Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections is one of the most foundational books on the life of a believer ever written. But reading Edwards can be a bit…challenging, shall we say?Henceforth – in Signs of the Spirit, Sam Storms takes on the massive task of recasting and commenting the treasure trove that is sometimes buried within his writing style.
Edwards wrote Religious Affections as a response to the controversy surrounding the Great Awakening, particularly answering the questions “What is the nature of true religion/conversion?” and “How can we tell between authentic and spurious holiness?”
What is the evidence of a genuine saving encounter with the Spirit of God?
Storms sets a foundation from Edwards and then he goes on to explain and apply Edwards’ 12 signs of genuine religious affections.
First, per 1 Peter 1:8, we see that love for Jesus and joy in Jesus are the essence of true spirituality. This love and joy should endure through trials and pain, knowing that God is working within us, like a sculptor who “chips away in us anything from our lives that doesn’t look like Jesus.” This then is no ordinary, temporary emotion, but more of an “inclination of the will,” or as Edwards puts it an “affection” of the heart.
Inclinations and affections should therefore not be half-hearted or lukewarm, but intense and vibrant – ultimately giving way to outward actions that are pleasing to God. As anyone knows, affections cannot (most of the time) be self-generated, we are thus dependent on God to bring them, and that’s where prayer comes in. Storms powerfully writes/summarizes “We are not to pray as if our petitions inform God of what he doesn’t know or change his mind or prevail on him to bestow mercy that he was otherwise disinclined to give. Rather we pray “to affect our own hearts with the things we express, and so to prepare us to receive the blessings we ask.” In fact, virtually all external expressions of worship “can be of no further use, than as they have some tendency to affect our own hearts, or the hearts of others.”
Likewise, our singing should be vibrant and stir our affections. Our preaching should aim to affect hearts, not just inform minds. Our enemy, Satan, is quite happy to see Christians fall into a zone of lifeless religious ceremony, stoicism, and routine. “There is no true religion where there is no religious affection, because if the great things of religion are understood, they will affect the heart.” Chief among these great things is the gospel of Jesus Christ! There should be our greatest joy, delight and affection.
The controversy therein is which are genuine, biblical affections and which are not. Sometimes people can appeal to affections which in actuality prove nothing of genuine spirituality. In Edwards day, as in today, there is a school of thought that would put all the weight on a “spiritual experience” rather than the fruit of genuine faith. We cannot rely on outward expressions, but rather something much more deep. This has everything to do with assurance of faith and Storms/Edwards is right in saying that there is no assurance of salvation in any other way, than by mortifying corruption, and increasing in grace, and obtaining the lively exercises of it.
This then sets the stage for an analysis of the twelve signs of authentic affections that Edwards provides. I’ll try to quickly list and comment on each.
- Authentic religious affections arise from supernatural influences on the heart. God, in response to our hearing of the gospel, through the power of His Holy Spirit, gives us new life – which includes new perspectives, feelings, desires, and appetites.
- An awareness that divine things are not for self-benefit. In short, it’s not about us. It’s about God and we are drawn then for more of God. The hypocrite rejoices in self, the child of God rejoices in God. Our primary joy must be of God Himself, and not in even in any perceived “experience” of God. I unfortunately see this all over the church today, primarily in the false gospels of prosperity and charismatics. We don’t come to God for what he can do for us, period.
- Affections that are founded on a belief of the goodness, sweetness, and beauty of divine things. Do we really believe that God is good, that his word is true and sweet, that prayer is joyful dependance, that the church is our spiritual family? Or do we consider other things more valuable, when they are in actuality pale substitutes.
- Affections that result from the mind being divinely enlightened about spiritual things. When God’s word is read, preached, spoken of – it becomes understood by us through the Holy Spirit. Subsequently, per the last point, spiritual things aren’t merely intellectually appreciated, they are savored in the heart.
- Affections that come with a level of conviction about the seriousness, judgement and reality of the gospel. These again, are not a mere intellectual belief, but a deeper conviction that spiritual things are indeed truth.
- Affections must be accompanied by humility. An awareness of one’s sinfulness and the gift of God in Jesus. Not to mention, deep pain at the signs of sin and the lack of deeper affections for God Himself.
- A change of nature must be visible. True conversion includes a gradual renovation of the thoughts, impulses, and actions.
- A reflection of the character of Jesus in love, humility, forgiveness, mercy…and many other things.
- A tenderness of spirit and a sensitivity toward sin. If we are claiming to be Christians, are we more inclined to determine what is sin and act on it?
- A symmetry and pervasiveness in Godly affections. It is a characteristic of the hypocrite to pick and choose where Christlikeness applies in their lives. This is still alive and well in the church in legalism. We pick and choose our pet issues and are willing to die for them, but then subsequently express an inconsistency and imbalance in applying sanctification in other areas of our lives.
- True religious affections want more. False affections are satisfied in spiritual complacency. We are called to grow (Eph 4:15) and to give ourselves to seeking God and applying his likeness in “ever increasing measures” so that we will not be ineffective or unfruitful. (2 Peter 1:3-8)
- Straight up – we bear the fruit of holiness in our actual lives. This is the most important of the signs. True Christians are never content with the presence of sin in their lives. True Christians will sin, but never completely forsake righteousness. Always fight, by the grace of the gospel, to be more consistent with their spiritual new life in Christ. As Edwards wrote “holy affections have a governing power in the course of a man’s life.” Then we have come full circle, because holiness fuels Godly affections.
Storms includes an additional part of the book about the personal spirituality of Edwards. If you haven’t read a biography on a saint like Edwards that has gone before, please do so. (PS: Here is a good one on Edwards if you’d like.) They are tremendous soul building exercises. Storms includes a mini-biography in the final part of the book that explains in transparency how much Edwards believed and lived by his faith. We see a mini-tour of his confessions, struggles, and aspirations and it should encourage and give hope for us.
We have much to learn from the saints that have gone before us, your soul will benefit from getting to know Jonathan Edwards. Thank you, Sam Storms for making these deep truths even more accessible.