Crossway has recently launched a series of short books under the heading, Crossway Short Classics. The most recent one is the essay by Jonathan Edwards, Heaven is a World of Love. They asked me to write the Foreword to it, which you will find below.
I can’t think of anyone who was more productive during the course of his earthly life than Jonathan Edwards. One need only glance at the Yale University Press edition of his collected works to verify this as fact. And that does not take into account the vast number of as yet unpublished sermons that we hope will one day be made available.
I cite this about Edwards merely to refute the oft-heard cliché that some people are so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good. Edwards’s earthly achievements may be directly linked to his focus on, dare I say his obsession with, the glory of heaven that he had not as yet experienced. Edwards was consumed with a vision of the eternal bliss that awaits God’s people. Many have written on this theme, but none with the clarity and conviction that I find in Edwards. I trust that this volume will bear witness to the truth of my conclusion.
Yet there are many who still contend that contemplating the “not yet” will serve only to undermine our energy and devotion to the vast and varied needs we face in this life, on this earth. Edwards’s life and ministry are a lasting testimony to the opposite conclusion. He was persuaded, as am I, that our capacity for satisfaction of soul and happiness of heart in this life comes primarily from looking intently at what we can’t see. The strength to endure hardship now comes from reflecting on the promise of everlasting bliss in the age to come.
Students of the apostle Paul have often marveled at his remarkable capacity to persevere under the worst imaginable circumstances in this life, be it persecution, slander, imprisonment, or multiple beatings. Paul himself alerted us to the solution. We do not “lose heart,” he wrote to the Corinthians, no matter what we are called to suffer. Indeed, though our “outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” How so, we ask? It is only “as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
Paul was quick to remind us that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21). Little wonder, then, that he would exhort us “set our minds” on “the things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). It is the prospect that we “will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:4) that strengthens his resolve, and ours, to maintain vigilance in this life and to redeem every opportunity for the reward that it will reap in the coming age. There is no escaping the fact that we must take steps to intensify in our hearts a yearning for the beauty and satisfaction of eternal life in the presence of our Savior.
The greatest joy that awaits us is the promise of Revelation 22:4, that we “will see his face” (Rev. 22:4). The prospect of this beatific vision, as theologians so often describe it, provides the spiritual fuel to energize our commitment in this life and our resilience in the face of hardship and deprivation.
The apostle Paul was joined in this perspective by Peter, who reminds us that the ultimate purpose of our being born again is that we might lay hold of a “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven” for us (1 Peter 1:3-4). If that were not enough, Peter proceeds to exhort his readers to “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).
One also thinks of Abraham and the other patriarchs who were sustained in their earthly sojourn by the prospect of a “city that has foundations” (Heb. 11:10). Their relentless determination in the face of numerous trials was fueled by their desire for a “better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16).
Why? What is it about the promise of eternal life in a new heaven and a new earth that serves this purpose in our Christian experience? Paraphrasing Edwards, as satisfying and joyful as it is now, what we see and sense and savor in this life is an ephemeral shadow compared with the substance of God himself. Earthly joys are fragmented beams, said Edwards, but God is the sun. Earthly refreshment is at best a sipping from intermittent springs, but God is the ocean!
Many who suffer now in ways that we can’t even begin to comprehend, are empowered to remain faithful, knowing that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). The unnamed author of Hebrews reminds us that the emotional and spiritual capacity to bear the reproach of Christ in this life is grounded in the expectation of a “city which is to come” (Heb. 13:13-14), namely, the heavenly New Jerusalem.
Edwards looked to the experience of the saints in heaven to reinforce his conviction that the essence of true religion consists in holy affections. His point is that we learn the quintessential nature of anything by looking closely where that thing is found in its highest and purest expression. To know true religion, therefore, we must look at it in its heavenly expression:
“If we can learn anything of the state of heaven from the Scripture, the love and joy that the saints have there, is exceeding great and vigorous; impressing the heart with the strongest and most lively sensation, of inexpressible sweetness, mightily moving, animating, and engaging them, making them like to a flame of fire. And if such love and joy be not affections, then the word ‘affection’ is of no use in language. Will any say, that the saints in heaven, in beholding the face of their Father, and the glory of their Redeemer, and contemplating his wonderful works, and particularly his laying down his life for them, have their hearts nothing moved and affected, by all which they behold or consider?” (Religious Affections, 114).
Perhaps the greatest insight of Edwards on the reality of heaven is that it is characterized not simply by the presence of joy but by its eternal increase and incessant intensification. With each passing moment in the presence of our Triune God we will see more and more of his endless beauty and majesty. And with each insight comes a greater and more satisfying joy than was known before. And this, says Edwards, will never cease. Throughout the age to come, forever and ever, we will be the recipients each instant of an ever expansive and more stunning, more fascinating, and thus inescapably more enjoyable display of God’s grace and glory than before. Our delight in God will never reach a point at which there is no more for us to enjoy. If God is infinite, said Edwards, then so is the satisfaction and pleasure that comes from our beholding him moment by passing moment (see Psalm 16:11). Speaking of the saints in heaven,
“their knowledge will increase to eternity; and if their knowledge, doubtless their holiness. For as they increase in the knowledge of God and of the works of God, the more they will see of his excellency; and the more they see of his excellency . . . the more will they love him; and the more they love God, the more delight and happiness . . . will they have in him” (Miscellanies, 105).
Yet another reason to read Edwards on the majesty of our heavenly hope is the way he describes the role of music in the age to come. One of the greatest joys of heaven will be the exalted sound of perfected souls singing their joyful praises to God. “The best, most beautiful, and most perfect way that we have of expressing a sweet concord of mind to each other,” said Edwards, “is by music” (Miscellanies, 188). Thus in heaven, he continued, it is probable “that the glorified saints, after they have again received their bodies, will have ways of expressing the concord of their minds by some other emanations than sounds, of which we cannot conceive, that will be vastly more proportionate, harmonious and delightful than the nature of sounds is capable of; and the music they will make will be in a medium capable of modulations in an infinitely more nice, exact and fine proportion than our gross air, and with organs as much more adapted to such proportions” (ibid.). In heaven, “there shall be no string out of tune to cause any jar in the harmony of that world, no unpleasant note to cause any discord” (“Heaven is a World of Love”).
If you find yourself struggling to endure, on the verge of emotional collapse, fearful that the future holds only decay and death, immerse yourself in the exalted and thoroughly biblical perspective that Jonathan Edwards brings to this living hope (1 Peter 1:3). You may well find yourself to be of more earthly good precisely by being ever more heavenly minded.