Jonathan Edwards wrote A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections during the Great Awakening – a revival covering both sides of the Atlantic in the 18th Century. He wrote from the center, correcting both those who had lost themselves in extremes during revival meetings but also to those who dismissed the entire revival as the Devil’s work. As you can imagine, he came under fire from both sides.
Here is some of what he had to say to his detractors who insisted that emotion had no place in the Christian life. He offers the following reasons why genuine Christianity (or what he calls “true religion”) is largely a matter of the affections.
- Fervent exercises of the heart and lively actions of the inclination and will determine much of true religion. The religion which God requires and will accept does not consist of weak, dull, and lifeless wishes which scarcely raise us above indifference. In His Word, God insists that we be “fervent in spirit” and actively engage our hearts in religion. “Be fervent in spirit, serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11). “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul?” (Deuteronomy 10:12, cf. 6:4, 6; 30:6). We are nothing if we are not in earnest about our faith and if our wills and inclinations are not intensely exercised. The religious life contains things too great for us to be lukewarm.
- Unless we are influenced by some affection – such as love, hate, desire, hope, or fear – we tend to be lazy. These emotions are like springs that set us moving in all the affairs of life and its pursuits. If all love and hatred, hope and fear, anger, zeal, and affectionate desire were taken away, the world would be motionless and dead. And if this is true of worldly affairs, it is also true in matters of faith. The spring of their actions lies very much in religious affections. He who has only doctrinal knowledge and theory, without affection, is never engaged in the goodness of faith.
- Religious matters only grip us to the degree that they stir our affections. Multitudes often hear the Word of God and have knowledge about it. But it will be totally ineffective and will make no change in their behavior or character if they are not affected by what they hear. No change of religious nature will ever take place unless the affections are moved. Without this, no natural man will earnestly seek for his salvation. Likewise, no saint has been weaned out of the cold and lifeless state of mind, or recovered from backsliding, without having his heart affected. In summary, nothing significant ever changed the life of anyone when the heart was not deeply affected.
- Everywhere the Scriptures place much emphasis upon the affections:
- The Bible speaks much about the need of godly fear. It is often described as a character of those that are truly devout since they tremble at God’s Word and fear Him.
- Similarly, hope in God and in the promises of His Word is often spoken of in Scripture as a significant part of true faith (see 1Cor 13:13, Jer 17:7, Rom 8:24, 1Th 5:8, Heb 6:19, 1Pe 1:3, and Ps 146:5, 31:24, 33:18, and 147:11).
- Love is the fountain and chief of all other affections Our blessed Savior illustrates this in His answer to the lawyer’s question, “What is the great commandment of the law?” (Matthew 22:37-40; see also Rom 13:8, Gal 5:14, 1Ti 1:5, 1Cor 13).
- The opposite affection of love, hatred, has sin as its object. This too is a significant part of true religion in the Scriptures (see Pr 8:13, Ps 97:10, 101:2-3, 119:104, and 139:21).
- Holy desire, which is expressed in longings and hunger and thirst after God, is often mentioned in Scripture as an important part of true religion (Isa 26:8, Mt 5:6, Rev 21:6, SoS 3:1-2, and countless Psalms such as 27:4 and 42:1-2).
- The Scriptures also speak of holy joy as a significant part of true religion. We are often exhorted to exercise this joy (Ps 37:4, Mt 5:12, Gal 5:22, and Phil 3:1 and 4:4).
- Religious sorrow, mourning, and brokenness of heart are often mentioned in reference to true religion. These are frequently described as those qualities which distinguish true saints and are a significant part of their character (Mt 5:4, Ps 34:18 and 61:17, and Isa 57:15 and 66:2).
- Gratitude is another affection mentioned, especially latitude that is related to thankfulness and praise to God. This is frequently referred to in the Psalms and in many other parts of the Scriptures.
- The Scriptures often speak of compassion or mercy as a vital feature of true religion. Indeed, a merciful man and a good man are equivalent terms in the Bible (Ps 37:21, Pr 14:31, Micah 6:8, Col 3:12, Mt 5:7 and 23:23).
- Zeal is also spoken of as an essential part of the religion of true saints. It is the great thing Christ had in view in giving Himself for our redemption (Titus 2:14). The lukewarm Laodiceans were rebuked for their lack of zeal (Revelation 3:15, 16, and 19).
- Holy affections characterize the saints of the Bible. David was “a man after God’s own heart.” Paul was inflamed, motivated, and entirely absorbed in an ardent love for his glorious Lord, and his epistles are full of expressions of an overwhelming affection toward the people of Christ. Likewise, affections fill the writings of the apostle John as well.
- Jesus Christ himself had a remarkably tender and affectionate teart. He is the shepherd whom the flock should follow, and his virtue is expressed much in the exercise of holy affections. His is the most wonderful example of ardor, vigor, and strength of love, both to God and man, that ever was.
- The Bible portrays life in heaven as consisting largely in holy and mighty love and joy. The expression of these is given in the most fervent and exaltec praises. So the religion of the saints in heaven consists of the same things as the religion of the saints on earth, namely love and joy unspeakable and full of glory.
- God’s ordinances and duties are the means and expressions of true religion.
- God calls on us to pray in order to affect our hearts with the things we express and so to prepare us to receive the blessings that we ask. These gestures and behavior in our worship of God, in humility and reverence, have a tendency to affect our hearts as well as the hearts of others.
- The duty of singing praises to God seems to be given wholly to excite and express religious affections. There is no other reason why we should express ourselves to God in verse rather than in prose and with music, except that these things have a tendency to move our affections.
- God has given us palpable representations of gospel truths in the sacraments in order for them to affect us all the more.
- in preaching, God has appointed a particular and effective application of His Word to His people.
- Just as true religion lies very much in the affections of the heart, so the Scriptures consistently refer to hardness of heart as being the sin of the heart (Mk 3:5, Tom 2:5, Eze 3:7, Ps 95:7-10, 2Chr 36:13, and Acts 19:9). It is very clear from other texts that hardness of heart means the heart that is void of affection (Job 39:16 and Pr 28:14).
In light of these reasons, we see how grave is the error of discarding all religious affections as having nothing solid or substantial about them. This seems to be very common today. It may be a reaction against many during the great Revival who exaggerated the intensity of their emotions and the heat of their zeal. When others saw that their intense emotions came to nothing, they reacted and went from one extreme to another.
But those without any religious affection are in a state of spiritual death. They are wholly destitute of the powerful, quickening, saving influences of the Spirit of God upon their hearts. So while it is true that where there is nothing but emotionalism there can be no true religion, likewise there can be no true religion where there is no religious affection. There must be light in the understanding as well as the fervency of heart, for if a heart has heat without light, there can be nothing divine or heavenly in that heart. On the other hand, where there is light without heat, such as a head stored with notions and speculations but having a cold and unaffected heart, there can be nothing divine in that light either.