Nothing on earth can compare
Books | Jonathan Edwards on the boundless joys of heaven
by Owen Strachan & Douglas A. Sweeney
Posted 7/13/19, 12:51 pm
The one sermon many secular students ever read or hear about is “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” preached by Jonathan Edwards. It’s a good and true sermon, but it boxes in Edwards as an aficionado of anger—and he was much more than that. Owen Strachan and Douglas A. Sweeney’s The Essential Jonathan Edwards is an excellent introduction to the great 18th century theologian who is heavy sledding for modern readers. Please read the thoughts about heavenly joy Edwards had in the excerpt below, courtesy of Moody Publishers, and you’ll see why he tried so hard to warn his congregation that they were in danger of missing out.
The Essential Jonathan Edwards was an honorable mention selection for WORLD’s 2018 Book of the Year in the Accessible Theology category. —Marvin Olasky
We often make the pleasures of this world our standard for happiness. Yet even the best and most lasting joys of this world cannot fractionally compare to the goodness of heaven. Living in heaven, Edwards tells us, is like taking “flight out into an endless expanse” and plunging “into a bottomless ocean” of the “beauty and loveliness of God.” None of this will prove “a dull story,” as our earthly joys often do. God has made lasting delight in earthly experiences and possessions evasive. We lose happiness easily here. We grow bored with our favorite things. We easily sense something of the ennui of this world, the listlessness, the tendency to break down and stagnate. We will not know such a deadening pattern in heaven. Our enhanced senses will handle as much delight as they possibly can for all of eternity. We will know joy upon joy, delight upon delight, “forever and ever.”
Mansions for all
The gold standard of earthly achievement has been, for centuries, a mansion. Though we might initially chastise such a desire, it seems from the Bible that we were made to desire a heavenly mansion, a place where we can rest in satisfaction and ease, as John 14:2 promises. Edwards elaborated on this text in his sermon “Many Mansions”:
Let all be hence exhorted, earnestly to seek that they may be admitted to a mansion in heaven. You have heard that this is God’s house: it is his temple. If David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah, and in the land of Jeshua, and of the Philistines, so longed that he might again return into the land of Israel, that he might have a place in the house of God here on earth, and prized a place there so much, though it was but that of a doorkeeper; then how great in happiness will it be to have a place in this heavenly temple of God. If they are looked upon as enjoying an high privilege that have a seat appointed there in kings’ courts, or an apartment in kings’ palaces, especially those that have an abode there in the quality of the king’s children; then how great a privilege will it be to have an apartment or mansion assigned us in God’s heavenly palace, and to have a place there as his children. How great is their glory and honor that are admitted to be of the household of God. (Works 19, 743)
Edwards’s words show that God intends for His people to live satisfied, restful, enjoyable lives in heaven. This is what the mansion signifies—not self-glorifying wealth, but the abundant, generous gift of God to His people. On this earth Christians know suffering, poverty, and want to varying degrees. It is a sure hope that in the life to come, the Lord will give us an endless bounty of goodness and a “high privilege” that has never been known on this earth (1 Cor. 2:6–10). We will not hole up in our heavenly mansions, however. In the world to come, we will gather as the family of God:
Heaven is the house where God dwells with his family. God is represented in Scripture as having a family; and though some of this family are now on earth, yet in so being, they are abroad, or not at home, but all going home. Ephesians 3:15, “Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.” Heaven is the place that God has built for himself and his children. God has many children, and the place designed for ’em is heaven. And therefore the saints, being the children of God, are said to be of the household of God. Ephesians 2:19, “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” God is represented as an householder, or the head of a family, and heaven is his house. (Works 19, 738)
In heaven, we will dwell together with God. We will gather as a joyful family to celebrate the One who has called us to Himself. We will experience perfect communion and intimate fellowship with one another and with our God. We will make our way to our mansion and take unforeseen delight in the home prepared for us.
Serving God in heaven
Just because heaven is a place of worship does not mean that it is a tame, lazy, boring realm. According to Edwards’s sermon “Serving God in Heaven,” a meditation on Revelation 22:3, the ideal realm would feature mankind in his ideal state. This meant action, not passivity:
But man’s powers of action were given him for action. God aimed at action, in giving man such capacities of action. And therefore when the reasonable creature is in action, or in the exercise of those powers of action which God hath given it, then ’tis in its more perfect state if its acts are suitable to the rational nature, and consequently is more happy than in a state of idleness. (Works 17, 254)
In serving the Lord, man was fulfilling the design-plan God had created for him:
Therefore, when man serves God, he acts most according to his nature. He is employed in that sort of action that is most distinguishing of him from the beasts. He acts then in a way most according to the end of his formation, and most agreeable to his make and formation of the human nature itself. A man never acts so rationally as when he serves God. No actions [are] so agreeable to reason, and all that are contrary to God’s service are contrary to reason. And therefore, doubtless, his happiness consists in serving God. (Works 17, 255)
This illuminates why we naturally gravitate to work. Even without the light of revelation, there is something in the heart of a person that relishes productivity. Most of us are happiest when put to good ends. The satisfaction we enjoy in such work foreshadows our lives in the age to come, which will be filled with all kinds of fruitful endeavors in the name of our Lord. Edwards spelled this out further in “Serving God”:
The saints in heaven will take great delight in serving of [God], as they delight in doing that which is just and right. Justice is what they delight in; if anything is right and equal, it is sufficient to make those spirits that are made perfect to love it and take pleasure [in] it. They will see those charms in equity that will cause them to have a perfect love to it. Saints’ love to equity and justice in this world is not perfect. Sometimes a love to other things prevails over it. A saint here may be drawn to do those things that are contrary to it, but it will not be so in heaven, where the soul shall be brought to its perfect rectitude of nature.
They will be sensible that ’tis most reasonable that God should be their ruler, in that he has redeemed them. They will see that all the service which they can render to him is but a small recompense for that great redemption. They will be sensible then how great the redemption was, much more sensible than they are now; for then, they will be sensible how terrible the destruction is that they were redeemed from, and shall know by experience how glorious the happiness which was purchased for them. (Works 17, 256)
As Edwards showed, the reality of redemption will not sit lightly on the minds of the glorified saints. It will drive us to serve the Lord with fullness of joy. Heaven is a place of service, but not rote service of the kind we all know well on earth. We will work for the Lord with the happiest of hearts.
Degrees of glory in the afterlife
Edwards believed that our earthly lives counted in the afterlife. In his sermon “Degrees of Glory,” based on 2 Corinthians 9:6, he argued that the believer who pursues the glory of God in this life will experience greater honor than a lax believer. The pastor set forth this view early in the sermon:
The Scriptures declare that God will hereafter reward every man according to his works; as Matthew 16:27, “For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works”; and in many other places. Now, by this we but justly understand only that Christ rewards everyone according to the quantity of his works, viz. that he will reward good to them that have done good, and evil to them that have done evil; but also that the reward will be in proportion to men’s works. Thus it shall be with the wicked: their punishment will be in proportion to their wicked works; as is abundantly manifest. Thus we read, it shall be more tolerable for some of them than others at the day of judgment. And Christ signifies the different degrees of punishment in hell by the different degrees of capital punishments among the Jews, in Matthew 5:22. “Whosoever shall be angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” And as wicked men shall in this sense be rewarded according to their works, viz. in proportion, so doubtless will the godly. Yea, the rewards being according to our works, our labor is expressly in this sense applied to the godly by the Apostle. 1 Corinthians 3:8, “Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labor.” (Works 19, 616)
Though we might instinctively think that every Christian will occupy the same position in heaven, Edwards argued that it was not so. He grounded his argument in Scripture:
God has abundantly promised to reward the good works of the saints in another world. Christ has said that if we do but give a cup [of cold water only, we shall in no wise lose our reward]. But how can this be, if it be so that whether they do more good works or fewer, all that have just the same reward? When a person has a good work before him to be done, how can he say with himself to encourage himself to do, “If I do it, I shall be rewarded for it; I shall in no case lose my reward”; if at the same time it be true that he shall have as great a reward, if he lets it alone as if he does it; and he shall have as much future happiness, if he does few good works as many? There can be no such thing as any reward at all for good works, unless they are rewarded with some additional degree of happiness. If nothing be added, then there is nothing gained. (Works 19, 616–17)
Living with heavenly rewards in mind was not an option, as Edwards found in his study of the Word. It was
a duty expressly commanded. Matthew 6:19–20, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.” By laying up treasure in heaven is not only meant obtain some inheritance there, but to be adding to it; as is evident by the comparison made between this and what is forbidden, viz. laying up treasure on earth. By which Christ don’t mean that we should get nothing in this world, but not do as worldly-minded men do, be striving insatiably to hoard up, and keep adding to our worldly good things; but rather strive to add to our inheritance in heaven, and heap up treasure there; labor daily to increase our interest there by doing good works, and abounding in them; as appears by [the] Luke 12:33. “Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens.” (Works 19, 621–22)
Edwards’s argument matches the plain teaching of Scripture. The way that we live on this earth affects our heavenly status. The more that we live for the Lord with the little time that we have here, the more He will reward us in the life to come. Day-to-day life, with moment-by-moment, even second-by-second decisions, counts. It is not all a wash, or all the same to God. The thoughts we think, the programs we choose to watch, the evangelistic conversation we try to have, the cup of cold water we give in the name of Christ, the word of correction we offer a straying believer, the prayer we say as we hurry to work—all of this matters to God. All of it impacts, in a way we do not fully understand now, our eternal standing in heaven. We do not know exactly how things will shake out. It may very well be that the leaders we admire now must take a back seat to saints we have never heard of in heaven. Our earthly calculus for heavenly standing may prove wrong altogether. We do not know, in the end, where the Lord will seat us in His gallery of worship. We do know, however, that the life we live on this earth matters. Every second of our earthly existence counts.
Heaven is a world of love
The axis on which heaven turns, according to Edwards in his sermon “Heaven Is a World of Love,” is love. In this sermon, one of the pastor’s most stirring, his prose spiraled to great heights. The text immediately grabs the reader’s attention and permanently affects the way one thinks about heaven. The central idea of “Heaven Is a World of Love” is that God dwells in heaven and fills the realm with the essence of His being, which is love. The text begins on this note:
Heaven is the palace, or presence-chamber, of the Supreme Being who is both the cause and source of all holy love. God, indeed, with respect to his essence is everywhere. He fills heaven and earth. But yet he is said on some accounts more especially to be in some places rather than others. He was said of old to dwell in the land of Israel above all other lands, and in Jerusalem above all other cities in that land, and in the temple above all other houses in that city, and in the holy of holies above all other apartments in that temple, and on the mercy seat over the ark above all other places in the holy of holies. But heaven is his dwelling place above all other places in the universe. (Works 8, 369)
Edwards captures the largeness of God and heaven here. God is gigantic. He is not small or limited. The Lord “fills heaven and earth.” Yet heaven “is his dwelling place” in a special way. It is a place where only things that please God may dwell. He will tolerate no sin, no effects of the curse, no beings who do not delight in Him, but only things that are “lovely”:
There are none but lovely objects in heaven. There is no odious or polluted person or thing to be seen there. There is nothing wicked and unholy. Revelation 21:27, “And there shall in no wise enter into it anything that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie.” There is nothing which is deformed either in natural or moral deformity. Everything which is to be beheld there is amiable. The God, who dwells and gloriously manifests himself there, is infinitely lovely. There is to be seen a glorious heavenly Father, a glorious Redeemer; there is to be felt and possessed a glorious Sanctifier. All the persons who belong to that blessed society are lovely. The Father of the family is so, and so are all his children. The Head of the body is so, and so are all the members. Concerning the angels, there are none who are unlovely. There are no evil angels suffered to infest heaven as they do this world. They are not suffered to come near, but are kept at a distance with a great gulf between them. In the church of saints there are no unlovely persons; there are no false professors, none who pretend to be saints, who are persons of an unchristian, hateful spirit and behavior, as is often the case in this world. There is no one object there to give offense, or at any time to give any occasion for any passion or motion of hatred; but every object shall draw forth love. (Works 8, 370)
The identifying characteristic of this otherworldly society is love. In the realm of this world, every relationship is tainted by sin in some way. We experience the love of God and mediate it to others, but even among highly mature Christians, affection is not pure. The heavenly society knows no such weaknesses of love. Proceeding from the Godhead and flowing undiminished into all who reside there, love is the fundamental principle, the defining characteristic of existence:
With respect to the degree of their love, it is perfect. The love which is in the heart of God is perfect, with an absolute, infinite and divine perfection. The love of the angels and saints to God and Christ is perfect in its kind, or with such a perfection as is proper to their nature, perfect with a sinless perfection, and perfect in that it is commensurate with the capacities of their natures. So it is said in the text, when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. Their love shall be without any remains of a contrary principle. Having no pride or selfishness to interrupt or hinder its exercises, their hearts shall be full of love. That which was in the heart as but a grain of mustard seed in this world shall there be as a great tree. The soul which only had a little spark of divine love in it in this world shall be, as it were, wholly turned into love; and be like the sun, not having a spot in it, but being wholly a bright, ardent flame. There shall be no remaining enmity, distaste, coldness and deadness of heart towards God and Christ; not the least remainder of any principle of envy to be exercised towards any angels or saints who are superior in glory, no contempt or slight towards any who are inferior. (Works 8, 375–76)
More comforting and hopeful words one can scarcely find. The Northampton pastor compels his hearers to remember the sweet and sometimes forgotten promises of Scripture. The “mustard seed” that fights to grow here will surely grow into “a great tree” in eternity. The soul that fought to taste the love of God in this earth but battled bitterly against besetting sin, hurtful situations, and desperate circumstances will find its “little spark of divine love” turned into “a bright, ardent flame.” Nothing will impair the Christian’s love for the Lord, no “enmity, distaste, coldness and deadness of heart,” no “principle of envy,” no “contempt or slight.” The absence of these problems so familiar to us who dwell in a sinful world clarify the wonder and hope of heaven.
Excerpted from The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America’s Greatest Theologian by Owen Strachan and Douglas Alan Sweeney (© 2018). Published by Moody Publishers. Used with permission.
Owen is associate professor of Christian theology and director for the Center on Public Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Douglas A. Sweeney
Douglas is dean and professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School of Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.