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FIRST PERSON: The legacy of Jonathan Edwards

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–If the statistics hold true, my life is more than half over.

I’m 38 years old and the older I get, the better I was. It’s not that I feel old; it’s just that everyone else is starting to look younger and younger. I have become, contrary to my youthful wishes, my parents. I’m a little grayer, a little heavier, but hopefully a little wiser, too.

I’ve also come to realize the importance of my legacy. Webster’s dictionary defines “legacy” as an “inheritance,” something left behind for others. Some of us leave money for our loved ones. Others leave property. All leave memories. We all have a legacy.

The great Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards left a lasting legacy — greater than his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” Born 300 years ago Oct. 5, Edwards has become a spiritual hero, influencing not only his immediate generation, but also those that followed. Fittingly, Edwards expressed great concern about his legacy even as a young man. Not yet 30 years old, he wrote, “I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live if they were to live their lives over again. Resolved, that I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age.”

Edwards died 35 years later but has been speaking to us ever since. Later in the 18th century, English Baptists looked to Edwards to provide the theological rationale that launched the “modern missionary movement.”

Without it, William Carey would have never left for India. Early Southern Baptists like Furman, Manly and Johnson echoed the writings of Edwards in their sermons and their theology as well.

Today another generation has “discovered” Jonathan Edwards. While most Baptists could not agree with everything he said, nor should they, there is a treasure trove waiting to be mined in his sermons and theological writings, a calling to greater godliness. Edwards lays before us a challenge to live a Christian life worth remembering.

Eavesdrop as Edwards counsels a young believer: “In all your course, walk with God and follow Christ as a little, poor, helpless child, taking hold of Christ’s hand, keeping your eye on the mark of the wounds on his hands and side. From these wounds came the blood that cleanses you from sin and hides your nakedness under the shirt of the white shining robe of his righteousness.”

Does your faith exhibit that kind of trust?

Listen as he speaks about our loving God: “The more a true saint loves God with a gracious love, the more he desires to love him and the more uneasy is he at his want of love to him … the more he thirsts and longs after God and holiness, the more he longs to long, and breathe out his very soul in longings after God …”

Does that describe your love of God?

Read as he describes our relationship with God: “There are many reasons to think that what God has in view, in an increasing communication of himself through eternity, is an increasing knowledge of God, love to him, and joy in him. And it is to be considered that the more those divine communications increase in the creature, the more it becomes one with God; for so much the more is it united to God in love, the heart is drawn nearer and nearer to God, and the union with him becomes more firm and close, and at the same time, the creature becomes more and more conformed to God.”

Does your Christian walk reflect that closeness?

Jonathan Edwards was supremely concerned about the nature and content of the Christian faith. His works were not theological musings but biblical discipling. Ultimately, for himself, his legacy, and his spiritual progeny, Edwards had one great desire: the glory of God. The apostle Paul shared that same concern. “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Is that your greatest concern as well? Is that the legacy that you seek to leave? If so, put yourself under the authority of Scripture, in communion with other faithful believers in the local church and under the tutelage of a wise teacher like Jonathan Edwards.
Peter Beck, a master of divinity student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, spent a month at Yale studying Edwards in 2002.

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  • Peter Beck