How Did Jonathan Edwards Define Regeneration?

When a pernicious Pharisee from Tarsus named Saul was confronted by the living God on the road to Damascus, Scripture says that “immediately something like scales fell from his eyes.” (Acts 9:18) He saw the Light. For the next two millennia, the church has witnessed similar dramatic conversions in countless believers who have claimed their own Damascus road experiences. For Augustine, his conversion was concomitant with his supernatural reading of Romans 13:13-14. For Luther, it was found in Romans 1:16. For Jonathan Edwards, on the other hand, the Scripture that changed his life was not found in Romans; however, it was nonetheless Pauline. In his Personal Narrative (1739), Edwards records his conviction at the words of 1 Timothy 1:17: “As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before… I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be rapt up to him in heaven; and be as it were swallowed up in him for ever!” This “new sense” was the sound of spiritual scales falling from Edwards’ eyes. It was also the paradigm for his own doctrine of regeneration – one that he would spell out most vividly in A Divine and Supernatural Light (1734).

According to Douglas Sweeney, Edwards’ Northampton sermon in August 1733 is “the locus classicus of his conception of the experience of spiritual regeneration – as well as the celebrated doctrine of what he called ‘the sense of the heart.’” (The New England Theology, 26) The Northampton Revival of 1734-35 had spawned serious questions about the nature of regeneration. In turn, the theme of conversion, a traditional Puritan science, was vigorously resurrected. The ensuing Great Awakening only intensified Edwards’ quest to define “true religion.” For this reason, most scholars believe Religious Affections (1746) to be an extended discourse upon the themes of A Divine and Supernatural Light.

Edwards’s biographer George Marsden has even concluded that the Northampton theologian’s classic Life of David Brainerd (1749) was “Religious Affections in the form of a spiritual biography.” (Jonathan Edwards, 331) For this reason, it could be postulated that Edwards’ life and ministry, in one form or another, was an intensive look into the heart of true conversion. Douglas Sweeney has even stated that “none of Edwards’ titles nourished the growth of the New England Theology as much as those that treated the hallowed doctrine of the new birth, or the soul’s regeneration from spiritual death to life in Christ.” (The New England Theology, 25) For Edwards and those who claimed his theological heritage, Christianity was a twice-born religion.

The text Edwards chose for A Divine and Supernatural Light was Matthew 16:17: “And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.’” Typical of the tripartite Puritan homiletical style, Edwards expounded the text, explained the doctrine, and fleshed out its application in the Christian life. The doctrine of the sermon he presented as such: “There is such a thing, as a spiritual and divine light, immediately imparted to the soul by God, of a different nature from any that is obtained by natural means.” For Edwards, regeneration was not mediated by anyone or anything, even by Scripture. Rather, it was an immediate work by God that made use of the means of His Word. Edwards begins the work by distinguishing what divine light is not: mere conviction and misery from sin, natural conscience, impressions made upon the imagination, the suggestion of new truths not contained in the Bible, nor affecting views of religion. Instead, Edwards defines spiritual and divine light as “a true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the Word of God, and a conviction of the truth and reality of them, thence arising.

This true sense of Christ’s divine excellency is not “speculative or notional,” but is rather “a sense of the heart.” To demonstrate this crucial point, Edwards uses his iconic illustration of honey: “There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, an having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former; that knows not how honey tastes; but a man can’t have the latter; unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind.” When the sinner participates in the life of the Spirit in Christ, he tastes the sweetness of Christ. Moreover, the “conviction of the truth and reality” of these divine things both enlivens the speculative notions and convinces the sinner of their “superlative glory.”

This supernatural light is immediately imparted by God to the natural faculties, which are not merely passive but active in the conversion process. God “deals with man according to his nature, or as a rational creature; and makes us of his human faculties.” While the Word is the Christ-appointed means of salvation, it is not the “proper cause of this effect.” It only conveys to the mind the “subject matter” of salvation. Edwards reminds his readers, “Indeed a person can’t have spiritual light without the Word. But that doesn’t argue that the Word properly causes the light. The mind can’t see the excellency of any doctrine, unless that doctrine be first in the mind; but the seeing the excellency of the doctrine may be immediately from the Spirit of God.”

Edwardsian disciple Samuel Hopkins once said of Jonathan Edwards, “He studied the Bible more than all other books, and more than most other divines do.” Accordingly, A Divine and Supernatural Light, with its many profound metaphysical assertions, is likewise imbued with Scripture. Edwards utilizes texts like Matthew 11:25-27, John 6:40, and 2 Peter 1:16 to biblically support his epistemological argument while also insisting upon its rationality. While God makes use of human reason, this supernatural light is superior to human ability: “It is out of reason’s province to perceive the beauty or loveliness of anything: such a perception doesn’t belong to that faculty. Reason’s work is to perceive truth, and not excellency…

Ultimately, this divine and supernatural light enlightens our spiritual eyes to see the glory of God: “Yea, the least glimpse of the glory of God in the face of Christ doth more exalt and ennoble the soul than all the knowledge of those that have the greatest speculative understanding in divinity, without grace.For Jonathan Edwards, conversion is nothing more than the true knowledge of the glory of God in Christ Jesus. (2 Cor. 3:18) His sermon A Divine and Supernatural Light (1734) is the explication of this “true sense” of Christ’s sublime glory as presented in Scripture and the conviction of its truth.


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