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).