Where the Reformed today can learn from Jonathan Edwards

edGod in his power, his sovereignty, his might, his greatness, and his rule gives great hope to the Christian that he can be trusted and relied upon. It is truth in the Bible about our God that we must know and that will carry us through many storms. It promotes a reverential fear in the hearts of creatures towards the Almighty Creator and humbles us in his presence. The Reformed tradition in our day has done an excellent job of teaching and holding up the sovereignty of God. For that they are to be thanked and we would do well to store up these truths in our hearts again and again. In the midst of a storm, in the midst of life’s uncertainty, and in countless other circumstances we can anchor ourselves to this unshakeable God when we are utterly shaken.

And yet, I think many in the Reformed tradition must be careful because they talk a great deal about God’s sovereignty but mention quite a bit less God’s goodness, nearness, and love. Of course, all of us (since I place myself in the Reformed camp) would whole-heartedly acknowledge and embrace these doctrines. But, what matters so much for preachers and teachers is not so much your doctrinal statement affirmed but what doctrine you speak of, and many do not gush about God’s love nearly as much as we get charged up about God’s sovereignty.

The danger in this is that for many people, when God’s sovereignty is hammered home apart from tying it to his goodness and his love our view of God starts to lean the wrong view. Quickly God becomes like the Father who can be called for help or to discuss family matters but he’s not the Father we can’t wait to call just because we enjoy his friendship. When God’s power and sovereignty is taught but his love is not then many Christians will believe the Bible and what it tells us about God but they’ll feel no motivation to draw near. We might trust and fear God because of his power but we will not love and desire him until we taste of his goodness and his love. The glory and beauty of God is he is all his attributes fully and simultaneously, and so we must make sure not only that are theological ducks are in a row in our doctrinal statements but that they then all bleed out in our worship, conversation, and teaching. People need, and they long to hear about a God who is simultaneously sovereign and yet stoops down to us, powerful and yet gracious, holy and yet near, just and good, righteous and yet loving.

Charity and Its Fruits
Jonathan Edwards recognizes as much in Charity and Its Fruits. In his chapter on love producing humility he argues that genuine humility only blossoms when the soil is enriched by both God’s otherness and his loveliness. For example, Edwards writes, all spiritual beings know of God’s greatness, wisdom, and omnipotence but “they have no humility, nor will they ever have, because, though they see and feel God’s greatness, yet they see and feel nothing of his loveliness” (135). So also, we might know God is infinitely above us in power and sovereign over all but until we know and feel his loveliness and excellence our “wills and dispositions [will] by no means comply with and conform to [humility]” (136).

Later Edwards puts forward his argument that the spirit of charity (love) is a humble spirit by the example of God’s divine love being a humble love. Therefore, “a sense of the loveliness of God is peculiarly that discovery of God that works humility” in us (145). Edwards intermingles Gods’ love and his loveliness because his love is infinitely lovely to us. We must not only know in our minds that God is lovely and loving but sense in our beings his love and loveliness. Again Edwards explains why greatness without loveliness will leave us unmoved.
A sense or discovery of God’s greatness, without the sight of his loveliness, will not do it; but it is the discovery of his loveliness that effects it, and that makes the soul truly humble…And it is the discovery or sense of God as lovely, and not only as lovely, but as infinitely above us in loveliness, that works humility in the heart. Merely having a sense of the fact that God is infinitely above us, and that there is an infinite distance between him and us in greatness, will not work humility” (145).

Edwards explains why all love to God then is not that of love to an equal but that of love to an infinite superior. In this type of love humility (both towards God and our fellow man) is born of the Spirit. “True love to God is not love to him as an equal; for every one that truly loves God, honors him as God, that is, as a being infinitely superior to all others in greatness and excellence…But if we love God as infinitely superior [in both greatness and excellence] to ourselves, then love is exercised in us as infinite inferiors, and therefore it is an humble love” (147).

God is Worthy and Lovely
Thus seeing God’s exceeding and excelling loveliness in both his greatness and his love produces a heartfelt and humble love in us. Here it is again we are reminded that we must treasure and teach the whole counsel of God about God so that people not only see God as trustworthy in his sovereignty and power but lovable in his grace and nearness. Keep teaching on God’s might, his power, and his sovereignty but all the more keep (or begin) teaching the love of God for his people and to his people. Christians who’ve experience the demotivation of a lifetime of disappointed people and failure in their performance are starving for the glorious message of a God who loves them because of his unchanging promise to do so. He doesn’t just put up with us sinners–as so many Christians wrongly think–but he actually loves and enjoys us as his redeemed. When people begin seeing God’s love for them they’ll be motivated and energized to love him back, and in this Christian holiness, grace, and love accelerate. Jonathan Edwards reminds us to speak often and passionately and beautifully about God’s love so that we might taste and see that he is lovely.

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