Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is the greatest theologian America has produced, and many say he was also America's greatest homegrown philosopher. In his famous work, Religious Affections (1746), Edwards sought to answer the question, “What are the distinguishing qualifications of those that are in favour with God, and entitled to His eternal rewards?” (Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections, reprinted, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2004, 15.) Or in other words, what are the distinguishing characteristics of those that are truly saved and headed to heaven? There is perhaps no more important question for the church, or for individual Christians.
Edwards was uniquely qualified to construct an answer to this question. Religious Affections demonstrates his extensive study and reflection upon the Scriptures, as well as his keen reasoning abilities. However, this was not merely an academic exercise for Edwards. He was a pastor entrusted with a large New England congregation. His views were refined and sharpened in a local church laboratory of the First Great Awakening, as well as the polemics that accompanied the great revival. These factors enabled him to write a constructive theology of the nature of true Christianity that is still important and applicable today. People are still asking, “How can I know if my Christianity is real? How do I gain assurance of salvation? What should the real thing look like?” Over the next few days I plan to describe and analyze the way Edwards discerned true from false religion in his book Religious Affections, and to apply some of his insights specifically to the issue of assurance of salvation in the contemporary church. These posts will be an adaptation of a paper I wrote a couple of years ago.
The Centrality of the Affections in True Religion
Edwards believed that a primary way to determine if a person is a Christian is to examine his or her affections. He wrote, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections” (23). At this point we should define a couple of words that Edwards uses a lot, religion, and affections. When he says religion he is not speaking of dry formalism. True religion means true Christian experience with God. Edwards defines the affections as “the faculty by which the soul does not behold things as an indifferent unaffected spectator, but either as liking or disliking, pleased or displeased, approving or rejecting” (24). Affections are not the same as our modern evangelical notion of warm fuzzies and emotions that sometimes accompany worship experiences (I will explain this more fully in a couple of days). While affections are connected to the understanding of the mind, they are much more than just perception or head knowledge. They concern what a person loves and hates; what he is inclined to and repulsed from. They are the mind’s judgment of an object’s value or worth. It is in this inclination of heart that the work of God’s saving grace are most apparent.
In Part One of Religious Affections Edwards demonstrates that the Bible does not present Christianity as merely a disinterested belief and obedience, but instead as a life filled with holy affections. He writes, “There must be light in the understanding as well as an affected fervent heart” (49). True Christianity is not just head knowledge. Doctrinal orthodoxy is easily affirmed by the unregenerate (unsaved), but holy affections are impossible for them. He backs up his claim with a multitude of Scripture passages and arguments. These arguments include the fact that the Bible regularly emphasizes the presence of affections such as fear, love, joy, hate, and desire in the heart of a believer (31). He also points to fact that the Bible presents love, “the chief of affections,” as the summary of true religion, and hardness of heart as the essence of sin (35, 45). The absence of love toward God and man is a clear indication that the Holy Spirit is also absent. Edwards asserts, “He who has no religious affection is in a state of spiritual death, and is wholly destitute of the powerful, quickening, saving influences of the Spirit of God upon his heart” (49).
Where to From Here?
If you choose to read these posts there may be times of struggle and discouragement. Who knows, you may already be there. Edwards sets a pretty high bar. But let me encourage you at the outset in two ways. First, it is Biblical to examine our hearts to see if we are in the faith. 2 Peter 1:10 says, “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure.” Second thing, be sure to see words like no in the above quote. Edwards said, and I think he is right, “Where there is no religious affection” there is spiritual death. The Biblical standard is not perfect love and affection for God, but the presence of love and affection for God. Sometimes that affection for God is characterized by a mourning and dissatisfaction with the cold state of our hearts.
Lord willing, Thursday I will look at Edwards’ explanation of the nature of holy and true affections. Then on Friday, I will look at where those affections come from or how they are born in our heart. Please comment freely. Ask questions. Edwards is certainly not infallible, so point it out if you think he is off. I am even more certainly fallible, so if you disagree with my reading of Edwards, or if I am not explaining things clearly, let me know. This is kind of an experiment. We've normally only done short, self-contained posts (by the way, the next couple posts will be much shorter). So I will only continue this series if there is some interest and people still come to the blog.