Jonathan Edwards has not only remained one of my primary inspirations, but he has also brought increasing clarity and focus to some things that were less clear to me in the early days—things that are essential for good preaching.
In December 1744, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon foreshadowing his book The End for Which God Created the World, which he completed eleven years later, three years before he died. The sermon’s title is “Approaching the End of God’s Grand Design.” It is the kind of sermon that draws me back again and again to Edwards, to rescue me from the spiritual stranglehold of small things. It’s this kind of seeing that creates a seedbed of Big-God Theology and Big-God Preaching.
Reflecting on this sermon, here are three emphases that have become clearer and more central to my preaching over the years.
1. A Clearer Sight of the Centrality of Christ
The first emphasis is the supremacy of Christ, the centrality of Christ, in the final end of God’s purpose in creation and history. The longer I have preached, the more prominent the Christological dimension of God’s purposes has become. Is it not remarkable that Edwards defines the “great design that God has in view in all his works and dispensations” as “to present to his Son a spouse” and “so to communicate himself through Jesus Christ, God-man”?
Or as he says later, “The one grand medium by which God glorifies himself in all is Jesus Christ, God-man.” It is not easy for a preacher to discern week in and week out whether his emphases are properly theocentric or Christocentric. Part of the problem here is with our spatial metaphors: –centric. There are times when God the Father, or God per se, is “central” to a text and to our perception of reality. And there are times when God the Son is “central” to a text and to our perception of reality.
Changing the metaphor from “center” to “end” or “ultimate goal,” what Edwards clarifies is that this emphasis on the centrality of Christ in God’s “grand design” is preserved not by making Christ the ultimate “end” but rather the ever-present, essential, indispensable, divine agent through whom God communicates himself and glorifies himself as the ultimate end.
This is clearly biblical.
God exalted Jesus Christ with a name above every name, so that “every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11). The glory of the Father is the ultimate end through the exaltation of Jesus. “We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Rom. 5:11).
Whoever serves, [let him serve] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Pet. 4:11)
But what became clearer to me as my ministry matured is the utter indispensability of highlighting Jesus Christ, the God-man, as essential to the way God makes himself the grand design of creation.
These days I hear Paul’s words with greater weight than ever: “We preach Christ” (1 Cor. 1:23). “Him we proclaim” (Col. 1:28). “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5). “To me . . . this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8).
I don’t hear this summons to preach Christ only in relation to one work of Christ, but in relation to the great end of all creation and history and redemption and consummation. It all really is “centered” on Jesus as the Great Actor of God’s design. All things—absolutely all things—“were created through him and for him” (Col. 1:16). This role in creation and all of history and eternity must be lifted up again and again in preaching. As plain as it is in the Bible, Edwards helped clarify that for me.
2. A Clearer Sense of God’s Self-Communication
The second clarification is that God’s great end—grand design—in creation is not only to glorify himself but to communicate himself. This has always been implicit in my understanding of how God is glorified by our being satisfied in him, but it has become clearer to me that God’s self-glorification is properly emphasized when we keep it connected to his self-communication. Edwards writes:
God’s end in the creation of the world consists in these two things, viz. to communicate himself and to glorify himself. God created the world to communicate himself, not to receive anything.
These two things ought [not] to be separated when we speak of God’s end in the creation of the world. . . . Indeed, God’s communicating himself and glorifying [himself] ought not to be looked upon as though they were two distinct ends, but as what together makes one last end, as glorifying God and enjoying [God] make one chief end of man. For God glorifies himself in communicating himself, and he communicates himself in glorifying himself.
The reason this clarification matters is that it protects God’s self-glorification from being disconnected with his self-giving. Almost no one finds fault with saying, “God gives himself to us.” Few people find fault with saying, “God gives himself to us for our enjoyment.” But many people find fault with saying, “God glorifies himself.” Nevertheless, it is clear from the whole scope of Scripture that he does.
Therefore, to help people embrace the whole truth, it is wise to keep these two truths together, especially since, as Edwards says, they are “one last end.” In all his self-glorifying acts in the world, God is revealing and giving himself to all who will receive him as their portion and their treasure. His self-glorifying is not only a “show,” but a gift of himself.
3. A Clearer Comprehension of the Prominence of Union with Christ
The third clarification is the importance of the doctrine of union between Christ and his bride, his church. Edwards is striking in the way he relates the church to the ultimate end of God in creation.
The principal means by which God glorifies his Son in the world . . . is by providing him a spouse, to be presented [to] him in perfect union, in perfect purity, beauty and glory.
[Since God’s aim was to display the goodness of Christ, he chose a bride for him who was] fit not to give but receive good, one . . . that was remarkably empty and poor in herself . . . fallen, miserable, helpless: a state wherein [her] emptiness and need of goodness did more remarkably appear.
And because the design was that Christ should communicate goodness, therefore such an one was chosen that needed that Christ should suffer, and it was the will of Christ to suffer because suffering is the greatest expression of goodness and manifestation of kindness.
The great design was that Christ in this way should procure or obtain this his spouse, bring her to come to him, present her to himself and make her perfectly beautiful, perfectly and unspeakably happy. . . . And this is the way that God the Father intended to glorify his Son.
This “perfect union” between Christ and his church, “in perfect purity, beauty and glory,” is an astonishing way of seeing the ultimate end of all creation. The self-giving of God reaches its exquisite apex in the self-giving of the Son to his bride in bringing her to share his holiness and know a fellowship and union beyond all human comprehension (Eph. 3:19, “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge”).
I have come to see more clearly, as time has gone by, that imbedded in my understanding of God’s great self-glorifying, self-communicating goal in history, our union with Christ is essential. As it is pervasive in the New Testament, so it should be an ever-present backdrop or foundation for all that we preach.
Edwards has helped me see this, and I am thankful.