Jonathan Edwards: Religious Affections

Authors’ Primary Argument

Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections is perhaps the greatest ever work of theological literature produced by an American and arguably deserves a place in the top three works in the history of the church, alongside Augustine’s Confessions and Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  For its sheer depth and precision, coupled with an intrinsically pastoral nature, Religious Affections forces its readers to examine carefully the true nature of genuine religious affections.  Edwards asks this provocative question: “What is the nature of true religion?” (p. 84).  His answer is that “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections” (p. 95).  This thesis is what Edwards seeks to defend in Religious Affections.

Edwards first demonstrates that the affections of the mind are “no other, than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul” (p. 96) before defending the idea that religion, and all that God requires therein, consists in holy affections.  After that, Edwards presses forward to consider what these holy affections truly are, as well as what they are not.  Beginning with “no certain signs,” he mentions twelve:

  1. “‘Tis no sign one way or the other, that religious affections are very great, or raised very high” (p. 127).
  2. “‘Tis no sign that affections have the nature of true religion, or that they have not, that they have great effects on the body” (p. 131).
  3. “‘Tis no sign that affections are truly gracious affections, or that they are not, that they cause those who have them, to be fluent, fervent and abundant, in talking of those things of religion” (p. 135).
  4. “‘Tis no sign that affections are gracious, or that they are otherwise, that persons did not make ‘em themselves, or excite ‘em of their own contrivance, and by their own strength” (p. 138).
  5. “‘Tis no sign that religious affections are truly holy and spiritual, or that they are not, that they come with texts of Scripture, remarkably brought to the mind” (p. 142).
  6. “‘Tis no evidence that religious affections are saving, or that they are otherwise, that there is an appearance of love in them” (p. 146).
  7. “Persons having religious affections of many kinds, accompanying one another, is not sufficient to determine whether they have any gracious affections or no” (p. 147).
  8. “Nothing can certainly be determined concerning the nature of the affections by this, that comforts and joys seem to follow awakenings and convictions of conscience, in a certain order” (p. 151).
  9. “‘Tis no certain sign that the religious affections which persons have are such as have in them the nature of true religion, or that they have not, that they dispose persons to spend much time in religion, and to be zealously engaged in the external duties of worship” (p. 163).
  10. “Nothing can be certainly known of the nature of religious affections by this, that they much dispose persons with their mouths to praise and glorify God” (p. 165).
  11. “‘Tis no sign that affections are right, or that they are wrong, that they make persons that have them, exceeding confident that what they experience is divine, and that they are in a good estate” (p. 167).
  12. “Nothing can be certainly concluded concerning the nature of religious affections, that any are the subjects of, from this, that the outward manifestations of them, and the relation persons give of them, are very affecting and pleasing to the truly godly, and such as greatly gain their charity, and win their hearts” (p. 181).

The overarching point to be made is this: These particular “no signs” do not mean that religious affections are not present; rather, they only mean that in themselves these signs are insufficient grounds for proving the authenticity of genuine affections.  This means that these signs are not inherently bad, but only that they do not demonstrate one way or another whether or not a person has true religious affections.

Next, Edwards moves to the positive signs of religious affection, listing twelve:

  1. “Affections that are truly spiritual and gracious, do arise from those influences and operations on the heart, which are spiritual, supernatural and divine” (p. 197).
  2. “The first objective ground of gracious affections, is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things, as they are in themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest” (p. 240).
  3. “Those affections that are truly holy, are primarily founded on the loveliness of the moral excellency of divine things” (p. 253).
  4. “Gracious affections do arise from the mind’s being enlightened, rightly and spiritually to understand or apprehend divine things” (p. 266).
  5. “Truly gracious affections are attended with reasonable and spiritual conviction of the judgment, of the reality and certainty of divine things” (p. 291).
  6. “Gracious affections are attended with evangelical humiliation” (p. 311).
  7. “Another thing, wherein gracious affections are distinguished from others, is, that they are attended with a change of nature” (p. 340).
  8. “Truly gracious affections differ from those affections that are false and delusive, in that they tend to, and are attended with the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ” (p. 344).
  9. “Gracious affections soften the heart, and are attended and followed with a Christian tenderness of spirit” (p. 357).
  10. “Another thing wherein those affections that are truly gracious and holy, differ from those that are false, is beautiful symmetry and proportion” (p. 365).
  11. “Another great and very distinguishing difference between gracious affections and others is, that gracious affections, the higher they are raised, the more is a spiritual appetite and longing of soul after spiritual attainments, increased” (p. 376).
  12. “Gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice” (p. 383).

It should be noted here that these signs are both sufficient and necessary in determining the presence of genuine religious affections.  That is, in Edwards’ mind, all true religious affections will produce and be accompanied by each of these twelve signs.  This is not to say that Christians will perfectly and fully display each of these signs at all times, but it is to say that where these signs are absolutely absent, one should not have great confidence that they are truly converted to the Christian religion.

Implications for Theological Understanding

It is no overstatement to say that the theological implications of Religious Affections are of infinite importance.  Therefore, what I want to do in this final section is to consider the implications of the first two positive signs of religious affections in the context of contemporary evangelicalism.  Recall that the first positive sign is essentially that religious affections are produced by the work of God on the human soul.  This means that for there to be any genuine religious affection whatsoever, it must be God who is at work on the soul.  No amount of willpower or effort by humans can produce real and genuine affection for God.

How unpopular is this in the evangelical world today.  Not only is God not the ontological center of all our worship, but we have seemingly replaced him with ourselves and have given ourselves the same power which God has.  We think that we can produce by ourselves and of our own power genuine religious affections for God, but when we begin our thinking here we miss the entire point of Christian theology: “For from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him be glory forever.  Amen” (Romans 11:36).  The sovereignty of God in the work of salvation, which inevitably produces genuine religious affection, is either utterly unpopular or reduced to irrelevance.  We would do well to retrieve Edwards’ thinking on this point, and in so doing retrieve the very lifeblood, the heart and soul, of Christian theology: the supremacy of the glory of God in all things.

Note also how the second positive sign is the excellency of the divine nature of things in themselves, with no reference to self-interest.  This truth alone destroys the entire paradigm of the prosperity gospel, but it also wars against what I would say is the common belief amongst evangelicals: God exists primarily for me.  On the contrary, for Edwards one implication of the second positive sign is that if there is no sight of and affection for the supremacy and sufficiency and majesty and glory of God in himself, with no view at all to the various and secondary benefits which God can provide, then there is a question as to the true nature of one’s affections.

Perhaps an area of further exploration regarding this topic is John Piper’s work and thought.  It is possible that he has retrieved and embodied the spirit of Edwards’ point here, and a compelling case could be made that we should follow Piper as he follows Edwards.   To do this, though, one would have to show that Christian Hedonism does not, in fact, contradict what Edwards is saying; on the contrary, it actually is a more fully developed version of what Edwards’ central argument is.  As Piper has argued in his book with the same title: God is the gospel.  That is, there is no higher good or excellency than God in himself, and our ultimate joy and pleasure should be found and rooted in the supremely beautiful and majestic God alone.


Thanks for reading.  Have a comment or question?  Leave it below.

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