The Religious Affections (Synopsis)

The Religious Affections (Synopsis)

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 Marksby 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

Where Do I Begin Studying Edwards? His Sermons.

In this short video, Matthew Everhard of gives a brief recommendation as to where to begin reading Edwards. If his sermons is the place you would like to begin, there is probably no better one volume introduction to begin with than the 2005 compilation of messages published in hardback by Hendrickson.

Here is the book on Amazon.

Where Should I Begin Studying Edwards?

In this video post, general editor Matthew Everhard gives a very brief introduction to an incredibly clear and easy book to begin studying Edwards! In fact, this book is so easy to read, it even has cartoons provided. That doesn’t necessarily make the thoughts of Edwards easier, but this is as good of an intro as you can get to the Northampton Puritan.

The book recommended here is James P. Byrd’s work Jonathan Edwards for Armchair Theologians. You can buy it here at 



Top Ten Edwards Books

I am now closing in on the completion of my doctoral studies from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, and have just received news that my dissertation is headed to the second reader, and soon thereafter, onward to the defense portion.

My topic has been narrowly focused on Jonathan Edwards’ theology of joy. For anyone who has ever attempted to read Edwards, they will find his writings just dripping with joy-related language: happiness, rejoicing in Christ, the joys of heaven, the mutual love within the persons of the Trinity. Joy is everywhere! Rich language of light, the sun, fountains, rivers, and streams all emit Edwards’ theology of Christian joy.

I’ve read deeply and broadly: books by Edwards and books about Edwards. I’ve read his treatises, sermons, and personal correspondences. I’ve read biographies about him and at least one biography from his own pen (David Brainerd). Everything is so good, it’s hard to pick. Nevertheless, I am going to attempt to recommend just one shelf-full of JE books. Here then, are my top ten recommended works from or about the Northampton Revivalist (in no particular order).

1. Sermons of Jonathan Edwards. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson. 2005). If you are looking to find some of Edward’s best sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” or “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence” this is the place to begin. [Reading Level: Moderate].

2. Sermons by Jonathan Edwards on the Matthean Parables: True and False Christians (On the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins). (Kenneth P. Minkema, Adriaan C. Neele, and Bryan K. Kimnach, eds. Vol. I. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books. 2012). What’s neat about this volume, is that unlike the above, this one is filled with previously unpublished sermons that just came into the public eye in 2012. [Reading Level: Challenging].

3. Charity and Its Fruits. (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth. 2005. Orig. pub. 1852.) Another of his major sermon series, converted into a treatise, this one focuses on the “love chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13 and features the glorious sermon “Heaven is a World of Love.” [Reading Level: Moderate].


4. The Religious Affections. (Mineola, NY: Dover. 2013. Orig. pub. 1746.). Likely Edwards’ most well-known treatise, this book looks at the powerful inclinations of the heart (love, joy, fear etc.) and uses them to help determine which religious experiences are true and which are false. A major work tied to the Great Awakening revivals of the 1740’s. [Reading Level: Difficult].

5. God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards. With the Complete Text of The End for Which God Created the World.(Jonathan Edwards and John Piper. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998. Orig. pub. 1765.). In this book, beloved pastor John Piper walks readers through JE’s easier-than-you-might-think treatise on God’s motivation for creating the universe. Hint: joy! [Reading Level: Moderate].


6. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. (George Marsden. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 2003). Here is a 500 plus page work that masterfully takes readers through JE’s life and times. I cannot imagine doing serious study on Edwards without this volume. Another honorable mention in this category is Iain Murray’s work of a similar structure. [Reading Level: Moderate].

Popular Introductions

7. A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards. (John Piper and Justin Taylor, eds. Wheaton: Crossway. 2004). Many crisply written essays on Edwards and his theology from men like John Piper, Sam Storms, Mark Dever, and more. [Reading Level: Moderate].

8. Jonathan Edwards for Armchair Theologians. (James P. Byrd. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. 2008). A great little introduction to Jonathan Edwards with cartoons sprinkled throughout to help readers “get it.” Really! There are cartoons! [Reading Level: Entry].

9. God’s Grand Design: The Theological Vision of Jonathan Edwards. (Sean Michael Lucas. Wheaton: Crossway. 2011). An excellent little introduction of about 200 pages to Edwards’ life and major thought categories. [Reading Level: Entry].

10. Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God. (Dane Ortlund. Stephen J. Nichols and Justin Taylor, eds. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. 2014). A very helpful book that focuses primarily on Edwards’ view of beauty but also considers: prayer, temptation, Scripture, gentleness and more. [Reading Level: Entry].

Freedom of the Will: Synopsis

Attempting to reduce Jonathan Edwards’s masterpiece The Freedom of the Will down to one thousand words is a fool’s errand. But being a great fool myself, I thought I would give it the old “college try.”

Surely this is a difficult task. Not only is this work one of the true classics of American Reformed theology, but it is also an intellectual tour de force, and very difficult to read smoothly. Here, Edwards engages the longtime debate between Calvinism and Arminianism right where the primary trenches have been dug – by examining how the human (free?) will engages with God’s sovereignty.

R.C. Sproul one time said “I believe this is the most important theological work ever produced in America.” Whether or not you agree with this statement, there is no denying that Jonathan Edwards has produced a true title-contender for the best attempt at answering one of theology and philosophy’s most ancient questions: do we truly have freedom to decide our destiny, or is it somehow determined for us?

Forthwith, I make my attempt to reduce this incomparable volume down to a mere thousand words.


The book begins in the author’s preface with an acknowledgement by Edwards that using nicknames like “Calvinism” and “Arminianism” has its downfalls. On the same token, though, sometimes they are necessary to delineate – in the broadest strokes possible – what are the sides and terms of the debate. He admits that he is a Calvinist and will defend this position.

The book then divides into four major parts. In part one, Edwards lays the groundwork for the rest of the book.  He defines philosophical concepts and terms like “necessity,” “contingency,” and “ability” that will be used incessantly throughout. Readers had better pay attention here or be lost forever!

Of particular importance, Edwards makes a distinction between what he calls “moral ability” and “natural ability.” Natural ability (or inability, as the case may be) has to do with what a man is physically capable of doing. He can walk; but he cannot fly. Moral ability (or conversely, inability) has to do with what a person can or cannot do of their own volition. A drunkard may not be able to stop drinking, for instance, just as a wife of noble character simply cannot cheat on her husband (his examples).

Edwards then says something that will become the foundation for his entire treatise. Human beings, as responsible moral agents, ALWAYS (without any exception) choose to do what they are most strongly inclined to do at that time. In fact, it is impossible for them NOT to do what they are most inclined or disposed to do. In this way, he will argue throughout, our “volition will be determined.” But lest we think that Edwards is a mere fatalist, he will also argue that because this choosing is according to our own strongest inclinations, it is also completely consistent with liberty. We freely choose what we want most. For this reason, Edwards has been called a “compatibilist” (i.e. that human liberty is logically compatible with divine sovereignty).

Part two, quite honestly, is pretty boring in some respects. Over and over Edwards will repeat the same argument from every possible angle. Here, he will show how it is impossible to make any choice whatsoever from a completely neutral perspective (as his opponents suggest). Every decision, he says, is made for a reason that springs from one’s already determined inclinations. His opponents (both named and theoretical) will suggest that to be truly free, one must be able to make a decision from a completely neutral, unbiased, blank-slate, position of “liberty.” Edwards says this cannot be so.

For example, suppose we are choosing between two paths home (my analogy, not Edwards’s). One is shorter and quicker, the other is longer and more dangerous. Whenever we choose a path, we do so for some reason. We are never neutral. Perhaps we want to get home sooner. Perhaps we want the scenic view. But always something determines the choice. Even if we were to choose for no consciously known reason, there must be some reason we prefer the one path over the other.

Part two does heat up however, towards the later stages of the section, where Edwards begins to talk about God’s foreknowledge and employs a flurry of Scriptural citations. Biblicists will love this part! Here, he argues that all human choices in time are already known by God (which the Arminians also admit). But if they are known to God beforehand, they are also as sure to come to pass in the future as if God were seeing them from the perspective of the past. With God, there is no difference between seeing a future event and a past one. Both are certain in his all-knowing mind.

In part three, Edwards then attempts to answer an important question: if we are already predisposed to either good or evil (remember, we always choose according to our inclinations) what is the point of calling a choice morally “good” or “bad”? Besides, how can helping an old woman across the street be praise-worthy, if it has already been determined that I must do so? Should I get any credit for that? On the same token, how can we blame a thief for doing exactly what his constitution requires him to do? If he must steal, how is it his fault?

Edwards answers this by replying that one’s disposition is exactly what makes a person’s actions worthy of praise (or blame) in the first place. Suppose the Good Samaritan helped the poor mangled traveler in Luke 10 from a completely neutral heart. He felt nothing in his heart either way about the helpless man’s condition. He tosses a coin and it comes up “help him” rather than “leave him.” Would this be more praiseworthy than if his disposition cared deeply? Of course not! His concerned disposition is exactly what prompts him to help, and the reason why his action is worthy of commendation. Besides, Edwards argues, God Himself is completely and absolutely disposed to holy action and cannot do otherwise, and He is the most praiseworthy being in the universe! Surely we do not find fault in Him for acting righteously from a determined, necessary inclination to do what is good, do we?

In the last part, part four, Edwards considers a host of objections against his position that are still made to this day. For instance: doesn’t moral necessity (that we must do what we are inclined to do) make human beings mere machines? Isn’t this another restatement of the Greek concept of fate? Doesn’t this make God the author of sin by creating us with sinful dispositions?

Whether or not we view Edwards’s answers to these questions as satisfying will in large part be determined (no pun intended!) by whether we’ve found his prior arguments about moral and natural necessity coherent and convincing.

Of particular help to many will be Edwards’s formal conclusion itself. In this last flurry, Edwards works through each of the primary doctrinal pieces of the famous Reformed acronym TULIP in turn. With a winsome defense of Calvinism, Edwards arrives at his argument’s denouement – God’s grace is absolutely necessary to overturn the sinful heart of the rebellious person and turn them to Jesus. But in doing so, God also graciously “rewires” our predispositions so that we freely and willingly choose to savor Christ and follow Him by faith.


Well there you have it. The Freedom of the Will in just under about a thousand words. Now go get yourself a copy so you can work through it yourself. Happy reading!