In 1746 Jonathan Edwards published his Religious Affections with “Twelve Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections.” He was pointing out the authentic features of the Great Awakening after many “awakened” souls had reverted to their former unspiritual ways.
Edwards’ twelfth and final sign was his longest and most applied—seventy-eight pages. “Gracious and holy affections” he wrote, “have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice” . He pressed the point by citing moral boundaries in the Bible as a context for affective themes. “I mean, they [the affections] have that influence and power upon him who is the subject of ’em, that they cause that a practice, which is universally conformed to, and directed by Christian rules, should be the practice and business of his life.” True Christians, in other words, abide by Christian norms, and a saved soul “persists in it to the end of life…” .
This change of emphasis in Edwards might mislead readers. In the first eleven signs he elevated the Spirit’s inward and affective renewal as the key to spiritual transformation. Was this a sudden change of direction?
Edwards, instead, was elevating a natural and necessary link: changed hearts produce changed behaviors. This answered skeptics of affective theology who held that such views only serve illicit motives—as an excuse for license. And, further, that morality only comes by suppressing sinful desires by applying will-based disciplines. Edwards rejected this and pressed, instead, for a biblical coherence: Christ’s life always shapes the lives of his authentic followers. As in 1 John 5:18, “We know that whosoever is born of God, sinneth not…” .
In this final sign Edwards moved from discussing motives to examining behaviors. Yet he still maintained his cause-and-effect order. The spiritual vitality of the Great Awakening had faded, and so too had the morality of many once-well-behaved converts. So, the question followed, were such people saved? Edwards answered, “All Christ’s peculiar people [i.e., believers], not only do good works, but are zealous of good works (Titus 2:14)” . It is, after all, “the narrow way that leads to life” . So, a lack of good works meant they weren’t truly bonded to Christ.
Edwards offered the caveat that true saints “may be guilty of some kinds and degrees of backsliding and may be soiled by particular temptations” but such moments of failure won’t persist. Why not? Because a soul mastered by Christ “cannot serve two masters” and will, in the end, return to his or her true master . The unconverted, by contrast, don’t know Jesus. If they did a new trajectory of faith would be evident, because “the principle from whence they flow, is something divine, a communication of God, a participation in the divine nature, Christ living in the heart, the Holy Spirit dwelling there, in union with the faculties of the soul…” .
Along with this inward transformation Edwards also promised a dynamic spirituality. “If God dwells in the heart, and be vitally united to it, he will shew that he is a God, by the efficacy of his operation. Christ is not in the heart of a saint, as in a sepulcher, or as a dead Saviour, that does nothing; but as in his temple, and as one that is alive from the dead” . There must be more, then, than an absence of sin. An active spirituality will be obvious. Underlying his claims were a number of Bible metaphors, as in the “good tree” in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount—“Till the tree be made good, the fruit will not be good” . It was this theme, supported by a number of proof texts, that Edwards offered in his extended discussion. A “Christian profession…must be joined with Christian practice” [415-16].
Edwards also warned his readers that good intentions do not represent an authentic faith. Because “a man’s actions are the proper trial [of] what a man’s heart prefers” . He pressed this continuity of faith and actions with a set of elaborations until he finally ended both his twelfth sign, and his Religious Affections, with an axiom: authentic heart change always produces “the strait and narrow way which leads to life…” . Not as a duty but as a delight, with “good works [that] would glorify their Father which is in heaven.”
Amen, and thank you Jonathan!
Thank you so very much for this series Ron. A truly sobering reflection and personal challenge of what it means to genuinely come to Jesus.
I have to ask myself, do I search the scriptures thinking that in them I might find eternal life but at the same time refuse to come to Christ?
What has helped me most is to remind myself where my gaze is fixed upon.
If it’s eyes only for things that look amazing, that offer no apparent harm, and would benefit me greatly to get a leg up in life, then although these things may not be bad in themselves, I’m probably looking in the wrong direction.
But if it’s eyes opened by the Spirit of God to see Jesus as my bridegroom, joined to him in a marital like union, perfectly loved by his Father, then I tend to view the world around me and others with brighter contrast.
Thanks again Ron, your works as always help me to better understand what’s going on in the Bible as a whole.
Thanks, Jonathan, for engaging on what Edwards offers over the course of the Religious Affections. As you note, we can be tripped up by seemingly harmless desires that, in fact, reveal competing heart values. Jeremiah 17 in play!