Jonathan Edwards’ “Twelve Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections” in his 1746 Religious Affections defended the authenticity of New England’s recent “great awakening.” For many the awakening was simply a passing spiritual fad, and critics now dismissed the entire event. Edwards, however, meant to distinguish true transformations from those that didn’t last.
His seventh sign was crucial but brief—given just five pages compared to nearly thirty pages for the prior sign—“Another thing, wherein gracious affections are distinguished from others, is, that they are attended with a change of nature” .
What did Edwards mean by “nature”? The term touched on his wider theme in the Twelve Signs that true spirituality is only awakened by God’s Spirit. So, while many people might display forms of Christian faith—through professions of faith, church attendance, or even passing ecstatic moments—only a changed spiritual character can be counted as authentic.
Edwards provided a set of Bible prooftexts that started with 2 Corinthians 3:18. There Paul used the Exodus account of Moses’ face shining bright from his encountering God as a model for conversions. Christians “are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” This change surpasses a mere alteration in a person’s “present frames and feelings” by bringing about a “supernatural effect.” Not a physical change but an increasing inward transformation aligned with Christ’s character .
This, he held, reflected the promise in 2 Peter 1:4 that conversion involves “being made partakers of the divine nature” . The verse addressed the problem of distinguishing one sort of life-change from another. Although displayed subjectively, only the objective work of the Spirit could account for such change. During the awakening many souls had displayed short periods of moral transformation, but they soon relapsed into their prior mundane patterns. True conversions will persist, “For nature is an abiding thing” and a genuine Christian “becomes a new creature” , and old sins lose their continuing force .
Edwards explained this transformation of nature with some spiritual plumbing of sorts. His spiritual anthropology—in line with Augustine’s fifth century views—relied on God’s personal illumination of darkened souls. Edwards explained, “All the exercises of grace are entirely from Christ” so that when a soul is given life, it is the Christ’s life that remains as a sustaining presence: “In the soul where Christ savingly is, there he lives” , a reality implicitly achieved by the Spirit’s ongoing communion. This Life-to-life bond constitutes the new nature and is “carried on” in a soul “to the end of life; till it is brought to perfection in glory” .
Edwards refused to treat this Spirit-to-spirit companionship of Christ with the believer as a basis for instant perfection. Instead, it represents a progressive change through new appetites—desires—that now find Christ increasingly attractive. These new “high gracious affections” then “leave a sweet savor and relish of divine things on the heart, and a stronger bent of soul towards God and holiness” .
In plain terms, the true Christian will always be evident by his or her sustained love for Jesus. It doesn’t fade because the power of Christ’s character—his attractiveness—never ends. Only God’s presence awakens and sustains a Christian’s new nature through a new love.
The next Affective Sign, Edwards’ eighth, takes up some of Christ’s specific qualities—his temperament—that become evident in every believers’ new nature.