The greatest American theologian, Jonathan Edwards, was a pastor during the Great Awakening, a revival in the 18th Century that birthed the Evangelical movement. Certain remarkable things happened in the revival that were taken as signs that the Holy Spirit was working. However, he observed that these things could happen as a result of the Holy Spirit, but they might also be due to other causes. Therefore, they cannot be relied upon as proofs either for or against the Spirit’s work. It is a mistake to judge what is happening on them alone; other signs are needed. Here is his list from The Religious Affections of these unreliable signs :
- Intense Affections. Some are ready to condemn all intense affections. They are immediately prejudiced when they see people raising their religious affections to a high pitch and, without further consideration, dismiss these affections as delusions. But if true religion lies deeply within the religious affections, then there will be great affections in a rich quality of true faith. We find the most eminent saints in Scripture often professing intense affections. To condemn people for being enthusiasts and to assume that their affections are counterfeit is a error. On the other hand, intensity is no evidence of true religious affections. For it is very clear from Holy Scripture, which is our sure and infallible rule for guidance, that intense affections may not be spiritual and saving. What a to-do the crowd made when Jesus entered Jerusalem. Cutting the branches of palm trees and scattering them in the way, they exalted Christ as though he ground beneath Him was not good enough for the ass that He rode upon. But how quickly all this celebration came to an end! It was all quelled and dead when the same Jesus stood bound, with a mock robe and a crown of thorns, to be deeded, spit upon, scourged, condemned, and executed. So religious affections may be raised to an intense pitch, but this is no evidence of true religion.
- Bodily Affections. In some way or other, all affections do have an effect upon the body. As we have seen already, the nature of the union of body and soul is such that all lively and vigorous effects on the mind influence the body. Í do not know of any standard which can prove that gracious and holy affections will not have a great effect on the body. But intense bodily reactions are not evidence that the affections are spiritual.
- Much Fluent and Fervent Talk. There are many people who are greatly prejudiced against fluent and fervent talk in others. They will condemn those who are full of talk as Pharisees and ostentatious hypocrites. On the other hand, there are many who, when they see these talkers, immediately believe, ignorantly and foolishly, that they are true children of God and are under the saving influences of His Spirit. People are inclined to talk much about religion. This may be from either a good cause or a bad cause. Their hearts may be very full of holy affections. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). But then again, it may be because people’s hearts are full of affections which are not holy. A person may be full of talk about his own experiences. But often it is more a bad than a good sign. It is like a tree that is full of leaves that seldom bears much fruit. “Whoso boasts himself of a false gift, is like clouds and wind without rain” (Proverbs 25:14). Strong, false affections are much more likely to declare themselves than true ones. It is the nature of false religion to be showy and visible, as it was with the Pharisees.
- Imposed Emotions. Many condemn all stimulated affections that cannot be explained. These affections do not seem to be a result of their own efforts, nor the natural consequence of their own faculties. Somehow they seem to be influenced by some external and supernatural power upon their minds. But if there is indeed a power that is entirely different from and beyond our power, then is it unreasonable to suppose that this may be produced externally? It is very unreasonable and unscriptural, then, to determine that the affections are not from God’s Spirit because they are not from the persons themselves. However, it is no evidence that affections are of God when they arise in the mind in a way that is unaccountable. It may be some other spirit rather than the Holy Spirit. So we are exhorted to test the spirits.
- Scripture Experiences. The experience of Scripture being brought to the mind
is no evidence of gracious affections. The truth of Scripture certainly contains and teaches what is the foundation of true affections, but the mere sudden and unusual remembrance of Scripture does not. Furthermore, emotional reactions to the Scriptures, whether of fear, hope, joy, sorrow, or any other, may not themselves be evidence of a genuine experience. What deceives unreflective people such as this is the following type of argument: Scripture is the Word of God and so it is inerrant; therefore those experiences which come from Scripture must always be right. But we should remember that emotions may arise upon reading the Scripture that do not arise as a genuine fruit of the Scriptures, but only emotionally so. These emotions abuse the Scriptures. It is therefore false to assume that since I had certain feelings while reading the Scriptures, these feelings must be all right. All that can be argued is that those experiences which are agreeable to the Word of God are right. Is there not evidence that the devil can take texts of Scripture and misapply them in order to deceive people?
- The Exhibition of Love. Many suppose that to have love is a good evidence that
such affections are the sanctifying and saving influences of the Holy Spirit. They argue that, since love is contrary to the devil (whose nature is enmity and malice), all love must be truly Christian. But this is a poor argument, for it assumes that there are no counterfeits of love. The devil and our own deceitful hearts tend to imitate those things that have the highest value. So no graces are more counterfeited than love and humility. It is plain from the Scriptures that a person may have a kind of religious love, and yet have no saving grace. Christ speaks of many professing Christians that have such love, but whose love will not continue and so it will lack salvation. “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Matthew 24.12, 13).
- Great Variety of Affections. Pseudoreligion may contain a great variety of false affections that resemble the true ones. If the natural man is capable of having a resemblance of all kinds of religious affections, nothing will hinder him from having a number of them together. Indeed his often happens. And when such false affections are exercised intensely, many of them associate together.
- Comfort and Joy Following Conviction of Conscience. Many people seem prejudiced against experiences and affections that come in a dramatic way, for example, when awakenings, fears, and awful apprehensions come from a sense of total depravity and helplessness in sin, and then are followed by some light and comfort. Some scholars question all such techniques and steps that may be outlined for men to follow, they may be particularly skeptical if an intense experience of joy follows a great sense of distress and terror. But such objections and prejudices are without reason or indeed scriptural backing. The principle that is many times demonstrated in Scripture is this: God will bring people into distress in order to make them see their own utter helplessness and absolute dependence upon His power and grace before He appears to work any great deliverance or them (Deut 32:36, 37). On the other hand, it is no evidence that comforts and joys are right simply because they follow after great terrors, and paralyzing fears of hell. Although convictions of conscience do cause terror, they do not consist in it. Terrors do arise from other causes. The devil, if permitted, can readily terrify men. Also, the fears and terrors that some people have are the result of their temperament. So there are some people who speak of their wickedness who really have little or no conviction of sin.
- Time and Effort Spent in Religious Activity. Some argue unfairly against religious affections because of too much time spent reading, praying, singing, hearing sermons, and so on. But it is plain from the Scriptures that it is the tendency of true grace for people to delight in such religious exercises. This is the nature of true grace. But on the other hand, the zeal of the excessive worker could be simply a disposition of temperament and not necessarily any grace at all. This was so with the Israelites, whose services were abominable to God. They attended “the new moons and Sabbaths, and callings of assemblies, and spread forth their hands, and made many prayers” (Isaiah 1:12-15). This was also true with the Pharisees. “They made long prayers, and fasted twice a week. ” False religion may cause people to be loud and earnest in prayer. So experience shows that people with false religion are apt to be exceedingly active in their religious activities. Indeed, they may give themselves up to them and devote all their time to them.
- Verbal Worship. This indeed is implied in what we have just observed. To spend much time in external exercises of religion means nothing. So the fact that many appear to be greatly disposed to praying, to magnifying God, and to having their mouths full of His praise, does not mean very much. When we look at Scripture we will see this is no sure sign of grace. There is no certain evidence that a person has true affections simply because he is greatly affected by God’s unmerited mercy. He may cry out about his own worthlessness and yet have no real conviction of sin. Saul could confess, “I have played the fool, Í have erred exceedingly” (1 Samuel 15:16-19; 26:21), and yet there still remained within him unsubdued pride and enmity against David.
- Assurance. Some argue that people are deluded if they are so confident that they do not doubt the favor of God. They do not believe the church can expect a full and absolute assurance of hope except in such extraordinary circumstances as in the case of martyrdom. It is the criticism of many Protestants that Roman Catholics have this uncertainty. On the other hand, the saints in the Scriptures do have this confidence. God in the plainest and most positive way revealed and testified His special favor to Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Daniel, and others. On the other hand, people’s affections are not necessarily true just because they have boundless confidence that they are all right and that their affections are divinely inspired. Nothing certain can be argued from their confidence, however great and strong it appears to be. Indeed, such an overbearing, highhanded, and violent sort of confidence as this may not be evidence of true Christian assurance. For this may savor more of the spirit of the Pharisees who never doubted that they were saints.
True saints do not have the discernment to determine who are the godly and who are not. For although they may know experientially what true religion is in the internal exercises of it, they cannot feel or see into the heart of another person. They can only see outward appearances, But the Scripture plainly intimates that this way of judging by outward appearances is at best uncertain and is liable to deceive. “The LORD sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). “He shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears” (Isaiah 11:3). Those who are quick to determine other people’s condition are commonly poor judges and dangerous counselors. Christ says we should judge the tree chiefly by the fruit. Yet there are many times when we cannot know a person’s true state. Only God can. Arrogant, then, is the notion of some who imagine that they know the godliness of others. The great Apostle Peter could only say that he supposed Sylvanus to be a faithful brother (1 Peter 5:12) even though Sylvanus appears to have been a very distinguished servant of Christ, an evangelist, a famous light in God’s church during that time, and also an intimate companion of the apostles!