Jonathan Edwards offered “Twelve Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections” in his Religious Affections of 1746. A spiritual awakening in New England in prior years included dramatic works of God in many hearts. But some of these were only short-term stirs and critics soon questioned the whole awakening. Edwards responded with his set of signs that discriminate God’s real work from spiritual counterfeits.
His fourth Sign affirmed God’s immediate engagement of a true believer’s mind. “Gracious affections do arise from the mind’s being enlightened, rightly and spiritually to understand and apprehend divine things” . Information about God and his ways may be readily available to all readers but, “The child of God is graciously affected, because he sees and understands something more of divine things exhibited in the gospel…” There is a “light in the understanding” that separates the true from the false.
This raises—both then and now—questions about the sort of privileged bond Edwards had in mind. His three earlier Signs are crucial here: spiritual regeneration is a prerequisite. Without Christ’s life active in a soul by his indwelling Spirit the insights and changed ambitions of a newly awakened life are absent. It’s not a set of new ideas or propositions as much as a new view of everything in life. New propositions, in fact, are not to be trusted because God’s words and ways are already fully established . But new responses to former truths will emerge.
Edwards pointed to the testimony in Luke 24 of two disciples who met Jesus on the way to Emmaus. They didn’t recognize him at first but after their dawning they reflected on the whole experience: “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the Scriptures?” . For Edwards this supported a broader premise, that Christ’s Spirit offers a “special immediate influence…” for believers, present in all of life .
It was not, however, mainly a “bodily sensation”—experiences that could be stirred by the devil—but an elevation of the mind, with “great joy” . He supported this with a host of Bible texts that distinguished ordinary human life from a life in which God actively engages the renewed soul. He first turned to 1 Corinthians 2:14, “‘But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.’” Then he cited Matthew 11:27, “‘No man knoweth the Son but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, but the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him.’” . This established an “insiders-only” awareness of God, so the unconverted will never sense the real thing. They instead treat such claims as fantasy.
Edwards was certain that this distinction ultimately accounts for “true religion.” It also set up his certainty that this new life is always accompanied by indicators that affirm “the proper foundation of true religion” . The first of these, from his third Sign, is a saint’s delight in God’s “moral perfection.” This is not so much a set of cognitive or propositional truths but a change that “consists in a sense of heart of that spiritual beauty.” Only the heart receives the “amiableness or delightfulness of beauty” in a given moment as God’s presence awakens a soul . Once again, he turned to the magic of honey for an analogy—only those who have tasted the sweetness of divine beauty can understand the claim.
Edwards faced an obvious question. What are the practical results of this change? He answered by pointing to the way the Bible speaks to its readers: “take away all the moral beauty and sweetness in the Word, and the Bible is left wholly a dead letter, a dry, lifeless, tasteless thing” . A new awareness emerges, reflecting “the beauty of holiness” and “the hatefulness of sin, its contrary.” Without this new sensitivity to God and to Scriptures the unchanged soul is “totally blind, deaf and senseless, yea dead” .
Was Edwards aware of just how radical his claims would sound to some of his own disaffected parishioners? Yes. His aim was “that God’s implanting that spiritual sense which has been spoken of, [would] make a great change in man” . So, the sharp contrast in this fourth Sign was his way of calling his audience to repentance before the coming Day of Judgment.
A distinction Edwards pressed here was that any religion based on mere propositions—as if knowing correct doctrines was the substance of faith—was a mistake. So too, was any notion that the spirituality he was promoting was about finding a “mystical meaning of the Scripture” . It was, instead, the function of a new love—the “charity” promised in 1 Corinthians 13:2. Balaam, after all, may have had direct engagements with God but he was never a model of real faith. Edwards’ readers also needed to avoid thinking he was warning against the false religions of “some popish or heathenish land.” The problem was also present among those who lived in superficially Christian New England .
And finally, he was also aware of the problem of counterfeits as Satan presents himself as an “angel of light” . The enemy, Edwards promised, lacks access to the interior soul. He only stirs us by external motions—“in something which appertains to the body” . So, too, the “great spirituality of many sects of enthusiasts” must be dismissed. Counterfeit claims of spiritual experience become obvious when they offer new trajectories of experience that displace truths found in Scriptures [287-88]. And with that Edwards displayed his spiritual anthropology as less rational and more affective when he treated “the brain” as a less trustworthy than “the higher faculties of the soul” because it “yields more easily to extrinsic impressions …” .
So, the biblical promises of God’s felt immediacy must be taken seriously—all who “know” God will experience a changed life. But the changes are in orientation. In the spiritual “taste” or “relish” for God’s holiness that displaces the selfishness that had once blinded the unconverted soul.
In the next Sign Edwards affirmed the certainty that comes with transformed affections. Real faith brings with it a full and effective confidence.