Gerald McDermott introduces a lecture on the preaching of Jonathan Edwards, given at Beeson Divinity School as part of the Robert Smith Jr. Preaching Institute's series, "Text to Sermon."
What contributions did Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) make to Christian preaching? Let me identify three.
First, Edwards always tried to leave his hearers with one proposition churning in their brains as they walked away. He was convinced that true religion was founded on knowing and that knowing comes from the Bible. Preaching is to make true things real, but it must take one of the true things, identify it clearly and succinctly, show how it emerges from the Bible and then challenge the audience to apply it in concrete ways.
Second, Edwards showed the connections in new ways between preaching and aesthetics, aesthetics and revival, and revival and human history. The ultimate goal of all preaching, he reiterated, is to provide material the Spirit can use to open the eyes of auditors to see the beauty of God. So the purpose of preaching is not only to explain one doctrine or proposition but to make that truth become real by seeing how it further unveils the beauty of holiness. Seeing that is the essence of true religious experience for Edwards. It is the chain reaction of whole communities seeing that beauty, triggered by revival, that propels human history. This is the thesis of Edwards’s History of the Work of Redemption: revival is the engine of history. Each awakening is a communal combustion in which masses of souls come to see the divine beauty and are thereby transformed. Edwards wrote that revivals come principally by preaching, as ministers are empowered by the Spirit to declare the glorious gospel. Preaching, then, is integral to the history of redemption, which is the secret history driving all of what we call “external” history.
Third, Edwards taught that the important thing in preaching is not beauty but power. He didn’t strain to use fancy language or to impress with literary allusions. He was happy instead with plain language and biblical imagery — which, because he was steeped in Scripture, came naturally and easily to him. He told young preachers not to strive for eloquence or cleverness, but to seek God while preparing a sermon, and to pray for the Holy Spirit’s anointing. Perhaps he remembered that the first time he preached his legendary "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," it went over like a lead balloon. It was in his home church. But months later, when he preached it in a church in the next colony (Connecticut), the congregation erupted in shrieks and groans. The difference could be attributed to a number of factors such as distance and expectancy, the latter caused by the congregation’s internal dynamics and the preacher’s reputation. But another factor was that intangible Edwards called the Holy Spirit.
In conclusion, Edwards would tell today’s preacher three things: sum up your message with one doctrine, show how it teaches God’s beauty and use plain language.
Watch McDermott's full "Text to Sermon" lecture below.
Read more about Jonathan Edwards from these books written by Dr. Gerald McDermott: Theology of Jonathan Edwards and The Other Jonathan Edwards: Selected Writings on Society, Love, and Justice.