I hope these posts will encourage you to read Jonathan Edwards, and that you will want to pick up and read Religious Affections yourself. Today Steve Burlew from Banner of Truth, has posted at his blog "Trophies of His Grace" some slightly damaged copies of Religious Affections for only $9.50. If you are a book snob, and prefer a completely undamaged copy look here. Now that the advertisements are over, on to the main event!
The Nature of Holy Affections
The only way to tell the difference between true and false affections is to understand the nature of holy (true) affections. According to Edwards, holy and gracious affections consist primarily in the heart’s love of, and delight in God Himself. He states, “Every one that has the power of godliness in his heart has his inclinations and heart exercised towards God and divine things” (29). These affections cause the believer to desire more of God and to turn away from anything that keeps him from his soul’s delight (repentance). Gracious affections are only present if the heart is inclined toward God above all else.
The foundation of Edwards’s understanding of holy affections is the belief that God is glorious. God’s beauty is infinitely greater than any other being. He is infinite in both His moral and natural attributes. He is righteous, just, merciful, gracious, and loving. His perfect holiness makes Him objectively lovely and the proper object of all human affections. Love toward God is not a difficult duty that a Christian must remind himself to carry out. It is a natural reaction to the nature of God, when God is clearly seen. Edwards puts it this way, “A love to divine things for the beauty of their moral excellency is the beginning and spring of all holy affections” (182). Holy affections flow from a right apprehension of the objective beauty of God’s holiness. The true Christian recognizes God’s beauty, is drawn to it, and chooses it above all competitors.
In order for a person to be drawn to God’s holiness and choose it, he must perceive it. But holiness is not perceived through the five senses. Edwards asserts that instead, the glory of God must be seen through the understanding. There are two different types of understanding, notional and sensory or spiritual. Edwards explains, “There is a distinction to be made between a mere notional understanding, wherein the mind only beholds things in the exercise of a speculative faculty, and the sense of the heart, wherein the mind does not only speculate and behold but relishes and feels” (198). This second type of understanding, “the sense of the heart” is what is able to perceive and value the beauty of God’s holiness. Edwards illustrates this spiritual sense by pointing to the physical sense of taste. Someone may gain knowledge of honey by looking at it and hearing others describe its attributes. But it is only when one tastes the honey that the glory of its flavor is experienced. At the moment of tasting, the true value of the honey becomes clear. In the same way, a person can learn a lot about God’s holiness through mere notional understanding (head knowledge). Many facts of His character can be understood and affirmed. But it is only when God’s holiness is tasted with the spiritual sense of the heart, that His true beauty and worth becomes clear. When God’s beauty is clearly sensed by the heart, then holy affections automatically flow toward God.
It is important to note that the sensing of the heart, or spiritual understanding, is not disconnected from the mind. This is an especially important point for our day. People do not just “feel close to God,” or “sense His presence” in some mystical, non-rational way. The beauty of God is primarily seen in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is imparted through the Bible. Knowledge of the gospel (the life, death, and resurrection of Christ) is necessary for holy affections. When the mind receives the “light of the glorious gospel of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4), then the heart is able to behold God’s glory seen in the gospel. In 2 Corinthians 4:6 Paul calls this gospel “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Edwards says, “Knowledge is the key that first opens the hard heart, and enlarges the affections, and so opens the way for men into the kingdom of heaven” (192). So if we want to fan the flame of holy affections in our heart, we should be filling our minds with the gospel found throughout the Bible.
The understanding cannot be bypassed by the heart. The heart will never taste the beauty of God’s holiness apart from the mind’s cognitive beholding the gospel of Christ. Edwards explains, “Holy affections are not heat [heart] without light [head/knowledge]; but evermore arise from the information of the understanding, some spiritual instruction that the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge” (192). So while the sense of the heart is much more than mere head knowledge, it is connected to and flows from the mind. Holy affections rise as the heart perceives and loves the beauty of God in “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
Edwards is warning against two kinds of errors that are easy to fall into. First, sometimes we think if we get the facts (theology) right then we are truly Christians. But we fail to ask if we love the Christ described in our theology. Do we find Him compelling? Do we worship Him? Do we love Him? Second, other times we error by equating all emotional responses with love for God. A great feeling after a song set that is devoid of the gospel is not an indicator that we love Christ. A mystical attraction to the beauty of high church liturgy, or low church tradition, is not parallel with an attraction to the glory of Christ. The glory of Christ is not found in candles, icons, lighting or lack thereof, praise songs, or the hymnal melodies you grew up on. It is found in the “light of the glorious gospel of Christ.” The true Christian has a heart that loves and is drawn to the glory of God, seen primarily in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In the next post I will talk about how we come to have that kind of heart.