In 1746 Jonathan Edwards presented “Twelve Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections” in his Religious Affections. Edwards held that God achieves transformation in souls by stirring human affections. After Adam’s fall everyone follows selfish desires—the affections of self-interest. But God overturns this captivity through the attractive power of his own person.
Edwards pointed to God’s moral attractiveness as his third Sign. “Those affections that are truly holy, are primarily founded on the loveliness of the moral excellency of divine things” . So that “the beauty and sweetness of their moral excellency, is the first beginning and spring of all holy affections.” Edwards saw God’s personal beauty as his most compelling quality—much more to be desired than anything in creation.
Edwards made his case by first distinguishing God’s moral attributes from his natural attributes. The former are aligned with God’s holiness. And God’s other divine perfections are secondary to this quality—“A love to God for the beauty of his moral attributes, leads to, and necessarily causes a delight in God for all his attributes…” . In other words, God unites both moral and natural qualities in himself. So that any soul who engages God’s heart will also find delight in his broader being—in his natural attributes of strength, knowledge, and more—because “all the attributes of God do as it were imply one another” .
In this pairing of categories a genuine believer delights both in God’s moral and natural qualities but is first captured by God’s holiness. Unconverted souls, on the other hand, are terrified by God’s moral qualities. This difference of redeemed and unredeemed souls reveals regeneration—Edwards’ first Sign—that “those that are regenerated [have] a new supernatural sense, that is as it were a certain divine spiritual taste …” . Edwards repeated his honey analogy to make the point: “the sweet taste of honey is diverse from the ideas we get of honey by looking on it or feeling of it…” . God’s attractions are only known through an actual experience of his holy presence.
In this argument Edwards embraced a concept of mutual attraction, that like-attracts-like. And once a soul is converted, “A holy love has a holy object” in view . Edwards illustrated this by looking to the eschaton when according to the book of Revelation both saints and angels find their greatest delight in declaring God as “Holy, holy, holy.” Adoration is the ultimate bond saints experience as they meet and receive God as their Lord.
The test for faith, then, is what any heart celebrates. If a professing but inauthentic Christian seeks to use God’s grace “as bonum utile, a profitable good to me” that person actually displays a utilitarian “self-love” rather than a true response to God. The alternative, evident in genuine faith, is a response to God “as bonum formosum, a beautiful good in itself” .
Edwards knew this claim would challenge those in the crosshairs of his critique: the crowds of religious but disaffected church folks. These people have information about God’s majesty but remain morally and spiritually indifferent. He warned that God will eventually confront such people for refusing to respond to his moral perfections: “God will make all rational beings to behold it to the great degree indeed, angels and devils, saints and sinners; he will manifest his infinite greatness, and awful majesty to every one …” .
So, it is the distinction between God’s natural attributes, that both angels and demons recognize, as do saints and sinners, and God’s moral attributes that only faithful angels and saints find attractive must be recognized. And the “awful majesty, and natural perfection” of God must always be set alongside “the holy, lovely majesty of God” . It is the latter that opens hearts to God’s attractive beauty.
In the next Sign, his fourth, Edwards takes up God’s work of enlightenment in bringing Holy Affections to a soul.