Jonathan Edwards and Preaching to Culture

In Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, Tim Keller shares much of what he has learned about preaching. One of my favorite parts is found in the footnotes. In case you do not read footnotes, you might want to read the following about Jonathan Edwards. Namely that he changed his preaching style when he moved to Stockbridge, MA in 1751.

Yes, the author of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” became gentler when he began preaching to the Mohican and Mohawk Indians on the edge of the frontier. According to Keller, his sermons became briefer and more compressed. He began to use more images and metaphors. Not only that, he started to choose images he hoped would resonate with the Indians. This is evident in his sermon “Warring with the Devil.” From the text in Luke 11 he depicts the strong man as Satan who is fully armed and a powerful warrior who has taken us captive. “Sin is therefore imaged as the state of being in thrall of an armed enemy.”

And then Edwards introduces grace and salvation. These of course come through Christ “A greater armed man, who can liberate us.” We are told that Edwards did not often discuss warfare, yet, “The Indian warrior culture provided his rhetorical opportunity.”

As much as I like these highlights from “Warring with the Devil,” I like what Keller tells about Edward’s first sermon to the Indians even more. In “The Things that Belong to True Religion” he does not begin with detailed exegesis, he does not add a treatise on doctrine or give multiple bible proofs. “He does something he had never done before – he begins with an extended story, the story of Cornelius… a racial outsider, a ‘heathen warrior,’ who finds faith in Christ.”

Edwards goes on to outline human history as the spreading of the gospel. From a family to a nation to Europeans like Cornelius. He talks about his own people, the English, who once worshipped idols but now follow Jesus. “Now, Edwards argues, the gospel is spreading from the Europeans to the Indians.” This is brilliant. Edwards identifies with the Indians. Even more, “This account puts the hearers themselves squarely in the middle of the great story of the world and of what God is doing in it.” Edwards shows his listeners that they are part of God’s plan.


2 thoughts on “Jonathan Edwards and Preaching to Culture

  1. It seems as though Jonathan Edwards took Pau’ls message at Mars Hill (Areopagus) to heart. He sought to understand his audience and sought a path to explaining God, not on his past experiences & understanding but on the past experiences of those he addressed.
    I always wondered about the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” as it was preached to congregations in Northampton MA & Enfield Ct. I have heard folks talk about how that methodology was outdated and that such preaching would not work today, even though it is considered to have lasting impact on the Protestant movement in America & England. However, I hear you saying that such thought missed the point. Jonathan Edwards presented the same gospel story to the folks in Northampton MA & Enfield Ct AND the to the Mohicans, but he presented it in a way that each hearer would truly understand the deep nature of the grace and forgiveness offered by our Lord. So how shall we, in central Pa in 2017 in small towns, cities, rural areas, and suburban areas, tell the story? For it seems there will be no “cookie cutter” approach. Perhaps looking into how folks like Jonathan Edwards and Paul lived out their faith on a daily basis would give us insight into how they received the wisdom & discernment to preach to different communities. Perhaps living a holy file placed them in position to receive wisdom & discernment at the appropriate time so that at least some in the audience would find their way to the heart of the message. Of course the prevenient grace of God likely also has influence here. Thanks for the inspiration to lean in on God and seek to understand in order to reach others for Christ. In a day & age where change is exponential in nature, we should be adept at maintaining the central truth of the gospel and yet flexible in speaking in a manner understandable to our audience. Thanks for the insight.

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