Havilah Livingston

Jonathan Edwards





Jonathan Edwards is one of the greatest preachers and theologians of the eighteenth century. His contributions to western religious thought, and especially American religious thought, remain among the elite and most profound works in his profession. The analytical perfectionism of his mind brings about treatises and sermons on some of the most difficult and confusing subjects in theology. He tackles one such subject, the nature and place of works in the Christian’s life, in his treatise “Justification by Faith Alone”. Although works are not the main topic of this treatise, they are intimately intertwined with the puzzle of Justification; Edwards, recognizing this, gives them due consideration. This paper will mostly be drawing from the “Justification by Faith Alone” treatise but will also explore other sources that contain Edwards’ thoughts on the subject. Edwards believes works can be categorized in two ways but that all human works are, in and of themselves, completely worthless. He also believes that all true works come through faith, which is a gift of God and not of any human instigation. Even though many works may appear to be good, only those with the correct intent behind them are true works. The Christian must understand that while works are essential to their faith and walk with Christ, their focus should not be on the works themselves but on their faith in Christ, indeed, on Christ himself.

The first question to be addressed is, simply put, how does Jonathan Edwards define works? Do all human actions count as “works” or only those that are good and virtuous? Edwards uses the word work in very specific ways in his writing, even though it does not always mean the same thing. However, he is usually clear because he mainly uses it two ways and clarifies for the reader which one he is using throughout his writings. In his treatise “Justification by Faith Alone”, Edwards discusses his belief that there are two different types of works. He believes that they are those of the Mosaic Law and those works that are virtuous but not specifically called for in the Old Testament. Edwards labels these two types of works as works of the ceremonial law and works of the moral law.

The works of the ceremonial law are those actions that God set in place for the Israelites in the Mosaic Law. They are simply prescribed actions such as the bringing of sin offerings or observing the Passover. Edwards sees these actions as being useful in the time they were instituted but not of any salvific value. He discusses at length their role (or lack thereof) in justification in “Justification by Faith Alone” and repeatedly asserts that they, in and of themselves, are worthless.

Edward’s second definition of works encompasses a much larger number of actions than the ceremonial category. He considers any good work a work of the “moral law”. The works of the moral law are those that are not of a required nature, which is to say they are not specifically called for in Scripture. In Edwards’ own words, the works of the moral law are “all works of obedience, virtue, and righteousness whatsoever.”[1] While he does not give definitions of obedience, virtue and righteousness in “Justification by Faith Alone”, Edwards does give his definition of virtue in another treatise. In “The Nature of True Virtue” he states, “virtue is the beauty of those qualities and acts of the mind that are of a moral nature, i.e. such as are attended with desert or worthiness of praise or blame.”[2] Edwards does not see these works of the moral law as disconnected from Christian morality but as an integral part of it. They flow from the inward character of the Christian. Later in the treatise he identifies the origin of virtue as the heart and says, “virtue is the beauty of the qualities and exercises of the heart, or those actions which proceed from them.”[3]

Even though Edwards sees a distinction between different works, he sees all works as equally worthless in the sight of God. Any and every work of the Christian is insufficient to cover the offence of his sin towards God. In fact, “God in justification has no regard to an godliness of ours.”[4] Because God is an infinitely good and moral God, any action performed against him is an infinite offence. Edwards states,

The sin of the creature against God is ill-deserving in proportion to the distance there is between God and the creature…Sin or disrespect is evil or heinous in proportion to the degree of what it denies in the object, and as it were takes from it, viz. Its excellency and worthiness of respect.[5]


All of human works, because they are finite beings, are finite and therefore insufficient to fill an infinite void. Christ, however, since he is “of infinite dignity”[6] is able to fill this void. Only through Christ is humanity’s offence able to be filled and pardoned.

Where then, do works come from? Do they originate in God or do they originate in the Christian? Edwards believes that the Christian is able in one sense able to do works. He calls this sense the “natural fitness”. By this he means that the Christian is able, in the way he is able to walk or to carry an object, to do works. Humans have the ability in them to do works. Edwards defines the natural fitness to perform a work as

when it appears meet and condecent that he should be in such a state or circumstances, only from the natural concord or agreeableness there is between such qualifications and such circumstances: not because the qualifications are lovely or unlovely, but only because the qualification and the circumstances are like one another, or do in their nature suit and agree or unite one to another.[7]

Edwards’ point is this: humans are naturally able to perform good works. However, even though they have the ability in them to do moral actions, they will not necessarily do them; they are simply capable of them. In spite of this, Edwards believes that in another sense humanity is unable to perform good deeds because of their moral disposition. Edwards calls this the “moral fitness”. Edwards defines this term by stating, “A person has a moral fitness for a state, when his moral excellency commends him to it, or when his being put into such a good state is but a suitable testimony of regard to the moral excellency, or value, or amiableness of any of his qualification or acts.”[8] Since humanity’s moral nature is depraved they do not have a moral fitness toward good works but away from them. They are completely unable morally to do the things they are able to do naturally. In other words, it is possible for works to originate in the individual but they do not because he is morally unable to.

            How then, if the individual is unable morally to do good works, does he perform them? Edwards’ answer is that the Christian can only do good works if he is enabled to do them by God through faith. Only if a person has faith will he truly have works and he will only have faith if God has given it to him, otherwise he could look upon faith as a work and give credit to the individual for obtaining it.

            Because of Edwards’ belief that humanity is morally unable to do any good work, it is necessary for him to have a ready explanation as to the origin of human works. He does do this and is very clear concerning his belief that human works come from faith. In “Justification by Faith Alone” he states, “For there are many things that accompany and flow from faith…Such are love to God, and love to our brethren, forgiving men their trespasses, and many other good qualifications and acts.”[9] Edwards would never say that works are necessary to the Christian life in the sense that they are what justify the believer. However, he would and does say that works are necessary to the Christian life in the sense that they are a natural and essential byproduct of true faith. Edwards is in accord with the author of James when he states, “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.”[10] (James 2:17)

            Edwards does not, however, see these works as something that is a credit to the Christian but as a credit to God. Faith is “the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one can boast.”[11] (Ephesians 2:9a-10) He states repeatedly in “Justification by Faith Alone” that there is no thing in the Christian that has any merit whatsoever. He can do nothing to benefit his place before God except to wait on him and even the ability to do that is an outpouring of the blessings of God upon his unworthy self. The Christian is entirely, wholly, and completely reliant upon God for our salvation. This may seem strange because as Edwards says, “faith itself is a virtue”[12] but it is possible. Faith is not virtuous because of the Christian’s ability to have it or because of his intelligence in having it but simply and only because of the goodness and graciousness of God. The thing that makes faith good is the object of the faith, not the thing that possesses the faith. Edwards says this by stating, “It is not, in any wise, on account of any excellency or value that there is in faith, that it appears in the sight of God a meet thing…but purely from the relation faith has to the person in whom this benefit is to be had”[13] Because the goodness of faith is in and from God and not in the Christian, faith can be a virtue, but not one of which he can or should be proud. Only because of the relationship between faith and God does he obtain any virtue from faith thus maximizing God’s glory as he receives glory from our virtue, our works and our faith.

               Since true works come only through the faith that comes from God, how is a true work identified? Edwards addresses this question in his “Religious Affections”. He is very aware of the danger of equating works that look real with those that actually are real. He warns against believing that a person is a Christian simply based upon their works because the appearance of good works is easy to duplicate. However, if a work can be duplicated there must be something other than the work itself that makes a true work. This is, in Edwards’ opinion, the intent behind the work. This intent will undoubtedly be hard to ascertain by an outsider or even by the individual because the origin of the intent is in the heart; the secret place of the individual that Scripture says “is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?”[14] (Jeremiah 17:9) However, Edwards does give some guidelines for determining a true work. In his “Religious Affections” he explains how works of various kinds can be misleading. Such things as going to church regularly, talking in a certain way, or appearing to love Christ are things that should be present in the Christian life but should not be looked at as determining characteristics of a Christian. Even though these works will be evident in the Christian they can be and are often duplicated very convincingly giving the false image of the Christian life to those not in the fold of God. This makes the distinction between the true and the false Christian very hard to determine. However, Edwards does believe that this can be known, at least to some degree. He believes that the determining characteristic of the Christian is not the works but the affection of the Christian’s heart for Christ. All true works flow from the faith that comes from this affection, or inclination for God. Every work that flows from this affection will be based out of a desire to glorify God, not out of any selfish motive such as personal advancement or even the love of and desire for Heaven. The focus of all true works will be the One that the individual is in love with and desires more than anything else to give glory to, their savior and redeemer, Jesus Christ.

               In light of the rest of his works theology, Edwards’ view on the place of works in the Christian’s life is rather self-explanatory. If one has true faith, works will naturally spring from this, making them a vital part of the Christian life but not because they in and of themselves are valuable. As Edwards’ sympathy toward the New Lights in his time shows, he does not believe works that appear to be righteous are the defining and characterizing aspect of the true Christian’s life. Instead, he sees the internal disposition towards Christ as the most important feature and the standard of Christianity. Unlike the Old Lights, Edwards views the state of the heart as the central condition for salvation, not the manner in which the heart becomes subdued to the lordship of Christ. In the same way, he sees the heart and not the works of the individual as the indication to the salvation of their soul. The works themselves should never be sought after but rather the object of the faith that bears these works. However, the Christian must also be mindful of their works since Edwards believes that works only come from faith. A total lack of works would be an indication that the heart is not in an appropriate or conducive condition to salvation. The balance between the two extremes is, undeniably, difficult to ascertain and even harder to put into practice but is essential to every Christian.

               Jonathan Edwards’ view of works is very detailed, complex, thoughtful and thorough. He addresses this very difficult subject with delicacy and compassion for those of weaker intellect but also with a relentless desire and passion for the truth contained in God’s word. He continually refers to Scripture throughout his treatises and quotes it many times to uphold his arguments. Edwards believes that works can be grouped into two categories, those of the ceremonial law (or the Mosaic Law) and those of the moral law. Both of these sets of works are completely and equally insignificant before God and his righteous majesty. He believes that although humans are naturally able to do good works, their moral ability is now corrupt from the fall and they are morally unable to do any good deed of themselves. True works, therefore, can only come from God. Only through his beneficent gift of faith is the Christian able to do any good. Because of this, the Christian receives none of the credit and all of it goes to God, thus glorifying him. However, works that are not from God can often appear to be true works. Edwards states that the difference between a true work and a false work is the affection of the heart towards Christ. Only true works will come from a person with an inclination towards God, the God-given and God-glorifying desire for God. Because works come from faith they are essential to the Christian life but should not be sought after for their own benefit. Instead, the Christian should search after God for the only reward worth receiving, God himself.     































[1]The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Jonathan Edwards. (Edinburgh, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974) , 627.

[2] The Nature of True Virtue. Jonathan Edwards. (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1960) , 1.


[3] Virtue , 2.

[4] Works , 622.

[5] Ibid , 628.

[6] Ibid , 628.

[7] Ibid , 627.

[8] Ibid , 627.

[9] Ibid , 623.

[10]New American Standard Bible. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995) , 1970.


[11] Ibid , 1879.

[12] Works , 624.

[13] Ibid , 624.

[14] NASB , 1182.