Begin with Why
The first point to get clear in our minds is not how to read Jonathan Edwards but why. And here is why. He turns our postcard views of Christ and the beauty of authentic Christian living into an experience of the real thing. What we had only smelled we now see. What we heard others call magnificent and considered overstatement we now see as magnificent and recognize as understatement.
Jonathan Edwards gives us longings for God and for holiness that are more satisfying than even our best joys currently are. For some, he may bring us to realize that we were never converted at all. My own journey with Jonathan Edwards has walked me into a life of discipleship with Christ captured well by what Jewel the unicorn expresses as the new Narnia dawns: “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.”
Jonathan Edwards is not for those who have their lives together and are simply ready for an intellectual challenge.
You must be born again to read and profit spiritually from Jonathan Edwards. You must understand that he was a pastor first. You should have a general knowledge of his doctrinal framework. And you should be aware of his historical context. Beyond these things, here is the key to reading Jonathan Edwards: read him.
Open up one of his books and read one sentence, then another, then another. Just read him. I am even compelled to add, you can get enormous help from Edwards without most of this furniture in place. You do need to be born again; that one is nonnegotiable. You need eyes if you are to perceive the beauty of the sun. But other issues such as understanding his theological framework or historical context, do not determine but enhance how much help you will get from reading Jonathan Edwards.
Where then to begin? Perhaps a few words of guidance will also help to get you going in the primary works. Edwards was above all a pastor; the place to begin is his sermons. A nice starting point is The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader, edited by three trustworthy Edwards experts, which provides the text of several of Edwards’s most important and representative sermons.
A second option to begin to wade into Edwards’s sermons is Charity and Its Fruits, a beautiful series of sermons on 1 Corinthians 13.
But if I had to identify the single sermon that captures Edwards’s ministry more essentially than any other, I would direct you to an exposition of 1 John 4:16, which is a particularly Edwardsean verse in its emphases: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”
Jonathan Edwards is not for those who have their lives together and are simply ready for an intellectual challenge. His writings are for tired Christians who on the one hand have tasted the sweetness of knowing Christ but on the other hand find this sweetness constantly getting fizzled out through boredom, weakness, failure, loneliness, disappointment, or weariness.
There is simply no one like Jonathan Edwards when it comes to reoxygenating us back into the sweetness, the blanketing shalom, the sun-like nature of walking through life with Christ as our beautiful and beauty-nurturing Friend. Jesus, says Edwards, “is infinitely our greatest Friend, standing in the most endearing relations of our Brother, Redeemer, Spiritual Head and Husband: whose grace and love expressed to us, transcends all other love and friendship, as much as heaven is higher than the earth.”
This article is adapted from A Reader's Guide to the Major Writings of Jonathan Edwards edited by Nathan A. Finn and Jeremy M. Kimble
In both the academic and pastoral realm, Edwards’s God-centered worldview is recognized as biblical in nature, shaping hearts and minds toward the pursuit of God’s glory in all things.
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