The Religious Affections is for very good reason considered one of the most important works of Jonathan Edwards in particular and one of the most excellent and helpful treatises on Christian spirituality in general. Caught in both the glory and the drama of the First Great Awakening (1740-1742), Jonathan Edwards was tasked with the responsibility to defend God’s mighty outpouring of grace from both its detractors and its extremists. Ever the supporter of the revivals, and when necessary the revival’s internal whistle-blower, Edwards took it upon himself to help foster and defend the outpourings of God’s grace wherever he saw them being challenged.
In this 1746 work, Edwards greatly expands and reprises the goals of his earlier The Distinguishing Marks, by attempting to show the true identifiers that demarcate real religious revival as opposed to counterfeits and impostors. In his prior piece, Edwards reduced true Christianity to five essential marks. True believers, he conjectured in his simpler piece, were those who: (1) loved Christ, (2) loved His truth, (3) loved the Word of God, (4) loved other believers while (5) hating the sin they found in their own lives.
In both works, he sought to define and defend true Christian experience. This was necessary both to defend the Great Awakening, and to distinguish it from its excesses and worst representatives, who, in Edwards’s opinion flew to unwarranted extremes. Edwards knew that the revivals were under spiritual – even demonic – attack from both sides. Some saw the revivals as bizarre manifestations of misguided religious zealots, perverting the decent and orderly doctrines of the Puritan fathers. Contrarily, others took their behaviors to uncalled for levels, verging on the bizarre, and critiquing anyone who didn’t experience the zeal they themselves had. Some revivalists even went as far as to publically call out ministers by name and pulpit who were not considered to be sincerely “converted” at all, since they did not participate fully enough in the revivals.
Originally, Religious Affections was a sermon series preached on 1 Peter 1:8, which says, “Though you have not seen him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (ESV). Today, the full-length treatise, one of Edwards’s best, is available as a paperback and as Volume 2 of the Yale Edition of the Works of Edwards.
The growing fracture between “new” and “old lights” (pro and anti revivalism respectively) forced Edwards to expand and clarify his previous work. In Religious Affections, Edwards sets out to accomplish three major goals (1) he shows from Scripture that the religious affections (“the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul”) are indeed true manifestations of real Christian spirituality and of the holy life (2) he warns of a number of “experiences” that cannot either verify or falsify the reality of one’s professed conversion and (3) he enumerates several factors that are indicative of true conversion and regeneration. Chief among these last factors (as the quote below demonstrates) is the fruit of holy living—or Christian practice—carried out in the believer’s life.
It is helpful to clarify what Edwards means by “religious affections.” While some have suggested that they are equivalent to “emotions,” Edwards means something more profound, and closer to the deepest inclinations of one’s soul, that is, what one’s spiritual condition causes his or her will to love or hate, to affirm or reject. The word “passions,” too, would not have suited Edwards, as the passions were thought of in his day to mean primarily the lusts of the flesh. By affections, Edwards is speaking about the will’s own inclinations and dispositions to either approve or disapprove – to either affirm or loathe – stimulus as it is presented to an individual. The most fundamental concern in Edwards’s mind is to show how the Christian’s converted soul inclines toward the things of God (His holiness, loveliness, righteousness, personal piety etc.) while the soul of the unbeliever is primarily inclined to the self. Of course, this idea of the will having inclinations is greatly expanded in Freedom of the Will (1954) in which Edwards seeks to show how human choices are bound to the inclinations that are cherished in the deepest recesses of the heart.
As mentioned above, Religious Affections unfolds in three major parts. Part one defends the centrality of religious affections in general in true religion (read: Biblical Christianity). Love, joy, hope, the fear of the Lord, longing for God’s presence – all are truly and really representative of bona fide religion and authentic spiritual experience. This assertion refutes those who saw the dramatic outpourings of the Great Awakening as unnecessary excesses and strange extremes. His major thrust here is to show that those who have experienced grace, cannot help but respond to God’s grace in significant inward, and even outward, ways.
Part two demonstrates that there are many such manifestations of signs or apparent affections, however, which may – or may not – validate true Christian experience. Among these, Edwards lists outward expressions of praise, the shaking of the body or voice, and moving personal testimonies. There mere fact that a person says they have experienced grace does not prove it. Even if a person would see images of the crucified Christ in their minds, or have verses of the Bible strikingly impressed upon them, this would not in itself prove genuine conversion beyond doubt. These, after all, can all be fabricated or falsified.
Part three, then, shows what are the distinguishing signs of “truly gracious and holy affections.” Among these Edwards sees love for God’s holiness and obedience from the heart as being central to Gospel realities. Over and over in the last section, Edwards underscores the importance of the saint’s love for God’s glory above all things, as evidenced by deep humility, a love of God’s mercies and grace, and obedience in the Christian life.
By taking this approach, Edwards walks the tight rope of evaluating the revivals with both precision and grace. Clearly he is not fooled by any and all religious fervor and frivolity just because it bears the name of Christ upon it. Not all that glimmers is gold. Some gold is fool’s gold, a mere imitation of that which is precious and real. Obviously, Edwards is very open to what God was doing in his own time by connecting some of the admittedly unusual works of God’s grace with biblical examples and precedents. Men and women of biblical history fell down in the presence of the holy, shook with fear, and leaped for joy – why shouldn’t that still happen today? In fact Edwards argues that those who never experience moving tears of joy, or a personal conviction for their sins, or experience love towards their brothers as deep and abiding affections should give pause and consider again the state of their soul. Real Christianity is affective. There is no Christianity without these deep inclinations because Christianity, when real, does affect the person’s personal disposition to the holy!
Yet at the same time, Edwards also argues (especially towards the end of the work) that the ultimate proof is in the pudding. No matter how loudly a man shouts or how profusely he weeps publicly, he cannot claim to have been truly changed by grace if this transformation is impermanent or does not result in real, lasting Christian fruit in the basic areas of obedience, humility, service, and concern for others. In this way, Edwards showed, quite ably I think, that time itself would prove the real results of the revival. False professors would eventually be exposed as frauds when they were found to be without lasting fruit in their lives or barren from the attendant holiness that naturally springs forth from what Christ called the “good tree.”
This great work has a number of applications and uses. First and foremost the Religious Affections helps to delineate what true conversion looks like, both in Edwards’s day and in our own! In Edwards’s day it was hard to prove to others that one was truly “converted.” The difficulty was exacerbated by the throngs of professed conversions in the wake of the Great Revival of the 1740’s. Church elders were slow to receive new members or communicants to the Table if they could not give a properly documented testimony. Often, the Puritans looked for a series of finely ordered “steps” in one’s testimony of professed faith. The burden of proof lay heavy upon the person seeking church membership and communion. In fact, Edwards’s own mother did not receive the Lord’s Supper until well into her adult life! Edwards showed that real conversion can happen quickly and dramatically, but must also be substantiated over the long haul.
In our day, it is much easier—we must simply give an “altar call” story, or a similar anecdote of “accepting Jesus into our heart.” Perhaps where the Puritans erred in their rigorous demand for steps, we fall into the equal and opposite error by not listening closely enough in people’s testimonies for evidence of real repentance. Change. True, many people will be taken for true Christians just because they speak of “coming forward” or “receiving Christ” even though their lives do not seem to give, real, substantial, credible, longitudinal evidence of a transformed character. But Edwards is right to point toward the person’s lasting fruit in their walk. This alone will reveal the truth over time no matter how dramatic of a story or experience they can recount.
Edwards speaks to both extremes (too easy vs. too hard) by evaluating one’s profession of conversion experience by a truly Biblical grid of analysis. Edwards shows that true conversion does indeed transform both the inward man, in his “affections” (love, joy, fear of the Lord, etc.) as well as the outward man in living out the will of God in his daily experience. Pastors who are prayerfully evaluating their flock, as well as those unsure of their own salvation, will find this work deeply helpful in this regard.
While this particular reviewer is mostly sympathetic to Edwards’ position about conversion, many of my charismatic and Pentecostal friends will likely find some fault with Edwards’ teaching on the inner-life of spiritual experience. Throughout, Edwards is particularly hard on those who claim to have received such things as visions of Christ or strong “impressions” of particular Scripture passages upon the heart as being too easy to manipulate and falsify. While he is surely right in showing that these things cannot prove that one is a Christian, some readers (but not all) will feel he has gone too far in assessing the supernatural revelations of the Holy Spirit to the human mind in a negative fashion. Personally, I found Edwards insights on these matters to be desperately needed in a world of hyper-subjective excesses (“The Lord told me…” etc.) and non-falsifiable claims of religious experience, often bordering on the narcissistic and the bizarre.
Moreover, I found this book to be one of the greatest works of Edwards, and one of the best introductions to his thinking and theology. Much of this book (especially his non-polemical sections) can be read as devotional material. His emphasis on Christianity’s burning-heart piety (love, joy, fear of God etc.) reads like the work of a man passionate about Jesus and His intrinsic glory. It is with great reason that the Religious Affections has taken its place among the all-time spiritual classics.
“From what has been said, it is manifest that Christian practice, or a holy life, is a great and distinguishing sign of true and saving grace. But I may go further and assert that it is the chief of all the signs of grace, both as an evidence of the sincerity of professors unto others, and also to their own consciences” (p. 326-32).
–Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida