Part one can be read here.
The principal means by which Jonathan Edwards expressed the “true and gracious longings after holiness” of which he spoke in Religious Affections was through the practice of the spiritual disciplines he found in Scripture. Edwards’s God, he believed, was self-revealed in the Bible, and that “the Scriptures are the word and work of a divine mind.” Thus the Bible was the centerpiece of his devotional piety.
But Edwards did not merely read Scripture, rather he meditated on and prayerfully studied it by the hour. This is plainly evidenced by the abundant fruit of these practices represented in the works cited previously. Throughout his life, the Bible was the supreme means by which Edwards sought to know and experience God and to pursue conformity to the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Edwards’s devotional meditation on Scripture was inevitably intermingled with prayer, especially in the late afternoon when it was his habit to “walk for divine contemplation and prayer.” But Edwards also prayed alone in his study, as well as with his children and with Sarah, as noted in the previous post. He did the same with church members who came seeking his counsel or with young ministers living as interns in his home. Samuel Hopkins, an early biographer of Edwards who was one of those pastoral interns, indicates that sometimes Edwards devoted entire days to prayer.
Next to a hunger for the Bible, Edwards believed that the most important indicator of a person’s relationship to God or, conversely, the absence thereof, was prayer. This is revealed in his sermon, “Hypocrites Deficient in the Duty of Prayer.” In Edwards’s personal piety, prayer was planned, but it was also informal; it was scheduled, yet it was also spontaneous—all on a daily basis. In terms of method, Edwards spoke of prayer mostly as propositional communication, that is, addressing God with rational thought.
Beyond the essential elements of meditation on Scripture and prayer, Edwards’s piety was frequently characterized by worshipful song. Especially when walking alone late in the day he found that “it always seemed natural . . . to sing or chant forth my meditations.”
Much of Edwards’ devotional life was somehow connected with writing. Whether in his “Diary,” “Miscellanies,” “Notes on Scripture,” or “Blank Bible,” Edwards frequently recorded insights that occurred to him as he meditated on Scripture, creation, or God’s providence. Today such practices would sometimes be designated a type of “journaling.”
Another aspect of Edwards’s devotional piety was fasting, that is, abstaining from one or more meals for spiritual purposes. Hopkins observed that Edwards frequently fasted, and Edwards himself wrote, “fasting is a part of Christian worship.” Occasionally he declared “fast days” for the Northampton congregation.
All the aforementioned disciplines practiced by Edwards—reading and meditating on Scripture, praying, worshipful singing, spiritual diary and devotional writing, and fasting—occurred in the context of his discipline of God-focused solitude. It may be that Edwards’s pastoral ministry suffered due to his preference for solitude, nevertheless he steadfastly maintained, “It is the nature of true grace, that however it loves Christian society in its place, yet it in a peculiar manner delights in retirement, and secret converse with God.”
Though little has been written of it, Edwards’ devotional piety extended to his immediate family. As previously mentioned, he read Scripture with his wife and children each morning and prayed with them more than once daily. By this means he practiced in his home what he preached from his pulpit: “A Christian family is as it were a little church.”
Edwards was persuaded that God had most clearly revealed himself—his nature, attributes, and will—in Scripture, and that to know God in an increasingly intimate way necessitated a biblically-saturated piety. He never appeared to question the methods of spirituality located in the biblical text, nor did he seem to find them unsatisfying or ineffective in his pursuit of God. To be sure, he did not limit his encounters with God’s presence to the pages of the Bible, for Edwards constantly looked to see and savor the revelation of God in creation as per Romans 1:20. And yet, as often and as deeply as he rejoiced in the glory of God in creation, Edwards never allowed this to take precedence in his piety over the specific revelation of God found in Scripture.
Edwards’s piety was a manifestation of his view that this life should be lived in preparation for eternity. He believed passionately in the existence of heaven and hell as taught in the Bible, that true and everlasting joy was found only in the presence of God in heaven, and that life on earth should be spent in the pursuit of and preparation for happiness in the coming world. For Edwards, the primary means of experiencing God in this life, and the wisest way to use his time, and the best method of preparing for eternity was to devote as much time as possible to biblical piety.
Original artwork by Caffy Whitney
For more about Jonathan Edwards and his spirituality:
A God-Entranced Vision of All Things—The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. Don’s contribution to this book is the chapter on “Pursuing a Passion for God Through Spiritual Disciplines: Learning from Jonathan Edwards.”
Finding God in Solitude: The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and It’s Influence on His Pastoral Ministry. This is a popularization of Don’s Ph.D. dissertation. It is so expensive because it was published by an academic press and with a small print run.
 Namely his “Diary,” “Miscellanies,” and “Notes on Scripture.” We can also conjecture about Edwards’s own devotional habits from the commendation he gives to the missionary’s piety in The Life of David Brainerd, the counsel provided in his letter to Deborah Hatheway, the content of various sermons, the notes in his “Blank Bible,” and especially from the testimony in his Personal Narrative—the single best autobiographical resource on Edwards’s piety.
Broadly defined, “piety” refers to the aggregate of a person’s distinctly Christian beliefs and actions. Here Jonathan Edwards’s piety is considered in the more narrow sense of devotional piety, that is, those private practices intended to focus the heart and mind of the individual believer upon God and to develop authentic Christian beliefs, motives, and actions.
Although Edwards’s general Christian piety was exemplary, his personal devotional piety was exceptional, both in breadth and depth. It was grounded in Scripture, influenced by the patterns of his father Timothy and grandfather Solomon Stoddard—both of whom were pastors—and consistent with that of the ministers in Puritan England and New England through whom Edwards traced his theological lineage.
Even as a child Edwards sometimes manifested unusual inclinations toward devotional habits. Although he’d not yet experienced the converting influence of the “Divine and Supernatural Light” he would famously preach about in 1733, as a boy there was a period of months when he would “pray five times a day in secret,” often in a booth built for the purpose in a swamp.
After his conversion (1721) at age 17 his devotional duties became delights. He reported that now he “went to prayer, to pray to God that I might enjoy Him; and prayed in a manner quite different from what I used to do; with a new sort of affection.” He also began to experience “the greatest delight in the holy Scriptures, of any book whatsoever.” In the Bible he “seemed often to see so much light, exhibited by every sentence, and such a refreshing ravishing food communicated.”
Within months Edwards “solemnly vowed to take God for my whole portion and felicity; looking on nothing else as any part of my happiness, nor acting as if it were.” He built his life around disciplines that helped him pursue the enjoyment of God and cultivate happiness in him.
At 18, for example, he began the lifelong practice where he “very frequently used to retire into a solitary place, . . . for contemplation on divine things, and secret converse with God; and had many sweet hours there.” About the same time (no later than 1722) Edwards began his “Diary,” the volume containing his “Resolutions.”
In terms of daily routine, Edwards’s piety began each morning between four or five when by candlelight he would read the Bible and pray. Marsden says that afterward Edwards would lead his family in prayer and that “each meal was accompanied by household devotions.” At the close of each day, Sarah and Jonathan would pray together in his study.
Most every day of Edwards’s life was spent at home, and most of that time he worked in his study. A legendary line from Samuel Hopkins, who as a first-hand observer wrote of Edwards, “He commonly spent thirteen hours every day in his study.”
While the specific details and processes of Edwards’s devotional methods remain hidden behind his study door, we can draw the general contours of his personal spirituality from resources produced there such as his “Diary,” “Miscellanies,” and “Notes on Scripture.” We can also conjecture about Edwards’s own devotional habits from the commendation he gives to the missionary’s piety in The Life of David Brainerd, the counsel provided in his letter to Deborah Hatheway, the content of various sermons, the notes in his “Blank Bible,” and especially from the testimony in his Personal Narrative—the single best autobiographical resource on Edwards’s piety.
To read Edwards’s own account of his private spirituality, read his Personal Narrative. Believed to be a response to an inquiry about his testimony of his walk with God by his son-in-law, Aaron Burr, Sr. (president of Princeton University and father of Aaron Burr, Jr., who is best known for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel) it is by far my personal favorite among Edwards’s writings. It’s less than thirteen pages of volume 16 in the Yale edition of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, a collection of seventy-three volumes found in their entirety and fully searchable at edwards.yale.edu.
Part two is found in the next post.
Original artwork by Caffy Whitney
For more about Jonathan Edwards and his spirituality:
A God-Entranced Vision of All Things—The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. My contribution to this book is the chapter on “Pursuing a Passion for God Through Spiritual Disciplines: Learning from Jonathan Edwards.”
Finding God in Solitude: The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and It’s Influence on His Pastoral Ministry. This is a popularization of my Ph.D. dissertation. It is so expensive because it was published by an academic press and with a small print run.
Recently it was my privilege to be interviewed by Dr. Heath Lambert, president of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors on the ACBC podcast, “Truth in Love.”
The subject was “Spiritual Disciplines for the New Year.” In it I talked about the biblical spiritual disciplines in general, and specifically about meditation on Scripture and praying the Bible.
You can listen to the podcast here.
[To read part 1 of this post, click here.]
The Role of Spiritual Disciplines
Although the Holy Spirit gives a believer the desire and the power for a biblical spirituality, a certain reformatting of the life and habits must also take place to practice a Gospel-centered piety. Thus Paul also wrote, “Train yourself for godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7). This doesn’t refer to physical training, for mere bodily activity—despite its health benefits—does not by itself build godliness, as the very next verse makes plain. Rather, the kind of training or exercise that promotes godliness (that is, Christlikeness) is spiritual training.
No Christian coasts into Christlikeness. Godliness, according to this text, requires training. Some Bible translations render “train” as “exercise” (KJV) or “discipline” (NASB). Thus the biblical and practical ways in daily life of living out this command to “train yourself for godliness” have often been termed “spiritual exercises” or “spiritual disciplines.” (Note: some false teachers have also used these expressions, but that doesn’t invalidate such biblically-derived terms any more than a heretic’s use of the word “Trinity” nullifies our orthodox use of that term.) What was true in Paul’s day is still true: it is by means of the spiritual disciplines found in Scripture that we are to pursue godliness.
Of course, legalism is always a danger in spirituality. Anything a Christian can count, measure, or time can be twisted into something that falsely assures a person that by this—instead of the sufficiency of the life and death of Jesus—they’re more spiritually secure or favored by God. But just because the disciplines of godliness can be misused doesn’t mean they should be neglected. “Train yourself for godliness” is God’s command, therefore it must be possible to pursue obedience to it without legalism
Gospel-Centered Spiritual Disciplines in Practice
So how do Christians practice a Gospel-centered spirituality? First, practice the right disciplines—those personal and interpersonal spiritual disciplines found in the Bible. A Gospel-centered spirituality is a sola scriptura spirituality. For individual practice, the most important personal spiritual disciplines are first, the intake of Scripture and second, prayer; all the others relate to these two. The interpersonal spiritual disciplines we’re to observe are primarily those biblical practices related to life together in a local church.
Second, practice the right disciplines with the right goal. Consciously practice these disciplines with Jesus as the focus—pursuing intimacy with Christ and conformity (both inward and outward) to Christ. To put it more succinctly, by means of the biblical spiritual disciplines seek to be with Jesus and like Jesus.
Third, practice the right disciplines the right way. Emphasize the person and work of Jesus in each one. Through them, learn from, gaze upon, and enjoy who Jesus is and what He has done. Let your soul be restored through by the truths of the Gospel.
Engage in the spiritual disciplines given by God in Scripture so that you are continually shown your need for Christ and the infinite supply of grace and mercy to be found by faith in Jesus Christ.
As you’ve surely noticed, everyone is “spiritual” today. I saw a USAToday survey where even a majority of atheists consider themselves “spiritual” people. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know, I’m just not a spiritual person.”
What is spirituality?
Perhaps for many spirituality simply means spending time occasionally in personal reflection. For others maybe it means consciously trying to live by certain principles, or attempting to be thoughtful on important issues like the environment or homelessness.
However, the common perception of spirituality is not the biblical one. I’m writing from the perspective that spirituality includes—but transcends—the human spirit, and involves the pursuit of God and the things of God, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit in accordance with God’s self-revelation (that is, the Bible).
Spirituality and the Gospel
This kind of spirituality is not self-generated; rather it is one result of the new spiritual life that God creates in the soul as He works through the Gospel. In other words, Christian spirituality is part of a life lived in response to the Gospel. In theological terms, spirituality is an aspect of the sanctification which necessarily begins at and follows justification.
Think of it this way: we come to God through the Gospel and we live for God through the Gospel. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (Colossians 2:6). It is through the Gospel by faith that we receive Christ, and it is through the Gospel by faith that we walk in Christ.
The Gospel—in a word—is Jesus. In a phrase, the Gospel is the person and work of Jesus Christ. That’s why we can speak of the Christian life as a Gospel-centered life. We come to God initially on the basis of faith in who Jesus is and what He has done for us. And we continue to come to God and to live a life pleasing to Him on the same basis. To paraphrase Paul in Galatians 3:3, having begun by the Spirit through the Gospel, we are perfected (that is, sanctified; made like Christ) in the same way—by the Spirit through the Gospel.
In part two of this post, I write about the role of the Spiritual Disciplines in a Gospel-centered life and also Gospel-centered Spiritual Disciplines in practice.
To read part two of this post, click here.