Sunday, February 20, 2011

Book Review: Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography

I love this book! Murray’s doctrinal centered style of writing and the subject matter, America’s greatest theologian, combine to make this an incredibly enjoyable, convicting and very edifying book.

 Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981), the minister of Westminster Chapel in London for nearly 30 years, said of Edwards:

“No man is more relevant to the present conditions of Christianity than Jonathan Edwards….He was a mighty theologian and a great evangelist at the same time. If you want to know anything about true revival, Edwards is the man to consult. My advice is, read Jonathan Edwards. Go back to something solid and deep and real.”

The first thing I ever personally read from Edwards was a copy of his sermon Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God. Someone had given me a copy of it as a “bad” example of preaching because Edwards had used a verse of Scripture as a “launching pad.” I had never even heard of Jonathan Edwards before this but before I was halfway done reading the sermon I knew I had to read some more of this guys stuff.  The second thing I read from Edwards pen was A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World. That book literally altered my view of everything and left me wondering how I could have read the Bible so much and still have failed to bring its parts together in such a way so as to understand the a fundamental truth Edwards was explaining.

But anyhow, back to the biography. There’s something very invigorating about Murray’s writings, at least all of them that I’ve read, but especially this one. Perhaps it’s the subject matter as Edwards was an incredible example of godliness in many ways, perhaps it’s because Murray is a passionate Reformed theologian writing about another passionate Reformed theologian or perhaps it’s just the Spirit of God working through the gifts that He’s given both these men, at any rate it’s an awesome book.

Murray documents everything extremely well and does a very good job of delving into the theology that drove Edwards and shaped his life, not to mention the quotes scattered throughout the book from Edwards and many others are incredible! Murray covers everything from his youth to his conversion, his pastorate in Northampton, his involvement in the great awakening, his missionary work among the Indians, his Presidency of what became Princeton collage, his untimely death at the age of 54 and the fruits of his life and ministry.

This book will definitely leave you wanting to read more of Edwards works. If you love reading good Christian biographies, and you should if you are a believer, you won’t want to miss this one! As the back of the book says:

“This outstanding study is not only an exceptional biography; it also serves as a classic illustration of how the church today can and should learn from its past history.”

Contents of the book:

Introduction: On Understanding Edwards
1. The Son of East Windsor
2. “That New Sense of Things”
3. New York: The Pursuit of Holiness
4. Tutor at Yale
5. Stoddard and Northampton
6. The Green Valley of Humiliation
7. The Breaking of the Spirit of Slumber
8.  “Thirteen Hours, Every Day”
9. The Great Awakening
10. Personal Portraits
11. Division and Disorder
12. The Defense of Experimental Religion
13. “The Religious Affections”
14. Changes at Northampton and Beyond
15. The International Union and Missionary Vision
16. The Communion Controversy
17. Behind the Controversy
18. Removal
19. Strife in a Frontier Village
20. Missionary to the Indians
21. Through Esthers Eyes
22. 'My God Lives'
23. The Continuing Ministry

1: Edwards' Published Writings
      a. During his Lifetime
      b. Major Posthumous Publications
      c. Collected Works
2: The Edwards' Manuscripts
3: A Letter of Sarah Edwards, 1750
4: An Anecdote on Whitefield and 'the
Witness of the Holy Spirit'

From the back of the book:

“Iain Murray believes that Edwards cannot be understood apart from his faith. Only when seen first and foremost as a Christian do his life and writings make sense. The integrity of this interpretation is confirmed in this study as Edwards is allowed on point after point to speak for himself.

The result is a biography which is both factually and theologically reliable. Edwards' theology is set in the context of his everyday life in public and private. His family relationships’ punctuate the narrative, adding both interest and pathos. This outstanding study is not only an exceptional biography; it also serves as a classic illustration of how the church today can and should learn from its past history.”

Some quotes from the book:

His conversion:

Edwards' own words enable us to date his conversion with some accuracy. His 'sense of divine things', he tells us, began 'about a year and a half before August, 1722. As we have already seen, there is no suggestion of such an experience in his letter of March 1st, 1721, so there is reason to conclude that 'that change by which I was brought to those new dispositions, and that new sense of things' occurred soon after that date, and that when he returned home, in the May or the June of 1721, he was a Christian in the full joy of his first love to Christ. Edwards' account of what took place in 1721, as given in his 'Personal Narrative', is the most important statement he ever wrote about himself:

The first instance that I remember of that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things that I have lived much in since, was on reading those words [i Tim. 1.17] 'Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever, Amen.' As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before. Never any words of scripture seemed to me as these words did. I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be rapt up in him in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him forever! I kept saying, and as it were singing over these words of scripture to myself; and went to pray to God that I might enjoy him, and prayed in a manner quite different from what I used to do; with a new sort of affection. But it never came into my thought, that there was anything spiritual, or of a saving nature in this.

From about that time, I began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by him. An inward, sweet sense of these things, at times, came into my heart; and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them. And my mind was greatly engaged to spend my time in reading and meditating on Christ, on the beauty and excellency of his person, and the lovely way of salvation by free grace in him. I found no books so delightful to me, as those that treated of these subjects. Those words Cant 2.1, used to be abundantly with me, 'I am the Rose of Sharon, and the Lily of the valleys'. The words seemed to me, sweetly to represent the loveliness and beauty of Jesus Christ. The whole book of Canticles used to be pleasant to me, and I used to be much in reading it, about that time; and found, from time to time, an inward sweetness that would carry me away, in my contemplations. . . . The sense I had of divine things, would often of a sudden kindle up, as it were, a sweet burning in my heart; an ardor of soul, that I know not how to express.
p. 35, 36


“…There was no part of creature holiness that I had so great a sense of its loveliness, as humility, brokenness of heart and poverty of spirit; and there was nothing that I so earnestly longed for. My heart panted after this - to lie low before God, as in the dust; that I might be nothing and that God might be ALL, that I might become as a little child.”
p. 52

Men are like sheep:

“In his college years he consciously set himself against adopting ideas simply because of the example of others: 'Men follow one another like a flock of sheep', and the 'prejudices and customs' are so strong, he observed, that even great men are insensible of the influence which these things have upon their opinions.”
p. 67

Longing for a broken heart:

“My wickedness, as I am in myself, has long appeared to me perfectly ineffable, and swallowing up all thought and imagination; like an infinite deluge or mountains over my head. I know not how to express better what my sins appear to me to be than by heaping infinite upon infinite, and multiplying infinite by infinite. Very often, for these many years, these expressions are in my mind, and in my mouth, 'Infinite upon infinite . . . Infinite upon infinite!" When I look into my heart, and take a view of my wickedness, it looks like an abyss infinitely deeper than hell.

I have greatly longed of late for a broken heart, and to lie low before God; and, when I ask for humility, I cannot bear the thoughts of being no more humble than other Christians. It seems to me, that though their degrees of humility may be suitable for them, yet it would be a vile self-exaltation in me, not to be the lowest in humility of all mankind. Others speak of their longing to be 'humbled to the dust'; that may be a proper expression for them, but I always think of myself, that I ought, and it is an expression that has long been natural for me to use in prayer, 'to lie infinitely low before God.' And it is affecting to think, how ignorant I was, when a young Christian, of the bottomless, infinite depths of wickedness, pride, hypocrisy and deceit, left in my heart.”
p. 101, 102

God saves by his sovereign good pleasure:

“He learned by experience, as others had done before him, that while those who have little awareness of the real nature of sin may assert man's ability to repent and believe, to hate sin and love God, those who know the true condition of human nature can find comfort only in the knowledge that God saves by his sovereign good pleasure and for the praise of the glory of his grace. Spiritual experience and sound theology go together. Accordingly, the Reformers, and the Puritans after them, had attributed opposition to the doctrines of grace as evidence of spiritual ignorance.”

'From my childhood up, my mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God's sovereignty in choosing whom he would to eternal life, and rejecting whom he pleased; leaving them eternally to perish, and be everlastingly tormented in hell. It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me.' Following his conversion he found his objections silenced, and he came to a new conviction upon the subject: 'But I have often, since that first conviction, had quite another kind of sense of God's sovereignty than I had then. I have often since had not only a conviction, but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has very often appeared exceeding pleasant, bright and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. But my first conviction was not so.'
p. 103

“…it appears to me that were it not for free grace, exalted and raised up lo the infinite height of all the fullness and glory of the great Jehovah, and the arm of his power and grace stretched forth in all the majesty of his power, and in all the glory of his sovereignty, I should appear sunk down in my sins below hell itself- far beyond the sight of everything but the eye of sovereign grace that can pierce even down to such a depth. And yet it seems to me, that my conviction of sin is exceeding small, and faint; it is enough to amaze me, that I have no more sense of my sin. . . .”
p. 103


“The danger from Arminianism lay not simply in a few particular errors but in its whole tendency. While it claimed to be based upon Scripture the popular strength of its arguments depended on the contention that Calvinistic belief is not reconcilable with human reason: How, its exponents asked, can a sovereign election be reconciled with God's universal compassion? Or the unchangeable purpose of God in salvation with man's free agency? This mode of argument by-passed two facts; first, that reason is 'impaired, depraved and corrupted', and second, that 'the gospel requires men to believe things above reason merely on the authority of divine revelation.' If all the doctrines 'which have anything of spiritual mystery in them and so not absolutely reconcilable unto reason as corrupt and carnal' were judged as Arminianism judges the doctrine of sovereign grace, how much Christianity would remain?”


“I know it has long been fashionable to despise a very earnest and pathetical way of preaching, and they only have been valued as preachers who have shown the greatest extent of learning, strength of reason, and correctness of method and language. But I humbly conceive it has been for want of understanding or duly considering human nature that such preaching has been thought to have the greatest tendency to answer the ends of preaching, and the experience of the present and past ages abundantly confirms the same. An Increase in speculative knowledge in divinity is not what is so much needed by our people as something else. Men may abound in this sort of light, and have no heat. How much has there been of this sort of knowledge, in the Christian world, in this age! Was there ever an age wherein strength and penetration of reason, extent of learning, exactness of distinction, correctness of style, and clearness of expression, did so abound? And yet, was there ever an age, wherein there has been so little sense of the evil of sin, so little love to God, heavenly-mindedness, and holiness of life, among the professors of the true religion? Our people do not so much need to have their heads stored as to have their hearts touched, and they stand in the greatest need of that sort of preaching which has the greatest tendency to do this.

Those texts, Isaiah 58: 1, 'Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like trumpet, and show my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins', and Ezekiel 6: 11, 'Thus saith the Lord God, Smite with thine hand, and stamp with thy foot, and say, Alas, for all the evil abominations of the house of Israel!' I say, these texts (however the use that some have made of them has been laughed at) will fully justify a great degree of pathos, and manifestation of zeal and fervency in preaching the word of God.”
p. 126,127

“They ought indeed to be thorough in preaching the word of God, without mincing the matter at all; in handling the sword of the Spirit, as the ministers of the Lord of hosts, they ought not to be mild and gentle; they are not to be gentle and moderate in searching and awakening the conscience, but should be sons of thunder. The word of God, which is in itself sharper than any two-edged sword, ought not to be sheathed by its ministers, but so used that its sharp edges may have their full effect, even to the dividing asunder soul and spirit, joints and marrow.” -Edwardsp. 210

“Possibly the greatest practical lesson from the 1735 revival for the pulpit of our day is that when ministers have to deal with indifference and unconcern they will simply beat the air unless they begin where the Holy Spirit begins, 'When he is come he will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment' (John 16.8).”
p. 130,131

“The habit of the preachers was to address their people as though they were all pious, and only needed instruction and confirmation. . . . Under such a state of things, it is easy to conceive that in a short time vital piety may have almost deserted the church. And nothing is more certain, than that when people have sunk into this deplorable state they will be disposed to manifest strong opposition to faithful, pointed preaching; and will be apt to view every appearance of revival with an unfavourable eye. Accordingly, when God raised up preachers, animated with a burning zeal, who laboured faithfully to convince their hearers of their ruined condition, and of the necessity of a thorough conversion from sin, the opposition to them was violent. The gospel, among people in such a condition, is sure to produce strife and division between those who fall under its influence and those whose carnal minds urge them to oppose it.
The Log College, ARCHIBALD ALEXANDER, 1851 (reprinted, Banner of Truth Trust 1968), pp. 17-18” p. 202

The Law of God and the conscience:

“Fallen, and by nature indifferent, as men are, they still have a conscience: 'Con science', he says, 'is a. principle natural to men: and the work it doth naturally, or of itself, is to give an apprehension of right and wrong, and to suggest to the mind the relation that there is between right and wrong and a retribution'. Men have to be so dealt with that 'their conscience stares them in the face and they begin to see their need of a priest and sacrifice'. Or, to state the same principle in the words of Robert Bolton:

'Pressing upon men's consciences with a jealous, discreet powerfulness, their special, principal, fresh-bleeding sins, is a notable means to break their hearts and bring them to remorse.'

The primary means of so dealing with the conscience is the law of God, 'for by the law is the knowledge of sin' (Rom. 3.20). The law, rightly preached, does not simply bring sin into focus by the proclamation of broken commandments, it places man before the divine holiness of which those commandments are an expression. It faces men with the majesty of God and it shows them why they have reason to fear God.”

"In the words of Robert Bolton:

A man must feel himself in misery, before he will go about to find a remedy; be sick before he will seek a physician; be in prison before he will seek for a pardon. A sinner must be weary of his former wicked ways before he will have recourse to Jesus Christ for refreshing. He must be sensible of his spiritual poverty, beggary, and slavery under the devil, before he thirst kindly for heavenly righteousness, and willingly take up Christ's sweet and easy yoke. He must be cast down, confounded, condemned, a cast away, and lost in himself, before he will look about for a Saviour.

How then are men to be brought into this condition? To that question Edwards had clear answers. First, they will not come to it of themselves for they are by nature 'secure': 'They do not realize that God sees them when they commit sin and will call them to an account for it. They are stupidly senseless to the importance of eternal things'. There is, therefore, secondly, a necessity that by the Holy Spirit truth is applied to the consciences of men in order to their 'awakening'.
p. 128

His death:

When Edwards' new routine was interrupted by an inoculation against smallpox on February 23, 1758, it caused no great attention. Smallpox being prevalent at the time, and having reached Princeton, it was judged advisable that as Edwards had never had the disease he should be inoculated. The vaccine took successfully and 'it was thought all danger was over' when postules in his mouth and throat began to prevent his swallowing. Unable now to drink sufficiently to prevent a secondary fever, his condition quickly deteriorated and recovery became increasingly unlikely.

A little before his death, in speaking briefly to his younger daughter, he said: 'Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God, that I must shortly leave you; therefore give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature, as I trust is spiritual, and therefore will continue forever. And I hope she will be supported under so great a trial and submit cheerfully to the will of God. And as to my children, you are now like to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all, to seek a Father who will never fail you. And as to my funeral, I would have it to be like Mr. Burr's, and any additional sum of money, that might be expected to be laid out that way, I would have it disposed of to charitable uses."

Shortly after leaving these messages for absent members of the family, 'he looked about and said, "Now where is Jesus of Nazareth, my true and never-failing Friend?'" Then when those at his bedside believed he was unconscious and expressed grief at what his absence would mean both to the College and to the church at large, they were surprised when he suddenly uttered a final sentence, 'Trust in God, and you need not fear'.

From Princeton, Edwards' physician wrote to Sarah Edwards on the same day, March 22, 1758,

This afternoon, between two and three o'clock, it pleased God to let him sleep in that dear Lord Jesus, whose kingdom and interest he has been faithfully and painfully serving all his life. And never did any mortal man more fully and clearly evidence the sincerity of all his professions, by one continued, universal, calm, cheerful resignation and patient submission to the Divine will, through each stage of his disease, than he. . . . Death had certainly lost its sting, as to him.

The death of the fifty-four-year-old President, so soon after that of his son-in-law, was broken to the world in a Philadelphia newspaper of March 28. His old friend, Gilbert Tennent began a tribute with the words:

On Wednesday the 22nd instant, departed this life, the reverend and worthy Mr. Jonathan Edwards (formerly of Northampton, in New-England, but lately of Stockbridge), president of the College of New-Jersey; a person of great eminence, both in respect of capacity, learning, piety, and usefulness; a good scholar, and a great divine. . . . Divinity was his favourite study, in the knowledge of which he had but few, if any, equals and no superior in these provinces.

When the news reached Stockbridge Sarah Edwards was suffering so much from rheumatism in her neck that she could scarcely hold a pen, but brief lines written to Esther on April 3 epitomize the spirit in which she had sought to live with her husband for more than thirty years:

What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness, that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left us! We are all given to God; and there I am, and love to be.”

Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography
by Iain H. MurrayBinding: Clothbound
Page Count: 538
Publisher: Banner of Truth
ISBN#: 9780851514949

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