This article looks at Jonathan Edwards’ method of preaching, drawing lessons for pastors today.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 2003. 3 pages.

Jonathan Edwards and Preaching

To read the sermons of Jonathan Edwards is a humbling and heart-searching experience. Even in cold print they penetrate mind and heart alike. Theologian, historian and philosopher as he was, Edwards' sermons are marked by warmth and cogency and they evince a theology of preaching which, if adopted, would enrich the Church and, under God, bear fruit to his glory.

The Method of Edwards' Preaching deserves Considerationβ€’πŸ”—

His sermons are essentially expository in style and carefully structured. They are exhaustive without being tedious, and always see the text in the context of Scripture as a whole. Edwards never reads anything into a text. His concern is to let the Word be heard in purity and in the power of the Holy Spirit. There is a passion, an intensity, and an entreaty, which give his sermons a vibrancy that leaves one wondering what it must have been like to have heard them preached. Preparation for the pulpit could hardly have been greater, and clearly the preacher's heart was equally prepared.

Edwards wrote out his sermons in full and read them verbatim until he heard George Whitefield preach in Northampton, Massachusetts, where Edwards ministered. Impressed by this extemporaneous preaching, Edwards began to use notes, often little more than outlines. He has been criticized for reading his sermons for so long, but at the time of the first Northampton revival (1734), that practice did not prove a disadvantage. The anointing of the Holy Spirit is infinitely more important than the means of presentation when preaching – and that is not to recommend the reading of sermons in a service.

Edwards' application of the Word to sinners was unsparing, even awesome, but always motivated by a burning desire to arouse the ungodly and to encourage and comfort those who, by God's grace, were responding. At the close of a sermon on Acts 16:29-30, Edwards makes this appeal to his hearers:

Abound in earnest prayer to God, that he would open your eyes, that you may behold the glorious provision made for sinners in Jesus Christ. The souls of natural men are so blinded that they see no beauty or excellency in Christ. They do not see his sufficiency. They see no beauty in the work of salvation by him; and as long as they remain thus blind, it is impossible that they should close with Christ. The heart will never be drawn to an unknown Saviour.

Edwards' fascination with typology is intriguing. Few would follow him all the way in this, but, for him, what mattered was the antitype. He saw Christ and his work of redemption foreshadowed in all events recorded in Scripture.

The Breadth of Edwards' Preaching is Impressiveβ†β€’πŸ”—

It covered such themes as: church discipline, the status of angels, Christian charity, social relationships, family religion, the overthrow of Satan, the final judgment and the end of the wicked, ethical behaviour, the preciousness of time, the Christian pilgrimage, praise, sorrow and bereavement. As we scan Edwards' sermons, we see his emphasis on the doctrine of salvation, the redemptive work of Christ, the sovereignty of God, creation, Christian apologetics, ethics, and evangelism. No aspect of the life of the Church or of the individual – believer and unbeliever alike – is overlooked. There is no narrow Fundamentalism in Edwards, but a Calvinistic world-and-life view that saw the kingdom of God as relating to all human activity.

His preaching took in the broad sweep of the history of redemption Β­from creation to the climax of redemption in the new heavens and the new earth. Events in the history of the Church, or in his own congregation, were never viewed by Edwards in isolation, but always on the broad screen of divine providence. This awareness of the hand of God in history, including the life of the church – whether in blessing or chastisement Β­gave a depth and solidity to Edwards' preaching which sorely needs to be recaptured today.

In terms of range and depth, Edwards' sermons resemble those of Matthew Henry, and their style, at times, is strikingly similar. They cover all aspects and implications of the moral law of God. Consequently, no sin is overlooked-not even sleeping in church! Edwards was not content to speak of sin in general; he dealt with specific sins.

Edwards' Preaching Must be Studied in the Context of Conditions Prevailing in the Church and in Societyβ†β€’πŸ”—

He was confronted on the one hand by increasing Arminianism, which he rightly saw as heresy, and on the other by disturbing moral laxity on the part of the youth in his area. Regarding the latter he wrote:

Licentiousness for some years greatly prevailed among the youth of the town; they were many of them very much addicted to night-walking, and frequenting the tavern, and lewd practices ... It was their manner very frequently to get together, in conventions of both sexes for mirth and jollity, which they called frolics, and they would often spend the greater part of the night in them...

It is clear that Edwards saw a connection between wrong doctrine and wrong behaviour – a principle already established in Scripture and demonstrated in the Pastoral Epistles. Confronted by the twin problems of Arminianism and immorality, Edwards, in Pauline fashion, decided to deal with false teaching, believing that this would address the current malaise in full. So, in the autumn of 1734, he began to preach a series of sermons on justification by faith alone. How many would take a similar approach to these same evils that are with us today? It was a daring decision, but a thoroughly biblical method. God honoured it by sending revival that same year, and the following year that revival spread far beyond Northampton.

The Aim of Edwards' Preaching Was the Glory of God in the Salvation of Sinnersβ†β€’πŸ”—

To this end, he consistently pointed his hearers to the Saviour. He deliberately preached for conversions. That is why his application of the Word is so intense. He left the sinner nowhere to hide. He used the sword of the Spirit unrelentingly. Here a quotation from his famous sermon, 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God' (preached at Enfield, July 8th, 1741, with astounding results) is apt.

The bow of God's wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being drunk with your blood.

He concludes that sermon –

Therefore, let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation. Let everyone fly out of Sodom: 'Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed.'

There Are Lessons to be Learned from Edwards' Preachingβ†β€’πŸ”—

We are impressed by his faithfulness in proclaiming the whole counsel of God. However a doctrine might be to the natural man, Edwards was in no way intimidated by such aversion. We see this in the number of times he preached on the subject of hell, unlike so much preaching today, which, at best, makes passing reference to the subject, and that almost apologetically. Such tardiness shows scant concern for those in imminent peril of eternal punishment. Behind the thunder and lightning of Edwards' preaching on this theme, there was an earnest longing to see his hearers secure in Christ. His warnings were motivated by love.

Edwards' sermons were doctrinal from start to finish, but always in biblical terms and in language easily understood by the people. He knew his doctrines systematically, but was never a systematician in the pulpit. In this respect he resembled Calvin, who had mastered the art of dogmatics, but whose preaching was always in terms familiar to the people and animated by figures of speech drawn from everyday life. In this, our Lord, who really was the prince of preachers, has left us the perfect example.

Edwards used all Scripture to buttress his text. He knew that Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture, and his sermons evince a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. Such knowledge is invaluable to the preacher. Edwards' practice in this respect gave added authority to his preaching, as he demonstrated the harmony of Scripture in the truths it revealed.

A fourth lesson to learn from Edwards' preaching is never to divorce doctrine from ethics, belief from behaviour. He never preached abstract doctrine, but invariably showed his creed's implications for one's conduct. In this he was following the biblical pattern. He knew that Christianity was a way of life, and that salvation from sin resulted in an immediate moral change. This connection between doctrine and life is supremely relevant in our day, when the order is often reversed, and we are told that experience comes first and doctrine afterwards. Edwards had the right order. Doctrine determines conduct. Scripture makes truth the foundation of life and ensures, by God's grace, a life consistent with the truth that is confessed. Having described the day when 'the heavens will pass away with a roar and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved', the Apostle Peter immediately adds the exhortation, 'Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness?' (2 Pet. 3:10-12, ESV). There, doctrine and ethics are side by side. Knowing the truth, we are to 'walk in the truth' (3 John 4).

The Christian pastor who studies Edwards' sermons will be challenged to more prayerful and thorough preparation in the study and to greater clarity and zeal in the pulpit. Jonathan Edwards usually spent thirteen hours a day in his study! Commenting on this, lain H. Murray says, 'If it was excessive in one direction there can be no doubt that the routine of our contemporary Christian ministry is excessive in another, and that the basic reason why so much church busyness accomplishes so little at the present time is that private spiritual priorities have been neglected' (Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, p. 147).

In the course of time, Edwards was saddened by a gradual spiritual decline, despite those days of revival. But that recession did not negate the value of what had happened. Multitudes had been saved, and Edwards knew that revival depends on God's sovereign will; he gives and he withholds. He knew that revival does not result from human effort and planning, but from the sovereign action of the Holy Spirit.

There is a treat in store for those who can visit, with permission, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. There, Edwards' sermon notes may be inspected, including those for 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God'. Edwards remains one of the most intriguing and studied figures in the history of preaching and revival. Philip Schaff calls him 'The American Calvin'! Calvin saw himself first and foremost as a preacher. So should every Christian minister.

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