Volume 38 - Issue 3

The Ministerial Ideal in the Ordination Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: Four Theological Portraits

By Robert Caldwell


As Jonathan Edwards’s reputation for defending moderate New Light revivalism grew in the 1740s, others increasingly sought him to preside over the ordination of ministers in nearby churches. Edwards used these occasions to explore the various dimensions of gospel ministry and the solemn responsibilities that both minister and congregation embrace when joining in an ecclesial union. What Edwards took to be the ministerial ideal shines forth brightly in these sermons . . . .

As Jonathan Edwards’s reputation for defending moderate New Light revivalism grew in the 1740s, others increasingly sought him to preside over the ordination of ministers in nearby churches. Edwards used these occasions to explore the various dimensions of gospel ministry and the solemn responsibilities that both minister and congregation embrace when joining in an ecclesial union.2 What Edwards took to be the ministerial ideal shines forth brightly in these sermons, an ideal that was deeply conditioned by his contemplations of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the line between Christology and his portrayal of the ideal minister is sometimes hard to discern in these sermons.

This study presents four theological portraits of the Christ-like minister that appear in Edwards’s ordination sermons. As good art evokes response, these portraits not only portray the beauty of Christ and his ministry but also call the ministerial candidate to the solemn responsibilities entailed in being a minister of Jesus Christ. Each of these portraits represented to Edwards both a picture of Christ and calling to ministerial fidelity. (1) As Christ is the bridegroom betrothed to the church, so the faithful minister of the gospel is called to be united to his congregation. (2) As Christ is the light of the world, so the faithful minister is called to be a burning and shining light in this world of darkness. (3) As Christ suffered for the church voluntarily giving his life for her, so the faithful minister is called to abasement, suffering, and sacrifice that souls may be saved. (4) As Christ is the final judge, so ministers and their congregations are called together before the judgment seat of Christ to receive their eternal reward. This article examines each of these relationships that Edwards envisioned in the ministerial ideal.

1. Called to Officiate a Marriage: The Portrait of the Minister “Marrying” the People of God

Part of the aura associated with Edwards’s portrayal of the ideal minister can be explained by his theological vision that emphasized the close connection between creation and Creator.3 Because God is the only true reality and because creation is in some sense a shadow of divine being, the created order is not radically distinct from God. Rather, Edwards understood creation to be a vastly intricate system of ideas subsisting in the divine mind.4 This close relationship between God and the created order dramatically affected his understanding of the universe. Every aspect of creation—every creature, event, symmetry, or relationship—reflects or magnifies the grand themes of God, whether it be his trinitarian excellency, the person and work of Jesus Christ, the necessity of holiness, or the work of redemption and judgment. Consequently, typological correspondences abound in his thought, not merely in his reflections on the biblical text, but also in his reflections on nature and world history. The silkworm for instance is a type of Christ, for in its death it yields “such glorious clothing” for human beings just as Christ’s death clothes us with his righteousness.5 The beautiful rose budding atop of the briers signifies that people attain eternal life only through a life of faith characterized by mortification and self-denial.6 Edwards expands this typological reasoning to his reflections on the nature of the ministry. Consequently, we should expect to find him illuminating many typological and symbolic relationships between the minister and Christ that the modern exegete might find surprising.

Marriage was a prominent theme that conditioned Edwards’s understanding of the ministry. Scripture often compares the relationship between Christ and his church to a marriage (John 3:29; Matt 9:15; 25:1; Eph 5:23–27; Rev 21:2, 9), and Edwards found this connection particularly fruitful when he pondered the ministerial ideal. In his 1746 sermon “The Church’s Marriage to Her Sons, and to Her God,” he encouraged ministers to envision their calling in two ways. First, the minister is to consider himself as being married to the particular congregation he serves. Second, he is to prepare his congregation for their marriage with Christ at the eschatological consummation of all things.7

The uniting of a faithful minister with Christ’s people in the ministerial office, when done in a due manner, is like a young man’s marrying a virgin.”8 So reads the first half of the sermon’s central idea. For Edwards, embracing the responsibilities of leading a congregation is an occasion of great solemnity. As one should not enter marriage lightly, so one should not enter into the pastorate lightly for the simple reason that God has established the relationship between a minister and his congregation. Edwards unpacks this thesis in two ways: (1) with regard to the minister’s relation to the universal church and (2) with regard to the minister’s relationship with his particular congregation.

Edwards is very clear that Christian ministry is a calling that is distinguished from every other vocation. A man who “takes upon him the sacred work and office of a minister of the gospel, . . . does in some sense espouse the church of Christ in general.”9 The emphasis here is on the words “in general.” While he is not a universal pastor, the gospel minister does have a special regard for all the church “wherever he is providentially called to preach the word of God,” a concern that is “different than other persons have that are laymen.” The faithful minister is “under obligations . . . to love the church,” to “prefer Jerusalem above [as] his chief joy,” to have “tender concern” for her wherever he may minister. He even uses language that echoes phrases used in a wedding ceremony:

And as he, in taking office, devotes himself to the service of Christ in his church, so he gives himself to the church, to be hers, in that love, tender care, constant endeavor, and earnest labor for perfection, comfort and welfare that is proper to his office, as a minister of the church of Christ, by the permission of divine providence, as long as he lives.10

The way Edwards describes the church’s reception of the minister reveals his traditional attitude toward gender roles. As the bride, the church of Christ in general is to “embrace the ministry of the church [i.e., the ministers of the gospel, the groom] with endeared affection and high honor and esteem, for Christ’s sake.” She is to “joyfully commit and subject” herself to the teaching and leadership of its ministers “as the bride doth in marriage cleave and deliver up herself to her husband.” This articulation of different roles in the relationship between ministers and laity reflects Edwards’s hierarchical understanding of the Christian ministry: Christian ministers are over the church in that they teach, love, and protect it. While they are fellow believers in Christ, the two groups are distinguished in the economy of salvation. Collectively, he suggests that gospel ministers may even be “considered one mystical person, that espouses the church as a young man espouses a virgin.”11

While there is a sense where ministers “marry” the church “in general,” Edwards noted that the parallels between marriage and ministry are most clearly discerned in the pastor’s union with his own congregation. The union between minister and congregation reflects the relationship between newlyweds in their great affection for one another. “The young man gives himself to his bride in purity, as undebauched by meretricious embraces; and she also presents herself to him a chaste virgin. So in such an union of a minister and people as we are speaking of, the parties united are pure and holy in their affection and regard one to another.”12 Great joy and sympathy is shared between them. The minister takes it upon himself to know his flock intimately and care for its needs. As such,

The conjugal relation leads the persons united therein to the most intimate acquaintance and conversation with each other; so the union there is between a faithful pastor and a Christian people leads them to the intimate conversation about things of a spiritual nature.13

This intimate knowledge of each other leads to offspring, the new-born children of God who come to faith in Christ in the context of a fellowship where grace abounds.

While ministers “marry” their own congregations, their greatest joy is derived in preparing the church for its own marriage to Christ. “[The] union of [a] minister with the people of Christ, is in order to their being brought to the blessedness of a more glorious union, in which Christ shall rejoice over them as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride.”14 Though the faithful minister loves his church with tender affection, his hope is not so much that she loves him back but that her love for Christ increases. Edwards likens this kind of affection to “Abraham’s faithful servant, [who] was sent to fetch a wife for his master’s son, [and] was captivated with Rebekah’s beauty and virtue; but not with reference to an union with himself, but with his master, Isaac.”15 Practically, ministers prepare their people for marriage to Christ through preaching. “The preaching of the gospel by faithful ministers is the principle means that God makes use of for the exhibiting Christ and his love and benefits to his elect people, and the chief means of their being sanctified, and so fitted to enjoy their spiritual bridegroom.”16 Consequently, ministers are God’s unique instruments who fit the church for her glorious wedding day with the Lamb. They clothe the church in wedding garments, they lead her “in the way of heaven,” and they “present her [as] a chaste virgin to Christ” all through preaching which exalts the beauty and splendor of the great bridegroom, Jesus Christ.17

It is this marriage union, the church’s union with Christ, which occupies the largest portion of this sermon. Edwards in a sense is illustrating what he is commending: portraying Christ as a glorious bridegroom who loves his church in such a way that the listener is lovingly drawn to the Savior. “[E]verything that is desirable and excellent in the union between an earthly bridegroom and bride, is to be found in the union between Christ and his church; and that to an infinitely greater perfection, and more glorious manner.”18 Christ and his church have chosen each other as their greatest joy; though Christ be “infinitely above men and angels, yet he has chosen the elect to be his companions.”19 While Christ rejoices over his people at all times, there are seasons where his church experiences the joy of this union more deeply, periods such as one’s own conversion, the outpouring of the Spirit of God in revival, or glorification.20 The greatest heights of joy shall be at Christ’s last coming where there shall be “a joyful meeting of this glorious bridegroom and bride indeed,” the saints “shin[ing] forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

Then will come the time, when Christ will sweetly invite his spouse to enter in with him into the palace of his glory, which he had been preparing for her from the foundation of the world, and shall as it were take her by the hand, and lead her in with him: and this glorious bridegroom and bride shall with all their shining ornaments, ascend up together into the heaven of heaven; the whole multitude of glorious angels waiting upon them: and this Son and daughter of God shall, in their united glory and joy, present themselves together before the Father; when Christ shall say “Here am I, and the children which thou has given me”: and they both shall in that relation and union, together receive the Father’s blessing; and shall thenceforward rejoice together, in consummate, uninterrupted, immutable, and everlasting glory, in the love and embraces of each other, and joint enjoyment of the love of the Father.21

With these words we quickly approach the nerve center of Edwards’s theology: God’s end (or purpose) in creating the world. Creation was for the ultimate purpose that “the eternal Son of God might obtain a spouse, towards whom he might fully exercise the infinite benevolence of his nature.”22 How marvelous it is, Edwards goes on to say, that Christ should select some to aid him in obtaining this joyous great end. What a high honor it is for ministers to “treat and transact for him with his dear spouse, that he might obtain this joy . . . to be married to her in his name, and sustain an image of his own endearing relation to her.”23 As they faithfully carry out their duties, ministers of the gospel directly advance creation to its ultimate goal by preparing the church for its grand wedding day.

2. Called to Be a Burning and Shining Light: The Portrait of Light and the Ministerial Ideal

One of Edwards’s favorite themes he employed when discussing the Christian ministry was that of light. In “The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister,” Edwards explored this theme in depth. The text for the sermon, John 5:35 (where Jesus refers to John the Baptist as a “burning and shining light”), segues evenly into the sermon’s central idea: “’Tis the excellency of a minister of the gospel to be both a burning and shining light.”24 The sermon is an excellent example of Edwards’s typological exegesis and demonstrates his ability to connect natural, theological, and biblical concepts.25

“There is an analogy between the divine constitution and disposition of things in the natural and in the spiritual world.”26 As God has established the sun as the main light for our world, towering above all other lights throughout the universe, so has he established one primary light in the spiritual world: Jesus Christ, the “sun of righteousness.” Ministers of the gospel are “as it were the stars that encompass this glorious fountain of light, to receive and reflect his beams, and give light to the souls of men.”27 He indicates that in the physical realm light discovers, refreshes, and directs; we find the same thing in the spiritual realm. A minister of the gospel therefore discovers things, eternal divine things, to people’s souls “imparting divine truth to them . . . and assisting them in the contemplation of those things that angels desire to look into.”28 He refreshes the souls of his flock by refracting Christ’s light into their lives, and he directs them in their ways, guiding their feet in the way of peace, and showing them their way through “the night” in Christ’s absence (John 9:4).29 Yet ministers are not just “lights” as Scripture indicates, they are “burning and shining lights.” How does this inform Edwards’s understanding of the gospel minister? In his answer he first examines what it is for a minister to be a burning light and then what it is for a minister to be a shining light. Along the way he reveals the trinitarian foundations of his reflections on the ministry.

As a “burning light” the faithful minister of the gospel must be filled with “holy ardor” and a “spirit of true piety.” He must be acquainted with true grace, the power of godliness, and that participation in the divine nature which spills over into affective love for God. “[H]is soul [is] enkindled with the heavenly flame; his heart burns with love to Christ, and fervent desires of the advancement of his kingdom and glory.” This fervency naturally overflows; “his spiritual heat and holy ardor is not for himself only, but is communicative, and for the benefit of others.”30 He strives with diligence and earnestness to labor for the souls of the lost. Edwards’s portrayal of the minister as a burning light intersects points of his doctrine of God, particularly his pneumatology. The minister, filled with the Holy Spirit, participates in God’s trinitarian love because he is united to the third person of the Trinity. The Spirit “unites himself with the mind of a saint, takes him for his temple, actuates and influences him as a new, supernatural principle of life and action . . . . [He] communicates himself there in his own proper nature.”31 Elsewhere he indicates that the Holy Spirit is the eternal love that arises between the Father and the Son. The Spirit is the “most pure act, and [the] infinitely holy and sweet energy [which] arises between Father and Son” who “quicken[s], enliven[s] and beautif[ies] all things.”32 Putting this altogether, Edwards notes that because the true minister is united to the Holy Spirit, he possesses the same affections that animate the third person of the Trinity. In short, the Holy Spirit is responsible for the burning of a true minister.

Whereas the minister as a “burning light” underscores the theme of agape, the minister as a “shining light” centers more on the theme of logos which Edwards relates to the minister’s role as a teacher of the Word. “A minister is set to be a light to men’s souls, by teaching, or doctrine,” Edwards writes, “his doctrine must be bright and full; it must be pure without mixtures of darkness; and therefore he must be sound in the faith.”33 The true minister must be able to teach, be acquainted with experimental religion, and shine in his “conversation” (i.e., his Christian lifestyle). As a shining light, he highlights the person and work of Jesus Christ and conveys divine truth to his listeners. In short, the person of God the Son is fundamentally responsible for the shining of the faithful minister.

It is only when a minister is both a burning and shining light that he can become an effective minister of the gospel. Heat and light go together in gospel ministry as they do in the natural world. The physical sun would be useless, Edwards notes, if its light were not accompanied with heat, for nothing would grow on the earth without it. The light of the sun gives life to the plants of the field, and in the same way “the souls of the saints will be likely to grow, and appear beautiful ‘as the lily,’ and to ‘revive as the corn, and grow as the vine, and their scent to be as the wine of Lebanon’ [Hos 14:5, 7]; and their light will be like the light of Christ, which is the ‘light of life’ (John 8:12).”34

While Edwards does not make the connection explicit in this sermon, his portrait of the minister as a burning and shining light reflects the contours of his trinitarian theology. Throughout his writings, Edwards was deeply conscious of how the doctrine of the Trinity shaped his thinking. He maintained an Augustinian version of the doctrine where the divine persons are understood to be the two processions of the divine mind: knowledge (Word) and affection (love, or Spirit).35 Thus, the Father is the deity subsisting as the unbegotten fountain of the Godhead; the Son is the deity subsisting as the perfect, eternally begotten, substantial idea of the divine essence; and the Spirit is the deity subsisting as the infinite and eternal love that arises between Father and Son.36 This pattern of God’s triune being becomes, for Edwards, the blueprint for God’s ultimate goal in redemption: God desires to communicate his trinitarian fullness to the redeemed (1) through a communication of the divine knowledge of himself to the church in the person of Jesus Christ and (2) through a communication of the divine love of God to the church in sending the Holy Spirit.37 Consequently, the minister who is a shining and burning light shines with the light of God’s truth (i.e., the knowledge of Christ) and burns with a holy affection and ardor for God and Christ (i.e., the Holy Spirit). In short, ministers who are burning and shining lights participate in God’s trinitarian life and invite others to participate in it through their ministries.

3. Called to a Life of Sacrifice: The Portrait of Christ’s Sacrifice and the Minister’s Suffering

While marriage and light conjure positive images of the ministerial task, Edwards was well aware that Christian ministry can be extremely difficult and rife with conflict. His sermons repeatedly call the minister to look to Christ’s suffering to find encouragement in times of great difficulty. His portrayals of Christ’s agony are some of the more vivid that we come across in Protestant literature:

Look into the garden of Gethsemane, and there behold him lying on the earth, with his body covered over with clotted blood, falling down in lumps to the ground, with his soul exceeding[ly] sorrowful even unto death, and offering up strong crying and tears together with his blood: and look to the cross, where he endured yet far more extreme agonies, and drank up the bitter cup of God’s wrath, and shed the remainder of his blood, lingeringly drained out through his tortured hands and feet, and extravasated out of his broken heart into his bowels, and there turned into blood and water; through the vehement fermentation occasioned by the weight of grief and extremity of agony of soul, under which he cried out with that loud and lamentable and repeated cry. Thus he travailed in birth with his seed; thus he labored and suffered for the salvation of those souls that the Father had committed to him. This is the example of the great Shepherd.38

While ministers are not called to die for the sins of the world, Edwards does indicate that Christ expects his co-workers to undergo similar sufferings for the salvation of those committed to their care.39 In a sermon entitled “Christ’s Sacrifice an Inducement to His Ministers,” he offers three “inducements” that ministers should take from the example of Christ’s death.

First, Christ’s example should lead gospel ministers to “exert themselves and deny themselves, and suffer for the sake {of saving the souls of men}.”40 It is their duty to be “ready for the greatest condescension and abasement of themselves” even to the point of death if called by divine providence. They are to bear in their bodies the dying of the Lord Jesus (2 Cor 4:10) and lay down their lives for the brethren (1 John 3:16). They must endure difficulty as soldiers of Christ, not partaking of the enjoyments of this world, but embracing a life of disciplined denial so that they might maximize their effectiveness in the salvation of souls. “[Be] ready to be conformed to Christ, and as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it that he might sanctify [it] by the word, so the minister should be ready to give what they have, and give themselves, to spend and be spent.”41

Second, ministers ought to regard the “manner and circumstances” related to Christ’s death and embrace a similar attitude. His sacrificial service was done willingly “not as forced or driven.” He was resolute in his determination to accomplish the task that his Father gave him: “He went forward towards Jerusalem, as being greatly engaged, ascending up to Jerusalem. Going before [us to make a way]. He seemed, as it were, to forget him[self] in his great concern for the souls of men.”42 This stands out all the more when we consider the unworthiness of those for whom he died. Edwards spends considerable time here portraying the realm of light God the Son left when he took on flesh and began the work of redemption. He “is infinitely above any need for us,” for he enjoyed that “infinitely blessed union and society of the persons of the Trinity.”43 Yet he willingly came for the sake of sinners to procure for them eternal life, the Holy Spirit, and infinite joy. “That he should shed his blood for sinners was on this account more wonderful, in that he not only suffered such great things for those that were so unworthy, but that as having a perfect view of all the sins of the whole world and of all the odiousness, vileness, and ill dessert that there is in sin.”44

Lastly, Christ’s example should induce ministers to cultivate the same virtues that he evinced in the midst of his sacrificial labor. “He died in the exercises of a supreme love to God and a regard to his honor and glory.” When difficulties arose, Jesus responded with charity and benevolence. “[He was] of the most superlative charity and benevolence to mankind, of the most admirable meekness towards his most injurious, spiteful, and contemptuous enemies, when they were in the highest exercise of their cruelty and when he was the subject of the most terrible efforts of their view malignity and infinitely horrible contempt.”45 For Edwards, Christ’s example can galvanize a minister’s sense of vocation in the midst of difficulties from within one’s congregation and persecutions from without.

4. Called to Give an Account: The Portrait of the Minister before the Judgment Seat of Christ

True to his popular image as the fire and brimstone preacher of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Edwards had sobering words for the minister who proved to be unfaithful to his calling. Peppered throughout his ordination sermons are glimpses of the end where Edwards takes both the minister and his people before the judgment seat of Christ. The purpose of these sections is to drive home the solemn realization that ministers and their people are accountable to each other before God and that God will judge all of their deeds.

To the minister, Edwards’s words are direct: he must live up to his high calling or else he will be greatly surprised at the judgment. “[I]f we are unfaithful in this office,” he warned, “and don’t imitate our Master, our offense will be heinous in proportion to the dignity of our office, and our final and everlasting disgrace and ignominy proportionably great; and we who in honor are exalted up to heaven, shall be cast down proportionably low in hell.”46 Edwards likens this to the fall of the demons, who, like ministers, were called to occupy a high position in God’s economy yet were cast down from heaven after their rebellion.47

The devils in hell are so much the more odious to God, and more the objects of his wrath, because he set them in the dignity and glory of the angels, the excellency of which state they are fallen from. And ’tis likely that those in hell that will be nearest to the fallen angels, in their state of misery, will be those that Christ once set to be angels of the churches, but through their unfaithfulness, failed of their proper excellency and end.48

In other places Edwards focuses these warnings on the congregation where he contrasts a faithful minister with his unfaithful congregation before Christ’s judgment seat. In “The Great Concern of a Watchman for Souls,” he explores this theme individually. If it is discovered that the minister had been faithful and that the layperson has made an “ill improvement” of his ministry “and so failed in the grace of God,” then one can only expect the worst. Edwards’s words here to the unfaithful congregant are chilling:

the sight of the devil won’t be so terrible to you at that day as the sight of your minister; for he’ll rise up in judgment against you, and your pastor that above all other persons in the world, excepting yourselves, is concerned to endeavor your salvation, will then above all other persons appear against you before the Judge to witness against you and condemn you.49

The theme of an entire congregation meeting its pastor at the judgment is the centerpiece of his well-known “Farewell Sermon,” preached on the occasion of his dismissal from Northampton in the summer of 1750.50 The doctrine of the sermon runs as follows: “Ministers and the people that have been under their care, must meet one another, before Christ’s tribunal, at the day of judgment.”51 In an effort to encourage reconciliation while it is still possible, Edwards details several differences that exist between the congregation’s present state of affairs and final judgment. Currently pastor and people meet in a mutable state where repentance is possible; at the judgment they shall meet in an unchangeable state where repentance is impossible. Now ministers and their people may disagree; then Christ’s infallible will shall be made known. Now ministers guide people to see the truths of their hearts with much doubt and uncertainty; then the secrets of every heart shall be clearly exposed before all.52

Edwards gives several reasons for this solemn meeting between pastor and people. Citing Luke 14:16–21 and Heb 13:17, he first notes that God generally calls his servants to give an account for their actions. Ministers and congregants likewise will be called before Christ to account for their deeds at the end of the age.

Faithful ministers will then give an account with joy, concerning those who have received them well, and made a good improvement of their ministry. . . . And at the same time they will give an account of the ill treatment, of such as have not well received them and their messages from Christ: they will meet these, not as they used to do in this world, to counsel and warn them, but to bear witness against them, and as their judges, and assessors with Christ, to condemn them.53

Second, Christ summons all together in order to settle specific issues of controversy. It will be “the great day of finishing and determining all controversies, rectifying all mistakes, and abolishing all unrighteous judgments, errors and confusions, which have before subsisted in the world of mankind.”54 It will also be a day where ministers shall be rewarded for their labors performed in the face of severe resistance. “Ministers shall have justice done them, and they shall see justice done to their people: and the people shall receive justice themselves from their Judge, and shall see justice done to their minister. And so all things will be adjusted and settled forever between them.”55

5. Concluding Remarks

Edwards’s reflections on the Christian ministry may seem like alien advice to our modern ears. The reason for this may be that our contemporary ideals of pastoral ministry are too saturated with images drawn from the world rather than from the other-worldly wisdom of Scripture. Edwards’s portraits of the ideal minister doubtlessly provided him with inspiration as he shepherded his Northampton and Stockbridge congregations.

First, the portrait of a minister “marrying” his congregation may have kept Edwards from viewing the ministry as a stepping stone to personal fulfillment and success. Those familiar with his personal writings, especially in his youth, know that Edwards struggled with pride. His intellectual gifts were uncommon and he knew it. Yet he did not use these gifts merely to pursue a path of upward mobility in his denominational world. The image of a minister marrying his congregation may have prevented him from easily entertaining ideas of leaving his congregation when ministry got difficult. Simply put, Christian ministers do not break a marriage bond lightly.

Second, the portrait of a minister as a burning and shining light no doubt led Edwards to preach rich, sound biblical doctrine. Edwards was convinced that the primary pathway to Christian transformation was through teaching the great truths of Christianity. Only when the mind is sufficiently informed with biblical theology can heart and life be transformed by the gospel. As a shining light, he devoted long hours to studying the Scriptures so that his congregation could benefit from his rich meditations on biblical doctrine. Yet preaching biblical doctrine was not enough. The minister must know God and his ways through prayer, the mortification of sin, and the pursuit of communion with Christ. In short, he must burn as well as shine, for heat and light necessarily go together.

Third, the portrait of the minister suffering on behalf of his people may have sustained Edwards through years of ministerial turmoil. Toward the end of his Northampton years, Edwards knew the bitterness of having a church turn on him. At Stockbridge he experienced the hardships associated with intense opposition by powerful community leaders. Surely the image of Christ’s sufferings sustained him in pressing forward in his duties during such times. In the end, Edwards moved on from both of these places (for different reasons). He did so with much reserve after seeking the wisdom of friends and family, not merely because there was suffering associated with the job. As Edwards understood it, suffering was a fundamental part of ministering the gospel.

Lastly, the portrait of the minister and his congregation before the judgment of God may have propelled Edwards to pursue justice in his pastoral duties. Ministers likewise can zealously pursue righteousness in their congregations. In the midst of this pursuit they will experience defeat and be taken advantage of. Yet faithful ministers can take courage in the fact that justice shall be done to them in the sight of all at the end of this age.

Though Edwards’s own ministry was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, his reflections on the Christian ministry possess a timelessness drawn from his life-long meditations on Jesus Christ. True ministers are “beams of light of the Sun of Righteousness,” he wrote.56 Like art aficionados in a great museum, Christian ministers today would do well to ponder these portraits with care, attention, and joy.

[1] This article updates a paper first presented in November 2006 at the national meeting for the Evangelical Theological Society in Washington D.C. For a recent study that addresses Edwards’s ordination sermons and their potential for spiritual formation, see Sean Michael Lucas, “‘Divine Light, Holy Heat’: Jonathan Edwards, the Ministry of the Word, and Spiritual Formation,” Presbyterion 34 (2008): 1–11.

[2] For a comprehensive analysis of Edwards’s understanding of the ministry, see Helen Westra, The Minister’s Task and Calling in the Sermons of Jonathan Edwards (Studies in American Religion 17; Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1986). For a shorter account that analyzes Edwards’s evangelistic sermons, see Richard A. Bailey and Gregory A. Wills’s introductory essay to The Salvation of Souls: Nine Previously Unpublished Sermons on the Call of Ministry and the Gospel by Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 16–26. For an excellent study detailing Edwards’s ministry of teaching Scripture, see Douglas A. Sweeney, Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009).

[3] Edwards’s doctrine of God has long been a fascination for philosophers and historical theologians who have tried to categorize the way he distinguished God and creation. For works that explore Edwards’s doctrine of God from different angles, see Sang Hyun Lee, The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards (2nd ed.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Stephen Holmes, “Does Jonathan Edwards Use a Dispositional Ontology? A Response to Sang Hyun Lee,” in Jonathan Edwards: Philosophical Theologian (ed. Paul Helm and Oliver D. Crisp; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003), 99–114; and Oliver Crisp, Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[4] This does not mean that Edwards blurred the ontological distinction between God and creation. Edwards was no pantheist. All it means is that he portrayed a very close relationship between God and nature. For writings that explore his philosophical idealism, see Wallace A. Anderson, “Editor’s Introduction,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 6 of Scientific and Philosophical Writings (ed. Wallace E. Anderson; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 52–136. After initial citation, individual volumes in the Yale edition of Edwards’s works will be indicated as WJE followed by the volume and page numbers.

[5] Jonathan Edwards, “Images of Divine Things,” no. 35 in Typological Writings, vol. 11 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (ed. Wallace E. Anderson and Mason I. Lowance Jr. with David Watters; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 59.

[6] Edwards, “Images,” no. 3, WJE 11:52.

[7] Jonathan Edwards, “The Church’s Marriage to Her Sons, and to Her God,” in Sermons and Discourses, 1743–1758, vol. 25 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (ed. Wilson H. Kimnach; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 167–96.

[8] WJE 25:171, emphasis in original.

[9] Ibid., 25:172.

[10] Ibid., 25:173.

[11] Ibid., 25:173. Edwards points to Rev 2:1 and 14:6 as support for this point.

[12] Ibid., 25:174.

[13] Ibid., 25:174.

[14] Ibid., 25:176.

[15] Ibid., 25:184.

[16] Ibid., 25:185.

[17] Ibid., 25:186, emphasis in original.

[18] Ibid., 25:178.

[19] Ibid., 25:178.

[20] Ibid., 25:181–82.

[21] Ibid., 25:184. Edwards was fascinated with the increasing degrees of glory and joy the church partakes of in the future progression of salvation history. For sermons where Edwards explores this, see “The Pure in Heart Blessed,” in Sermons and Discourses, 1730–1733, vol. 17 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (ed. Mark Valeri; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 59–86; “Heaven Is a World of Love,” in Ethical Writings, vol. 8 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (ed. Paul Ramsey; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 366–97; and “The Portion of the Righteous,” in vol. 8 of Works of President Edwards (ed. Sereno E. Dwight; New York: 1829), 227–79. For studies that explore Edwards’s understanding of heaven, see Paul Ramsey, “Heaven is a Progressive State,” WJE, 8:706–38, and Robert W. Caldwell III, “A Brief History of Heaven in the Writings of Jonathan Edwards,” Calvin Theological Journal 46 (2011): 48–71.

[22] Edwards, “The Church’s Marriage to Her Sons,” WJE 25:187. Edwards elaborates more on this theme in his private notebooks; see “Miscellanies,” no. 104, in The “Miscellanies” a–500, vol. 13 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (ed. Thomas A. Schafer; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 272–74; and “Notes on Scripture,” no. 235, in Notes on Scripture, vol. 15 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (ed. Stephen J. Stein; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 185–87.

[23] Edwards, “The Church’s Marriage to Her Sons,” WJE 25:189.

[24] Edwards, “The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister,” WJE 25:87.

[25] For studies on Edwards’s typological exegesis and hermeneutical strategies, see Stephen J. Stein, “The Spirit and the Word: Jonathan Edwards and Scriptural Exegesis,” in Jonathan Edwards and the America Experience (ed. Nathan O. Hatch and Harry S. Stout; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 118–30; Kenneth P. Minkema, “The Other Unfinished ‘Great Work’: Jonathan Edwards, Messianic Prophecy, and ‘The Harmony of the Old and New Testament,’” in Jonathan Edwards’s Writings: Text, Context, Interpretation (ed. Stephen J. Stein; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 52–65; and Douglas A. Sweeney, “‘Longing for More and More of It’? The Strange Career of Jonathan Edwards’s Exegetical Exertions,” in Jonathan Edwards at 300: Essays on the Tercentenary of His Birth (ed. Harry S. Stout, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Caleb J. D. Maskell; Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2005), 54–64.

[26] Edwards, “The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister,” WJE 25:89.

[27] Edwards notes that ministers are likened to stars in Rev 12:1; 1:16, 20 and also in Zech 4:2. See ibid., 25:89.

[28] Ibid., 25:90.

[29] Ibid., 25:91.

[30] Ibid., 25:92.

[31] Edwards, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” WJE 17:411.

[32] Jonathan Edwards, Discourse on the Trinity, in Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith, vol. 21 of The Works of Jonathan Edward (ed. Sang Hyun Lee; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 121, 123.

[33] Edwards, “The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister,” WJE 25:92.

[34] Ibid., 25:96–97.

[35] For further study on this topic, see the recent literature on Edwards’s trinitarian theology: Amy Plantinga Pauw, “The Supreme Harmony of All”: The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); Sang Hyun Lee, “Editor’s Introduction,” WJE 21:1–111; Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 193–206; and Steven M. Studebaker and Robert W. Caldwell III, The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards: Text, Context, and Application (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012).

[36] For two places where Edwards succinctly summarizes his understanding of the Trinity, see Discourse on the Trinity, WJE, 21:131, and Treatise on Grace, WJE 21:185–86.

[37] For further reflections on this trinitarian theme in Edwards’s theology, see “Miscellanies” nos. 448, 1066, 1082, 1084, 1094, and 1142. See also the last section of Jonathan Edwards, Dissertation I. Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, WJE 8:526–36.

[38] Edwards, “The Great Concern of a Watchman for Souls,” WJE 25:72.

[39] Ibid., 25:72.

[40] Edwards, “Christ’s Sacrifice an Inducement to His Ministers,” WJE 25:668, editorial brackets included by the Yale editors for clarity.

[41] Ibid., 25:670.

[42] Ibid., 25:670–71.

[43] Ibid., 25:662.

[44] Ibid., 25:665.

[45] Ibid., 25:671.

[46] Edwards, “Christ the Great Example of Gospel Ministers,” WJE 25:345.

[47] For Edwards’s theology of the fall of Lucifer and the origin of demons, see his numerous treatments in his “Miscellanies” notebook, nos. 681, 702 corollary 3, 936, and 938. See also Caldwell, “Brief History of Heaven in Edwards,” 55–57.

[48] Edwards, “The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister,” WJE 25:98.

[49] Edwards, “The Great Concern of a Watchman for Souls,” WJE 25:75. While this is a somber warning, Edwards immediately follows this comment with something more positive: “But how joyful will it be to you, as well as to him, if he renders his account with joy, for these reasons, that he has been both faithful and successful with respect to you, and appears with you in glory at the right hand of Christ, and has to say to the great Judge concerning himself and you, ‘Here am I, and the children which thou has given me!’ What a joyful meeting of minister and people there will be!”

[50] Edwards, “A Farewell Sermon Preached at the First Precinct in Northampton, After the People’s Public Rejection of Their Minister . . . on June 22, 1750,” WJE 25:462–93. For an overview of the circumstances surrounding his dismissal from Northampton, see chs. 21–22 of George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 341–74.

[51] Edwards, “A Farewell Sermon,” WJE 25:463.

[52] Ibid., 25:464–70.

[53] Ibid., 25:470.

[54] Ibid., 25:471.

[55] Ibid., 25:472.

[56] Edwards, “The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister,” WJE 25:100.

Robert Caldwell

Robert Caldwell is assistant professor of church history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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