In 1746 Jonathan Edwards offered “Twelve Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections” in his Religious Affections. A spiritual awakening changed many souls in his day, but the excitement soon passed as too many people returned to the token faith of their earlier years. Critics then questioned the entire revival. Edwards, in response, offered a set of reliable indicators that discriminate God’s true working from counterfeits that won’t last.
The “Fifth Sign” cited a unique spiritual assurance that accompanies God’s presence in a soul. “Truly gracious affections are attended with a reasonable and spiritual conviction of the judgment, of the reality and certainty of divine things.” Edwards anchored his point with 1 Peter 1:8, a text that celebrates faith in the invisible Jesus. “Whom having not seen, ye love…” Faith birthed in a soul who has never seen Christ is a fruit of God’s immediate activity .
Edwards’ confidence reflects a conviction that informs all twelve signs in his list. New birth calls for the presence of God as an inward companion. And his new life working in a soul awakens every perception, both physical and spiritual, to respond to God as never before. Not as an acquired skill, or a new set of classroom insights, but as an experience of God in a Spirit-to-spirit bond.
The difference between true religious affections and false affections also displays a divine transformation. False affections offer “divine discoveries” that might be “affecting, but not convincing” . These experiences may at first convince persons of their own conversion, but in the end there is no real transformation. They may have a faith based “on education, and the opinion of others,” but this is no more than the cognitive versions of faith held by followers of Islam. Or the cognitive realization of the betrayer, Judas, that Jesus was the Messiah .
True religious affections are, instead, birthed “from the Spirit of God’s enlightening the mind, to have the right apprehensions of the nature of those things, and so as it were unveiling things, or revealing them … as they are” . Edwards turned to Luke 10:21-22 for support. There Jesus affirmed a supernatural distinction, “that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes,” in a way that no one knows the Son except by the Father; and no one knows the Father except by the Son’s revelation. In sum, “it is plain, that true faith arises from a spiritual sight of Christ” .
Edwards’ view, that true faith is an “insiders-only” experience, affirms his biblical view that real spiritual life is the Spirit’s work. So only God’s people can have a “view” of God’s glory that “directly convinces the mind of the divinity of these things … [with] “direct, clear, and all conquering evidence” . God’s transcendence is a “divine glory” that is distinguished from merely “artificial” forms of doctrine. And for saints this reveals the “unparalleled beauty of the things exhibited to us in the gospel” and serves as a direct evidence of God’s divine glory .
The problem of spiritual blindness, on the other hand, is not God’s doing. It comes from the “sin and corruption of men’s hearts, which above all things alienates men from the Deity, and makes the heart dull and stupid …”—failing to see God’s perfections. In effect, the blindness is self-generated: they prefer their moral deficit despite the joyful reports of those who see .
Edwards’ faith, then, relied on experiential certainty rather than on rational persuasion. The two are not opposed, but the latter doesn’t produce the former. A saint first comes to enjoy the “nature of virtue and holiness” found in the Bible and supplied by God’s “powerful and invincible influence on the soul” found in the gospel. Until then the mind fails to accept divine assurances . And this means, in turn, that “learned men” will have no more advantage than do those who lack such rational skills in responding to the gospel—even if that sets up a percentage of responses to “ninety-nine in an hundred” in favor of unlearned saints . So, intelligence is not an essential basis of faith. A genuine spiritual encounter is needed.
Edwards pressed this paradox that sound information doesn’t ensure spiritual awakening. God work is indirect. His divine glory can remove the “prejudices of the heart against the truth … so that the mind thereby lies open to the force of the reasons which are offered” . The heart, in other words, can block rational functions until the truth has been “discovered to him” so that it “sanctifies the reason” with a new freedom.
So, the inadequacy of mere intellectual faith is exposed in Edwards’ Spirit-based anthropology. The darkened mind tends to spiritual pessimism whenever various moral pressures arise . The divinely enlightened heart, on the other hand, always relies on God’s unchanging goodness freely provided to his children. So, the Fifth Sign is, in sum, the saint’s affective confidence, rooted in God’s faithful character.
The next sign explores the function of humility which always accompanies a genuine faith. We will take that up next time.