Hans Zeiger

April 28, 2006

Eighteenth Century Theology

Prof. Westblade



Spiritual Economy: Edwards on Time Management





When in 1976 the Steve Miller Band sang, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ / Into the future,”[1] their generation was young. But time has slipped away, and Steve Miller himself is two years shy of retirement age. Three decades after the release of “Fly Like an Eagle” on platinum, the eagle is crashing in for a grounding. And when it has landed, no more able to fly, its death will evoke the bleak memory of wasted time.  
            Time, to T.S. Eliot, was “unredeemable.”[2] There is no clockwork redemption for the man of the grave, nor for the old man dreaming of youth, nor for the young man wishing in vain to reclaim some missed chance of childhood. Time oozes forward solomonically, as “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose” (Ecclesiastes 1:5 KJV). And when the sun is down, Jesus speaks to Steve Miller’s generation, “the night cometh, when no man can work” (John 9:4 KJV).

Jesus came on a time-bound mission; “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day,” He declared (John 9:4 KJV). When Jesus went to the Cross, He redeemed the unredeemable; he purchased time and charged it all to His glory. He made a way to eternity down the corridors of time. And by His grace He established in the economy of the spirit a potential for men to truly live. As men live they can redeem the time.

Of redeeming time our age is impotent. Few really live; few really experience a full life trained upon the object of a full eternity. Few even among Christians know how to redeem time. It is a thing as foreign to Sunday Christians at Megachurch USA as the megachurch was to Jonathan Edwards three centuries ago. Edwards seems to have settled on some solutions to the problem of time, and his solutions speak through fourteen generations to Christians of the postmodern era.




Benjamin Franklin, Edwards’ contemporary, said of time that it is the stuff which makes life.[3] But it was not Franklin who best exemplified the New England Protestant work ethic. Edwards did.[4] In his “Resolutions,” journal entries from his formal education and early ministry aimed at the cultivation of good habits and virtues, Jonathan Edwards makes clear his personal consideration of time. He made resolution once “never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I can.”[5] The young Edwards wanted to view time as valuable in the midst of one activity as in the next. He wrote in a journal entry, “a minute, gained in times of confusion, conversation, or on a journey, is as good as a minute gained in my study.”[6]

            It was in the study that Edwards spent most of his life. Before the sun rose each day, Edwards had. In January 1728, Edwards explained in a rare journal entry at Northampton, “I think Christ has recommended rising early in the morning, by his rising from the grave very early.”[7] First Edwards prayed, then he joined his wife Sarah and children for prayer. And until evening Edwards rummaged amid his mind, and he contemplated the deepest questions of theology, and he pored through the Bible and had it pour into his soul, and he wrote. Meals doubled as family devotions, and the day ended with Sarah, in prayer.[8]

            This was the arrangement, Edwards calculated, by which he could best serve God. An ambitious writing agenda and a pastorate were his charges. To do both well, Edwards limited his pastoral duties mainly to preaching. He avoided a systematic routine of pastoral counseling and home visits, preferring to meet with parishioners in his own study. He left the daily chores and property management to his wife. Only to the woods, where thoughts and prayers arose, did Edwards on a standard day retreat from his study.[9]

Edwards knew his calling. That men are called in general and particular ways to spend out their lives to the Lord was at once exciting and sobering to Edwards. Edwards knew the potentials and the boundaries of his own calling. He knew that he was called to write and preach and administrate his church as unto the Lord. He also knew that time was too short for much of anything else.

Edwards perhaps meant, in part, to justify his own routine when he told his congregation in the early days of the awakening that they were to focus on the business of their callings. “Waste then not away wholly in unprofitable visits, or useless diversions or amusements. Diversion should be used only in subserviency to business. So much, and no more, should be used as doth most fit the mind and body for the work of our general and particular callings.”[10] God had business with Jonathan Edwards, and it was Edwards’ business to make that known.



Secular time-brokers of the management field dump forth volumes to help the busy professional get his moments in the proper order. The late Peter Drucker posited in The Effective Executive that the first of the five habits of effective executives is knowing the limits and potentials of their time.[11]  “Time is the scarcest resouce,” said Drucker, “and unless it is managed nothing else can be managed.”[12] So important is time, according to the bestseller Ken Blanchard in his One Minute Manager series, that to decide to put his principles into practice earns the chapter title of “The Ultimate Conversion.”[13]

But Ken Blanchard’s conversion is not so ultimate as Jonathan Edwards’. For Christians have over the secular time managers the advantage of eternal grace, invading and inspiring their moments. This is no small blessing. It is the very redemption of time. 

            Two sermons in particular illustrate Edwards’ concern for time.

            The first sermon was a delivery of December 1734. The verse is Ephesians 5:16, which tells the Christian to go about “redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” In other words, says Edwards, “the corruption of the times tends to hasten threatened judgments; but your holy and circumspect walk will tend to redeem time from the devouring jaws of those calamities.”[14] Edwards’ thesis then follows, “that time is exceedingly precious.”

For four reasons, time is precious. The first reason is the core of spiritual economy, that “a happy or miserable eternity depends on the good or ill improvement of it.”[15] Indeed, Edwards indicates, self-interest is the motivating factor of humanity. “Men are wont to set the highest value on those things upon which they are sensible their interest chiefly depends.”[16] Value follows interest like free markets. By proper interest in valuable things, men accrue benefits. The right appropriation of time issues in eternal happiness.

Second, “Time is very short.”[17] Scarcity of time is a scarcity less flexible than any other commodity. It is consistently on short supply. “Time is so short, and the work which we have to do in it is so great, that we have none of it to spare,” says Edwards.[18]

Third, the continuity of time is uncertain. This Edwards would emphasize in his most famous sermon (infamous too), “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God,” declaring in 1741, “It is no security to wicked men for one moment, that there are no visible means of death at hand.”[19] God may throw the arrows of death at any moment, and a man may go to his grave entirely off his guard.

Finally, time is irrecoverable after it has passed by. Each moment affords a choice that, when a memory, is nothing but a memory. Each moment, says Edwards, “is successively offered to us, that we may choose whether we will make it our own, or not.”[20] Each second is a gift from God; each he sends with the exhortation of His Word to carpe diem. Whenever men choose to seize the day, it is glory to God.

            But what exactly is the purpose of time? Edwards says that God “gave you time here in order to a preparation for eternity.”[21] Time is a trial by which the soul is made ready for death, and in turn for eternal life. It is not time itself that redeems; it is the soul possessed of purpose that redeems time.

It tends to be that men fail to live for such a purpose, and they squander away their time in boredom and sleep, revelry and sin, vain conversation and vain labor. “There is nothing more precious, and yet nothing of which men are more prodigal,” declares Edwards.[22] Time is even more precious than money, he says. “If men were as lavish of their money as they are of their time, if it were as common a thing for them to throw away their time, we should think them beside themselves, and not in the possession of their right minds. Yet time is a thousand times more precious than money.”[23] Three particular wastes usurp the time: idleness (“doing nothing that turns to any account”), wickedness (spending time “to ill purposes”), and worldliness (spending time merely “for benefit in time”).[24] 

And selfish men, as they are, procrastinate. They put off duty for the sake of ease. It is damning enough from the world’s perspective.  According to business writer Merrill E. Douglass, “Procrastination prevents success.” Procrastination is created by a combination of habit and inertia, says Douglass.[25] Men procrastinate themselves into a bend, a habit of uselessness and carelessness.[26]   

Edwards’ second sermon is entitled “Procrastination, or, the Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time.” To Edwards, procrastination is wrong because tomorrow does not exist, and tomorrow is unpredictable. There is room for probability in human calculations, but on the future the Christian can hold no dependency.

When Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas visited Hillsdale College in 2004, a student asked him, “What is the best way to live?” He replied, “Always focus on the task at hand.” Of focusing on the task to the rear, or on the task where one estimates the hand might be the following week, or on the task to a neighbor’s hand, a man wastes time. So Edwards asks his readers to search their hearts, to find in them the wastes that pollute the gift of time. It is a gift on which men cannot afford to rely. The sands of time are sinking, as Samuel Rutherford observed in the seventeenth century.[27]

            So the Christian ought to live as a dying man. The country music artist Tim McGraw sings of this theme recently concerning a man diagnosed with cancer in his early forties. Living as dying is, to McGraw:[28]

I went sky diving

I went Rocky Mountain climbing

I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu

And I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter

And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying


Martin Luther was once asked what would be his course if he knew time were to end the next day. “I would plant a tree,” he replied. But to Edwards, neither cancer nor the knowledge of impending Armageddon should be required to prompt a man to live in the dying frame of mind.  Rather, he says we “should live every day as conscientiously and as holily as if we knew it were the last.”[29] Edwards knew that dying was not simply a condition attached to the end of one’s days; all of what goes for life is in fact a dying state. Edwards would second Augustine, who wrote in The City of God, “At every moment of this life (if it is to be called life) our mutability tends toward death.”[30]

There are conditions. Men should work for a living, of course. They should pursue their callings. But men should not work in dependence on their labor, or on their living, as though it were their chief stake in this life. For their chief stake in this life is above this life, and it is the thing that infuses meaning to this life: it is eternity.

Both dependency on the future and action upon that dependency are the bases for sin. Ambition and greed feed upon a sense of the future; so does presumption. A firm belief in tomorrow that overrules the present moment overrules eternal life. As a man rests in his retirement fund, or in his Lottery winnings, or in his health care plan, a man may rest in the false comfort that he may settle his salvation upon his deathbed. Edwards reminds us that there is no tomorrow. There might become a tomorrow, but the word might exerts its fullest potency by its very uncertainty.

When men do act in dependence on tomorrow, they often sin in one of six ways. First, “they set their hearts on the enjoyments of this life.” By loving this world and the things of this world, men set themselves up for disappointment. Edwards writes,

[W]hen persons are very much sunk with the loss of any temporal enjoyments, or with any temporal disappointments, it shows that they set their hearts upon them, and behave as though they boasted of to-morrow, and depended on their long continuance in life…If they be very much sunk, and the comfort of their lives be destroyed by it, it shows that those temporal enjoyments were too much the foundation on which their comfort stood.[31]


Edwards insisted that the highest pleasures were eternal and divine, not worldly.


Second, men become prideful by presuming on the future. “If men are proud of their worldly circumstances,” Edwards writes, “it shows that they have a dependence on to-morrow; for no man would think it worth his while to vaunt himself in that which is to be depended on only for a day.”[32] Pride of appearance, for example, is no source of hope, though its interest seems accumulative over time. The body deteriorates, the face droops, wrinkles etch. Even the singer Cher cannot save her face forever, much less her soul, with million-dollar facelifts. For there is no beauty in the grave, Edwards says; “instead of a ruddy and florid countenance, there will be the blood settled, cold and congealed, the flesh stiff and clayey, the teeth set, the eyes fixed and sunk into the head.”[33] This graphic description is an insult to pride; it is a call to humility.

Third, dependence on tomorrow breeds envy. Parties contend and quarrel, desirous of some advantage over the other party. Certainly, in Northampton, divisions were rampant, and they ultimately drove Edwards from his pulpit.

Fourth, to trust in a future salvation from sin, rather than seeking immediate repentance, is the vain hope of the lost. It is a security in sin and an assurance of earthly hopes rather than a security in Christ and an assurance of eternity.

Fifth, to live for tomorrow is to overlook the urgency of today. Spiritual duties are required in the Christian life—not as an occasional exercise, not as the duties of another day—but as the main substance of life. These things must be done, and done with passion. Passion the Puritan writer Thomas Watson called “violence,”[34] and Edwards suggests that the peace of the unholy man is not a real peace. It is war against the Living God.

Such a war, sixth, is the very definition of sin. And sin must at some time be undone. Either man must make restitution for his sins and seek for them forgiveness, or he must face the just wrath of the Almighty. To live for tomorrow is to hold stock in future forgiveness, or future repentance, while the last chance may be but today.

Death is inevitable. It is more inevitable than the continuation of this life. When a man is old and has come to expect another day, he least ought to think so. “That persons have already lived to see a great many days…or that persons have a strong desire to live longer; or that they are now very unprepared for death” is the worst reason to live for tomorrow.[35]  Nor is a biography or an impressive legacy of any redeeming worth. “That men have been very useful in their day, and that it is of great importance to their families and neighbors that they should live longer, is no ground of dependence.”[36] As well, there is no safety in safety itself; painstaking precautions to avoid danger and enhance health, to exercise and diet, to wear helmets and seatbelts, to don sunscreen and drink water in sufficiency are rather insufficient.[37]

Preparing for the future may be more dangerous than not preparing. The business of the moment is “sufficient unto the day,” as Jesus expressed it (Matthew 6:34). Exalted aspirations have no place in the Christian life, depend though men do on future expectations. “When they are young,” writes Edwards, “they depend on living to be middle-aged, and when middle-aged they depend on old age, and always put far away the day of death.”[38]

As the Christian is not to fret over the future, he is not to fret over the affairs of other people. Christians have no business meddling “with the concerns of others,” and ought instead to “find a great deal of business at home between God and your own soul.”[39] When men fail to live in the immediacy of the moment, they begin to quarrel and grudge against one another, to commence the needless pains of strife, even through the ominous soul-drudgery of “mutual secret reproach.”[40] Much more of this life would be endurable if men were to focus on the task at hand. “If all acted every day as not depending on any other day, we should be a peaceable, quiet people,” writes Edwards.[41]

There remains a horrid peace and quiet to resolve the deepest divisions and bloodiest battles. It is the ominous quietude of the grave. Edwards addressed the people of Northampton directly: “The time will soon come, when you who have for many years been at times warmly contending one with another, will be very peaceable as to this world. Your dead bodies will probably lie quietly together in the same burying place.”[42] The voices of the most ardent disputers will be silenced; their souls will have only to tremble before the Judgment Seat.

What then, as the Hillsdale student asked Clarence Thomas, is the best way to live? Edwards tells us first that the Christian must remember his accountability before God for time. “Time is a talent given us by God; he hath set us our day; and it is not for nothing, our day was appointed for some work; therefore he will, at the day’s end, call us to an account.”[43] In the next place, the Christian must make up, as it were, for lost time. “You ought to mourn and lament over your lost time; but that is not all, you must apply yourselves the more diligently to improve the remaining part.”[44] Yet for previous neglect, opportunity is scarcer than once it was, the same calling as ever remains the more burdensome in the shortened moment, and the advantage of youth is fleeting. The time of youth “which is gone is the best; yet all your work remains,” says Edwards.[45] Youth waste their time in laziness under the delusion that the best is yet to come, while old men waste their time in despair under the reminder that the best already came and went. Edwards offers a third reminder to the Christian: that he is dying. This is to awaken the sinful time-waster to reality. For fourth, eternity is an endless sort of existence, and time is man’s last chance before he confronts eternity directly.               

            Three things must be done immediately, Edwards recommends. One, the Christian must make haste to act in the present moment.[46] Two, the Christian must prioritize his time. For example, personal devotions, Sabbath days, youth, and times of spiritual nearness “while He may be found,” deserve the greater allotment of time. And three, free time should be spent wisely. It should be used to God’s service rather than selfishness.[47] This Edwards modeled.

So Edwards is credible to recommend, in the final section of his sermon on procrastination, “How to spend every day.” Edwards repeats the principle of living as dying, that “God hath concealed from us the day of our death, without doubt, partly for this end, that we might be excited to be always ready, and might live as those that are always waiting for the coming of their Lord.”[48] Every act of the saint must be as the final act: “Let me exhort you to have no dependence on any future time; to keep every sabbath, and to hear every sermon, as if it were the last. And when you go in to your closet, and address yourself to your Father who seeth in secret, do it in no dependence on any future opportunity to perform the same duty.”[49] Men and women should furthermore be reminded in their youthful fun, or in their business transactions, or in their family relations, that time could end in the next minute.

To be ready for death is the best way of living. Indeed, only when one knows that he is dying and is actively preparing for death is he even capable of really living.


It is the way really and truly to be ready for death; yea, to be fit to live or fit to die; to be ready for affliction and adversity, and for whatever God in his providence shall bring upon you. It is the way to be in, not only an habitual, but actual preparedness for all changes, and particularly for your last change.—It is the way to possess your souls in a serene and undisturbed peace, and to enable you to go on with an immovable fortitude of soul, to meet the most frightful changes, to encounter the most formidable enemies, and to be ready with unshaken confidence to triumph over death whenever you meet him; to have your hearts fixed, trusting in God, as one that stands on a firm foundation, and hath for his habitation the munition of rocks, that is not afraid of evil tidings, but laughs at the fear of the enemy.[50]


Sure is the hope of the Christian whose life is trained upon redeeming the time. The Christian rests in certainty, not presumption. He lives his life as a prayer. He makes the Bible his daily agenda.

The study of time is truly the study of eternity, if undertaken rightly. Time is the reality in which we exist. Since Edwards, serious Christian writers have had too little to say of time management. When it is broached, it is often by the preachers of the Health and Wealth Gospel. Rather than seeking eternity with the fervor of Drucker, Christians have taken to studying Drucker with the fervor of eternity.

Edwards calls out Christians of the postmodern age to redeem the time by making ready for the end of time. “What a blessed peace,” says Edwards, “is that which arises from such a constant preparation for death.”[51] To prepare for death is to be prepared to live again. Vigilance at the watch for Christ’s return is the mark of the man who can endure death’s valley. To transcend the fear of death and yet to labor in its shadow requires a grace that only God can bestow. Though time runs on to its close—though it sinks like sand—the man whose soul is at home in eternity may “stand firm and unshaken, being settled on a rock.”[52]

[1] Steve Miller, “Fly Like an Eagle.” Fly Like an Eagle.

[2] T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” The Four Quartets

[3] William Hoffer, “How Do You Perceive Time?” in The Management of Time, ed. A. Dale Timpe (New York: Facts on File, 1987), 25

[4] This observation is made by Daniel Walker Howe in The Making of the American Self, and it is echoed in George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 133; Edwards was not the only leader of the Great Awakening to model time management. George Whitefield too made careful account of his time by journaling his days and nights. While preaching at Dummer, England at the age of twenty-one, Whitefield would divide his days into three parts: “eight hours for study and retirement, eight hours for sleep and meals, and eight hours for reading prayers, catechizing, and visiting the parish.” (George Whitefield, George Whitefield’s Journals. [Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989], 79)

[5] Jonathan Edwards, quoted in George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 51

[6] Marsden, 51

[7] Ibid., 133

[8] Ibid.,

[9] Ibid., 133-136

[10] Jonathan Edwards, “The Preciousness of Time, and the Importance of Redeeming It,” December, 1734. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. II, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 236

[11] Peter F. Drucker, The Daily Drucker. (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), 272

[12] Drucker, quoted in Jitendra Mishra and Prabhakra Misra, “Time Management: Getting the Best Out of Your Time,” in The Management of Time, ed. A. Dale Timpe (New York: Facts on File, 1987), 9

[13] Ken Blanchard, The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey. (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1989), 129

[14] Edwards, 233

[15] Ibid., 233

[16] Ibid., 233

[17] Ibid., 233

[18] Ibid., 233-234

[19] Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God,” 1741, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. II, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 8

[20] Edwards, “The Preciousness of Time, and the Importance of Redeeming It,” 234

[21] Ibid., 234

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 234-235

[25] Merrill E. Douglass, “How to Conquer Procrastination,” in The Management of Time, ed. A. Dale Timpe (New York: Facts on File, 1987), 279

[26] In spiritual terms, as God expressed it through Hosea, “My people are bent to backsliding from me.” (Hosea 11:17, KJV)

[27] Samuel Rutherford, “The Sands of Time Are Sinking,” hymn

[28] Tim McGraw, “Live Like You Were Dying,” 2004

[29] Jonathan Edwards, “Procrastination, or, the Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. II, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 237

[30] Augustine, City of God, in Political Writings, Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries, translators, Ernest L. Fortin and Douglas Kries, editors (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), 93

[31] Jonathan Edwards, “Procrastination, or, the Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time.” 238

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Thomas Watson, Heaven Taken by Storm: Showing the Holy Violence a Christian is to put forth in the Pursuit after Glory. Joel R. Beeke, ed. (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1992)

[35] Jonathan Edwards, “Procrastination, or, the Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time,” 239-240

[36] Ibid., 240

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., 241

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Edwards, “The Preciousness of Time, and the Importance of Redeeming It,” 235

[44] Ibid. 235

[45] Ibid. 236

[46] An interest in the present and in eternity was later seized upon by C.S. Lewis, who in the Screwtape Letters makes the devil to say, “Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present.” (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters. [New York: Harper Collins, 2001], 76) Love, Lewis suggests, is of the present tense, while lust, fear, and ambition look forward to some future uncertainty that becomes more real to the irrational sinner than the present. It then becomes the goal of the devil to get the mind of a man outside of the present, into the past or the future. If a man “is aware that horrors may be in store for him and is praying for the virtues, wherewith to meet them, and meanwhile concerning himself with the Present because there, and there alone, all duty, all grace, all knowledge, and all pleasure dwell, his state is very undesirable and should be attacked at once.” (Lewis, 78-79)

[47] Edwards, “The Preciousness of Time, and the Importance of Redeeming It,” 236

[48] Edwards, “Procrastination, or, the Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time.” 242

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Edwards, “Procrastination, or, the Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time.” 242

[52] Ibid., 242