Jonathan Edwards Paper
A look at his belief in, and understanding of,
the sovereignty of God
According to George Marsden, “the central principle in Edwards’ thought, true to his Calvinistic heritage, was the sovereignty of God.” Indeed, in his expansive writings and sermons, the importance of this doctrine can be clearly seen. It seems Edwards did all he could to explain, expound upon and convince others of this most dear and central doctrine. However, this was not always the case. As can be seen from his early writings, particularly his “Personal Narrative,” Edwards struggled to accept this doctrine. But, once accepted, it became the focal point of his entire life. His sermons in particular convey his understanding of the sovereignty of God and the importance he placed on it in the salvation of men.
Edwards’ “Personal Narrative” gives an account of his “early years and testimony to his own saving faith in Christ.” Though Edwards works hard to pinpoint an exact date of conversion, the reader gets a sense that his conversion was more of a process than one particular event. He begins by describing, “two more remarkable seasons of awakening, before [meeting] with that change by which [he] was brought to those new dispositions, and that new sense of things (i.e. conversion). The first such “season” occurred as a boy, in which he had “much self-righteous pleasure; and it was [his] delight to abound in religious duties.” In due time the joy in such practices abated and he returned once again to “the ways of sin.” The second of the “seasons” occurred during his last few months at college. During this time Edwards struggled inwardly with a desire to be right with God and his wicked inclinations. Similar to his first awakening, he broke with his evil ways and applied himself to seeking salvation and religious duties. But, unlike his childhood experience, these practices and duties held none of their former delight. His attempts to seek salvation on his own and perform religious duties were joyless, satiated with inward struggles and, as he describes them, “miserable seeking.” What appeared to hold him back the most and cause his seeking to be fruitless was his “objection against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty.”
Concerning this objections, Edwards writes:
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.
When one considers Edwards’ nature and heritage it is easy to see why an objection to this doctrine would prove such an obstacle to salvation and why the resolution of it would be such a momentous event. His nature was two-fold: One of eager seeking and desire to know God, and the other of rational, intellectual understanding and skepticism. His heritage was that of staunch Calvinism, in which this doctrine was a cornerstone. Rejecting the sovereignty of God would have more than doctrinal consequences. As the literal-minded son of New England and Timothy Edwards, and having “hundreds of doctrinal sermons echoing in his ears,” he was tied to a theologically Calvinistic heritage. But, as is typical of any youth, Edwards resisted any sort of indoctrination from his parents, school or church. Somehow he had to find a way to satisfy his heart and intellect, through his own means and on his own terms. Marsden portrays the conflict beautifully:
His [Edwards’] heart and his intellect were not separable in this quest. His reason and his moral sensibilities had put a huge obstacle in his path. These objections were manifestations of rebelliousness against the orthodoxy of his parents, dating to his childhood. He could not believe in God’s total sovereignty, the doctrine at the very foundation of Calvinist teaching. Yet he was sure also that he had no hope on his own . . . He desperately wanted to trust in God, yet he could not believe in, let alone submit to such a tyrant.
And so, in the midst of all his struggles, tormenting questions and attempts at “religious duties,” Edwards finally had a breakthrough. He “remembers the time very well, when [he] seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to the sovereignty of God and his justice in thus eternally disposing of men, according to his sovereign pleasure.” Although he didn’t know “how, or by what means,” the objections were quieted, his mind rested and the justice and reasonableness of the doctrine became clear to him. Edwards even began to see the doctrine as “exceeding pleasant, bright and sweet.”
At the time it all seemed natural, but looking back Edwards saw clearly the “influence of God’s Spirit in it.” In his latter writings he emphasizes God’s grace and downplays his own reasoning in the acceptance of the doctrine. In the end we cannot tell exactly how he overcame this great obstacle. But what can be seen is the effect it had on the rest of his life. According to Murray, it was this event that precluded the “change by which [Edwards] was brought to those new dispositions, and that new sense of things.” Concerning the importance of the acceptance of the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, Marsden writes:
Around this time he was beginning to formulate his most characteristic and profound insights on God’s character and relationship to the entire universe. These insights were for him like a Copernican revolution, providing a whole new perspective for understanding God’s relation to reality and putting questions of God’s relation to humans in an entirely new framework.
Thus, the bedrock of Edwards’ theology, teaching, preaching and very worldview was laid.
As stated above, once this doctrine was settled in Edwards’ mind it became the central principle in his thought. In his sermons and writings Edwards turned his immense intellectual powers to “rigorously following out the implications of God’s sovereignty for understanding humans’ eternal destinies.” He spent the rest of his life trying to persuade others of the doctrine’s loveliness and that “their eternal salvation depends on believing [God’s absolute sovereignty].” The centrality of this doctrine in true conversion and faith can be seen from a conversation between Edwards and a young woman in his congregation. When the woman heard the doctrine she said, “I was never so close to not being a Christian.” Her pastor replied, confronting her with the “indispensability of faith in this truth, ‘you were never so close to being a Christian.’”
Edwards hammered the issue. It is central for true conversion and, just as it was an obstacle for his own faith, he found it to be the stumbling block on which thousands fall and perish. One must embrace the doctrine. In his sermon on Romans 9:18 he says,
If we go on contending with God about His sovereignty, it will be our eternal ruin. Tis absolutely necessary that we should submit to God as our absolute sovereign and sovereign over our souls, as one that may have mercy on whom he will have mercy and harden whom he will.
With his conversion and change concerning the sovereignty doctrine, Edwards’ ministry began in earnest. His first published sermon was a grand declaration of this doctrine: “God is glorified in the work of redemption in this, that there appears in it so absolute and universal a dependence of the redeemed on him.” Several sermons followed, the most notable being Romans 9:18, Psalms 46:10, I Corinthians 1:31, and Matthew 16:17.
Marsden sums up Edwards’ understanding of God’s sovereignty:
The triune eternally loving God, as revealed in Scripture, created and ruled everything in the universe. Most simply put, the sovereignty of God meant that if there were a question as to whether God or humans should be given credit for anything good, particularly in matters of salvation, the benefit of the doubt should always go to God.
Although this may be a concise statement of Edwards’ view, it is perhaps oversimplified. We will expound on and look at the implication of the doctrine of the sovereignty of God by means of his sermons.
The first to consider is the above-quoted sermon. Though it is not the most succinct sermon on the topic and doesn’t lay it out like other sermons do, it is the first major sermon to address the matter. It was given in 1731 at the Public Lecture in Boston. Titled God Glorified in Man’s Dependence, it was partly a response to the emerging Arminianism of the day. This sermon “made clear what was to be [Edwards’] lifelong theological loyalty.” He didn’t argue against Arminianism, but rather preached the old doctrine of sovereignty in such a way as to make it appear more desirable. Winslow describes the sermon,
[Edwards] said nothing about eternal punishment, contrition for sin, or even conversion but, logician that he was, went back to the beginnings. The sovereignty of God in the world he had created was the foundation of all right doctrine. Until man had acknowledged this sovereignty unequivocably and had admitted his own helplessness, the gift of free grace could have no meaning for him.
Edwards’ declaration of God’s sovereignty comes as a rebuke to those who were taking credit for their good works or trusting in unconditional grace. He says, “Man is nothing; God is all. Man’s very desire for God is God-given. Whatever degree of holiness man may attain is not his own, but God’s dwelling in him.” The underlying theme of the sermon is that there is an absolute dependence of the redeemed on God; nothing in them recommends them or makes them worthy of God’s grace, it is by his sovereign pleasure alone that any are saved.
This is not the only place that Edwards tackles with the Arminian question of, as Gerstner states it, “Can the God of Edwardsian sovereign determinism be moral?” However, this is neither the place, nor do I have the space to flush out Edwards’ defense of the doctrine of the sovereignty of God against the Arminians. Let it suffice to say that the most thorough facing of this question comes in his work “The freedom of the Will.” And “three things are quite certain in Edwardsian thought: one, God is absolutely sovereign; two, man is absolutely “free”; and three, there is absolutely no problem between one and two.”
Rather than defending the doctrine, the goal here is to gain a clearer understanding of what exactly Edwards meant by the “sovereignty of God.” To do so, we must turn to his sermon on Romans 9:18. Titled God’s Sovereignty in the Salvation of Men, it is a thorough treaty that defines the sovereignty of God and elaborates on its central doctrine: God exercises his sovereignty in the eternal salvation of men.
Before doing either of these two things, Edwards makes two initial points. Drawn straight from the text, his first point is that God deals differently with men; He has “mercy on some, and hardeneth other.” He clarifies that it is not “by any positive efficiency” that God hardens man’s hearts. If this were the case God would be the author of sin. Rather God hardens hearts in two ways: “by withholding the powerful influence of the Spirit, without which their hearts will remain hardened . . . And by ordering those things in his providence which, through the abuse of their corruption, become the occasion of their hardening.” In so saying, Edwards dismisses a prominent argument against the sovereignty doctrine.
The second point is that the foundation of this different dealing is God’s “sovereign will and pleasure.” He is quick to point out that this does not imply that God “never shows mercy or denies it . . . But that it is God’s mere will and sovereign pleasure, which supremely orders this affair. It is the divine will without restraint, or constraint, or obligation.”
Edwards’ definition of God’s sovereignty logically follows these two points. He says, “the sovereignty of God is his absolute, independent right of disposing of all creatures according to his own pleasure.” In the definition and the two points, especially the second, Edwards emphasizes God’s absolute freedom: divine will without restraint. In a sermon on Daniel he preaches, “that God doth whatever he pleases” and the points of the sermon “are forthright: 1) God is able, 2) He has the right, 3) His will could be determined by nothing outside Himself.” In another sermon he says, “A God of infinite goodness and benevolence loves those that have no excellency to move or attract it: the love of men is consequent upon some loveliness in the object, but the love of God is antecedent to, and the cause of it.” And again, in a sermon taken from Romans 11:22, Edwards points out that God must be sovereign because the alternative is impossible. “If the mercy of God were not free so that he could shew mercy on whom he would and withhold it from whom [he would], this would abate of the creatures’ obligation to God for his mercy. If God’s grace were not free, it would cease to be grace.”
In his sermon on Romans 9:18 Edwards next defines exactly what he means by God’s “mere pleasure.” God’s pleasure is not 1) under any constraint, 2) under the will of another, or 3) under any proper obligation. Concerning the first Edwards shows how a man may do something voluntarily and by choice, but it may be motivated by fear and therefore is not “according to his mere pleasure.” Secondly, though a servant may obey a master and take delight in doing so, no one can say the servant acts by his own mere pleasure. Rather, the servant is constrained by the will of a master. Finally, anyone who is under an obligation is not free. “Men may have rights to dispose of some things according to their pleasure. But their right is not absolute and unlimited.” Therefore God’s mere pleasure is his will. It is under no obligation and springs from Himself.
The next three points deal with the sovereignty of God as it pertains to the salvation of man. First Edwards explains “what God’s sovereignty in the salvation of men implies.” Then he shows that God “actually doth exercise his sovereignty in this matter.” And finally, he gives two reasons why God exercises his sovereignty in the salvation of men.
In his first point, Edwards deals with the problem of God, who claims to be loving, caring, merciful, holy, and just, granting or refusing salvation to whomever he chooses. What does God’s sovereignty in the salvation of men imply? Edwards answers, “I observe, it implies that God can either bestow salvation on any of the children of men, or refuse it, without any prejudice to the glory of any of his attributes, except where he has been pleased to declare, that he will or will not bestow it.” It is important in understanding Edwards to know that when he uses the word “prejudice,” he means that the granting or denying of salvation is not contrary to, or at odds with, his divine attributes.
Edwards prefaces any discussion on God’s attributes by explaining that the only reason salvation of any fallen creature is consistent with God’s nature, is because he “contrived a way.” He says,
There is none of mankind whom he may not save without any prejudice to any of his attributes, excepting those who have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost . . . It was not because he could not save them . . . But it pleased him for wise reasons to declare that that sin shall never be forgiven in this world, or in the world to come. And so now it is contrary to God’s truth so save such.
Through drawing out logical implications, Edwards does not stop on that note but proclaims the beautiful truth of the gospel.
But otherwise there is no sinner, let him be ever so great, but God can save him without prejudice to any attribute . . . Though persons have sinned long, have been obstinate, have committed heinous sins a thousand times, even till they have grown old in sin . . .yet God can save them if he pleases, for the sake of Christ, without any prejudice to his attributes . . . Such is the sufficiency of the satisfaction and righteousness of Christ, that none of the divine attributes stand in the way of the salvation of any of them.
Edwards stresses God’s boundlessness. God has seen it fit or been pleased to grant salvation to sinners through Christ. He, in no way had to grant salvation, or had to do it through Christ. As stated above, God sovereignty is absolutely free and He acts according to his good pleasure.
Upon making clear that it was fitting and consistent for Christ to die for the salvation of men, Edwards addresses the issue of God granting salvation. He lists four attributes: holiness, majesty, justice and truth. In light of God’s holiness it would seem that He must shun anything sinful or unholy. But, God maintains his holiness in saving sinful men “because his abhorrence of [sin] and displeasure against it have been already sufficiently manifested in the sufferings of Christ.” Likewise, men poor contempt on God’s authority, but His majesty is satisfied by the sufferings of Christ. Taking the hard issue of God’s justice by the horns Edward explains, “The justice of God requires the punishment of sin. God is the Supreme Judge of the world, and he is to judge the world according to the rules of justice.” But, as a sovereign, God shows mercy (recall the text of the sermon). So the question is, “how to make the exercise of the mercy of God as a sovereign, and of his strict justice as a judge, agree together?” Answer: By the sufferings of Christ, “In which sin is punished fully and justice answered.” Finally, Edwards addresses God’s truth. Scripture says that sin should be punished with death, so how can sinful men still be saved? As before, the answer is by the suffering and death of Christ.
Next Edwards shows how it is consistent with God’s righteousness, goodness, and faithfulness for Him to “refuse salvation to any sinner whatsoever.” With regards to the first, Edwards explicates that all men warrant hell and therefore it is just for the Judge to inflict on any man what he deserves. In this second point Edwards flattens any appeal a sinner might have to God’s mercy as the means for keeping him from damnation. “That which is not contrary to God’s justice is not contrary to his mercy. If damnation be justice, then mercy may choose its own object.” Finally, Edwards explains that God is not obliged to man in anyway, and so He is not unfaithful if he does not bestow salvation upon him. God is obliged only to himself. Thus Edwards proves that God’s sovereign choosing in the salvation of men is not contrary to any of His attributes. In fact, Christ’s very death attests to God’s sovereignty.
In the next section Edwards gives examples of God actually exercising his sovereignty in salvation, but he also shows how, or by what means, God acts sovereignly. Supported by scripture and historical evidence, Edwards gives six examples of God acting sovereignly: 1) in calling one nation and giving them grace and leaving others without them, 2) in the advantages He gives to certain people, 3) by giving salvation to the “low and mean,” and denying it to the “wise and great,” 4) in bestowing salvation on some who have and few advantages, 5) by saving the very wicked and denying the moral and religious person, 6) in saving some who seek salvation, and not others. In the first example Edwards points out that grace, which brings salvation, always come through means. It is in the bestowing of these means, as well as in the above listed things, that God exercises his sovereignty.
Subsequently, Edwards gives reasons why God exercises his sovereignty in the eternal salvation of men. First and foremost he says that it is pleasing and right that all God’s attributes be exercised, thus “manifest[ing] the glory of each of them.” His logic concerning God’s sovereignty is as follows: “God’s design in the creation was to glorify himself.” Infinite glory should shine forth in all it’s attributes, for if “all God’s attributes are not manifest, the glory of none of them is manifested as it is: for the divine attributes reflect glory on one another.” The sovereignty of God is one of his attributes and a part of his glory. And, like his other attributes, his sovereignty is manifested in the exercises of it. Thus, God exercises his sovereignty because it glorifies Him. In a sermon on the text, “he who glories, let him glory in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:31), Edwards expands on this notion. He says that the purpose of God in redemption (i.e. his sovereign election) is that man should not glory in himself, but in God alone. Our utter dependence on God in salvation brings Him the most glory and honor, and that is God’s aim.
Finally, Edwards draws five applications of the doctrine. Beginning with the most important, he writes, “we learn how absolutely we are dependent on God in this great matter of the eternal salvation of our souls.” We are dependent on his wisdom, mere will and pleasure, power and the “sovereign will of God for every thing belonging to it [salvation].” An implication of this is, as his second point says, that we should humbly “adore the awful and absolute sovereignty of God.” Just as Christ praised the Father for the exercise of his sovereignty (Matt. 11:25-26), so we also should “adore him with all possible humility and reverence.” For, “it is impossible that we should go to excess in lowliness and reverence of that Being, who may dispose of us to all eternity as he pleases.”
Thirdly, the saved are to attribute their salvation to grace alone, for “godliness is not cause for glorying, except it be in God.” And, because of this, “the people of God have the greater cause of thankfulness, more reason to love God, who had bestowed such great an unspeakable mercy upon them of his mere sovereign pleasure.” Fourthly, we should admire the grace of God. He, who was under no obligation to us, “relinquish[ed] his absolute freedom and cease[ed] to be merely sovereign in his dispensations towards believers, when once they have believed in Christ.”
Following this point, Edwards devotes a small paragraph to urging his hearers to submit to the sovereignty of God. He says that it is “absolutely necessary that we should submit to God as our absolute sovereign and the sovereign over our souls.” In a sermon on Psalm 46:10, “be still and know that I am God,” Edwards writes,
We must be still as to words, not speaking against the sovereign dispensation of providence or complaining of them . . . We must be still as to actions and outward behavior so as not to oppose God in His dispensations, and as to the inward frame of our hearts, cultivating a calm and quiet submission of souls to the sovereign pleasure of God, whatever it be.
For Edwards, the acceptance of the sovereignty of God is absolutely necessary for a Christian.
Edwards’ last implication is so beautiful and powerful that one must let it speak for itself. He writes that we should make use of the doctrine “to guard those who seek salvation from two opposite extremes – presumption and disgorgement.” He continues,
Do not presume upon the mercy of God, and so encourage yourself in sin. Many hear that God’s mercy is infinite, and therefore think, that if they delay seeking salvation for the present, and seek it hereafter, that God will bestow his grace upon them. But consider that though God’s grace is sufficient, yet he is sovereign, and will use his own pleasure whether he will save you or not . . . Seeing, therefore, that in this affair you are so absolutely dependent on God, it is best to follow his direction in seeking it . . . Beware also of discouragement. Take heed of despairing thoughts, because you are a great sinner . . .God can bestow mercy upon you without the least prejudice to [his attributes] . . . Let you be what sinner you may, God can, if he pleases, greatly glorify himself in your salvation.
For Edwards, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is all-important. It was indeed the central principle in his thought. But Edwards was not concerned with doctrine for its own sake. Mardsen says, “If the central principle of Edwards’ thought was the sovereignty of God, the central practical motive in his life and work was his conviction that nothing was more momentous personally that one’s eternal relationship to God.” Not only was it vital in his own conversion, as was seen from his “Personal Narrative,” but it also was vital for all conversions. In preaching and teaching God’s sovereignty, Edwards’ aimed at bringing his hears into a right relationship with God, so see him as he truly is, in all His majesty and splendor, and give Him praise.
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 Marsden 4