Edwards’ Twelve Signs – the Tenth

In 1746 Jonathan Edwards published his Religious Affections. In it he offered “Twelve Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections” to show how genuine faith differs from ineffective faith.

Edwards’ tenth sign stated, “Another thing wherein those affections that are truly gracious and holy, differ from those that are false, is beautiful symmetry and proportion” [365]. A life in Christ will mirror Christ’s character. Edwards added a caveat that no authentic saint will ever be perfect—weaknesses and errors are found in every life. But there will not be a “monstrous disproportion” of “affections” found in the “true religion” of genuine saints. Truly godly people, in other words, will live lives aligned with God.

Here Edwards’ main aim was not to be a spiritual fruit inspector—separating the naughty from the nice—but to press his continuing claim that the “image of Christ” always appears in those who now participate in Christ’s “fulness”—a result of their new birth. This union with Christ brings “grace answerable to grace: there is no grace in Christ, but that there is its image in believers to answer it …”

Hypocrites, on the other hand, display uneven faith: “one great difference between saints and hypocrites is this, that the joy and comfort of the former is attended with godly sorrow and mourning for sin” [366]. Edwards was sensitive to church members who were ready to claim the benefits of salvation, but were forgetful of their former devotion to sin. He cited Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted” [367]. Mourning isn’t forgotten, even after divine comfort comes with faith.

A lack of spiritual coherence in presumably regenerated lives is a problem. If some church members, for instance, have obvious needs, and wealthier members do nothing about it but express grief, something is broken. “The making a great shew of love, pity, and distress for souls, costs ‘em nothing; but in order to shew mercy to men’s bodies, they must part with money out of their pockets” [369]. Otherwise, a “coldness and lifelessness” in their faith is apparent.

Even the appearance of spiritual zeal among church member is unconvincing if it only targets sins in others. “But he that has true zeal exercises it chiefly against his own sins” [371]. Edwards’ aim was to call church members to recognize that religion without coherence—if it displays some features of apparent devotion to God but dismisses others—is no more sound than was the faith of the Israelites who vowed their devotion to God in the covenant ceremony of Exodus 24 but who, days later, “then quickly made ‘em a golden calf” [372].

One clear feature of genuine faith, Edwards told his readers, is a private devotion to Christ. A true Christian is constant, even when no one is watching. “True religion disposes persons to be much alone, in solitary places, for holy meditation and prayer” [374]. This motivation is not an act of spiritual discipline but a response to God. Edwards was confident that God’s deep communion is most available in quiet places: “The Psalmist seems to speak of his sweetest comforts, as those that were to be had in secret” [375; he cited Psalm 63:5].

Edwards concluded with a pithy summary of sign ten. Real faith is not so much “engaged in social religion … [but is, instead,] the religion of the closet” [376].


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