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Jonathan Edwards on the Death of a Saint: Part 2

Reading Time: 5 mins

By death the Christian is brought to the actual possession of all his happiness, which is nothing other than Christ and all the benefits Christ has procured for His saints.

Jonathan Edwards contemplations surrounding the death of a saint are found in numerous entries in the “Miscellanies” notebooks. Yet, his fullest depiction is in a two-part sermon on the text of Philippians 1:21, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (circa 1721-23).[1] The sermons show how death, strangely enough, may operate as the fulcrum of the Christian life and practice.

The morning sermon opens by juxtaposing life and death in this world based upon the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Moving from his introductory focus on the Redeemer to humanity, Edwards says being born in this world “dead in trespasses and sin” is death unto God, and being naturally dead in sin really consists in living toward the Devil. Our entrance into this life is a death, and that death is life unto the Devil. So, “the life we naturally live to Satan must be destroyed before we are raised again to the spiritual life of Christ.” Edwards explains that life to God in Christ is death to sin and Satan, and this dying to self, sin, and the world is preparatory to our physical death and subsequent entrance into Heaven: “First: The true Christian, before he lives to Christ, dies unto sin.” It is by the grace of repentance, perfectly accomplished by Christ in His own baptism and gifted by the Word, that sin receives its deadly wound. Where sin was death, now life (in the grace of repentance) fatally wounds death. “Secondly: The true Christian dies to the world of this sort of death which is necessary in order to living to Christ.”

The second main point of the sermon shows from what internal principle it is that a true believer lives thus to Christ: “I answer in one word: Christ Himself lives in the soul of a true Christian, and influences and actuates him by His Holy Spirit.” Prior to regeneration, sin and “inordinate self-love,” love of the world, and “fleshly lusts” were the principles of the unregenerate life, but then, by the grace of God, “Christ enters in their room and makes His abode in the same heart where sin, lust, and the Devil formerly dwelt; and He enlivens and actuates the Christian by His Holy Spirit.” This principle is contrary to the inclinations toward the things of this world and disposes one toward holiness and love for Christ. It is, Edwards assures us, nothing other than the Holy Spirit Himself, “so united to the faculties of the soul that He becomes there a principle [where He] exerts and communicates Himself.”[2] Critical to the sanctified life is the Word. Taking a cue from Martin Luther, Edwards affirms that the Spirit works through the Word of God and outside of the Word there can be no knowledge that it is, in fact, the work of the Spirit.

 Christ enters in their room and makes His abode in the same heart where sin, lust, and the Devil formerly dwelt; and He enlivens and actuates the Christian by His Holy Spirit.-Jonathan Edwards

“Third: He dies to himself... By dying to ourselves, we mean the mortifying of that false, inordinate, irregular, mistaken self-love, whereby we seek to please only ourselves and none else, seeking our own present pleasure without consideration of our future state.” Edwards finds this truth copiously evidenced in Scripture, citing Matthew 10:39, Luke 14:26, Romans 8:10, and Galatians 2:20; 5:24. One is led to conclude that the Christian life of dying to sin, self, and the world makes excellent practice for the coming of physical death. The Christian, then, is one who is to be well versed in the language and exercise of dying for the expressed purpose of spiritual living.

The afternoon sermon, entitled “Dying to Gain,”[3] has for its doctrine “Death is gain to the true Christian.” The word “gain,” in Edwards’ explication, is not simply a matter of proportions or an enhanced quality, but an “inestimable, inconceivable gain” because at death, Christ truly becomes the Christian’s all. For if the Christian were to continually dwell upon this world, and never be translated into the spiritual realm at death, he would be forever kept from his heavenly inheritance, which is his all, his hope, his glory: Christ Jesus. This world, then, is the domain of “simil iustus et peccator,”[4] while Heaven brings translation of the Christian spirit, only to be followed by the resurrection of the body on the Last Day. Therefore, Heaven, and more so heaven-on-earth, is a world of love and holiness. By death, then, the Christian is brought to the actual possession of all his happiness, which is nothing other than Christ and all the benefits Christ has procured for His saints.

“It is all on the other side [of] the grave; this valley must be passed before we can come to it. So that seeing if the believer was to continue always in these earthly animal bodies, he would entirely lose his heavenly treasure, which is all his gain. Therefore, dying and a separation from these tabernacles, when God thinks it is the fittest and best time that we should, is his gain.”[5]

Yet, again, even this state is intermediary. The resurrection of the body renders the deceased saint as Christ is. There is gain and more gain, followed by an eternal life of gain. So, not only has death been defeated by the death of Christ, the resurrection of Christ renders death not an enemy but an entrance.

To describe the gainfulness of the death of the baptized, Edwards contrasts what is desirable or gained in it with what one may supposed to be an evil or terrible thing in the death of a believer. Starting with what may seem at first to be something terrible in the death of a saint, he points out how worldly comforts and goods are given to the saints for no other end than to prepare for death. They are “good for nothing at all else, but only to fit us to leave them.”

“Of what use is a staff when one has got to his journey’s end? Or suppose one had a whole back-burden of staves for travel with, and [to] help us on our journey. Why should we be unwilling to part with them when we are got home to our own country, to rest forever in our Father’s house? What a folly it would be, still to desire to carry the burden of them when they do us no good in the world, but only to burden.”[6]

Those saints who are ever so easily plucked off the branch of this world find that all worldly good things are given for no other use than to help them forward on their way to Heaven. Yes, such things may be the goodly fruits of the earth and human creativity, yet it is the dying to the desire of these things and finding repose in Christ which leaves us, as Edwards says, “ripe for the gathering.”

But then Edwards continues, although when the Christian dies, he leaves all worldly things, “Yet, he don’t lose the good of them; he carries all the good of them out of the world with him into the other.” This curious assertion initially seems inconsistent with previous statements about worldly goods; at least until Edwards shows that even the memory of temporal “good” and relationships has its grounding and fullness in Christ. The Christian acquires the spiritual good out of those things “that will stick by him forever,” because any truly excellent, good, harmonious, or amiable quality in them ultimately came by the communication of the Holy Spirit. Edwards asks rhetorically, “Why should the bee regard the flower after he has sucked all the honey out of it?” indicating that the things themselves are not be considered worthy of religious adoration, since Christ is to be realized as having been the joy or good or love communicated in all things.


[1] Sermons and Discourses, 1720-1723, Works, 10, Sermon 1, pages 565-577, published as “Living to Christ,” and Sermon 2, pages 579-591, published as “Dying to Gain.”

[2] Religious Affections, Works, 2. 128-29.

[3] Works, 10. 579-591.

[4] Latin for “at the same time justified/saint and sinner.”

[5] Ibid. 581-82.

[6] Ibid.