The Minister’s Goal
The reason why the preaching of God’s Word was so vital was that the Spirit used the Word to stir the holy affections of God’s people. Reflecting on Luke 24, Edwards observed that when Christ “opened to them the sacred scriptures, he was insisting on the great things that are found written in the word of God”; it was this “delightful discourse to the disciples” that caused a “burning of their hearts within them” which was “a sensation sweet.” This inward burning represented a “spiritual sense of the truth of divine things,” a “spiritual conviction” of God’s excellency and glory. And while private reading of God’s Word could prove to be “a lively word to the saints [that] has light and heat in it to them,” it is particularly the preaching of God’s Word that produces this effect: “God’s people sometimes set under the preaching of the Word with ardent and enflamed hearts; there is sometimes a sweet inward ardency of mind under the hearing of the Word. The soul seems as it were to drink in the words of the minister as they come from his mouth, one sentence after another touches their hearts and things are alive, the heart is kindled, there is an inward warmth, the heart is fixed and the affections are active.”
This stirring of the affections toward heightened delight in and love for God is the minister’s goal. It was not merely a riling of the emotional state of the hearers. Rather, “all affections are raised either by light in the understanding, or by some error and delusion in the understanding.”
As the light of God’s Word appealed to the believer’s understanding through preaching, God’s Spirit used his Word to raise the affections. Light and heat must go together in the believer’s heart: “our people don’t so much need to have their heads stored, as to have their hearts touched; and they stand in the greatest need of that sort of preaching that has the greatest tendency to do this.” Indeed, “holy affections are not heat without light; but evermore arise from some information, some spiritual instruction the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge.” The ministry of the Word conveys to the mind “the subject matter of this saving instruction,” which was vital for genuine affections.
Yet Edwards well knew that ministers themselves could not produce genuine affections in the hearts of their people; this was solely the work of God’s Spirit: “This inward burning of the heart that we speak of is the exercise of grace in the heart and therefore must be that which is of an holy nature; ’tis the breathing and acting of the Spirit of God in the heart and therefore it must needs be holy and pure.” Such should send both minister and people to prayer, asking the Spirit of God to use his Word to produce spiritual fruit: “a people in such a case cry earnestly to that glorious Sun who is the brightness of God’s glory and the express image of his person, who is full of light and divine heat, in whom dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily and is more full of spiritual light and of grace than the sun is of light.”
Just as a congregation needed to pray for the Spirit to warm their hearts, the minister did as well. When a minister sought the Spirit’s assistance in preaching, he did not receive “immediate suggesting of words to the apprehension, which may be with a cold dead heart.” Rather, the Spirit’s assistance came “by warming the heart and filling it with a great sense of those things that are to be spoken of, and with holy affections, that that sense and those affections may suggest words.”
For it was the Spirit who used his Word, preached by a minister whose own affections were moved, to grant 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 happened, as Edwards would later put it in Religious Affections, when “the Spirit of God in his spiritual influences on the hearts of his saints, operates by infusing or exercising new, divine and supernatural principles; principles which are indeed a new and spiritual nature.”
This spiritual influence, which was nothing less than a divine communication, produced “a new inward perception or sensation of their minds” that enables women and men to see and savor the divine excellency of Jesus Christ displayed in his Word. This new sense of the heart caused the believer to “see that God is lovely, and that Christ is excellent and glorious”; such a sight captivated his heart and moved him to delight in Christ’s beauty as “chief among ten thousand and altogether lovely.” This delight and joy led in turn to new practices of holiness that fed continued delight in God’s glory and beauty.
Such divine light and holy heat, such delight and love to God in the lives of God’s people, was the ultimate goal of the ministry of the Word, the very reason for which God granted ministers to his church. Ultimately, like Christ, ministers were sent to expend themselves “for the salvation and happiness of the souls of men.” Called as affectionate husbands, burning and shining lights, hard-working servants, those engaged in the ministry of the Word sought to be used by God’s Spirit to preach God’s Word in such a lively and passionate way that their hearers’ minds and hearts would be moved to delight and rejoice in and ardently love Jesus and others. Such was the nature of salvation and happiness—the glorifying and enjoying of God—to which the Triune God called his people for his own glory and infinite happiness.