Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards is considered by many to be the greatest theologian, pastor, and author that America has ever produced.  In his book Religious Affections, Edwards tackles the subject of true grace in the life of a believer.  He wrote this book because of the many “born-again experiences” that people had during the time of the Great Awakening.

On the first page, Edwards sets forth 1 Peter 1:8 as his thesis.  The verse says, “Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” Edwards argues that affections (i.e. emotions) are highly important in Christianity.  True faith, in other words, will result in unspeakable joy in God, full of glory to God.

Edwards gives us twelve distinguishing signs of true grace in a person’s life.  I want to highlight a few of them.

One evidence of true grace in a person is that they love God because of his intrinsic excellency and not for any personal benefits they receive (#2).  “Now the divine excellency and glory of God and Jesus Christ, the Word of God, the works of God, and the ways of God,” Edwards writes, “is the primary reason why a true saint loves these things: and not any supposed interest that he has in them, or any conceived benefit that he has received from them, or shall receive from them” (p. 88).  True Christians love God because he is the greatest treasure in the universe — not because he gives them entrance to heaven, escape from hell, spiritual gifts, etc.

The one that perhaps gripped my heart the most was #6 on true evangelical humiliation (humility).  He describes true humility this way: “Evangelical humiliation is a sense that a Christian has of his own utter insufficiency, despicableness, and odiousness, with an answerable frame of heart” (p. 126).  However, true saints “do not see their own odiousness on account of sin,” but rather because of the “discovery of the beauty of Gods’ holiness and moral perfection.”   True grace in a person leads them to hate sin and repent of it, not merely because of consequences, but because the God they worship is glorious and holy.  Moreover, true saints think themselves as the least of all saints (p. 130).

The twelfth and final evidence of true grace that Edwards provides is fruit in Christian practice.  He gives a lengthy discourse on this, citing literally hundreds of verses showing that fruit is the sign of whether someone truly belongs to Christ or not.  “True grace is not an inactive thing;” he says, “there is nothing in heaven or earth of a more active nature; for it is life itself, and the most active kind of life, even spiritual and divine life” (p. 168).  Someone may say, “I’m a Christian,” all they want, but if there is no killing of sin or obeying the commandments of God or active allegiance to the Scriptures, their confession proves to be false.  Edwards says that true Christians may be guilty of some degree back-sliding and may give in to particular temptations and even commit great sins.  But a true Christian can never fall away so that they “grow weary of the religion and the service of God” (p. 164).

This might be the greatest book on discerning new birth in yourself and others and obtaining true assurance.  Christian assurance is a process and progress, not information in the mind.  True grace from God will always result in internal transformation and consequently externally as well.  The true saint will grow to be more like Christ, to love Christ, to have the mind of Christ, and to obey Christ.  This must be the case, Edwards argues, because “the light of professors would so shine before men, that others, seeing their good works, would glorify their Father which is in heaven” (p. 200).


I Want to Be Holier Than I Really Am

Yesterday, I listened to a Matt Chandler sermon and to start it off he said, “If I can be honest, when I became a Christian at 18, I thought at age 34 I’d be holier than I am now.”   Too bad the audio was corrupt and I only heard 14 minutes of the sermon!  Nevertheless, when Chandler said that, I couldn’t help but cry out to God in my heart (I was at the gym, so no verbal processing) that I want to be holier than I am.

Later in the day, I was reading Religious Affections. Johnathon Edwards has a way to make the Christian heart examine itself more thoroughly and seriously than most things I’ve read, outside the Bible.  In section 6 he talks about true “evangelical humiliation,” that is, true humility.  He writes:

Humility, or true lowliness of mind, disposes persons to think others better than themselves: Phil 2:3, “In lowliness of mind, let each esteem other better than themselves.”  Hence they are apt to think the lowest room belongs to them, and their inward disposition naturally leads them to obey that precept of our Savior, Luke 14:10…It is not natural to them to think it belongs them to teach, but to be taught; they are much more eager to hear, and to receive instruction from others, than to dictate to others: James 1:19, “Be ye swift to hear, slow to speak.”  And when they do speak, it is not natural to them to speak with a bold, masterly air; but humility disposes them rather to speak, trembling.  Hosea 13:1, “When Ephraim spake trembling, he exalted himself in Israel; but when he offended in Baal, he died.”  They are not apt to assume authority, and to take upon them to be chief managers and masters; but rather to be subject to other: James 3:1-2, “Be not many masters.”  1 Peter 5:5, “All of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility.”  Ephesians 5:21, “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.”

I find in myself a desire to do those things well, by the Spirit.  Yet, so often — too often — I come up miserably short.  I’m not humble, usually ever.  And I see that my biggest battle is to make myself my god.  That’s when I really need to cast myself upon the grace of God in the gospel and kill sin by the Spirit (Rom. 8:12-13; Col. 3:5).  Instead, I can tend to kill sin with the spirit moralism and simply replace my “one black devil to let in seven white ones that were worse than the first,” as Edwards says.

Christ needs to be my righteousness.  I need to believe that, and have faith that God loves me because of his Son, and he sees me as he sees Christ.  When this happens, I’m compelled and delighted to obey, and holiness becomes a joy, not a legalistic triumph.

Ministry Theology

Follow-Up Post to ‘Confessions’

In my post Confessions of a Campus Pastor, I talked about evidences of true conversion and assurance.  My intention was not to criticize any method of evangelism, to say that there are never true conversions, or to say that there is never rejoicing in ministry. Methods can be good; there are many true conversions; and we are always sorrowful, yet rejoicing.  My intention was simply to work through thoughts on how ministers of the gospel (i.e. all true Christians) deal with people who do not truly desire Jesus, holiness, to kill sin, etc., but seem to profess faith nevertheless.

I felt that Jonathan Edwards’ counsel was very wise in practicing discernment with this — since he lived and preached during a time in our nation’s history that was filled with true and false conversions (the Great Awakening).

Edwards wrote Religious Affections as a response to those who were critical of the Great Awakening and the emotions that people were showing — whether true or false.  Not all were genuine.  But emotions weren’t the problem.  Emotionalism was.  The other extreme?  Intellectualism, that is, knowing a lot of facts about Jesus instead of truly loving him with your whole being.

In the book, Edwards argues that affections (emotions that serve as catalysts for true love for God, and hence spiritual disciplines) are essential to true religion, but they need to be tested.  That is essentially what I said when I wrote, “If someone doesn’t hate their sin, if they are not growing in experiencing God as the supreme Treasure of their life, one has to wonder if they ever truly met Jesus at all.”

Some things I didn’t mention that affect this whole issue (because the post would been too long), is first that we ministers do not follow up well after someone professes faith and the person therefore does not grow.  Second, and I think more common, is that we assume that people are always genuine and we treat them as such (some people are truly genuine!).  We start to feed them follow up material and theology, when in fact, they give no evidence for true transformation, only a knowledge of facts or a love for a genie Jesus who gives them good gifts.

The latter happens often in cultures where the prosperity gospel has really taken root (e.g. South Africa).  When this happens, we need to go back to the core of the gospel.  When this happens, we need to tell them that God gave himself, not just benefits.  When this happens, we have to be bold and ask the hard questions (“Do you love Jesus or just the benefits?”) and show them the hard truths in Scripture (“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it,” Mark 8:35).

Finally, I was not saying that people get saved and then can’t hack it so they are lost.  That’s unbiblical, and I’ve addressed that elsewhere.  Neither is Edwards saying that.  The issue at hand for Evangelicalism all over the world, not just campus ministries, is not whether the seed that was preached fell on good soil and got uprooted.  It’s whether or not the seed fell on good soil at all.

Among all the other things we must be concerned with as ministers, perhaps one of the most urgent is the warning that the author of Hebrews gives us in his letter:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.  But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you maybe hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.  For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end (3:12-14).

Later on in the letter (6:4-6), the author even says that there are some people who “have been enlightened…tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the age to come” yet are not saved.  That’s pretty scary.  The people he is writing to, however, have “things that belong to salvation” (v. 9).  Those things include loving the saints and being imitators of men and women who went before them (vv. 11-12).  It also includes taking care to not be hardened by sin (3:12-14) and regarding Jesus as supreme in all the universe (1:1-4).

I want to come alongside people to help them “make their calling and election sure” (2 Pet. 1:10).  My heart is to lead those to Jesus who are not truly with him, but think they are.  That means continuing to preach the gospel to them and ask the hard questions.  And that means doing the same thing to myself as well (2 Cor. 13:5).

Life Ministry

Confessions of a Campus Pastor

Campus ministry, at large, is vastly different than ministry in a church.  The demographic is narrowed.  The lifestyles are more uniform.  The conversations are generally more surface-level because college students don’t have that much experience in life.

So when a college student “accepts” Christ, it is usually a big deal.  People get super excited.  There’s praises and clapping and baking of muffins, as well as co-ministers who say things like, “That is so amazing!  God is so good!”  Most people react like this.

Except me.  I get skeptical.

Yup.  I’m that guy.

Before you burn me at the campus ministry heretics’ stake, give me some grace to be vulnerable here. First let me say that when someone becomes a Christian, there is no greater joy for me.  Seeing a spiritual baby born is truly a miracle and God deserves praise for it.  Last year, I had a friend from China that I got to know during the fall semester.   We were conversation partners so he could learn English.  We went out to dinner together.  I taught him about American football.

Then, one day, he said in broken English, “James, I hear you know a lot about Jesus story.”  So, I told him about Jesus.  He contemplated.  He battled to find truth.  He came with me to my parents’ home for Christmas.  He experienced the graces of Christian love, family, and fellowship.  A few weeks after the start of the second semester, he told me that Jesus saved him and now, by God’s grace, he was a Christian.  Our conversation meetings then turned into intentional discipleship times.

Now that’s awesome.

What I don’t think is awesome, and therefore do not get super excited about, is when a person reads a tract and the only way they understand the gospel is that Jesus died so they can have a great life.  They can get healed of disease.  They can get a good job.  They can have a better family.  They can get a free-pass from their sins. A lot of times, students will pray “the prayer,” and we truly think they are a real Christian.  Jesus gave us some wisdom about this.  He said that we need to wait a while to find out whether or not this seed that was planted landed in good soil (Matt 13:18-23).

The great American theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards helps us flesh this out.  He says that it’s not easy to tell whether someone is a real, professing Christian or simply a pretender.  He says in Religious Affections, “The difference between doves and ravens, or doves and vultures, when they first come out of the egg, is not so evident; but as they grow to their perfection [maturity], it [the difference] is exceeding great and manifest.”

Whenever someone excitedly asks me, “So he accepted Christ?!  He’s a Christian?”, I always answer with, “Let’s find out in 6 months.”  Edwards counsel is wise.  Let’s wait to make judgments until they have gotten out of the egg, flown around a bit, grown into their own feathers, and tried to find their own food.

A tangent to this is talking to people on campuses who have no “assurance” of salvation.  Here in South Africa, we hear a lot about “making sure they get assurance if they are Christian.”  I have never understood how this practically works.  Isn’t assurance a life-long battle?  After all, Paul says we are in a marathon, not a sprint.  Fighting to make your calling and election sure doesn’t happen because you know information about God’s preservation of his people.  Assurance comes about through transformation.  A Christian might say, “Of course I’m assured of my salvation.  I accepted Christ.  I’m secure.”  Others who I might share some verses with (like John 10, Romans 8, or 1 John 5) might realize Jesus preserves his people.  But we need to remember that it was Jesus who said that not everyone who says to him, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven.

Again, Edwards gives insight.  “It is not God’s design that men should obtain assurance in any other way than by mortifying corruption, and increasing in grace, and obtaining the lively exercises of it.”   What are the “lively exercises” of grace?  It is a joyful and willful delight to love and obey God, study his word, pray, love people, and hate sin.  If someone doesn’t hate their sin, if they are not growing in experiencing God as the supreme Treasure of their life, one has to wonder if they ever truly met Jesus at all.

I want people to meet Jesus.  I want people to have comfort that they will not be lost.  All true Christians should want this.  But let’s not assume people are prepared to meet their Maker when they may in fact not be.  Let’s not assume people are really believers, even if they have confessed it for 10 years, when in fact they don’t really love Jesus and don’t hate their sin.

I understand this might rub some people the wrong way. I know that others might think I’m being too skeptical. I understand that I might be taking away from people’s joy.

The truth is, I love my job, but these are realities that I deal with. People can say whatever they’d like, but this goes beyond campus ministry.  This is an Evangelical problem all over the world.  I want people to truly follow Jesus, and that means continuing to preach the gospel to them as they grow to really be satisfied with Christ alone-not his gifts or anything else. Whatever you think, know that I’m just a dude doing my best, by the Spirit, to follow Jesus and be faithful to his calling.  I want to make disciples of all nations, but I don’t want any person to be fooled and get to the next life only to find out they were deceived in this one.

trying to figure out this whole “ministry” thing with you,


Satan Will Tempt You With the Word

Jonathan Edwards writes in his Religious Affections on why we should expect Satan to tempt us with the Bible:

He who was bold enough to lay hold on Christ himself, and carry him hither and thither, into the wilderness and into a high mountain and to a pinnacle of the temple, is not afraid to touch the Scripture and abuse that for his own purpose; as he showed at the same time that he was so bold with Christ, he then brought one Scripture and another, to deceive and tempt him.  And if Satan did presume, and was permitted to put Christ himself in mind of tests of Scripture to tempt him, what reason have we to determine that he dare not, or will not be permitted, to put wicked men in mind of texts of Scripture to tempt and deceive them?

…And the devil can abuse the Scripture, to deceive and destroy men, so may men’s own folly and corruptions as well: The sin which is in men acts like its father.  Men’s own hearts are deceitful like the devil, and use the same means to deceive.