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Inexpressible Sweetness:Jonathan Edwards’ History with God

By October 16, 2003 No Comments

This age reveres personal choice in religious matters and deems personal feeling the test of what is authentic, and even Reformed churches are heeding popular culture’s call to “do your own thing.” Given that, it is helpful to hear what the Reformed tradition has to say on these trends. One gem in Reformed thought, one that is too little known, is Jonathan Edwards’ “Personal Narrative.” In contrast to Edwards’ weighty theological discourses, this short autobiographical essay provides a show-and-tell demonstration of what Reformed theology means. In this personal story, Edwards’ own life becomes a mirror for reflecting the general contours of what constitutes genuine Christian religious experience.

While Edwards’ memoir does reveal a life full of very intense feeling and personal choice, Edwards moved through and beyond the radical subjectivism that characterizes so much of contemporary life both inside and outside the church.

Edwards was himself deeply involved in a culture of religious emotionalism, specifically the Great Awakening that swept through colonial America in the 1740s. Though he desired deeply the religious renewal instigated by the Great Awakening, he nonetheless feared the tendency to see religion as mere emotionalism. For him true religion is certainly personal and emotional and open to human choices, but it is never reducible to these alone, for deeper always than human choice is divine will and action. How God’s will and human choice reconcile is to a large extent the burden of his subtle theological treatises. Fortunately, this same issue is simply and beautifully focused in his “Personal Narrative.” The question in the autobiography is this: if true conversion is not based on the subjective powers of the human self, then how does one know that conversion is genuine and not merely an emotional high? “Personal Narrative” sums up in story form the uniqueness of Edwards’ particular Reformed viewpoint.

Stages on the Way

In the opening section of the “Narrative,” Edwards describes four pre-conversion experiences and follows each description with a but that signals the failure of that experience to bring genuine conversion. These four experiences all result from human actions, whereas the genuine conversion he eventually experiences is entirely God’s work.

The first paragraph stresses emotion, or feeling. At a time of “remarkable awakening in my father’s congregation,” Edwards writes, “I was then very much affected for many months.” Praying often with other boys, he “experienced I know not what kind of delight in religion . . . and had much self-righteous pleasure” in it. “My affections,” he says, “seemed to be lively and easily moved.” And then comes the first reversal: “But in process of time, my convictions and affections wore off; and I entirely lost all those affections and delights and left off secret prayer . . . and went on in the ways of sin.” Edwards concludes that religious feeling is not the basis for true religion: “I am ready to think [that] many are deceived with such affections, and such a kind of delight as I then had in religion, and mistake it for grace.”

Then follows a second renewal, one which emphasizes obedience and behavior rather than feeling: “after . . . repeated resolutions, and bonds that I laid myself under by a kind of vows to God, I was brought wholly to break off all former wicked ways, and all ways of known outward sin; and to apply myself to seek salvation, and practice many religious duties; but without that kind of affection and delight which I had formerly experienced.” Again there is a reversal: “But yet, it seems to me I sought after a miserable manner; which has made me sometimes since to question, whether ever it issued in that which was saving; being ready to doubt, whether such miserable seeking ever succeeded.” The will, Edwards implies, and the practice of religious duties are insufficient for the experience of true conversion.

Nor is intellectual understanding the way to God. In the third paragraph Edwards tells how he achieved a restful mind even though he could neither give a full intellectual account of his convictions nor “put an end” to intellectual problems. “But,” he says, he has since had a deeper experience of religion that these earlier intellectual convictions could not induce.

And, finally, in the fourth paragraph, Edwards speaks of another period of a “sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things.” These experiences gave him “a new sort of affection.” “But,” he again says, “it never came into my thought that there was anything spiritual, or of a saving nature, in this.” An “inner light,” or a subjective delight in spiritual things, is no more the means to true religious experience than are feelings, obedience, or intellectual assent.

The Real Thing

What is evident in the fifth paragraph is that true religious experience originates from God, particularly through the saving acts of the second person of the trinity: “From about that time, I began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by Him.” Grace is inseparable from the centrality of Christ in the conversion experience. The evidence of Christ’s redeeming power is the heightened sense of God that reaches beyond ordinary emotions, actions, thoughts, and inward contemplations. Edwards speaks of an “inward, sweet sense” of Christ’s work and his inclination to be “greatly engaged to spend my time in reading and meditating on Christ, on the beauty and excellency of His person, and the lovely way of salvation by free grace in Him.”

After describing his conversion experience, Edwards presents a retrospective analysis that shows his path to the fullness of his religious life. Once Edwards comes to depend on the regenerative grace of Christ, he wants to fulfill his “burning desire to be in everything a complete Christian.” Structurally the narrative progresses in chronological fashion from Edwards’ first experiences of genuine grace through his pastorate in New York, his appointment to Yale as a tutor, and his ministry in Northampton, Massachusetts. Thematically, this religious journey is not characterized by stages but by his unending effort to bring together and deepen the various elements of religious experience. His concern is not primarily with biographical particularity but with the kinds of experiences Christians have and need in their quest to know God more fully and to love Him more intensely.

At the end of the piece, Edwards refers to a particular experience that illustrates the gradual deepening of his convictions even though some of his earlier excitement had waned: “yet, of late years, I have had a more full and constant sense of the absolute sovereignty of God, and a delight in that sovereignty; and have had more of a sense of the glory of Christ, as a Mediator revealed in the gospel.” For Edwards the biographical story is an account of the continuous struggle to realize ever more fully the grace that brings God to man and man to God.

A number of important elements stand out in Edwards’ account of his deepening experience of God. First, and perhaps most pervasive, is his constant awareness that God’s grace is truly transcendent, meaning beyond human control, imagination, and language. The problem is evident in the following passage: “This [his inward sweetness] I know not how to express otherwise than by a calm, sweet abstraction of soul from all concerns of the world.” The phrase “I know not how to express” runs throughout the essay, occurring at least nine times. The word that Edwards uses to designate this inexpressible experience of God’s presence is sense: “there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express.” The consc
iousness of the inadequacy of language to express the “sense” of God’s grace is the most poignant element in Edwards’ account of religious experience.

But if language is inadequate, how does one speak about the experience of God and know that that experience is genuine? One way is to focus on the words we have for God: “Sometimes, only mentioning a single word caused by heart to burn within me; or only seeing the name of Christ, or the name of some attribute of God.” In “Personal Narrative” the name of Christ occurs frequently. In one paragraph alone the word Christ appears nine times, and the importance of Christ is central throughout: “I felt an ardency of soul to be, what I know not otherwise how to express, emptied and annihilated; to lie in the dust, and to be full of Christ alone; to love Him with a holy and pure love . . .” These words are not, however, iconographic, bringing into the consciousness the very presence of God; rather, they provide occasions for contemplating those realities that cannot be directly rendered or expressed.


Edwards was greatly aided in his ineffable encounter with God by dwelling on Scripture and other domains of contemplation. Because of the inadequacy of human language, Scripture has special importance, for it represents God’s words. At one point during his time in New York, Edwards writes, “I had then, and at other times, the greatest delight in the holy Scriptures, of any book whatsoever. Oftentimes in reading it, every word seemed to touch my heart. I felt a harmony between something in my heart, and those sweet and powerful words. I seemed often to see so much light exhibited by every sentence, and such a refreshing food communicated, that I could not get along in reading; often dwelling long on one sentence, to see the wonders contained in it; and yet almost every sentence seemed to be full of wonders.” Elsewhere he writes, “And I have sometimes had an affecting sense of the excellency of the word of God, as the word of life; as the light of life; a sweet, excellent, life-giving word; accompanied with a thirsting after that word, that it might dwell richly in my heart.” The essay is full of scriptural references, illustrating Edwards’ use of this means of sanctification.

But while Scripture is preeminently the guide to and occasion for religious experience, the book of nature is also God’s revelation. Edwards’ response to nature is as intense as that of any Romantic nature lover, but it is distinctly unRomantic in its conception. Since for him language is not grounded, as it was for many Romantic writers, in the natural flow of nature, man, and God into oneness, the language of human observation cannot speak directly of divine actions in and through nature. Edwards’ language, therefore, becomes oxymoronic and analogical. In his descriptive passages we see Edwards struggling to express a Christian understanding of the religious significance of nature. Speaking of his delight in his father’s pasture, Edwards notes: “And as I was walking there, and looking up on the sky and clouds, there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express. I seemed to see them both in a sweet conjunction; majesty and meekness joined together; it was a sweet and gentle, and holy majesty; and also a majestic meekness; an awful sweetness; a high, and great, and holy gentleness.” The language struggles through oxymoron to get beyond the ordinary meaning of words like meekness, gentleness, and majesty.

Similarly, the elements of nature are not only beautiful in themselves; they point by analogy to the things of God: “The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything. God’s excellency, His wisdom, His purity and love, seemed to appear in every thing; in the sun, and moon, and stars; in the clouds and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature.” Even the thunder that formerly made him “uncommonly terrified” was reason to “rejoice” because “I felt God, so to speak, at the first appearance of a thunder storm.”

Prayer, also, provided a context in which human language could strive to reach beyond its ordinary uses. “I was almost constantly in ejaculatory prayer, wherever I was. Prayer seemed natural to me, as the breath by which the inner burnings of my heart had vent.” So, too, the contemplation of heaven: “It appeared to me a great clog and burden, that what I felt within, I could not express as I desired. The inward ardor of my soul seemed to be hindered and pent up, and could not freely flame out as it would. I used often to think, how in heaven his principle should freely and fully vent and express itself. Heaven appeared exceedingly delightful, as a world of love; and that all happiness consisted in living in pure, humble, heavenly, divine love.”

The experience of prayer and the contemplation of heaven and Christ are closely related to rare moments of mystical experience, though not an essential part of religious life, that brings Edwards to a full if momentary experience of grace. One such moments took place in 1737 when he “rode out into the woods for my health” and for contemplation: “This grace that appeared so calm and sweet, appeared also great above the heavens. The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent, with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception–which continued, as near as I can judge, about an hour; which kept me the greater part of the time in a flood of tears, and weeping aloud.”

Immediately after speaking of his intense mystical experiences, Edwards cites another element which recurs through the narrative, his sense of his own sin and unworthiness: “My wickedness, as I am in myself, has long appeared to me perfectly ineffable, and swallowing up all thought and imagination; like an infinite deluge, or mountains over my head. I know not how to express better what my sins appear to me to be, than by heaping infinite upon infinite, and multiplying infinite by infinite.” Calvinists are sometime stereotyped as dour self-declaimers obsessed with sin and guilt. But in the context of “Personal Narrative” as a whole, Edwards is not taking ironic pleasure in the sense of his own guilt; rather, he emphasizes the sovereignty of God and the power of grace. His experience of sin is real, but it is also evidence of the paradigmatic relationship of man to God and of sin to grace. Cultivating the “sense” of lying “infinitely low before God” is one of the ways in which the true believer comes to experience the infinite greatness of inexpressible grace.

Edwards was also sustained in his quest for holiness by the “communion of the saints,” specifically the conversation and love that united him to other believers. “My heart was knit in affection to those in whom were appearances of true piety; and I could bear the thought of no other companions but such as were holy, and the disciples of the blessed Jesus.” Part of the pleasure of contemplating heaven was that there “those persons who appear so lovely in this world, will really be inexpressibly more lovely and full of love to us.” Always “the future glorious advancement of Christ’s kingdom on earth” brought delight.


Edwards’ search for a language to depict the inexpressible reality of experience transformed by grace appears to have an otherworldly character. Self-effacement, contemplation of heaven and the names of God, prayer, Scripture reading, and mystical moments might seem to remove one from life’s actualities. But such a conclusion is unfair to Edwards. He always played a prominent role in his community, and his narrative is an account of his experiences in this world. Earth is, after all, the realm where people enco
unter God. The experience of God’s grace, if it is genuine, transforms the entire person–emotionally, ethically, intellectually, and imaginatively–and gives to all daily acts new direction and new joy. In the final analysis the world is God’s world, and man’s fulfillment is found in living in the world under God. For Edwards the experience of life is fundamentally and pervasively religious, but it is not for that reason devalued. The last sentence of the “Narrative” appropriately ends the essay on a this-worldly note: “I had . . . a very affecting sense, how meet and suitable it was that God should govern the world, and order all things according to His own pleasure; and I rejoiced in it, that God reigned, and that His will was done.”

Thus, “Personal Narrative” may be read as an exercise in the use of autobiography for purposes of illustration. Edwards describes those examples of false religious experience that often pass for genuine conversion, and he depicts the fluctuations and struggles that converted Christians face in the quest to discover fully the presence and blessing within ordinary experience. The “Personal Narrative” shows Edwards as a devout yet tortured believer whose poignant wrestle with God delineated the kinds of experiences that mark the life of the true believer.

Clarence Walhout is professor of English emeritus at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.