November 26th, 2013
To Effortfully Participate in Salvation is “A Mercy to Us”
Though at first it seems otherwise, Jonathan Edwards' sermons “Pressing into the Kingdom of God” and “A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be Both Scriptural and Rational Doctrine” address, in agreement, the confusion that surrounds the precise role of the believer in relationship to the role of God, particularly in the attainment of salvation. Although both sermons pivot on this attainment of salvation, each sermon at first seems to present two contradicting perspectives on the way one is to obtain it. “Pressing” seems to suggest that a man will only obtain salvation if he strives for it vigorously enough, by using his reason and will, and that his salvation, therefore, depends on his own efforts. “Divine Light,” on the contrary, suggests that the divine light on which salvation depends can only be caused and given by God, independent of man, and is impossible to be obtained or comprehended by man's efforts of reason, no matter how strenuous. His salvation, therefore, depends not on him, but on God. However, although the sermons seem to irreparably contradict each other, upon close inspection, various elements in both sermons align, and it becomes evident that Edwards has but one perspective on the attainment of salvation, with which both sermons agree. The sermons' apparent difference lies in their emphases on different aspects on the attainment of salvation. For instance, although “Pressing” seems at first to imply that a man's seeking of salvation depends solely on himself, Edwards observes that God is the original cause of the man's efforts. Because God caused man to put forth effort, his efforts must be necessary and therefore must not be incompatible with the equally true idea, emphasized in “Divine Light,” that man's efforts are in vain in obtaining salvation. In fact, this very idea, Edwards argues, is what God intends man to realize through his seeking: that he is helpless and utterly dependent on God. Man's efforts in themselves are unable to grant him salvation, and the knowledge he inevitably accumulates through his efforts is, in itself, dead and also unable to give him salvation. At this stage, Edwards argues, God, unaffected by man, of His own volition, may choose to shed on man His light of salvation, and will do so using man's efforts, which are dead and futile in themselves, but which God deemed necessary as a means for Him to communicate his living light. In this immediate act of giving man salvation, God must also give man the ability to move forward to receive it, or to enjoy, what God has given him. Thus both sermons bring together a complete picture of the role of man and the role of God in the attainment of salvation. Indeed, despite having different emphases, they both argue that man's actions are incapable of obtaining him salvation, and that he is entirely dependent on God for it. Yet by making his actions still necessary, God allows man the opportunity, in realizing the extent of his dependence on Him, to realize in turn the abundance of His mercy in the act of giving him salvation. Even His requirement that man then acts to receive the immediate gift of salvation is for his benefit, since the act of receiving, stemming from Him and ending in the delight of the beauty of Him, is an act of spiritual pleasure.
While both sermons “Pressing” and “Divine Light” present salvation as the ultimate attainment, each sermon at first seems to offer a contradicting view on the way in which one obtains it. The doctrine of “Pressing” states: “It concerns everyone that would obtain the kingdom of God, to be pressing into it” (2), indicating that the kingdom of God is the ultimate end for which one would “press.” Later, Edwards says, “[P]ressing into the kingdom of God[:] this concern prevails above all others... This seeking of eternal life should not only be one concern that our souls are taken up about with other things; but salvation should be sought as the one thing needful” (3). “This seeking of eternal life” and the “salvation [that] should be sought” refer to “this concern” of pressing into the kingdom of God, thus equating “eternal life” and “salvation” with the kingdom of God. When Edwards speaks, then, of pressing forward into the kingdom of God, he refers to the pressing into and the attainment of salvation. Similarly, in the sermon “A Divine Light,” Edwards says, “A spiritual and saving conviction of the truth and reality of these things, arises from such a sight of their divine excellency and glory...” (4). Thus salvation, or a “saving conviction,” results from and is dependent on seeing the divine light, as entailed in the phrase “a sight of their divine excellency and glory.” Salvation, then, is the common purpose uniting both sermons, which highlights the following contrast between the sermons' two approaches in attaining this salvation all the more.
From statements such as, “Most of them that try [getting into the kingdom of God] have not resolution, courage, earnestness, and constancy enough; but they fail, give up, and perish. The difficulties are too many and too great for them that do not violently press forward” (5), one can easily construe the sermon “Pressing” to suggest that a man's attainment of salvation depends on how well he seeks it, and thus depends on his own effort and ability. In this quotation, Edwards gives us the cause of why “they... perish”: it is because “they have not resolution... and constancy enough” and thereby do not “violently press forward” enough. Because their failure in obtaining salvation is due to their own deficiencies, their success in obtaining salvation, then, would be due to their “resolution... and constancy” and to how well they are able to “violently press forward.” This pressing forward consists, in particular, in “inclining ear to wisdom, and applying the heart to understanding, crying after knowledge...” (3), and it “engross[es] the care of the mind.” Thus, pressing into the kingdom depends on the exertion of man's natural rational faculties and, not only that, but his will, as evidenced in the following statement: “All the bent of their souls is to attend on God's means, and to do what he commands and directs them to.” From this sermon, one could conclude that salvation directly depends on man's efforts and ability, particularly in his exercise of the reason and will.
The sermon “A Divine Light,” suggests, on the contrary, that man's attainment of salvation does not depend on his efforts, but on God's. As already mentioned, a man's salvation or “conviction of ... truth” depends on whether he has a sight of the light, or “divine glory,” and Edwards claims that the shedding of this light depends on God alone. In further support, Edwards says, “But that due sense of the heart, wherein this light formally consists, is immediately by the Spirit of God... the sense of the excellency of Christ by reason of that holiness and grace, is nevertheless immediately the work of the Holy Spirit” (7). The sense, or the light, on which a man's salvation depends, is “immediately by,” or directly caused by, the Holy Spirit; thus it is not caused by man. Edwards clarifies this with the following statement: “It [is] beyond a man's power to obtain this knowledge and light by the mere strength of natural reason...” (10). Contrary to his statement in “Pressing,” that it is only by a man's pressing into the kingdom using his rational faculties that he can obtain salvation, here Edwards argues that salvation is outside the grasp of man's reason; it is within the power of God alone to give.
Thus, Jonathan Edwards presents us with two opposing, extreme views on not only the way in which man finds salvation, but more specifically on the role of man and the role of God in the act of salvation. While “Pressing” gives man a proactive role, of earning his salvation through the merit of his activity, nearing a self-reliance that is independent of God, “A Divine Light” gives man hardly any role at all. Since he can do nothing to obtain salvation, because it depends solely on God to give, one may then conclude that he can only be a passive, waiting, potential receptacle of God's light. It seems, then, that Edwards blatantly contradicts himself with these sermons, or else is offering two differing theories of conversion. Yet one finds on closer inspection that various aspects in the sermons align in accordance with each other and that, in fact, Edwards is outlining in both these sermons the same arch of conversion. The difference between the sermons lies only in their emphases which occur at different points on the arch.
While Edwards argues in the “Pressing” sermon that it is “press violently” enough into it that obtain the kingdom of God, Edwards also argues in this same sermon that man's effortful pressings do not originate in himself. As already mentioned, a man can only press into the kingdom of God if his resolution is enough, but to understand what Edwards truly means by this, one cannot overlook that Edward then says, “the strength of resolution depends on the sense which God gives to the heart of these things.” Thus, the man does not cause himself to press forward; God does. Whether he is capable of wholly pressing into the kingdom depends on whether God has given his heart the disposition and the resolve to do it. Without this argument, the following isolated sentence would imply a strictly contained self-reliance in the pursuit of salvation: “Those who are pressing into the kingdom of God, have a disposition of heart to do everything that is required, and that lies in their power to do, and to continue in it.” It would seem that those who press forward must dispose their own hearts, must rely on themselves to do all that is required, must depend on their own power to do it and to persevere. Yet, they are only capable of doing all this because of their “disposition of heart,” which is not of themselves, but is given to them by God. Thus a man's efforts toward salvation, though he himself must do them, are not caused by himself, but by God. His actions do not depend on himself because they are the effect of God's action.
Both sermons also agree that seeking will not, in fact, cause one to obtain the light or the kingdom of God. In “Pressing,” Edwards states, “But then are persons in the most likely way to obtain the kingdom of heaven, when the intent of their minds, and the engagedness of their spirits, be about their proper work and business.” The action of pressing into the kingdom, which he refers to as “the intent of their minds... and spirits [being] about their proper work,” does not directly obtain one the kingdom, but rather, puts him “in the most likely way” to obtain it. Similarly, Edwards subtly but carefully words the sermon's doctrine, “It concerns everyone that would obtain the kingdom of God, to be pressing into it.” He says that pressing into the kingdom would obtain it; he does not say that the direct result to one who presses in will be that he absolutely will obtain it. Obtaining the kingdom is not the inevitable effect of one's pressing. More explicitly, after his exhortation to “labour to... hold out to the end... to continue seeking,” he says, “remember that if ever God bestows mercy upon you...” (9), thus indicating that even if one does “labour to the end,” it will not necessitate that God grants one eternal life. This mercy remains in God's power, unaffected by man's efforts. The claims of “Divine Light,” too, align with this claim. In it Edwards argues that, “The natural faculties are the subject of this light.” If the faculties of reason with which we strive forward are the subject of the light, they cannot then be the cause of this light, this salvation. “[T]he use that we make of our eyes in beholding various objects, when the sun arises, is not the cause of the light that discovers those objects to us” (6). In the same way, the use we make of our efforts of reason are not the cause of our obtaining salvation.
However, while both sermons argue that seeking does not cause one to obtain salvation, both sermons yet agree that it is still necessary to press into the kingdom of God. As mentioned earlier, Edwards describes pressing to involve effortful exercise of the will and of reason, evidenced by his statements that it is necessary “to do all that in the use of their utmost strength they are able to do” and to have “engagedness of the mind” (3). Though it does not emphasize it, “A Divine Light” also affirms that one's exercise of his rational or natural faculties, in a forward-moving effort, is necessary. “It is not intended that the natural faculties are not made use of in [the light]... [T]hey are not merely passive, but active in it; the acts and exercises of man's understanding are concerned and made use of in it” (6). This statement, in negating the notion that the believer's role is to passively soak in the divine light, corresponds with the claim in “Pressing” that one must use his natural faculties to strive into the kingdom of God. Thus, since both sermons argue that one's efforts cannot obtain him salvation, yet both sermons also argue that one's efforts are necessary, and we must conclude along with Edwards that God intends that the “exercises of man's understanding” do serve a purpose.
Thus far, Edwards has established that God causes man to press forward into the kingdom of God, but that this pressing forward does not cause man to obtain the light or the kingdom of God. In “Pressing,” Edwards explains the reason pressing forward is still necessary: “Such a manner of seeking is needful to prepare persons for the kingdom of God” (6). Seeking, therefore, is needful not as a way to immediately obtain the kingdom of God, but as a way, or a means, to ready, or prepare, the person to obtain the kingdom of God. Edwards then proceeds to explain the precise way in which striving forward prepares the person: “Such earnestness and thoroughness of endeavors, is the ordinary means that God makes use of to bring persons to an acquaintance with themselves, to a sight of their own hearts, to a sense of their own helplessness, and to a despair in their own strength and righteousness.” Striving prepares man for salvation by forcing him to experience himself and his own deficiencies most vividly: the more he strives to bend his mind and soul toward God, the more he realizes he cannot bend himself as wholly to Him as he should; the more he pursues God by praying, loving others, and reading the Bible, the more he realizes how imperfect and unworthy are all his actions and, furthermore, how they are unable to evoke God to respond with light, or the kingdom of God, or salvation. This realization of his failure, to which he could not have arrived without his efforts of striving forward, is what is necessary to prepare him, as a means, for if God “ever bestows mercy on [him],” or gives him salvation.
While “Pressing” argues that seeking the kingdom of God is necessary to realize the futility of one's efforts, the sermon “A Divine Light” also touches with some further insight on the reason why the exercise of one's natural faculties, is necessary before God sheds light to the soul. Edwards argues, “The word of God... is the cause of the notion of [doctrines] in our heads, but not of the sense of the divine excellency of them in our hearts. Indeed a person cannot have spiritual light without the word. But that does not argue, that the word properly causes that light” (7). Just as “Pressing” claimed that exerting one's being in pressing forward, which can entail reading the Bible, does not cause one to obtain salvation or divine light but prepares him to receive it, now “A Divine Light” makes an identical claim that the word of God cannot of itself cause one to obtain the light, but can prepare him in providing the necessary subject matter for it. Man's pressing forward into the kingdom does not cause God to respond with salvation, but man's pressing forward causes in himself the accumulation of knowledge, which provides God the means He has deemed necessary before he chooses whether to impart his light upon that knowledge or not.
The sermon “Divine Light” delves in particular into the actual, spectacular impartation of supernatural light to the soul, an act of God's own volition, the cause of which, as established, is not man but Himself, for as “Pressing” points out, “If ever God bestows mercy it will be in his own time; and not only so, but also that when you have done all, God will not hold himself obliged to show you mercy at last” (10). Now, if indeed God has chosen to give one His saving light, even now God requires that the believer must not be passive, but must act to receive what God gives him, as evidenced in the following statements: “He that is spiritually enlightened truly apprehends and sees it...” (4), which implies the believer must perform the actions of apprehending and seeing; he must have an “an actual and lively discovery of this beauty and excellency” (6), which implies the believer must actively discover the light; and as one must be able to perform the action of tasting the honey to have true knowledge of its sweetness, so too must the believer be able to perform the action of sensing to sense “the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace” (5) to have a true knowledge of it. Before, however, the believer can act (to see, or to taste, or to discover, or to sense), he must be made able to perform these actions. He must have the eyes to see, the tongue to taste, the spiritual capacity to discover and sense God. This ability, too, relies on God, not on him. Just as God gave him the disposition of the heart to press forward, and just as God gave him the reason with which to press forward, so now God gives him the spiritual ability to sense. Thus, God gives him the ability to act, or to receive, what God has given him to receive: the light “immediately imparted to the soul by God” that leads to salvation. Thus, in the immediate attainment of salvation, Edwards argues that God is the cause of the believer's act of reception, and God is the believer's end, for He Himself is essentially what He gives the believer to receive. All that God requires from the believer is the action of reception (seeing, or tasting, or sensing) in between the cause (God) and the end (God). All that God requires from the believer in the gift of salvation is that, cushioned on both sides by God, he perform an act of pleasure, since what he senses, sees, and tastes is a “true sense of the loveliness of God's holiness” (4).
Although Jonathan Edwards' sermons “Pressing into the Kingdom of God” and “A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be Both Scriptural and Rational Doctrine” seem at first to offer opposing arguments on the attainment of salvation, closer inspection reveals that they outline in accordance with each other the roles of the believer in relationship to the role of God. Both agree that God is the original cause. He causes man to press into His kingdom, which in turn causes man to realize that both his efforts and the knowledge acquired by his efforts are futile and unable in themselves to provoke God to give him salvation. Yet this realization, and the acquired knowledge, though ineffectual in themselves, are what God has required as the means through which He may choose to give man His salvation. A stunning parallel, a consistent progression, then unfolds. Just as God gave man the heart and the ability (the rational faculties and the will) to put forth effort to seek Him, now, in the actual impartation of salvation, God gives man the spiritual ability to put forth the effort to sense Him. Not only that, but God gives him that light or that sense which is to be sensed. Thus God is the cause of man's efforts and the end of man's efforts. Inevitably, then, if God who is full of mercy is the cause and the end, man's efforts are to his own benefit. God's requirement of man's efforts provide man with the opportunity to discover the abundance of God's mercy, since he realizes his salvation depends on it. When God imparts the light of salvation and requires the believer to press forth and receive it, this again provides him the opportunity to perform an act (of seeing the light) to his own benefit, because seeing the divine and supernatural consists in delighting in God. As in “Pressing” Jonathan Edwards states, “So that it is in mercy to us, as well as for the glory of his own name, that God has appointed such earnest seeking, to be the way in which he will bestow the kingdom of heaven” (6).