10 Things You Should Know about Jonathan Edwards’s Most Important Sermon1
The first thing you should know (but not included among the ten) is that Jonathan Edwards’s most important sermon was not “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” That was certainly his most famous sermon, but not the most important one he ever preached. That distinction must be reserved for “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” which he delivered to his congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1734. The full title to this message was “A Divine and Supernatural Light Immediately Imparted to the Soul, by the Spirit of God, shown to be both a Scriptural and Rational Doctrine.” The sermon was based on Matthew 16:17 where Jesus said to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
(1) Edwards was quick to explain what the “divine and supernatural light” is not. It is not to be identified with 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. It is not 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” (110). Finally, it is not to be identified with those occasions when the unregenerate are deeply and profoundly affected by religious ideas. One may be moved or stirred or emotionally impacted by a religious phenomenon without believing it to be true.
(2) So what, then, is the divine and supernatural light that God imparts to the souls of his elect? To use Edwards’s own words, 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). Again, it is the “apprehension of the divine excellency of things revealed” or “a true sense of the divine and superlative excellency.” Edwards argues that 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)
(3) Edwards draws this critically important distinction between “rationally” believing that God is glorious and having a “sense of the excellency” of God’s glory. This 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. This new “sense” or experience of the heart is not a new faculty of the soul but a new capacity wherein the soul finds lovely and sweet and excellent and pleasing what before was regarded as ugly and unappealing.
(4) Edwards bases this distinction on the difference between two ways of knowing: there is, first, a merely speculative, notional, or cognitive awareness of some truth; to be differentiated, second, from “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. “There is a difference,” says Edwards, between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness” (112).
(5) This new sense of the heart that is supernaturally imparted to the soul enables one to be sensible “of the beauty and amiableness of a thing. Whenever this happens, the soul “necessarily feels pleasure in the apprehension” (112). So far from being afraid of such feelings or affections, Edwards would go on to locate the essence of all true religion in the experience of sanctified emotions (or better still, sanctified affections).
(6) So how does this “new sense” come about? It may be imparted indirectly, and that in two ways. First, when the divine excellency and beauty of God is revealed to a person it “destroys the enmity, removes those prejudices, and sanctifies the reason, and causes it to lie open to the force of arguments for their truth” (112). Second, it not only removes hindrances but positively helps reason; it causes the notion to be more lively and enables the mind to focus and think and concentrate with more intensity on what is known.
(7) This new sense of the heart may also be imparted directly. What Edwards means is that 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. In other words, this light is given directly by the Spirit of God and not by means of natural phenomena. This is why unregenerate people can have the truths of the Word of God in their heads but find no pleasure or delight or beauty in them.
(8) Men and women often experience a great deal of pleasure in learning something new. They delight in the study of nature and revel in the insights gained from observation and comparison. But, says Edwards, “this is nothing [in comparison] 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).
(9) In his message at the Jonathan Edwards Conference on October 12, 2003, John Piper reminded those present that “sinners, left to themselves, will never see the beauty of the gospel. Christ crucified for sinners will always be foolishness to the natural man. There is only one hope – a divine and supernatural light immediately imparted to the soul by the Spirit of God.”
Again: “The natural mind – the fallen, worldly mind – does not want the glory of Christ as its treasure. And we all have this fallen mind by nature. We wouldn't mind escape from hell. And we wouldn't mind the healing of our bodies and removal of guilt feelings and the reunion with our relatives with our loved ones in heaven. All that is natural. But treasuring Christ above all, enjoying the glory of Christ above all joys – for that we have no taste.”
(10) So how do we gain this “taste” or “sense” for the sweetness and beauty of Christ Jesus? Piper answers: “Being converted to Christ – being saved – is a supernatural work of God. It is being born again by the Spirit of God – being given a new nature, a new spiritual taste, and new way of seeing, and by that, an awakening of joy in Christ that you never knew before.” This is the new birth. It brings us “a new taste for reality. The created things that we thought were the fountain of pleasure turn out to be empty, and the one we thought was a boring, bloody fool turns out to be a beautiful treasure chest of holy joy.”
Thus our only hope, says Piper, via Edwards, “is that something supernatural must happen in my heart that causes me to see Christ as the image of God, and see God in the face of Christ, and see the cross as the wisdom and power of God, and see Jesus as a treasure so valuable that I count everything as rubbish in comparison with him. A divine and supernatural light must shine in my heart so that Christ appears as compellingly glorious. That is, I must be born again. I must be regenerated by the Holy Spirit.”