Jonathan Edwards on Heaven "A World of Love"
For the first part of this blog series click here
How Heaven Is a World of Love
The final sermon of Jonathan Edwards in his series on 1 Corinthians 13 (Charity and Its Fruits) focused on heaven. His discussion of abiding love in heaven is among the clearest and most compelling sermons I've ever read, and it rejoiced and refreshed my soul.
Entitled “Heaven is a World of Love,”[i] this finale is a climactic crescendo to the series, and a stirring encouraging to believers to continue in love to the end. His language soars as does the praise for this sermon by others, as Edwards here “reached the height of his preaching describing in powerful, biblical detail the incomparable majesty”[ii] of this world to come.
It’s been called the “virtuoso performance” of Edward’s masterworks, “the supreme example of Edwards’ systematic massing of images about a theme,” and “At his best … the truly integrative imagination of the finest metaphysical poets.”[iii] This final message on heaven is “is perhaps the most beautiful in all Edwards's writings.”[iv]
This “world of love” is appealing in both the imagery of this world Edwards uses and the community of love he paints a picture of. In several ways this sermon on heaven is a contrast and complementary answer to his most famous message on hell and its vivid metaphors. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” Edwards pictured using spiders over a fire by a slender thread, a powerful river held back by a dam, a bridge with rotten planks that are about to fall out, a slope where easy to slip and slide to death, a bow bent with arrows aimed, a boulder unable to be stopped by a web in the forest, a great furnace, a paper-thin rotting canvas over a wide pit, etc.[v] Now in his most famous sermon on heaven, he again uses nature’s metaphors. Glorious love is a splendor, sweetness, sufficiency: water (as a fountain, flood, spring, stream, river, ocean), light (sun, rays, beams, flame), sky, garden (plants, vine, trees), family, the body, musical sounds, etc.
He presents heaven as a haven of rest “to arrive at after persons have gone through a world of storms” (sins of v. 4-5) and a land of Canaan flowing with abundance after wandering in sin’s wilderness. This “world of love” is infinitely beautiful and enjoyable in mutual love between (1) the persons of the Trinity (2) the believer and the members of the Trinity; and (3) among believers. This heavenly love is unpolluted, unending, from God’s “unchanging fountain of love.” Those who are going to heaven are those with this love in them on earth, who are also those who prefer heaven over happiness on earth.[vi] No commentary or summary can improve on Edwards’ own words in this section. This quote is just a sampler or appetizer of the future feast:
"Heaven itself, the place of habitation, is a garden of pleasures, a heavenly paradise fitted in all respects for an abode of heavenly love… All things there, doubtless, remarkably show forth the beauty and loveliness of God and Christ, and have a luster of divine love upon them. The very light which shines in and fills that world is the light of love. It is beams of love; for it is the shining of the glory of the Lamb of God, that most wonderful influence of lamblike meekness and love which fills the heavenly Jerusalem with light ... this renders heaven a world of love; for God is the fountain of love, as the sun is the fountain of light. And therefore the glorious presence of God in heaven fills heaven with love, as the sun placed in the midst of the hemisphere in a clear day fills the world with light … as the flowers on the earth in a pleasant spring day open their bosoms to the sun to be filled with his warmth and light, and to flourish in beauty and fragrancy by his rays. Every saint is as a flower in the garden of God, and holy love is the fragrancy and sweet odor which they all send forth, and with which they fill that paradise … There this glorious God is manifested and shines forth in full glory, in beams of love; there the fountain overflows in streams and rivers of love and delight, enough for all to drink at, and to swim in, yea, so as to overflow the world as it were with a deluge of love … There the Holy Spirit shall be poured forth with perfect sweetness, as a pure river."[vii]
His argument in this heaven sermon often connects in context to the earlier sermons from 1 Corinthians 13 and climaxes the argument. Those who “rejoice in the truth” now in v. 6 find “joy unspeakable” in the end. Believers on earth imperfectly strive to live out love that is kind (v. 4), but in heaven there will be no striving, only “perfectly amiable behavior, one towards another, as a fruit of their perfect love one to another.”[viii] Strobel notes perceptively “Edwards is reversing all of the vices he develops throughout the book and explaining how their opposite virtues thrive in heaven.”[ix] As Edwards notes “the joy of heavenly love shall never be damped or interrupted by jealousy … no envy or malice, or revenge, or contempt, or selfishness shall enter there, but shall be kept as far off … no separation wall, no misunderstandings or strangeness … no division through different opinions or interests.”[x] This and more makes it a world of love.[xi]
Edwards began this series with love as “the sum of all virtues,” now he ends it with the subtraction of all vices in glory. “There shall be no string out of tune to cause any jar[ring] in the harmony of that world, no unpleasant note to cause any discord … Every saint there is as a note in a concert of music which sweetly harmonizes with every other note … such as eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath entered into the heart of any this world to conceive.”[xii] To Edwards being heavenly-minded is what makes men of earthly good in loving their neighbors:
"Let what we have heard of the land of love excite us all to turn our faces towards that land, and bend our course … do not give yourselves much concern about the friendship of the world; but seek heaven where is no such thing as contempt, where none are despised, all are highly esteemed and honored, and dearly loved by all. You who think you have met with many abuses, and much ill treatment from others, care not for it; do not hate them for it but set your heart in heaven, a world of love; press towards a better country. Do not let out your heart after the things of this world and indulge yourself in a pursuit of earthly things … If you would seek heaven, your affections must be taken off from the pleasures of the world. You must not indulge in sensuality; you must take off your heart from the profits of the world, and not spend your time and strength only in heaping up the dust of the earth. You must mortify a desire of the honors and vainglory of this world …You cannot earnestly and constantly seek heaven without having your thoughts much there … and meditations towards that world of love, and that God of love … you must live a life of love … by living love in this world the saints partake of a like sort of inward peace and sweetness. It is in this way that you are to have the foretastes of heavenly pleasures and delights."[xiii]
The vision of divine eternal love from this final sermon is sweetening and sustaining to the soul. This theme “overflows Edwards’ writings and sermons. It fueled his passionate preaching and it buoyed him during turbulent times. no mere ideal or ethereal vision. It was the standard by which he gauged his own life on earth and the standard which he held out for his congregations. It remained even when reality fell short of the goal.”[xiv]
Another writer adds moving words to exhort strugglers to read and heed this moving sermon: “If you find yourself struggling to endure, on the verge of emotional collapse, fearful [what] the future holds … immerse yourself in the exalted and thoroughly biblical perspective that Jonathan Edwards brings to this living hope.”[xv]
The final two paragraphs of Charity and Its Fruits tie it all together with the overall argument that Paul is writing of God’s love in Christ and evidence of those who are truly saved by it: “There are no evidences of a title to heaven but in feeling that which is heavenly in the heart … the way to have clear evidences [heaven is yours] is to live a life of love … As heaven is a world of love, so the way to heaven is the way of love.” Lest readers misunderstand love as works that fallen man can do to climb up to heaven, the final sentence of the series reminds the reader that this love of 1 Cor. 13 is the essence of saving faith, not to be separated from it: “faith and love must be the wings that carry you there.”[xvi]
Conclusion and Application to Christ
Edwards concludes with Christ in a way that gives application to the whole of the life of love and all that he has said, the loving “Christ, without which heaven is no heaven.” Christ can’t be left out of preaching, or even the pleasures of heaven, or what we ponder here on earth. Here’s how the Northampton preacher brings home the doctrine in his application as he nears the end and points his hearers to their chief end:
“Therefore turn the currents and thoughts of meditations towards that world of love and that God of love who dwells there … And be much in conversing with God and Christ … In all your way let your eye be to Jesus who is gone to heaven as your Forerunner. Look to him; behold his glory there in heaven to stir you up the more earnestly to be there. Look to him, and observe his example. Consider how by patient continuance in well-doing, and in patient enduring of great sufferings, he went before to heaven. Look to him, and trust in his mediation, in his blood, with which he has entered into the holiest of all, as the price of heaven. Trust to his intercession in heaven before God. Trust to his strength by his Spirit sent from heaven to enable you to press on and surmount the difficulties which are in the way to heaven. Trust in his promises of heaven to those who love and follow him..."
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[i] Edwards contemplated heaven since he was a youth, and wrote “Heaven appeared to me exceeding delightful as a world of love … My mind was very much taken up with contemplations on heaven, and the enjoyments of those there … my eternity in divine love.” Edwards, “Personal Narrative,” in Letters and Personal Writings, ed. George S. Claghorn, vol. 16 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 796.
[ii] John Gerstner, “Preface,” in Heaven a World of Love (Lindenhurst, NY: Great Christian Books, 2010), 7. See also Gerstner, Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1998), 9, 93.
[iii] Wilson H. Kimnach, “The Literary Techniques of Jonathan Edwards,” Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1971 [University Microfilms 71–26, 039], 320–21, 327. He argues the rhetorical power of this sermon on heaven is rivaled only by his most famous sermon on hell, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” He sees these as complementary messages and arguably among the best ever on both.
[iv] From back cover of Banner of Truth 1969 reprint of Charity and Its Fruits.
[v] For a connection of this sermon with God’s love, see John F. MacArthur Jr., The God Who Loves (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996), 2-4. In relation to God’s holiness (cf. “holy love” in Edwards), how it was love for his people that drove Edwards to preach this sermon on hell, and how we love this holy God by grace alone, see R. C. Sproul, “God in the Hand of Angry Sinners,” in The Holiness of God (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993), 263-77. Even in “Heaven is a World of Love,” Edwards himself makes the contrast explicit when he writes “Hell is a world of hatred … the world in which you are in danger very day of having your abode fixed; and if you are not greatly changed by God’s almighty power, in a short time you will inherit instead of a portion in that world of love.” Charity and Its Fruits, 300, 302.
[vi] Charity and Its Fruits, 282-99.
[vii] Edwards, Works, 8:382, 386, 369–371. While most of the sermon is outstanding, there are outstanding questions in this student’s mind on some of his speculative comments, like some in heaven will be “most beloved of Christ” and others “more beloved by the saints than other saints of lower rank” (Charity and Its Fruits, 289).
[viii] Works, 8:384.
[ix] Strobel, editor’s note on p. 288.
[x] Charity and Its Fruits, 288-89, 295. Note the phrases in 1 Cor. 13:4-5, especially what love is NOT – these opposites of love are emphatically and wonderfully not present in this heavenly world of love.
[xi] The phrase “world of love” is not original to Edwards. Earlier Puritan writer William Bates (born in 1628 in England) wrote: “heaven is a world of love, the law of love reigns there: faith and hope shall cease, but love shall reign in heaven: there the saints love God perfectly, and love one another with an invariable affection. There they have one heart, and one mind; and therefore how are they pleased with the happiness of one another, in the happiness every one enjoys?” The Whole Works of the Rev. William Bates, edited by W. Farmer (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1990 reprint), 3:35–36, italics added.
[xii] Ibid., 283, 296.
[xiii] Jonathan Edwards, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey and John E. Smith, vol. 8, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1989), 392–395. Even as a teenager Edwards meditated on this world of love and wanted it to impact his daily life: “17. Resolved, to live so at all times, as I think … clearest notions of things in the gospel, and another world … 55. Resolved, to endeavor to my utmost to act as I can think I should do, if I had already seen the happiness of heaven …” Lawson, The Unwavering Resolve, 159, 164.
[xiv] Nichols, “Heaven Is a World of Love, Congregations Can Be Full of Strife,” 39.
[xv] Sam Storms, “Foreword,” in Heaven is a World of Love, The Crossway Short Classics Series (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 19-20. For further exposition of Edwards’ view of heaven by this author, see also chapter 9 of Sam Storms, One Thing: Developing a Passion for the Beauty of God (Rosshire, England: Christian Focus, 2004).
[xvi] Charity and Its Fruits, 306-7.