Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God

Written by Dane Ortlund Reviewed By Ryan Griffith

Dane Ortlund’s Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God is the latest installment in Crossway’s excellent series devoted to unpacking the spiritual lives of prominent theologians. While Jonathan Edwards has been the subject of significant academic reflection in recent years, he is often popularly known only as the preacher of Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God. Ortlund aims to correct this hackneyed perspective by describing Edwards’s expansive vision of the beauty of God. Seeing what Edwards saw will help us “draw nourishment from the same rich soil of divine beauty that made Edwards’s own life so abundantly fruitful” (p. 18).

Ortlund argues that beauty is the organizing theme of Edwards’s theology of the Christian life: “Sinners are beautified as they behold the beauty of God in Jesus Christ. That is Edwards’s theology of the Christian life in a single sentence,” for it is the beauty of God that “more than anything else, defines God’s very divinity” (p. 24). While divine beauty is to be seen in the symmetry, diversity, and intricacy of the created world, these are only refractions of the pure light of the holiness of the triune God. Ortlund writes, “here is the genius of Edwards’s understanding of God and of the Christian life. The moral is the aesthetic. The holy is the beautiful” (p. 25, emphasis original). Divine beauty is to be supremely apprehended in the resplendent glory of Jesus Christ, for beauty and glory are synonymous terms in Edwards’s vocabulary. But divine beauty is not only to be seen, it is to be reflected in God’s image bearers. Human beings, renewed by the transforming work of saving grace, are the supreme instance of the beauty of God displayed in creation.

It is the sovereign work of God’s grace in the new birth (ch. 2) that makes a person alive to true beauty—a decisive transformation that “changes us by getting down underneath even the very level of our desires and changing what we want (p. 43, emphasis original). Christians, alive to the beauty of God, are characterized by love—a love that has its origin and substance in God’s own intratrinitarian love (ch. 3). The believer’s experience of divine love is the essence of the Christian life and the root from which all other virtues grow. Ortlund focuses especially on Edwards’s emphasis on love, joy, and gentleness as evidence of genuine conversion.

Scripture (ch. 6) is the primary, concrete means for sustaining this love, joy (ch. 4), and gentleness (ch. 5). Thus, for Edwards, the Bible is “the single most crucial means through which the Holy Spirit beautifies sinners” (p. 110). Ortlund highlights how Edwards also saw the crucial way Scripture shapes the Christian’s communion with God and dependence in prayer (ch. 7), especially as one ponders God’s delight in giving good gifts to his people, “the greatest of which is himself” (p. 115).

The Christian life, however, is one of pilgrimage amid both misery and hope (ch. 8). It is a life of obedience that, as Edwards describes, overflows from a heart alive to beauty (ch. 9). The pilgrim life requires that Christians attend to the state of their soul (ch. 11) while being wary of the wiles of their adversary (ch. 10). The greatest hope of the Christian is the promise of eternal life with Christ, “a summing up of all possible joys in heaven,” for as Ortlund argues, “Christ is not a part of the joy of heaven; every joy in the universe is a part of Christ” (p. 173, emphasis original).

Without diminishing the importance of Edwards, Ortlund’s final chapter examines four weaknesses: Edwards’s tendency to neglect clear application of the gospel to believers, his inadequate doctrine of creation, his occasionally excessively creative use of Scripture, and his overly negative view of the unregenerate. In each instance, Ortlund encourages his readers to discerningly “swallow the meat and pick out the bones” (p. 177).

Edwards on the Christian Life is wonderfully accessible, winsomely written, and marshals a wealth of Edwards’s work. The chapters coherently unfold as answers to twelve questions posed in the preface about the Christian life—each chapter exploring different manifestations of Edwards’s vision of divine beauty. Ortlund masterfully draws from the many riches of Edwards’s writing (sermons, theological works, correspondence, and personal reflections), and his knowledge of the chronology avoids the dangers of misappropriation and helps to bring into focus developments in Edwards’s thought. He often carries the warp of Edwards’s argument across several chapters (e.g. “Charity and its Fruits” in the chapters on love, joy, gentleness, and obedience), giving the reader a sense of the depth and concern of Edwards’ preaching ministry. The reader also benefits from Ortlund’s clear explanations of complex Edwardsian concepts such as beauty (pp. 24–25) and intratrinitarian love (pp. 56–57).

Most importantly, the book is full of pastoral insight and practical wisdom. Ortlund rightly calls for an urgent recovery of Edwards’s teaching on the new birth (ch. 2). He also focuses extensively on the importance of gentleness for the Christian life (ch. 5), a virtue severely neglected in contemporary discipleship. Ortlund frequently illustrates Edwards’s concepts with anecdotal experience, and each chapter challenges the reader to consider and apply Edwards’s discoveries. He models charitable treatment of Edwards, while not being afraid to point out places where this hero should not be followed. This delightful book will provide a lasting service to the church, introducing Christians to the rich legacy of Jonathan Edwards—the Christian life as a life of beauty.

Ryan Griffith

Ryan Griffith
Bethlehem College and Seminary
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

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