Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections: And True Religion in the Local Church

Editor’s note: Internal pagination references in the section summarizing Religious Affections are from the Banner of Truth edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, volume 1.

The young pastor smiles with joy as he looks out at the pews crowded with a rainbow of pastel-colored button-ups and Easter dresses. He is encouraged to speak to a packed audience and hopes to preach the gospel to the several unbelievers who were invited by a few faithful church members. However, the large majority of new faces are members of the church, many of whom are unregenerate, attending only a few times a year to meet their self-prescribed church quota. The pastor delivers a warm, hope-filled message about how Christ ransomed them at Easter, and the mixed congregation disperses happily convinced that they are all children of God.

Is there a difference between those born of the will of man and those born of God? Scripture teaches that there is a solemn distinction between those who are called into the kingdom of God’s Beloved Son and those who remain in the dominion of darkness. Confusing this is a source of the confusion between those inside and outside of the church, forcing us to settle for far less than that to which the Bible calls. This is why Jonathan Edwards’ Treatise Concerning Religious Affections is a helpful guide for us in this uncertainty, for in it Edwards sets forth what religious activities are virtuous before God. The devil has twisted the doctrine of conversion to blind the eyes of sinners to their terrible destination and to change the aim of the church. However, there is a biblically prescribed, discernible division between believers and unbelievers, sheep and goats, wheat and tares, deeply embedded in the affections.


Summary of Religious Affections

In Part I, Edwards pours a foundation for the treatise by explaining the “nature of the affections and their importance in religion” (236) from 1 Peter 1:8, which describes believers as having been refined as gold by tribulation, producing glorious rejoicing in Christ and love to Christ. Thus he derives the thesis: “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections” (237). He defines affections as “the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination of the will of the soul” (237). The human soul has two principal faculties: the understanding and the will. With the understanding, a person perceives and digests information. With the will, a person approves or disapproves that information in degree and kind. Being connected with the affections, the will never goes any further than the level to which it is affected.

Denying the importance of the affections denies the foundational essence of biblical Christianity. Edwards explains, “That religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference” (237). God’s commandments towards men in their devotion and service to Him are commandments on the affections. Holy religion is the fervent and vigorous approval of good and hatred towards wickedness. Without these things, religion is viewed as cold, dead, and in God’s eyes, unacceptable (238).

The affections are the motivation for “all of man’s pursuits” (238). A man conducts his entire life by what he loves or hates. “I am bold to assert, that there never was any considerable change wrought in the mind or conversation of any person, by any thing of a religious nature that ever he read, heard, or saw, who had not his affections moved,” says Edwards (238). For someone to be brought into and sustained in religion, he must have raised affections for the holiness of God and the beauty of the gospel. Some examples of affections in religion are fear of God, hope in God, love to Christ, desire and longings for holiness, delight in the law, sorrow for sin, and compassion for the poor. The chief of all affection is love, since the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37).

Saints of the Bible such as David and Paul demonstrate holy affections in their “pantings for God” (Psalm 42:1) and “unceasing anguish” towards the unsaved (Romans 9:2). Jesus Christ, who zealously clears the Temple, passionately preaches the gospel, and earnestly prays to God, shows perfectly raised affections. Furthermore, religion in heaven consists in “holy love” and “holy joy” (242) in God’s excellencies, particularly displayed in His work of redemption. In Scripture, God pronounces judgment on those who are hardened to positive affections towards God.

By true religion consisting in great part in the affections, Edwards means that though religion must have good deeds attending the affections, “there can be no true religion without [the affections]” (244). Therefore, if a person has an unaffected will, he can do all the external showings of religion while remaining dead in his sins.

Having laid the groundwork for the treatise, Edwards spends Part II explaining negative signs of truly gracious affections. If one confuses the signs, he may suppose he is saved when he is not. Highly raised affections are no sign that someone has saving grace, as the same chapter of Scripture that describes Paul as being provoked in spirit at the idolatry of the Athenians also describes the unbelieving Jews becoming jealous to the point of forming a mob and arresting Jason (Acts 17). The same crowd that cries “Hosanna in the highest” later cries, “Crucify him!” (246). Bodily effects such as weeping are also a negative sign, as one person may weep for holiness while another weeps because of a great loss of money. Talking much about religion is no sign of grace, as there is such a thing as “religion of the tongue” (247). Edwards’ explanation of this is heightened when he says that praising and glorifying God is no sure sign, as many in Scripture praise Christ for the miracles He did, yet only for that (Matthew 9:8).

A sudden, unexplainable feeling in one’s mind and heart, even if it is accompanied by a text of Scripture, does not mean that it is divine. “There seems to be nothing in this which exceeds the power of Satan,” Edwards says. The Scripture can be manipulated to give false assurance. Conviction for one’s sins is another negative sign that can arise from nothing more than a natural, self-preserving fear of hell, instead of a respect for God’s holiness (253). This person will do anything to get out of hell, even if it means believing in a God whose holiness is nauseating to him (254). On the contrary, having confidence and assurance in one’s state before God does not mean that one is saved (256). Edwards writes, “The devil does not assault the hope of a hypocrite, as he does the hope of a true saint” (257). He contrasts a gracious trust in Christ with trusting in one’s assurance (259). Lastly, an appearance of Christian love, accompanied by other affections does not prove anything about one’s eternal destiny (250). Therefore, if a person is convicted of sins, but hears the song “I am a Friend of God,” he may be elated with joy and thankfulness to an imaginary redeemer for giving him an imaginary redemption (251).

Departing from negative signs, in Part III Edwards expounds on those things that are positive signs of true grace. They are not meant to infallibly label someone as a Christian or to comfort stubbornly disobedient Christians, but rather to serve as tests to make our calling and election sure and to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.

The foundation of gracious affections is that they “arise from those influences and operations on the heart, which are spiritual, supernatural, and divine” (264). God gives the Holy Spirit to Christians “as his proper lasting abode” “to influence their hearts, as a principle of new nature, or as a divine supernatural spring of life and action” (265). The Spirit is an “indwelling principle” that cannot be generated by a natural man (265). Edwards writes, “This new spiritual sense is not a new faculty of the understanding, but it is a new foundation laid in the nature of the soul” (266).

The love of God’s moral excellency in itself is the “spring of all holy affections” (274, 278). Edwards argues that it is gracious only when a person loves God’s infinite glory as it is in itself, without the person receiving any benefit. He explains, “A natural principle of self-love may be the foundation of great affections towards God and Christ, without seeing any thing of the beauty and glory of the divine nature” (275). If someone first loves God for what He does for him or her, then they “begin at the wrong end,” and only love God for their personal interest (275). “In the love of the true saint, God is the lowest foundation; the love of the excellency of his nature is the foundation of all the affections which come afterwards, wherein self-love is concerned as a handmaid” (276). The foundation of Christian praise is the adoration of God’s holiness in the plan of redemption and the holiness of the blood of Christ, whereas a hypocrite “puts their experiences in the place of Christ, his beauty and fullness” (277).

Gracious affections do not arise from mythical experiences without mental activity (281), but come from the conviction of the reality of Scriptural truths. When the truths of Scripture are presented to the mind, the new sense in the heart “sees a beauty in it, and so inclines to it, and closes with it” (286). This is what the Scripture means by being led by the Spirit–the person is attracted to the same things to which the Spirit is attracted. A true Christian clings to every part of the gospel as present heart-felt reality, as opposed to distant intellectual propositions (291).

Gracious affections are characterized by evangelical humiliation, as opposed to legal humiliation. The legally humiliated may strongly deny works-based salvation and exalt free grace, yet remain an enemy to God in his heart by making the amount of humiliation a basis for his own righteousness. The evangelically humbled will never be comfortable with their indwelling pride and look to Christ as their Mediator instead of floundering in their own self-abasement (298). The true Christian’s pride appears great to him, not his humility (300). Christians cannot backslide forever, as their new nature is attended with a lifelong growth in holy love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness and mercy (303). “The Scripture knows no true Christians, of a sordid, selfish, cross, and contentious spirit,” says Edwards, especially that which is disguised as “zeal” (307). In all of these qualities, Christians demonstrate beauty and symmetry–meaning that if there was a grace in Christ, the same grace is present in every Christian (309). They do not show zeal without gentleness, or compassion without justice, whereas hypocritical affections are “blown like violent, uncontrolled winds” (311). For all these affections that are given, the Christian is never content with himself and longs for more holiness (312).

Good deeds display gracious affections and signify both to one’s neighbors and to one’s own conscience that he is saved. “There is nothing in heaven or earth of a more active nature [than true grace],” says Edwards (318). One’s confession is to be tested by his behavior, as actions are the best interpreter of the heart (322). In acts of the will, the desires of a person’s heart are put on trial, and one should look no further than to his present obedience to gain assurance (326). “Holy practice under trials is the highest evidence of the sincerity of professors to their own consciences” (328). Therefore, truly gracious affections are wrought by the Spirit of God to give a supernatural sense of the beauty and certainty of divine things revealed in Scripture, to promote God-exalting humility and Christ-like characteristics, and to produce good deeds to display one’s faith to the world and to one’s own conscience.


True Religion and the Local Church

Edwards’ insights in A Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections are a window into the experiences of Christians in the life of the church for all times. Many of our waking hours are spent milling over questions such as who we will date and marry, where our children will go to college, or how much money we have in our retirement fund. Though these questions certainly deserve our keen attention, the most important question is how sinful humanity deserving of suffering, death and eternal hell, are made right with their holy, righteous and sin-hating Creator. If God is holy, how can a sinner please Him? Indeed, if we paid more attention to the eternal state of our souls instead of other less pending questions, our personal lives and the lives of our churches would be drastically different. It is the business of the church to faithfully emphasize the distinction between believers and unbelievers, as failing to do so forfeits the church’s identity and mission.

It is built within the human conscience that certain actions are praiseworthy or blameworthy. Those who fall short of God’s holy standard deserve hell and those who do not go to heaven. Though we all have fallen infinitely short of His glory, God procured redemption for us by sending His Son Christ to die on the cross for sinners, and it is only through Him that we are reconciled with God. To many in our churches, the conversion division lies at a “personal relationship with Jesus,” “accepting Jesus’ gift of forgiveness,” or “confessing that Jesus is Lord.” But much difficulty comes in qualifying this phraseology. What is this relationship and who is this Jesus? What does “accepting a gift of forgiveness” look like? Is confessing that Jesus is Lord the same as confessing that Barack Obama is President? Leaving these questions with loose answers is one of the devil’s greatest tools against the church. If he can tweak the meaning of just one of these words, it will cause us to build the wall between the converted and the unconverted in the wrong place. Persons will begin to think they are Christians when they are not and the church will encourage church members into a deeper hole of false assurance. Therefore, it is important for us to examine the following within the context of the local church: The mistaken indicators of converted affections; the effects on the life of the church; and the root of truly gracious affections.

Just as Jonathan Edwards begins Religious Affections by outlining negative signs–that is, those that are falsely supposed to indicate saving grace–I will also start there in order to clear away confusion and to pave the way for true indicators of Christian grace. Just as the church in Edwards’ day had their own false tests, every age of the age has their own areas of conversion confusion. These are particular actions, mindsets, activities, sets of knowledge, statements of belief, etc., that are mistaken as tests to discern whether a person is saved. Before listing several of these tests particular to our church, there are three overarching characteristics of all of these negative signs.

First, they tend to be increasingly easy and pleasing to the mind set on the flesh. When the rich young ruler approaches Christ to ask him what he must do to inherit eternal life, Christ tells him that beyond these laws that he has kept, he must sell all he has and give it to the poor. Jesus says that it is more difficult for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19). Nicodemus marvels that one must be born of God to enter the kingdom of heaven (John 3). In fact, though Jesus’ burden is easy and his yolk is light, He repeatedly challenges people, telling them that only those who want to go to heaven will go there–only those who are willing to sell everything they have, forsaking mother and father and children and lands for the sake of the kingdom. Any test of a true follower of Christ should not lessen the demands of Christ Himself.

The second characteristic of false tests is that they lean towards external actions that require no change of heart motives. As Paul instructs the believers in Colossae, “let no one disqualify you regarding food or drink…” to contend with a sect who regarded external rules above the affections (Colossians 2). False signs are often characterized by having their foundation in some external activity.

A third overarching characteristic of the negative signs is that they often rely much on internal swaying of the emotions in opposition to external action, making assurance grounded upon warm, comfortable feelings, or even deserted, melancholy feelings. Any supposed sign of grace that is based in swaying emotions resulting in complacency that falls short of repentance and seeking Christ are false.

Now let us point Affections at ourselves to examine whether we have adopted some false signs to discern truly gracious affections in the life of the church. To begin, it is no sign of grace if one is a well-rounded citizen in our communities by being a good employee, participating in community events, fulfilling one’s civic duty, etc. This even goes for serving in the military, being a social worker, or a police officer. That is, being a good citizen does not equal being a regenerate citizen. Whereas I believe Christians are to contribute to the public good by voting, running for public office, and so forth, this is nothing beyond the power natural man has in his flesh. Prior to his conversion, Paul contributed greatly to the public order and was viewed as a law-abiding citizen, yet remained without God in his heart; Pharaoh contributed greatly to building Egypt as a kingdom, yet was a vessel of destruction. One can be involved in every matter of public order in this small town society, yet have no grace in his or her heart.

To attend church, Sunday School, become a church member, walk an aisle, fill out a card, raise a hand, pray a prayer, or talk with a pastor are other false tests. An assurance that is based upon a recollection of a past subjective experience is upon unstable ground. One should not look to these as guides for testing whether one is converted or not. Jesus’ words that not everyone who cries “Lord, Lord!” will be saved on the last day should alarm us to realize that even a public confession can be mimicked by the devil (Matthew 7:21).

Participating in the life of the church, by teaching Sunday School, maintaining the church grounds, organizing potluck dinners, competing in Bible Drills, changing diapers in the nursery, etc., are not signs of gracious affections. Judas Iscariot, chosen as treasurer among Jesus’ disciples, was really a thief (John 12:6). It is my fear that many in our churches base their salvation in what they do for the church instead of what Christ has done for them on the cross.

What do you think when you see someone with a tattered Bible–worn pages and full church bulletins with underlined passages and notes in the margin? These are not necessarily signs of gracious affections. Extensive study and knowledge of the Bible, reciting and recalling applicable Scriptures in certain situations, or arguing extensively, powerfully, intellectually, and passionately for biblical doctrine is nothing beyond the power of normal human intellect. Someone can know all the truth of the Bible yet have an unaffected heart, studying the Scriptures for no greater reason than to confirm himself in his own self-righteousness.

Serving in ministry leadership as a pastor/preacher or as a missionary has nothing inherent in it that makes it move any further than what natural man can perform on his own strength. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13 that there is a way that one can give up everything he has, even his own life, performing all religious devotional duties impressing all who would see it, and fail to act virtuously before God, because the heart is on vacation. Being active in evangelism, even overseas evangelism and church planting–one of the highest activities of sainthood in our eyes, should not be a test to determine whether one is regenerate. A man can sell all he has and move to a country whose government is hostile towards Christianity in order to plant churches; or he can study the Scriptures daily and attend the newest conferences to improve his ministry; yet at the bottom of his heart be doing this all for the sake of his own personal reputation or to establish his own righteous record before God.

There is nothing inherent in singing praise songs to God that is gracious. For one to desire to recognize God’s complete control of the world, His power, His majesty, so much that he will join the choir to lead the church is no sure sign of saving grace. One can voice praise, thanks, and even count all of the blessings that God has given him, yet love these gifts rather than God. Praising and thanking God for His gifts as the foundation of that love is not virtuous in God’s eyes.

These are I think the most prominent mistaken accompaniments of truly gracious religious affections. In summary, if someone who is not a Christian can perform something in the same manner, appearance, producing the same effects, then we are not looking to the heart of where true saving grace lies. This is a hard habit to break, to reason, “His Bible is worn out. Therefore, he has true affections for Christ.” A worn Bible can belong to those who try to disprove it with all their might, just as some of the loudest singers in church are those who love God only for what they get out of Him. There will be many who lament at the Day of Judgment because they tried to please God with their actions while harboring dead affections for Him.

We have looked at a few false indicators of truly gracious affections. Since “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections,” and the business of the church is to propagate the true religion among all peoples of the earth, mistaking gracious affections chokes life out of the church by confusing her identity and mission. Though the extent of the effects on the church is too vast to cover here, I will try to condense them into three areas.

First, mistaking truly gracious affections preaches a false gospel to sinners. It does this first by lessening the demands of God’s law, which is summed up in loving the Lord God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. God’s first and greatest commandment is for us to have a heightened affection towards Him. If we reduce this to external actions without touching the heart, we have only reached a small area of the law. Therefore, a person can refrain from drunkenness, adultery, murder, gluttony and sloth, yet break God’s laws because his affections are indifferent towards God and he operates from a self-centered fear of hell. If a person does not recognize that their sin disease is one of the affections, then they will prescribe the wrong remedy–instead of one that aims at the affections for God, it will result only in empty moral reform. Christ came to die to set sinners free from their bondage to sinful, deadened, rebellious affections towards the Father.

Second, mistaking truly gracious affections deadens the church’s worship. Worship with indifferent affections is like an egg with no yolk in it–it is just lip service to God. In Hosea 6:6, the Lord says, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,” teaching that our affections during worship are the foundation of acceptable worship. Again, Psalm 63 shows that the heart of David’s worship was in contemplating the glory of God. And in Psalm 51, he desires a contrite heart before God before he makes burnt offerings. The holy affections of the saints are a sweet fragrance to God.

And third, mistaking truly gracious affections defiles the purity of the church. The church is described as a “spiritual house” and a “royal priesthood,” that is, the church is essentially a body of members who are in spiritual union with Jesus Christ, those in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells, who are called out of the kingdom of darkness into God’s marvelous light (1 Peter 2:5, 9). God sent Christ to purify consciences from dead works to serve the living God. With what we have seen, what are dead works but those things that we do that boast the appearance of goodness to cover up indifferent affections towards God Himself? Though weeds grow among the wheat as false brothers and sisters enter the fellowship, it does not follow that the church, a beacon of true religion in a dark world, should intentionally defile herself with them, as the Scripture says that it is the enemy who distributes the weeds (Matthew 13:25). As such, church discipline in essence is to place the affections on trial: “Do you love your sin more than the Christ you profess?” Her concern for the holiness of God displayed through her members shines forth as a light to those who remain devoted to sin.

The affections have been neglected as absolutely essential to true religion. In many churches, the criteria for religious virtue are nothing beyond what natural man can perform apart from the gracious influence of God’s Spirit. The truth is that there is something in the Christian that is of a wholly different nature from a non-Christian. The non-Christian by nature is a child of wrath, enslaved to his vice. He gives whole-hearted energy, attention and devotion to worldly pursuits, yet he is cold towards Christ. He then mimics the outward manifestations of true Christianity by praying, singing hymns, tithing, helping the poor, or studying theology, in order to convince others as well as his own conscience that he is justified. In the new birth, God gives to us Christ-ward affections–a taste for Christ’s holy excellence, unblemished sufficiency and glorious beauty. Christ moves beyond a list of facts to be remembered to a Savior to be savored. True religion cannot be segregated into one part of our existence since we receive from God all of our existence. When we dissolve the affections, our Christianity becomes nothing more than empty Sunday-morning tradition, half-hearted worship, and self-seeking service that will blow away like chaff. When a person has holy affections, though drought, scorching heat, and fire devour the stock, still a living root remains, and in God’s time, it will sprout green leaves. Edwards’ Religious Affections points us to what our hearts need, raised affections for the certainty of the divine truths of Scripture centered in the person and work of Christ, motivating us unto self-sacrificing spiritual worship for His name’s sake.

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