Home > Challies 2018 Reading, Christian Authors, Christian living, sanctification > Edwards’ ‘Religious Affections’, and Our Love To God

Edwards’ ‘Religious Affections’, and Our Love To God

August 27, 2018

Christian Audio’s free download this month (for a few more days) is an audio recording of a classic work I had planned to read this year, so the audio book special was providential, good timing; I’m reading this one in audio format:  Jonathan Edwards’ “Religious Affections.”  It’s a more serious and careful read for audio format, sometimes requiring to rewind and re-listen to the last few sentences, but overall it reads well.  As noted elsewhere, Edwards wrote this after the time of great revival in New England, the Great Awakening.

Religious Affections first presents 12 signs that do not prove (or disprove) that affections are gracious, followed by 12 signs of truly gracious and holy affections, as summarized in this article.  Edwards’ writing at times can come across as hard and difficult, to a self-examination that wonders ‘am I then truly spiritual/saved?’, since the unbeliever’s versus believer’s affections are described in the full form without consideration of the partial, imperfect experience of the believer with still remaining sin; as noted in the above-linked review:  some of Edwards’ words may seem blunt and appear not to take into account that even the best Christians are very far from perfect.  We need to keep the full picture in mind, and as Edwards continues – especially in the second list of 12 signs, items 3, 4 and 5 (which I have just read) — additional descriptions of the true believer’s experience come through clearly.  As Arden Hodgins explained it in a 1689 Baptist Confession series, we don’t look within for sin or perfection in our heart, but we look for grace, realizing that yes, I now have a love for God and God’s word, that I once did not have.

I’m still reading it, but so far I do find one point of disagreement and a topic to further consider.  Edwards described gratitude as something that is not a Christian virtue but something that is present in natural (unregenerate) man.  He argues this conclusion at least partly from his own idea (presented as fact) that Nebuchadnezzar (after Daniel 4) was not a saved man but was only expressing thankfulness for deliverance from his physical circumstances.  Yet this assertion itself is not a proven fact, and many believers, past and present, have viewed the account as showing that Nebuchadnezzar did come to saving faith.  Consider the words of Nebuchadnezzar’s confession in the account in Daniel 4, as well as Daniel’s own attitude toward Nebuchadnezzar – and as contrasted with Daniel’s later words in Daniel 5 to Nebuchadnezzar’s successor Belshazzar; the point is especially made in Daniel 5:22-23, “And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, 23 but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven.”  Thus, Edwards reasoned that an unregenerate man is actually capable of the type of understanding, praise, and humbling, that Nebuchadnezzar expressed, and yet still ‘miss the mark’ and not really be a spiritual person.

The section on gratitude comes across (at least in this first reading) as somewhat unclear.  On the one hand, unbelievers can have a natural type of gratitude to God.  Edwards grants that some unbelievers are without thankfulness and gratitude — and some people’s own experience of their before/after conversion makes it clear that in their pre-Christian life they really did not feel true gratitude to others or to God, that such feelings were really due to self-love — yet he maintains that “just because” some unsaved people were that unthankful, yet that does not mean that others in their natural state could not attain to true gratitude and thankfulness.  He also references Jesus’ words in Luke 6:32-34 — If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? —which is indeed scriptural truth regarding the feelings that unbelievers can have toward others.   However, as Edwards soon goes on to say, these unbelievers are actually thinking about God according to their own ideas, and worshiping and believing in a god of their own making, and not the true God.

Thus, the conclusion of these conflicting ideas is that unbelievers’ “gratitude” is actually directed not to the true God, but either in reference to their own self-interest or to some other notion, some other concept of god.  As is often mentioned in Christian teaching, a false concept of God, one that is not in keeping with the scripture-revealed true God, is a form of idolatry.

Edwards does writes in detail about self-love as contrasted with true love for God, and another interesting section explains the difference between natural and moral perfections.  Yet in presenting the highest perfection of the Christian, Edwards emphasizes that Christians should only have love for God in its highest motive:  without regard to self, or to any reward, but to love God for who He is in Himself, apart from our own interest in Him.  Yet we all know our own hearts, how often we fall short of this; though we do love God for who He is, our motives are often mixed, with lower motives as well as the highest motive present at various times in our Christian walk.  Here too, I am reminded of Arden Hodgins’ observations (from his 1689 Confession study) regarding our motives for sanctification;  each of us individually cannot compare ourselves to any other great saint and then conclude that “I must be lost” in comparison with another believer’s expressed higher level of devotion and love to God.  A specific example that Hodgins mentioned was the reading of David Brainerd’s biography – and here I find that reference interesting, due to the personal connection between Brainerd and Edwards.

It can also be argued that loving God only for who He is in Himself without regard to our own interest, is really not the highest type of love.  Horatius Bonar, writing in the next century in response to this “over-spiritualized” idea, well expressed it in God’s Way of Peace (page 171, shown at this link):

It is not wrong to love God for what He has done for us. Not to do so, would be the very baseness of ingratitude. To love God purely for what He is, is by some spoken of as the highest kind of love, into which enters no element of self. It is not so. For in that case, you are actuated by the pleasure of loving; and this pleasure of loving an infinitely lovable and glorious Being, of necessity introduces self. Besides, to say that we are to love God solely for what He is, and not for what he Has done, is to make ingratitude an essential element of pure love. David’s love showed itself in not forgetting God’s benefits. But this ‘pure love’ soars beyond David’s and finds it a duty to be unthankful, lest perchance some selfish element mingle itself with its superhuman, super-angelic purity.  Let not Satan then ensnare you with such foolish thoughts, the tendency of which is to quench every serious desire, under the pretext of its not being disinterested and perfect.

In spite of these areas of disagreement, Jonathan Edwards’ The Religious Affections is still a great theological work, a classic work on a timeless issue, discerning between true spiritual and carnally minded people.  It is not the easiest writing style, but worth reading (or listening to) at least once.  The MP3 audio book is still available for free for a few more days, the rest of this week.

  1. Gerry
    August 27, 2018 at 9:10 pm

    Hi Lynda:

    Another interesting post.

    It has been so many years since I read Religious Affections, actually only parts of it, because the very difficult approach to self examination in it that you mention, I found that Satan used as just the snare that Bonar mentions in the quote you provided.

    I wish I had had that quote back then!

    I actually got more useful information out of Edwards Works by Banner of Truth.

    In that I studied how and when the awakening came about; how Edwards had his own misleading, but real, religious experience as a youth, wherein he and those around him attributed it to true salvation, but later Edwards in hindsight said “there was nothing of a saving nature in it”; his great struggle with the doctrine of Election, which he at first hated, but came to find a great comfort; his analysis of the decline of the first great awakening as due largely to covetousness and greed in those who had been real participants in it; his reporting of many of the same spurious elements we see in today’s charismatic excesses such as outbursts of laughter, and how these were spread from congregation to congregation by word of mouth; Mrs. Edwards written experience during one of the outpourings; His great and memorable sermon which he entitled “A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imprted by to The Soul by The Spirit of God Shown to Be Both Rational and Scrpitural (don’t you love that title?) etc.

    To me it was just fascinating reading his works in these and many other ways.

    I could not help but wonder as I read your post if Edwards approach to gratitude was not an attempt on his part to account for the deceptive nature of his own early “false” salvation experience. Perhaps he had felt gratitude toward God, or in his mind on later analysis “a god” at that time, but because he later concluded that the “god” he had felt gratitude towards was a god that did not include the doctrine of Election, Edwards was saying the gratitude he felt, though genuine, was toward a false god, and Edwards himself, though very religious and sincere and moral at the time, was never the less, not saved, until later while at seminary where he camebto see the doctrine of Election as central to understanding correctly the God of Scripture.

    I think perhaps that because Edwards saw himself as deceived in this way he was afraid that others might also be deceived and he wished to spare others from this.

    Just thinking out loud there.

    I certainly agree that he can be very hard to read because of his stilted style of writing at times, and of course because of the great outpouring of the Spirit he witnessed it is said that he was post millennial concluding that what he witnessed was part of the church bringing the millennium.

    Still, like you, in spite of his short comings, I found his works most helpful and instructive in many ways and believe he was used by the Lord in unique and wonderful ways.

    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts on your studies of our Great Lord and King.

    It is a pleasure to consider “ the things of God” with you.

    In Him

    • August 29, 2018 at 5:43 am

      Thanks Gerry, interesting points, including about the Edwards Works, and Edwards’ own experience of false-salvation ideas.

      Before this I knew very little of Edwards — earlier this year I read another free audio book, a children’s version biography of his life; and last year a selection of Edwards on the topic of prayer. I’ve also read selections from him regarding millennialism and Israel, and appreciate that he did have a love for the people of Israel and understood that issue, the regathering of the people of Israel in terms of eschatology; and at least his post-millennialism recognized a future golden age unlike ours — as contrasted with amillennialism.


      • Gerry
        August 29, 2018 at 10:22 am

        Hi Lynda:

        I had to laugh when I read your reply because I said to my self: “you mean there is something that I have read that Lynda hasn’t?”😀

        Just kidding you know.

        Actually I found Religious Affections the least useful of Edwards works.

        Having grown up in a dysfunctional family, my ideas about emotions (affections) were distorted and I had hoped Edwards would help sort that out. But while there is a little instruction there in this regard, for the reasons you point out I do not find this work either clear or comprehensive in this regard.

        Now these many years later and having studied the works of the Puritans and others as well as modern “Christian counseling and Biblical counseling” I believe I have a much better handle on the role of emotions in the true Christian life. But of course have yet a lot to learn.

        Frankly, I believe it is impossible to rightly understand the Word of God unless one rightly understands emotions.

        Love, bitterness, fear, anger, envy, hatred, gratitude, thankfulness, joy, peace, etc. all have major emotional components and are central Biblical concepts, such that if one does not know how to recognize and cultivate and deal with them correctly in themselves and others, as addressed extensively in scripture, they are essentially crippled and greatly handicapped.

        Nor, in my opinion, in many cases, do popular old, and modern, works which address emotions rightly or clearly sort out their meaning, characteristics, usefulness and pitfalls, or perhaps more significantly, their source, in order to
        line up correctly with Biblical instruction.

        Your account of Edwards wrestling with gratitude is but one example of this.

        Fascinating subject at the very core of who we are I think.

        In Him

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