The Religious Affections

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Many years ago, in a wild and woolly period known as the First Great Awakening, colonial pastor Jonathan Edwards took on the tricky task of sorting out what place the “religious affections,” as he called them, have in the Christian life. Here’s what he said as a foundational tenet:

There are false affections, and there are true. A man’s having much affection, don’t prove that he has any true religion: but if he has no affection, it proves that he has no true religion. (Works of Jonathan Edwards 2:121)

Edwards wrote these words to help people process the revivals of the 1730s–40s, a series of spiritual awakenings when many people claimed their hearts had been profoundly stirred by God. Edwards’ beloved wife, Sarah, had herself fallen into a sort of rapture, feeling herself remarkably close to the Lord. Some “Old Lights” cried down these emotive expressions of faith, charging that they were nothing more than attention-seeking excesses. True spirituality was not expressive and swept up but modest and buttoned-down. This discussion on “spiritual ecstasies” became a referendum on the revival itself.

In Religious Affections, Edwards lists twelve negative, or inconclusive, signs of conversion—including strong emotions, bodily reactions, and an outbreak of religious conversation—and twelve positive signs that show the Spirit has truly regenerated the heart unto faith in Christ. In his fourth positive sign, Edwards zeroes in on the way that affections “arise from the mind’s being enlightened, rightly and spiritually to understand or apprehend divine things” (2:266). In other words, thinking about salvation and the God who commissioned and initiated it fans the spiritual fire inside us to a flame. A grand vision of God, Edwards intimates, leads to a grand way of living:

He that truly sees the divine, transcendent, supreme glory of those things which are divine, does as it were know their divinity intuitively; he not only argues that they are divine, but he sees that they are divine; he sees that in them wherein divinity chiefly consists; for in this glory … does mainly consist the true notion of divinity: God is God, and distinguished from all other beings, and exalted above ‘em, chiefly by his divine beauty, which is infinitely diverse from all other beauty. They therefore that see the stamp of this glory in divine things, they see divinity in them, they see God in them, and so see ‘em to be divine. (2:298)

When you seek to understand the character and glory of God revealed in the Bible, you realize, as Edwards noted, that you are not merely encountering interesting religious ideas or dramatic stories, but “things which are divine.” You are looking into the mind and will of God Himself. You are seeing His “divine beauty,” beauty that captures you, enraptures you, and transforms you to become beautiful yourself.

Such a vision of a majestic, saving God results in the final sign: “Christian practice or a holy life.” For the pastor-theologian, this is “the chief of all the signs of grace, both as an evidence of the sincerity of professors unto others, and also to their own consciences” (2:406). Three outcomes mark a person as holy. First, “Tis necessary that men should be universally obedient.” Second, they pursue service to God: “Christians in their effectual calling, are not called to idleness, but to labor in God’s vineyard, and spend their day in doing a great and laborious service.” Third, they persevere “in obedience, which is chiefly insisted on in the Scripture, as a special note of the truth of grace” (2:384-89). Here, then, is an elegant summary of what Christian spirituality really is: obedience, constant service, and perseverance in the faith.

The progression sketched in this little piece on a monumental spiritual work is important. When we encounter a great and holy God in all His beauty, we are stirred to live holy lives. So many of us want to live vibrantly before God, to experience the “fullness of joy” spoken of in Psalm 16:11. So, we make some resolutions, grit our teeth, and resolve to pray more and sin less.

What we might miss, however, is the vital connection between a grand vision of God and a holy way of life. If our hearts would be aflame for God, there must be more than leaves and twigs to heat them. We need a majestic picture of the Lord from texts like Job 38–41; Isaiah 45–46; and Ezekiel 1. When we see God in all His majesty and glory, we find the material we need to sustain holy living.

I say “sustain” because we live in a fallen world and, though redeemed, we ourselves are sinful (Rom. 3:10–18). The heart sold out to God will experience many things—passionate closeness with God, terrible disappointments, days marked by a feeling of spiritual neutrality. Through it all is our call to persevere, as the “hall of faith” of Hebrews 11 indicates.

That, it would seem from Scripture and Edwards, one of our most trusted theologians, is the ultimate display of God-given religious affection: to journey on to heaven with a great God looming before us, the storms of sin and darkness howling around us, and never stop.

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