Of the vast corpus of extant sermons by Jonathan Edwards, the majority have never been available other than in manuscript form. This places them outside the access of most nonscholars. Even when the series from Yale University Press, Works of Jonathan Edwards, is completed, many of his sermons will remain unpublished. Since in the eighteenth century the sermon was the major public expression of a pastor’s theology, books like this one provide a helpful source of Edwards’s thought. In this volume the editors present nine previously unpublished sermons, all dealing with Edwards’s theology of the gospel ministry. In Edwards’s view a minister’s primary responsibility is to care for the souls of his parishioners, to proclaim to them the gospel of salvation, and to aid them in spiritual growth.
This collection of sermons spans Edwards’s ministerial career. Two come from early in his ministry in Northampton. In one he interprets the death of several prominent men of Northampton, including his predecessor in the pulpit, Solomon Stoddard, as evidence of God’s displeasure. The second, Edwards’s own installation sermon, expresses his conviction that conversion is solely the work of God. That God uses ministers in the accomplishment of the conversion of souls is not because He needs them. Rather God graciously uses ministers as means to accomplish the work that He alone can do. Thus ministers should humbly and gratefully give glory to God for whatever they accomplish.
Another sermon, from the midpoint of Edwards’s pastoral ministry, was delivered at the ordination of deacons in Northampton. In this message he explains his understanding of the biblical functions of the two church offices of deacons and ministers. Ministers have the responsibility to care for the souls of people, and deacons are to care for the parishoners’ physical needs.
Five of Edwards’s ordination sermons are included in this collection; they were written for the ordination of four New England pastors. Edwards preached at the ordination of Edward Billing in 1740 and then again 1745. Preaching at this pivotal event in the life of a church and town enabled Edwards to encourage the community to support and follow the spiritual leadership of their pastor.
Although his ministry in New England ended over two centuries ago, in his sermons Edwards continues to speak to the church. Through the publishing of his works, his ministry has expanded beyond Northampton and Stockbridge to the whole world. Pastors and their parishioners can all benefit from this eighteenth-century pastor, and this collection of Edwards’s sermons is an excellent and affordable resource toward that end.
One sermon in particular seems especially relevant to the contemporary American church. In this November 1733 sermon, “The Kind of Preaching People Want,” Edwards develops the point that “if the business of ministers was to further the gratification of men’s lusts, they would be much better received by many than they are now” (p. 60). He explains that if ministers’ messages focus on what people want to hear, they will be popular, well supported, and have a long tenure. On the other hand, if ministers proclaim the truth, what people need to hear, they will probably be unpopular, lack financial support, and may even lose their jobs. That all of these things happened to Edwards does not in itself prove that he was preaching the truth, but it seems more than coincidence. Since salvation is solely the work of God and ministers have the privilege to be used as means for the accomplishment of this task, it is essential that ministers strive to proclaim the pure gospel, speaking the truth in love. Doing so might be costly, but there is no higher calling, no more serious task. The gospel ministry truly does deal with life-and-death issues. And to make the task even more sober, as Edwards argues in another sermon included in this anthology, both the minister and his people must appear before the judgment seat of Christ.
This anthology of sermons should be required reading for every pastor and should be in every church library. It is worthy of regular re-reading, as a reminder of the God whom believers serve and of their calling to be faithful to Him and to the ministry of the gospel. All Christians can benefit from Jonathan Edwards’s perspective on theology and ministry.
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