'The dungeon flamed with light'
Evangelical revivals of the 18th century
Jonathan Edwards (6)
by Michael Haykin
Harold P. Simonson, who wrote a book on Jonathan Edwards as a theologian of the heart, says that Edwards’ A Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections (1746) was the culmination of ‘some twenty-five years of thought about the nature of religious experience’. Edwards’ book cannot be understood, however, apart from the immediate historical context that led him to publish it.
The book seeks to answer both the misguided zeal of James Davenport and the cold intellectualism of Charles Chauncy — aberrant positions that we looked at last month. But it is noteworthy that the longest section of the book is an answer to Davenport’s position.
Edwards regarded the misguided zeal of those like Davenport as a much more serious hindrance to the advance of the gospel in times of revival than the cold intellectualism of Chauncy.
Affections are necessary
The first section of the book argues (against Chauncy) that biblical Christianity ‘consists in holy affections’. True faith is never found in a state of indifference to the things of God and Christ.
Such a state is what the Scriptures call lukewarmness, which to God is revolting. At its heart, the Christian life is a passionate engagement of the entire person in seeking the glorification of Jesus Christ. Edwards writes:
‘The Spirit of God, in those that have sound and solid religion, is a spirit of powerful holy affection; and therefore, God is said to have given them the spirit of power, and of love, and of a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7).
‘And such, when they receive the Spirit of God, in his sanctifying and saving influences, are said to be baptised with the Holy Ghost, and with fire; by reason of the power and fervor of those exercises the Spirit of God excites in their hearts, whereby their hearts, when grace is in exercise, may be said to burn within them; as is said of the disciples (Luke 24:32).’
By the time Edwards wrote The Religious Affections, however, he was very conscious that in addition to the work of the Holy Spirit in the Great Awakening, Satan had also been powerfully active in producing a counterfeit religion. The latter was a religion that made much of experience, ‘discoveries of Christ’ and the supposed work of the Holy Spirit.
Knowing that some of his readers would be shocked at such assertions, Edwards rightly reasoned that the devil would never trouble himself to counterfeit valueless things: ‘there are many more counterfeits of silver and gold, than of iron and copper; there are many false diamonds and rubies, but who goes about to counterfeit common stones?’
Satan, ever the master of cunning and lies, employs his subtlety in making imitations of the most excellent things. Thus, it is vital to know the marks of genuine Christianity as it is laid out in the Scriptures. Edwards enumerates twelve such marks. Of the twelve, four are particularly noteworthy.
A love for God
Firstly, genuine love for God is based ultimately upon who God is in himself, not on what he does for us. If we love God chiefly because of what he does for us, then, instead of God being the purpose of our existence, he becomes a means to an end, namely our happiness and self-fulfilment.
But genuine Christians love God because he is altogether loveable and lovely. Edwards does not entirely rule out elements of self-love in our love for God. But he rightly argues that our love for God for who he is in himself must be primary.
Moreover, this love for God for who he is in himself is, above all, a love for God’s holiness. In the midst of his discussion of this third sign of genuine spirituality, Edwards makes a truly important contribution to the history of Reformed thought.
He states that the Holy Spirit imparts to sinners at their conversion a new way of perceiving spiritual reality. This sense is more than simply an awareness of and belief in God. It is nothing less than ‘a taste’ for God’s beauty and glory.
In the words of the American historian John E. Smith, ‘A love of God which does not include the taste and relish of the divine beauty is not the love which reveals the saints’. From Edwards’ perspective, the Christian, for example, does not merely rationally believe that God is glorious; he has a sense of the glory of God in his heart (2 Corinthians 4:6).
A tender heart
Secondly, Christians have a tender heart, especially towards God. They are sensitive to all that displeases him. They are ‘like a burnt child that dreads the fire’.
They are very conscious of how sin separates them from the God they love, and so they strive not to readmit it to their lives. They press on to be as godlike in behaviour and conduct as they can.
Such tenderness of conscience, Edwards affirms, is the only proper attitude for one trying to respond to the heart-work of the Spirit. Referring to verses like Psalm 2:11 and Psalm 147:11, Edwards maintains that while the believer no longer fears hell, he is increasingly fearful of causing God pain by indulging in sin.
There is a ‘diminishing of the fear of hell, with an increase of the fear of sin’. Such a believer ‘has the firmest comfort, but the softest heart’.
A God-centred passion
Thirdly, Edwards is convinced that genuine Christian spirituality is marked by a longing for more of God. Edwards relates this sign closely to one he describes earlier in the treatise, namely, evangelical humility.
The more grace believers receive, he says, ‘the more they see their imperfection and emptiness, and distance from what ought to be’. Marked by a consciousness of how far they have yet to go in the Christian life, true believers long after God for more of him.
For proof, Edwards turns to Paul’s words in Philippians 3:13-15 and declares, ‘the greatest eminence and perfection, that the saints arrive at in this world, has no tendency to satiety, or to abate their desires after more; but on the contrary, makes "em more eager to press forwards" and know more of God’.
Moreover, Edwards emphasises that the more persons have of holy affections, the more they have of that spiritual taste for God’s beauty and glory that we noted above. He writes:
‘Spiritual good is of a satisfying nature; and for that very reason, the soul that tastes, and knows its nature, will thirst after it, and a fullness of it, that it may be satisfied.
‘And the more he experiences, and the more he knows this excellent, unparalleled, exquisite, and satisfying sweetness, the more earnestly will he hunger and thirst for more, till he comes to perfection.’
In a remarkable turn of phrase, Edwards contends that the true believer experiences ‘a holy breathing and panting after the Spirit of God, to increase holiness’.
The acid test of true spirituality
Fourthly, however, Edwards devotes most space to his final sign — indicating that it loomed largest in his mind. True spirituality bears visible fruit in Christian practice and living in the world.
This practice has three major characteristics. First, it is shaped by what Edwards calls ‘Christian rules’, that is, ‘the laws of Christ, laws that he and his apostles did abundantly insist on, as of the greatest importance and necessity’.
Second, the living of the Christian life is the believer’s main business in this world. As Edwards notes on the basis of Titus 2:14, Christ’s people ‘not only do good works, but are zealous of good works’.
Third, genuine Christian spirituality has in it the crucial quality of perseverance. The real believer makes Christianity his main business not only on Sundays, or at certain extraordinary seasons, but that ‘business which he perseveres in through all changes, and under all trials, as long as he lives’.
In other words, while works do not save us, we cannot be saved without them. ‘Obedience, good works, good fruits, are to be taken … as a sure evidence to our own consciences of a true principle of grace’.
Little wonder that Iain Murray has described Edwards’ A Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections as ‘one of the most important books possessed by the Christian church on the nature of true religion’.
In it we find Edwards’ most exhaustive and penetrating expositions of the nature of true Christian spirituality — a spirituality in which both heat and light are vital.