Jonathan Edwards set out to find in his book The Religious Affections what the distinguishing qualities between those who have truly gracious affections and those who have false affections (p. 15). The differences between the two are of highest importance to all people, being that their eternal destiny is held within the answer (p. 15). The quest that Edwards set out on in this book is divided into three major sections, the first concerns the nature of affections and their importance in religion, the second concerns signs that are not sure proofs that an affection is truly gracious, and the third and final section concerns those signs that distinguish truly gracious affections from those that are false.
To begin, Edwards writes that true religion does in fact lay much in the affections (p. 23), being in its nature “the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul” (p. 24). He proves his point based on 1 Peter 1:8 and the two operations of true religion that are mentioned there: love and joy (pp. 21-23)—both of which, it may be observed, are affections (p. 24). He then goes on to prove this point through various other biblical passages such as Romans 12:2 and Deuteronomy 10:12 where God commands us to be “fervent in spirit” and to “love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul” (p. 27). Edward claims that if the Bible is correctly understood it will affect the heart of the person who understands it, for an unaffected heart is a stony heart and has no place in true religion (see Ezekiel 11:19, p. 46). The “reason why men are not affected by such infinitely great, important, glorious, and wonderful things…is undoubtedly because they are blind; if they were not so, it would be impossible…that their hearts should be otherwise than…greatly moved by such things” (p. 50).
Moving past the foundational arguments regarding the necessity of affections in religion, Edwards moves on to look at those signs which do not distinguish true affections from those that are false (p. 54). For although affections are necessary for a person to be truly saved, just because someone has has affections to a greater or lesser degree or because their affections are many does not mean that they are saved, because those very affections can be counterfeited (pp. 54, 75). “It may be observed that the more excellent anything is, the more will be the counterfeits of it. Thus there are many more counterfeits of silver and gold than of iron and copper…but who goes around counterfeiting common stones?” (p. 73). Religious affections being very excellent therefore have numerous counterfeits. But while it is true that true affections can be counterfeited, Edwards continues to elaborate on the differences between the true and false affections in that false affections, even if equally strong, will be more apt to declare themselves than true affections because the nature of false affections leads them to desire to be observed and praised by others as it was with the Pharisees (p. 64). Therefore Edwards states that even though someone has religious affections in fervor and speaks much about those affections, it is no sure sign that those affections are true, and though for a time those unholy affections would go unsuspected, they are as those described by the Apostle Jude in verse 4 and 12 of his gospel, clouds without water and carried about by the winds (p. 64). All types of affections can be counterfeited, and it is no sure sign that affections are gracious that someone has many affections. Though they have a love to God, a love to other Christians, and a godly sorrow for sin it is no sure proof that they are saved. For, Edwards argues, the Galatians were willing to go so far as to pluck out their eyes and give them to the Apostle Paul, yet the apostle feared that all their affections would come to nothing and that he had labored with them in vain (p. 75). Even Pharaoh, Saul and Ahab had some measure of sorrow for their sins and expressed that sorrow quite convincingly, but it was no sign of their salvation but was a counterfeit affection (p. 75). People can express their unworthiness as Saul did when he was chosen to be king over Israel, and for some time be fearful of hell and judgment and then through some delusion, vision or Scripture verse feel that God has pardoned them and then continue throughout life with a great peace in their heart, but to Edwards these cannot be sure signs of true religious affections, for the unsaved are able to produce them. In fact, the unsaved produce these counterfeit affections to such perfection that by outward observation it is impossible to tell the difference from the real, except one wait for the fruit of those affections. For, “As from true divine love flow all Christian affections, so from a counterfeit love…flow other false affections (p. 78).
Continuing his discussion of those signs which do not prove affection to be true or false, Edwards cites some examples to prove that just because a person feels that affections were raised up within them apart from their own doing or their own strength it is no sure sign that they are saved (p. 65). For it is not outside the power of Satan to suggest such things as joy and comforts as he does suggest terror and doubt, these being suggested to the mind without any effort on the part of the mind that is affected (p. 69). In fact, Edwards reminds his readers that the power for a person to have voluntary impressions is not even outside human ability, for as people dream involuntarily, so people can be the recipients of involuntary impressions while they are awake (p. 69). Even the Holy Spirit Himself can give those who are not truly saved a heavenly taste of the heavenly gift, a taste of the good of the Word – these things are within the bounds of common grace and give no proof that a person is truly saved (p.69). When people have Scripture brought to their mind, again this being seemingly apart from their own doing, it does not prove that they are saved for, “What evidence is there that the devil cannot bring texts of Scripture to the mind, and misapply them to deceive persons?” (p. 71). Even that people receive great joy from Scripture is not a sure sign of true salvation, for as in the parable that Jesus told of the seeds and the sower, “the stony ground hearers had great joy from the word…and their affections had in their appearance a very great and exact resemblance with those represented by the growth on the good ground…yet there was no saving religion in these affections” (p. 73).
Other signs that Edwards cites as useless in determining the authenticity of religious affections are that there be many kinds of affections or some certain order of convictions, joys and comforts in a person (pp. 75-91) or even that someone zealously spends much of their time in things regarding religion (p. 91) and who praise God with many words in public or that someone is confident that they are in a good estate (p. 95). In closing the section written about those signs which cannot prove or disprove the authenticity of affections Edwards states that there really is no fool-proof way for a person to know if another is truly godly or not, because “they can neither feel nor see in the heart of another” (p. 110). All these signs mentioned in this section of the book, can be counterfeited, and therefore the author calls all those who believe they can know for certain whether or not someone else is saved arrogant and shows that as the Apostle Paul said, that we should, “judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come” (p. 118).
After closing his arguments in regard to those signs which do not distinguish true affections from false Edwards directs his attention to those signs which do distinguish false affections from truly gracious affections the first being that truly gracious affections arise in the heart from spiritual influences. This is shown to be true in that Scripture calls people spiritual because they have the virtues of the Spirit of God being that they are indwelled by the Spirit (p. 127). The opposite to being spiritual is a person who is carnal, or natural in nature and so Edwards states that there is a sure distinction, for “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God” (p. 126). The author relates the spiritual to a new sense that is wholly different than anything that natural man can imagine, and that this is why Scripture often calls the work of the Spirit of God in regeneration as “giving a new sense, giving eyes to see and ears to hear” (p. 133) and such. The spiritual are enlightened so as to understand divine things, things that natural men have no understanding of (p. 195). So great is this enlightenment that Edward states, “when a person has this sense and knowledge given him, he will view nothing as he did before: though before he knew all things” (pp. 200-201). An understanding of Scripture that beholds the wondrous and glorious truths therein is given those indwelled by the Spirit, and they have a spiritual sense as to the truth verses the false, as one who sees beauty needs not but glance to recognize it (p. 207). True saints are convinced of the reality of divine things for though they have not seen Christ, they love and believe – the great doctrines of the Gospel are undoubted and undisputed and therefore they are unafraid to place their whole lives upon their truth (p. 217). But this conviction is not without reason, as some other religions are – it is not a blind conviction but is one that is founded on real evidence (p. 221). Not only do they argue the truth of this reality based on reason but they see it and see the divine glory of the gospel. The union that is created through this indwelling by the Spirit Edwards states is seen and felt plainly by the saint and is “so strong and lively that he cannot doubt it” (p. 164) in that the bond of this union is love, and a love that cries Abba, Father (p. 164).
In addition to true religious affections being arise from spiritual influences, Edwards continues and argues that rather than true affections being based on selfish motives, they find their basis on the beauty of divine things (p. 165). Those who have have false affections are likened unto Saul for he was very grateful to David for sparing his life, and yet soon after continued to pursue David to kill him. While those who have true affections love God for who He is before they ever love him for the benefits he bestows. For if one loves only the benefits that God bestows, Edwards argues that that person only loves himself and derives joy from his belief that God makes so much of him (pp. 176-177). Delight in the holiness of God is essential to a true love of God (p. 183) because the beauty of divine things consists mainly in holiness (p. 184). Edwards argues that this love of holiness is a sure sign of true religious affections because although the wicked and devils “will see and have a great sense of everything that appertains to the glory of God” (p. 190), they see no beauty, as true saints do. Nebuchadnezzar is recorded in the book of Daniel to have a great sense of God’s greatness, majesty, power, and his sovereignty, but saw no beauty in the holiness of God as do the chosen angels and saints who cry out “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty” (p. 187, 190).
After observing these things Edwards goes on to explain that true affections come with evangelical humiliation, meaning that the Christian understands “his own utter insufficiency, despicableness, and odiousness, with an answerable frame of heart” (p. 237). Those of unholy affections will, in the day of judgment, be legally humiliated, in that they will be shown that they are little and nothing before God, but there will be nothing of evangelical humiliation which is only in those who have holy affections. For those who have true affections voluntarily deny themselves and make themselves low, there is no coercion, but with delight they bow before the feet of God (p. 238). This humility leads those with holy affections to think others better than themselves and causes them to be more eager to hear than to speak (p. 247). When the truly humble are brought down low, they do not think they are being treated unjustly, but rather they marvel that they are not brought down lower – this stands in stark contrast to false affections, for they tend to think highly of themselves and hate those who make little of them (pp. 258-259).
Edwards goes on to relate the signs of a dove-like spirit and tenderness of spirit citing again the fact that true affections come from the Spirit of God and that “The new man is renewed, after the image of him that created him” (Colosians 3:10, p. 274, 285). And it is following these signs that Edwards argues that true religious affections have a beautiful symmetry to them (p. 292). While it is true that believers are not perfect, “there is in no wise that monstrous disproportion in gracious affections, and the various parts of true religion in the saints, that is very commonly to be observed in the false religion and counterfeit graces of hypocrites” (p. 292). Edwards proves this point from various scriptures including Hosea 7:8 where God rebukes the Israelites because they are “half roasted and half raw” (p. 293). True saints are not greatly affected in public and little affected in private, but rather there is a symmetry to their lives for they delight in fellowship with other believers but also delight in secret prayer and conversation with God (p. 300).
Another sure sign of true affections that Edwards gives is that as true affections are increased so are the spiritual appetites for false affections are satisfied in themselves (p. 303). The true saint is never satisfied with his current state – in his love for God he desires to love God more and though he sins less than in the past he hates his sin all the more and mourns the fact that there is so much sin that remains and that he continues to love his sin. In his mourning of sin sin he desires to mourn even more, and as his heart is broken he desires it to be broken even to a greater degree. The true saint’s thirst for spiritual things is as a baby for his mother’s milk (p. 303).
But the final and chief sign (p. 315) that Edwards gives as a distinguishing mark of true religious affections is that true affections produce the fruit of Christian practice (p. 308). Edwards argues that this is true because “the things revealed in the Word of God are so great, and so infinitely more important than all other things, that it is inconsistent with human nature, that a man should fully believe the truth of them, and not be influenced by them above all things in his practice” (p. 318). If in fact the old nature is really dead and replaced by the new spiritual nature then it is to be expected that that person will walk in accordance with that Spirit and to do so all the rest of his life (p. 318). Jesus said that we will know true believers by their fruit as a tree is known by its fruit for everything can be counterfeit except for fruit – fruit shows the heart (p. 327). It does not amount to anything that someone claims to be a Christian, but “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me” (John 14:21, p. 330).
In conclusion Edwards says that although all these proofs are indeed proofs of true affections, there are no external proofs that one might without a doubt judge whether or not someone is truly saved (p. 340). But Edwards believes the manifestations that he has mentioned in this book are the best that are available to us, being human and unable to look into the hearts of men (p. 341). Edwards goes on to say that while it is true that it is impossible for a person to truly know the state of another, Scripture speaks of persons’ actions as “sure evidence of grace to persons’ own consciences” (p. 341). For although religion does consist much in holy affection it is the practical exercises of that affection that are the most easily distinguishable and therefore assurance is most likely to be had through action and the observation of the fruit produced (p. 373).