The Personal Narrative of Jonathan Edwards - Part II
Edwards was born and reared in a Puritan society and family where the Reformed faith was defended with vigor. But one should not assume from this that Edwards himself always embraced this perspective on Christianity. Although Edwards is known to history, and rightly so, as a relentless proponent of what is known as Calvinism, it was not always so. In this paragraph from early in the Narrative he describes his struggle and the transformation that occurred.
“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.”
Let me pause at this point to say that I’m sure there are many reading Edwards’ comments who would echo his sentiments. Divine sovereignty in the salvation of sinners often strikes the soul as unfair and unjust, indeed, “a horrible doctrine.” It isn’t my purpose to address the topic of divine election at this point, so may I simply refer you to my extensive set of articles on this topic elsewhere on the website (www.samstorms.org). You will find them in the Theological Studies section under Divine Election. Now, back to Edwards.
“But I remember the time very well, when I seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to this sovereignty of God, and his justice in thus eternally disposing of men, according to his sovereign pleasure. But never could give an account, how, or by what means, I was thus convinced, not in the least imagining at the time, nor a long time after, that there was any extraordinary influence of God's Spirit in it; but only that now I saw further, and my reason apprehended the justice and reasonableness of it. However, my mind rested in it; and it put an end to all those cavils and objections. And there has been a wonderful alteration in my mind, in respect to the doctrine of God's sovereignty, from that day to this; so that I scarce ever have found so much as the rising of an objection against it, in the most absolute sense, in God's showing mercy to whom he will show mercy, and hardening whom he will. God's absolute sovereignty and justice, with respect to salvation and damnation, is what my mind seems to rest assured of, as much as of any thing that I see with my eyes; at least it is so at times. 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.”
Immediately following this paragraph is Edwards’ description of what many believe to be his “conversion”. However, as you read it you may conclude that what he speaks of is simply the first conscious remembrance of the “new sense” that flows from regeneration. How much earlier the new birth may actually have occurred in his experience is hard to tell.
“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 to him in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him for ever! 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 any thing 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 Lilly of the valleys. The words seemed to me, sweetly to represent the loveliness and beauty of Jesus Christ. The whole book of Canticles [i.e., Song of Solomon] 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. This I know not how to express otherwise, than by a calm, sweet abstraction of soul from all the concerns of this world; and sometimes a kind of vision, or fixed ideas and imaginations, of being alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness, far from all mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapt and swallowed up in God. 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.”
Wow! Again, what Edwards has in mind is that impartation of “a divine and supernatural light” which accounts for “a new sense” of the glory and beauty and sweetness of the Divine Being. By the way, did you notice how often Edwards spoke of God and the knowledge of him in Christ as being “sweet”? Seven times in these two paragraphs he uses the adjective “sweet” or some cognate of it. This word will appear literally dozens of times in the remainder of the Narrative.
What Edwards wants us to grasp is that merely “understanding” God or “knowing” things “about” God is far and away different from that “sweet sense” of the divine glory in which the soul relishes and rejoices in what the mind perceives. As Edwards was later to write in that sermon whose title I have oft quoted, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” “There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness” (112; the page numbers are from A Jonathan Edwards Reader, edited by John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema [Yale University Press, 1995]).
When Edwards speaks of the “divine and supernatural light” he does not refer to the conviction of sin that unregenerate people experience. The Spirit can act upon the soul of the unregenerate without communicating himself to or uniting himself with that person. Nor is it to be identified with “impressions” made upon the “imagination”. It has nothing to do with seeing anything with one’s physical eyes. The divine and supernatural light does not suggest or impart new truths or ideas not already found in the written word of God. It “only gives a due apprehension of those things that are taught in the Word of God.” It is not to be identified with those occasions when the unregenerate are deeply and profoundly affected by religious ideas (as was Edwards in his youth). One may be moved or stirred or emotionally impacted by a religious phenomenon without believing it to be true. One need only think of the popular reaction to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” when it was first released.
What, then, is the “divine and supernatural light”? It is “a true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the Word of God, and a conviction of the truth and reality of them, thence arising” (111). A person doesn’t “merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart” (111)
But what is the difference between “rationally” believing that God is glorious and having a “sense of the excellency” of God’s glory? It is the difference between knowing that God is holy and having a “sense of the loveliness” of God’s holiness. It is not only a “speculatively judging that God is gracious” but also “a sense how amiable God is upon that account” or sensing the “beauty” of God’s grace and holiness.
Edwards bases this distinction on the difference between two ways of knowing. On the one hand, there is what he calls merely speculative, notional, cognitive awareness of some truth. On the other hand, there is “the sense of the heart” in which one recognizes the beauty or amiableness or sweetness of that truth and feels pleasure and delight in it. It is the difference between knowing or believing that God is holy and having a “sense” of or enjoying his holiness. Again, “There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness” (112). Or yet again, “When the heart is sensible of the beauty and amiableness of a thing, it necessarily feels pleasure in the apprehension” (112).
This “new sense” can come about indirectly when enmity in the soul is removed and the mind is enabled to focus and think and concentrate with more intensity on what is known. But it comes about directly when this divine and supernatural light enables the mind and heart, by “a kind of intuitive and immediate evidence”, to be convinced of the truth of the superlative excellency of such things.
Anyone, even the unregenerate, can cognitively grasp the subject matter of Scripture. They can study it, analyze it, even memorize it, “but that due sense of the heart, wherein this light formally consists, is immediately [imparted] by the Spirit of God” (115). To mentally “see” the truth of Scripture is one thing, but to spiritually “sense” its beauty and excellency and relish it as a treasure and prize of incomparable worth is possible only when the Spirit shines this great and glorious light of illumination into the human heart. Said Edwards,
“Men have a great deal of pleasure in human knowledge, in studies of natural things; but this is nothing to that joy which arises from this divine light shining into the soul. This light gives a view of those things that are immensely the most exquisitely beautiful, and capable of delighting the eye of the understanding. This spiritual light is the dawning of the light of glory in the heart” (123).
This brief summation of the sermon “A Divine and Supernatural Light” was not an unrelated theological bunny trail. One cannot understand Edwards’ narrative of his own conversion and spiritual journey apart from the truths he preached in this remarkable sermon.