|  June 24, 2024

The following article is part of a series of articles that will traverse church history to examine the preaching of great preachers.

In July 1741 Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) preached about “a spider, or some loathsome insect” dangling over a fire as a metaphor for the unconverted in his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” That sermon, arguably the most famous in American history, has earned him a place among the pantheon of great preachers in Church History. There is an oddity about this judgment, however. In his time, Edwards was not known as a “great” preacher. His preaching voice was soft-spoken and somewhat weak, and for much of his career he relied upon manuscripts in his sermon delivery. Why then is Edwards so esteemed for his preaching? It would take an entire book to answer this question fully, but we can focus on four points which help us understand why Edwards, as a minister of arguably average homiletical abilities, was so effective in the pulpit.

First, Edwards was an effective preacher because he devoted so much time to studying the Scriptures. Students of Edwards quickly realize that beyond his well-known treatises—The Religious Affections, The Freedom of the Will, and The End for Which God Created the World—lay a fascinating world in his private notebooks which housed his voluminous studies on the Bible. Throughout his life, Edwards filled several major notebooks that wound up containing thousands of pages of biblical exegesis, scriptural images, and biblical theology. Together, these notebooks reveal a minster in relentless pursuit of knowing the Bible and the God who inspired it. As he put his sermons together, he drew upon this material which he had previously processed intellectually, theologically, and spiritually. Thus, when he entered the pulpit with his manuscript and his soft voice, he brought with him a lifetime of wisdom, meditation, and walking with the Lord forged in his study of the Bible. Such scriptural habits cannot but help positively affect and transform one’s preaching.

Second, Edwards was an effective preacher because through his extensive study of the Bible, he developed a mature understanding of the unity of the message of Scripture. Edwards believed that Scripture told one single story: the narrative of Jesus Christ’s redemption of God’s people. In his notebooks he called this story the “work of redemption” or the “wisdom of God in the progress of redemption.” He knew this storyline so well that he had a pretty good sense how every chapter in Scripture illuminated, supported, and proclaimed the gospel of Christ. Thus, when he composed his sermons, he drew his listeners to see their lives in light of this one master storyline, a narrative which God was still carrying out. This gave a unifying force to his sermons, which usually ended with Edwards asking his listeners some version of the following question: will your lives rhyme harmoniously with the history of heaven, or will they rhyme discordantly with the history of hell?

Third, Edwards was an effective preacher because he possessed an “affective” theology of persuasive communication. Edwards believed that as human beings, we possess two faculties in our inner being: a notional ability to understand (knowing) and an affective ability to will (doing, feeling). Preaching must take aim at both faculties, and it is the latter of these two which proves most difficult to reach in preaching. People are enmeshed in a forest of worldly loves: love for themselves, their happiness, and their stuff. To break individuals from this addiction, the preacher must cast the grand truths of Scripture in ways that allure and woo people to the truth: they must feel the weight of sin and God’s hatred for it; they must see the beauty of holiness and the delightful harmony in the gospel message; and they must love the journey of discipleship if they are ever to be authentically drawn down its path. Edwards thus labored at casting the biblical content of his sermons in a way that ignited the affections, because preaching is not merely about conveying knowledge, but about winning wills.

Fourth, Edwards was an effective preacher because he meticulously sought ways to clothe abstract doctrine with tangible images drawn from nature. Edwards preached a lot of doctrine, but he recognized that many folks were not accustomed to thinking theologically. He thus sought to recast theological concepts utilizing earthly images and metaphors designed to inform the mind and move the heart to feel the weight of scriptural truth. Hence, his famous image of the spider in “Sinners.” Our lives are precariously suspended between the present day and death, and it is only the mere pleasure of God that does not keep us from death. For unbelievers who lie under God’s wrath, their state is like that spider, dangling over a flame, clinging to a slender thread which could dissolve at any moment. What a memorable and striking image to communicate the plight of unbelievers! Edwards did this with hundreds of other images drawn from our familiar world: a diamond shining in the sun’s light is an appropriate image of the soul’s sanctification as it participates in light of God’s transforming grace; a close friend of high prestige yet one who draws close to the lowly portrays the relationship the Christian has with Jesus. “Would you choose a friend far above you, and yet as it were upon a level with you too?” Edwards preached, “Thus is Christ.” Edwards was so committed to clothing doctrine with earthly images that he devoted an entire notebook to it, entitled “Images of Divine Things.” He was convinced that natural, earthly objects are, with a bit of creative imagination, perfectly suited to communicate Scripture’s theology.

As these points hopefully indicate, Edwards’s effectiveness in preaching was partially related to the way of life he cultivated around the Scriptures. His love for God drove him to know God and his Word. His love for people drove him to artfully woo them to the knowledge of Christ. Even if we are seasoned preachers, our sermons would be positively affected if we took inspiration from such an example.

Robert Caldwell serves as Professor of Church History at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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