In his 1746 Religious Affections Jonathan Edwards offered “Twelve Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections” to distinguish genuine faith from fading forms of religion.
In his eighth sign Edwards summarized the disposition found in every redeemed soul. “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; or in other words, they naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness and mercy, as appear in Christ” [344-45].
Edwards made his case by using several transformation-based texts from the New Testament. These included the humble listeners to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew; the “spirit” of the God’s people in Colossians 3—“Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another”—and qualities such as love that “suffereth long and is kind,” listed in the “love chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13. Along with others.
The context for this segment is Edwards’ devotion to Scriptures even as he become a minority voice. As he wrote only some in his congregation still displayed their earlier vitality. A decline in applied faith followed the once-lively days of the Great Awakening, and so Edwards’ affective faith came to be a minority position. He then faced two different but unsympathetic New England communities: the now-spent-spiritual-activists on the one hand, and never-engaged-skeptics on the other. He needed to either answer or to retreat from his seemingly ineffective form of faith.
Yet rather than adapt his views Edwards returned to two Bible themes present in all twelve signs: Christ’s Spirit-to-spirit presence is always found in real faith; and with that, Christ’s own character and conduct is obvious in true faith. Implicit here was Edwards’ realization that even Jesus attracted just a small group of followers. So, for Edwards numbers were not crucial.
What is crucial are three qualities of Christ’s character: “that spirit of meekness, gentleness and love, that spirit of a little child, a lamb and dove” . Christ might show angry zeal at times, but it was targeted against things—temple furniture—and not against people. The defining commandment Jesus gave John’s gospel was for his followers to love each other: “’By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye love one another’ (ch.13:35)” .
Edwards, in sum, elevated the upside-down quality of Christ’s ministry. He pressed into the selflessness of Christ’s mercy. And his disdain for human power. The angry fights that attended so many Christians disagreements in his day—and in church history—were signs not of faith but of false religion. Such people “have no warrant from Christ to encourage persons, that are of a contrary character and behavior, to think they are converted” simply because they displayed impressive human skills . Grace puts pride to death.
These gentle and lowly qualities might seem uninviting to power-brokers both inside and outside the church, but Christ’s heart is the promise of new life to come. According to Isaiah, then “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb…” . And now is the time to get ready for the coming age.
The next sign was a character corollary to the eighth. A change of heart and spirit comes with truly gracious affections of faith. We will take that up in our next entry.