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Jonathan Edwards on Discernment and Religious Affections

Jonathan Edwards is another theologian whose name pops up on campus from time to time. In the “dust and smoke” of the evangelical revivals, New England pastor-scholar Jonathan Edwards desired to distinguish between true and false affections (Religious Affections, 84). In a way like Hume, Edwards was keenly aware of the human inclination to cling to excitement and awe (212-213). Unlike the “complete pagan,” however, Edwards not only professed God, but especially here: the Spirit’s involvement in human activity, particularly among the elect. Edwards concern, though, was that the church must be sure activity is truly of the Holy Spirit and not of the devil, who uses false religion to destroy the true church. To make those distinctions, Edwards insisted one must locate evidence beyond that which could be taken as mere imagination.

Nature and Importance of Affections

In Part One of Religious Affections, Edwards cites 1 Peter 1:8 as a starting point for discovering how true religion operates. The suffering church to which Peter wrote exhibited: 1) love of Christ and 2) joy in Him. Equally essential are the manner and nature in which the church faced trials: never having seen Jesus (manner), yet with joy “unspeakable and full of glory” (nature). Edwards uses this to argue “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections” (95).

Edwards defines such affections as “the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination of the will of the soul” (96). The soul has two God-given faculties: perception and inclination,[1] the latter of which can either approve or disapprove of what it perceives. Either it takes pleasure in or opposes what is experienced, in varying degrees and possibly with mixed positive and negative affections. Zeal, for instance, consists of high esteem of someone or something, along with vigorous opposition to whatever is contrary to it (99). Affections differ from passions in that they are more extensive and less sudden (98). Affections are of two kinds: either they cling to or oppose what is in view. Love, desire, hope, and gratitude are examples of the former; hatred, fear, anger, and grief are examples of the latter (98).

Distinguishing Signs: Spiritual vs. Natural Man

In “Part III: Distinguishing the Signs,” Edwards presents a sign by which true religious affections are distinguished from false (indeed, this is the sign he unpacks for some forty pages in this week’s reading):[2] “Affections that are truly spiritual and gracious, do arise from those influences and operations on the heart, which are spiritual, supernatural and divine.” (197) Edwards constructs a rigid dichotomy between the spiritual person and the natural person, largely on the basis of 1 Cor. 2:14-15.

Spiritual people are sanctified and gracious; natural people are unsanctified and carnal (198). Edwards emphasizes, “not all…persons…subject to any kind of influence of the Spirit of God, are ordinarily called spiritual in the New Testament” (199). The Spirit dwells within a true saint and produces its effects therein, especially fellowship with the Father and Son (201).

Natural people, on the other hand, may be subject to the Spirit’s influence, but it is not indwelling influence; rather, it is “common” (201). Such people have no communion or fellowship with Christ (204). God may even give such a one visions by simply impressing a natural principle via normal senses, but there is no new sense or anything supernatural about them.[3]

Spiritual and natural people differ not only in “degree and circumstances,” but in “whole nature,” through the Spirit’s “saving influences” (205). To stress this point, Edwards uses the adjective new thirteen times in a single paragraph (206). The Spirit brings about new inward perceptions that both inclines one to God and away from sin. The spiritual person is a completely new creation.[4]

In The Context of Evangelical Revivals: Imagination, Witness, and Earnest

Imagination, Immediate Suggestion, and Secret Facts

         In his own day, Edwards believed people were confusing the impressions of their imaginations with actual spiritual discovery (211). Someone “saw” Jesus on the cross? Well, so did the ones who crucified him, yet they did not believe. Someone “heard” the voice of God whisper a promise to him or her? Well, the Scriptures speak promises all the time, and they—not the manner of a promises’ coming to us—are where one’s confidence should rest (224). Waking up in the middle of the night with a vision or voice immediately suggesting a secret fact, as it were, neither suggests sanctification nor anything beyond what the devil can do and has already done. (216) God also can impress a vision into one’s mind without producing any saving effects, as in Balaam. For Edwards, such notions of immediate suggestions and secret facts are not only delusional; worse, they debase the true operation of the Spirit (230).

Spirit as Witness: Evidence, Not Declaration

         For Edwards a proper understanding of the “witness of the Spirit” (Rom 8) should help resolve these controversies. Because the Spirit is likewise called a “seal” (II Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13, 4:13), which denotes an object’s possession by a prince or king, the Spirit is thus like a stamp upon the hearts of God’s saints (231-233). Edwards also sees similar usage of witness in Jesus’ miracles, which bore witness to God, “not because they are of the nature of assertions, but evidences and proofs,” as in John 5:36, 10:25, and 1 John 5:8 (232). Revelation 7:3 and Ezekiel 9:4 likewise attest (with marks upon God’s peoples’ foreheads) that witness refers to evidence, not mere announcement (231). For Edwards, these observations can only lead to the conclusion that the Spirit’s primary occupation is not to send messages; rather, the Spirit is evidence that God’s grace has reached a particular individual.


Spirit as Earnest: A Down Payment

         A final “proof” that the Spirit provides evidence (and not immediate suggestion) is Scripture’s calling the Spirit the “earnest” or down payment (II Cor 1:22 and Eph 1:13-14). To be clear, Edwards defines earnest as “part of the money agreed for, given in hand, as a token of the whole, to be paid in due time; a part of the promised inheritance, granted now, in token of full possession of the whole hereafter” (236). Jesus was both “the purchaser and the price” of the full reward to be given in eternity (236).

This down payment is the Spirit’s indwelling the saint, not merely the gifts of tongues, knowledge, or prophesy. “What is the earnest and beginning of glory, but grace itself?” (236) Edwards likewise calls it “charity that never faileth…spiritual life” (236). The spiritual life is the beginning or earnest of the eternal life in the soul, the “first fruits” of the Spirit (Rom 8:22), and the “vital, gracious, sanctifying communication and influence of the Spirit,” rather than any immediate suggestion or revelation (237). The Spirit’s dwelling within the saints is the “sum total of the inheritance that Christ purchased for the elect” (236).

This indwelling work of the Spirit disposes a person to behave towards God as to a Father, giving him or her the spirit of a child, the spirit of love (237). The Holy Spirit inclines people towards loving God; it casts out fear (the spirit of slavery) and in so doing, gives “clear evidence” of the soul’s relation to God and directly satisfies it (238).


Was Edwards Right?

Edwards’ thought is laid out in an orderly, articulate fashion, but does it stand? Are believers even as conscious of the Spirit’s witness as Edwards makes them out to be? “The saint sees and feels plainly the union between his soul and God…so strong and lively, that he can’t doubt of it.” (239) Do the affections stabilize in a regenerate person as much as Edwards implies? When Edwards states Christ “purchased for the elect,” the Calvinistic sense of limited atonement is in mind, but did not Jesus die for the sins of the whole world? Edwards thus seems to demand a foundation of Calvinism that runs contrary to many in the Christian faith: the same theological issues over which Whitfield and Wesley parted ways.

His Calvinism not withstanding, Edwards’ efforts remain beneficial in light of his eighteenth century, Puritan New England context. What rational post-enlightenment thinker would have stood by quietly as the commotion took place in the evangelical revivals? Within the Pietist movement (or “evangelical revivals,” of North America), there was a strong emphasis on experience of faith, which indeed was needed after centuries of aggressive dogmatism, yet the Pietist movement itself was reaching a point at which it also had to be contained or at least–checked. Some of the alleged spiritual activity, though, surely was real. Therefore, a cautious but open posture may well suit times when the church exercises spiritual gifts: watch, listen, and weigh what takes place (1 Cor 14:29).


[1] Inclination may also be called the will, mind, or heart. (96)

[2] This section he prefaces with cautions about his coming guidelines, saying they are just that: guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules (which God alone judges). Second, defective Christians will not be easily read. Third, neither will the “hypocrites” who have allegedly heard secret things from God. (193-197) The second point is a bit confounding for reasons later addressed.

[3] To this point, Edwards gives the example of Balaam upwards of six times throughout the chapter.

[4] Two clarifications are necessary, says Edwards: 1) supernatural people retain some common affections. 2) Natural people may feel new religious sensations without experiencing true grace.