Heat and Light

I have been back to normal pastoral and preaching duties for one month now, and it has been good, yet challenging, to get back to the disciplines of preparation for preaching and pastoral visitation. There is something about pastoral ministry that is both very demanding and also most rewarding.

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards

I have been reading a wee bit of Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) again. He was probably America’s greatest theologian, although many would argue he was not as comprehensive or as balanced in his theological writings and reflections as, say, the English Puritan, John Owen (1616-1683).

Edwards’ sermon on John 5:35, “He was a burning and shining light”, and entitled “The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister”, is particularly helpful in emphasising the need for a minister to be characterised by both heat and light. Even though written many years ago, there is a contemporary relevance to what he says. This applies particularly to preaching.

Light refers to the content of a sermon, heat to its delivery. If a preacher has light without heat, he may please his audience with entertaining sermons or (more likely) he may bore them with academic and accurate sermons. But he will not reach their hearts. If a preacher has heat without light, he may excite and arouse the emotions of his audience, but any change in their lives will be short term because he will not reach their hearts either. So a good sermon must contain both heat and light. It must be a clear and illuminating exposition of Scripture, but it also needs to be warm, powerful and fervent.

Here’s how Edwards puts it, and you can read the entire sermon here.

When light and heat are thus united in a minister of the gospel, it shows that each is genuine, and of a right kind, and that both are divine. Divine light is attended with heat. And so, on the other hand, a truly divine and holy heat and ardor is ever accompanied with light.

It is the glory of the sun that such a bright and glorious light, and such a powerful, refreshing, vivifying heat, are both together diffused from that luminary. When there is light in a minister, consisting in human learning, great speculative knowledge, and the wisdom of this world, without a spiritual warmth and ardor in his heart, and a holy zeal in his ministrations, his light is like the light of an ignis fatuus, and some kinds of putrefying carcasses that shine in the dark, though they are of a stinking savor.

And if on the other hand a minister has warmth and zeal, without light, his heat has nothing excellent in it, but is rather to be abhorred; being like the heat of the bottomless pit, where though the fire be great, yet there is no light. To be hot in this manner, and not lightsome, is to be like an angel of darkness.

But ministers by having light and heat united in them, will be like the angels of light; which for their light and brightness are called morning stars. Job 38:7, “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” And because of that holy ardor of divine love and zeal with which they burn, they are compared to a flaming fire. Psa. 4, “Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flaming fire,” and are therefore called seraphims, which is a word that is derived from a root that signifies to burn. So that by ministers of the gospel being burning and shining lights, the angels of the churches will become like the angels of heaven, and those stars held in the right hand of Christ here below, will be like those morning stars above, and which is much more.

Hereby ministers will be like their glorious Lord and Master; who is not only the Master of ministers of the gospel, but is the Head and Lord of the glorious angels, whom they adore, and who communicates to them the brightness in which they shine, and the flame with which they burn, and is the glorious luminary and sun of the heavenly world, from whence all the inhabitants of that world have their light and life, and all their glory. In this Sun of righteousness is that light, whose brightness is such that the light of the sun in the firmament in comparison of it is as darkness, yea, black as sackcloth of hair. For he is the infinite brightness of God’s glory; and of him it is said, Isa. 24:23, “Then the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed, when the Lord of hosts shall reign in mount of Zion, and in Jerusalem, before his ancients, gloriously.” And accompanying this bright light in him, is the infinitely intense flame of love. There is no love to be compared to his; nor ever was love both to God and man so manifested, as has been in what Christ has done and suffered. For herein was love!

Ministers, by being burning and shining lights, become the sons of God, of whom we read that he is light, and that he is love. 1 John 1:5, “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” And chap. 4:16, “And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us: God is love, and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him.”

Therefore it must needs be that ministers, by being burning and shining lights, are acceptable and amiable in the sight of God, as he delights in his own image and in the image of his Son. And hereby also they will be honorable and amiable in the sight of men, all such as have any sense of that which is truly excellent and beautiful. And it is the way to have their ministry pleasant and delightful to those of this character that sit under it.

Second, herein a minister of the gospel will be likely to answer the ends of his ministry. By this means his ministry will not only be amiable, but profitable. If a minister has light without heat, and entertains his auditory with learned discourses, without a savior of the power of godliness, or any appearance of fervency of spirit, and zeal for God and the good of souls, he may gratify itching ears, and fill the heads of his people with empty notions. But it will not be very likely to reach their hearts, or save their souls. And if, on the other hand, he be driven on with a fierce and intemperate zeal, and vehement heat, without light, he will be likely to kindle the like unhallowed flame in his people, and to fire their corrupt passions and affections; but will make them never the better, nor lead them a step towards heaven, but drive them apace the other way.

But if he approves himself in his ministry, as both a burning a shining light, this will be the way to promote true Christianity amongst his people, and to make them both wise, good, and cause religion to flourish among them in the purity and beauty of it.

When divine light and heat attend each other in ministers of the gospel, their light will be like the beams of the sun, that do not only convey light, but give life. And converts will be likely to spring up under their ministry, as the grass and the plants of the field under the influences of the sun. And the souls of the saints will be likely to grow, and appear beautiful as the lily, and to revive as the corn, and grow as the vine, and their scent to be as the wine of Lebanon; and their light will be like the light of Christ, which is the light of life, John 8:12.

If the sun should shine upon the earth with the same brightness that it doth now, yet if it were without any heat, it would give life to nothing. The world would be a desolate wilderness, with nothing growing in it. The death of every living thing must be the consequence. And the sun’s light could be of no service to us, but to cause us to see our own and others’ misery, without being able to help ourselves or them. On the other hand, if the sun diffused the same heat that now it does, but the world was destitute at the same time of any light, it would be equally unserviceable. Mankind having no light to guide them in their business, in tilling the field, or gathering the produce of the earth, we should be like the Egyptians in the three days’ darkness, who saw not one another, nor rose from their place. And thus also death would be the unavoidable consequence. But by light and heat accompanying one another, the whole face of the earth becomes fruitful, and is adorned, and all things are quickened and flourish, and mankind enjoy both life and comfort.