JONATHAN EDWARDS AND THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD
From my childhood up, my mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in choosing whom He would to eternal life; and rejecting whom He pleased; leaving them eternally to perish, and be everlastingly tormented in hell. It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me. But I remember the time very well, when I seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to this sovereignty of God, and His justice in thus eternally disposing of men, according to His sovereign pleasure. But never could give an account how, or by what means, I was thus convinced, not in the least imagining at the time, nor a long time after, that there was any extraordinary influence of God’s Spirit in it; but only that now I saw further, and my reason apprehended the justice and reasonableness of it. However, my mind rested in it; and it put an end to all those cavils and objections. And there has been a wonderful alteration in my mind, with respect to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty from that day to this; so that I scarce ever have found so much as the rising of an objection against it, in the most absolute sense, in God showing mercy to whom He will show mercy, and hardening whom He will. God’s absolute sovereignty and justice, with respect to salvation and damnation, is what my mind seems to rest assured of, as much as of any thing that I see with my eyes; at least it is so at times. I have often since not only had a conviction, but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has very often appeared exceedingly pleasant, bright and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. But my first conviction was not so.
By sovereign grace, according to his own account, Jonathan Edwards was transformed from an “objector” against, to a ‘relisher” of, Divine sovereignty from eternity. After years of intense strife relative to his inward, soul-state before God (as late as 1725 Edwards was still uncertain of his conversion), the sovereignty of God became for Northampton’s Yale-licensed preacher a “sweet and glorious doctrine” to be sought, experienced and relished. Indeed, the personal conviction of Divine sovereignty both as an irrefutable doctrine and as a “sense” to palate via “a burning in my heart”, “an ardour of my soul” and an “awful sweetness”, remained with Edwards throughout his life.
The first instance of genuine acquiescence to Divine sovereignty conjoined with an “inward, sweet delight in God” took place within Edwards as he read 1 Timothy 1.17, “Now unto the King eternal,
immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour, and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
As I read these words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of glory of the Divine being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before … I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be rapt up to Him in heaven; and be as it were swallowed up in Him for ever!
Despite momentary setbacks, it appears that Edwards’ “new .sense” of delight in, and relish for, the sovereign perfections in God, proliferated throughout his life, always dovetailed into an augmented apprehension of personal unworthiness and meekness. Under the Spirit’s guidance, Edwards discovered a parallel between the exaltation of God and the abasement of self, the combination of which brought unparallelled religious exercises. Once, as Edwards rode into the woods to meditate in 1737, he was gripped by such a profound, spiritual revelation of Christ in His transcendant excellence and sovereignty in contrast to his exceeding sinfulness, that he was fully overcome with a flood of joyous tears for more than an hour. Again, in 1739, he was overwhelmed with an incredible realisation of how “meet” and “suitable” it was that God should govern the world, ordering all things according to His own pleasure, even if it meant eternal destruction for Edwards himself. In true Calvinistic fashion, Edwards experienced an ever-spiralling increase of knowledge into the depths of God and himself simultaneously – of God to His exaltation, of himself to personal humiliation. In these moments, Edwards desired that he “might be nothing and that God might be all”, that he might be like a little lower to lay “low and humble on the ground, opening its bosom, to deceive the pleasant beams of the sun’s glory”. He tells of walking alone in his father’s pasture, contemplating with a sweet sense, “the glorious majesty and grace of God . . . which I seemed to see … in sweet conjunction; majesty and meekness joined together”.
This united relish in Edwards to be swallowed up in Christ and to be gripped with a profound sense of unworthiness, served increasingly to lead him from Divine sovereignty to meditate on the beauty and the glory of God. For Edwards, sovereignty spelt glory, and glory spelt beauty; indeed, all God’s Being and attributes equalled one united whole in the Tri-une essence. Edward’s supreme joy and goal was to be led experimentally and continually from Divine sovereignty to Divine glory, in order to relish God Himself as a God of unspeakable gospel grace:
The sweetest joys and delights I have experienced, have not been those that have arisen from a hope of my good estate; but in a direct view of the glorious things of God and His gospel. When I enjoy this sweetness, it seems to carry me above the thoughts of my own safe estate. It seems at such times a loss that I cannot bear, to take off my eye from the glorious, pleasant Object I behold without me, to turn my ;eye in upon myself, and my own good estate.
In sum, to Edwards, God’s nature “is infinitely excellent: yea, ’tis infinite beauty, brightness, and glory itself”. From personal grace Edward was experimentally led to Divine glory time and again. It is this religious experiencing of God’s attributes which influenced Edwards to posit Divine sovereignty from eternity as the primary structuring principle of his theology. Nor does Edwards betray his Calvinistic heritage at this juncture, as Nagy implies when asserting that it is “quite exceptional for a Calvinist” to be led from God’s sovereignty to His infinite beauty. Rather, the contrary may be affirmed, viz., any true Calvinist who biblically experiences a measure of Divine sovereignty cannot but end in His glory and beauty in true Edwardsean, yes, Pauline, fashion: “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen” (Rom. 11.36).
May the God of grace take us also by heart and hand, and introduce us experientially to Divine sovereignty and Divine glory.
J. R. Beeke
Reprinted from the American Banner of Truth