Reflections on ‘A History of the Work of Redemption’

Summer Reading

This summer I spent time reading one of Jonathan Edwards’ more famous books, A History of the Work of Redemption.

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I am not one for ‘summer reading’, I have a list and a pile of books and I normally just work through them. However, I knew Jonathan Edwards would need some special attention and so I set aside a little time to read him and I found it worthwhile.

Before you go placing your order with Amazon or ICM Books let me say this isn’t an easy read. A History of the Work of Redemption is a sizeable book with over 400 pages, it is not the easiest to read either as the material for the book comes from a series of sermons preached in 1739 (also there are effectively only three chapters in over 400 pages) and the book covers a lot of ground stepping carefully from the Fall in the Garden of Eden to the end of the world as we know it.

But, I was determined to read it.

Jonathan Edwards is perhaps one of the most influential voices in modern evangelicalism through the voices of others (and I was always told to read the people who influenced the people who influence me). In addition to recognising Edwards as someone who has deeply influenced and shaped many respected pastors, teachers and authors, I had also read George Marsden’s biography of him earlier in 2014. Knowing something of the background to the man aided reading the writings of the man.

As I worked my way through this difficult but profitable book, four things caught my attention.

  1. The Word of God, Written

Under the section titled ‘From Moses to David’ Edwards notes the reality that it was during this period that God first gave his written Word.

While people may debate whether Edwards dating is correct, there was a startling fact that I knew but which I had never considered before. At one point in time God’s people did not have God’s written Word.

I think immediately of Abraham – no written Word to guide him. Certainly God spoke to him, but if you heard a voice in your head would you obey it unconditionally? Abraham acted in faith, as the New Testament tells us, and without the written Word of God to guide him.

Here is what Edwards had to say about the written Word of God:

‘The written Word of God is the main instrument Christ has made use of to carry on his work of redemption in all ages since it was given. There was a necessity now of the Word of God being committed to writing, for a steady rule to God’s church.’ (pg.81).

God has graciously given us his written Word. We often take our Bibles for granted, but at one stage in time God’s people were without a written Word to guide them. Today we have that written Word. This is a very special truth and something which struck me afresh in reading Edwards.

  1. Dispersion of the Written Word

The exile was a brutal blow for the Israelites. God’s very own people, living in the Promised Land, had been handed over by their God to the pagan nations. To begin with the Israelite’s hearts were broken as a result of the division of their nation into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, then as men and cities were lost in war and as the pagan nations marched them out of Zion (which had been flattened along with its Temple) toward a foreign city that would now be called ‘home’.

All was not lost though! God was simply in the process of working out the history of his redemption.

In the midst of this pain Edwards notes something great, the dispersion of the written Word of God. I will let Edwards’ words explain the wonder in this grievous event.

‘Now, this dispersion of the Jews through the worlds before Christ came, did many ways prepare the way for his coming, and setting up his kingdom in the world.

One way was that this was a means of raising the general expectation of the Messiah through the world about the time that he actually came. For the Jews, wherever they were dispersed, carried the holy Scriptures with them, and so the prophecies of the Messiah. And being conversant with the nations among whom they lived, they, by that means, became acquainted with these prophecies, and with the expectations of the Jews of their glorious Messiah. By this means, the birth of such a glorious person in Judea about that time began to be the general expectation of the nations of the world, as appears by the writings of learned men of the heathen that lived about that time which are still extant, particularly Virgil, the famous poet that lived in Italy a little before Christ was born. He has a poem about the expectation of a great prince that was to be born, and the happy times of righteousness and peace that he was to introduce, some of it very much in the language of the prophet Isaiah.’ (pg. 157).

God has greater purposes and plans at work than often we notice. Here in the devastating exile of the nation of Israel God was planting the hope of a Messiah in the hearts of the nations. God was seeing his written Word spread across the nations.

  1. The Long Wait

I was about halfway through the book before Jesus stepped foot on earth. The length of time it took for the Messiah to appear and accomplish the work of redemption struck me forcefully (perhaps a little because of how much reading I had already done). Thousands of years (and a couple hundred pages) had elapsed since the Fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden. But, the long wait was over because the long hoped for Messiah arrived. However, his incarnation only took place ‘after things had been preparing for it from the very first Fall of mankind, and when all things were ready’ (pg. 201) he stepped foot on earth.

From a human perspective the wait was a long one, and some would argue unnecessary. This was not so, because Christ came in the fullness of time. Edwards reminds us ‘[i]t came to pass at a time which, in infinite wisdom, was the most fit and proper’ (pg. 201).

God orchestrated his work of redemption to perfection. Almost everything that took place throughout the history of the work of redemption was in contradistinction from how we as human beings would work, and yet it was perfectly executed.

Our minds are so small and finite, but the glorious truth is that Jesus arrived at the most fit and proper time. God had been orchestrating his plan of redemption since the Fall, and long before, but only now was it time for Jesus to appear.

  1. Opposition Displays Genuineness

The final thing to catch my attention as I read Edwards was the thought that opposition proves the truth of Christianity.

Christians purport many reasons for opposition, yet rarely have I heard this proposal. Opposition to our message proves the truth of that message.

Edwards is careful to explain that the church of God has always been opposed. He writes, ‘the opposition which has been made to the church of God in all ages has always been against the same religion and the same revelation’ (pg. 356).

This opposition, when faced today, displays our genuineness. It is not a licence to aggravate others, but rather a comfort when people oppose our message.

‘We may well and safely argue that a thing is good according to the degree of opposition in which it stands to evil, or the degree in which evil opposes it and is an enemy to it. We may well argue that a thing is light by the great enmity which darkness has to it.’ (pg. 356).

As evil opposes us we should not take joy or delight in it, but we should take comfort that it is displaying our genuineness. Opposition does have many purposes, but I think this is an often neglected purpose and one which is particularly poignant in today’s culture of ‘tolerance’.

Winter Reading

I hope that as I shared these four things which caught my attention that you have tasted some of the benefit I found in reading a demanding book. Books which are long, old and challenging often have perspectives that catch our attention. They often challenge us and make us sit up, take notice, and think deeply.

I want to leave you with a challenge, a challenge to read something that you are a little afraid of this winter.

Read an old book, something written by someone who is long dead.

Read a big book, something that has 300, 400 or 500 pages.

Perhaps even read an Edwards book…

This winter pick some winter reading that will challenge you, with my prayer that it will also benefit you.

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