In Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections he offered “Twelve Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections.” Edwards believed God’s transforming work starts in the affections, where motives operate. People follow their desires, and God can move heart desires. As he does this the world sees his grace at work.
Edward’s second Sign traced this connection: “The first objective ground of gracious affections, is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things, as they are in themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self or self-interest” .
Edwards was responding to a problem apparent in the aftermath of the Great Awakening. Many people who had once expressed a delight in God were no longer devoted to him. Their conversion faith had fizzled—looking more like brief firework sparklers than enduring fires. So, why doesn’t God’s love create a sustained response in every soul?
The answer, Edwards wrote, has everything to do with the love people experienced. Was it an impulse of self-interested love—of seeking benefits from God? Or was it a response to God’s transcendent love? If it was the former, it would be just as unstable as any other fallible human experience. But if it was a genuine encounter with God, the resulting bond would overturn short-term self-interests. God would be deeply loved for who he is, and not for what he offers.
This was obvious to Edwards. The first Sign distinguished supernatural life from natural life, so the second Sign traced the impact of this supernatural life in a newborn believer’s soul. The coming of God’s eternal love reshapes the motives of newly captured souls. And since his love is selfless, the quality of love in those moved by his affections will reflect that love. He wrote, “A man must first love God, or have his heart united to him before he will esteem God’s good his own, and before he will desire the glorifying and enjoying God, as his happiness” .
The claim of critics, however, was that everyone operates from self-love, so that even religious experiences are rooted in something a soul perceives as beneficial—even God himself. In effect, everyone is ultimately pragmatic, so that human pragmatism is the ultimate motor of life.
Edwards acknowledged there can be a “kind of affection to God or Jesus” as part of self-love. A love for God certainly has practical benefits. But claims that enduring Christian faith must rely on such love is wrong, “for self-love is a principle entirely natural [rather than supernatural] and is as much in the hearts of devils as angels”—the book of Job pointed to this, as Satan held that Job’s faithfulness to God was merely self-serving . A real love for God went beyond this, Edwards insisted, and supernatural love is the sole ground of saving faith. The “first foundation of a true love to God, is that whereby he is in himself lovely, or worthy to be loved…” .
He chased the point. In the awakening of souls to God’s loveliness, his kindness is a felt benefit. But Edwards argued that this kindness “is a [magnifying] glass that God set before them, wherein to … behold the beauty of the attributes of God’s goodness…” It serves to make “the heart tender, and susceptive” to his character.” And, “to fix the attention, and heighten the affection” . So, the feeling of divine kindness would be a part of salvation but not its basis.
Edwards’ distinctions between natural love and supernatural love—one based in human concerns and the other stirred by God’s self-disclosed love—explain the dissipating impact of the Great Awakening. Natural love generates temporary and “hypocritical” religion while God’s transcendent love always stirs enduring faith.
A short-term false faith could stir the “high affections of many” but an underlying, self-focused, motive would have been “the supposition of their being eminent saints” . And this faith was just as ephemeral as their moral self-confidence. Genuine affections, instead, “are built elsewhere: they have their foundation out[side] of self, in God and Jesus Christ; and therefore a discovery [i.e. exposure] of themselves, of their own deformity, and the meanness of their experiences … will not destroy them, but in some respects sweeten and heighten them” .
Faith then, is neither pragmatic nor dependent on moral consistency in a believer. It exists, instead, as a divinely stirred assurance based on God’s fully reliable love that has captured the heart.
Next, in Edwards’ third Affective Sign, we come to the question of how God changes human morality. He claimed God’s works always reveal a “moral excellency.” As always, he offers us a helpful stir.