He was a young man unsure of his future. He had many gifts and not a few options before him. His father and grandfather were ministers, as were uncles and others in the family tree. He had a first-rate education, one of the finest of the day, so he was well-prepared for a future in the halls of the academy, should he so choose. He even had a penchant for science and perhaps could have headed off in that direction. But for the time
Amidst all of this uncertainty and flux, this young man, Jonathan Edwards, needed both a place to stand and a compass for some direction. So he took to writing. He kept a diary and he penned some guidelines, which he came to call his “Resolutions.” These resolutions would supply both that place for him to stand and a compass to guide him as he made his way.
There was a time, church historian Sean Lucas once pointed out, when Jonathan Edwards wasn’t Jonathan Edwards. That is to say, there was a time before Edwards was the great theologian and pastor that he is now known to be. In 1722 and 1723, during his nineteenth year, he was just Jonathan Edwards. The Great Awakening and his involvement in it, the publication of Religious Affections, Life of Brainerd, and Freedom of the Will — not to mention many other books, sermons, and writings enough to fill many shelves — the missionary work at Stockbridge, and the presidency of Princeton University (then known as the College of New Jersey), were all off in the distance. That Jonathan Edwards, the subject of many books, dissertations, conferences, and even websites, was not yet. At age nineteen, Jonathan Edwards was the potential Jonathan Edwards.
Aristotle spoke of the difference between actuality and potentiality, the difference between what is and what can be. Aristotle further spoke of actual being as real being, while potential being as something less. At this point the self-help gurus step in, offering you seven secrets to becoming the best you can
First, consider the starting point of the “Resolutions.” Edwards started writing his resolutions as fall gave way to winter in 1722. Edwards dated resolution number thirty-five as December 18, 1722, dating the last one, number seventy, on August 17, 1723. It’s likely he began his resolutions shortly before the date on number thirty-five, having just arrived in New York City in August of 1722 as an eighteen-year-old. These resolutions helped him face this tense moment in his life, this moment of uncertainty and change brought about by a new environment. Before Edwards got to number one, however, he offered a prefatory word:
“Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will for Christ’s sake.”
This preface undergirds the seventy resolutions to follow, which is crucial to keep in mind. Cutting the resolutions off from the foundation of the preface leads to seeing them as the stuff of personal grit and determination to better oneself. That’s not only a mistaken reading,
Certain categories and themes begin to emerge from this list of seventy resolutions of Edwards’ intention to live to the fullest. Some concern interpersonal relationships and interaction. Some concern the ubiquitous topic on lists of resolutions: eating and drinking. Some concern his spiritual and devotional life. Some concern his desire to use his time on earth wisely. These types of resolutions make it onto just about any list of resolutions. Indeed, despite all the differences between the twenty-first century and the eighteenth, human beings are much the same. Edwards’ list contains, however, some unique themes.
One of these unique themes concerns suffering and affliction. Towards the end of the list, Edwards writes, “Resolved, after afflictions to inquire what I am the better for them, what good I have got by them, and what I might have got by them.” Edwards’ rather large vision of God saw both the good and the bad in his life as stemming from the hand of God, something difficult for even the most mature of Christians let alone for a nineteen-year-old. Convinced that even the frowning side of
Another unique theme concerns his deep sense of mortality and human frailty. Some see the
This sense of mortality gave Edwards a unique perspective on life. He took the long view, not the short view. Resolution number fifty-two records sage advice to himself: “I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live if they were to live their lives over again. Resolved, that I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age.”
The urgency, or, as some have said, the tyranny of the present tends to keep us from taking such a long view. Consequently, we find our lives somewhat akin to that of Bill Murray’s character in the movie Groundhog Day. We’re stuck in a rut of a seemingly pointless cycle. If we can only get through this day, we tell ourselves, tomorrow will be different. Then tomorrow comes and nothing has changed. There is a way out of this pointless cycle, a way of freedom. The long view, actually the very long view, of the eternal perspective of our lives provides such a way. “Resolved,” Edwards writes in number fifty-five, “to endeavor to my utmost to act as I can think I should do if I had already seen the happiness of heaven and the torments of hell.”
Edwards not only starts his resolutions differently from the self-help gurus,
“Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory and to my own good, profit, and pleasure, in the whole of my duration.”
The Westminster Shorter Catechism had it right all along. There is a necessary corollary between glorifying God and enjoying Him. Edwards just extends it. There is a necessary corollary between glorifying God and enjoying life. The life lived for God’s glory is the life of pleasure, the good life. George Marsden, in his magisterial biography of Edwards, observes, “Jonathan directed his ‘Resolutions’ toward plugging every gap that would allow distraction from what he saw as his only worthy activity, to glorify God” (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 50, 2003). Everything in Edwards’ life, all his activities
This point alone makes Edwards’ resolutions stand out. Fellow colonial Benjamin Franklin also took to writing resolutions. On his long voyage home to Philadelphia after his first visit to France in 1726, he decided to “make some resolutions, and form some scheme of action.” Franklin kept making and remaking them throughout his life. In that first set, his third resolution concerns his goal: “To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of growing suddenly rich; for industry and patience are the surest means of plenty.” His single-mindedness and patience are commendable, but at the end of the
The way Edwards starts and ends his resolutions marks them off from the flood of self-help and how-to advice. Edwards has a distinct and different foundation and goal. In the points in
“Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly, and frequently, that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of them.”
Edwards also has something to say about prayer in resolution number twenty-nine: “Resolved, never to count that a prayer, nor to let that pass as a prayer or as a petition of prayer, which is so made that I cannot hope that God will answer it; nor that as a confession, which I cannot hope God will accept.” Perhaps because Edwards used words so well, he had
The “Resolutions” express Edwards’ earnest desire to be faithful in the spiritual disciplines of reading Scripture and prayer. Many years after he left New York, while writing Religious Affections, Edwards recalled his Jewish neighbor. Edwards vividly remembers this man, “who appeared to me the devoutest person that I ever saw in my life; a great part of his time being spent in acts of devotion.” Edwards used this man’s act of devotion to
In addition to reading Scripture and prayer, Edwards also has quite a bit to say to himself about community, though he doesn’t use the word. Many, if not the lion’s share, of the
Edwards also avoided a naïve view of interpersonal relationships. Resolution number thirty-three makes this clear. Here he writes, “Resolved, always to do what I can towards making, maintaining, and preserving
The last of these numbered resolutions, number seventy, states, “Let there be something of benevolence in all that I speak.” That resolution alone would be enough for any person to work on during his or her lifetime. Edwards had sixty-nine more just as challenging.
Edward's Humanity and Depravity
Reading some of these resolutions gives the impression of Edwards as a superman, but resolution number thirty-six allows for his humanity to come through. In the first part of this one Edwards notes, “Resolved never to speak evil of any,” before adding, “except I have some particular good call for it.” It’s refreshing to see Edwards being so human. We also see this in resolution number fifty-six, in which he deals honestly with his sin, his “corruptions.” Here he writes, “Resolved, never to give over, nor in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.”
It’s encouraging to see our heroes as human. In fact, that is how we must see them. A strong dose of humility and an abiding sense of our own humanity, frailty, and shortcomings, help us put the reading of Edwards’ Resolutions, as well as the making and keeping of our own resolutions, in a healthy perspective. We must remember that there was a time when Jonathan Edwards wasn’t Jonathan Edwards. More importantly, we must remember that Jonathan Edwards didn’t make Jonathan Edwards — no matter how good he was at making and keeping resolutions. God made Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards through the work of the God-man Jesus Christ. Christ made the ultimate resolution, and He kept it perfectly and completely. Christ resolved to redeem His fallen and sinful people so that this new community could be reconciled to the Father and pursue a life of holiness.
Many years later, during the flurry of the Great Awakening, a young teenager named Deborah Hatheway wrote Edwards for advice on how to live the Christian life. She lived in Suffield, Connecticut, at the time a town without a pastor. Since Suffield was just a short distance away from Northampton, Edwards preached there from time to time. Edwards replied with a nineteen-point letter, and this at perhaps the busiest time in his life. This letter was in effect a set of resolutions for her and for her friends, with whom Edwards encouraged her to share the letter. He speaks of spiritual disciplines, of having a sense of sin, and of having an even greater sense of grace. But perhaps his best advice comes near the
“In all your course, walk with God and follow Christ as a little, poor, helpless child, taking hold of Christ’s hand, keeping your eye on the mark of the wounds on his hand and side.”
Resolved, thanks to this reminder from Jonathan Edwards, to keep our eyes on Christ