Jonathan Edwards lived in an age of transition. Between Puritanism and revivalism. Between covenantalism and conversionism. Between the old order and the new. What makes Edwards such a spectacular thinker is his ability to balance every seeming point of tension in the theology of his day. One of these tense issues was that of ecclesiology: what is the church? More importantly, who is the church? In his now-famous Religious Affections (1746), Edwards not only defined pure and undefiled religion; he also foreshadowed his developing ecclesiology – an ecclesiology that would precipitate his firing from his Northampton pastorate of 23 years.
Edwards begins Religious Affections with the subject of trial. For him, trials purify and increase true religion: “True virtue never appears so lovely as when it is most oppressed.” What remains is the affections. Edwards defines the affections as “the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.” Each soul is blessed with two faculties: understanding and will. Affections, then, are not qualitatively different than inclinations, but rather are stronger in degree. However, Edwards asserts that it is “the mind only, that is the proper seat of the affections.” In turn, the affections of men are the “springs of motion” that propel love, hatred, hope, and fear. According to Edwards, hatred itself arises out of love. Likewise, the fervent love of God is also abhorrence of sin. Love is the first and chief of the affections.
Edwards is clear that affections are not a foolproof sign of godliness. However, their absence is proof of the lack of true religion. Ought Christians not have a high degree of hatred for sin and a very deep sorrow for it? What a deep gratitude to God for His mercies we receive! In order to support this thesis, Edwards cites a litany of verses from “Holy Scripture, our sure and infallible rule to judge of things of this nature.” In his examination of texts like Habakkuk 3:16 and Revelation 1:17, Edwards states, “I know of no reason why a being affected with a view of God’s glory should not cause the body to faint, as well as being affected with a view of Solomon’s glory.” However, the author is also aware that it is the nature of Pharisaical “false religion” to affect show and observation.
Edwards next highlights the schemes of the Devil in twisting Scripture. The author does this by looking at the temptations of Christ. The Accuser will abuse Scripture the same way today! Counterfeit religion is still one of Satan’s weapons against true religion. As to men who find salvation, they are in two states: condemnation and then justification. They are first sensible of Christ’s absolute necessity…followed by His utter sufficiency as a Savior. According to Edwards, God leads men into wilderness before He speaks comfortably to them. (Edwards points to Joseph as a type of Christ.) False submission, on the other hand, is a “secret bargain” that ultimately leads to death. According to Edwards, there is a false humiliation and a true.
By God’s “covenant of grace,” He has made provision for the saints of the earth to cling to the hope of Christ. True to Puritan practical syllogism, Edwards encourages his readers to find assurance in the pursuit of the eternal prize of Christ. (1 Peter 1:5-10, 1 John 2:3, etc.) Satan does not assault the hope of the hypocrite, but rather that of the persevering saint. Edwards exhorts his readers to “live upon Christ, and not upon experiences.”
For Edwards, the spirit of adoption doesn’t simply produce love; “Love is the spirit of adoption.” This is important for his view of true religion. Fear is cast out by the Spirit of adoption, and this same Spirit protects us from sin. On the other hand, Edwards concedes that assurance, while present, is never absolute. It is never God’s design to allow His children to known with absolute certainty the sheep from the goats. Nevertheless, for Edwards, there is assurance found in action. (The 1 Corinthians 2 dichotomy between the “natural” person and the “spiritual” person is employed) The Spirit makes the earthly saints His “everlasting dwelling place.” Christ is therefore said to live inside of them. (Gal. 2:20) They are thus spiritual. According to Edwards, holiness is as much the proper nature of the Holy Spirit as heat is the nature of fire. This is why the author of Hebrews writes that we “partake His holiness” and Peter boasts in the “partakers of the divine nature.” (Heb. 12:10, 2 Pet. 1:4) There is thus a difference in two natures: depraved and regenerate. It is an opening of eyes, a raising of the dead, a work of creation. It is “a foundation laid in the nature of the soul.” It is a new love to God. Edwards discusses the “imagination,” or “the power of the mind whereby it can have a conception or idea of things of an external or outward nature.” This is the work of the Spirit: to fix the image of Christ, an external image, in the mind.
The power of Satan often lies in his ability to “suggest thoughts” to men. Otherwise, Edwards asserts, he could not tempt them to sin. Conversely, no promise of the covenant of grace belongs to any man unless he first believes in Christ. It is by faith alone that he “becomes interested” in Christ. Edwards calls this “faith of dependence.” The only certain foundation is the veracity of Scripture’s invitation. One must embrace the Promiser and not simply His promise. Upon faith, the image of Christ is “enstamped” by the Spirit on God’s children’s hearts. This is why it is called the “Spirit of adoption.” Edwards also calls the Spirit God’s “royal signet.” This Spirit is love. Therefore, whereas self-love is entirely natural, love of God is supernatural. Faith is not the love of God’s gifts but rather the love of God Himself.
The joy of hypocrites is in self and experience and not in God. Pride, according to Edwards, is like a castle built in the air – without foundation. Edwards distinguishes between man’s spiritual image and his natural image. The latter is expressed in reason and understanding, whereas the spiritual image is found in holiness and moral excellency granted by the Spirit. For Edwards, “A true love to God must begin with a delight in His holiness.” In turn, a “spiritual sense” means perceiving the beauty of holiness. The grace of God enables us to see the beauty of God. Edwards goes on to distinguish between speculative knowledge and the knowledge that relishes and feels. The natural goodness of the Gospel itself, and not its holiness and moral excellency, is enough to cause men to receive it with joy! Hence a strictly biblical knowledge unaccompanied by a sense of holy beauty is worthless. (1 Cor. 13:2) “Spiritually enlightening the eyes to understand the Scripture, is to open the eyes,” Edwards explains. (Ps. 119:18) It is the spiritual “taste” of the sinner that is subject to the rule of God.
At Christ’s return, all will know that He is divine. Edwards looks at texts like the Transfiguration to highlight His supreme glory. Still, the most vivid manifestation of His glory occurred at the cross. His covenant to His church is our foundation upon which all of our assurances do stand. In order to see His divine glory, the Spirit both (1) removes hindrances of reason and (2) positively helps our reason. By this way can renounce our own glory. True Christianity is found in this evangelical humiliation. Edwards defines a “legal spirit” as a “spirit of pride of man’s own righteousness, morality, holiness, affection, experience, faith, humiliation, or any goodness whatsoever.” Edwards even provocatively calls the King of England “the first born of pride.” True ignorance is conceited knowledge. As he examines Romans 4, Edwards asserts that “the design of the gospel is to cut off all glorying, not only before God, but also before men.” Christian fear arises out of Christian humility.
Edwards contends that the command to become like a child is a mandate for tender hearts: “Tender is the heart of a Christian with regard to the evil of sin.” Edwards extols glory of private, solitary religion. Conversion, he says, is “but the beginning of his work.” It is, after all, newness of life. (Rom. 6:4) When Christ unites Himself to someone’s heart, He will show Himself to be God. Edwards then alludes to his emerging divorce with Stoddardean theology when he examines the exact nature of a Christian profession of faith. True believers are, according to Edwards, “what they profess to be.” True sincerity is forsaking all for Christ. Therefore trials are “experiments” of one’s faith. Discussing the theology of James, Edwards contends that works “vindicate and manifest he sincerity of their profession.” In the end, however, justification without works is fixed upon Christ’s righteousness and not our own.