While Edwards is most certainly Reformed, he, in my opinion, reads much differently than John Calvin. Yes, I know- two different centuries, two different countries, so of course they read differently. When I read Calvin though, I'm often comforted. When I read Edwards (or many of the Puritans) , I'm often disheartened and feel burdened by my own shortcomings and failures. I've often wondered why this is. I'm sure someone has done compare / contrast work on Calvin and Edwards. A few weeks ago I actually attempted to ask about this sort of study on the Puritan Board, and didn't get any nibbles. I'm not the sort of person who enjoys reinventing the wheel. I'm sure there are studies of this sort of thing out there somewhere, I just haven't looked hard enough. Perhaps the information I'm looking for is actually in a book in my own library and I don't even realize it. What follows is my own opinion as to what the difference smells like to me.
It appears to me that for Calvin assurance is of the essence of faith. On the contrary, for Edwards, it wasn't. Calvin viewed faith as knowledge, trust, and assurance. The the last of these three, assurance, is that which I think provokes the feelings I have towards Calvin and Edwards. For Calvin, assurance was an encouragement for a Christian in the midst of difficulty and doubt. God had made promises to His people and these must be clung on to in times of discouragement. Despite how I feel about the burden of my sin, God promises salvation through Christ. Calvin states things like,
Here, indeed, is the chief hinge on which faith turns: that we do not regard the promises of mercy that God offers as true only outside ourselves, but not at all in us; rather that we make them ours by inwardly embracing them. Hence, at last is born that confidence which Paul elsewhere calls “peace” [Romans 5:1], unless someone may prefer to derive peace from it. Now it is an assurance that renders the conscience calm and peaceful before God’s judgment. Without it the conscience must be harried by disturbed alarm, and almost torn to pieces; unless perhaps, forgetting God and self, it for the moment sleeps. And truly for the moment, for it does not long enjoy that miserable forgetfulness without the memory of divine judgment repeatedly coming back and very violently rending it. Briefly, he alone is truly a believer who, convinced by a firm conviction that God is a kindly, and well-disposed Father toward him, promises himself all things on the basis of his generosity; who, relying upon the promises of divine benevolence toward him, lays hold on an undoubted expectation of salvation. As the apostle points out in these words: “If we hold our confidence and glorying in hope, firm even to the end” Hebrews 3:7, cf. Vg.]. Thus, he considers that no one hopes well in the Lord except him who confidently glories in the inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom. No man is a believer, I say, except him who, leaning upon the assurance of his salvation, confidently triumphs over the devil and death; as we are taught from that masterly summation of Paul: I have confessed that “neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come…can separate us from the love of God which embraces us in Christ Jesus”. Thus, in the same manner, the apostle does not consider the eyes of our minds well illumined, except as we discern what the hope of the eternal inheritance is to which we have been called [Ephesians 1:18]. And everywhere he so teaches as to intimate that we cannot otherwise well comprehend the goodness of God unless we gather from it the fruit of great assurance."Now I don't have any particular primary texts from the pen of Edwards to contrast this to. I'm not that well-read in Edwards. One particular book that really helped me understand Edwards was, John H. Gerstner, Jonathan Edwards, Evangelist (PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995, reprint). I highly recommend this readable overview of the basic soteriology of Edwards.From looking back over my Gerstner text, the notion of assurance in the theology of Edwards seems to be a different sort of cat than what Calvin was writing about. According to Gerstner, for Edwards there needed to be signs or "distinguishing marks" of regeneration in order to have assurance (p. 166). Gerstner quotes Edwards saying, "Assurance is not to be obtained so much by self-examination as by action" (p. 167). Edwards, held very few people would actually be saved (p. 161). He was concerned that those who claimed to be Christians gave actual proof of their regeneration by good works. Gerstner states, "The difficulty is in detecting such signs [of spiritual conversion]. Edwards, having taught its possibility, urged the saints to get assurance. However, he raised so many problems that it became a byword that very few of his closest followers, if any, ever got it it."
I'm sure Edwards and Calvin overlap in regard to this subject. Maybe I'm nitpicking, or simply don't understand the issues and the writers involved. Obviously, Calvin was concerned with good works flowing out of a regenerate heart (as was Luther). But if I'm going to look at my life to gain assurance of true faith, I'm one of those types of people that sees the perfect glorious righteousness of Christ, and then I compare that to my feeble steps of righteousness. R.C. Sproul has stated something like, "We're closer to Hitler in our sanctification than we are to Christ." This statement isn't meant to devalue the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives- it's to point out just how incredible and holy the righteousness of Christ actually is. Sproul is right. I'm closer to Hitler. If I'm going to follow the paradigm of Edwards as honestly as possible, I'll never arrive at assurance, ever.
I've stated that the Reformed tradition I belong to uses the Heidelberg Catechism. Note it's description of faith, and then compare it to the Westminster Larger Catechism, Question #81
Q. 21. What is true faith?
A.True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ's merits.
Westminster Larger Catechism
Question 81: Are all true believers at all times assured of their present being in the estate of grace, and that they shall be saved?
Answer: Assurance of grace and salvation not being of the essence of faith, true believers may wait long before they obtain it; and, after the enjoyment thereof, may have it weakened and intermitted, through manifold distempers, sins, temptations, and desertions; yet are they never left without such a presence and support of the Spirit of God as keeps them from sinking into utter despair.
I think these two catechism statements aptly show the difference between John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. John Calvin's influence is certainly behind the Heidelberg Catechism. While Edwards was ecclesiastically Congregational, I've read he was content with the content of the Westminster standards, and, of course, the Puritans were behind the Westminster formulation.
In church one time I was brought into a discussion between two brothers in a heated discussion. I don't recall the topic. They asked me my opinion, and I simply stated something like, "I don't know guys... I'm more of a law and gospel sort of guy." In other words, I really didn't care what they were talking about. One of the guys, a big fan of the Puritans, said in reply, "You've got that wrong: it's law, Gospel, law." Ah, but the very confessional standard my church uses, the Heidelberg Catechism, is set up in three parts: law, Gospel.... gratitude." There it is again: the difference between faith as described by the Westminster Larger Catechism vs. the Heidelberg Catechism. It's the difference as to what belongs to the essence of faith.