Podcast: The Unlikely Legacy of Jonathan Edwards (Dane Ortlund)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

In Love with the Beauty of God

Dane Ortlund, author of Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God discusses the life and legacy of Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century preacher most famous for his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." He reflects on his ministry as a pastor, how the beauty of God fit into Edwards's approach to the Christian life, and what we can learn from him almost 300 year later.

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Edwards on the Christian Life

Edwards on the Christian Life

Dane C. Ortlund

Offering readers an accessible portrait of Jonathan Edwards’s life and theology, this book highlights the central role of beauty in his understanding of the Christian life.

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Full Transcript

01:23 - Welcome

Matt Tully
Dane, thank you for joining us on The Crossway Podcast.

Dane Ortlund
Thanks, Matt.

01:27 - A Prediction of Edward’s Life

Matt Tully
Three decades after Edwards died in 1758, a man named Ezra Stiles made a prediction related to him. Can you explain what that prediction was and what it reveals about Edwards?

Dane Ortlund
Well, Ezra Stiles was President of Yale, where Edwards was a student at one time, and I love this quote because we don’t remember Ezra Stiles at all, but he said something like–I don’t have the exact quote memorized–but something like, you know, “In a very short time Jonathan Edwards’ writings are going to be noticed scarce above oblivion”– I remember was one of the phrases he uses–and he says, “When people come across his books in the trash cans of libraries”–this is a modern paraphrase–“those who read them are going to be looked at as real weirdos.” And it’s just such a telling remark into the way God actually works, in that he loves to take these backwoods, out of the way, skinny, introverted preachers who died with 300 books in their library and use them for centuries after to do exactly what Ezra Stiles predicted would never happen, which is to greatly strengthen the church.

02:58 - Edward’s Legacy

Matt Tully
And how would you summarize Edwards’ legacy? If we were to put it down into you know a few sentences, what impact has he had on the Christian church?

Dane Ortlund
That’s a frustrating question to answer because you can’t do it justice. But there just was no one like Jonathan Edwards. Martin Luther was like Peter: rash, punchy, earthy, in your face. Jonathan Edwards was like the Apostle John: elegant, calm and calming, in love with God, and feeling loved by God. And when you read Jonathan Edwards, you just feel like you’re being walked into an open sunny meadow out of a dark, damp, musty hallway. And it’s a new world.

04:01 - A Misconception about Edwards

Matt Tully
What would you say is one of the biggest misconceptions that modern Christians have when it comes to Edwards? You just sketched a portrait of him that I think many would find perhaps a bit surprising.

Dane Ortlund
Yeah, you’re right. I don’t think the primary misconception by Christians today would be that he was just a hellfire and brimstone kind of preacher. Maybe by non-Christians, sure. I remember ninth grade class with Mrs. Arbiter–hope she’s not listening to this; I doubt she is–telling us one thing about Jonathan Edwards, namely Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God". He was a grouchy preacher who wanted to make people feel real bad about themselves. But I think probably, Matt, the greatest misconception among believers–which is what you just asked–is that he’s hard to read. Yes. There are some of his books that you don’t want to start with. Freedom of the Will, for example, by which he meant your will is not free. Or The Nature of True Virtue. Some of these are . . . I don’t know what he’s talking about in The Nature of True Virtue* and I’ve tried a couple of times to get through that short book. But the misconception is if you wake up and you haven’t had three or four cups of coffee and you try to read Jonathan Edwards, you’re just going to have your eyes glaze over and you know, he’s going to put you back to sleep. Not at all. If you go to his sermons, you find him eminently accessible and because you find that he knows your heart and he maps the Bible and Christ onto it. And so he knows you.

05:45 - Starter Sermon

Matt Tully
What would one of those sermons be that if someone was coming to Edwards for the first time and wants to get a taste of that accessibility, that warmth is there a sermon in particular that you would recommend that they do a Google search for?

Dane Ortlund
You would be doing fine if you plunked down anywhere on the one hand, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is not an isolated sermon. It’s not even his most terrifying. Probably The Justice of God and the Damnation of Sinners is the scariest sermon that he preached. If I had to pick a single sermon–can I do this?–a single sermon to read if you say, “All right. I’m going to give him one chance and I’m not going to read a 300-page book, but one sermon and I’m going to determine on the basis of that if I’m going to read Jonathan Edwards ever again." Then the one I would point to is on 1 John 4:16, "God is love and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”

The Spirit of True Saints–title of the sermon–The Spirit of True Saints is a Spirit of Divine Love. That is Jonathan Edwards in microcosm. It’s a long sermon. It must have taken him over an hour to preach it. But it’s in a little collection of sermons called, I think, The Glory of God. It might be The Blessing of God. It’s one or the other. And all the major themes of Edwards–light, and love, and calmness, and new birth–come out and he says things like, “You may go to Christ and tell him how you love him.” And he unpacks that. He says, “Labor to live a life of love.” He says, “A life of love is the most pleasant life to be lived.” And he explains that when you live in love you are actually–while remaining a human, not being deified–being swept up into what has been happening within the Trinity from time immemorial. And it’s just an enchanting sermon.

08:02 - Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

Matt Tully
Going back to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, that’s that’s the one I think most, even Christians probably, that may have been their first exposure to Edwards if they ever did read anything by him or read about him in school. What do you think that sermon in particular teaches us about Edwards? And what does it maybe not give us a complete picture on when it comes to his his approach to the Christian life?

Dane Ortlund
Right. Well, he really believed in hell and so it might be a salutary exercise for some of us today who know that that isn’t the main way he liked to preach–main topic he liked to preach about–it might be good for us to say, “Hey, what–given the way we pray, given what we tell our kids day in and day out–what do we actually believe about the eternality and reality and horror of hell?” So there’s something there to be learned. But that was not his . . . that wasn’t what animated him and got him out of bed in the morning mainly. In fact, in an Oxford University Press publication on the theology of Jonathan Edwards, two Edwards Scholars–two of the best–discovered and relate the way the Hellfire and brimstone sermons faded out in terms of frequency over the course of his ministry. The earlier Edwards was quicker to preach on that and the more mature Edwards loved to preach on the loveliness of Christ.

09:41 - The Loveliness of Christ

Matt Tully
Speak to that then. Elaborate on that trajectory that we see over his life and you said he arrives at this the notion of the loveliness of Christ. How does that fit into his theological system later in his life?

Dane Ortlund
Well, he must have overtime matured into an understanding and awareness of what actually most deeply changes sinners. He came to believe, I think Matt, that it isn’t getting scared into Christ, but wooed into Christ. That is the most effective way to build traction in your walk with God to welcome sinners into God’s very heart. So I just think it’s something that he himself as he matured–as we all do, including him–grew in his understanding of How do we actually move forward in the Christian Life? It’s by being entranced with something attractive, not frightened into it.

10:57 - Preaching Style

Matt Tully
So we know Edwards from all of his writings. But he was first and foremost a pastor and a preacher. We have lots of his sermons, as you’ve mentioned, we have written versions of those sermons, obviously, no recordings. But what do we know about his style of preaching? What would he have sounded like if we were sitting in his church?

Dane Ortlund
Well, there are conflicting reports actually of that from church history. So one doesn’t want to be too dogmatic. What we can confidently say is that he didn’t wow people with animated theatrics. He never would have made it as a TV preacher. He was the opposite of the rhapsodic Whitfield who was so animated, you know, drawing thousands of people to hear him and so on. One observer commented that whenever Edwards looked up he would never look the people in the face, but he looked up at the top in the back of the church at the clock tower and the bell in it. So it’s like, he’s reading his manuscript and he looks up at the clock tower and looks back down again. Who knows if that’s exactly true, but that was one report. We also know another observer said people would at times stretch out in the pews to take a nap while he was preaching. So he was not someone who was just incessantly, you know, magnetic in the way he preached. But for the regenerate, the born-again, those with some spiritual aliveness to their hearts’ taste buds–you know, they want something of God, they’re alive to God in some way–I think his preaching was always edifying and occasionally stunning because he just bored down–that’s a phrase Packer uses in describing Edwards’ preaching–he bored down on listeners consciences with the plain old truths of sin and salvation. Packer or something like that. He was just relentless in bringing out before them truth about God in his calm, quiet, elegant, carefully structured way and I think it was at times magnificent.

13:13 - The Great Awakening

Matt Tully
Yeah. We see some of that in his impact on The Great Awakening. Could you summarize his role in that revival and how God used some of his simple preaching?

Dane Ortlund
Oh, wow. He is church history’s Theologian of Revival. He’s number one. We’re only at 2,000 years so far, maybe another better one will come along, but so far he’s our best. He wrote in Religious Affections, Thoughts on the Revival, and Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. Those are the three books, his three revival writings–Religious Affections long the other two fairly short–and he writes about the two revivals he experienced in his own church. I mean corporately, not just he himself. First, locally in 1734-35 a revival that was sparked by his preaching on Romans 4:5 and justification by faith alone. And then 1740-42 The Transatlantic Great Awakening where Whitfield came and visited, preached for Edwards, Edwards was out of town, Whitfield preached, his wife was sitting in the front row in tears, and God did a great work then. And he took his Bible in one hand and what he was observing in his other hand. And he put the two together and he wrote about what is happening in revival, and what isn’t happening in revival, and what is false revival in ways that are very penetrating and show knowledge of the human heart. And you can’t read that stuff, Matt, without longing for it to happen again.

14:53 - The Role of Beauty

Matt Tully
You argue that beauty–the notion of beauty–played a really central role in his theology broadly, but more specifically his approach to the Christian life. Elaborate on that.

Dane Ortlund
Well, he knew that only a beauty–seeing it, beauty is something your eyes apprehend. You don’t hear Beauty so much you see it. He knew that seeing beauty, or in one place C.S. Lewis talks about "passing into it, longing to pass into it" is the only way to be led out of our intractable recalcitrance–our hard-heartedness–to be softened, to be let out of the old man into the new, out of the flesh into the Spirit, to leave self behind. He knew you can’t crowbar your life into change through forced, grunted, mustered up, external behavior conformity; but that we are softened and melted into change and that the way that happens is by God giving us eyes. And Ephesians 1 speaks of the eyes of our heart being enlightened, being opened. And Edwards knew that only in seeing God–supremely in Jesus, whom we see in Scripture–and Jesus love for sinners and sufferers is what ushers us into the green pastures and still waters of becoming human again in communion with God. Seeing God. Seeing God in his beauty. In other words, in the new birth God shows us he turns around our eyes, in a sense, and turns what was looking ugly into what is actually beauty.

16:56 - Advice for Pastors

Matt Tully
And what advice do you think Edwards would give pastors today who are seeking to learn from his example in terms of their preaching? You talked about how Edwards was, in some sense, simply preaching the basic message of salvation, but then he was also alive to the beauty of God and that came through in his preaching. How might he instruct pastors today on integrating those things into their preaching?

Dane Ortlund
I’d love to ask him that question, but a thought or two that comes to mind is he would encourage preachers today, I think, to saturate their minds in the Bible. Then take a short passage to preach on. Read it. And then open it up with a Bible-saturated mind. So you’re drawing all these connections, bringing them to bear on this one text, and through that text opening up as much as one can with all the words in the English language you know opening up the minds of the listeners to see how gorgeous Jesus Christ is spiritually. How irresistibly attractive he is if you see him for who he really is. He would say, “Talk about God.” That’s what he would say, in Christ. Don’t read the church growth literature, don’t think we need to implement a new strategy or program, talk about God and don’t be boring and then see what happens.

18:49 - Subjective vs. Objective

Matt Tully
One criticism that you you’ve offered with regard to Edwards is that he was–at least in terms of the Christian life, thinking about the Christian life, living the Christian Life, seeking sanctification–he was more focused on the subjective rather than the objective. What do you mean by that?

Dane Ortlund
Yeah. Well, I would say the Reformers recovered for us in an incredible way the objective side of our salvation. The sheer black and white gratuity of the Gospel, especially as given to us in the Bible’s teaching on justification. And they helped us to see justification is outside in "an alien righteousness" Luther called it, and you mess it up if you try to make it inside out. Your status, your justification of the objective side, But Edwards, as a late Puritan–this is true of all the Puritans, I think–they are our best coaches in understanding the subjective side of Christian salvation. And subjectively, in terms of sanctification, we are changed inside out and we mess it up if we try to make it outside in. But I do think Edwards was . . . I want to be very cautious here Matt, but I do think he was overly introspective, subjectively oriented. You know, Robert Murray M’Cheyne famously said, "For every one look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ", Edwards didn’t do that. But I think what M’Cheyne said is a biblically defensible position. Second Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves, test yourself to see if you’re in the faith.” We have those statements in the Bible, but they’re one out of 10 not 10 to one. So I don’t think Edwards was taking the whole course of his ministry as comforting with the objective side of the Gospel as he could have been. I say that very cautiously and maybe I’m off in saying that. Maybe in 20 years I’ll take that back, but I doubt it.

21:00 - Overemphasis on Introspection

Matt Tully
Do we see that–that perhaps overemphasis on introspection–is that visible in his preaching as well as his own personal writings, or his journals, or where are we kind of seeing that trend? Or is it across the board?

Dane Ortlund
Both. Everywhere. I think all over his writings. Yeah. Yeah. I mean his sermons are where we should go mainly to read Edwards and it’s what I’m mainly familiar with, but I just I wish he had a deeper capacity for understanding just how weak and fickle Christians are–perhaps much more so than he was–and how much they need to be assured, simply reassured, of God’s unflappable favor for them in Christ. He did that at times. I’m not saying all or nothing here, but the general tenor and flavor of his ministry, that’s what I’m talking about.

21:50 - Personal Resolutions

Matt Tully
So early in his life, he wrote what is famously recognized as his Resolutions, his list of personal resolutions for his own spiritual life. How did he come to view those later in his life? And how does that perhaps illustrate what you’re talking about here?

Dane Ortlund
Yeah, he wrote like 70 of them. They were one sentence each you know, “Resolve to do this, resolve to do that.” I think he was 19, wasn’t he, when he wrote those. You’re right to ask how he looked at them later in life, Matt, because he did . . . he was a little more reluctant about them looking back as a middle-aged man on what he said there. I think he was a bit more realistic at that point and aware of how weird our fallen hearts are and dysfunctional even in ways where blind to and the way we will take good resolutions and pursue them in a way that isn’t perhaps fully-flavored by the grace of the Gospel. So he did look back and say I might have been a little bit overly zealous in writing those out, but we can still receive, and benefit from, and learn from, and celebrate what he says in those resolutions. They are not unhealthy or bad.

23:05 - Sanctification

Matt Tully
How would you counsel Christians to think about the the intersection of resolving and thinking hard about our own sanctification, working hard towards that end, and yet maintaining a balance with not ever slipping into thinking that that’s providing the grounds of our acceptance before God or even that’s the primary locus of our assurance?

Dane Ortlund
That’s a great question and wouldn’t you say the answer is it’s a both/and? They rise and fall together. In other words, if you pursue only one of those you are not in step with apostolic Christian discipleship. Either to make resolutions–I mean, Benjamin Franklin is famous for writing out all these things these virtues he wanted to sort of knock them off one-by-one and he would be this virtuous man at the end of it and he was a Godless man and he became frustrated in that. So we can try to do that even as believers–write out resolutions and seek to keep them–and we’ll either become prideful if we think we are keeping them, or despairing if we think we aren’t. But on the other hand, we can flee too far the other way, then swing the other way in an over equally imbalanced way of living the Christian fife that says, “Oh, out of fear that I would ever do something legalistically, I’m never going to resolve to do anything and I’m simply going to bask and relax in the grace of God.” that’s equally ill-balanced and unbiblical. So you have Ephesians 1-3. Grace, who you are, your new identity, chosen in Christ, raised with Christ, loved by Christ. And then three chapters of how this now works out. In a sense it’s the grace of God and then the resolutions you should rightly make in light of that grace. It’s both/and not either/or.

Matt Tully
As you look at modern conservative Evangelicalism. What do you think would be . . . which direction would we tend to tip, if you can you can generalize?

Dane Ortlund
It’s hard to generalize, isn’t it? It probably depends on what little pocket of the Evangelical world you parachute down into to answer that question. There would be some quarters who cannot handle reading Jonathan Edwards because of the way he relentlessly calls us to holiness. And there would be other quarters who would read that sermon series on Romans 4:5 and say, “This guy is an antinomian! He’s totally thrown out the need for pursuing holiness.” So it depends on where in Edwards you’re reading and who you’re talking to, but I think anyone from any quarter of the Christian church, Matt, can begin to wade into the writings of Edwards and be corrected where they need to be.

26:00 - Gentleness and Calm in the Christian Life

Matt Tully
In what way does gentleness play a role in Edwards’ approach to the Christian Life?

Dane Ortlund
He speaks about gentleness often. And I focused on that in the book as a whole chapter because it is a pervasive, at least common, biblical theme. It is a neglected virtue, at least in what I listen to and read in the church today, and it’s something I don’t really have in my own life. So I thought, “Maybe this is worth giving a chapter to.” And he uses gentleness as a synonym for words like meekness, a dove-like spirit, a lamb-like spirit. And he basically says this, Matt, “Gentleness isn’t a gift of the Spirit for some. It’s a fruit of the Spirit for all. It’s in Galatians 5. It’s not in 1Corinthians 12.” So some of us may be more wired naturally temperamentally according to our Myers-Briggs analysis says towards gentleness, but he would say everyone, as you come into Christ, should be gentleized from what they otherwise would be. And the way he speaks about it is very beautiful and worth our reflection today I think.

Matt Tully
You also mentioned that there’s a certain calm that he that his approach to God would inspire. Speak to that a little bit.

Dane Ortlund
Well, he really believed in the sovereignty of God, for one thing. The sovereignty of God actually, when reading First Timothy 1:17, “Now to the king immortal, invisible, the only God, be glory and honor forever and ever. Amen.” That was when the scales fell from his eyes when he was late teenager and he became a believer, probably then truly converted. And as he goes on in his personal narrative to unpack what was happening inside of him in that moment and in the day surrounding it, the way he unpacks it is he came to collapse into belief in the sovereignty of God. He just gave in. And so the sovereignty of God is a major piece of how he understood the Christian life to be a life of calm. The other major piece that makes his view of God not just fate is that this sovereign God is love. He is a person and what flows out of his deepest heart is mercy and love. That’s the sovereign one. And when you put those two things together, Edwards would say, “You are safe. You’re secure. Calm down.” And that is seasonable counsel for our naturally frantic and frenetic hearts.

29:15 - Predestination

Matt Tully
How big a role did the doctrine of predestination and election play into Edwards’ . . . I think we often think of the Puritans as very dour and very, very hard on God’s sovereignty in his harsh providence and these things. How might we be misunderstanding a little bit some of that with Edwards?

Dane Ortlund
Providence, yes. Harsh, no. You know, in Ephesians 1 as Paul is unfolding in verses 3 and following right at the beginning of the chapter of the letter God’s electing grace and uses the word "predestined" us, he says he predestined us in love. So Jonathan Edwards’ ministry and his theology of election, or predestination, holds those two things together the way the Apostle Paul did. And Edwards would say this, “To be one of the elect, to be chosen by God, to be predestined by him, is not a cold, hard, calculating doctrine. It simply means God loves you so much he left nothing to chance. He’s left nothing for you to mess up.” And that’s his doctrine of predestination. It’s full bore. Its high octane. He doesn’t ever temper it, or make excuses for it, or apologize for it. He’s as Calvinistic as you can get. Though, he said, “I draw my doctrines from Paul not from John Calvin.” But it’s a beautiful Calvinism not a hard, repelling kind of Calvinism.

31:00 - One Question for Edwards

Matt Tully
Last question. If you could sit down with Edwards today, if he was sitting where I’m sitting, and you can ask him any question what do you would ask him?

Dane Ortlund
This is a question that would that would probably make him cringe, but what I would want to ask him is, “How did you actually become the kind of man you became? What happened?” And I think what he would say is he got up each day amid all the crowding disappointments in his heart, and reasons to throw in the towel, and sleepy parishioners, and hectic overwhelming life with 11 kids running the farm basically with his wife’s help, I think he would say, “I got up each day and I drew strength from this old book.” You know, secular historians like to debate who most heavily influenced Jonathan Edwards and what were the formative influences for him? Was it Hume? Was it Locke? You know, which philosophical school was it? But when you read any of his writings, it isn’t Hume and Locke that he’s quoting, mainly. It’s Paul, and John, and Isaiah. And I think he would say, "Befriend the Bible prayerfully, attuned to the Spirit–this is not an arid, doctrinaire kind of exercise, just reading intellectually–do it humbly, spiritually, prayerfully, consistently over extended times at times. Get the Bible way down deep inside of you and watch the miracles unfold in your life. Watch the beauty come out because that’s the kind of person that will make you.

33:17 - Closing

Matt Tully
Dane, thanks for joining us today and giving us a window into Edwards’ life, and his theology, and his approach to the Christian life.

Dane Ortlund
You’re most welcome.


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