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Jonathan Edwards: Chief End, Ultimate End, Subordinate End

In his Dissertation Concerning the End for which God Created the World (which you can read for free HERE), Jonathan Edwards makes some logical distinctions about desire. This relates to God’s purposes in creating the world. It’s also helpful in understanding our own desires. I’ve written in the past HERE about his fountain analogy for creation. But in this post I’m going to summarize Edwards’ idea of ‘ends.’ The qualifications he make about our different types of desires have been helpful for me in understanding the Bible and my own motivations.

There are two reasons to desire something: (1) You desire a thing for its own sake or (2) you desire it for the sake of something else (as a means to a further end).

Under the heading of “desiring something for it’s own sake,” Edwards uses the terms “chief end” and “ultimate end.” What are they?:

  • Chief End: The absolute highest purpose; the thing most valued in and of itself. A person can have only one chief end.
  • Ultimate End: Something sought for its own sake. A person can have multiple ultimate ends and various levels of desire relating to them. An ultimate end is not necessarily a chief end.

When distinguishing between a more desired ultimate end and a less desired ultimate end, Edwards uses the phrase Inferior End.

  • Inferior (Ultimate) End: The lesser valued of two or more ultimate ends

He calls things desired not for their own sake but for the sake of something else (as means to an end) “subordinate ends.”

  • Subordinate End: something sought not for its own sake but for some further purpose (a means to an end)

To summarize: a chief end is desired in and of itself above all other things without qualification. An ultimate end is desired in an of itself, but only one ultimate end can be a chief end.

One person can have all sorts of ultimate ends at any given time. For example, if I take my wife out to dinner at a fancy steakhouse, I can have two ultimate ends. One is eating a steak. The other is spending time with my wife. I enjoy both things in and of themselves. Whichever I desire less is the inferior of the two ultimate ends. In order to get to the steakhouse, I have to drive for 30 minutes. Driving is a subordinate end. I don’t desire to make this drive in and of itself. I only want to do it because I want to get to the steakhouse.

That leaves the chief end. What’s my chief end in all this? The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This should be the chief end in everything that we do. In my driving, in my eating, and in my marriage, my desire should be to glorify and enjoy God.

Sermon Mill

Edwards’s writings, including his notebooks (from the philosophically oriented ‘Miscellanies’ to the exegetical ‘Notes on Scripture’) and his published treatises (many of which were originally sermons), comprise, according to Kimnach, his ‘sermon mill.’

-Stephen Nichols, An Absolute Sort of Certainty: The Holy Spirit and the Apologetics of Jonathan Edwards, p. 17

I’m not saying I’m Jonathan Edwards – not by a long shot – so don’t go there. But when I read that sentence I thought, ‘Yep, that’s pretty much what my blog is.’ Edwards would have been quite a prolific blogger.

This is a good book by the way. I’ll post a few more quotes from it, Lord willing, in the near future.

Jonathan Edwards on the Covenant of Works

This post contains a compilation of several Jonathan Edwards quotes on the subject of the Covenant of Works. Several ‘miscellanies’ also reveal his position on the Mosaic covenant as, in some sense, a repetition of it (though it is, at one and the same time, a part of the Covenant of Grace) . All quotations (most of which come from The “Miscellanies“) are taken from the website of The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University and contain specific links to the website. Let me commend that website to anyone interested in Edwards, as this list would have been quite difficult to compile without their searchable database.
The Covenant of Works is Still in Force: It is an Everlasting Covenant
With reference to what has been before spoken of the covenant [No. 2]. Covenant is taken very variously in Scripture, sometimes for a divine promise, sometimes for a divine promise on conditions. But if we speak of the covenant God has made with man stating the condition of eternal life, God never made but one with man to wit, the covenant of works; which never yet was abrogated, but is a covenant stands in full force to all eternity without the failing of one tittle. The covenant of grace is not another covenant made with man upon the abrogation of this, but a covenant made with Christ to fulfill it. And for this end came Christ into the world, to fulfill the law, or covenant of works, for all that receive him (Miscellanies, HERE).
The Covenant of Works Must be Fulfilled by a Federal Head: Adam or Christ
Towards the rectifying of what has been already said about the covenants [Nos. 2, 30]. The covenant of grace or redemption (which we have showed to be the same) cannot be called a new covenant, or the second covenant, with respect to the covenant of works; for that is not grown old yet but is an eternal immutable covenant, of which one jot nor tittle will never fail. There have never been two covenants, in strictness of speech, but only two ways constituted of performing of this covenant: the first constituting Adam the representative and federal head, and the second constituting Christ the federal head; the one a dead way, the other a living way and an everlasting one (Miscellanies, HERE).
The Law is a Covenant of Works Meant to Graciously Lead Israel to Christ
I think really that the covenant that God made with the children of Israel was the covenant of works. He still held them under that covenant; that is, what is required in that covenant is to them particularly deciphered, and many additional positive commands which answer to the precept concerning the forbidden fruits and God proposes this covenant to them as the condition of his favor, and gives them to understand that none of those promises he had made could be challenged without perfect obedience: but yet gives them to understand so much of his merciful nature and his inclination to pity them and to accept of a propitiation for them, that they, finding that they could not challenge anything from those promises [on the ground] of obedience, trusted only to the mere undeserved mercy of God and were saved by grace, and expected life only of mere mercy.We are indeed now under the covenant of works so, that if we are perfectly righteous we can challenge salvation. But herein is the difference betwixt us and them: to us God has plainly declared the impossibility of obtaining life by that covenant, and lets us know that no mortal can be saved but only of mere grace, and lets us know clearly how we are made partakers of that grace. All ever since the fall were equally under the covenant of grace so far, that they were saved by it all alike, but the difference is in the revelation: the covenant of works was most clearly revealed to the Israelites, to us the covenant of grace. The church, which was then in its infant [state], could not bear a revelation of the covenant of grace in plain terms; and so with them the best way to bring them off from their own righteousness was to propose the covenant of works to them, and to renew the promise of life upon those conditions. God did with them as Christ did with the young man that asked what he should do for eternal life: Christ bids him keep the commandments. And in that sense they were under the covenant of works, that it was proposed to them as the condition of life, that they might try. To us it is not so.The covenant of grace was indeed insinuated to them and proposed under covert, but ’twas to that they were all forced to fly. The promises seem to be so contrived as to give them to see that they can’t challenge anything except they perform a perfect obedience, if God will be strict, but yet that he will of his mere mercy accept them into his favor if they perform a sincere obedience proceeding from the true love and fear of him; so that the fruits of faith are proposed instead of faith itself. But by this, none but such as had faith could hope for life; and by God’s contrivance of that dispensation they were led not to depend on these as works, but as a disposition to receive, as so many manifestations of repentance and submission; and they depended on them as such only, for life (Miscellanies, HERE).
Outward Blessings of Mosaic Covenant ‘Entirely Legal’

The covenant that God made with the children of Israel with respect to outward blessings was entirely legal, a covenant of works (Miscellanies, HERE).
Impossibility of Keeping the Covenant Was Meant to Cause them to Seek Grace and a Mediator
The covenant that God made of old with the children of Israel is spoken of in Scripture as different from that which he makes with his people in these gospel times. We will consider what difference there was. And here, 1. God proposed a covenant to them that was essentially and entirely different, which was the covenant of works: he promulgated the moral law to them, together with many positive precepts of the ceremonial and judicial law, that answered to the prohibition of eating the forbidden fruit; which God proposed to them with the threatening of death, and the curse affixed to the least defect in obedience. If it be inquired, in what sense God gave this covenant to them more than to us, I answer, that although it was as much impossible for them to be saved by it as it is for us, yet it was really proposed to them as a covenant for them, for their trial (Exodus 20:20), that they might this way be brought to despair of obtaining life by this covenant, and might see their necessity of free grace and a Mediator. God chose this way to convince them, by Proposing the covenant of works to them, as though he expected they should seek and obtain life in this way, that everyone, when he came to apply it to himself, might see its impracticableness; as being a way of conviction to that ignorant and infantile state of the church. God did with them as Christ did with the young man, when he came and inquired what he should do to inherit eternal life: Christ bid him keep the commandments. There was this difference also: the law, or covenant of works, was more fully and plainly revealed to them than the gospel, or covenant of grace, was… (Miscellanies, HERE).
Explicit Moral Law Unnecessary for the Righteous
why the moral law was not expressly given to our first parents, as well as the precept of not eating the forbidden fruit, see note on 1 Timothy 1:9 (Miscellanies, HERE).
The “Blank Bible” note on 1 Timothy 1:9 states, “This may be given as a reason why the precepts of the moral law were not expressed by God to our first parents, as well as that positive precept of not eating the forbidden fruit. There is not that need of God’s expressly and particularly forbidding these and those immoralities to one that is perfectly righteous.”
  • …understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers (1 Tim. 1:9)

The Covenant of Works Offers Life for Obedience; Romans 1-3 Represents the Covenant of Works

That there was not only a threatening of death for disobedience, but a promise of immortal and more glorious life for obedience given to Adam in his first estate, is argued by Dr. Watts in his Ruin and Recovery, not only from the history of that affair in Genesis, but from several other things in Scripture.

1. From Romans 2:7, where he supposes “the Apostle is rather representing the terms of the covenant of works, than the terms of the covenant of grace. God will render ‘indignation and wrath, [tribulation and anguish,] upon every soul of man that doth evil’ Romans 2:8–9]; but eternal life, with glory, honor and peace ‘to them who, by patient continuance in well doing, seek for glory, honor and immortality’ Romans 2:7], and Romans 2:10, ‘glory, honor and peace to every man that worketh good.'” Dr. Watts supposes it to be agreeable to the design of the Apostle in these three first chapters of the Romans here to represent the terms of the covenant of works, and show how all men are brought under condemnation by the law.

2. He observes that “’tis the covenant of works, with the terms of it, as expressed in the books of Moses, which is cited by St. Paul, Galatians 3:12, ‘The man that doth the commands shall live in or by them’; and Romans 10:5. This is called ‘the righteousness of the law,’ i.e. that which entitles a man to the promise of life. And Romans 7:10, ‘The commandment of the law which was ordained to life,’ shows that life and immortality would have been the reward of obedience to it.”

3. He produces to the same purpose that in Romans 3:23, “‘all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,’ i.e. have lost all hope of that glory of God, that glorious state in immortality which God promised, and to which man would have been entitled by his obedience, as Romans 2:7, before cited.”

4. “Hosea 6:7, ‘They like men have transgressed the covenant.’ But in the original it is, ‘they have transgressed the covenant like Adam’; which imports that Adam was under a covenant of life, as well as a law that threatened death: for there must be a promise of life, as well as a threatening of death, to make a law become a covenant” (Miscellanies, HERE).

Christ Declares the Blessing of Obedience to the Covenant of Works; He Knew the Terms
1152.The original MS resumes here. The part of the original MS page on which JE wrote No. 1152 (as well as a brief section of No. 1150) was cut out at some point; the fragment is now at the Library of Congress. COVENANTS. PERFECT OBEDIENCE. CHRIST’S RIGHTEOUSNESS.
So it is most natural to understand that [saying] of Christ, John 12:50, “And I know that his commandment is life everlasting,” that obedience to the commands of God the Father is the grand, unalterable condition of eternal life to all his subjects universally. See the context (Miscellanies, HERE).
The Thunder and Lighting of Sinai Point to the Law as a Covenant of Works
III. The next thing done towards the work of redemption, is God’s giving the moral law in so awful a manner at mount Sinai. This was another new step taken in this great affair. Deut. iv. 33. “Did ever people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?” And it was a great thing, whether we consider it as a new exhibition of the covenant of works, or given as a rule of life.
The covenant of works was here exhibited as a schoolmaster to lead to Christ, not only for the use of that nation, under the Old Testament, but for the use of God’s church throughout all ages of the world. It is an instrument that the great Redeemer makes use of to convince men of their sin, misery, and helpless state, and of God’s awful and tremendous majesty and justice as a lawgiver, in order to make men sensible of the necessity of Christ as a Saviour. This work of redemption, in its saving effect on men’s souls, in all its progress, is not carried on without the use of this law delivered at Sinai.

It was given in an awful manner, with a terrible voice, exceedingly loud and awful, so that all the people in the camp trembled; and even Moses himself, though so intimate a friend of God, said, “I exceedingly fear and quake. “ The voice was accompanied with thunders and lightnings, the mountain burning with fire to the midst of heaven, and the earth itself shaking and trembling. This was done in order to make all sensible how great that authority, power, and justice were, that stood engaged to exact the fulfilment of this law, and to see it fully executed. Here might he understood, how strictly God would require the fulfilment; and how terrible his wrath would be against every transgressor. Men, being sensible of these things, might thoroughly prove their own hearts, and know how impossible it is for them to obtain salvation by the works of the law, and be assured of their absolute need of a mediator.

If we regard the law given at mount Sinai—not as a covenant of works, but—as a rule of life, it is employed by the Redeemer, from that time to the end of the world, as a directory to his people, to show them the way in which they must walk, as they would go to heaven: for a way of sincere and universal obedience to this law is the narrow way that leads to life (From A History of the Work of Redemption, 4:3 HERE).

Jonathan Edwards on Song of Solomon

While doing some research relating to Jonathan Edwards this past week, I came across a fascinating talk by Nick Batzig on Edwards’ Christological interpretation of Song of Solomon. This is a subject that I am quite interested in. I have written about it before in a post called What’s the Point of Song of Solomon?

If you’ve ever had questions about Song of Solomon, I’d encourage you to give this a listen: HERE

Meaning and Application 2: Timeless Truth?

I ended my previous post with these words:

In summary, sharp distinctions between meaning and application are difficult to make at best. I fear that the making of such distinctions comes out of a desire to seek ‘scientific objectivity’ in interpretation. Such objectivity is impossible. And even if it is possible (and I don’t think it is), it is still undesirable. My argument is that objective detachment in biblical interpretation is impossible and/or undesirable for at least two reasons: 1)Interpretation (even in determining the original context of portions of Scripture) necessarily involves asking questions of the text, and questions cannot be neutral and 2) the best biblical interpretation is also the most applicable and vice versa (the worst is the least applicable).

I will now pursue those two points.

First, interpretation necessarily involves asking questions of the text of Scripture, and questions cannot be neutral. Back when I was blogging through Technopoly, by Neil Postman, I wrote a post entitled Questions Cannot Be Neutral. I referenced this quote by Postman:

A question, even of the simplest kind, is not and can never be unbiased…My purpose is to say that the structure of any question is as devoid of neutrality as its content. The form of a question may ease our way or pose obstacles. Or, when even slightly altered, it may generate antithetical answers, as in the case of the two priests who, being unsure if it was permissible to smoke and pray at the same time wrote to the Pope for a definitive answer. One priest phrased the question ‘Is it permissible to smoke while praying?’ and was told it is not, since prayer should be the focus of one’s whole attention; the other priest asked if it is permissible to pray while smoking and was told that it is, since it is always appropriate to pray (pp. 125-126).

From there, I made this observation:

First, in my thinking, I applied this quote to the study of the Scriptures. As a student of the Bible, and as a preacher, I think this is sound wisdom for dealing with the Scriptures. Martyn Lloyd-Jones makes the point in Preaching and Preachers that a student of the Scriptures must constantly be asking questions of the text if he is to find answers; and the kind of questions we ask will largely determine the answers that we receive. John Frame makes much the same point in  The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (and in his general points about Perspectivalism; if you don’t know what it is then by all means click the link). He argues, and he is absolutely right, that we cannot come to the Scriptures, or any book for that matter, as blank slates. We come with all sorts of baggage, which leads us to ask certain kinds of questions and seek certain kinds of answers. What this means practically is that we have to train ourselves to ask the right sorts of questions.

Someone may contend that our goal is to make our questions as ‘objective’ as possible. This would lead back to the road of interpreter as historical exegete looking primarily for the illusive ‘original meaning’ of the text. But there’s a problem with this. Perfect objectivity is a myth of Scientism. As long as we are personal beings with personal histories, personal presuppositions, and personal beliefs, we will never achieve the gnostic idea of setting those things aside for detached objectivity. Michael Polanyi dealt with this question at great length in more than one book. For instance, in Personal Knowledge, he writes,

When we accept a certain set of pre-suppositions and use them as our interpretative framework, we may be said to dwell in them as we do in our body…They are not asserted and cannot be asserted, for assertion can be made only within a framework with which we have identified ourselves for the time being; as they are themselves our ultimate framework, they are essentially inarticulable (p. 60).

Postman says that questions cannot be neutral. Polanyi says that the reason questions cannot be neutral is that the people who ask them cannot be neutral – they have inarticulate presuppositions that they are likely not aware of, not to mention overt presuppositions that they are aware of. This means, for our discussion, that the idea of biblical interpreter as detached exegete is a myth. And that’s a good thing.

Let me share an anecdote. A few years ago I took several classes on homiletics (preaching). During a discussion on the subject of ‘application,’ one of the students made this point to our professor: ‘What if there is no application of the passage? I just don’t see any application in the passage I’ve been working on, so why should I worry about it?’ I raised my hand an responded, ‘But you are a person, and you are preaching to people! You are not preaching in a vacuum!’ What followed was the chirping of crickets for about 20 seconds. It seems obvious enough. We should not be afraid to ask our ‘modern’ questions of the sacred text. How does this affect me? How does it affect my church? How does it affect my society?

‘Rabbi’ John Duncan once wrote of Jonathan Edwards that his ‘doctrine is all application, and his application is all doctrine.’ This is an interesting quote for a couple of reasons. First, Edwards is famous for the habitual structure of his sermons. He nearly always follows the same pattern: exegesis, statement of the main doctrine, application. He studied a text to find a primary teaching. After demonstrating that teaching in the text, he would go on to apply it to his congregation. Thus his sermons were divided into two main parts: doctrine and application. But, says Duncan, his ‘doctrine is all application, and his application is all doctrine.’ If you’ve read much of Edwards, you likely understand what Duncan means. He was never interested in detached exegesis, exposition, or theology. He was always aiming the truth right at you.

Doctrine cannot be expounded in a vacuum. The incarnation of Christ is the ultimate proof that doctrine must touch the ground and get dirty. This is what separates theology from so much philosophy. Christians are not primarily concerned with theoretical questions. When we ask questions, we are looking for answers that apply to actual lives lived in this actual world. This is why a Puritan father like William Perkins defined theology as “the science of living blessedly forever,” and why his disciple Williams Ames called theology “the doctrine or teaching of living to God.” This is why, during the Reformation, John Calvin claimed, as the central thesis of Book I of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man are inseparable if we are to properly live the Christian life. He writes,

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.

And this is why, centuries before, Francis of Assisi (and Thomas Aquinas) were so concerned with the things of this world:

St. Francis was becoming more like Christ, and not merely more like Buddha, when he considered the lilies of the field or the fowls of the air; and St. Thomas was becoming more of a Christian, and not merely more of an Aristotelian, when he insisted that God and the image of God had come in contact through matter with a material world. These saints were, in the most exact sense of the term, Humanists; because they were insisting on the immense importance of the human being in the theological scheme of things. But they were not Humanists marching along a path of progress that leads to Modernism and general scepticism; for in their very Humanism they were affirming a dogma now often regarded as the most superstitious Superhumanism. They were strengthening that staggering doctrine of Incarnation, which sceptics find it hardest to believe (G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, pp. 16-17).

All of these men (though Edwards was on the edge) lived before the days of the popularization of so-called Scientific-detachment. And all of these men, in many ways, were better exegetes and theologians than what the church is producing today.

Let me return for a moment to Calvin’s words (quoted above). What he says of knowledge in general is true of knowledge in particular. If we take his argument that knowledge of God and knowledge of self are intimately related, to the point that we can’t tell where one stops and the other starts, and apply it to the study of individual passages of the Bible, what we might get is this: I cannot try to take off my own skin as I study the Bible. I cannot be detached. To detach myself from me is to detach myself from God. This does not mean that I am God. But it does mean that I am a Christian, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, living in a particular place at a particular time. And this means that, not only can I not know God as though he or I were in a vacuum, I cannot know him as someone living in a different place or different time. True theology and exegesis is personal and timely.

I have a pet peeve about using the word ‘timeless.’ God’s truths are not timeless. They transcend time; they are for all time; but they are not timeless. Rather, they are always timely. The incarnation is always true, no matter the age. But that truth is timely. It has ramifications for us (in the Muddle Ages) that may not be the same as the ramifications for someone who lived in the Middle Ages. This does not mean that the truth has changed. It simply means that the truth reaches out and fills up the corners of whatever time it finds itself.

Let me lay out a few ramifications of this line of thought. First, if what we have said is true, then you must not be afraid to bring your whole self to your reading of the Scripture. You do not need to ‘get out of the way.’ I’ve heard this said of preachers: they need to get out of the way and let the Bible speak. If God wanted to get us out of the way he has means of accomplishing that. He calls particular men, with particular personalities, and particular strengths and weaknesses to speak to particular generations. Let them be faithful to the Scriptures, but let them speak. Bring your baggage to your Bible study. Don’t be afraid to let God’s Word speak to you as a particular person in a particular time. Do not be content to read Scripture as a textbook, or history book. Come to it expecting every word to shake up your world. Second, do not sit in authority over the Scriptures, but do allow the Scriptures to sit in authority over you. Let the Bible have its way with you – with you, in your present context. Don’t be so concerned with the context of a given book of the Bible that you do not allow it to speak to your context.

That is the great takeaway from this subject. If your Bible study does not touch down into your world, then you are not only missing applications, you are actually missing the very meaning of Scripture. And if your study is leading you to miss how the Scriptures apply to your given situation, then you are liable, in the future, to be asked, “Have you not read?…” Of course your read it, but you didn’t live it. Of course you knew the truth, but you didn’t allow it to touch down and get dirty, as it was always meant to be.

I will conclude this series with a post about the application of Law and Gospel.

A Savior From Sin (Charity and Its Fruits)

He that, by the act of his will, does truly accept of Christ as a Savior, accepts of him as a Savior from sin, and not merely as a Savior from the punishment of sin.

Jonathan Edwards, Charity and Its Fruits, Chapter 11

Edwards is commenting on 1 Corinthians 13:6: ‘[Charity] rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth.’ Quite frankly, I got chills as I read these words for the first time. I do not know if I have read a statement that I would consider more of a theological bomb, for it blows up our lawlessness. Our Lord is named Jesus, ‘because he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21), not just the punishment their sins deserve.

Edwards further proves the statement like this:

The most remarkable type of the work of redemption by divine love in all the Old Testament history, was the redemption of the children of Israel out of Egypt. But the holy living of his people was the end God had in view in that redemption, as he often signified to Pharaoh, when from time to time he said to him by Moses and Aaron, “Let my people go, that they may serve me.” And we have a like expression concerning Christ’s redemption in the New Testament, where it is said, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, . . . to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant, the oath which he swore to our father Abraham, that he would grant unto us, that we, being delivered out of the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life” (Luke 1:68-75). All these things make it very plain that the end of redemption is, that we might be holy.

He won’t stop until we are not only counted as holy, and forgiven of our unholiness, but until we actually are holy. Christ’s work will not be complete until we are glorified, but that glorification is so certain that the Apostle Paul can speak of it in the past tense (Rom. 8:30). That’s motivation to put sin to death and live unto righteousness. That’s not Legalism – that’s high and heavenly motivation. Those who know the love of Christ, and love him on account of it, will rejoice in truthful living, which is holiness.