In 1746 Jonathan Edwards published his Religious Affections to offer “Twelve Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections.” After the Great Awakening the spirituality of many converts soon faded. And this raised questions about the overall validity of the revival. Edwards, in response, meant to distinguish authentic faith from experiences that hadn’t lasted.
Edwards’ eleventh sign was relatively brief—fewer than eight pages—but strong. “Another great and very distinguishing difference” he wrote, “between gracious affections and others is, that gracious affections, the higher they are raised, the more is a spiritual appetite and longing of the soul after spiritual attainments, increased” . He promised an accelerating affective loop: the more a believer experiences God, the more a desire for him grows. And this never ends.
Edwards used the analogy of physical life for spiritual life. A newly born infant will have an instinct to breastfeed, and when a soul is newly born by the Spirit, it, too, will be hungry. “‘Tis as much the nature of one that is spiritually new born, to thirst after growth in holiness…” [377—he cited 1 Peter 2:2-3]. He also pointed to the 1 Corinthians 13 premise that growing love produces spiritual maturity. In this so-called “love chapter”—elaborated in his ethical classic, Charity and its Fruits—Edwards traced the connection: “When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” [v.11]. And with that, he argued, there is a process of “Forgetting the things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark” [377-78, citing Philippians 3:13].
Edwards was challenging his readers. The lapsed spirituality among his New England readers meant their faith was not real. When a soul has truly tasted God’s love, “the more they have of that spiritual taste … whereby they perceive the excellency, and relish the divine sweetness of holiness” . God, in other words, is never a passing fancy in truly awakened souls.
This theme repeated a point Edwards made in all twelve of his signs. God’s presence in a soul always brings about a deep and permanent impact. So, while there might have been many lively but brief spiritual excitements when the Awakening was active, these passing moments hadn’t ensured a real conversion. “The gratification and pleasure of spiritual enjoyments is permanent. ‘Tis not so with worldly enjoyments. They in a sense satisfy particular appetites; but the appetite in being satisfied, is glutted, and then the pleasure is over…” . Which was to say that even a revival could be viewed as an odd but passing pleasure for many.
Edwards knew that by questioning such short-term pleasures he might sound like a steely stoic. He answered, however, by affirming Christ’s impact in lives as “soul-satisfying.” What he warned against was a loss of this felt impact over time. An encounter with God is something far greater and lasting than any short-term stir. So that, “the more he [the believer] experiences, and the more he knows this excellent, unparalleled, exquisite, and satisfying sweetness, the more earnestly will he hunger and thirst for more, till he comes to perfection” . A sound indication, then, of a true encounter with God is an impulse to seek even more: “Hence seeking God is spoken of as one of the distinguishing characters of the saints…” .
As Edwards completed writing his eleventh sign, he invited readers to set aside any pursuit of benefits from God and to respond, instead, to the substance of real faith, namely the holiness of God presented as “marks of true saints … longing after a more holy heart, living a more holy life” . God is not a means to an end but is the ultimate end of life—he is all we need.