Papers from Hillsdale College (1998)
REL 319 -- Eighteenth Century Theology:
Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

Why Johnny is Right!!
Jonathan Edwards on the Will

by Darla C. Burl

"This is what I would humbly ask of my readers; together with the prayers of all sincere lovers of truth, that I may have much of that Spirit which Christ promised his disciples, which guides into all truth . . ." (Edwards 4). Jonathan Edwards wrote these words in his Preface to A Careful and Strict Inquiry Into the Prevailing Notions of the Freedom of the Will to encourage his readers to read his inquiry carefully seeking to obtain knowledge of the truth. I now wish to ask of my readers to do the same concerning the following inquiry. In my study of Jonathan Edwards' theology, a personal struggle arose as everything which I read led to the issues of predestination and free will; for some of my original thoughts on these issues were comparable to those which Edwards wrote against concerning Arminianism. I wish to present the ideas through which Edwards conveyed his strong opposition to the views of Arminianism in order to layout the controversy which took place in the 18th century. Edwards' inquiry on the Freedom of the Will is a thoroughly detailed rejection of the Arminian view of the will of God and free will. My attempt to sort out Edwards' inquiry has proved itself challenging. Endeavoring to understand the mind and the actions of God is intellectually demanding and emotionally draining. Using Edwards as a scriptural guide I have taken the time to sort out the following question: If God shows his mercy to select men and he hardens the hearts of other men, can it be resolved that man remains exempt of final responsibility for his sin - for his will is determined? In order to resolve this question it is necessary to discuss the primary issue of free will looking to the views of Edwards and Arminianism.

The Controversy

The controversy which played out between Jonathan Edwards with his Puritan-Calvinistic views and Arminianism had not just sparked up in the 18th century for this fiery issue had been aflame for some time. The problems of the present were the same as those of the past, such as the similar opposition which had come about in the 5th century known as the Pelagian controversy (Brauer 63). Arminianism received its name from Jacobus Arminius, a 16th century Dutch Reformed theologian, who held strong opposition to Calvinistic views, believing that God's grace was for all who would receive it freely in faith. Arminius saw two huge flaws in Calvinism for these views "made God the author of sin and it did away with genuine human freedom" (Brauer 62). Edwards however, opposed Arminianism because he suggested that it glorified man rather than God, strongly implying that God was not sovereign - an idea which Edwards could never side with. Edwards' Calvinistic views maintained that God would receive full glory because of man's dependence on Him. Edwards wrote his inquiry on The Freedom of the Will due to the quickly rising interests in Arminianism which had been settling in New Englanders. Edwards wrote of the occasion the following:

What is a Will?

Edwards opens his inquiry by defining the will as "that by which the mind chooses any thing. The faculty of the Will, is that power, or principle of mind by which it is capable of choosing: an act of the Will is the same as an act of choosing or choice" (Edwards 4). Edwards continues to discuss the determination of the will declaring that it is determined by "that motive, which as it stands in the view of the mind, is the strongest" (Edwards 5). This suggests that our wills are influenced by strong influential forces in the mind. The Arminians agree with Edwards on these points, but the that which the will acts upon is where the differences become evident. Edwards believed that the "will is as the greatest apparent good is" (Edwards 6), while the Arminians believed that the will "is addicted to evil" (Bangs 215). In order for Edwards to make his point concerning the remainder of his inquiry he must demonstrate the following notion that man has been created in the image of God and therefore has been invested with moral responsibility.

The Divine Will of God

Being as it is that man is created in the image of God, it is necessary for understanding the will of man to consider the will of God. What is it that determines the will of God? Edwards offers this logical statement of truth concerning the Divine will: From this statement it can be said that the will of God is perfect and flawless and his Will is that which determines the will of man. The Arminian view of God's will suggest that His will is perfect, but the will of man is his own and God has no influence upon it until man has been saved by his own faith. Edwards overriding concern with this remains that while this view defended the omnipotence of God it aimed to save the dignity of man; he remained faithful to the idea that the will of man was determined by motives outside of his control (Winslow 22).

"You will say then, `Why does He still find fault? For who resists His Will?' " Romans 9:19 (NASB)

Any attempt to understand this question of controversy seems to end in dispute among believers in the faith. However, I know from experiences with friends and family that the answer to this question remains a determining factor in how they live out their lives. If God has already predestined me to enjoy in Him through his gift of eternal salvation of if He has decided to cast me into the pit of Hell, am I relieved of responsibility for what my will chooses, especially since it is influenced by determining outside motives?

The Arminian answer to this question would be that "the providence of God doth not determine the free-will of man to this or that particular, or to one part of the contradiction" saying this, what argument is there to confute the possibility of every man attaining salvation (Owen 43). Jonathan Edwards however would argue the subsequent notion of the Sovereignty of God. Edwards had a consistent tendency to base his doctrine the Sovereignty of God, therefore saying God had the following:

In this case, the question remains: Is God responsible for my sin? Several verses from the scriptures help to defend the idea that God is not the author of sin such as that which states "Thine eyes are too pure to approve evil, and Thou canst not look on wickedness with favor" (Habbukuk 1:13 NASB). However, several people have claimed that this verse from Isaiah 45 suggests God is the author of all evil: "The One forming light and creating darkness, Causing well-being and creating calamity, I Am the Lord who does all these." This verse, I believe, only suggests that God has created a moral universe in which there is good and so therefore there must be evil. God must have a punishment to overcome the sins of men. The common belief of Arminians is that Calvinistic view of free will would make God the author of sin so they defend God in this manner: Jonathan Edwards however, does not take God out of everything "contrary to Happiness." Therefore, God is not using evil for the purpose of good and neither is He pulling Himself completely out of the picture. In a moral world there must be good and evil. The acts of God are Holy and are a glorious exercise of His nature.

What About Pharaoh?

Contemplating then, why did God harden the heart of Pharaoh, I believe the answer to this question gives a final answer to the original question: If God shows His mercy to select men and He hardens the hearts of other men can it be concluded that man is exempt from responsibility for Sin? The answer is that man is not at all exempt. Jonathan Edwards uses the example of Pharaoh to prove that man is responsible for his sins, but God plays His role for "good and wise ends" (Edwards 76). In Exodus 3:19 God tells Moses that Pharaoh would not let his people leave the land of Egypt. God knew that He would have to harden the heart of Pharaoh to that he would forbid the Hebrews to go out into the wilderness. A clear distinction here need to made concerning the whole act of heart hardening: God did not harden the heart of Pharaoh until Pharaoh, in his free will given to him by God, had hardened his heart against God, refusing to obey time and time again. In Exodus 5:2 Pharaoh questions the sovereignty of God and this is when God takes it upon Himself to eternally harden his heart. Pharaoh must have known of God's eternal power for God spoke to Pharaoh through Moses, but he denied God in the end. This problem is reiterated in Romans chapter one where Paul states:

In this verse a conclusion can be drawn that God reveals Himself to the sinner and allows him to Choose His perfect will, but if man refuses, God in all His glory may harden the heart of the sinner. Man is by no means exempt from the responsibility of his sin, for he has been morally created just as God is a moral Being and therefore, man ultimately has the knowledge of good and evil.

My Final Thoughts on the Will

"Also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will" Ephesians 1:11 (NASB)

Looking to the Will of God as a Christian, I see it just as the verse suggests: an inheritance so sufficient and so perfect that I therefore need nothing else. Once again, my original thoughts on the issue of free will tended to side with Arminianistic views which Edwards held such great opposition to. My initial view of God remained that His end was to make me happy and my view of predestination revolved around the idea that God had predestined anyone who would come to Him through faith. God lacked some knowledge of the future. God prevailed sovereign, but I most certainly had the free choice to choose whether I would follow Him down the path to righteousness or follow my own sinful, selfish ambition down the path of self-destruction. Any doctrine of election had to be false based on the assumption that my God would not be so cruel and arbitrary as to send His creation to Hell. God continuously worked around the clock with the Holy Spirit to awaken the souls of all men in order that they may obtain salvation. God played fair.

I now understand that it has only been through the act of God's revelation of Himself to me that I am given the choice to follow Him (this is where sovereign grace falls into the picture). Even in my ministry experiences I pray for God to reveal Himself to others and to have mercy on their sinful souls - for there is nothing in me, in my own will, which will win someone to Christ. It is only through God's gracious revelation of Himself. In the event that I would not choose God, He would have every "right" (if you will say) to harden my heart. How could I refuse such a gift of Grace? If God did not harden my heart after I downright denied Him, than He would not receive the final glory that He so deserves. God must do this in order to glorify Himself. "Glorify Himself?" one might ask, but yes, God must love Himself. If God did not love Himself than He would not love the Highest Good and therefore He would not be using His will to its full potential. God possesses a deserved selfishness.

In the conclusion of Edwards' Freedom of the Will he sums up the sovereign grace of God and His ability to predestine by saying this:

Works Cited

Bangs, Carl. Arminius A Study in the Dutch Reform. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971.

Brand, David C. Profile of the Last Puritan: Jonathan Edwards, self-love, and the dawn of the beatific. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1991.

Brauer, Jerald C. Westminster Dictionary of Church History. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1971.

Edwards, Jonathan. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. "Freedom of the Will." Volume I. Banner of Truth ed. Hickman. Great Britain: The Bath Press, 1995.

Jenson, Robert W. America's Theologian. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Owen, John. A Display of Arminianism. Edmunton, AB: Still Waters Revival Books, 1989.

Winslow, Ola. Jonathan Edwards. New York: Octagon Books, 1979.

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Last updated: 25 May 1998