Author Stephen J. Nichols shows how the insights of Jonathan Edwards can be applied to the challenges of living the Christian life today. Edwards reminds us of our duty to live on earth in light of heaven.
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About the Author
Stephen J. Nichols (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) serves as the president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries. He is an editor of the Theologians on the Christian Life series and also hosts the weekly podcast 5 Minutes in Church History.
Read an Excerpt
LIVING IN BETWEEN
Yet now I am living with work to be done. JAMES MONTGOMERY BOICE
PAUL ONCE SAID he desired to depart this life and to be with Christ (Phil. 1:23). That, he thought, would be great gain, would be "far better." I suspect many Christians share Paul's desire. This life and this world have little to interest them. Their hearts are elsewhere. Others may not be so inclined; this world offers them a great deal, and because they are tantalized by it, heaven recedes into the distance.
Both perspectives miss something. Paul did say that he would rather depart, but he also told the Philippians that to live is Christ, adding that "to live in the flesh ... means fruitful labor for me" (Phil. 1:22). Paul longed to be in heaven, but he also knew that he had to live on earth and that this life can be full of meaning and purpose and value, that this life can be fruitful.
James Montgomery Boice, famous not only for what he said but also for his inimitable voice, received the bleakest news that anyone can receive in April 2000. He was diagnosed with liver cancer. In a matter of months it would take his life. In 1999, just before the diagnosis and after he had written many books and commentaries, he tried his hand at a new genre — hymn-writing. In what would come to be the final year of his life, he authored a dozen hymn texts, and his church's musician and organist, Paul Jones, composed the tunes.
The hymns reflect the doctrines that were close to his heart. One in particular celebrates the great Reformation doctrine that our salvation is by the grace of God alone (Latin: sola gratia). In effect, the hymn becomes the story of every Christian's life. We begin as sinners, corrupt and dead. "But God" — a quite profound pair of words — in his compassion and love extends his grace that brings us to new life in Christ (Eph. 2:4-5). Boice then declares in the fourth stanza, "I'll boast in my Savior, all merit decline, and glorify God 'til I die." I venture to guess that if we were writing this hymn, we would more than likely affix a hearty amen and a final period and end it there.
But not Boice. He pushes on, adding a fifth stanza that begins, "Yet now I am living with work to be done." His own life is a testament to his determination to live in between. Even as cancer robbed him of his energy, he persevered, writing hymns and serving God in his final days. Boice reveled in the glory of the age to come, and in the meantime his eternal home had everything to do with his life on earth. Now, he tells us, we have work to do.
If there was anyone who longed for heaven, it would be Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Imprisoned by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer spent the last years of his life in his 6 x 9 cell. At first he despaired and almost succumbed to the temptation of taking his own life. Then he found, by grace, an entirely new perspective on life in between. From his cell at Tegel Prison he wrote, "The Christian hope of resurrection ... sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way." "The Christian," he continued, "has no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties." Then he concluded, "This world must not be prematurely written off." Within the year he would be hanged at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp. Also within that year Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote some of his most lasting and challenging work. Both Bonhoeffer and Boice were determined to live in between and not write off life in this world.
A THIRD WAY
Not everyone shares Boice's and Bonhoeffer's perspective. As mentioned earlier, some are overly consumed with the life to come. They are, in the words of the old adage, so heavenlyminded that they are of no earthly good. They're like Thales, credited as the first philosopher among the Greeks. The stars and galaxies intrigued Thales. He thought that somehow the answer to the ultimate question of the meaning of life was above. So devoted was he to this task that he would often walk peering into the skies, entirely oblivious to his surroundings. Legend has it that on one occasion, as he was deeply absorbed in looking up at the stars and paying no attention to the ground beneath, he took a terrible tumble. Some are so heavenlyminded that, like Thales, they're dangerous to themselves and others.
In the end, such a view is little more than escapism. Those who adopt it tend to care very little for life this side of glory, often think of people as mere "souls," and many times find themselves unsure of how to go about living. In the Middle Ages, folks of this persuasion entered a monastery and, cloistered within its walls, served God on a spiritual plane. In the modern world, such people tend to live in monasteries of their own making, safe within the shelter of its walls. These monasteries take different forms for different people.
Some suffer from what we might call a heightened eschatology, the word theologians use to describe biblical teaching about the end times. Millard Erickson refers to those who obsess over these doctrines as "eschatamaniacs. eschatamaniacs." All these folks talk about is the Rapture or the Second Coming of Christ, and they certainly know their book of Revelation. There is nothing wrong with longing for Christ to come back. Paul and Peter and even John did just that, and they all in various ways command us to do the same. But they also remind us that our upward vision and longing should not distract us from the path that is before us on earth.
Peter tells the recipients of his second letter that this world will burn (3:10). But he also tells them that while we live on this earth, we are to live a life of holiness and grow in grace (vv. 1118). Paul tells us that "the day of the Lord" is coming. He also informs us, however, that we are to spend the intervening days encouraging one another and working, not idly passing the time (1 Thess. 5:1-11). At one point he even commands us that whenever we have the opportunity, we are to do good to everyone — a command that clearly entails making a difference in this world (Gal. 6:10). The problem with an overzealous eschatology is that it distracts us from our calling and task in this world, just like those who entered a monastery.
Others construct a modern monastery by adopting a "fortress mentality." They refuse to live in this world and instead construct an entirely Christian one, from which they rarely break out. They are consumed by Christian radio stations and Christian bookstores, and when they need their faucets fixed, they make sure that it's done by a Christian plumber. If they can't be in heaven, they'll simply construct one on earth. They wholeheartedly agree with Paul that to die is gain. They're just not sure how to say along with Paul that life "in the flesh" (that is, in the body, on earth) is "fruitful labor" (Phil. 1:22).
On the other hand, in contrast to monastery Christians, whether literally or figuratively, some are distracted by this world and risk being consumed by it. For them, the Christian faith means little more than learning how to be a better parent or how to balance a checkbook or manage a business or find inner serenity. To them, this world eclipses the next. They wouldn't come within a hundred yards of a monastery. They are consumed by this world's agenda and are driven by its passions. They may very well use Christian lingo to baptize their pursuits, but their hearts are not directed toward their home. To put a twist on the old adage, these folks are so earthly-minded that heaven doesn't look very attractive to them. As for life on this earth, they would feel quite claustrophobic within monastery walls. They would much prefer to break out and blend in, perhaps even to be trendsetters. Rather than withdraw from the world, they're right at home in it. Paul's belief that "to die is gain" doesn't make much sense to them.
The answer to the dilemma lies deeper than simply seeking a balance between being earthly- and heavenly-minded. The answer only comes as we adopt a radically different perspective, the perspective that Boice declares in his hymn, that Bonhoeffer proclaims from his prison cell, that Paul captures in his letter to the Philippians, and that Edwards preaches in his sermons. This radical perspective saves us from escapism on the one hand and from a life that is distracted and absorbed and consumed by this world on the other. In between being too heavenly-minded or too earthly-minded there is a third way: living in this world from the perspective of the next. To state the matter more directly, it's a vision of heaven on earth.
What Paul, Boice, and Bonhoeffer put so well others have also observed. No miraculous transporter takes John Bunyan's character Christian straight to heaven once he comes to the cross and the burden of sin rolls off his back. Quite the opposite. Pilgrim's Progress recalls sometimes painful and sometimes triumphant steps as Christian makes his way from the cross to the Celestial City, his eternal home. He faces challenges such as the Giant of Despair in Doubting Castle or the taunting voices of the masses drunk on consumerism in Vanity Fair. As Christian makes his way, sometimes quite slowly, his journey eases as he learns to live in light of the realities of the Celestial City. He longs to enter its gates, to be at home, but he must go through the journey. His eyes are on both the City ahead and the road beneath his feet. To Bunyan's fictional character we might add Bunyan himself, who in his imprisonment and in his ministry modeled living in between, living the vision of heaven on earth. But perhaps no single figure captures this idea more poignantly than Jonathan Edwards (17031758).
Most of us — if we have read anything by Edwards — have read his famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." We know that Edwards has a great deal to say about hell. What we may not know is that Edwards has a far greater amount to say about heaven.
A (VERY) BRIEF LIFE OF JONATHAN EDWARDS
Jonathan Edwards was born, as the saying has it, in interesting times. The old Puritan world was unraveling, and a new world was emerging. The Colonies were on the cusp of becoming a new nation as Edwards's life came to an end. Jonathan Edwards, however, had both feet firmly planted in the Puritan world, and he was a citizen of the British Empire (he always made reference to "our nation" in his correspondence with his Scottish friends). Yet, being in the Colonies did have its effect upon him.
His father was a minister, as were his grandfathers and uncles and cousins and sons. As the only son to Timothy and Sarah Stoddard Edwards, he had ten sisters (that alone should secure him a place in history). His sisters taught him Latin, especially when his father was away serving as chaplain for various British regiments in skirmishes with the Canadians and Indians. His mother instilled in him a love for books and learning and the life of the mind. His father modeled for him in plain view the trials and triumphs of the ministry. After his Harvard education, his father settled in the town of East Windsor, Connecticut, along the lush and picturesque Connecticut River Valley. He was minister in that town for sixty years.
East Windsor was, for the Reverend Timothy Edwards, the best and the worst of times. The earliest surviving letter from Jonathan is to his sister Mary, living in Boston at the time, in which he tells of "a remarkable stirring and outpouring of the Spirit of God." A revival had come to East Windsor. We have a letter from Timothy Edwards to his deacons a decade earlier. He thanks them for receipt of his salary in 1705, reminding them that his salary from 1704 was still outstanding, not to mention his salary from 1703. And through all of the good and trying times, young Jonathan learned.
By the age of thirteen he was ready for college and went off to Yale. He received his Bachelor's degree (1720) and Master's degree (1723). In between, as a nineteen-year-old, he pastored his first church. A splinter group from a church split, the church happened to be located around the vicinity of modern-day Wall Street and Broad Street in New York City. Edwards meticulously prepared his sermons, rode horseback along the Hudson River, and managed somehow to counsel the splinter group to reunite. Putting himself out of a job, Edwards traveled home to write his Master's thesis. He then stayed on at Yale as a tutor or instructor for two years. At New Haven he noticed — or perhaps more accurately, was absolutely stricken by — Sarah Pierpont.
Eventually he was called to serve as assistant minister to his maternal grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, at Northampton, Massachusetts, directly north of his childhood home and along his beloved Connecticut River. He arrived in 1727, and in that same year he married Sarah. Like his own family, they too would have eleven children, with three boys and eight girls. Shortly after they were married, Stoddard died, leaving Edwards as sole pastor of one of the largest churches in the Colonies.
In the 1730s revival came to Northampton and to the other towns along the Connecticut River. In the first years of the 1740s, another wave of revival swept through the same region, only this time it went far beyond as it encompassed the entire Colonies. Known as the "Great Awakening," this event was second only to the Revolutionary War in its impact. Edwards, along with fellow revivalist from England George Whitefield, was right at the center of it.
But, as he had learned as a boy, trials follow triumphs. In the middle to late 1740s, Jonathan Edwards came down off the mountain and walked through the valley. This particular valley was a conflict with his church that would eventually lead to his ouster. Edwards had noticed that after the revivals his formerly spiritually warm congregation turned cold. In response, among other things, he ended a practice instituted by his grandfather and one with which he had long felt uncomfortable, that of an open Communion table. Stoddard held Communion to be a "converting ordinance" and opened admission to all, whether or not they professed faith in Christ. When Edwards put an end to Stoddard's practice, that did not set well with the staid powers of the congregation. In good congregational fashion, they voted Edwards out on June 22, 1750.
Edwards headed to the frontier. In order to do this in 1750, he only had to travel about fifty miles west to the recently established outpost town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, home to 250 or so Mohawks and Mohicans and a dozen English families. Edwards, revivalist, scholar, and pastor, now became a missionary. For seven years he served, and here too he had his ups and downs. He was then invited, in the winter months of 1757, to become president of Princeton University. He accepted, arriving there in January 1758. After just a few weeks in office, he received a smallpox inoculation, in part because he wanted to show the students they had nothing to fear and in part due to his lifelong fascination with advancements in the sciences. He, however, contracted "a secondary fever," in the words of the attending physician. After a short but intense illness, Edwards died on March 22, 1758. But not before he left a legacy that continues to impact the church.
Writings from the scholarly world on Edwards surpass that of his fellow colonials Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Theologians, pastors, and laity alike continue to turn to his thought and life. Now, three centuries after his birth, he continues to have something to say. We'll return to these biographical episodes in the ensuing chapters. This sketch merely serves to give us the big picture of his life, against which we can see his ideas, not the least of which is his vision for living in between, his vision for life in this world as we make our pilgrimage to the next.
CAPTURING EDWARDS'S VISION
This vision for living in between shines brightly through his life and sermons. He traced it through Scripture, meditated upon it in quiet moments, and wrestled with its implications. He then stood in the pulpit and heralded it in all of its simplicity and beauty to his congregations at Northampton and Stockbridge. In his hands, this perspective became a most compelling message precisely because it so transformed his own life. With a clear-eyed view of what it means to live in between, he had a vision of the Christian life that brought the realities and nature of the life to come to bear upon this present age. His vision of the church consisted of a redeemed community living in this life according to the principles and dictates of the life to come. He was consumed by heaven. But this was no mere ethereal vision. He did not fall prey to the escapism that plagues so many earnest Christians. His vision of the next life had everything to do with this life. For Jonathan Edwards, living in between meant living the vision of heaven on earth. This is the truly good life, the only life worth living.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Heaven on Earth"
Copyright © 2006 Stephen J. Nichols.
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
Introduction: How to Read an Edwards Sermon,
1 Living in Between,
2 On the Way to Heaven,
3 Being Good Citizens,
4 But to Act Justly,
5 While We Wait,
6 It's Only the Beginning,
7 Meeting There at Last,
Appendix: "Heaven Is a World of Love",
BY JONATHAN EDWARDS,
What People are Saying About This
"No one spoke or wrote more eloquently than Jonathan Edwards on the earthly responsibilities of those whose citizenship was in heaven. And no one has done a better job than Stephen Nichols in making Edwards's thoughts on this subject accessible to the church today. His insightful analysis of Edwards's sermons on heaven is essential reading for those who've lost sight of the life-changing power of meditating on future glory. I highly recommend it."
Sam Storms,Senior Pastor, Bridgeway Church, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
"Jonathan Edwards's contagious vision of heaven on earth is compellingly captured by Stephen Nichols in this accessible book. It's been said that some Christians are so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good. On the other hand, it's also the case that some are so earthly-minded that they are not fit for heaven. Nichols, following Edwards, argues that the solution to the errors of escapism and earthliness is not to find a happy medium, but rather to develop a radical new perspective that transforms both our vision of heaven and our life on earth. With Edwards as our guide, Nichols teaches us the biblical art of living the vision of heaven on earth."
Justin Taylor, blogger, Between Two Worlds