300 years ago, many Puritans believed the return of Christ was imminent. After all, the Great Awakening was divine proof that America was the last stop in the global harvest. Alas! America today is not the America the Puritans knew. America today needs vision. Not political vision. Or social vision. But a theological vision! And who better to offer that theological vision to America than America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review God’s Grand Design: The Theological Vision of Jonathan Edwards by Sean Michael Lucas. 224 pages, published by Crossway in October 2011.
This book is a free book of the month of July from Faithlife. You can listen to this review and get the book, or you can just get the book first. Why wait? This podcast episode will always be around but that free offer ends.
Do you know what other free offer ends? God’s offer for our redemption. That also ends. One day, maybe tomorrow!, there will be a cosmic conclusion to this age. But Christians do not wait and do nothing. For the redemption we receive, we apply.
300 years ago, Jonathan Edwards saw God’s redemption working at two levels: the cosmic and the personal. The cosmic story of Creation and the personal story of a Christian. This vision is found in his letters, sermons, books and published and unpublished material.
But we need someone to bring together the scattered pieces to turn it into a coherent picture. Who is that someone?
I give you Sean Michael Lucas, professor of church history at Reformed Theological Seminary. His first published work, back in 2003, was “The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards: American Religion and the Evangelical Tradition”, he was one of the editors and a contributing essayist. Writing on Jonathan Edwards is no easy task as Lucas explains:
One of the things that makes the study of Jonathan Edwards overwhelming is the sheer amount of literature. First, of course, is the amount of material written by Edwards himself. While the definitive Yale University Press print edition filled twenty-six volumes, the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University has made available transcriptions of a wide range of materials online that total seventy-three “volumes.” Obviously, any attempt to master Edwards is futile, although we now have a better opportunity and access than ever before to know what he said.
So while he says any attempt to master Edwards is futile, the books he has read, the books he has written, this book we are reviewing now, shows a dedicated attempt to capture Jonathan Edwards theological vision.
Thus, the scenario before you is this: “Lucas has done the heroic attempt to distill Edwards’ vision into 200 pages. Will you make an attempt at Jonathan Edwards?”
This is no trivial question. Edwards comes from a time when a book title is a sentence, a sentence is a paragraph and a paragraph is an essay. By our standards, the Puritans’ writing is slow, long, convoluted, yet promising to be deep, meditative and soul-enriching. But, you say, this book, God’s Grand Design is not written by Jonathan Edwards, it’s written by Sean Michael Lucas, so it’s easy right?
That’s why you need to listen to this review.
God’s Grand Design by Sean Michael Lucas is divided into two parts: Part I is Redemption History and Part II is Redemption Applied. The cosmic and the personal.
In Part I, we have four chapters, namely:
- God’s Grand Design: The Glory of God
- God’s End in Creating the World: Creation, Nature, Fall
- The Great Errand of Christ: Redemption
- The Summum and Ultimum: Consumation
From those four chapter headings you can see God’s Grand Design. But if you were expecting a brisk walk from Genesis to Revelation, you won’t get it. The book assumes you already have an outline of redemptive history, and if you don’t, there are better books for that. What Lucas offers here is Jonathan Edwards’ thoughts, commentary on redemptive history. That’s Part I.
In Part II, Redemption Applied, we have seven chapters, starting with chapter 5:
- A Divine and Supernatural Light
- The Nature of True Religion: Holy Affections
- The Dark Side of Religious Affections: Self-Deception
- A Love Life: How the Affections Produce Genuine Virtue
- Means of Grace: The Ministry of the Word
- Means of Grace: The Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
- Means of Grace: Prayer, Personal and Global
- The Christian Life as a Journey to Heaven
The way the book is written, you never doubt that what Lucas writes is what Edwards thought. You know how helpful it is when someone makes a biblical argument, they quote the Bible verse? Lucas does the same. When he tells us this is Edwards theological opinion, he quotes an Edwards sermon or book or letter. Lucas also gets us familiar with other writers, especially in Appendix 1.
Appendix 1 is an annotated bibliography. It’s so useful, you should just download this book (which is free for July from Faithlife) just for this appendix. You might never read Lucas’ book, but you might read a book he recommends here. For example, he briefly reviews four biographies on Edwards: a big one, a short one, a Harvard one and an Iain Murray one. There are around 20 books in his survey.
I appreciate his candour. On Edwards book, “The Life of Brainerd”, Lucas writes:
I am not a big fan of that book either. While Edwards attempted to produce a case study in piety, Brainerd strikes me as overly morose and inward.
Considering that the Life of Brainerd is the book that launched a million missions, I like how Lucas is able to critique his hero. To him, Edwards is a man like us. That’s actually the title of his essay, which we can find in Appendix 2.
This essay, “A Man Like Us: Jonathan Edwards and Spiritual Formation for Ministerial Candidates” is like a biographical sketch, but he says it’s not. And it’s meant to encourage the reader.
So why was it that I finished the book feeling quite discouraged?
Listen to what Lucas wrote in the introduction. After briefing describing the themes for the book:
To chart these themes well means that at times this book may be rough sledding for some. Having taught on Jonathan Edwards to seminarians, I’ve walked with them through his knotty passages and complex thoughts; but these require careful thought, precise statement, and sometimes rereading.
And I was discouraged because there were sections where I didn’t get. I know Edwards is saying something profound, Lucas is translating it to my everyday language, but I still couldn’t understand it. Even after rereading it a few times!
That is why my early drafts for this book review was unfavourable. I felt like I didn’t gain much.
Until I referred to my notes. I use Logos software to read, so it has a list of what I highlighted. As I went through the list, I was surprised by how much I actually gained. Edwards is dense so the little that I gleaned was also dense.
I include this personal reflection early in this review, to be upfront about the difficulty of grasping Edwards’ theological vision, as Lucas reminds us it requires careful thought, precise statement, and sometimes rereading. But there is spiritual gold here, and I want to tell you about two gold nuggets. One from each part of the book.
Images of Divine Things
The big idea in Part I is God’s glory and God’s glory is the fount from which John Piper sweeps his hands wide, gasps at God’s self-glorifying majesty, and invites all God’s creatures to be in Christ-centred awe. That is the big idea in Part I but I won’t talk about that. Instead I want to talk about one Jonathan Edwards notebook that might inspire my own version.
Because the end of creation is to reflect God’s glory back to him, it is not surprising that Edwards sought to read creation itself for signs of God’s excellency, beauty, and glory. In order to assist him in these reflections, Edwards put together a notebook that he entitled “Images of Divine Things.” In the notebook, he draws parallels between things he saw in God’s world and truths found in Scripture.
What I read next is an extensive quote of Lucas citing multiple examples from Edwards:
Roses and thorns signify “that all temporal sweets are mixed with bitter,” but even more that “the crown of glory” can come only “by bearing Christ’s cross by a life of mortification, self-denial, and labor, and bearing all things for Christ.” The ways snakes are able to charm birds in order to kill them “are lively representations of the devil’s catching our souls by his temptations.” The silkworm stands as a type of Christ in this way: “when it dies, [it] yields us that of which we make such glorious clothing. Christ became a worm for our sakes, and by his death finished that righteousness with which believers are clothed.” The waves of the ocean during a storm “have a representation of the terrible wrath of God and amazing misery of them that endure it.” Lightning commonly strikes high mountains, spires, trees, and the like; this signifies “that heaven is an enemy to all proud persons, and that especially makes such the marks of his vengeance.”
This is the sort of thing that Charles Spurgeon did. It’s also the sort of thing I have learnt to avoid in preaching or teaching because these illustrations too easily become what people focus on and remember. But these illustrations are man-made, you can make anything say anything you want. There is no control. In contrast, if you stick close to the text, you are on sure ground, you are safely constrained by the text. That’s what I believe and still believe.
But now, after reading Edwards, I love how he loves God so much that he sees God’s truth everywhere. In the flowers, animals, weather and everyday things. This is evidence of a man constantly thinking, meditating and looking for God. And I would like to be such a man.
That’s one gold nugget, now to the next.
False Affections and Evangelical Hypocrites
If Part I of this book is familiar to me, it’s because of John Piper, who by the way, is the one who introduced Jonathan Edwards to me. Reading Part I, you cannot fail to see Edwards influence on Piper’s ministry.
For Part II, chapters 5-8 is familiar to me because I read Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections.
I have recommended this book to young people who see a lack of emotions in some services and a flood of emotions in others and were wondering what to make of it. I suggested Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards because his thorough, meditative and precise study on this issue settled the matter once and for all for me. He wrote it so well, I thought there was nothing else that needed to be said.
At least that’s what I thought until I read this book. These four chapters. And he picks up on things that that I didn’t notice before. For example, in chapter 7, “The Dark Side of Religious Affections”, Lucas begins the chapter by writing:
Though many people are familiar with at least some of Edwards’s argument in Religious Affections, they are probably unaware that there is another, darker side to what he was saying.
Lucas later explains:
And, as already noted, the burden of Religious Affections was to mark out what true revival and conversion look like. However, what must be recognized is that Edwards also sought to identify the characteristics of false religion; or to put it differently, he attempted to show colonial men and women that they very well might have been self-deceived about their spiritual condition.
The signs that they claim are evidence of their spiritual wellness are inconclusive. Lucas goes through each evidence one at a time.
Having extraordinary affections, emotions raised to a high pitch, doesn’t mean you are converted.
Being able to speak fluently and at length of one’s spiritual experience doesn’t mean you are converted.
Being able to quote Scripture or have Bible verses come directly to the mind doesn’t mean you are converted. I quote Lucas:
The Devil himself can bring texts of Scripture to the mind and misapply them in such a way to draw people away from God rather than to him.
A strong response to the Word may not mean anything. A free and engaged worship may also not mean anything.
All of these signs are really “not signs” of a changed life. They are inconclusive tests whether someone has truly experienced a new sense of the heart, new and holy affections that produce spiritual understanding and holy practice. Those who rest on these signs have the potential of being self-deceived about their condition. And that is because these signs can be counterfeited, produce hypocrisy, or subject the individual to “enthusiasm” in ways that cause him or her to be lost in the end.
Let us take a step back for a while why this book is helpful. Religious Affections was written in 1746. Jonathan Edwards wrote it in response to what was happening in the Great Awakening. And if you think that the Great Awakening is what happens when you just had a Great Afternoon Napping, then you are Evidence #1 on why everyone needs to read more Christian books. In the Great Awakening, there was a flood of spiritual experiences. And people thought because they had a spiritual experience, that means they are spiritual okay.
Following the seventeenth-century American Puritan, Thomas Shepard, Edwards distinguished between “legal hypocrites” and “evangelical hypocrites.” Legal hypocrites are those who “are deceived with their outward morality and external religion.” Evangelical hypocrites are “those that are deceived with false discoveries and elevations; which often cry down works, and men’s own righteousness and talk much of free grace.” Of the two, Edwards clearly saw the latter as more dangerous. Evangelical hypocrites are self-deceived, having based their confidence of eternal salvation on false signs, and yet defending themselves by claiming that they have “the witness of the Spirit”.
Guys, don’t you think what I just read could so easily apply to what we are witnessing in today’s church? Don’t you think if they knew what these words, false affections and evangelical hypocrites, mean, they have a way of soberly reflect on their spiritual life.
Plastic flowers, not knowing they are plastic. Tragic.
So those are two gold nuggets that I mined for you. In my book reviews, I want to make sure you learn something even if you don’t read the book, so I hope you will 1. see God’s Truth everywhere you go, and 2. learn two new phrases: false affections and evangelical hypocrites.
As I go into my concluding thoughts, I am still selective of who would be a good fit for this book.
You will note that throughout this book review, I referred to Edwards and Lucas interchangeably. That’s a credit to Lucas because he parks the reader in the mind of Jonathan Edwards throughout the book.
And that is also a problem because Lucas aims to keep the precise statements precise, he is reluctant to dumb down Edwards for dumb people (like me, not you).
So I would read and re-read and re-read and at one point in the book, I actually thought maybe there is something wrong with my comprehension. The words are in English and I don’t understand what they mean. I got so frustrated, I skipped to the appendix just to check whether I could understand Lucas’ essays. And to my relief I found that I can understand Lucas when he is using his own voice. The problem occurs when he is using Edwards-speak.
If you don’t know Jonathan Edwards or are uninterested in church history or in theology or in the Puritan literature, then this is not for you. This book needs something in you to work with.
A better entry into Jonathan Edwards could be one of the other books Lucas recommends in Appendix 1. Or you could… just read Religious Affections. It’s a good book. It settles an argument still relevant today, emotions in service.
Even though it was rough sledding, I am happy I finished the book. I can tick off one Puritan book for this year. Yes, I know God’s Grand Design was published 11, not 300, years ago. And yes, I know the author is still alive unlike the Puritans he writes about. But 300 year old wine is still 300 year old wine, whether it’s served in the original bottle or in a modern wine glass. Lucas preserves much of Edwards style and thoughts, for all the good and bad that brings.
Let me close this review with this quote. Lucas is explaining the purpose behind one of Edwards writing.
Edwards’s larger purpose was to raise his congregation’s vision from its apparently mundane and petty daily concerns to find their affections engaged by the cosmic purpose that God has in his work of redemption.
If you want a vision of God’s redemption in the cosmic-sense and in the personal, through the eyes of America’s Puritan Theologian, get this book.
This is a Reading and Readers review of God’s Grand Design: The Theological Vision of Jonathan Edwards by Sean Michael Lucas. 224 pages, published by Crossway in October 2011. And it’s available for free from Faithlife only in July, and USD12.99 in Amazon Kindle.
Before you go, normally I don’t do this but I am excited to tell you about the next book I aim to review. It’s Biblical Worship: Theology for God’s Glory. The editors are Benjamin K. Forrest, Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Vernon M. Whaley. 544 pages, published by Kregel Academic in February 2021. It’s available for USD29 in Amazon Kindle, the list price is USD42.99. And here is the reason why I’m telling you about it now. It’s only USD9.99 in Logos but only for this month, July.
The thing is I don’t know whether I will be in time to review Biblical Worship before the offer ends.
I am eight chapters in and unless the remaining 26 chapters is a dud, this is an immensely helpful resource for worship. One guy writes a chapter on Worship in the Book of Leviticus. Another writes a chapter on Worship in the Book of Joshua. Another writes an entire chapter on Worship in the Book of Judges. And on it goes. If you don’t know why that is a big deal, stay tuned for my next review.
If you already know that this book is for you, then get it. In Logos for July, it’s USD9.99 from a list price of USD42.99. I just can’t see it ever getting discounted further than that. If you like that tip, and you would like to send me your appreciation, you can buy me a coffee. Just go to www.readingandreaders.com, and click on the buy me a coffee button. That’s all from me. Thanks for listening.