Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Religious Affections: The Marks of Genuine Christian Faith

By Ian Hamilton

What is a Christian? This is a question the Bible addresses with a number of related answers. A Christian is a "new creation" (2 Cor.5:17), someone born of the Spirit of God (Jn. 3:3-5), a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31), a lover of the brethren (Jn. 13:35), someone who worships by the Spirit of God, who glories in Jesus Christ and who puts no confidence in the flesh (Phil.3:2). Much more, of course, could be said. In his treatise, The Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards seeks to gather together the teaching of the Bible concerning genuine Christian faith and applies himself to describing, or anatomizing, the characteristics of a genuine Christian.

The great truth that Edwards seeks to establish and explain is, that "True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections" (1.236).

The background to Edwards' treatise was the remarkable revivals, or 'awakenings', that had marked New England in particular in the middle years of the 1730's and the early years of the 1740's. Similar revivals had touched parts of Scotland at the same time, most notably in Kilsyth and Cambuslang. Through his correspondence in particular with James Robe (Kilsyth) and William McCulloch (Cambuslang), Edwards was well aware of the dramatic events that so transformed for a time these two small towns on the outskirts of Glasgow.

In a letter to the James Robe, Edwards reveals his biblically sane approach to the dramatic, often physical experiences that marked the revivals in Scotland and New England: "Many among us have been ready to think, that all high raptures are divine; but experience plainly shows, that it is not the degree of rapture and ecstasy (though it should be to the third heavens), but the nature and kind that must determine us in their favour" [Letter to James Robe, 12 May 1743, Works of Jonathan Edwards Volume 16, Letters and Personal Writings (Yale University Press 1998), 109]. Earlier in this letter, Edwards reports to Robe that "There is a great decay of the work of God amongst us, especially as to the awakening and converting influence of the Spirit of God; and the prejudices there are, in a great part of the country, are riveted and inveterate. The people are divided into two parties, those that favor the work and those that are against it, and the distinction has long been growing more and more visible...This is very much owing to imprudent management in the friends of the work, and a corrupt mixture which Satan has found means to introduce, and our manifold sinful errors, by which we have grieved and quenched the Holy Spirit" (16.108-109).

Religious Affections is therefore, in part, Edwards' attempt both to justify the revivals as genuine works of God, but also to subject the revivals to a reasonable and reasoned, biblical critique. Edwards knew well that all that glitters is not necessarily gold.

The Religious Affections was written against a background of controversy initiated in the main by a Boston minister, Charles Chauncy (1705-1787). Chauncy, who later taught universal salvation, was especially aggrieved by and opposed to the often extreme physical effects produced in people awakened to their need of salvation through the preaching of men like Edwards and George Whitefield. He believed Christianity was calm, reasonable, careful and "unenthusiastic". He acknowledged, at least initially, that awakened sinners might experience a measure of spiritual distress. However, what he saw and heard in the 1742 Great Awakening deeply alarmed him: "'Tis scarce imaginable", he wrote, "what excesses and extravagances people were running into, and even encouraged in...(I)n the evening...there is a screaming and shrieking to the greatest degree; and the persons thus affected are generally children, young people, and women'" (quoted in George M Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, A Life (Yale University Press, 2003), 269-270.

Edwards does not dismiss out of hand Chauncy's criticisms of the revivals. He knew there had been experiential excesses. He understood from God's word that religious experiences could be dramatic, ecstatic and spiritual, and yet be false. In every genuine work of God, Satan is active, seeking to discredit, mock and oppose.

In his letter to Robe, Edwards acknowledges "It would have been better for us, if all ministers here had taken care diligently to distinguish such joys and raised affections, as were attended with deep humiliation, brokenness of heart, poverty of spirit, mourning for sin, solemnity of spirit, a trembling reverence towards God, tenderness of spirit, self-jealousy and fear, and great engagedness of heart, after holiness of life, and a readiness to esteem others better than themselves..." (16.109).

Chauncey and the opponents of the revivals may well have been wrong in their fundamental assessment of the "rapture and ecstasy" manifested in them, but Edwards recognized that "raised affections", unaccompanied by reverence, humility and holiness of life, were no true "gracious affections". It doesn't help the cause of the gospel when its friends were noted more for "noisy show" than "walking softly" (16.109).

In the light of the controversy, in Religious Affections, Edwards attempts to anatomize the marks of spurious religious experiences and to highlight the marks of genuine religious experiences. His aim was both theological and pastoral. The church needed to understand the nature of true, God honoring religion, and believers needed to be biblically and experientially grounded in their assurance before God. The priority of the moment was to highlight "the nature and kind" (16.109) of truly authentic, as opposed to spurious, religious experience. The public honor of God depended on it. The nature of true religion required it.

In his introduction, Edwards acknowledges that his treatise will not please everyone, but faithfulness to the cause of truth compels him to expose what has been "bad" in the recent revivals and to highlight what has been "good" (Banner ed. 1.234): "It is a difficult thing to be a hearty zealous friend of what has been good and glorious, in the late extraordinary appearances, and to rejoice much in it; and at the same time to see the evil and pernicious tendency of what has been bad, and earnestly to oppose that. But yet, I am humbly but fully persuaded, we shall never be in the way of truth, nor go on in a way acceptable to God, and tending to the advancement of Christ's kingdom, till we do so" (1.234). Far from being an uncritical apologist for the "late extraordinary appearances", Edwards seeks to apply the "clear and abundant light in the word of God to direct us in this matter" (1.234).

Yet, Edwards is sure that the "bad" in the revivals is the result, not of the revivals themselves: "It is by the mixture of counterfeit religion with true, not discerned and distinguished, that the devil has had his greatest advantage against the cause and kingdom of Christ, all along hitherto. It is by this means, principally, that he has prevailed against all revivings of religion, that ever have been since the first founding of the Christian church" (1.235). Edwards understood the fundamental supernatural character of biblical religion and the unceasing attempts of Satan to oppose and discredit true Christianity. This Chauncy never seemed to understand.

The opening words of the Religious Affections make abundantly plain the momentous nature of the work that Edwards is intent on exploring:

"THERE is no question whatsoever, that is of greater importance to mankind, and what is more concerns every individual person to be well resolved in, than this: What are the distinguishing qualifications of those that are in favour with God, and entitled to his eternal rewards? Or, which comes to the same thing, What is the nature of true religion? And wherein lie the distinguishing notes of that virtue which is acceptable in the sight of God?"  (1.234).

Throughout his treatise, Edwards makes it clear that he is not setting doctrine against experience. He knows that any spiritual experience, however heightened and ecstatic, that is not rooted in the truth of God's word, is false and in no sense the gracious result of the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

What Are Religious Affections?

In appreciating Edwards' exposition we need to understand that by "affections" he does not mean emotions. For Edwards, religious affections are what motivate and determine our actions and the whole course of our life. He distinguishes affections from passions thus: "The affections and passions are frequently spoken of as the same; and yet in the more common use of speech, there is in some respect a difference. Affection is a word, that, in its ordinary signification, seems to be something more extensive than passion, being used for all vigorous lively actings of the will or inclination; but passion for those that are more sudden, and whose effects on the animal spirits are more violent, and the mind being more overpowered, and less in its own command" (1.237). Edwards wants us to understand that true religious affections are more than sudden, overpowering, uncontrollable emotions. Affections are never uncontrolled and always lead to a lifestyle shaped by the chosen desires of the will. The nature of the affection will mean that the lifestyle will be directed and shaped by one of two inclinations: "The exercises... (of the affections) are of two sorts; either, those by which the soul is carried out towards the things in view in approving them; or, those in which the soul opposes the things in view, in disapproving them; and in being displeased with, and averse from, and rejecting them" (1.237).

Religious affections are not unemotional, but neither are they to be equated with emotion as such. To use a word that John Owen uses, Edwards understands true religious affections as having a "relish" in God and the gospel and a distaste for everything and everyone that opposes God and the gospel. A genuine religious affection sees and 'tastes' (Ps.34:8) something of the beauty, excellency and wisdom of Jesus Christ and his gospel and seeks to pattern all of life according to the word and will of God revealed in Holy Scripture.

Edwards main concern, once he has explained what he means by spiritual affections, is to highlight what are not genuine signs, and then what are genuine signs, of godly religious affections. To this end his design is to "contribute my mite" (1.235).

Edwards first highlights twelve marks or features of spiritual experience which, in and of themselves, are no sure indication of the powerful, regenerating, heart and mind transforming ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Showing What are no Certain Signs That Religious Affections are Truly Gracious or That They are Not (2.245)

1.     "It is no sign one way or other, that religious affections are very great, or raised very high" (1.245)
2.     "It is no sign that affections have the nature of true religion, or that they have not, that they have great effects on the body" (1.246)
3.     "It is no sign that affections are truly gracious, or that they are not, that they cause those who have them, to be fluent, fervent, and abundant in talking of religious things" (1.247)
4.     "It is no sign that affections are gracious, or that they are otherwise, that persons did not excite them by their own endeavours" (1.248)
5.     "It is no sign that religious affections are truly holy and spiritual, or that they are not, that they come to the mind in a remarkable manner with texts of Scripture" (1.249)
6.     "It is no evidence that religious affections are saving, or that they are otherwise, that there is an appearance of love in them" (1.250)
7.     "Persons having religious affections of many kinds, accompanying one another, is not sufficient to determine whether they have any gracious affections or no" (1.250)
8.     "Nothing can certainly be determined concerning the nature of the affections, that comforts and joys seem to follow in a certain order" (1.252)
9.     "It is no certain sign that affections have in them the nature of true religion, or that they have not, that they dispose persons to spend much time in religion, and to be zealously engaged in the external duties of worship" (1.255)
10.  Nothing can be certainly known of the nature of religious affections, that they much dispose persons with their mouths to praise and glorify God" (1.255)
11.  "It is no sign that affections are right, or that they are wrong, that they make persons exceeding confident" (1.256).
12.  "Nothing can be certainly concluded concerning the nature of religious affections, that the relations persons give of them, are very affecting" (1.260).

Edwards is not saying that people who exhibit these marks are not true believers. He is saying that these marks 'by themselves' ('being alone') are no true indication of the indwelling presence of God the Holy Spirit.

These twelve affirmations are developed in seventeen, double column pages in the Banner of Truth edition. That Edwards' main concern, however, was to focus on the "affections that are spiritual and gracious" (1.262), is seen in the space he gives to anatomizing those truly gracious and authentic gospel affections. In the space of seventy-four pages, in which he highlights twelve (fourteen sections in the Banner of Truth edition, but sections 12-14 all focus on the one theme of "Christian practice") features of godly, Holy Spirit inspired affections, Edwards highlights the essential character of truly Christian affections. He is seeking to establish, as he reflects on the recent revivals, the birthmarks of authentic revival Christianity. Edwards does not mean that these affections will only be found in times of revival. Revivals are but heightened, often remarkably heightened Spiritual occasions that are the native Spirit-wrought birthright and experience of all believers.

The Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections (1.262)

We can best appreciate Edwards' distinguishing signs of truly authentic religious affections by first highlighting his twelfth and final sign. Everything before leads up to this final decisive sign. The space Edwards devotes to his exposition of 'spiritual fruit bearing' underscores how significant he believed this sign to be. Of the seventy-four pages devoted to "gracious and holy affections", twenty-four pages expound the exercise and fruit of gracious and holy affections "in Christian practice". For Edwards this meant three things for a true Christian:

"1. That his behaviour or practice in the world be universally conformed to, and directed by Christian rules. 2. That he makes a business of such a holy practice above all things; that it be a business which he is chiefly engaged in, and devoted to, and pursues with highest earnestness and diligence: so that he may be said to make this practice of religion eminently his work and business. And 3. That he persists in it to the end of life: so that it may be said, not only to be his business at certain seasons, the business of Sabbath days, or certain extraordinary times, or the business of a month, or a year, or of seven years, or his business under certain circumstances; but the business of his life; it being that business which he perseveres in through all changes, and under all trials, as long as he lives" (1.314).

The business or practice of bearing fruit in the day to day walk of the Christian is for Edwards the culminating sign of the presence of gracious and holy affections. Where this is absent, no gracious and holy affection can be present. "Universal obedience" (1.314) to the word and will of God is the fruit produced in any and every life in which gracious and godly affections are present.

It is hard not to think that Edwards has the strictures of Chauncy and other opponents of the revivals in mind. Not only is Edwards concerned to distance himself, and the revivals, from certain physical and emotional excesses, he is also concerned to make it abundantly clear that "universal obedience" to "Christian rules" (1.314) belongs to the essence of affectional Christianity.We are now able better to appreciate the twelve (fourteen) signs that Edwards maintains are to be found in "affections that are truly spiritual and gracious."

1.    "Affections that are truly spiritual and gracious, arise from those influences and operations on the heart, which are spiritual, supernatural, and divine" (1.264)
2.    "The first objective ground of gracious affections, is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things, as they are in themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest" (1.274).
3.    "Those affections that are truly holy, are primarily founded on the moral excellency of divine things. Or, a love to divine things for the beauty and sweetness of their moral excellency, is the spring of all holy affections" (1.278)
4.    "Gracious affections arise from the mind being enlightened rightly and spiritually to apprehend divine things"(1.281)
5.    "Truly gracious affections are attended with a conviction of the reality and certainty of divine things" (1.288)
6.    "Gracious affections are attended with evangelical humiliation" (1.294)
7.    "Another thing, wherein gracious affections are distinguished from others, is, that they are attended with a change of nature" (1.302)
8.    "Truly gracious affections differ from those that are false and delusive, in that they naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness, and mercy, as appeared in Christ" (1.303)
9.    "Gracious affections soften the heart and are attended with a christian tenderness of spirit" (1.307)
10.  "Another thing wherein those affections that are truly gracious and holy, differ from those that are false, is beautiful symmetry and proportion" (1.309)
11.  "Another great and very distinguishing difference is, that the higher gracious affections are raised, the more is a spiritual appetite and longing of soul after spiritual attainments increased: on the contrary, false affections rest satisfied in themselves" (1.312)
12.  "Gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in christian practice" (1.314)
13.  "Christian practice, or holy life, is a manifestation and sign of the sincerity of a professing Christian, to the eye of his neighbours and brethren" (1.321)
14.  "Christian practice is a distinguishing and sure evidence of grace to persons' own consciences" (1.324)

For Edwards, "Practice is the best evidence of a saving belief of the truth" and "the most proper evidence of a true coming to Christ, and accepting of and closing with him" (1.331). Thus he concludes, "I have endeavoured to represent the evidence there is, that christian practice is the chief of all the signs of saving grace" (1.333)

Edwards concludes his treatise with an appeal:

"We should then get into the way of appearing lively in religion, more by being lively in the service of God and our generation, than by the forwardness of our tongues, and making a business of proclaiming on the house-tops the holy and eminent acts and exercises of our own hearts. Then Christians who are intimate friends, would talk together of their experiences and comforts, in a manner better becoming christian humility and modesty, and more to each other's profit; their tongues not running before their hands and feet...Thus the light of professors would so shine before men, that others seeing their good works, would glorify their Father which is in heaven" (1.336).

It is fitting that Edwards' concluding words on religious affections should quote the Lord Jesus Christ's concluding words to his Beatitudes (Matt.5:16). Jesus speaks here of the powerful impact of a grace transformed, gospel obedient life on a fallen, spiritually dark world. It has been said that evangelism is "Christians being Christians in the world" (J.I. Packer). This in no sense denies the importance of concentrated, church-initiated evangelistic endeavors. It does however challenge us to ask ourselves the question, "Does my life evidence me to be a true Christian, a possessor of godly and gracious affections?"

There is much discussion and debate in the church today about how best to commend the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is no doubt the church needs to engage relevantly and thoughtfully with world. We need to start where the world is and not where we would like it to be. But surely the church's greatest need is to live grace transformed and gospel obedient lives that compels the world's attention, no doubt much to its own surprise and disgust.

Edwards' Religious Affections searches our hearts. He paints a biblical picture of genuine Christian Faith and life, and invites us to examine our lives in that light.