Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Treatise on Grace’
Let’s think about grace. It’s a big Bible word and a word we often hear in church, but what exactly do we mean by it? Quite often we’ll find Christians talking about grace as some sort of spiritual energiser or power supply, enabling us to think, speak or behave well, even in challenging circumstances. You might hear someone say, ‘I have such a difficult week coming up, I need a lot of grace!’ Does the Bible support this idea, or would we benefit from giving this question a little more attention?
The ‘Treatise on Grace’
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) had a wonderfully healthy preoccupation with God’s grace. He preached on the subject often, wrote on it at length and left a superb summary of this lifetime of reflection and study in a masterful essay, published after his death, titled Treatise on Grace. It’s a discussion which gives us a rich and refreshing view of God’s love, as well as, perhaps, a helpful challenge to some of our assumptions.
From the outset of the treatise, Edwards makes a close link between grace and the person of the Holy Spirit, showing that God’s grace comes to God’s people, through faith in Christ, by the Holy Spirit living within them. One of the central points of Edwards’ argument is that grace is Divine love, and he points out that love has been at the heart of God’s relationship with humanity from the very beginning, continuing through salvation history. He writes, ‘The scripture teaches us that all our duty is summed up in love; or, which is the same thing, that ‘tis the sum of all that is required in the Law…’
So, in discussing 1 Corinthians 13, Edwards notes, ‘The apostle [Paul] speaks of Divine love as that which is the essence of Christianity’. Paul’s argument is that the authentic Christian life flows out from the Divine love within the Christian believer, whereas anything which does not flow from this Divine love within, is merely a ‘vain show’, or in Paul’s words, ‘a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.’
How does this work in the lives of God’s people?
Edwards shows that this Divine love produces a delight, or a ‘relish’ of the goodness of God in the heart of the believer. ‘‘Tis the soul’s relish of the supreme excellency of the Divine nature, inclining to the heart of God as the chief good.’
This, for Edwards, is regeneration, the radical heart-change which has occurred in every child of God. In coming to Christ and receiving his grace, the work of this Divine love within us means that we now enjoy a heart-to-heart relationship with God, with a new inclination to love him because we now take delight in who he is, recognising him as our ‘chief good’. This work of grace within us is ‘a relish of the excellency of the Divine nature… which the soul of man by nature has nothing of.’
With amazing fluency and grasp of Scripture, Edwards builds the compelling, biblical case for his conclusion that grace is not a thing, but rather grace is a person – the Holy Spirit himself. The Holy Spirit is the personal love of God who, for all eternity, has been communicating the Divine love between the Father and the Son, and who overflows to us in the gospel of Christ. He writes:
… the Holy Ghost is Himself the love and grace of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the deity wholly breathed forth in infinite, substantial, intelligent love: from the Father and Son first towards each other, and secondarily freely flowing out to the creature.
Clearly, Edwards’ perspective on God’s work of salvation is profoundly Trinitarian:
… our dependence is equally on each person [of the Trinity] in this affair. The Father approves and provides the redeemer, and Himself accepts the price of the good purchased, and bestows that good. The Son is the redeemer, and the price that is offered for the purchased good. And the Holy Ghost is the good purchased; for the sacred Scriptures seem to intimate that the Holy Ghost is the sum of all that Christ purchased for man (Gal. 3:13-14).’
Is this important?
What is the relevance of all this? Does it really matter whether we think of God’s grace as a thing or a person? It certainly does. In arguing that grace is personal – the third person of the Trinity, no less – Edwards aligns himself with Reformers such as Luther and Calvin in their rejection of the Catholic church’s theology of grace as ‘infused habit’. This is the view, first formulated by the thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas, who was himself heavily influenced by the philosophy of Aristotle, in which grace is understood as the impersonal spiritual power, or energy applied or handed to the Christian by the Holy Spirit, to enable the individual to make good choices, such as coming to Christ in the first place and growing in righteous living.
Edwards is not splitting theological hairs here. His passionate rejection of this idea of grace as a thing, as opposed to the person of the Holy Spirit himself, is driven by what he sees as a gravely deficient theology of the Trinity, a drastic reduction of the role of the Holy Spirit in our salvation. As he argues:
If we suppose no more than used to be supposed about the Holy Ghost, the honour of the Holy Ghost in the work of redemption is not equal in any sense to the Father and the Son’s; nor is there an equal part of the glory of this work belonging to him. Merely to apply to us, or immediately to give or hand to us blessing purchased, after it is purchased, is subordinate to the other two Persons…”
I hope we can now see the importance of what Edwards is saying. We are right to be amazed by the work of God the Father and God the Son in salvation, but to reduce the role of the Holy Spirit to merely applying or handing an impersonal ‘grace’ to us, as a postman might deliver a gift to us from loved ones, is to rob the Spirit of his equal glory with the Father and the Son in salvation. The Holy Spirit is not the deliverer of God’s gift of grace to us, he is the gift of God’s grace to us, God’s gift of himself.