The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards is one of the most clarifying treatises on revival and spiritual transformation.
For that reason it has been a major influence in WordPartners’ understanding of what true spiritual transformation is. (Access the entire critical edition from Yale University Press online for free.)
We thought it would be helpful to discuss The Religious Affections with Dr. Josh Moody, an expert on Jonathan Edwards and the senior pastor at College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and the author of several books including The God Centered Life: Insights from Jonathan Edwards for Today, Burning Hearts Preaching to the Affections (co-authored with Robin Weeks), and most recently John 1–12 For You.
KH: The Religious Affections came out of a historical situation, out of Edwards’ own experience in his own pastoral ministry and as part of a larger corpus of literature he wrote on the same subject of revival and true spiritual transformation. Can you explain to us what was happening at the time? What caused Edwards to write The Religious Affections?
JM: Right, so, Edwards was at the heart of something called the Great Awakening, which was an international movement for revival, and there was a preacher called George Whitefield, who was prominent at that time, having a massive effect—I mean thousands and thousands of people crammed to hear Whitefield preach in the fields. They’d run – we have eyewitness testimony of people dropping the plow in the field, jumping across a hedge and ditch, cramming in to hear him. We’ve got eyewitness testimonies from Benjamin Franklin describing the electricity in the air when Whitefield was preaching. Whitefield was obviously a dramatic, gifted, charismatic preacher, but it was more than simply his personality. We have other records of Whitefield’s sermons literally being read without him present and revival breaking out. Something extraordinary was going on in America and in England. Whitefield was at the heart of that – also a man called Wesley, John Charles Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards.
Jonathan Edwards and his church in Northampton had a series of awakenings on a more local scale. Then Whitefield came along and those awakenings took on a huge scale across New England. A lot of things began to happen that were scary for some of the traditionalists: preaching outside of church, physical manifestations. People became so overcome with emotion they started to fall down, cry out—in the middle of sermons.
Edwards’ most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was actually never completed, at least the second time he preached it. He preached it once in Northampton and then again in the place where the most famous impact occurred. It was never completed at that church because the outcry from the people listening was so massive he just couldn’t be heard anymore. The pastors who were with him had to get down into the congregation and pray for people as they were coming to Christ. This is all the sort of exciting thing that pastors want to happen, but on the other hand, it created some fears among the traditionalists. People perhaps went a little too far and split the movement between radical “New Lights” and then the “Old Lights,” as they were called. Edwards carved out a space for [what] historians have called the “Moderate New Lights”—those who were for the revival but also saying to keep God’s Word and biblical orthodoxy at the heart – not run to an extreme. Edwards wrote a number of different things to try to both promote the revival and describe it. His most mature reflection on that is the book we are talking about, The Religious Affections. There are others previous to that – Distinguishing Marks of the Work of the Spirit of God, Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion – but The Religious Affections is his more mature, more seasoned reflection on revival. Now as we look back, it’s really the classic textbook if you want to understand revival. It’s the best book written in church history on that, but it’s also helpful for discerning what God is doing and what a real experience of God is and is not.
I often say to young pastors, if you want to really good handbook for pastoral ministry, The Religious Affections isn’t a bad place to go – because of the textbook practical level but also the mental, conceptual, and spiritual level. How do I understand what is a real work of God, and how do I promote that? What is not a real work of God? The real work of God – that gives it some context and also some of its contributions to current ministry.
KH: And for that same reason, The Religious Affections is a core book for our training and philosophy of ministry.
KH: We want true, real transformation in the lives of people through the Word of God by the Spirit. It’s helpful to know signs of when that is taking place and signs that don’t necessarily mean it’s taking place.
Our culture doesn’t seem to use the term affections much. How does Edwards use the term? And how does it differ from emotion?
JM: It’s a great question. It’s an area of some debate among Christians who read Edwards. The popular understanding of Edwards’ use of affections is that it’s for all intents and purposes basically the same as emotions. That’s almost certainly incorrect because of the history. In church history there’s this distinction between passions, which tend to be more like physical, almost sensual, reactions to things—not necessarily bad, but just the way the body emotes things. It’s just what it is. Then there’s this sort of higher order of, for want of a better term at the moment, emotions, which tend to be called affections in relation to that. So, that’s the background, and it’s particularly picked up by the Puritans and then later by Edwards.
What I think Edwards is saying by affections is that affections are the thinking the feeling and the willing expression of the human heart; what you have affect towards. Not that we use affect as a pretense but the word actually – what you’re actually doing. And so it’s an internal will, feeling, understanding, movement in a sort of direction. It’s cognitive. Emotions we think of as non-cognitive. No, affection is cognitive, but it has a movement inside. Another term Edwards uses for this is “a sense of the heart.” So, you have a taste. The famous description Edwards uses is about when someone has a taste for God, their affections are stirred by God. This is different as when someone has heard about honey, as opposed to when someone has tasted honey. When we have an affection for God, then you’ve tasted honey. There’s that sense, that feeling for sure, but not as sort of a crazy passion.
KH: According to Edwards, one element of affections is what you alluded to – is that they lead to action. Can you explain the relationship between affection and action?
JM: What I have a will to do is what I will do. Now there can be physical constraints. You can image there is somebody who’s in jail who has a will to be free, but they’re in jail. Okay, but leave aside physical constraints: what I’ve a will to do is what I will do. Affections are what I’ve decided mentally in my mind, sense is true, and have a will, therefore, to do. That inevitably leads to action. Otherwise, I don’t have the affection for it. Therefore if I’ve been moved intellectually, emotionally, cognitively in my will to do something, then I’m going to do it. Otherwise, I’m not going to do it. It’s what Jesus says: the one who loves me obeys my commands (John 14:21).
KH: In The Religious Affections, Edwards works through 12 signs and 12 non-signs, things that don’t necessarily prove a true spiritual experience one way or another. [Read a helpful summary of the signs.] What are some of the biggest takeaways from this list for today?
JM: Well, I think actually reading through the non-signs is almost as important as reading through what the signs are. The reason for that is we tend – they did then, and we do today – to make things significant that are not really significant. The most obvious is the physical manifestation. We tend to think that if someone hears a sermon or sings a song, and they start really crying, then they must mean it. Well, maybe; maybe not. People cry in all sorts of situations. Or we think that’s a sad emotion. But if someone is singing a song or listening to a sermon, and they’re really enthusiastic – they start jumping up and down, they’re clapping – you think, “Yeah, they must be.”
Well, maybe. But people do the same sort of thing at rock concerts or a party. In other words, because we are psychosomatic wholes as people – that is, we have bodies, and the bodies are connected to our thinking and feeling – humans act in certain ways when they are personally moved. It’s not necessarily a sign that the thing by which their person is moved is the work of the Spirit. What’s really showing is we’re human, we’re physical. Similarly, other people tend to look at someone being very enthusiastic or excited in a meeting or something, and they think, “Well, that certainly isn’t the work of God. You know, we should be reverent. We should be stayed.” You know, “Keep quiet.” But again that’s confusion. Some of it is cultural. Certain cultures are more expressive. Some of it is just physical for some people. We have physical bodies, so we express ourselves in certain kinds of ways. You see it in the Psalms: you kneel, you stand, you clap, you raise your hands or worship. These are just physical ways the human body expresses its natural response to things. There is the same natural response to things you can see in other situations that are completely non-spiritual: parties, rock concerts, whatever . . . a family get together – “I’m so excited.” It’s not a sign that this is a work of God. It’s a sign that there’s a human involved, and something moving is happening. We don’t know what just by looking at the outside signs. I think it’s really important to get clear. People are constantly confused about that all the time in church life. So that’s on the negative side.
On the positive side, I think it’s really important to get clear in our minds the greatest sign, which is love – where Edwards lands. Clearly that’s biblical: “These three shall remain, but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). The first fruit of the Spirit is love – not just because it’s the first randomly, or just because it’s the first priority, but because it’s the summation of all the rest. It is – Edward’s has this phrase – concatenation of the fruit. That is, the fruit is actually interlocking, connected, and its sum – summation – is love. Edwards defines this love as a humble, serving love. There’s a kind of love which can be almost prideful, you know: “I’m loving, and I’m so proud about that.” But Edwards defines this love as a humble, serving love.
What I think is most important about the list is; let’s get really clear on what is negative. What are the negative signs? What doesn’t mean anything? And the other thing is to land on the primary one, which is when we see the love of God going forward. Then we’re seeing what is truly the work of God. In other words, the devil will not want to make humans love Jesus and love his people. There is no natural way . . . given who we are, because we’re in sin outside of Christ – there’s no natural way to make anyone love Jesus and his people. So, when you see that developing, you are surely seeing the work of God. That’s how it’s summarized.
KH: When talking about The Religious Affections, it’s probably good to note that it’s not the easiest book to read. It’s probably at least 350 pages, and Edwards kind of has a roundabout way of explaining his points. Sam Storms who wrote a book interpreting The Religious Affections says, “I’ve worked my way through The Affections at least ten times, and I still struggle in places to make sense of him.” So that’s encouraging to me. That being said, what are some resources that you would recommend to help people more deeply engage Edwards in [The] Religious Affections?
JM: Part of it is Edwards. It’s like trying to understand Mozart – he’s a genius. It takes time to try to figure it out. Part of it is just 18th-century English. The sentences are really long. So, we’re used to sentences just having maybe seven or eight words in them. You come across a sentence with 13 or something, and you just don’t know what to do. You have to get used to reading long sentences.
I think probably the most helpful thing to do is – I mean having to do with The Religious Affections, because it’s a great book . . . But if you really want to read it, you probably should start somewhere [else]. I think The Distinguishing Marks is an easy read. If you’ve read The Distinguishing Marks, then you kind of have the key to understanding The Religious Affections, which is sort of The Distinctive Marks writ large. That’s an easy book.
The other thing to do would be to read some of Edwards’ Personal Narrative, which is almost, really, a description of how he became a Christian. You read that, and you get a sense of his heart. I have to say I’ve never – this is maybe not encouraging – but I’ve never really found The Religious Affections hard. I mean, I find some books hard going – you know Dickens starts pretty hard going. Some novels are pretty hard going; some are great. My main piece of advice would be take it slowly. Get a copy, print it off, look at it online, and just read it slowly.
I read The Religious Affections first when I was on the mission field. . . I only took over two volumes of Edwards in my backpack. It was right after the civil war there, and I wasn’t sitting in any kind of posh library or anything. The electricity didn’t always work, and so, in my mind, reading this isn’t associated with a feat. I would take it slowly – not be scared. I would actually read the text itself. I love Sam Storms. I love what he’s done [writing Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections], but if you can, actually read the text itself. It’s a bit like reading the Bible. I’ve written a commentary on the Bible, so in a sense I’m all for commentaries; but the best way to understand the Bible is to read it – to have the confidence that when you read it and use your own brain [and] pray about it, you understand more about the Bible. I think that’s true of almost anything. Go to the source, figure it out – some of it – yourself. Then if you get stuck, then go to the helps. I’ve written books on Edwards, so by all means read those, too. But you really want to go to the source and then lean on the interpreters afterwards. Otherwise, you spend all your life looking at life through someone else’s stained glass windows rather than going [and] experiencing [it] yourself.
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