Edwards’ Twelve Signs – the Sixth

Jonathan Edwards offered “Twelve Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections” in his 1746 Religious Affections. A spiritual awakening in New England, and in Edwards’ church, had come and gone, and afterwards skeptics were dismissive of the whole thing. Edwards was more measured, discriminating God’s authentic reformation from the passing fads of revivalism.

The Sixth Sign is humility. Edwards wrote, “Gracious affections are attended with evangelical humiliation” [311]. He elaborated, “Evangelical humiliation is a sense that a Christian has of his own utter insufficiency, despicableness, and odiousness, with an answerable frame of heart.” In sum, Christians are spontaneously aware of their complete moral failure, and their necessary reliance on God for his transforming work!

As he made his case Edwards discriminated “between a legal and evangelical” humility [his italics]. The former is a “natural” disposition available to every human by God’s common grace. But the latter brings a deeper transformation, from “a discovery of the beauty of God’s holiness and moral perfection” [311]. The former comes when a person acknowledges personal limits—with disappointment—while the latter comes through a vision of God’s greatness that displaces any self-elevation.

Edwards developed this sixth sign through a host of Bible verses, yet one was the “most essential thing in true religion” [312]. In Habakkuk 2:4 the prophet wrote “the just shall live by faith,” and this faith relies on God’s grace, not on human moral efforts. So, the verse contrasted a soul that is “lifted up”—proud—and one that is faithful. So that faith and pride are contrary orientations in life, and not simply occasional passing moments. For Edwards, and for any reader, this means humility is a basis for faith. And it stands in opposition to blind, sinful pride.

Edwards collected an exceptional set of prooftexts—in a long twenty-nine-page section—and his great concern was for readers to see that humility is “one of the most essential things pertaining to true Christianity” [314]. Yet many people remain proud, that is, self-confident. And one feature of this problem was the seemingly positive ambition for self-denial. Many early Christian hermits, for instance, hadn’t “denied themselves for Christ” but traded “one lust to feed another” by seeking greater status through the apparent “righteousness” of asceticism [315].

The nemesis of pride lurks in religion as “many hypocrites make great pretenses to humility, as well as other graces …” [316] Their problem? They rely on rules or duties to become good, and these rules call for self-focused living. “A legal spirit is a more subtle thing than they imagine, it is too subtle for them” [317] since pride breeds self-focused living.

There are, on the other hand, those who avoid moralistic errors by falsely promoting “the way of free grace.” Yet, in fact, they ironically oppose actual free grace as much as their moralistic opponents do. This comes as they become self-promotional for proclaiming a proper form of faith. A “self-righteous spirit” is as full of self when the person proclaims doctrinal righteousness, while being “lifted up to heaven with an high opinion of their abasement” [319].

Edwards insisted that genuine faith avoids both versions of pride by avoiding comparisons. As in, “I am holier than thou” [320]. True holiness elevates others, as in the call of Philippians 2:3, “let each esteem others better than themselves” [321]. The reality of human sin is so great that an insightful believer will never try to make something of self but will, instead, be captured by “the person of Christ, and the boundless length and breadth, and depth and height, of the love of Christ to sinners” [324].

Humility also grows with a person’s vision of God. The person who dismisses God presumes his or her own morality as sound, but the saint who in faith draws near to God in faith “will appear to himself infinitely deformed by reason of sin … less than a drop in the ocean” in light of “that which is infinite” [327]. True faith displays only modest self-concern in the Creator’s presence.

Finally—though not Edwards’ final point—authentic Christian humility recognizes the difference between some unhappy times and other “different times … when grace is in lively exercise” so that humility always offers a pathway to growth [328]. God’s greatness always overwhelms our capacities to know him, even as we get to know him more and more: “All true spiritual knowledge is of that nature, that the more a person has of it, the more he is sensible of his own ignorance…” [330].

Humility, then, is all about who God is, and only a little about who we are. And when any of us start to have a proper view of God our inflated identity is certain to shrink accordingly! Focus on Jesus and life gains a whole new beauty.

Edwards’ seventh Sign, in the next post, promises a change of nature in true believers. Come again to see what he offered.


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