There are many strengths and some weaknesses that I’ve learned from the life of Jonathan Edwards. He lived from 1703 to 1758 and was the pastor of the Congregational Church in Northampton, then he served as a missionary in Stockbridge, and just before he died he moved to be the president of the College of New Jersey, which later became Princeton University.
Lessons from Jonathan Edwards’ Strengths
Edwards has several strengths that I can learn from as a Christian, pastor, and commissional leader. Edwards was very focused and vigorous in fulfilling his life mission so there is much to learn in regard to how to live and lead for the glory of God. I’ll examine Edwards’ leadership strengths under the categories of (1) his pastoral ministry, (2) his personal pursuit of God and care for his soul, (3) his study habits, and (4) his teaching emphases/practices.
Edwards spent the bulk of his time as a pastor in study, planning, and prayer. He, like most Puritan pastors of his day, “struggled valiantly to make the Bible real for their parishioners.” The reason we should spend much time in study and hearing from God is because, like Edwards understood, the preacher was accountable to God for his ministry. Edwards took this very seriously. He preached at one colleague’s ordination that “ministers of the gospel have the precious and immortal souls of men committed to their care and trust by the Lord Jesus Christ” (135). That means that the current members of my church and the ones coming into our church membership next week are committed to my care and trust by the God of the universe, the Lord Jesus! And Hebrews 13.17 makes clear that we as pastors will give an account to God for our pastoring. So I want to pastor, study, pray, and grow with an earnestness that is appropriately cultivated by this high accountability. For me this means that for all my Sunday preaching and leading, the members’ meetings, the group emails and reminders I use to lead the church and the attenders who hear the word, I must give an account to God.
Because of this and other truths Edwards sought to obey in Scripture, he began conducting interviews with those who would be presented at communion to reserve full membership to those who could testify, even with help, to the reality of regeneration in their lives. Edwards also made potential members give an account of their conversion. This is important for pastors of churches because those we call “Christian” and those we call members of the church must not be given false assurance as best we can tell to those who are not Christian though they may think they are. I will give an account for what I communicate and how I lead our members and attenders in thinking about their relationship with God and relationship to the church. Like Edwards, I want to lead the church to taking membership seriously and finding ways to practice it well that is faithful to the truths of regenerate church membership and accountability.
As a pastor, Edwards’ shepherded his people every week by not only preaching, but investing time in their lives. Now he wasn’t as methodical and outgoing as Baxter, but members would come into his study and he’d spend many hours a week there praying for them, speaking to them, and giving them guidance to live for God’s glory (63).
In shepherding, Edwards kept focused on his task and was not distracted by other good things that call for pastors’ attention but make their ministries diluted and less effective. During the revivals when God sovereignly saved many and changed communities, Edwards understood that God worked through secondary causes, the means of preachers, who therefore should busy themselves on acts of spiritual service. I find it so tempting as a pastor of a new church to focus on acts of kindness to the community, or befriending visitors and catching up with members, but Edwards’ example encourages me to focus on my spiritual service to people because those people are rare in their lives, who are always concerned for their soul and ministering the powerful word of God to their souls. That needs to be my focus, beyond and before serving the community as a basketball coach or asking others in a general manner “how are you doing?” So I should focus on study, preaching, prayer, and discipling others, especially potential leaders. Edwards was so focused on this pastoral work that his writings were a function of his pastoral ministry (145, 164, 199).
In making decisions, like when Edwards decided to go to the mission field or to Princeton, he sought and followed the counsel of a group of pastors which showed humility and submission to the Lord’s will (178, 185, 199). I think this means at least for me to involve other godly men in my major decisions and really consider what they’re saying. Right now this means for me fellow church members, Dr. Varner from The Master’s College, Mark Dever from Capitol Hill Baptist Church, and some pastor/planter brothers in my Re:Train cohort, my ministry coach, and the LA pastors/planters prayer groups that I meet with.
Edwards’ teaching emphases that I learned from the book were also exemplary. He would aim as an exegete and preacher to make the content of Scripture come alive for his hearers to find their place in the story of redemption (102). He labored to clarify the difference between authentic faith and perfunctory religion (118). Edwards was never content to merely preach the truth accurately. He wanted more from his hearers than head knowledge. He sought their regeneration and progressive sanctification through experiencing the knowledge of God firsthand:
there is a difference between having an opinion that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes; but a man can’t have the latter, unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind. So there is a difference between believing that a person is beautiful, and having a sense of his beauty. The former may be obtained by hearsay, but the latter only by seeing the countenance. There is a wide difference between mere speculative, rational judging anything to be excellent, and having a sense of its sweetness, and beauty. The former rests only in the head, speculation only is concerned in it; but the heart is concerned in the latter (40).
He pursued and encouraged religious affections (69, 85) even exhorting his church to seek God earnestly and pray hard for God’s grace and presence while not driving away God’s Spirit by carelessness, negligence, or their sins (59-60). This makes me wonder how much I and my church have driven out the Spirit of God who would seek to glorify Christ in our lives. Edwards modeled what it meant to “look carefully how you walk” (Eph 5.15). According to Edwards, every Christian should make a business endeavoring to grow in divine knowledge (200). He had a sense of eternity and the stakes of his preaching that made him warn his congregation with sober warnings (72). So Edwards worked hard at preaching (73ff). He worked to apply or show the use of the Scriptural teaching in concrete ways (74), made sure his delivery wasn’t boring (76), took great pains in writing and composing the sermon (77, 79), learned and grew in learning Scripture (77), and searched and knew his heart well (78).
As a student of Scripture, Edwards spent the bulk of his time reading and meditating on Scripture and had an extensive system for notes which were cross-referenced and arranged for later thoughts, sermons, and treatises (46). I need to have an updated file system myself. I tend to keep everything in my head which won’t work well later on and slows down other things. He would know the ideas of the day that were creeping into the church and confront them with corrective truth. He was a pastor-scholar because he studied the Scriptures as the primary sources for data and as a priestly-theologian looking into the oracles of God for his people.
In this Edwards pursued God and cared for his own soul. Spiritual lows befall the best of Christians. Being in a spiritual low myself for the past several years, I found this quote encouraging: “Tis just about three years, that I have been for the most part in a low, sunk estate and condition, miserably senseless to what I used to be, about spiritual things” (44). Edwards thought he was a better Christian when a new one, but then realized his steady sustained passion and sensitivity to God was actually greater later in life (126). Sometimes I find myself longing for days of vibrant affections in the past, but I want a sustained passion and sensitivity to God. He would pursue humility and seek to weaken pride (45-46). In all things Edwards would do it unto God as an act of communion and worship. He really lived out the identity of worship. He meditated deeply over what he read, in part because it was his treasure as the very words of God and felt the privilege of owning a Bible (84, 89-94). This is particularly convicting for me since I am often to read books other than the very words of God!
 Douglas Sweeney, Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word, (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2009),81. All other page number references in parentheses in this blog post is from this book.