Author’s Primary Argument
Jonathan Edwards’ A History of the Work of Redemption stands alongside his Freedom of the Will and the Religious Affections as perhaps the most important and incredible of all his works. A work which unfortunately was not completely finished by Edwards before his death, A History of the Work of Redemption is essentially a collection of thirty sermons on Isaiah 51:8: “For the moth shall eat them up like a garment, and the worm shall eat them like wool: but my righteousness shall be forever, and my salvation from generation to generation.” Edwards’ primary argument in A History of the Work of Redemption is that “the work of redemption is a work that God carries on from the fall of man to the end of the world” (p. 116). For Edwards, this work of redemption consists in the following: 1) “it is to put all God’s enemies under his feet and that the goodness of God should finally appear triumphing over all evil” (p. 123); 2) “to restore all the ruins of the fall, so far as concerns the elect part of the world, by his Son” (p. 124); 3) “to gather together in one all things in Christ in heaven and on earth” (p. 124); 4) “to complete and perfect the glory of all the elect by Christ” (p. 125); and finally 5) “to accomplish the glory of the blessed Trinity in an exceeding degree” (p. 125). These five purposes of the work of redemption form the foundation for the rest of Edwards’ sermons.
Edwards also provides a Trinitarian framework for the work of redemption by dividing the history of the world into three distinct periods: “The first reaching from the fall of man to Christ’s incarnation, the second from Christ’s incarnation till his resurrection…[and] the third from thence to the end of the world” (p. 127). The first period roughly equates to the work of the Father in preparing the world for the coming of the Son; the second period is that of the Son’s humiliation in taking on flesh to accomplish the redemption of his people; and the third period is that of the Spirit in applying the work of the Son to all the elect for the rest of the history of the world. In this way, Edwards’ argument that God redeems a people for himself from the fall to the end of history takes on a Trinitarian flavor. The three Persons in the one God each have distinct roles in the work of redemption. Edwards argues that the particular actions of God in the work of redemption are carried out in diverse ways and manners, but ultimately they tend toward the culmination of all things, which is the redemption of the elect by Christ for the glory of God.
Implications for Theological Understanding
There are tremendous theological implications from A History of the Work of Redemption to be noted and explored. The first is the Trinitarian nature of redemption. There is a brief discussion of this topic above, but it is necessary to press this implication as far as it will go. That the Father, the Son, and the Spirit work to redeem a people for the glory of God is perhaps beyond the vision of many evangelical leaders and churches today. The Trinity is often seen as an esoteric doctrine of the Christian faith which should only be discussed in academic circles. But Edwards forces his readers, then and now, to think deeply of the centrality of the triune God in the work of redemption, and indeed in all of reality. For example, one must consider that the Father has an elect people and has given them to the Son. The Son took on flesh in order to redeem that specific people. And the Spirit applies the benefits of the Son’s redemptive action to the elect people, ensuring that none of them are ultimately lost. Each of these distinct roles are executed for the mutual glorification of the three Persons of the one God. But even to consider the unique roles of the Persons of the Trinity is not enough; one must keep in mind also that the work of redemption is a unified work. It is God who redeems, and therefore one can say that God works to redeem a specific people for his own glory.
Another implication of Edwards’ argument is that the history of the universe is nothing more than the outworking of the covenant of redemption made before the foundation of the world between the three Persons of the Trinity. The world was made to display the infinite supremacy, majesty, beauty, and glory of God, and to that end everything that exists serves that purpose in one way or another. This means that literally everything that exists and has happened, is happening, or will happen exists and occurs for the glory of God alone. The radical God-centered nature of creation is on display when this implication is taken seriously. God made all things for himself, and specifically for Christ (cf. Colossians 1:16). All things that have come into existence have done so solely because of the sovereign power and purpose of God the Father, which is to make known his supremacy and glory in the redemption of his chosen people by the life and death of his Son who was empowered by the Spirit. The history of the universe is the history of the work of the triune God who redeems.
A final implication is the pastoral nature of Edwards’ argument. It is no secret that redemption was a major theme for the Puritans, and an argument should be made that evangelicalism would do well to retrieve that idea. The concept of redemption connects people with the reality of the work of God in their lives. Edwards himself begins his sermons with a pastoral note: “The drift of this chapter is to comfort the church under her sufferings and the persecutions of her enemies” (p. 113, emphasis added). The reason the church can be joyful even in the midst of suffering and persecution is because of the “constancy and perpetuity of God’s mercy and faithfulness towards her…protecting her against all assaults of her enemies, and carrying her safely through all the changes of the world and finally crowning her with victory and deliverance” (p. 113). Consider the pastoral implications of such an argument! Ultimate comfort and joy can be seen and had now because God’s work of redemption is the entire purpose of the world. How comforting it is to know that God will not be ultimately thwarted in his purposes since he “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).
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