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

August 27, 2018 3 comments

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.

Spiritual Discernment: S. Lewis Johnson, the Sheep Do Not Listen to Strangers

January 9, 2013 9 comments

From S. Lewis Johnson’s Gospel of John series comes this timely observation.  It was true thirty years ago same as now: some professing Christians are easily led astray, going after first one teacher then another. This message from John 10:1-6 puts things into perspective, especially with all the interest in “discernment ministries” and the tendency of some to focus excessively on warning other Christians about false teachers.

Now, we read here, a stranger will they not follow.  So when Paul Tillich calls out we don’t respond.  When Moltmann calls out we don’t respond.  When Bultmann calls out we don’t respond.  When William Barclay calls out we don’t respond.  When Wolfhart Pannenberg calls out we don’t respond.  When Gerhart von Rott, we don’t respond.  When Eichrot, Jako, Kumal, all the great scholars of the present day who are not members of the body so far as we can tell, when they call out as shepherds of the sheep, the true sheep do not respond.  They do not follow the voice of a stranger.

Now that is a problem for me, because there are some people who do not seem to be able to distinguish the voice of our Lord from the voice of strangers.  Isn’t it a remarkable thing?  You probably know some Christians, professing Christians like that.  They hear something and they immediately run after it as if it were something great until they discover that’s not quite as great as it was, and they come back.  And then a new voice is heard and they rush after them.  That makes me wonder, because the true sheep do not follow the voice of a stranger.  They don’t run after Mary Baker Glover Patterson Eddy.  They don’t run after Ellen G. White.  They don’t run after Rutherford.  They don’t run after the false voices, they follow our Lord Jesus Christ.  They hear his voice.  They know him.  They follow him.  That should be a word of admonition to us.

Many of the names mentioned above are unfamiliar today, the scholars of liberal (unbelieving) Christianity.  But we can certainly add the current set of questionable teachers — such as Beth Moore, the Jesus Culture, and the latest from John Piper — to the same understanding: the true sheep do not follow the voice of a stranger, and will not be led into such deception.  Yes, sometimes true Christians are those who come out of cults and out of false teaching (who were not believers when they got into those cults).  Sometimes also young, immature Christians (the carnal babes, those recently saved — not the willful carnal) for a time will lose focus and not seek the best teaching.  But as S. Lewis Johnson so well observed here, true Christians will not continue to manifest such behavior; they will not rush after one voice, then to another voice, and so on.  We can trust in God’s sovereignty, that He knows those who are His, and rely on His promise, that His sheep will be able to distinguish our Lord’s voice from the voice of these false teachers.

God’s People Are Not Offended By God’s Word

May 20, 2010 Leave a comment

How well J.C. Ryle expresses my own understanding:

two points appear to my own mind to stand out as plainly as if written by a sunbeam. One of these points is the second personal advent of our Lord Jesus Christ before the Millennium. The other of these points is the future literal gathering of the Jewish nation, and their restoration to their own land. I tell no man that these two truths are essential to salvation, and that he cannot be saved except he sees them with them with my eyes. But I tell any man that these truths appear to me distinctly set down in Holy Scripture, and that the denial of them is as astonishing and incomprehensible to my own mind as the denial of the divinity of Christ.

One thing I frequently struggle with is the true spiritual condition of those who profess Christ, yet show a general lack of fruit in their lives, including in their attitude towards some (supposedly) non-essential doctrines, especially in regard to matters regarding the past (creation) and the future (God’s future plans):  the very things for which we must trust our God the most, since a) we weren’t there in the past, and b) we cannot know the things of the future.  I realize that this is not something for us to know (the true hearts of others), that such things are in God’s hand, and so continually I bring the matter in prayer before God even as I pray for God to give them the heart-change that only He can do.

It comes back to something Jim McClarty has expressed, very simply:  God’s people are not offended by God’s word.  God’s people love God’s word.  Our understanding of spiritual matters comes from the Holy Spirit present in all believers, and we can only understand spiritual matters when we have the mind of Christ.  (1 Corinthians 2:11-14).  Barry Horner has also expressed the basic thought that all true believers have within them a natural love for God’s people, Israel, within the bounds expressed in Romans 11, that “As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs.”

So when I come across someone who professes faith in Christ, yet is very offended by some of the things clearly taught in scripture, I am troubled and wonder about their true spiritual condition.  It is one thing to be challenged by God’s word, and then to search the matter out and attain a better understanding  — something we all face in our walk with Christ.  After all, we are all finite creatures, limited in our understanding and so we continually learn as we grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  But what about the case of one who consistently shows only hatred of particular doctrines, who refuses to even consider the possibility, and refuses to look at what God’s word has to say about the matter?  I have observed such behavior in regards to the Bible teaching regarding creation, as well as with respect to God’s people, the Jews.  Add also the case of people who profess Christ but *vehemently* reject God’s sovereignty and insist on man’s free will.

Looked at another way, we are all being sanctified, being made ready for Christ in this life.  As a popular song lyric (from Wayne Watson) says, “One day Jesus will call my name.  As days go by, I hope I don’t stay the same. I want to get so close to Him, that it’s no big change on that day that Jesus calls my name.”  People who in this life hate God, will not be happy in heaven — such a place would be miserable for them.  To take the analogy further, if someone in this life says they love God, but hates Jews and detests the idea that God will in the future restore them to a place of prominence among the nations:  how are they going to react after this life?  Will they really be happy in heaven, in the presence of God, when they learn that truth which in this life they hated?  Again, as J.C. Ryle expressed, “the denial of them (the two truths) is as astonishing and incomprehensible to my own mind as the denial of the divinity of Christ.”

Certainly all believers desire the salvation of the lost generally, and all believers have at least some concern for Israel and at least recognize their place in history.  Even in my early days as a Christian, though I knew nothing about eschatology (in any form) or any  doctrines beyond the basic gospel message of salvation for sin through Christ’s blood shed on the cross, I never hated or despised any person, or any people group including the Jews, and appreciateded the basic historical facts concerning the role of Israel in history.  From my basic reading from Christian bookstore material, I found it an interesting, curious fact, that the Jews as a people still existed, unlike all the other nations of the Bible times.  I could not have explained why, or connected it with God’s future purposes, but still noted it.

So how do I respond to the professed Christian who generally shows very little interest in spiritual matters and spends the vast majority of his time in secular business pursuits?  That Christian who views regular church attendance as important (in a legalistic way), looks down on those who don’t attend every Sunday and Wednesday as being carnal and worldly, yet scorns any extra devotions or study as being superficial and unnecessary — “I do my daily Bible reading” and “knowledge puffs up” (therefore we shouldn’t study so much) .  More troubling still is that professed believer’s oft-stated hatred of Jews and anything related to the Jewish people — including his insistence that God is through with Israel, and his utter abhorrence of the idea that God would choose anyone based on physical characteristics (i.e., ethnicity, therefore Israel has no greater importance than any other ethnic group).  Can such a person really be a Christian, who expresses such hatred of Jews and puts them as morally on the same level as Muslims (this after I point out that no Jews have tried to blow us up, doing the terrorist acts of many Muslims in this country)?  He won’t get into discussions concerning the actual Bible texts, but only says “you’re wrong” and dismisses the subject.

My responsibility to that person remains the same — love your neighbor as yourself; and do good to your enemies.  I cannot know such a person’s true spiritual condition, but can only judge it in light of what he says and the extent to which it agrees or disagrees with God’s word — but in the final analysis this is something I really must trust the Lord to deal with.  Meanwhile, as Spurgeon said concerning those who cannot yet see certain doctrines (and in this context he spoke specifically about the Millennial kingdom), pray for them — do not try to argue with them with words, for they must come to understand it for themselves, not by external arguments from other people.  I also consider the truth of 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 (the believer’s rewards), that the hardened and doctrine-unbelieving Christian is losing out for himself, only harming his own future enjoyment and the full capacity to love God that much more.  Another great scripture to remember is that God has called us to live in peace and to get along with each other, as much as possible (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).