Jonathan Edwards and Discipleship

My son is named after one of my theological heroes: Jonathan Edwards. Now Edwards served God’s people as a pastor in New England in the early 1700s. Through his preaching and writing ministry, many individuals not only were converted to Christianity, but also were encouraged to pursue careers as pastors and missionaries. This time of revival in the early frontier of North America was known as the First Great Awakening. Edwards’s influence continues today through individuals like John Piper, John Gerstner, and R. C. Sproul. I would like to consider one sermon of his, which was first delivered in November 1739 called, “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth.

Why consider this sermon? Historian Harry S. Stout identifies one historic reason behind this sermon. Stout wrote, “[Edwards] was trying to lay the groundwork for a new revival among his own people.” In other words, Edwards, was hoping that through this sermon he would help to prepare his people for a surprising work of God’s grace. 

The first thing we ought to realize is that Edwards’s first step in seeing a genuine revival was a return of the people of God to the primacy of the Word of God. In other words, true Spirit wrought revival comes primarily through the means of Biblical discipleship. The first step then entailed knowing what you are studying. Here Edwards highlighted a now-forgotten word: divinity.

According to Edwards, “By divinity is meant that science or doctrine which comprehends all those truths and rules which concern the great business of religion . . . . [it is] above all the [other sciences] … which is not learned … by the improvement of man’s natural reason, but is taught by God himself in a certain book that He hath given for that end, full of instruction.” 

What does that mean? Divinity is concerned with the knowledge which God has revealed to humanity in Scripture. Divinity is above every other branch of knowledge because it is revealed by God as opposed to discerned by natural reason alone. 

Edwards continued as he wrote that divinity must continue. Christianity is not meant merely to impact the head alone, but must drip down, like sweet honey, into our hearts. This is why Edwards’s definition of divinity continued beyond theoretical truth. Edwards preached, “Divinity is commonly defined, the doctrine of living to God; and by some who seem to be more accurate, the doctrine of living to God by Christ.” 

Notice that practical dimension contained within Edwards’s doctrine of divinity. This is not a false dilemma of claiming that you need to either choose head knowledge or heart knowledge. Instead they work together. All the theology in the world is useless if your practical living isn’t affected by it. Likewise, you practical moral living is rather empty if it isn’t built towards that great end of glorifying God by knowing Him.

According to Edwards, we ought to seek to grow in our understanding so that we might grow in our Christian living. How do we grow in these ways? Edwards preached, “Christians should by reading and other proper means, seek a good rational knowledge of the things of divinity.” 

Why should Christians do this? You can’t access the heart, except through the mind. None of us just randomly choose to love things. We must know that they are lovely. Edwards proclaimed, “As a man cannot see the wonderful excellency and love of Christ in doing such and such things for sinners, unless his understanding be first informed how those things were done. He cannot have a taste of the sweetness and divine excellency of such and such things contained in divinity, unless he first have a notion that there are such and such things….He that doth not understand, can receive no faith, nor any other grace; for God deals with man as with a rational creature… So there can be no love without knowledge.”

How can we grow in loving God today according to Edwards? By growing in our knowledge of who He is. And this is Edwards’s big idea: Our whole being was made to know God with our minds, and to love God with our whole hearts. 

What’s at stake if we choose to ignore this? Simply put, we squander our minds. Our minds were made for more than sports statistics, recipes, gossip, political sentiments, and our favorite shows. They were designed by God to know Him. If we chose to ignore Him, we are left as living tragedies. Why? Because something magnificent was gifted to us, and we squandered it. Edwards preached, “If men have no knowledge of these things [that is divinity], the faculty of reason in him will be wholly in vain…. he might as well have been a beast.” In other words, part of being truly human necessarily involves our growth in the knowledge of God.

With this before us, Christians then must grow in their knowledge of God. This is not a once a week task, but a daily task. Why? “The things of divinity,” Edwards proclaimed, “are of infinite importance to all Christians.” The knowledge of God then is not an optional feature of your world. You have been designed for this great end. Are you being diligent in your walk with Jesus Christ? Are you teaching this to your children diligently? Edwards delivered this final word, “If God [has] made it the business of some to be teachers, it will follow, that he hath made it the business of others to be learners.” May none of us ever fail to live in accordance with our design. May we grow in our knowledge of God today and showcase divinity as the central cause of our living.