Religious Affections: Sorting the wheat from the chaff

Founders Journal · Summer 2003 · pp. 25-30

Religious Affections: Sorting the Wheat From the Chaff

Jeff Robinson

When a newly-converted young lady from Connecticut wrote Jonathan Edwards a letter in 1741 seeking advice on growth in godliness and assurance, the venerable theologian wrote back and offered words that might be unconscionable in popular evangelical circles today.

Essentially, Edwards told her, “Don’t look back.”

In point 10 of his 17-point answer, Edwards advised the young matron regarding “times when you fall into doubts about the state of your soul” as follows:

It is proper to review your past experience; but do not consume too much time and strength in this way; rather apply yourself, with all your might, to an earnest pursuit after renewed experience, new light, and new lively acts of faith and love. One new discovery of the glory of Christ’s face, will do more toward scattering clouds of darkness in one minute, than examining old experience, by the best marks that can be given, through a whole year.[1]

For Edwards, “looking back” did little or nothing to imbue the believer with unshakable assurance of salvation. Edwards held that the believer must, by God’s grace, persevere in bearing fruit and then the evidence of a sanctified life would effectively assure the believer of his or her standing before God. Edwards understood the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians and how he spoke of “forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead:” the Christian pilgrimage is not a fifty-yard dash, but a rigorous marathon, fraught with obstacles and alternative dead-end paths. To stay such a treacherous course, Christians need objective marks of conversion, thus Edwards’ admonition for the young lady to apply herself to “new lively acts of faith and love.”

This was typical of the pastoral insight of Edwards. While Edwards’ pastoral skills have been lampooned due to his preference for long hours in the study over regular visits to his parishioners’ homes, his writings vindicate the great pastor/theologian as a shepherd of first rank. Perhaps a few visits would have enhanced the affection of the people for him and served to solve the eventual impasse that led to his dismissal in 1750. Even with that omission, however, he had much contact with his people and never refused to see any about his soul’s concerns. Few men in the history of Christendom offer insight into the workings of the human heart regarding salvation on par with Edwards. His classic treatment of the distinguishing marks of genuine conversion and religious experience is his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (hereafter referred to as RA). The late John Gerstner, who devoted years of his ministry to the study of Edwards, called RA “a near exhaustive study of the signs of conversion.”[2]

This sustained and careful study is invaluable in sorting the wheat from the chaff amid intense religious experiences. It offers contemporary believers sage pastoral wisdom in discerning the marks of genuine saving faith from Satanic counterfeit marks that would deceive unto destruction. RA painstakingly probes the prideful root of human depravity and helps answer the existential angst of the Gen-Xer who lies awake at night and obsesses over the thought, “What must I do to be certain that I was saved a age seven?”

Edwards originally preached the content of RA as a series of sermons in 1742 and 1743 during the Great Awakening. He sets forth the gravity of the subject in the preface: “There is no question whatsoever that is of greater importance to mankind, and that it more concerns every individual person to be well resolved in, than this: What are the distinguishing qualifications of those that are in favor with God, and entitled to His eternal rewards?” Edwards first unpacks marks that are not necessarily indicative of true conversion. Then, over the final two-thirds of RA, he exposits a dozen positive marks of the genuine believer. Regarding the contemporary Christian, RA exhibits a genius unmatched in exploding common delusions and establishing a biblical foundation for authentic assurance. Edwards admits up front that “true religion, in great part, consists in Holy Affections.”[3] Edwards is not espousing a heart-hardening brand of dead-orthodoxy, but a genuine experiential evangelicalism. The Religious Affections is a sobering antidote to the incipient “feel-good” shallowness which typifies much that passes for authentic spirituality within modern evangelicalism.

Neutral signs: No ironclad evidence of conversion

Edwards briefly but pungently expounds upon twelve signs that “are no certain signs that religious affections are truly gracious, or that they are not.” The devil has often prevailed in spiritual awakenings by producing counterfeits, Edwards contended. This fact, coupled with fallen humanity’s tendency toward self-centeredness and self-deception, drives Edwards to show that an individual may not rely on inward feelings and impressions–no matter how intense–to find proof positive of genuine conversion.

These “neutral signs” include bodily effects, frequent talk about religion, fervor for God, increase in love for God and man, sudden bursts of Scripture texts upon the mind, moving testimonies, increased urges to praise God, and zeal in carrying out Christian duty, among others. We will examine a handful of these before considering the positive marks.

Regarding physical effects upon the body, Edwards’ analysis is particularly salient with regards to the modern-day charismatic movement and its insistence upon swoonings and bodily agitations as a sine qua non for authentic, divinely-imbued experience. Edwards was reacting to the outbreak of faintings, groanings, and similar enthusiasms that accompanied the revivals of the Great Awakening. Bodily agitations might well accompany a true awakening once a sinner apprehends the despicable nature of his sin and the horrors of hell. However, Edwards pointed out that the apprehension of both eternal and transitory subjects might well overwhelm frail human vessels, rendering physical responses an unreliable source of assurance:

Great effects on the body certainly are no sure evidences that affections are spiritual, for we see that such effects oftentimes arise from great affections about temporal things, and when religion is no way concerned in them. And if great affections about secular things, that are purely natural, may have these effects, I know not by what rule we should determine that high affections about religious things, which arise in like manner from nature, cannot have that effect.[4]

Edwards did not regard constant chatter about religious subjects as evidencing genuine effectual faith. Here, one is reminded of the character “Talkative” in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Edwards went so far to say that “a person may be over-full of talk of his own experiences, commonly falling upon it everywhere and in all companies, and when it is so, it is rather a dark sign than a good one.” Authentic Christianity is more clearly seen in deeds than heard in words:

As a tree that is over-full of leaves seldom bears much fruit; and as a cloud, though to appearance very pregnant and full of water; if it brings with it overmuch wind, seldom affords much rain to the dry and thirsty earth; False affections, if they are equally strong, are much forward to declare themselves than true: because it is the nature of false religion to affect show and observation, as it was with the Pharisees.[5]

A current evangelical cliché is, “Brother, God just gave me a word for you,” followed by the quoting of a Scripture verse. In some circles, one who can offer such a ‘word’ is seen as having reached the apex of Christian spirituality. Edwards, however, warned of the possibility of Satanic delusion.

What evidence is there that the devil cannot bring texts of Scripture to mind, and misapply them to deceive persons? He was bold enough to lay hold on Christ Himself…what reason have we to determine that he dare not, or will not be permitted, to put wicked men in mind of texts of Scripture to deceive them?[6]

In his first epistle, the apostle John tells his audience that one’s love for fellow Christians is a mark of a truly regenerate person. Nevertheless, Edwards points out that even this type of Christian love may be a mere fabrication of Satan. It will fail to be the sort of authentic Christian love of which John speaks and instead be only an insidious expression of self-love, Edwards argued. Edwards points to Paul’s letter to the churches at Galatia; the people there were once so full of brotherly affection, they were ready to pluck out their eyeballs and give them to the apostle. Soon afterward, they ran after false teachers. The same may be true for persons who seem to exhibit strong love for God, as evidenced in the New Testament by the Jews who followed Jesus for a time, Edwards wrote. “This was evidently the case in the graceless Jews, such as cried Jesus up so high, following him day and night, without meat, drink, or sleep; such as said, ‘Lord, I will follow thee wherever you go,’ and cried, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.'”[7]

So pernicious and subtle is false religion, it may also cause persons “to be loud and earnest in prayer,” to delight in hearing the preached Word of God, and even to admit their unworthiness of receiving the grace of God, Edwards wrote. “Those that yet remain with unmortified pride and enmity against God, may, when they imagine that they have received extraordinary kindness from God, deplore their unworthiness, and magnify God’s undeserved goodness to them.”[8]

Within the “neutral marks,” Edwards also warned of a “one experience fits all” approach to authenticating conversion. Unlike the cookie-cutter approaches to evangelism that typify modern decisionism, Edwards argued that no two believers could be expected to be saved identically. While Edwards held to a modified version of Puritan preparationism, he saw through the revivals that the Spirit worked variously in individuals. “Experience plainly shows that God’s Spirit is untraceable, in the method of His operations in their conversion. Nor does the Spirit of God proceed discernibly in the steps of a particular established scheme, one half so often as imagined.”[9] Further, he cited a classic work on preparationism, A Guide to Christ, penned by his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in debunking the necessity of a believer’s knowledge of the precise date of his conversion. Edwards cited from Stoddard’s work: “If the man do not know the time of his conversion, or first closing with Christ, the minister may not draw any peremptory conclusion from thence he is not godly.”

Edwards ended the section on the “neutral” signs by warning that, in the last analysis, it is impossible for any human to determine with absolute certainty the nature of another’s heart. Still, very strong vital signs indicate the presence of God-endowed spiritual life.

Positive signs: the nature of the true Christian

Edwards spent much of RA exegeting twelve signs of genuine Christian affections under the heading “Showing What are Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections.” Here, Edwards, seeks to counteract what he sees as Satan’s use of human self-centeredness to produce false affections by establishing biblical checks against such deception. As with the “neutral” signs, we will examine some of the positive signs.

As George Marsden points out in his new biography, most of the signs delineating genuine affections have to do with God being both the source and object of affections.[10] Sign two deals comprehensively with this as Edwards argued that authentic affections cause a person to love God for his intrinsic excellence, beauty, and perfections. Loving God merely for what he can do for a person is ungodly self-love. The genuine Christian loves God because He is the sovereign Creator. This runs counter to contemporary evangelism methodologies that begin–and often end– with God’s love for man. This thinking is backward, according to Edwards.

The exercises of true and holy love in the saints arise in another way. They do not first see that God loves them, and then see that He is lovely, but they first see that God is lovely and that Christ is excellent and glorious, and their hearts are first captivated by this view, and the exercises of their love are wont from time to time to begin here, and to arise primarily from these views; and then, consequentially, they see God’s love, and great favor to them. The saint’s affections begin with God; and self-love has a hand in these affections consequentially and secondarily only. On the contrary, false affections begin with self, and an acknowledgement of an excellency in God, and an affectedness with it, is only consequential and dependent. In the love of the true saint God is the lowest foundation…but the hypocrite lays himself at the bottom of all, as the first foundation, and lays God as the superstructure; and even his acknowledgement of God’s glory itself depends on his regard to his private interest. [11]

Sign three builds upon sign two, arguing that authentic affections are founded upon a love for the moral excellence–or holiness–of God.

With the sixth sign, Edwards deals with the events that take place before salvation. Here, he distinguishes between legal humiliation and evangelical humiliation, arguing that genuine saints exhibit the latter. Evangelical humiliation is “a sense that a Christian has of his own utter insufficiency, despicableness, and odiousness, with an answerable frame of heart.”[12] In legal humiliation, sinners see the law of God and despair of helping themselves. Legal humiliation is not salvific, but is an important step toward evangelical humiliation, he writes. Evangelical humiliation leads to a sinner’s denying and renouncing his own dignity and glory and embracing that of Christ.

Signs seven through ten move toward the culmination of all evidences of grace in sign twelve. Sign seven argues that a truly regenerate person undergoes a change of nature and with sign eight Edwards asserted that genuine religious affections beget in a person “the lamb-like, dove-like spirit and temper of Jesus.” In opposition to the mind of Christ, false professors often exhibit pugnacious and ostentatious behavior, but self-righteously do so in the name of Christ. This arises from sinful pride, because some will use Christ to provoke others and shine the spotlight on themselves. Edwards calls this “false boldness.”

With sign ten, Edwards calls for balance, stating that gracious affections have a “beautiful symmetry and proportion.” Genuine Christians have both joy and comfort alongside godly sorrow and mourning for sin. Genuine affections strike a balance between light and heat. True affections arise only through the mind’s apprehension of the truth of Scripture, he asserts.

Just before reaching the climatic twelfth sign, Edwards, in sign eleven, adds a negative sign: “false affections rest satisfied in themselves.” A genuine Christian will not view salvation as merely being a sort of “fire insurance” that will allow them to escape eternal wrath. A seeker who is being truly drawn by the Spirit will continue to seek the grace of God throughout his lifetime. This will exhibit itself in an unquenchable thirst for the Word of God, Edwards wrote.

The saints desire the sincere milk of the Word, not so much to testify God’s love to them, as that they may grow in holiness.…Hypocrites long for discoveries, more for the present comfort of the discovery, and the high manifestation of God’s love in it, than for any sanctifying influence of it.[13]

Edwards would not have countenanced the cheap grace of modern-day “non-Lordship” evangelism. This is apparent in the twelfth and culminating sign: “Gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice.” The way to gauge the authenticity of one’s conversion is not through subjective feelings and impressions, but by objective fruit, Edwards argued. This sign encompassed all others and served as the most accurate yardstick by which to measure the authenticity of both saving faith and religious experience. A person might be considered an honest, upstanding member of the community, but still stand outside the pale of God’s grace, for the true believer delights in holiness and keeping God’s commandments. For Edwards, authentic Christianity rung most clearly through the tolling bell of the fruit of the Spirit:

A man therefore cannot be said to be universally obedient, and of a Christian conversation, only because he is no thief, nor oppressor, nor fraudulent person, nor drunkard, nor tavern-hunter, nor whore-master, nor rioter, nor night-walker, nor unclean, nor profane in his language, nor slanderer, nor liar, nor furious, nor malicious, nor reviler. He is falsely said to be of a conversation that becomes the gospel, who goes thus and no farther. But, in order to this, it is necessary that he should also be of a serious, religious, devout, humble, meek, forgiving, peaceful, respectful, condescending, benevolent, merciful, charitable, and beneficent walk and conversation.[14]

Religious Affections is also for the “secure” believer

While Edwards’ treatise is an invaluable work for the pastor who is charged with shepherding the flock, it is likewise for every believer a wrenching enforcement of 2 Cor. 13:5, which demands complacent Christians to “examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.”

Religious Affections is one of Edwards’ most readable works. It is also one of his most dissecting, sobering, and convicting. Read Religious Affections and prepare to be shaken from spiritual slumber.


1 Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume I (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), xcvi.

2 John Gerstner, The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 3 vols. (Orlando: Ligonier Ministries, 1993), 3:337.

3 Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2001), 23.

4 Ibid., 60.

5 Ibid., 64.

6 Ibid., 71.

7 Ibid., 74.

8 Ibid., 95.

9 Ibid., 90.

10 George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003), 288.

11 RA, 172.

12 Ibid., 237.

13 Ibid., 308.

14 Ibid.