Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God

Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God


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Offering readers an accessible portrait of Jonathan Edwards’s life and theology, this book highlights the central role of beauty in his understanding of the Christian life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433535055
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 08/31/2014
Series: Theologians on the Christian Life Series
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Dane C. Ortlund (PhD, Wheaton College) serves as senior pastor of Naperville Presbyterian Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is an editor for the Knowing the Bible series and the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, and is the author of several books, including Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Dane lives with his wife, Stacey, and their five children in Naperville, Illinois.

Stephen J. Nichols (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) serves as the president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries. He has written over twenty books and is an editor of the Theologians on the Christian Life series. He also hosts the weekly podcast 5 Minutes in Church History.

Justin Taylor (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher at Crossway. He has edited and contributed to several books, including A God-Entranced Vision of All Things and Reclaiming the Center, and he blogs at Between Two Worlds—hosted by the Gospel Coalition.

Read an Excerpt



The Organizing Theme of Edwards's Theology of the Christian Life

To become a Christian is to become alive to beauty. This is the contribution to Christianity that Jonathan Edwards makes and no one has made better.

Augustine gave us a theology of will-transforming grace that liberates the Christian life by replacing our loves. Luther left us the utter settledness of God's favorable verdict over our morally fickle and despair-prone lives. Calvin gave us the majesty of God over every detail of the Christian's life. Owen brought us into the joy of loving communion with the triune God. Bunyan left us with hope and courage in battling through the ups and downs of the Christian journey. Bavinck's legacy is the restorative dimension to divine grace, grace opposed not to nature but only to sin. Spurgeon gave us in unparalleled language the gratuity of the gospel against a backdrop of an utterly sovereign Lord. Lewis expanded our imaginations in seeing the Christian life as a painfully joyous longing to be part of the larger story that makes sense of all things.

And Edwards has given us the beauty of the Christian life — first, the beauty of God, beauty that comes to tangible expression in Christ, and second, the beauty of the Christian, who participates in the triune life of divine love. Divine loveliness, enjoyed and reflected in his creatures: this is Edwards's legacy. Sinners are beautified as they behold the beauty of God in Jesus Christ. That is Edwards's theology of the Christian life in a single sentence. If Luther was a St. Paul, terse and punchy and emphasizing faith, Edwards was a St. John, calm and elegant and emphasizing love.

"What an honor must it be," preached Edwards, "to a creature who is infinitely below God, and less than he, to be beautified and adorned with this beauty, with that beauty which is the highest beauty of God himself, even holiness." This comes from a sermon entitled "God's Excellencies" and therefore provides a good opportunity to clarify that, for Edwards, God's "excellency" is another way of speaking of God's "beauty." Edwards makes this connection earlier in this very sermon when he speaks of "the infinite excellency of Christ" as "delightful, beautiful, and pleasing." We today do not use the word excellency, but we do know what beauty is. So this is the word we will use in an umbrella-like way to capture his vision of Christian living.

Beauty in God

"The key to Jonathan Edwards' thought," writes George Marsden, "is that everything is related because everything is related to God." A book on the Christian life in the thought of Jonathan Edwards must begin with God. And the very first thing to be said about the Christian life is that for Edwards, beauty is what makes God God. "God is God, and distinguished from all other beings, and exalted above 'em, chiefly by his divine beauty." Not sovereignty, not wrath, not grace, not omniscience, not eternity, but beauty is what more than anything else defines God's very divinity. Edwards clearly believed in these other truths about God and saw all of them as upholding and displaying and connected to God's beauty. Yet none of them expresses who God is in the way that beauty does.

While we normally use the word beauty to speak of what is physically beautiful, Edwards uses beauty as a moral category. Not only the eyes but also the soul has an aesthetic capacity. The beauty of God is not captured with a camera but enjoyed with the heart.

This is why, according to Edwards, to speak of God's holiness is virtually the same thing as to speak of his beauty. Edwards refers in one 1730 sermon to God's "beauteous holiness." Whenever he refers to God's beauty, a reference to his holiness is often not far behind. Beauty, to Edwards, is fundamentally a moral matter. One might still wonder, however — is not beauty an aesthetic matter, not a moral one? Yet here is the genius of Edwards's understanding of God and of the Christian life. The moral is the aesthetic. The holy is the beautiful. God does not happen to be beautiful and holy (for Edwards, you cannot have one without the other), but is beautiful in his holiness. This is not a collapsing of categories so as to eradicate all distinction between the moral and the aesthetic; rather it is to understand that supreme loveliness is found only in supreme holiness.

What then is holiness?

The "moral excellency of an intelligent being," says Edwards in Religious Affections, "when it is true and real, and not only external, or merely seeming and counterfeit, is holiness. Therefore holiness comprehends all the true moral excellency of intelligent beings: there is no other true virtue, but real holiness." Two things are worth noting.

First, Edwards reverts back to the language of excellency, or beauty, in describing holiness. Thus he elsewhere speaks of "the holiness of God, which is his infinite beauty." Holiness is "a flame infinitely pure and bright" — once more Edwards reverts to the language of sight and heat. Second, he says that holiness "comprehends" all other virtues; "there is no other true virtue" outside holiness. Holiness is not one virtue standing alongside others — love, joy, peace, patience, and all the rest (Gal. 5:22–23). Each of these virtues is itself a particular manifestation of holiness. Edwards believes this is true of Christians (on which more below), but most fundamentally it is true of God. Holiness is the macro- category within which all virtue is subsumed. There is no virtue that is not also, at the same time, holy.

One reason for Edwards's close association of beauty and holiness is doubtless his own experience. Soon after coming to Northampton, he later recounted, "God has appeared to me, a glorious and lovely being, chiefly on the account of his holiness." That God is holy is what made God beautiful to the young pastor.

Strikingly, Edwards speaks of divine beauty not only in terms of holiness but also in terms of happiness. I call this striking because our instinct even as believers is to set holiness and happiness over against one another. For Edwards, it is both or neither. The two rise and fall together. "Men are apt to drink in strange notions of holiness from our childhood," he said in a sermon preached at age nineteen, "as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour, unpleasant thing." A dear friend recently e- mailed me and said in blessed honesty, "By far the greatest functional heresy I believe is that holiness is boring and lustful selfishness is fun." If we were to let others peer into how our hearts are really functioning, that statement would ring true for just about all of us as we roll out of bed into another day. And it is a great triumph of the enemy that we would think so. For in truth there is nothing more thrilling, more solid, more exhilarating, more humanity-restoring, more radiantly joyous, than holiness.

In another sermon Edwards sets this as his central doctrine: "It is a thing truly happifying to the soul of men to see God." Note that just as beauty has to do with sight, so Edwards here speaks of the happifying of souls that see God. This is key to Edwards's whole theology of Christian living: what do we see? Elsewhere in this sermon he refers to the "beatific, happifying sight of God." God's beauty happifies us. It nestles us into joy. Seeing him — apprehending with the eyes of the heart his lovely holiness — we are changed. Edwards even argues in a sermon on James 1:17 that the reason no one can see God and live is not God's wrath or justice, but because "God is arrayed with an infinite brightness" that "fills with excess of joy and delight," so that "the joy and pleasure in beholding would be too strong for a frail nature." According to Edwards, it isn't God's terribleness that would incinerate us. It is the joy that would erupt within us that we cannot handle.

One further point should be made about divine beauty: God is the only place true beauty is found. There simply is nowhere else and no one else who has it. All true beauty in the universe is found either in God himself or in the direct reflection of God. "All the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being." What a cold underground spring is to a mountain lake, God is to all real beauty in the universe. Edwards uses this very image: God is "the foundation and fountain of all being and all beauty; from whom all is perfectly derived, and on whom all is most absolutely and perfectly dependent."

Beauty in Christ

Divine beauty must be given a sharper edge, however. God's beauty is specifically seen in Jesus Christ. The actual, tangible setting forth of the loveliness of God is manifested in the Son. Christ "is the brightness of God's glory." (Here as elsewhere Edwards uses glory and beauty as virtual synonyms.) That is: "He is more excellent than the angels of heaven. He is among them for amiable and divine beauty, as the sun is among the stars. In beholding his beauty, the angels do day and night entertain and feast their souls and in celebrating of it do they continually employ their praises." Edwards goes on to argue that despite the ongoing enjoyment of the angels ("that blessed society") of Christ's loveliness, they can never exhaust it, nor their enjoyment of it.

Jonathan Edwards's vision of the beauty of God is not compatible with other world religions that likewise wish to speak of divine beauty but in a non-Christ-centered and non-Trinitarian way. Edwards is not here focusing on the truth that the incarnate Christ is the beauty of God in flesh and blood, though he certainly affirms that. Rather he is saying that even in his pre-incarnate state, the Son has always been the epitome of divine resplendence.

In a 1752 sermon Edwards says that it is Christ, supremely in his mercy to sinners, who is the magnetic beauty to which we are drawn. It is a

sight of the divine beauty of Christ, that bows the wills, and draws the hearts of men. A sight of the greatness of God in his attributes, may overwhelm men, and be more than they can endure; but the enmity and opposition of the heart, may remain in its full strength, and the will remain inflexible; whereas, one glimpse of the moral and spiritual glory of God, and supreme amiableness of Jesus Christ, shining into the heart, overcomes and abolishes this opposition, and inclines the soul to Christ, as it were, by an omnipotent power.

Not only Christ but the gospel that is revealed in him is an object of exquisite beauty. "Herein primarily consists the glory of the gospel, that it is a holy gospel, and so bright an emanation of the holy beauty of God and Jesus Christ: herein consists the spiritual beauty of its doctrines, that they are holy doctrines." In his Personal Narrative Edwards again says that "the gospel has seemed to me to be the richest treasure. ... The way of salvation by Christ, has appeared in a general way, glorious and excellent, and most pleasant and beautiful." The gospel above all else is where God's beauty is beheld.

The thinking Edwards gives to the role of sight in the believer's life is not limited solely to spiritual vision. In one miscellany that considers the glorified body of Christ, Edwards reflects on what believers' physical eyes will be like in their glorified existence in the new earth. He surmises that believers in the new heavens and the new earth will be able to see across the entire universe since Christ, not the sun, will be lighting the whole universe, and the light emitted by Christ's glorified body must be far faster than the speed of light in a solar system lit up by our sun.

Beauty in Nature

Edwards's radical God-centeredness is seen in the way he speaks of the beauty of the created order. Yet we must understand that according to Edwards it is not, strictly speaking, nature itself that radiates beauty.

On the one hand, the loveliness of creation cannot be denied. Indeed, it is exquisite. "We admire at the beauty of creation, at the beautiful order of it, at the glory of the sun, moon, and stars." As a boy Edwards enjoyed studying the world around him — from the way light worked, to the human eye, to the habits of spiders. Later in life he would often ride his horse out into the countryside, enjoying the world around him.

But the mature Edwards would say that in the deepest sense there is no beauty in nature itself. There is beauty only in God, and all beauty perceived in the creation is simply the reflection of God himself. Picking up the above quote about the "beauty of creation," Edwards goes on, as he always does, to raise our eyes from the loveliness of creation to the loveliness of God. We have "reason from the beauty of the sun to admire at the invisible glory of that God whose fingers have formed it." Later in this sermon he says, "The beauty of trees, plants, and flowers, with which God has bespangled the face of the earth, is delightful; ... the beauty of the highest heavens is transcendent; the excellency of angels and the saints in light is very glorious: but it is all deformity and darkness in comparison of the brighter glories and beauties of the Creator of all." The loveliness of the created order exists for God's sake, not its own.

In one miscellany he makes the fascinating suggestion that just as when we see a radiant countenance on someone's face, we discern spiritual beauty within, so too when we see beauty in the created order, we discern spiritual beauty in Christ.

When we see beautiful airs of look and gesture, we naturally think the mind that resides within is beautiful. We have all the same, and more, reason to conclude the spiritual beauty of Christ from the beauty of the world; for all the beauties of the universe do as immediately result from the efficiency of Christ, as a cast of an eye or a smile of the countenance depends on the efficiency of the human soul.

In other words, the created order is the radiant face of Christ. This creation-face tells us what Christ is really like.

Beauty in Christians

Divine beauty is not only to be apprehended in God. It is to be reflected in us. It's why we exist.

The psalmist wrote that those who trust in idols become like them (Pss. 115:8; 135:18). The inverse of this is equally true, that those who trust in the true God become like him. "The light of the Sun of Righteousness don't [sic] only shine upon them," says Edwards of Christians, "but is so communicated to them that they shine also, and become little images of that Sun which shines upon them." As George Herbert wrote a century before Edwards, in the poem "The Forerunners,"

True beauty dwells on high: ours is a flame

But borrow'd thence to light us thither.

Divine beauty is, in its own finite way, to be reproduced. The supreme instance of divine beauty being reflected in creation is not in the sun or the Grand Canyon or a nightingale's song, but in a Christian. This is why Psalm 8 compares the glory of a human being to the glory of the galaxy (Ps. 8:3, 5). A Christian is a mini-advertisement for divine beauty. To be a Christian is to be a little, frail, finite, morally faltering picture of the beauty of God. When Edwards speaks of participating in and reflecting God's own excellency, holiness, happiness, or good, he is getting at the same reality from different angles. He is talking about God's beauty. Consider the following, from an undated sermon:

God is with his people as they have fellowship and communion with God and as they are partakers with God in his good, possessing infinite good, and those are partakers with him in the same excellency and happiness. God communicates himself to his people. He imparts of his own beauty. They are said to be partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4). They are partakers of God's holiness (Heb 12:10).

So God communicates to his people of his own happiness. They are partakers of that infinite fountain of joy and blessedness by which he himself is happy. God is infinitely happy in himself, and he gives his people to be happy in him. ...

That grace and holiness, that divine light and love, and that peace and joy that is in the hearts of the saints is a communication from God. Those are streams, or rather drops, from the infinite fountain of God's holiness and blessedness. 'Tis a ray from the fountain of light.


Excerpted from "Edwards on the Christian Life"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Dane C. Ortlund.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Series Preface 11

Foreword George M. Marsden 13

Preface 15

Volumes in The Works of Jonathan Edwards 21

1 Beauty: The Organizing Theme of Edwards's Theology of the Christian Life 23

2 New Birth: The Ignition of the Christian Life 39

3 Love: The Essence of the Christian Life 55

4 Joy: The Fuel of the Christian Life 75

5 Gentleness: The Aroma of the Christian Life 89

6 Scripture: The Treasure of the Christian Life 103

7 Prayer: The Communion of the Christian Life 113

8 Pilgrimage: The Flavor of the Christian Life 125

9 Obedience: The Fruit of the Christian Life 135

10 Satan: The Enemy of the Christian Life 149

11 The Soul: The Great Concern of the Christian Life 157

12 Heaven: The Hope of the Christian Life 167

13 Four Criticisms 177

Conclusion 193

Select Bibliography 195

General Index 200

Scripture Index 205

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“In his theological concern for the beautiful and the beauty of God, Jonathan Edwards stands at the end of a long theological tradition that reaches back to Augustine and beyond, even to the Scriptures themselves. In the last two centuries, however, this area of theological inquiry seems to have dropped off the radar for Christian theologians and practitioners, which may explain why students of Edwards’s corpus of writings have not tackled the subject. Ortlund’s study nicely fills this lacuna, for he rightly shows, from a multitude of angles, that beauty is the fulcrum of Edwards’s thinking. A joy to read and to ponder!”
—Michael A. G. Haykin, Chair and Professor of Church History, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

“Jonathan Edwards is widely known as a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. Serious students, like Dane Ortlund, have long known he was much more. In this book Ortlund puts his careful research to good purpose as he demonstrates convincingly that the center of Edwards’s concern was always and supremely beauty—in God, from God, and for God. Grateful readers will find this book highly informative on Edwards and deeply encouraging for the Christian life today.”
—Mark A. Noll, author, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind

“No one has taught me more about the dynamics of Christian living than has Jonathan Edwards. And no one has more clearly articulated the role of beauty in Edwards’s understanding of the Christian life than has Dane Ortlund. If you’re unfamiliar with Edwards, or if you wonder how beauty could possibly have any lasting effect in your growth as a Christian, this book is for you.”
—Sam Storms, Senior Pastor, Bridgeway Church, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

“What a delight to see a book on Edwards’s conception of the Christian life. And how beautiful it is that it depicts the Christian life as ordered by and to the beauty of God. This book will help strengthen the fertilization of today’s churches by Edwards’s vision of God’s triune beauty.”
—Gerald R. McDermott, Former Anglican Chair of Divinity, Beeson Divinity School

“‘The supreme value of reading Edwards is that we are ushered into a universe brimming with beauty,’ writes Ortlund. I couldn’t agree more. And one would be hard-pressed to find a more engaging introduction to this universe for the church. Even the final chapter, on ways in which we should not follow Edwards, offers crucial Christian wisdom. Ortlund’s criticisms of Edwards hit the mark—and deserve consideration by Edwards’s growing number of fans. I plan to use them with my seminary students in years to come. Please peruse this beautiful book. It’s good for the soul.”
—Douglas A. Sweeney, Dean, Professor of Divinity, Beeson Divinity School

“Edwards is profound, and this book breaks down the complexity into manageable portions around the theme of beauty, thus engaging readers in a fresh vision of the importance of Edwards’s theology to contemporary living.”
—Josh Moody, Senior Pastor, College Church, Wheaton, Illinois; author, Journey to Joy: The Psalms of Ascent 

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