The Importance of Knowing Divine Truth


[This is a contemporary language paraphrase of a classic sermon by Jonathan Edwards, "The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth". While i make no pretense of improving on Edwards' insights, the language and style are no longer easily accessible to modern readers. So i've attempted to update the expression without altering the substance: any failures should be counted against my account, not Edwards. Serious students of Edwards' work may well be disappointed by places where my rewording has eroded the power or grandeur of the original. My only defense is that his message is too important to be left unheard simply because the language and style have changed so much over 250 years. Additional comments on the editorial process are at the bottom.]

A Sermon by Jonathan Edwards

"For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food ..." [Hebrews 5:12]

These words are a complaint by the apostle against a certain defect in the Christian Hebrews, to whom he wrote. We can observe two things from the verse:

  1. What is the defect he complained of?

  2. What is the cause of this defect?

The defect he complains of is their lack of proficiency in the knowledge of the doctrines and mysteries of their faith, which proficiency he might have expected them to have. The apostle complains that they have not made as much progress as they should have in divinity [1] or what is taught in the oracles of God. And he intends to rebuke them, not merely for lacking spiritual and experimental knowledge of divine things, but for their lack of doctrinal acquaintance with the principles of faith, and the truths of Christian divinity.

This is evident by several things. First, it appears by the way the apostle introduces this complaint. In verse 10 he mentions that Christ is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek:

"being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek." [Hebrews 5:10]

This Melchizedek is from the Old Testament, the oracles of God, and he is held forth as an eminent type of Christ [2]. The account of Melchizedek there contains many gospel mysteries, which the apostle was willing to point out to the Christian Hebrews. But he understood that because of the weakness of their knowledge and unfamiliarity with the mysteries of that nature, they would not understand him. So he leaves off further discussion of Melchizedek for the time being. As he says in verse 11,

"About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing." [Hebrews 5:11]

That is, there are many things concerning Melchizedek, which contain wonderful gospel mysteries, and which I would draw your attention to, were it not that I am afraid, that because of your dullness and backwardness in understanding these things, you would only be puzzled and confounded by my discussion, and so receive no benefit, and that it would be too hard for you, as solid food that is too hard to digest.

Then come these words in the text: "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food ..." It is as if the apostle were to say, I might have been expected you to know enough of divinity, and the holy Scriptures, to be able to understand and digest such mysteries: but that is not the case.

The apostle speaks of their proficiency in the knowledge that is transmitted and received by human teaching in the expression "by this time you ought to be teachers", which includes not only a practical and experimental, but also a doctrinal knowledge of the truths and mysteries of religion.

Again, the apostle speaks of such a knowledge that enables Christians to digest solid food, that is, to understand those things in divinity which are more difficult to comprehend, and which require great skill in things of this nature. This is more fully expressed in the next two verses:

"for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil." [Hebrews 5:13-14]

Proficiency in this kind of knowledge will carry people beyond the first principles of religion, as in verse 12: "you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God." Therefore the apostle, in the beginning of the next chapter, advises them:

"Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity..." [Hebrews 6:1a]

Second, we may observe what the cause of their defect is, namely, that they had not made progress appropriate to their time as Christians. By this time, they ought to have been teachers. As they were Christians, their business was to learn and gain Christian knowledge. They were scholars in the school of Christ, and if they had used their time for learning, as they ought to have done, they might have been fit to be teachers in this school by the time when the apostle wrote. Whatever business people are devoted to, one can expect their progress will match the time they have had to learn and perfect themselves. Christians should not always remain babies, but should grow in Christian knowledge, and should move beyond the food of babies, which is milk, and learn to digest solid food.

DOCTRINE: Every Christian should make a business of endeavoring to grow in knowledge of divinity.

This is indeed considered to be the business of theologians and ministers, and many think it is their task to gain knowledge by the study of the Scriptures and other books. Indeed, most seem to think that it may be left to them, as a task that does not belong to others. But if the apostle had thought this, he would never have blamed the Christian Hebrews for not having acquired enough knowledge to be teachers. Or, if he had thought this a casual matter for Christians in general, and that their time should not be substantially devoted to this business, he would not have chastised them so strongly for lacking a proficiency in knowlege appropriate to the time which they had had to learn.

In discussing this subject, I shall show

  1. What divinity is
  2. What kind of knowledge in divinity is intended
  3. Why knowledge in divinity is necessary
  4. Why all Christians should make a business of endeavoring to grow in this knowledge

First, I shall show very briefly what divinity is. Various definitions have been given by those who have commented on the subject. I will not attempt to inquire which is the most accurate definition: instead, I will define it in a way that I think has the greatest tendency to convey a notion of it to this audience.

By divinity is meant, that science or doctrine which includes all the truths and rules of the great business of religion. There are various kinds of arts and sciences taught and learned in the schools, which address various objects, such as:

But there is one science, or one certain kind of knowledge and doctrine, which is above all the rest, because it concerns God and the great business of religion. This is divinity, which is not learned, as other sciences, merely by the improvement of man's natural reason, but is taught by God Himself in a certain book that He has given for that end, full of instruction. This is the rule that God has given to the world to be their guide in searching after this kind of knowledge, and it is a summary of all the things of this nature that are necessary for us to know. For this reason divinity is called a doctrine, rather than an art or science.

Indeed there is what is called natural religion, or natural divinity. There are many truths concerning God, and our duty to Him, which are evident by the light of nature. But Christian divinity, as it is properly called, is not evident by the light of nature; it depends on revelation. Our circumstances now in our fallen state are such that nothing that we need to know about God is made plain by the light of nature, in the manner in which it is necessary for us to know it. For there is no significance in the knowledge of any truth in divinity, unless it is part of the message of the Gospel, or unless it relates to a Mediator. But the light of nature teaches us no truth of divinity in this matter. Therefore it cannot be said that we come to the knowledge of any part of Christian divinity by the light of nature. The light of nature teaches no truth as it is found in Jesus. It is only the word of God, contained in the Old and New Testament, which teaches us Christian divinity.

Divinity encompasses all that is taught in the Scriptures, and therefore all that we need to know, or that can be known, concerning God and Jesus Christ, concerning our duty to God, and our happiness in God. Divinity is commonly defined as the doctrine of living to God: others, who seem to be more accurate, define it as the doctrine of living to God by Christ. It encompasses all Christian doctrines as they are in Jesus, and all Christian rules that direct us in living to God by Christ. There is nothing in divinity, no one doctrine, no promise, no rule, that does not in one way or another relate to the Christian and divine life, or to our living to God by Christ. They all relate to divinity, in two respects:

But now I proceed to the second thing proposed, which is, to show what kind of knowledge in divinity is intended in the doctrine. First I would make two observations:

  1. There are two kinds of knowledge of the things of divinity, namely speculative and practical, or in other terms, natural and spiritual. Speculative knowledge remains only in the head. It is concerned with no other faculty but the understanding. It consists in having a natural or rational knowledge of the things of faith, the kind of knowledge that is obtained by the natural exercise of our own faculties, without any special illumination of the Spirit of God. Practical knowledge, on the other hand, is not entirely based on the head, or the speculative ideas of things: instead, it is based in the heart, and it principally consists in the sense of the heart. The mere intellect, without the heart, the will or the inclination, is not the seat of it. And it may not only be called seeing, but feeling or tasting. Thus there is a difference between having a correct speculative notion of the doctrines contained in the word of God, and having an appropriate sense of them in the heart. Speculative or natural knowledge of the things of divinity lies in the former: spiritual or practical knowledge of these things lies in the latter.
  2. Neither of these two kinds of knowledge should exclude the other: but it is intended that we should seek the former in order to obtain the latter. The latter, a spiritual and practical knowledge of divinity, is of the greatest importance, for a speculative knowledge of it, without a spiritual knowledge, is in vain and to no purpose, other than to make our condemnation greater. Yet a speculative knowledge is also of infinite importance in this respect, because we can have no spiritual or practical knowledge without it, as will be shown later.

I have already shown that the apostle speaks not only of a spiritual knowledge, but of the kind of knowledge that can be acquired, and communicated from one person to another. But one should not think that he means this exclusively of the other. He would have the Christian Hebrews seek the one, in order to find the other. So the former kind of knowledge is first and most directly intended: Christians should, by reading and other proper means, seek a good raional knowledge of the things of divinity. The latter is more indirectly intended, since it is to be sought by the other, as its ultimate end.

Now I will proceed to the third thing proposed, that is, to show the usefulness and necessity of knowledge in divinity.

  1. There is no other way by which any means of grace can be of any benefit, except by knowledge. All teaching is worthless without learning. Therefore, the preaching of the Gospel would be completely pointless if it conveyed no knowledge to the mind. There is a group of people whom Christ has purposefully appointed to be teachers in His church. They are to teach the things of divinity. But their teaching is in vain, if no knowledge of these things is gained by their teaching. It is impossible that their teaching and preaching should be a means of grace, or of any good in the hearts of their hearers, other than by knowledge imparted to the understanding. Otherwise it would be of as much benefit to the audience if the minister preached in an unknown language. The entire difference is that preaching in a known language conveys something to the understanding, which preaching in an unknown language does not. Therefore such preaching must be unprofitable. People receive nothing when they understand nothing, and are not edified at all, unless some knowledge is conveyed: this is consistent with Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 14:2-6.

    No speech can be any means of grace, except by conveying knowledge. Otherwise the speech is just as lost as if no one had heard it, and the speaker had only spoken into the air, as follows from the passage just quoted, verses 6-10. The one who does not understand can receive no faith, or any other grace, for God deals with humans as rational beings, and when faith is exercised, it is not about something unknown. Therefore hearing is absolutely necessary to faith, because hearing is necessary to understanding: "And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? " (Romans 10:14b) So there can be no love without knowledge. To love an object which is entirely unknown is not according to the nature of the human soul. The heart cannot be set upon an object of which there is no idea in the understanding. The reasons which cause the soul to love must first be understood before they can have a reasonable influence on the heart.

    God has given us the Bible, which is a book of instructions. But this book cannot profit us, except as it conveys some knowledge to the mind: it cannot profit us any more than if it were written in the Chinese or Tartarian language, of which we do not know a single word.

    So the sacraments of the gospel can only have their proper effect by conveying some knowledge. They represent certain things by visible signs: and what is the purpose of signs, but to convey some knowledge of the things signified? Human nature is such that nothing can come into the heart except through the door of understanding: and there cannot be any spiritual knowledge of something unless there is first a rational knowledge. It is impossible that anyone should see the truth or excellency of any gospel doctrine who does not know what that doctrine is. A man cannot see the wonderful excellence and love of Christ in what He has done for sinners, unless his understanding is first informed how those things were done. He cannot have a taste of the sweetness and divine excellence of the things contained in divinity, unless he first has a notion that such things exist.

  2. Without knowledge in divinity, no one would be different from the most ignorant and barbaric unbelievers. The unbelieving world remains in utter unbelieving darkness, because it lacks instruction, and has not obtained the knowledge of the truths of divinity. So if we live under the preaching of the gospel, this will make us different from them, only by conveying to us more knowledge of the things of divinity.
  3. If a person has no knowledge of these things, the faculty of reason within will be wholly in vain. The faculty of reason and understanding was given for actual understanding and knowledge. If someone has no actual knowledge, the faculty or capacity of knowing is of no use to them. And if one has actual knowledge, but still lacks knowledge of those things which are the final purpose of his being (for which people have been given more understanding than the animals), then his faculty of reason is still in vain; one might as well have been an animal, as a person with this knowledge. But we have been given the faculty of reason in order to know the things of divinity. They are the things which pertain to the end of our existence, and to the great business for which we have been made. Therefore a person's faculty of understanding is of no purpose, beyond their knowledge of the things of divinity.

So this kind of knowledge is absolutely necessary. Other kinds of knowledge may be very useful. Some other sciences, such as astronomy, natural philosophy, and geography, may be very excellent in their own way. But the knowledge of this divine science is infinitely more useful and important than all the other sciences.

I come now to the fourth and principal thing proposed under this doctrine, namely, to give the reasons why all Christians should occupy themselves with endeavoring to grow in the knowledge of divinity. This implies two things:

  1. Christians should not be content with the advances that they've already made in the knowledge of divinity. It should not satisfy them that they know what is absolutely necessary to salvation, but they should seek instead to make progress.
  2. Endeavoring to make progress in such knowledge should not be left for when one "gets around to it", but all Christians should make it their occupation: they should look upon it as a part of their daily business, and not a small part either. They should attend to it as a major part of the work of their high calling, for the following reasons


  1. The term "divinity" is no longer in common English usage, except in the term "divinity school". But it is central to Edwards' sermon, so i've chosen to retain it rather than replace it with something more familiar but less suitable. Edwards defines it thoroughly later in the sermon, but its general meaning is the study of Christian faith, including God Himself (theology), but also Christian piety and practice.
  2. "Type" here refers to stories in the Old Testament that foreshadow and illustrate principles or characteristics of the life of Christ.
  3. Pneumatology was a science dealing with the medical uses of air and gases.
  4. The original is "should by no means prosecute it as a business by the by"
  5. For example, Greek philosophers.

Editorial comments:

I have not hesitated to reproduce Edwards' words verbatim when i felt there was no need to alter them. My goal is not to be original, only to let the light of Edwards shine as clearly as possible.

I've consistently modified some terms which are no longer in common usage as Edwards understood them. For example, "brutes" seems better rendered today by "beasts", and "heathen" by "unbeliever". While not aiming at the political correctness of gender-inclusive language, i have throughout replaced "man" with "humanity" or a like term when it is clear that was Edwards' intent.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.