Many, if not most, Americans have read nothing more by Jonathan Edwards than his infamous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Public high school English class usually depicted him as the quintessential fire and brimstone New England Puritan. But Sean Michael Lucas’s newest title, God’s Grand Design: The Theological Vision of Jonathan Edwards, beautifully paints over any uniformed prejudice we may have towards him. With broad sweeping strokes Lucas focuses on “Redemption History” as Edwards’ theological center. However, Lucas is also patient and detailed where we need him to be, with ample quotations from a wide array of Edwards’ works, and footnotes for those interested in further study. The outline of God’s Grand Design is wonderfully simple because Lucas knows it must be for those of us who have little to no experience with Edwards. Essentially, his purpose is to show the cosmic and personal effects of redemption. He has two main sections: part 1 unpacks the grand narrative of “Redemption History.” The second part, “Redemption Applied,” explains how the cosmic work of redemption is “applied to the individual’s life so that he or she becomes a part of it” (14). This review will survey some of those special moments meant to whet our appetite for Edwards and, ultimately, the God that he so valiantly served.
Part 1 constitutes only a third of the book’s pages, but this section could not be more central to the rest of the narrative. Edwards knew full well that we must root our personal experience of redemption–our own faith story–in the greater story of the gospel. Lucas says it well: “Edwards’s larger purpose was to raise his congregation’s vision from its apparently mundane and petty daily concerns to find their affections engaged by the cosmic purpose that God has in his work of redemption. And God’s grand design in the work of redemption is nothing less than his own glory” (22). Here he has rightly explained how belief in and personal experience of the meta-story of redemption liberates us from the thing that most encourages personal spiritual malaise and apathy, namely, being consumed with our small individual stories. It is a work of God the Holy Spirit alone that enables our being consumed with God’s glory and not our own. In his strength, we magnify Christ in our lives and in the world; he solders God’s Word into our hearts, and frees us to truly love others.
This book is worth reading because Lucas surveys massive amounts of Edwards thought with masterful comprehension and relays it in crisp and clear synthesis. This is welcomed because it’s easy to pick up a volume of Edwards and, after wading in the deep theological waters, set it down just as easily. But a few more moments with Lucas will hopefully motivate the inexperienced or even disinterested reader to pick up God’s Grand Design as a primer to further study of Edwards. For example, towards the end of part one, Lucas unpacks the biblical-theological crux of one of Edwards renowned collections of sermons published posthumously, “The History of the Work of Redemption.” Quoting Edwards he says, “Christ and his redemption are the great subject of the whole Bible…The whole book, both Old Testament and New, is filled up with gospel…with only this difference, that the Old Testament contains the gospel under a veil, but the New contains it unveiled…” (49).1 Lucas then goes on to say, “In fact, we will not understand fully the wonder of the gospel unless we see all of scripture related to Jesus. His work and his person are the center because God’s larger purpose is to glorify himself by redeeming his world” (49). This sort of exchange between Edwards and Lucas happens throughout, but he never leaves the reader to be impressed with his writing skills. Nor does he simply leave us standing in awe of Jonathan Edwards. Rather, Lucas distills thousands of pages of Edwards’ thought, and places it on a shiny plate for the reader who is hungry for biblical theology marinated in the good news of Christ. Edwards, like few theologians in church history, was Christo-telic at his core. He saw all of Scripture pointing to that great and cosmic work of redemption in Christ–to the glory of our Trinitarian God. He was always pointing beyond himself to that which is most glorious.
Part 2 has seven chapters in which Lucas surveys some of the hallmarks of Edwards’ theological tenants on the personal application of redemption. These works include his renowned Religious Affections, Means of True Virtue, A Divine and Supernatural Light, and several other works. There is also a helpful appendix with an annotated bibliography for primary and secondary sources in the field of Edwards study.
In chapter five he visits a philosophical and theological premise of Edwards that shined for its profundity. In his early twenties, Edwards explored the mind and the nature of knowing. His early epistemological study is important because he believed this reality greatly affected how it is that we know God. He was most interested in the concept of “excellency.” Lucas summarizes the lengthy study this way: “Excellency represents a kind of beauty; it is an aesthetic judgment rooted in an understanding of the harmony or fitness between two (or more) things” (84). Then, Lucas turns to an earlier discussion on spiritual knowledge to make his point. True spiritual knowledge is, “a true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the Word of God. That is, spiritual knowledge is a deep, basic sensation of the divine beauty, proportion, fitness of things revealed in Scripture.” Thus, it is not “bare drudgery or forced consent.” Rather, Edwards says, “When the heart is sensible to the beauty and amiableness of a thing, it necessarily feels pleasure in the apprehension. It is implied in a person’s being heartily sensible of the loveliness of a thing, that the idea of it is sweet and pleasant to his soul” (85). In other words, Christians not only delight in the meta-narrative of Scripture. We also treasure the micro-narratives, paragraphs, sentences, and words from God. But does delighting in the excellency of the word do anything more for us? Lucas observes,
This delightful, sensible knowing produces a conviction of the truth and reality of those things revealed in God’s Word that they are worthy of trust. Old prejudices against the truth found in Scripture seem to fall away or to be no longer relevant or important….And the result is the deepening conviction that the propositions of Scripture are true and spiritual. That, said Edwards, is ‘saving faith’ (85).
So much more could be assessed here, but I heavily endorse this book because its other themes and topics never diverge from “God’s grand design” of redemption. Neither Lucas nor Edwards are reinventing the wheel when they point to redemption as the crux of God’s sovereign purposes. They are simply reminding the reader to remain singly focused on the reality that our small stories are part of the larger, more significant one. Our stories matter, but not because we are as great as we think we are at times. Instead, our stories matter because we are included in the greatest story in the universe! The gospel of grace was always central to Edwards and it must be for us as well, not because it was central to this evangelical pillar, but because the gospel is central to God himself.
1. If you’re interested in this quotation, Lucas cites, “A History of the Work of Redemption,” WJE, 9:289-90