Jonathan Edwards Taught More Than Just an Angry God

Popular caricatures of Jonathan Edwards’s theology focus almost solely on divine wrath, usually in reference to his infamously titled sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” A deeper read of his theology, however, discovers instead that God’s love is the impetus for Edwards’s understanding of salvation.

“Everything that was contrived and done for the redemption and salvation of believers, and every benefit they have by it,” Edwards avers, “is wholly and perfectly from the free, eternal, distinguishing love and infinite grace of Christ towards them.”

Christ has loved his people from eternity. All of God’s economic activity is done with redemption in mind, which means that creation is subsumed under the work of redemption (which is itself subsumed under the Father’s eternal love of the Son). It is because of the Father’s infinite love for the Son that the elect are accepted by God, having been purchased by the Son’s own love for the elect: “Because of the infinite worthiness and excellency of Christ and his dearness to the Father, the Father is willing for his sake to accept of those that have deserved infinite ill at his hands.”

In the eternal covenant of redemption, the Son covenants with the Father to give himself to his people in love. The incarnation is the embodiment of that love. Edwards boldly declares that “by the incarnation [God] is really become passionate to his own, so that he loves them with such a sort of love as we have. … Now this passionate love of Christ, by virtue of the union with the divine nature, is in a sort infinite.”

Robert Jenson responds to this proclamation by claiming that the idea “that God, as incarnate, is passionate in the very way we are passionate is the heart of what theology has rarely dared say about him; Edwards just goes ahead and does it.” It is important to notice the affective dimension in this proclamation. The incarnation was an act of passion—an act of affection—and as such, entails an overflow of God’s affectionate life within a creaturely register.

The beloved Son of the Father, who has the love of God without measure, pours forth this love to his people. Ultimately, the atoning suffering of Christ is regarded as the elect’s because of their union with him. Christ is so united with the elect, in fact, that they are “justly looked upon as the same.” As Edwards goes on to explain, “Now there is no other way of different spirits’ being thus united, but by love.”

This love is a thorough love, a love in which the lover is willing to put himself in his lover’s stead in all concerns (Christ passionately loved his people as his own). This union, of course, is the work of God’s Spirit, the overflowing and uniting love of God’s own life. It is the Spirit that unites the Son to himself and to the elect. As Edwards explains,

And if his [God’s] love to the suffering person [Jesus] be heavy enough to counterpoise his anger to the offending [sinners], yet it will not counterpoise it unless it be laid in the balance with it to counterpoise it, unless it be put in the opposite scale; which it is not, unless the suffering person suffers for the sake of the offending and out of mere love to him, or unless his love be great enough to put him in the place of the offender.

It is not enough that Christ suffers and dies; he must suffer and die out of a dual love: love to his Father and love to the offender.

Now the foundation of the propriety of this imputation of righteousness seems to lie in these two things: in Christ’s union with God, and his union with men. It would not be proper that the righteousness of any person should be accepted by God for another, but a person that was one with God; nor would it [be] proper that it should be accepted for any person, but only a person that he is one with.

In other words, Christ must embody for humanity the love of God and love of neighbor. Edwards gives a precise analysis of this dual love in an attempt to justify how a holy God could allow himself to accept sinners into his own life. He spent the most significant space musing about these issues later in his life, and, at face value, took a new direction (or, if nothing else, utilized new imagery not used previously).

But while the imagery is new, closer examination reveals that these musings follow the same trajectory he had traced from the beginning, namely, that “everything that was contrived and done for the redemption and salvation of believers, and every benefit they have by it, is wholly and perfectly from the free, eternal, distinguishing love and infinite grace of Christ towards them.” God has moved toward his people in love, and this is the underlying reality of Edwards’s understanding of the atonement.

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Source: Christianity Today