless of the greatness and majesty of God,that they dare, upon any account whatsoever, sin against him. Sinners, however they excuse themselves, yet ’tis certain that by their sin they have for a small matter affronted an infinite authority and sovereignty, and cast contempt upon an infinite majesty…This is what no temptation in the world will excuse. How can they expect any other, than that by doing thus they shall provoke the wrath and vengeance of God? Wherefore cast yourself down at God’s feet, come as with a rope about your neck, and in no wise excuse yourself; but own that you deserve nothing but an eternal hell.”
It’s this sense of the greatness and sovereignty and supremacy of God that makes us feel our helplessness apart from Christ and causes to run to Him alone as Savior.
“Faith is a sensibleness of what is real in the work of redemption; and as we do wholly depend on God, so the soul that believes doth entirely believe on God for all salvation, in its own sense, and act. Faith abases men, and exalts God, it gives all the glory of redemption to God alone.”
Which of course is where so many versions of Christianity that are out there, go wrong.
Right at the start.
Because God’s not God.
Man’s the end of creation. Man’s the agent of salvation. Man is put forward, basically, as having the absolute, independent, ultimate right to do with His Creator whatever wants. In other words, man is sovereign in many people’s versions of Christianity.
Which of course, for Edwards is a fatal flaw.
And flaw is too small a word, obviously.
“The sovereignty of God” Edwards writes, “is the stumbling block on which thousands fall and perish; and if we go contending with God about His sovereignty it will be our eternal ruin. It is absolutely necessary that we should submit to God as an absolute sovereign, and the sovereign of our souls; as one who may have mercy on whom He will have mercy and harden whom He will.”
In fact, as Edwards worked with people who were under conviction and seeking salvation, because Edwards was a theologian, and because he was a theologian, he was an evangelist, you can’t be a theologian without being an evangelist, and as he did the work of evangelism, this was the one thing he considered to be so important that if he had done things differently, he would have caused them to stumble.
“And whatever minister has a like occasion to deal with souls, in a flock under such circumstances, as this was in the last year’
And he’s talking about a revival, many people being converted.
“I can’t but think he will soon find himself under a necessity greatly to insist upon it with them, that God is under no manner of obligation to shew mercy to any natural man, whose heart is not turned to God: and that a man can challenge nothing, either in absolute justice or by free promise, from anything he does before he has believed on Jesus Christ or has true repentance begun in him.”
The doctrine of salvation is very difficult to understand in other words, apart from the doctrine of God. It’s a derivative doctrine. Our understanding of how God saves is connected to our understanding of who God is.
“It appears to me, that if I had taught those that came to me under trouble any other doctrine, I should have taken a most direct course utterly to have undone them; I should have directly crossed what was plainly the drift of the Spirit of God in his influences upon them… and so put an end to their awakenings; or cherished and established their contention and strife with God, concerning his dealings with them and others, and blocked up their way to that humiliation before the sovereign disposer of life and death.”
In Edwards’ mind the sovereignty of God wasn’t a stumbling block to effective evangelism, it was essential to it.
It’s from small thoughts of God that people aren’t convinced their sins deserve His wrath. It’s from small thoughts of God that people complain against His actions towards them. It’s from small thoughts of God that people quarrel against his justice in the condemnation of sinners. It’s from small thoughts of God that people trust in their own righteousness. It’s even from small thoughts of God that people see their temporary, physical problems as their primary problem.
Which is why it is not surprising that Edwards says,
“I think I have found that no discourses have been more remarkably blessed, than those in which the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty with regard to the salvation of sinners, and his just liberty with regard to answering the prayers, or succeeding the pains of natural men, continuing such, have been insisted on. I never found so much immediate saving fruit, in any measure, of any discourses I have offered to my congregation, as some from those words, Romans 3:19, “That every mouth may be stopped”; endeavoring to shew from thence that it would be just with God forever to reject and cast off mere natural men.”
Even though Edwards was a genius, in a sense, I think we can sum up what he was doing pretty simply: he wanted to help people see what it meant for God to be God and not just see it, but taste it, delight in it, and live in light of it.
Which is what we as pastors so desperately want here in Africa, as well.
Because, the problem with so much of what goes for Christianity here in Africa is simply that it doesn’t begin and end with God.
The whole purpose of the universe is the glory of God.
And yet the whole focus of much of Christianity in Africa is on the ‘temporary, here and now, glory of man.’ Where God is really the ultimate end and man the instrument he uses, so much of what passes for Christianity in Africa sees God as the instrument that man uses to accomplish his end.
It’s upside down.
And I think it serves as a vivid illustration really of what happens any time you allow man anywhere too near the center of anything, especially in your theology. Anytime you give man too much credit, in terms of salvation, the point of the Bible, the purpose of creation, you name it, if you allow man to slip anywhere too close to the center of your theology, if you let him take a step closer than the Bible does to God’s throne, even if at first the implications don’t seem that serious, even if externally, it looks similar, it’s only going to be a matter of time, until everything gets turned upside down, and you’ve got something that calls itself Christianity, but isn’t.
You get a parallel Christianity.
In its very liberal form, you get a Christianity where religion is just about doing good for people and making them happy, and in its extreme charismatic form, you get a Christianity that is mostly about rituals you use to manipulate God. For people who tend to elevate man’s reason, you get a Christianity where what man thinks matters more than God’s Word, and for people who tend to elevate experience, you get a Christianity where impulses and how I feel right now, matters more than what God has revealed.
Which of course is a lot of what we have here in Africa.
It’s not that people aren’t thinking about God, obviously, there is a lot of talk about God, there is a lot of religious activity, the problem is that their thoughts of God are often so small, they worship a small God, which of course, is not God.