Jonathan Edwards on the Necessity of Good Preaching

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) had a brilliant mind, an abiding love for hot chocolate, a less-than-booming voice, was kicked out of his church (only to be asked to guest preach until a replacement could be appointed), went on mission to the Indian tribes in Stockbridge, and succeeded his son-in-law as president of Princeton University (then, the College of New Jersey). He is most well know for his 1741 sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God—an American literary classic—which is, as biographer George Marsden explained, “the most famous episode in Edwards’ career.”[1]

Edwards is also commonly associated with the First Great Awakening, in which he was an undeniably integral figure. Nevertheless, even in the midst of such evangelistic fervor, Edwards longed for the hearts of people to be everlastingly set on God. Still in the shadows of the awakening that seemed to involve nearly every person in the Connecticut-valley region, Edwards looked on disconcertingly as the people reverted to old ways. He wondered whether the awakenings had truly impacted the people.

The revival spirit was finally rekindled when George Whitefield traveled across the Atlantic and preached to the masses throughout the colonies. Edwards was a supporter of Whitefield, and followed up Whitefield’s itinerate preaching with his own sermon series on the parable of the sower, exhorting his congregation not to be like the seed that fell on the rock, which sprang up quickly only to be scorched by the sun and die on rocky soil from lack of deep roots. Even more, in the wake of Whitefield’s preaching, Edwards’ community, and even his own family, began to experience spiritual awakening. This set the stage for that famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

While witnessing the revival that he had hoped for, Edwards also had to fight against the undesired results that pitted reason against affections. Edwards opposed Charles Chauncy, who tried to argue, “an enlighten mind, and not raised affections, ought always be the guide of those who call themselves men; and this, in the affairs of religion, as well as other things.”[2] In the awakenings that Edwards promoted, affections were never at war with reason. This spurred Edwards to write Religious Affections to clarify his point.

In the first part of Religious Affections, Edwards set out to explain the nature of human affections, and the role they play toward religion. First he defined:

“The affections are no other than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.…the soul does not merely perceive and view things, but is some way inclined with respect to the things it views or considers; either is inclined to them, or is disinclined and averse from them.…This faculty is called by various names: it is sometimes called the inclination; and, as it has respect to the actions that are determined and governed by it, is call the will; and the mind, with regard to the exercises of this faculty, is often called the heart.”[3]

It is the heart, according to Edwards, that guides the person—body and soul—to be inclined toward, or away from, something.

Edwards then argued, “True religion, in a great part, consists of holy affections.”[4] So, if the heart is of paramount importance in the nature of true religion, how does the heart become inclined toward what is right? Edwards began with the necessary work of God himself, through his Holy Spirit, for a person to maintain affections toward God. This is founded, for Edwards, on the reliability of the Scriptures as God’s true word to us. The affections, then, can be shaped and developed through practices such as prayer, singing praises to God, and participation in the Lord’s Supper and Baptism.

However, having ordered all of those things, Edwards announced,

“Impressing divine things on the hearts and affections of men, is evidently one great and main end for which God has ordained that his word, delivered in the holy scriptures, should be opened, applied, and set home upon men, in preaching.”[5]

In this way, preaching is essential in the Christian life. It is through preaching the word of God that God impresses the divine things (holy affections) into the hearts of men.

Other good books of divinity, as well as preaching, can give people good doctrinal and theological understanding for the things of God, but above all, “God hath appointed a particular and lively application of his word to men in the preaching of it.”[6]

Good preaching, for Edwards, gets at the sin-hardened hearts of people, and works to soften these hearts to love God above all. Good preaching causes a holy zeal in people for the things of God. Good preaching penetrates the will of a person, so that the word of God permeates her volition. Good preaching enlivens the soul of a person, so that he is set to carry out the work of God in his body.

Edwards included an all-encompassing description of what good preaching does with a simple word: joy.

“Another affection which God has appointed preaching as a means to promote in the saints, is joy; and therefore ministers are called ‘helpers of their joy,’” [2 Corinthians 1:24].

This is why the church desperately needs good preaching. For our modern context, good preaching does not mean that every sermon leaves the congregation in fits of laughter, rage, tears, or trembling. Good preaching is the word of God proclaimed faithfully, so that holy affections may be stirred in the hearts of people. As Edwards recognized, it is through the ministry of preaching that God is at work getting his word into the hearts of his people.

Because of Edwards’ commitment preaching, this chocolate-loving, squeaky-voiced, son-in-law successor, savant—even after being kicked out of his church—would not let that people go a week without a good sermon, so he preached to the people who had decided to see him go until a replacement could be found.

May the Word of God be preached faithfully in your church this Sunday, and every Sunday (and even every day), so that our hearts would be so inclined toward the things of God.

—-

[1] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 218.

[2] Ibid., 281. Emphasis original to author.

[3] Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, in Three Parts (Philidelphia: G. Goodman, Printer, 1821), 17.

[4] Ibid., 16.

[5] Ibid., 39. Italics added.

[6] Ibid.

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