Jonathan Edwards 3

Together in 2020, we have been exploring the mighty deeds God accomplished through the life of 18th century American pastor, theologian, and writer Jonathan Edwards. In a three-part series, we have been surveying his works:

  • A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God
  • Charity And Its Fruits
  • The Religious Affections

This month our investigation concludes with a close look into Edwards’ most widely read and admired work, The Religious Affections.

Part 3 of 3: Religious Affections

Published in 1746 when Jonathan Edwards was 43 years old, Affections resulted from two major forces in Edwards’ life: (1) his time of youthful searching during college when he intensely questioned whether he truly was a Christian, and (2) later in life, his concern for his congregants after the awakening in Northampton in 173435 and the Great Awakening in 17401742 left many townspeople uncertain of how to distinguish true religion from counterfeit religion.

ReligiousAffections_EdwardsDuring the awakenings, Edwards rejoiced in seeing many people come to a saving faith in Christ and bearing the fruit of obedience to God in holy living and good works. Yet, despite these extraordinary works of regeneration, false professions abounded, particularly amongst those who experienced the awakening as an indulgent binge of excessive religious emotion. Many placed a misguided emphasis on extreme emotion and experience as the marks of genuine conversion; this led many unregenerate to be self-deluded that they were saved when they were not.

To protect and instruct his flock, Edwards preached a series of sermons in 1742 on the proper place of religious affections in the Christian life. These sermons formed the foundation for the 377-page work, Affections. In this classic, Edwards answers the central question, “What is true religion?”

He draws his thesis from the Apostle Peter’s letter to persecuted Christians in 1 Peter 1:8: “Whom having not seen, ye love: in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable, and full of glory.” Edwards argues, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections”[i] for when Christians undergo trials, they display exercises of holy love to God and unspeakable joy — both are religious affections that evidence the genuineness of their faith.

To develop his thesis, Edwards structures his work into three parts:

  • Part 1 defines the nature of religious affections.
  • Part 2 discusses inconclusive signs that do not prove whether affections are truly religious or whether they are counterfeit.
  • Part 3 contains the heart of this work in which Edwards examines 12 signs of truly gracious and holy affections.

Known for his intricate and complex arguments, Affections “calls forth a reader’s best effort.”[ii] Edwards demonstrates that the affections reveal what a man cherishes, what his commitments are, and ultimately where his heart lies — with God or with the world. To communicate the value of this enduring classic, I will focus on points from Parts 1 and 3.

What are the Affections?

19th century Scottish Pastor Hugh Martin described Jonathan Edwards as “that greatest of metaphysical divines.” In reading Part 1 of Affections, the Christian reader will meet Edwards as Christian philosopher. Meticulous in his choice of words, Edwards explains affections are “the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.”[iii]

The soul is designed by God with two faculties; one Edwards calls the understanding which is “capable of perception and speculation”[iv] and the second he calls the inclination. Inclination “does not merely perceive and view things, but is some way inclined with respect to the things it views and considers.”[v] Thus, inclination involves both the will and the mind. When inclination expresses itself in concrete actions, it is called the will. And when inclination is expressed through the mind it is called the heart.

After establishing these main points, Edwards explains that the affections and the inclination/will in the soul are not two separate faculties; rather, the affections only make themselves distinct from inclination/will in their liveliness and sensibleness of exercise. Thus, a high degree of inclination is the affection of love, and a high degree of disapproval or rejection is the affection of hatred.

Also important in understanding the nature of affections is that affections are not passions. Said another way, affections are not raw emotions or feelings, although feelings often accompany the affections. Edwards carefully explains that all affections, “vigorous and lively actings of the will or inclination,”[vi] involve the exercise of judgement and clear understanding which presuppose the sufficient self-control to make choice possible. In contrast, passions are sudden and impulsive, often overpowering a man’s mind and command of self.

Scripture makes clear that God does not honor lukewarm, indifferent, or half-hearted worship. It is odious to him. Instead, God looks at the heart for earnestness, fervor, and sincerity. Edwards argues that affections are sign-posts of the heart that reveal a man’s orientation, whether it is love to God or love for the world. In following Christ daily, we engage in religious affections. For example, when participating in corporate worship, we express love to God and thanksgiving for salvation in Christ alone. As we collectively render to God the adoration that belongs to him alone, we engage in the holy affections of love, joy, and deep gratitude.

To further explain the nature of affections, Edwards highlights King David. In the Book of Psalms, David expresses devout and holy affections in his reliance on God’s faithfulness, his wonder of God’s miraculous deeds, his love for God’s pure and inerrant Word, his grief over his sin, and his earnest longings to pursue holiness. Writing these psalms under the direction of the Holy Spirit, David penned them for the public worship of God. They are replete with holy expressions of thanksgiving and adoration to God for Christians in all ages to imitate.

The ultimate example, though, of holy affections are those expressed by Jesus, our great high priest. In John 17, we see the fervor of Jesus’ intercessory prayer on behalf of his people, the intensity of his commitment to do his Father’s will, and the holiness of his love for his people that took him to the cross.

12 Distinguishing Signs of Gracious and Holy Affections

After defining what affections are in Part 1 and discussing the inconclusive signs of affections in Part 2, Edwards devotes Part 3, the bulk of Affections at nearly 75 percent, to examining 12 distinguishing signs of truly gracious and holy affections. Each of these signs points to or provides evidence of the divine work of the Holy Spirit in a Christian. Remember that after the Great Awakening many placed a misguided emphasis on extreme emotion and experience as the litmus test for true conversion. In these 12 signs, Edwards demonstrates that God is the source and object of all holy affections.

In the first sign, Edwards lays the foundation that all truly gracious affections have their source in the work of the Holy Spirit: “Affections that are truly spiritual and gracious, do arise from those influences and operations on the heart, which are spiritual, supernatural, and divine.”[vii] In the New Testament, the term “spiritual” signifies being in relation to the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 2, a spiritual man is one who is born again by the Holy Spirit to newness of life. Making his abode in the Christian, the Holy Spirit dwells in the believer, imparts life, and communicates God’s holiness (1 Cor. 3:16; John 14:16-17).

Edwards continues by emphasizing two profound truths — because of the work of the Holy Spirit, we are made “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) and have the “seal of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13) stamped on us. Holiness is the beauty/sweetness of the divine nature. When the Holy Spirit indwells us, we become partakers of God’s holiness and are given a spiritual appetite “to taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

This new spiritual appetite causes us to say along with the psalmist, “How sweet are Thy words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth” (Psalm 119:103). Thus, the Holy Spirit enlightens our minds and hearts “to see the holy excellency and sweetness of the blessings promised, and also the holy excellency of the promiser.”[viii] To perceive and relish the truthfulness of God’s Word is to exercise holy affections of love and desire for the things of God. Likewise, responding to God’s Word with truly gracious affections is to delight in his Word and to value it “above gold, yes, above fine gold” (Psalm 119:127).

Edwards devotes many pages to explaining from Scripture what the “seal of the Spirit” is. God’s seal on his children is a high and holy excellent communication of his favor and protection to them based on the finished work of Christ; it is the true authentication of belonging to God. Furthermore, God’s seal on a man’s heart is God’s own image stamped on the believer’s heart by the Spirt of adoption. It is a high, holy, divine work that Satan cannot imitate. Truly gracious and holy affections spring forth from this divine work.

With the foundation laid that gracious affections have their source in the work of the Holy Spirit, Edwards proposes other signs, some of which have a subjective quality. For example, the sixth sign states, “Gracious affections are attended with evangelical humiliation.”[ix] And the eighth sign reads, “Truly gracious affections are attended by and promote Jesus’ lamblike, dovelike spirit of gentleness — marked by forbearance, meekness, and mercy.”[x] While it is an objective truth from Scripture that following Christ produces humility, meekness, and mercy in the believer; these godly characteristics are manifested in varying degrees (subjective quality) in God’s people.

In the twelfth and final sign, all the evidences of grace culminate: “Gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice.”[xi] Out of all the distinguishing signs, Edwards devotes the most pages to this final one, and argues it is the sign of signs that confirms and crowns all other signs. In the Christian life, every grace, every discovery of spiritual truth has its end in holy practice. Put another way, the end of doctrine is Christian practice. This practice is seen in holy living, and Jesus confirms it is the evidence of loving God: “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16).

Why Read Affections?

Affections has endured over 270 years and is regarded as a classic theological work because it addresses a question of perennial importance, “What is true religion?” While Edwards clearly recognizes from Scripture that only God can “make a full and clear separation between sheep and goats,”[xii] God’s Word, nonetheless, provides many principles which Christians are to use to discern true professions from counterfeit professions. This 377-page examination of the nature of affections and how holy affections play a great part in the exercise of true religion is a subject matter of eternal importance, and Edwards addresses it in an affecting manner.

We study biblical doctrine to draw near to God and to be instructed in his ways so we can become conformed to the image of Christ and honor God more fully in our lives. Consequently, a good theological work must be more than a compendium of doctrine or a collection of facts. It must not only exercise and enlighten the mind; it must engage and affect the inner man. Affections delivers both, and the Christian reader will find rich rewards in studying God’s Word in this outstanding classic. It is available in the Church Library and on Amazon.


[i] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards Volume 2: Religious Affections (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), 95.

[ii] Ibid, 8.

[iii] Ibid, 96.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid, 98.

[vii] Ibid, 197.

[viii] Ibid, 225.

[ix] Ibid, 311.

[x] Ibid, 344.

[xi] Ibid, 383.

[xii] Ibid, 193.