Nathan Winslow

April 29, 2006

REL 319: 18th Century Theology


Jonathan Edwards and the proper motivation for holy living.



Jonathan Edwards understood that while operates only by God’s grace, he also bears full responsibility for actions. For this reason, Edwards’s considered a man’s motivations for his actions important. If a man has all the right outward appearances yet improper motives, then his deeds account for naught. Edwards credits both the hope of heaven—God’s eternal resting place—and thankfulness for blessings with being biblical and correct motives for a life of Christian holiness. John Piper, however, separates these into what he calls “future” and “bygone” grace, and argues that only the former can effectively serve as motivation. This paper then will examine Edwards’s view on this matter and demonstrate that though he never makes the distinction which Piper makes, he would have likely endorsed Piper’s view if he had been familiar with it.

To begin with, Edwards understood heaven to be a place of immense joy primarily because God and Christ dwell there. Edwards encouraged his congregation, writing , “in all your way let your eye be fixed on Jesus, who has gone to heaven as your forerunner. Look to him. Behold his glory in heaven, that a sight of it may stir you up the more earnestly to desire to be there.” [1] Saints on earth may look towards heaven and see Jesus, their forerunner seated there, and receive strength and hope that will enable them to press forward. This works in the life of a saint to give them the ability to look past the promises of sin and temptation and see the true fulfilling promises of God.

Our love to God enables us to overcome the difficulties that attend keeping God’s commands; which shows that love is the main thing in saving faith, the life and power of it, by which it produces great effects.[2]

Love to and for God allows Christians to overcome the “difficulties” of this world and, as the previous quote demonstrates, this love to God is a hope of being with Him in heaven. Love to God is not a disinterested and removed selfless love though. Edwards understood, as Piper does, that God is worth devotion because He is beautiful and lovely to his followers. In other words, they receive their truest joy in making much of Christ, and that their joy is intrinsically linked with His joy. To this end, Edwards writes that

It is not contrary to Christianity that a man should love himself, or which is the same thing, should love his own happiness… That a man should love his own happiness, is as necessary to his nature as the faculty of the will is, and it is impossible that such a love should be destroyed in any other way than by destroying his being. [3]

Following Christ—Christianity—commands that all who seek happiness lay down their lives for Christ and consider all things as loss for the sake of knowing Him; this self-abandonment grows from the acknowledgment that ones supreme joy flows from Christ and that love to Him is love to self.

            Love to Christ motivates God’s people to lives of holiness, and since God resides in heaven, the hope of heaven stimulates believers to radically embrace this newness of life. As a saints assurance of heaven increases, so too their hope itself increase and become more secure. Edwards wrote that,

The nature of the covenant of grace, and God's declared ends in the appointment and constitution of things in that covenant, do plainly show it to be God's design to make ample provision for the saints having an assured hope of eternal life, while living here upon earth… And God's declared design in all this, is, that the heirs of the promises might have an undoubting hope and full joy, in an assurance of their future glory.            [4]

God established his covenant of grace so that His people would have “undoubting hope and full joy” in the “hope of eternal life,” He desires that hope in the future of life with Him and the blessings He is storing up in heaven will form the foundation of His children’s faith. Edwards finds his biblical basis for this statement in Hebrews 6:17-18:

In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us. (NASB)

Christians, who long for heaven, find their longings emboldened by assurances of that promise being fulfilled in their lives.

            The many promises of heaven equip God’s children to press on in this life towards the eternal goal.

Be content to pass through all difficulties in the way to heaven. Though the path is before you, and you may walk in it if you desire, yet it is a way that is ascending, and filled with many difficulties and obstacles… At every step it will be easier and easier to ascend; and the higher your ascent, the more will you be cheered by the glorious prospect before you, and by a nearer view of that heavenly city where in a little while you shall forever be at rest. [5]

Though this world presents many obstacles to faith, God gives His people promises of heaven to allow them to carry on towards him and the closer one draws to the fulfillment of those promises, the easier it becomes to keep pursuing them. The Bible demands a life of obedience to Christ, but He does not blindly ask His people to follow. He promises them a world of love and blessings in heaven, where they will enjoy His presence forever. God intends hope in the future to be the primary motivation for His people. Edwards wrote much in this theme, espousing often the gloriousness of heaven, the love Christians will have for each other, the praise that they will offer Christ and thus the love that will fill all of God’s people.

            This does not seem to be the sole source Edwards saw as properly motivating Christians though. He mentions that gratitude for mercies received should also spur Christians on towards sanctification. Edwards did not preach on gratitude often, and consequently the bulk of what one can understand from him on this subject comes from his sermon “Showing Thankfulness for Mercy by Deeds,” and a small handful of Miscellanies. In this sermon, Edwards expounds on the doctrine “That God expects of us that we should show our thankfulness for our mercies by our deeds.” [6] Edwards wrote that “gratitude or thankfulness is love or good will towards any one for kindness received from him.” [7] According to this definition then, Edwards seems to have thought that people should repay God for His kindnesses to them, and that even if one could not truly repay God back, yet this still provides a way to demonstrate love for mercy received.

            Edwards wrote that “We should show our thankfullness to God for the benefits we receive from him by returning to him so far as he is capable of receiving from us in the same kind. It is not possible that God should receive any kindness from men or from any of his creatures.” [8] As noted, man cannot truly repay God, but Edwards nonetheless argues that when God benefits man, he is indebted to Him and that God expects him to reciprocate this action. He explores this issue further noting that,

When we have received kind mercy from God it is but a suitable and proper return that we should the more earnestly set ourselves so to behave ourselves as that we may be pleasing and acceptable to Him. And as God is abundantly gracious to us we live upon His kindness so God may well expect of us that we should make it our continual care to avoid whatsoever will be offensive and grievous to him and in all respects so to walk as is most agreeable to His nature and to his revealed will in such ways as he declares he approves of and delights in.[9]

Edwards makes it clear that he believes Christians owe God a debt by using the term “it is but suitable and proper.” Behaving so “that we may be pleasing and acceptable to Him” means living according to the standards God outlines in His Word, it means pursuing sanctification, and here Edwards argues hat the impetus for this should be gratitude. Edwards states that when God blesses men, He expects them to respond by advancing His kingdom. If God advance men’s estates, He

expects that they should show their thankfullness by advancing his kingdom… When God is enlarging their bounds they should be endeavoring  to enlarge Christ’s Kingdom. When God is bringing into their treasures they should labour that the number of God’s jewels may be added to again.” [10]

Ever grounded upon the Bible, Edwards references Psalm 116:12 to back himself up, “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits toward me?” The Psalmist knows that he must render some thing to God for His benefits, but he leaves the answer to this question open. Edwards assumed that Psalmist intended the answer to be deeds of righteousness flowing from gratitude

Here, Piper’s views most sharply contrast with Edwards’s. He answers the Psalmist’s question with the same answer as Edwards’s, gratitude, but would mean it in a different way. Piper writes that, “True gratitude exults in the riches of God’s grace as it looks back on the benefits it has received. By cherishing past grace in this way, it inclines the heart to trust in future grace.” [11] Where Edwards sees God’s blessings as resulting in a life transformed out of gratitude, Piper credits God’s blessings with laying the foundation for hope in the future.

Bygone grace is the foundation for faith in future grace. We obey the teachings of Jesus by faith in future grace; and we lay hold on future grace in the promises of God’s Word. But we certify the surety of the promises with the evidences of past grace. This past grace is God’s down payment on the fullness of future grace. [12]

Edwards’s view on the proper response to past grace, what he simply calls God’s blessings or kindnesses, seems to place gratitude in competition with heaven as providing the proper motivation for overcoming life’s difficulties.

            Piper argues that trying to repay Christ for His blessings creates an improper “debtor’s ethic,” ruining the blessing God intends by the gifts he gives.

The debtor’s ethic says “Because you have done something good for me, I feel indebted to do something good for you.” This is impulse is not what gratitude was designed to produce. God meant gratitude to be a spontaneous expression of pleasure in the gift and the good will of another. He did not mean it to be an impulse to return favors. [13]

Piper answers the Psalmist’s question by agreeing that Christians should give gratitude to God in return for his blessings, but that the gratitude merely reflects the recipient’s thanks and delight in the blessing given. Piper recognizes this “debtor’s ethic” as not only a theological misgiving, but as a danger to the very ability of Christians to fulfill God’s commands. “If…gratitude was never designed as the primary motivation for radical Christian obedience, perhaps that is one reason so many efforts at holiness abort.” [14]

This is the reason that Piper wrote a book dedicated to this issue; he senses the seriousness of this misconception and states his conviction that “behind most wrong living is wrong thinking.” [15] If Christians struggle to live the radical life God calls them to in the Scriptures, it must be because they fail to properly understand the power God gives them to live by the power of future grace.

            Edwards believed that thankfulness should motivate one to repay God insomuch as He may be, while Piper disagrees saying that such thinking creates a “debtor’s ethic” that deflates a Christians ability to serve God. Perhaps these two might not be so far apart as the evidence first hints at though. While Edwards in no way makes the distinction Piper does, this paper argues that should Edwards have had the chance to read Piper’s book and carefully consider this doctrine, he would have agreed.

            First, from what has been written earlier, one can see that Edwards knew that the hope of heaven and the joy of living with Christ held the key to motivate Christians in their quest for radical Christian living. He frequently wrote of the joys of heaven and pled with his audiences that

The great strife and struggle of the new man is after holiness. His heart struggles after it, for he has an interest in heaven, and therefore he struggles with that sin that would keep him from it…If heaven be such a blessed world, then let it be our chosen country, and the inheritance that we look for and seek. Let us turn our course this way, and press on to its possession. [16]


When Christ calls people His own, he gives them new hearts and minds, and they are reborn with an interest in heaven, giving them the strength to struggle against sin.

            Second, Edwards wrote little about the place of gratitude motivating holiness. This argument does not lend great weight by itself, but it does effectively demonstrate the primacy of future grace in Edwards thinking when compared with the place of gratitude. The hope of heaven dots the landscape of Edwards’s sermons, while gratitude only earns one sermon and a small number of Miscellanies entries.

            Third, Edwards himself blurs the lines at times between past and future grace. At one point, he writes

Christ Endured the cross for the joy that was set before him and thereby obtained that joy and is set down on the right hand of the majesty on high. Hebrews 12:2 So doubtless his members obtain a participation of the same joy and come to sit down with him in heaven by his enduring the cross. [17]

This is a simple statement, but here Edwards makes several connections. He begins by showing that even Christ banked upon the future, that is, the joy set before Him and found the strength to endure the cross. Second, he indicates that it is this past grace that allows Christians to have future hope when he writes that Christians may participate in this same joy “by his enduring the cross.” This demonstrates Edwards’s understanding as nearly identical to Piper’s when he builds his foundation for future grace upon the cross and God’s faithfulness through past grace. Christians have a hope in heaven because of Christ’s grace through the cross, which secures their passage into heaven.

            From what little evidence can be found, Edwards does not seem to have ever held the explicit belief that Piper does, but he does share enough foundational beliefs that it seems likely he would have agreed with Piper if given the opportunity to discuss the issue with him.

            Objections may of course be made to this proposition, for Edwards view seems to aligns with the view that Jesus Himself posited with his parable of the talents; God gives talents (blessings) to servants and expects them to multiply them. This closely reflects Edwards’s view that saints take God blessings and turn them into obedience. In Luke 12:48 too, Jesus commands that “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” Why indeed does God shower His people with blessings except to have them respond in thankfulness and then live transformed lives?

Concerning whether or not Edwards would hold a view similar to Piper’s, one may argue that Edwards seems fairly clear in his emphasis that gratitude should motivate God’s people to live transformed lives. In the previously mentioned sermon “Showing Thankfulness for Mercy by Deeds,” Edwards spent a fair bit of energy explaining that when Christ blesses someone, the suitable and expected return is for that person to behave themselves in a way pleasing and acceptable to him.

What can be more equal than that when God expresses his love to us by deeds we should also express our love to him by these deeds that are proper and natural fruits of love. [18]

Again, Edwards seems to be running contrary to Piper’s thesis, that gratitude cripples Christian as the motivation for pursuing sanctification.

            In answering the question of why would God shower blessings except to have them motivate obedience, Piper’s view again proves helpful. The Christian life relies upon bygone grace to show Christians that God’s promises for the future can be banked upon because He has proven Himself faithful in the past. God has proven Himself faithful in the past, so Christians may forgo the fleeting pleasures of this world for the greater future pleasures promised by God, trusting Him to continue in His faithfulness.

            Regarding the objection that Edwards intended to credit gratitude with the ability to motivate holiness, it must again be restated that Edwards never, so far as has been seen, actually agrees with Piper. This paper concedes that Edwards does in fact counter Piper’s position, at least at first glance. Yet, a look at Edwards’s views regarding the power of an eternal perspective and his acknowledgment that past grace in the cross secures the future hope of Christians, demonstrate that his underlying beliefs are proper. Thus, this paper concludes that with these foundational principles in place, if Edwards had ever been exposed to this specific doctrine and given time to thoughtfully consider it, he would have fully embraced it.

Works Consulted

Edwards, Jonathan

-       “Religious Affections”: "

-       “Heaven, A World of Charity or Love”:

-       “Showing Thankfulness for Mercy by Deeds”: Unpublished.

-       “The Eternity of Hells Torments” April, 1739:

-       “Praise, One of the Chief Employments of Heaven” November, 1734:

-       “The End of theWicked Contemplated by the Righteous: or The Torments of the Wicked in Hell, No Occasion of Grief to the Saints in Heaven”:

-       “Procrastination OR The Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time”:

-       “Concerning the Perseverance of the Saints: Concerning the Righteous Man Falling Away”:


Piper, John Future Grace: Living by the Purifying Power of Future Grace (Sisters: Multnomah Books, 1995)

[1] Jonathan Edwards, “Heaven, a World of Charity or Love” from the Charity, the Sum of all Virtue series, sermon 16, under the fourth example for the fourth point under the “application” section.

[2] Jonathan Edwards, “Concerning Faith” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974) 856

[3] Jonathan Edwards, “Charity and Its Fruits”, (London: The Banner of Truth Press, 1969) 157ff

[4] Jonathan Edwards “Religious Affections,” Section XI

[5] Edwards, “Heaven, a World of Charity or Love” under the third example for the fourth point under the “application” section.


[6] Jonathan Edwards “Showing Thankfulness for Mercy by Deeds” under the “Doctrine” section. Unpublished.

[7] Ibid, under point one of the “Doctrine” section

[8] Ibid, under section two, point two under “Doctrine”

[9] Ibid, under section two, point one under “Doctrine”

[10] Ibid, under section two, point two under “Doctrine”


[11] John Piper, Future Grace, (Sisters: Multnomah Books, 1995) 38

[12] Ibid, 101

[13] Ibid, 32

[14] Ibid, 11

[15] Ibid, 10

[16] Edwards, “Heaven, a World of Charity or Love” under the fourth of point the “Application” section.

[17] Jonathan Edwards, Miscellanies #845.

[18] Edwards, “Showing Thankfulness for Mercy by Deeds” , under section three, point one under “Doctrine”