Meredith Didier

18th Century Theology

Professor Westblade

12/2/15

Jonathan Edwards’ View of God’s Sovereign Salvation

            Jonathan Edwards’ insistence upon the sovereignty of God is a persistent theme that runs throughout his entire theology. Sovereignty is a characteristic of God, Who must express every attribute in order to demonstrate the whole of His glory. However, it has been proposed that in Edwards’ theology of salvation, the sovereignty of God is downplayed while he places more of an emphasis on human acts in the “perseverance of faith.” This apparent Roman Catholic view of salvation is contradictory to his assertion of God’s complete and utter sovereignty in all matters. The missing link to reconcile Edwards’ two seemingly contradictory beliefs is a necessary understanding of the nature of God’s promises and plans in regards to salvation. Once God’s salvific promises and plans are understood as a sovereign expression of His will, the discontinuity in Edwards’ seamless theology vanishes.

            To understand how it may appear that Edwards places the responsibility of salvation on man to the deprecation of God’s sovereignty, it is crucial to know Edwards’ theology of salvation. Edwards maintains that justification is by faith alone. This faith is the “soul’s receiving and uniting to the Savior who has wrought our righteousness, that we are justified[1].” By faith, Edwards believed, one is uniting his soul to Christ. Just as Christ should have a vested interest in His own righteousness, similarly those who are united to Him by faith should share in this interest. This “natural congruity” in the convert’s interest in the righteousness of Christ, necessarily springs out of one’s faith and justification in Christ.  It also depends on an abiding union in Christ. It is necessary that one must remain in Christ to receive His lasting benefits and final acceptance and favor. Therefore “that perseverance in faith is thus necessary to salvation[2].” A sinner is justified in his first act of faith, yet “the perseverance of faith, even then, comes into consideration, as one thing on which the fitness of acceptance of life depends[3].” Justification is not simply a “dormant principle” in one’s heart, but an active expression of the soul’s “believing unition” to Christ. Thus, all evangelical works, or acts of obedience, are a reception of Christ and therefore are a condition of that first act of faith.

            It is this perseverance in faith through active expressions and evangelical works that makes Edwards sound “Catholic” in his theology of salvation. For Edwards, perseverance of faith and future acts of faith are “virtually implied” in the first act of faith in two ways. First, Edwards believed at a sinner’s conversion they are forgiven of all their sins and are free from their deserved eternal punishment. Because the first act of faith produces a justification that is “decisive and final,” every sin of the convert is forgiven, those of the past and future. Therefore, perseverance of faith is unavoidable. “Because repentance of those future sins, and faith in a Redeemer, with respect to them, or at least, the continuance of that habit and principle in the heart that has such an actual repentance and faith in its nature and tendency, is now made sure by God’s promise[4].” Edwards is explaining how, through God’s promises, a continued disposition towards Him in faith is secured in the after acts of the saint’s faith. It is understandable that one would think Edwards is relying upon man to perform acts to create perseverance in his faith, but with the proper understanding of the nature of God’s promises, it is clear that Edwards is still attributing all the credit to God. This proper notion of God’s promises will be investigated following the analysis of the second way by which Edwards believes perseverance of faith and future acts are implied in the first act of one’s faith.

            The second way in which Edwards believed the saint’s faith is persevering is that Christians may seek assurance in their justification by these after acts. If no other acts of faith were connected to justification besides the first act, then it would not matter if Christians were to seek justification by any other acts of faith. “For he does not know but that he has believed already, and if so, then he has no warrant to look to God by faith for these blessings now, because, by the supposition, no new act of faith is proper means of obtaining these blessings[5].” By assuming all after acts are not connected to justification Edwards thought, would make it so that it was not proper to seek justification by these acts. This would cut off all Christians that are doubtful concerning their first act of faith from celebrating the joy and peace of believing. Even Paul sought for certainty in his justification by faith in what he did after his conversion.

I want to know Christ- yes to know the power of his resurrection and participate in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrive at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.[6]

He did not act as if he never attained the righteousness of Christ, but continued to live a life active in this righteousness after his conversion. In this way, the converted use the after acts of one’s faith to seek God’s promise of a faith that preservers.

            Edwards perfectly summarizes the relationship between perseverance of faith and promise: “But God, in that justification, has respect, not only to the past act of faith, but to his own promise of future acts, and to the fitness of a qualification beheld as yet only in his own promise[7].” God has promised the faithful that by their first act of faith they are not only fit to be considered justified, but also will produce after acts of their faith. Edwards verifies that this is a biblical concept in quoting Hebrews 2:14, “For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end.” It only makes sense that one’s faith (union with Christ) must preserve after it has begun. “For it is begun that it might remain, and if it could be begun without remaining, the beginning would be in vain[8].” One’s soul is saved in Christ being in him at that moment, not through a remembrance that Christ was once within him. As has been demonstrated in Edwards’ theology of salvation, perseverance of the faith is “certainly connected to justification[9]” and the way He does this is through His promise. By uncovering Edwards’ understanding of the nature of God’s promises, his belief in man’s perseverance of faith no longer clashes with his notion of God’s supreme sovereignty.

            “The sovereignty of God imports that he has an absolute, and unlimited, and independent right of disposing of his creatures as he wills[10].” Edwards believes the Lord is able to bestow or refuse salvation to any man and it does not prejudice any of His attributes that He wills it this way. However, God cannot bestow salvation upon those who have committed sins against the Holy Spirit. God has obliged it to be this way. “He cannot bestow salvation in one case and refuse it in the other, without prejudice to the honor of his truth[11].” This may seem like a restriction upon the sovereignty of God: He is obliged to do something. However, it is only this way because God declared it to be so. In this, God binds himself to His own promises. But in making these promises, God is exercising His sovereignty. He has no obligation to save all that believe in Christ or declare that all who sin against the Holy Spirit are not to be forgiven. Nevertheless, it suited God to declare so. This was a sovereign decision and action of His divine will. “But it has 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 to save such sin[12].” God is certainly capable of saving people who’ve committed this sin, but He wills not to. Truly, in this way, one can understand that God being bound to His promises of salvation to man is in no way a constraint on the sovereignty of God. Quite the opposite, God is exercising His sovereignty in making these decisive promises in which He willingly binds himself.

            Edwards makes great use of Scripture to prove that God’s promises of salvation and His sovereignty safely coincide. “He was made a curse for us, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith[13].” In this passage it is clear God took on all the sin of man in order to be able to bestow his promise of salvation on mankind. Luke even describes the Holy Spirit as the promise of God, “Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you[14].” Again in Acts, Luke reiterates that God’s Spirit is His promise to man, “Therefore being by the right-hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed for this, which ye both see and hear[15].” Any holiness or happiness that the saints possess is all owed unto God. These blessings all spring from the “communications, indwelling, and acting of the Spirit of God[16].” Holiness and happiness are the fruits of this union with Christ and indwelling of the Spirit. God has promised that His blessings of salvation are to be delivered through His Spirit.

            For Edwards, it is not only in God’s promises of salvation that He demonstrates His sovereignty, but also in His plans for salvation. God, in His divine sovereignty, is the Supreme Ruler of the universe. He is omniscient and omnipotent, thus possessing complete control over creation, to plan it according to His will.  The omniscience and omnipotence of God’s sovereign nature affect His inalterable plan in unique ways. “His plan affects every detail of this creation. This plan is eternal, and there never was another plan[17].” Because of His omniscience, this plan was not a blind choice. Every detail of God’s plan feeds into the whole to bring about the greatest good, which is the glorification of God. God’s “plan is a reflection of His own being and nature[18].” In that God’s plan is sovereign, exercising dominion over all creation, God is similarly so, in nature and being.

God’s omnipotence plays a role in His plan because He is able to exercise His power and authority to carry out His plan. “When God promises to do something, there is no question that it will be done[19].” No matter the variety of means by which God may choose to operate, He is still in complete control of his plan. God’s plan is part of His will. Details within the plan sometimes may go against the desires of God, but “God’s plan and desires are two different aspects of His will[20].” While God may desire that all “come to a knowledge of the truth,[21]” it has not been made so in His plan for salvation. Contained in God’s plan is what men will do, not what they ought to. It has been revealed to men what they ought to do, which is the desire of God. However, not all men receive God in the way He intends. Therefore, God’s plan for what men do is necessarily separate from what He desires them to do. Nevertheless, both aspects- God’s desire and God’s plan- make up His sovereign will. He may freely choose what He desires men to do and may just as freely declare what men ultimately will do. In the freedom of God’s will lies His sovereignty.

God’s sovereignty, demonstrated in His plan, is an idea easily evidenced in Scripture. “This is the plan devised against the whole earth; and this is the hand that is stretched out against all the nations. For the Lord of hosts has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for His stretched-out hand, who can turn it back?[22]” No one can resists God’s outstretched hand, demonstrating how no one can escape the inevitability of God’s plan for creation. This coincides perfectly with Edwards’ explanation of God’s sovereignty as stated earlier, “an absolute, and unlimited, and independent right of disposing of his creatures as he wills[23].” God can absolutely, unlimitedly, and independently carry out His plan of salvation. In other words, His plan is irresistible. This sovereign plan is also unchangeable in that “God’s works were accomplished from the foundation of the world[24].” Man is completely incapable of impacting God’s plan because it has been so from the beginning of creation. Justly, all credit for this plan must be directed toward the sovereign God who has willed it so since before creation existed.

Undoubtedly, Edwards’ theology of salvation can be misconstrued as sharply contrasting his strong belief in the complete and utter sovereignty of God. By emphasizing the perseverance of faith in all those who produce a first act of faith, it may seem that Edwards relies on men to continue their justification through after acts of faith. Perseverance of faith and after acts are important in two different ways for Edwards. First, because justification is “decisive and final,” all past and future sins are forgiven, necessitating a perseverance of faith. Second, Christians are able to seek certainty in their justification through after acts of faith. The only way to make sense of Edwards’ insistence upon perseverance and after acts of faith is by looking at them in light of God’s promises and plans. In God’s sovereignty, He makes promises to the faithful that their first act of faith justifies them and will produce fruits of after acts. Likewise God sovereignly crafted a definite plan for salvation in which He executed His will in regards to salvation and all of creation. God’s sovereignty is not only reconcilable with Edwards’ plan for salvation, but His sovereignty is undoubtedly necessary.


 

Bibliography

Boa, Kenneth. “Divine Sovereignty vs. Human Responsibility.” In God, I Don’t Understand.

Colorado Springs: Cook Communications Ministry, 1975.

 

Edwards, Jonathan. “God Glorified in the Work of Redemption, by the Greatness of Man’s

Dependence Upon Him in the Whole of It.” In The Works of Jonathan Edwards,

Volume Two, edited by Edward Hickman. Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974.

http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works1.iv.html.

 

Edwards, Jonathan. “God’s Sovereignty in the Salvation of Men.” In Select Sermons, edited by

Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/sermons.gssm.html.

 

Edwards, Jonathan. Justification by Faith Alone. 1734.

http://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/justification.htm.

 

Edwards, Jonathan. “729: Perseverance.” In Miscellanies.

http://www.hillsdalesites.org/personal/dwestblade/JE/Misc/0711-0743.htm.

 

Morimoto, Anri. Jonathan Edwards and the Catholic Vision of Salvation. University Park: The

Pennsylvania State University, 1995.

 



[1] Jonathan Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone (1734), section 3,

http://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/justification.htm.

[2] Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone: Section 3

[3] Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone: Section 3

[4] Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone: Section 3

[5] Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone: Section 3

[6] Philippians 3:10-12

[7] Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone: Section 3.

[8] Jonathan Edwards, “729: Perseverance” In Miscellanies,

http://www.hillsdalesites.org/personal/dwestblade/JE/Misc/0711-0743.htm.

[9] Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone: Section 3.

[10] Jonathan Edwards, “God’s Sovereignty in the Salvation of Men, section 1,” In Select Sermons, edited by

Christian Classics Ethereal Library,

http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/sermons.gssm.html.

[11] Edwards, God’s Sovereignty in the Salvation of Men: Section 2

[12] Edwards, God’s Sovereignty in the Salvation of Men: Section 2.1

[13] Galatians 3:13-14

[14] Luke 24:49

[15] Acts 2:13

[16] Jonathan Edwards, “God Glorified in the Work of Redemption, by the Greatness of Man’s

Dependence Upon Him in the Whole of It, section 1.3,” In The Works of Jonathan Edwards,

Volume Two, edited by Edward Hickman. (Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974),

http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works1.iv.html.

[17] Kenneth Boa, “Divine Sovereignty vs. Human Responsibility,” In God, I Don’t Understand,

(Colorado Springs: Cook Communications Ministry, 1975).

[18] Kenneth Boa, God, I Don’t Understand: Divine Sovereignty vs. Human Responsibility

[19] Kenneth Boa, God, I Don’t’ Understand: Divine Sovereignty vs. Human Responsibility

[20] Kenneth Boa, God, I Don’t Understand: Divine Sovereignty vs. Human Responsibility

[21] 1 Timothy 2:4

[22] Isaiah 14:26-27

[23] Edwards, God’s Sovereignty in the Salvation of Men: Section 1

[24] Hebrews 4:3