In my last post, we looked at how Jonathan Edwards, American theologian and key figure in the Great Awakening, identified several signs that were not reliable marks of a work of the Holy Spirit. It’s not that they mean the Holy Spirit isn’t active; it’s just that they can be caused by the Spirit or the world, the flesh or the Devil. Because there’s no way to tell, they shouldn’t be relied upon. So what can we count on? Here are Edwards’s “distinguishing signs of truly gracious and holy affections”:
- Divinely given. True saints who are sanctified called spiritual persons in the New Testament. “The natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judges all things” (1 Corinthians 2:14,15). The term spiritual in these and other texts in the New Testament does not refer to the soul or spirit as distinct from the body or the material part. Qualities are not spiritual because they have their seat in the soul and not in the body. These may also be carnal, such as pride and self-righteousness trusting in one’s own wisdom; these the Apostle calls fleshly (Col 2:18). In the New Testament, persons or things are termed spiritual in relation to the Spirit of God. Thus, Christians are called spiritual persons because they are born of the Spirit and because of the indwelling and holy influences of the Spirit of God in them. Thus, it is only in relationship to the Spirit of God and His influences that persons and things are called spiritual.
- Based on the excellence of God. The fundamental object of gracious affections is the glory of God, so in no way can these affections bear any relation to self or to self-interest. It is the divine excellency and glory of God in Jesus Christ, the Word of God, the works of God, and the ways of God that are the primary reason a true saint loves these things and not any supposed benefit the believer will receive from them. Love for God in self-interest cannot be confused with true love for God that comes from precious affections. Self-love, expressed in mere natural gratitude, may produce some kind of love for God. Others will form in their own minds a god that suits them, and they think of God as merely one like themselves, who favors and agrees with them, and loves just like they do. Still others develop a high affection for God as a result of their fears of hellfire which are followed by some assuring text of Scripture that persuades them they are safe and that God has forgiven them. But the true love in the saints comes in a very different way. They do not first see that God loves them and therefore He is to be loved, but rather they first see that God Himself is lovely. Christ appears so glorious and excellent that their hearts are enraptured by Him alone. This then is what really motivates their true love of God.
- Based on the beauty of God’s holiness. To put it in another way, the source of all holy affections is a love of divine things due to the beauty and sweetness of their moral excellence. There is a distinction between the natural and moral perfections of God. The moral perfections of God are those attributes which God exercises as a moral agent: His righteousness, truth, faithfulness, and goodness; or in a word, His holiness. God’s natural perfections are those attributes that consist of His greatness, His power, His knowledge, His eternal being, His omnipresence, and His majesty. Holy persons love God in the first place because the beauty of His holiness or His moral perfection is supremely lovable in itself. They delight in every divine perfection, but their love of God for His holiness is what is most fundamental in their love. All other holy love for divine things flows from this. Often we read of “the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 29:2; 96:9; 110:3). It is this that renders all His other attributes glorious and lovely. For instance, it is the glory of God’s wisdom that it is a holy wisdom and not wickedly subtle or crafty. The test of affections, particularly love and joy, lies in whether or not holiness is the foundation of the affections. This is the difference between true saints and natural men. Natural men may see the great power and awful majesty of God (circumstances force them to do so). The saints, like natural men, will also see the greatness of God. But it will affect them differently. Instead of being terrified they will rejoice and praise God. They see the beauty of His holiness, not terror.
- Arise from a spiritually enlightened mind. Holy affections do not have heat without light. Knowledge is the key that first opens the hard heart, enlarges the affections, and so opens the way for men to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But there are many affections which do not arise from any light in the understanding. These affections are not spiritual, however elevated they appear to be. Many people are affected by conceptions which have nothing of the nature of knowledge in them. For example, someone may be suddenly struck with a bright idea and yet there is nothing of the nature of instruction about it. People never become the wiser by such things, or indeed have more knowledge about God or the way of salvation. For these external ideas have no acquaintance with God, nor do they communicate understanding of Him. False affections arise then from ignorance rather than from instruction. Spiritual knowledge consists of an experiential sense of the beauty of the holiness of divine things, as well as the discernment and knowledge of spiritual things that flows from such a sense. From this knowledge of divine things, all true gracious affections proceed. By this knowledge all affections are tested. Those affections that arise from any other kind of knowledge are vain. True spiritual knowledge is utterly different from all those kinds and forms of enthusiasm that imagine visions, inward suggestions, predictions of future events, immediate revelations of secret facts, etc. None of these composes a relish of the heart for the holy beauty of divine things.
- Associated with true conviction. All those who are truly gracious persons have a solid, full, fair, and effectual conviction of the truth of the great things of the gospel. By this I mean they no longer halt between two opinions. For them the great doctrines of the gospel have ceased to be doubtful or matters of mere opinion. Rather, they are matters which are settled and determined without a doubt. So they are not afraid to venture everything upon their truth. They have the weight and power of reality in their heart. Thus, they rule their affections and control them for the rest of their lives. But there are many other religious affections which are not associated with such a conviction. Many ideas which are affecting but not convincing may be called divine discoveries. They may persuade some for a time, but they have no permanent nor effective conviction. Even if people’s belief in Christian doctrines is supported by reasons and arguments, this still does not make their affections truly gracious ones. Their beliefs must be not only reasonable, but their affections must arise from true spiritual faith.
- Flow from humility. Evangelical humiliation is a phrase that describes the Christian’s sense of personal inadequacy, of his unworthiness, and his responsive attitude of heart to God in all his need. Distinction may be drawn between legal and evangelical humiliation. The former is what men may be subject to when they are living in a natural state and have no gracious affections. The latter is a distinctive of true Christians. The former may arise from the common influence of the natural conscience, but the latter is the distinctive influence of the Spirit of God. The former is the general sense of religious awe, such as the Israelites experienced when the attributes of God were revealed to them when the law was given at Mount Sinai. But the latter comes only from a personal sense of the beauty of divine things. A true sense of sin is only found in evangelical humiliation, in seeing for oneself the beauty of God’s holiness. In legal humiliation, men are made aware that they are small, indeed nothing, before the great and terrible God. The conscience is convicted, but there is still no spiritual understanding, nor is the will broken, nor is the inclination of the heart altered. In legal humiliation, men are brought to self-despair in trying to help themselves. But in evangelical humiliation, they freely deny and renounce themselves. The one is forced while the other is a gentle yielding in freedom and delight to lie prostrate at the feet of God. Humility is the most essential thing that characterizes true Christianity.
- Marked by conversions that change character. Other powers can make changes in human temperaments and feelings. But it is the power of the Creator alone that can change the nature and give a new nature. No other means can make such a profound change in the soul. If, therefore, there is little evidence of any change in bad habits and dispositions, then one may well question the reality of their conversion. Yet allowances must be made for our natural temperaments. Conversion does not entirely root out our natural dispositions. For those sins toward which a man is naturally inclined before his conversion will still be the one that he is apt to fall into. Nevertheless, conversion make a great change even in respect to these failings because even though grace is received imperfectly and so does not root out all of the evil in the natural temperament, it still has great power and efficacy. He may still be tempted by such, but his temptations will no longer have dominion over him. The spiritual insights and affections first experienced in conversion are transforming. They reach down to the bottom of the heart, affecting and altering the very nature of the soul. But the process of transformation is continued and carried on to the end of life, until it is brought to perfection and glory.
- Expressed with Christ-like gentleness. In contrast to false and delusive affections, truly gracious affections are associated with the gentle spirit of Jesus Christ. Like the lamb and the dove, they promote a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness, and mercy as seen in Christ. But some may be ready to object and say, is there no such thing as Christian fortitude and boldness for Christ? should we not be good soldiers in Christian warfare and come out boldly against the enemies of Christ and His people? Of course there is! Yet many people seem to be quite mistaken concerning the nature of Christian fortitude. It is quite the opposite of brutal fierceness such as the boldness of beasts of prey. Rather, true Christian fortitude consists of a strength of mind, through grace. This is exerted in two ways: it overrules and suppresses evil, unruly passions and affections of the mind, and it exerts steadfastly and freely good affections and dispositions without being hampered by sinful fear or the opposition of enemies. The real strength of the good soldier of Jesus Christ is simply the steadfast maintenance of a holy calmness, meekness, sweetness, and a benevolence of mind that is sustained amidst all the storms, injuries, wrong behavior, and unexpected acts and events in this evil and unreasonable world. There is a false boldness for Christ that only comes from pride. A man may rashly expose himself to the world’s dislike and even deliberately provoke its displeasure, and yet do so out of pride. It is the nature of spiritual pride to prompt men to seek distinction. Many times they will be militant with those they call carnal in order to be more highly exalted among their own party. True boldness for Christ is indifferent to the displeasure of either friends or foes. Boldness enables Christians to forsake all rather than Christ, and to prefer to offend all rather than to offend Him.
- Marked by tenderness of heart. False affections, even when people seem to be deeply affected by them while they are still fresh, tend to harden the heart. These affections tend to develop certain kind of passion that are self-seeking, self-exalting, and in opposition to others. Such false affections, with their associated delusions, eventually stupify the mind and exclude those affections that have tenderness of heart. The result is that people become less affected by their present and past sins, and less sensitive of the possibility of future sins. They are less moved by the warnings and cautions of God’s Word and by God’s providential chastisements. They become more careless in heart and in their behaviour and less discerning about what is sinful. Evil no longer frightens them as it did when they feared hell. So they become careless in duties and negligent of unpleasant tasks. How different are gracious affections. They turn a heart of stone more and more into a gentle heart. The influence of holy love and hope is vastly more effective upon the heart, making it tender and filling it with a dread of sin or whatever else might displease or offend God. Also the heart is made to keep vigil and yet without a slavish fear of hell.
- Consistent and constant. Truly holy affections in a saint are balanced. Not that this balance of virtues and of gracious affections of the saints in this life is perfect. Often it has defects because of a lack of grace, or lack of proper instruction, or from errors in judgment, or a temperamental defect, or a lack of education, or some other disadvantage. Yet there is none of the gross imbalance that is commonly observed in false religion. In hypocrites there is often an essential deficiency in the various kinds of religious affections as well as an imbalance and strange partiality in these affections. For example, some make hard pretenses and a great show of the love of God in Christ. Yet at the same time, they may not have a spirit of benevolence and love toward those who are disposed to contention, envy, revenge, and evil speaking. Again, some may be very inconsistent in the character of their love for others as far as outer things are concerned. Generous and liberal with their worldly goods, they have no concern for the souls of men. Others may pretend to have a great love for men’s souls, but have no compassion or charity toward their practical needs.
- Filled with longing for more. Another great and distinguishing feature of gracious affections is that the more they are heightened the greater will be the spiritual appetite and longing of soul for such spiritual blessings to be increased. In contrast, false affections are satisfied with themselves. The reasons for this are that the more people have holy affections, the more they will enjoy that spiritual taste of which I have spoken elsewhere. The more they perceive the excellence of God and relish the divine sweetness of holiness, the more grace they have and the more they see their need of grace. This increases their desire for more. In contrast, false joys and religious affections have the opposite effect. The more they are aroused, the more they quench any longings for grace and holiness. So a person may think he is enriched and increased with goods. He may hardly be able to conceive of anything better that what he already has materially. He becomes smugly self satisfied.
- Practical and persistent. Gracious affections cause a Christian to be practical in the business of his daily life. Three things are implied by this. One, his behavior or practice in the world is wholly conformed to and directed by Christian principles. Two, he places holy living above everything else. This is his main preoccupation; he is devoted to it with the greatest diligence and earnestness. It can be said he makes his practice of true religion eminently his work and business. And three, he persists in it to the end of his life. He never takes a holiday from it, nor does he practice it only at certain times. It is the constant business of his life and he perseveres through all vicissitudes and under all the trials as long as he lives.