Jonathan Edwards: Preaching in the Power of the Holy Spirit

5 min

It was the Lord’s Day, July 8, 1741. A visiting minister from Northampton, Massachusetts, was scheduled to preach in the Connecticut village church. The minister, while not particularly famous or popular, was known to be an honest servant of the Lord who relied upon the power of the Holy Spirit. That morning, his selected text was from a portion of Deuteronomy 32:35, “their foot shall slide in due time.”

The sermon was one that he had already preached in his home church in Northampton. The sermon title? “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

As the preacher began his sermon that July day in Enfield, Connecticut, there were no outward manifestations that this sermon would be different from any other sermon. The first time he preached this sermon in Massachusetts, there had been no unusual reactions. The minister was not a dramatic or energetic preacher. He read slowly and distinctly from a written manuscript. He described in the language of the Bible the everlasting fate that awaited the sinner apart from the saving grace of the Lord Jesus.

He drew upon vivid imagery to describe the helplessness of all human effort for any person to save himself. He proclaimed that human righteousness, baptism, and church membership were all insufficient to save the sinner from everlasting damnation, and that all human effort could no more keep a soul out of hell than “a spider’s web would have to stop a falling rock.”

Using Biblical terms, he described the “bottomless gulf” that was the eternal fate of the wicked: the burning darkness, the torments, the unquenchable thirst, the terrible company of Satan and the hosts of demons, the agonies of opportunities lost, and the eternal horrors of a Christ rejected. Before the sermon was over, church members who had long trusted in the outward elements of sacraments and ceremonies were clinging white-knuckled to their pews lest they fall headlong into the flames of a gaping open, black hell!

An eyewitness described terrified men and women crying out in the midst of the sermon, “What must I do to be saved?” The observer continued to say that the hall was pierced by “shrieks and cries” of those under heavy conviction.

The minister then descended from the pulpit. He described to the attentive congregation about the mercy of God in Jesus Christ—how the Son of God had suffered the wrath of God for the sake of the lost sinner and that Christ crucified was the only hope of salvation. That day, many souls repented of sin and trusted in a risen Lord for salvation.

The preacher of that sermon was Jonathan Edwards. God used this man mightily on that memorable day. Edwards’ sermon became known around the country and was reprinted in newspapers throughout New England. His ministry occurred during the “Great Awakening,” a mighty work of the Spirit of God that swept revival throughout the American colonies, preparing them spiritually for the days of independence in the decades ahead.

Jonathan Edwards was a man of God. He wholly relied upon God’s Spirit to enable him to perform God’s work. He was born in East Windsor, Connecticut, on October 5, 1703. His parents were Timothy Edwards and Esther Stoddard Edwards. He was the only son among ten sisters! Both his father and his maternal grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, were respected ministers of the Gospel, and they poured their energies into preparing young Jonathan to take up the mantle of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus.

Edwards was educated by his father and was ready for college at the age of thirteen. In 1721, when he was eighteen years old, he personally embraced the Lord Jesus as his Savior and Master. Edwards became a pastor a year later, when he was only nineteen years old, at a church in New York. After serving in various positions throughout New England as a preacher and also for a period of time as a tutor at Yale University, he eventually came to Northampton to assist in the ministry of his elderly grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. Upon his grandfather’s death, he became pastor of the Congregational church.

In 1727, Jonathan Edwards married Miss Sarah Pierrepont, a young lady whom he had met eight years earlier when he was sixteen and she was only thirteen. A long friendship and mutual attraction had blossomed into mature love. The Lord blessed the couple with eleven children over the span of a long, fruitful marriage that became a model of loyalty and harmony.

During this time, the churches of New England had lapsed into a sense of false security. Church membership had become a matter of social standing. A teaching called the “Half-Way Covenant” allowed men and women who had been baptized as infants into the church to bring their own children forward for baptism, in spite of the fact that the children had never made any profession of personal faith. Edwards’ beloved grandfather had advocated this position, and the result was the spiritual decline of many souls in the congregation who had never experienced any kind of spiritual regeneration.

This errant spiritual situation troubled Jonathan Edwards. He began to pray and preach the necessity of revival. In the winter of 1734, a surprising number of young people and their parents began asking questions about salvation, and many were converted to Christ.

Following a lull of spiritual activity, the astonishing power of the Holy Spirit was manifested again after Edwards preached the sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” in Connecticut. Revival spread, and many souls were saved. Christians were awakened to a new sense of duty. The work of the Holy Spirit was manifested even in the community where taverns closed their doors, and notorious sinners were gloriously saved.

Along with the revival arose much opposition. Some pastors questioned the genuineness of the results. Even from among his own congregation, some members asserted that Edwards had gone too far in asserting the necessity of new birth. Jonathan Edwards was removed from his pulpit in 1750. He took his family westward and there served as pastor in a small frontier settlement while also working as a missionary to the surrounding Indian tribes. Again, the Holy Spirit was manifest, and souls were added to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jonathan Edwards was close friends with another young missionary named David Brainerd. Jerusha Edwards, his daughter, was planning to marry the courageous young missionary who lived in the wilderness among the Native Americans. Sadly, Brainerd died of tuberculosis before he and Jerusha could marry. Jerusha tenderly cared for her ill fiance in his final days, and Edwards wrote a biography of his young friend whose life inspired many young men to serve in the cause of missions.

Jonathan Edwards was not only a preacher. He was a productive writer whose published works cover twenty-six volumes. Edwards wrote on revival, charity, the Holy Spirit, prayer, “religious affections,” “advice to young converts,” and many other topics, embracing everything from theology to science. His writings continue to encourage and bless many to this day.

In addition to his lasting, fruitful spiritual legacy, Jonathan and Sarah Edwards left a physical lineage that has been a tremendous blessing to the United States of America. In addition to hundreds of pastors and missionaries, their physical descendants include thirteen college presidents, one hundred lawyers, thirty judges, sixty-six medical doctors, and eighty civil magistrates, including three United States senators and one vice president!

Edwards himself was called to the presidency of Princeton in 1758. His inaugural sermon from Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, to day, and forever,” was remembered by all who heard it. A smallpox epidemic threatened the college, and the president wanted to set an example to his students by taking the inoculation. He died of complications from the injection after serving Princeton for only a few short months. But his legacy and his influence remain today wherever men and women love revival and trust in the power of the Holy Spirit.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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