Jonathan Edwards offered “Twelve Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections” in his 1746 Religious Affections. He aimed to separate genuine faith from false forms of religion.
Edwards’ ninth sign complemented the eighth. Both noted the changed hearts of believers after God’s work of new birth. The ninth noticed the new softness that comes. “Gracious affections soften the heart, and are attended and followed with a tenderness of spirit” . God’s gentle disposition undoes the assertive and hardened ways of pre-conversion life.
Edwards was writing soon after the dramatic rise and decline of spiritual excitement—the Great Awakening—in New England. The widespread swings of professed believers was disorienting afterwards, especially for those who were still deeply spiritually devoted. What happened to so many other converts? Was the revival driven by mass spiritual hysteria? Are such moments of religious enthusiasm simply flights of human fancy?
The answer Edwards offered was based on his assurance that God’s true work in transformed souls is as reliable as God himself. A change-of-heart is God’s work. He alone turns deep human values upside-down; and this change endures as long as God does—forever! Yet God’s work can be imitated, whether by human efforts, or by counterfeit measures stirred in souls by God’s enemy. Such changes, Edwards insisted, are mere hypocrisy. Not because people meant to be deceptive, but because their short-term version of faith wasn’t birthed by transformed hearts. One who truly encounters God will never lose the joy of discovery. A hypocrite’s heart, on the other hand, only responds to reports about God. And with only an outward exposure it reverts in time to its deepest devotion: self.
Edwards also used the Bible to assess the exotic side of the Awakening. Excesses were often part of the revivals as people who claimed to have direct communion with God shared their delight. The etymology for “enthusiasm,” after all, is the combination of God (theos) in (en) us. And those who jumped, shouted, danced, and shared visions from God were lumped together as enthusiasts. But for many the excitement faded away in time—with the peak of the revival reached in the mid-1730’s, then dissipating by the early 1740’s.
The concern Edwards raised here is that any drama in a person’s faith—if they experienced “some kind of passions”—they might then “have a high opinion of themselves, and look for their state to be safe” . Such an ungrounded faith might then loosen sound moral restraint. Any advocacy of God’s free grace—a fair label for Edwards’ views—is open to the charge that grace leads to licentiousness. Edwards reminded his readers of the immoral woman who approached Jesus with shame and weeping (Luke 7:41-50). She was then forgiven. Edwards applied the lesson of Christ’s mercy: “this has a tendency to put an end to terrors [of judgment], but has no tendency to put an end to convictions of sin, but to increase them” .
Edwards offered King David as another example of how a living heart is more sensitive to sin than ordinary souls ever experience. When David was hiding from his opponent, King Saul, he was able, unseen, to cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. Then, in a surprising response, David’s heart “smote him” for what he had done. Edwards argued, “A false conversion puts an end to convictions of conscience” that were stirred “under a work of the law.” Real conversion, on the other hand, brings about a new tenderness of heart that undermines any desire to sin .
The transformed soul, Edwards insisted, displays such changes. “As he has more holy boldness, so he has less of self-confidence, and a forward assuming boldness, and more modesty” .
In the next sign, the tenth, Edwards insists that a new heart will have “truly gracious and holy” affections that reflect God’s own love of symmetry and beauty. We will trace that next time.