What was Jonathan Edwards’ theology of sanctification?
Here it is, in a nutshell: sanctification is the joyous pilgrimage of a soul that through new birth has become alive to beauty. Put more briefly, for Edwards, to become sanctified is to become beautified. The two ideas are one. In this essay I’d like simply to unpack briefly each bit of that longer sentence: 'joyous,' 'pilgrimage,' 'soul,' 'through new birth,' and—most fundamentally—'alive to beauty.'
But first, a question: What is sanctification, anyway?
What is Sanctification?
Sanctification means to become holy. In the New Testament the same Greek root underlies 'holy' and 'holiness' as well as 'sanctification' (since there is no Greek word 'holification,' meaning to become more holy).
A point of clarification is required, however. While in theological categories we generally speak of sanctification as a process, in the New Testament sanctification is generally an event. Paul tells the Corinthians 'you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified' when God saved them (1 Cor. 6:11). It might seem odd that Paul places sanctification before justification, but that is only because he is viewing both (along with washing) as single events that took place upon conversion. Believers are once-and-for-all 'holified' at conversion. They are decisively set apart. The Holy Spirit has now set up residence within them. This is not to say the New Testament doesn’t teach growth in holiness; it is simply to say that the word sanctify is not normally used to communicate that.
For this reason theologians distinguish between definitive sanctification (what we’ve just been talking about in the above paragraph) and progressive sanctification. Progressive sanctification is what we normally mean when we simply say 'sanctification,' and this is the way in which I will be using the term in the rest of this essay. I will use 'justification' to refer to the one-time event in which believers are declared righteous in the divine courtroom, and 'sanctification' to refer to the gradual process of becoming more holy throughout life.
With this clarification behind us, we reflect on five key dimensions to sanctification in the theology of Jonathan Edwards. The final one, regarding beauty, is the overarching reality that brings coherence to all other dimensions.
Joy is not the extra credit of the Christian life—nice as an added bonus, but non-essential. For Jonathan Edwards, rather, the presence or absence of joy fundamentally determines growth in godliness.
Where does joy come from? Edwards believed that the very existence of the universe is due to joy. He suggested that the world exists because the joyous mutual love of the three Persons of the Trinity couldn’t be contained. It had to spill out. The universe is the result. Christianity is participation in a cosmic celebration. To become a Christian is to be swept up into this joy; to grow as a Christian is simply to simmer in this joy over time.
We should be clear about exactly what joy is. According to Edwards, joy is the sweetness of resting satisfied in God, in the beauty of his love. Smiles and laughs are not the truest gauge of joy. After all, 'even in laughter the heart may ache' (Prov. 14:13). There is a frothiness that may laugh and joke but know little of real joy. Edwards made a fascinating observation about a key difference between the 1734-35 local revival and the Great Awakening a few years later. Whereas in the first revival God’s people tended 'to talk with too much of an air of lightness, and something of laughter,' in the second revival 'they seem to have no disposition to it, but rejoice with a more solemn, reverential, humble joy' (Works of Jonathan Edwards, Yale University Press edition [hereafter WJE], 4:270).
The reference to 'humble joy' is key to Edwards’ understanding of true happiness. Real joy 'is a humble, brokenhearted joy, and leaves the Christian more poor in spirit, and more like a little child' (WJE 2:339–40). Self-promotion, self-congratulation, self-justification—these are promised joys that always ultimately backfire, causing real joy to slip elusively through our fingers.
Edwards frequently spoke of joy with the metaphor of light. Edwards describes the joy of 1 Peter 1:8 (joy that is 'unspeakable and full of glory') as a joy that caused those who had it to radiate the luminosity of divine glory. Joyful people are mini-suns, giving off beautiful light—or rather, moons, reflecting the light of the divine sun.
Joy in God is nonnegotiable if we are to grow into Christian maturity. But joy may not look like what we expect it to look like.
Key to understanding growth in this life, preached and wrote Edwards, is settling into our pilgrim status. As Christians we have undergone a decisive change in identity. This world and all that it pursues is no longer our home. We are now pilgrims. Before conversion, we were at home in this world and strangers to God. After conversion, we are at home with God and strangers to this world.
Edwards felt this keenly. He knew himself to be a pilgrim, and he reminded his people often. 'The saint all the while he is in this world,' wrote Edwards in a letter to a friend, 'is like a pilgrim in a dark wilderness' (WJE 19:730).
A believer’s growth in godliness, then, is a growth that looks silly and strange to a watching world. Why would we not take the path of least resistance and enjoy the pleasures of sin awaiting us at every turn in this world? Because, as Moses discovered, these pleasures are 'fleeting' (Heb. 11:25). We belong elsewhere. We are citizens of heaven. We have another home, and once there, the fraudulent enticements of this world will be fully exposed in all their emptiness and misery. We will have Christ. The way it will all net out, there is no real sacrifice in forsaking the pleasures of this world out of holy anticipation of arriving Home in heaven one day soon. Here is how Edwards put it in a sermon on Christian pilgrimage:
God is the highest good of the reasonable creature. The enjoyment of him is our proper happiness, and is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here: better than fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of any or all earthly friends. These are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops; but God is the ocean. Therefore, it becomes us to spend this life only as a journey towards heaven. (WJE 17:437–38)
If we are to grow in holiness, Edwards reminds us, we must be clear that we are 'sojourners and exiles' here (1 Pet. 2:11). Sanctification is nurtured in the knowledge that this world is no longer a home but a hotel. We don’t belong here; we are temporarily passing through. As he wrote in a 1753 letter to his friend Thomas Gillespie, a pastor in Scotland, 'Let us thus endeavor to help one another (though at a great distance) in traveling through this wide wilderness, that we may have the more joyful meeting in the land of rest, when we have finished our weary pilgrimage' (WJE 16:610).
Sanctification is soul-work.
What is the soul? Not the bottom of your foot—that’s your sole. The soul is the you that you essentially are. It is close to what the Bible calls the 'heart,' by which it means not merely the emotional side of us but the animating core of what makes us tick, the integrating center of human personhood. What makes the soul distinct from the heart is an emphasis on immortality. The soul is the you that will live forever. The soul is not so much a 'part' of the human as it is the entire person, viewed comprehensively from the perspective of heaven.
Edwards preached to his people repeatedly that it is therefore strange for Christians to spend the bulk of their time and efforts pursuing what does not profit the soul and just a fraction of their time and efforts pursuing what does (e.g., WJE 22:216–17). His words land with just as much (or more) force on us today. He speaks of 'the absurdity of such a negligence' in that we cry out to God when suffering material lack but yawn our way through our prayers when suffering spiritual lack (WJE 22:218). This is absurd because of the immortality of the soul. Stretching our mental powers to their fullest to comprehend as great a length of time as we possibly can, whatever we are able to comprehend is a speck compared to eternity. Yes, 'bodily training is of some value' (1 Tim. 4:8). But training of the soul 'holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come' (1 Tim. 4:8; cf. Matt. 10:28). Sanctification is soul-training, and the Holy Spirit is the trainer.
We should remember here something Edwards could have been clearer on himself. Our final state is an embodied one. When Christ returns and restores this earth, everyone will have a body—a glorified body, yes, but a physical body nonetheless, as Christ himself had upon his resurrection.
Nevertheless Edwards drives home the sobering reality that our care for the soul now determines our enjoyment of a resurrected body then. In a world bombarding us with the message that what matters above all in this short life is plush vacations, stockpiled cash, retained youthfulness, outward appearance, and physical health, Jonathan Edwards recalibrates our aspirations. It is the soul that matters. It is the soul that is in view when we talk about sanctification. 'Religion is our great business' (WJE 25:203).
Edwards defined regeneration as 'that great change that is wrought in man by the mighty power of God, at his conversion from sin to God: his being changed from a wicked to a holy man' (WJE 17:186). It might seem odd to consider Edwards’ teaching on the new birth (or regeneration) as we reflect on his view of sanctification. The reason for our strategy is that to Edwards’ mind, it is precisely what happens to us decisively and irreversibly in the new birth that makes us sanctify-able beings. In the new birth God grants new taste buds for holiness, a new impulse toward real beauty, a radically transformed bent of the heart toward God. Edwards called this the new 'sense of the heart.' And out of this sanctification blossoms.
Edwards believed that calling for growth in godliness without speaking of the reality of new birth was like calling for a human child to grow physically without speaking of the reality of physical birth. Birth inaugurates growth. There can be no growth without birth. And birth necessitates or guarantees growth.
It may be, then, that at the moment of our conversion we prayed a prayer or walked an aisle or raised a hand or felt an emotion. But none of these is definitive of new birth. None is what actually ignites sanctification. New birth, and the sanctification that follows, is the divinely granted eruption of life within the human soul. It can never be erased, never undone. The soul is now alive. Lasting sanctification is utterly dependent upon this first decisive work of grace wrought by the Holy Spirit. We could not give ourselves spiritual birth any more than a fetus can deliver itself; and we cannot give ourselves spiritual growth any more than an infant child can nourish itself.
How does regeneration fuel growth? In this way: by changing what we want. What we delight in. New birth does not, in other words, simply give us a new power to do what we always wanted to do. After all, before new birth we did not even want to obey God. Rather, new birth gets down underneath our very will, transforming what we desire. Both obedience and sin are simply the fruit of what we delight in. In authentic sanctification, the will is not pushed, but pulled—that is, the will is not pushed by threats of punishment or fear of judgment or appeasing of others, but rather pulled by a hunger for beauty, for God.
The key question, in sanctification, is not, Are you getting better? The key question is: What do you want?
Alive to Beauty
Here we arrive at the integrating key to Edwards’ theology of sanctification. Joy is the personal experience of true beauty. Pilgrimage is the journey toward final beauty, having caught a clear glimpse of it in the fallen ugliness of this world. The soul is the organ by which beauty is apprehended and enjoyed. New birth is the decisive awakening to beauty.
In short, for Jonathan Edwards, sanctification is beautification. Remembering that being sanctified is just another way to say being made holy, ponder these words from an early sermon: 'What an honor must it be,' preached Edwards, 'to a creature who is infinitely below God, and less than he, to be beautified and adorned with this beauty, with that beauty which is the highest beauty of God himself, even holiness' (WJE 10:430).
Holiness is not only a moral category for Edwards but also an aesthetic category. Growth in godliness is not just about becoming more obedient but, more fundamentally, about becoming more beautiful. Beholding and communing with Beauty Himself, we become a little more like that ourselves. Holiness is contagious. The Holy Spirit has united us to Christ and set up residence within us.
In the new birth, then, sin is unmasked. What, after all, is sin? From one perspective, it is simply false beauty. It is ugliness cloaked as attractiveness. And holiness, which to the unregenerate appears repugnant, is transformed for the regenerate into the attractive and pleasing reality that it truly is. We see things for what they are. Our eyes have been opened.
Edwards taught that it is divine beauty that gives Christianity joy. In a delightful use of the English language Edwards says, 'It is a thing truly happifying to the soul of men to see God' (WJE 17:61; cf. WJE 2:184). Just as enjoying physical beauty is dependent upon the capacity for physical sight, so enjoying spiritual beauty is dependent upon the capacity for spiritual sight. This is the heart of Edwards’ theology of sanctification. What are you looking at? What will hold your gaze today? This is a different question than what one’s theology is, or what church one belongs to, or what family one was raised in, or who one’s friends are. Such things matter. But what really drives growth in godliness is what it is that is captivating us today. What are we relishing? We can say all the right things at church, while what actually captivates us are a thousand things, even good things, other than God. We can even teach others of the beauty of God while functionally feeding on what others say about our teaching.
I keep saying beauty of God, and that’s true enough. But Edwards would want us to put a sharper edge on it. For him, it was specifically the beauty of Christ that captures the heart. There in the pages of Scripture we see the heart of God in concrete expression in his Son—gathering the little children into his lap, fearless before the religious elite, having lunch with prostitutes and social outcasts, forgiving, welcoming, freeing, loving. And it is this beauty of goodness that draws out the heart in sanctification. It is, preached Edwards in 1752, a
sight of the divine beauty of Christ, that bows the wills, and draws the hearts of men. A sight of the greatness of God in his attributes, may overwhelm men, and be more than they can endure; but the enmity and opposition of the heart, may remain in its full strength, and the will remain inflexible; whereas, one glimpse of the moral and spiritual glory of God, and supreme amiableness of Jesus Christ, shining into the heart, overcomes and abolishes this opposition, and inclines the soul to Christ, as it were, by an omnipotent power. (WJE 25:635)
Would you like to grow in holiness? Redoubled efforts and earnest resolve have their place. But these are wheels, not engines. They keep us going in the right direction. But the engine that effectually propels us forward in sanctification is not a matter of looking at God’s greatness so much as his goodness, seen most clearly in Christ. Gazing at him. Seeing beauty.
Edwards’ Theology of Sanctification for Today
This, then, is Edwards’ theology of sanctification. One final series of questions: What is the current scene in evangelical theology regarding sanctification? What are our strengths, and what might be blind spots? And how does Edwards map onto that?
Much could be said here, but I’d like to make just two points in light of a current phenomenon taking place within evangelicalism—namely, across the evangelical scene, from the UK to the United States to Australia and in many other global contexts, the gospel of grace has undergone widespread recovery in its relevance for sanctification. Through conferences and coalitions, books and blogs, the mercy of God raining down on sinners who trust in Christ has been re-centralized as integrally relevant not only for evangelism but also for discipleship—not only for getting in to the Christian life but also for moving forward in the Christian life—not only for justification but also for sanctification. The gospel has been recovered as not only the spark plug of the Christian life, igniting it, but also the fuel for the Christian life, sustaining it. This recovery has spread largely through social media and internet venues, though books and conferences have also played an important role.
Given this recovery, I close with two points. First, a blind spot of ours, for which Edwards should be appropriated. Second, a blind spot of his, for which he should not.
A Blind Spot of Ours?
The first point I wish to make here is that Edwards has something to teach our generation. As we recover the gospel for sanctification, one senses that for many of us something is being lost—a hungry pursuit of holiness, a deliberate earnestness in spirituality, unhurried communion with God as we seek to disaffect our hearts from the siren songs of this world’s idolatrous pleasures. Such earnest single-mindedness is accused today of legalism more often that it should be.
But self-denying pursuit of Christ is only legalism if we are seeking to strengthen God’s approval of us through that earnest obedience. While we are all certainly hard-wired toward such approval-earning, moral striving itself ought not to be viewed with such suspicion. The pendulum appears to be swinging yet again.
Onto the scene walks Jonathan Edwards. He has a word in season for the gospel-centered movement. Soberly aware of the dangers of works’ righteousness that lurks just beneath the surface of our consciousness, Edwards pressed home to his hearers and readers the nonnegotiability of ethical striving. The shortness of life, the eternality of heaven, the fatal attractiveness of sin, and above all the beauty of Christ drove Edwards to give zero room for a kind of apathy-in-the-name-of-gospel-freedom. He should be heeded. There is a striving without which sanctification cannot happen (cf. Heb. 12:14), even a violence involved in the Christian life (Matt. 5:29–30; 11:12; 1 Cor. 15:10).
Without ever encouraging legalism or moralism or any other sanctification strategy guilty of gospel-deficit, Jonathan Edwards defibrillates us back into a virulent pursuit of obedient godliness.
A Blind Spot of Edwards’?
And yet one cannot help but feel that Edwards himself would have been wise to inject a bit more gospel mindfulness into his regular ministry and his own life. He was so intently focused on the subjective dimensions to sanctification that he seems to have neglected its objective dimensions. This is the second point I wish to close with.
Edwards was, for example, extremely introspective, as evidenced by a perusal of his diary or his 'Resolutions' (the latter of which later in life he attributed largely to youthful naiveté). Consider this journal entry from 1722, as he wrestles with whether God truly loves him or not.
The reason why I, in the least, question my interest in God’s love and favor, is, 1. Because I cannot speak so fully to my experience of that preparatory work, of which divines speak; 2. I do not remember that I experienced regeneration, exactly in those steps, in which divines say it is generally wrought; 3. I do not feel the Christian graces sensibly enough, particularly faith. I fear they are only such hypocritical outside affections, which wicked men may feel, as well as others. They do not seem to be sufficiently inward, full, sincere, entire and hearty. (WJE 16:759)
Edwards is wholly focused here on what he perceives happening within him, and in what order. Contrast that strong introspection with a 1949 letter that C. S. Lewis wrote regarding sanctification:
Everyone who accepts the teaching of St. Paul must have a belief in 'sanctification.' But I should, myself, be chary of describing such operations of the Holy Ghost as 'experiences' if by experiences we mean things necessarily discoverable by introspection. And I should be still more chary of mapping out a series of such experiences as an indispensable norm (or syllabus!) for all Christians. I think the ways in which God saves us are probably infinitely various and admit varying degrees of consciousness in the patient. Anything which sets him saying 'Now . . . Stage 2 ought to be coming along . . . is this it?' I think bad and likely to lead some to presumption and others to despair. We must leave God to dress the wound and not keep on taking peeps under the bandage for ourselves. (Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 2: Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931–1949 [San Francisco: HarperOne, 2004], 914)
While the diary and the Resolutions were early in his life, even the later Edwards was not all that different. In Religious Affections Edwards would still be saying things like, '’Tis not God’s design that men should obtain assurance in any other way, than by mortifying corruption, and increasing in grace, and obtaining the lively exercises of it' (WJE 2:195). The statement is not an isolated one but representative of a general tendency in Edwards to look at how we are doing more than what Christ has done in determining growth. The Christian should look to the cross and empty tomb at least as often as to one’s own heart. Lewis’s no-nonsense approach to sanctification provides a dose of realism that is at times lacking in Edwards.
There is certainly a place for introspection, if by that we mean healthy, occasional self-examination (2 Cor. 13:5). The question is one of balance, and thus requires wisdom. But the rhythm of the New Testament certainly seems to be comparable to Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s famous statement that for every one look at ourselves we should take ten looks at Christ. I wish Edwards had been quicker to draw his readers’ eyes outside themselves to the gospel. It is intuitive to look within; it is counterintuitive to look outside. Simplicity, calmness, and rest come when we look outside to Christ.
My goal in this essay is to commend to you Jonathan Edwards’ view of sanctification as rich and profound and biblical and wise and needed—and to add a small injection of gospel-mindfulness into that view of sanctification.
J. I. Packer once commented that the reformers recovered for the church the doctrine of justification, while the Puritans recovered the doctrine of sanctification. Jonathan Edwards, a late Puritan, certainly corroborates Packer’s statement. Perhaps only his theology of revival rivals the contribution Edwards makes to our understanding of sanctification. While the reformation reminded us that justification is outside-in and we lose it if we make it inside-out, I have tried to show briefly in this essay that Edwards reminds us that sanctification is inside-out, and we lose it if we make it outside-in. We are sanctified as the soul beholds God in all his beauty and begins to reflect that beauty. Sanctification occurs as the soul is nurtured, not as we seek to crowbar our behavior into alignment with an external moral code or set of rules or even our conscience.
To be sanctified is to be beautified.