BOOK REVIEW: THE RELIGIOUS AFFECTIONSPosted: August 28, 2008
My plan in reviewing The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards is to break this review down into the same sections that he did in his book. There are three main areas in which he explains what the correct affections are that one must look for in the life of a believer. His first section shows what affections should be in the Christian life, and the importance of them. From there, Edwards goes deeper into explaining what signs seem to be genuine signs, but may not be genuine at all. Lastly, Edwards then gives the signs that he believes make the distinction of the true believer from the world.
The Religious Affections was quite hard to read due to Edwards’ overuse of commas, colons, and semicolons. His sentences never seemed to stop thinking. What I mean by this is that Edwards’ thoughts tend to be so deep and so long that he would barely give the reader time to rest his brain while reading the book. As the reader, you must constantly be entirely into this book or you’ll be lost in a matter of seconds. I have not thought so much while reading in a long, long time; but I have also not read a book more soul convicting, mind captivating, and heart grasping than this one by Jonathan Edwards.
What I found quite intriguing was the number of books I came across that commentated on this book, and how many authors have already given their own interpretation of this particular book due to its heaviness of material and ideas that Edwards goes over. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t plow along and walk through the deep trenches of his writings. As Sam Stone says in his interpretation of The Religious Affections,
“The theology of Jonathan Edwards and his insight into the nature of religious experience are simply too important, too relevant, and too enriching to sacrifice on the altar of some lofty ideal that is beneath his (and our) dignity to make his work accessible to a more general audience.”
Therefore, my plan to is go over each of the major sections, and while doing that, to cover one key idea, sign, theological importance, or whatever it may be in that section that I personally found most important.
I. Concerning the Nature of the Affections, and Their Importance in Religion
Jonathan Edwards does not beat around the bush when it comes to explaining what he believes or what he knows to be true. In this first section he gives ten evidences that you should be able to find in a true believer regarding their affections. Edwards deems that the outside of the believer should clearly show whether or not he is a Spirit-filled believer. From the first evidence he gives, Edwards states, “for who will deny that true religion consists in a great measure in vigorous and lively actings of the incarnation and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart?” Edwards reveals why God gave human nature affections, how men’s souls are taken captive by the Word of God, how the Holy Scriptures cause affections, how the Scriptures take us to the chief end of all affections, and even how saints in Scriptures have experienced such holy affections.
Characteristically, Edwards first makes the point he is trying to get across and then secondly gives his reasoning of it, always using the Scriptures. In this book, this process specifically shows the nature of the affections and their importance to religion. For example: In this section Edwards gives his evidence that true religion is found in the affection of the heart. He then goes deeper than simply stating what he believes, and moves to explain his reasoning behind what he believes to be true. Edwards gives example after example of his belief to back the point he is trying to get across. He shows from Scripture the affection of the heart and how it can bring displeasure to Christ in the hardening of the heart. He also gives both the negative and the positive aspects of the point he is covering, giving Scriptural reference of how the heart should not be (negative), and explaining the proper affections that the heart should practice (positive).
Although this section is short in length, its depth is measureless. Edwards expounds that true religion is shown and revealed in the reflections and actions of the life of one who says he is a believer, and also explains the twofold function of the heart – one which understands, and the other which determines your views or will.
II. Showing What Are No Certain Signs That Religious Affections Are Truly Gracious, or That They Are Not
In the second part of The Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards lays out a number of areas in a believer’s life that are often said to be true signs of religion, but really are not. No matter the greatness or the effects of the affection, these alone do not determine true signs of religion. Edwards not only deals with these, but also with other signs such as excessive excitement, intense affections, the appearance of love, knowing texts of Scripture, joys following a certain order, and zeal of following the Christian duty. One area of interest that stood out to me in particular was how Edwards did not use the Scriptures as the only way that affections may occur. Rather, he makes it clear that the affections that the believer may have on occasion come about from the fruit of the right use of Scripture, and not merely Scripture alone.
In this section Edwards also gives Scriptural basis from his personal observation of others. He clearly and straightforwardly gives not only Scriptural reference, but also everyday experiences pertaining to each affection. This second part of The Religious Affections is presented as the experiential section, which Edwards uses in showing the Christian faith. It details the significance and importance of how the believer ought to be – and can be – sure of his affections in what he believes in order for others to understand also. Jonathan Edwards’ reason for dealing with this is very helpful when he gives personal examples, and it is that which makes it experiential. Edwards shows best that a spiritual truth is not the affection itself, but is what may cause the religious affection in the heart. For example, he says, “That which many call the witness of the spirit… This kind of knowledge, knowing that a certain person is converted and delivered from hell and entitled to heaven, is no divine sort of knowledge in itself.”
One of the astounding facts that Jonathan Edwards writes about here is how the physical manifestations do not clearly reveal the work of the Holy Spirit. I found this quite intriguing because this issue was not only evident in the 18th century, but is also the same problem in modernity and post modernity. Just because someone acts as though they speak in tongues, or writes spiritually profound material, or attends church, does not mean that they are a believer of the work of the Holy Spirit. This problem existed in Edwards’ day, and appears as though it has forever been this way – and will continue to be this way – with those who let their affections override the authority of Scripture. Although a person may say that their full intention is not harmful to the spirit, their work can be ever deceitful to the body of Christ and harmful to those who follow an experience-based faith.
Structurally, part two is not nearly as difficult to read as part one, but seems to be longer in sentence structure. However, thanks to the powerful and compelling content, this is not a deterrent to reading it.
III. Showing What Are Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections
Part three of Jonathan Edwards’ The Religious Affections clearly shows the uniqueness of his theology. Here Edwards reveals how true affections that are spiritual differ from those that are not. Edwards shows his concern about allowing gracious affections to be the source of what enables a person to discern the way that they live. He then goes on to show how affections arise from the influences and operations that happen spiritually in the heart. In other words, the man who is a spiritual born again believer is not like the natural man, in the sense that only the affections of a spiritual man represent the things of the Spirit of God. This is what Jonathan Edwards spends his time breaking down in nearly 250 pages: how the spiritual man is to discern his affections so that they outwardly reveal the Spirit of God. Edwards then makes the claim that being a spiritual person does not mean that the believer will merely want or try to have affections that resemble the Triune God, but they will fully signify an all-embracing relationship with the Triune God, which will be reflected in their affections.
Near the end of Edwards’ book he focuses on the affections that a believer should live out like Christ. Affections such as love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness, and mercy are to be shown clearly in the life of the believer so that the affections resemble the One who laid down His life: Christ. Edwards says it best like this,
“The evidence of this in Scripture is very abundant, if we judge the nature of Christianity and the proper spirit of the Gospel by the Word of God, this spirit is what may, by the way of eminency, be called the Christian spirit: and may be looked upon as the true and distinguishing position of the hearts of Christians as Christians.”
What Edwards was trying to get across was that, for example, the Sermon on the Mount was Christ preaching to live affections like that of Himself. Matthew 5:5, 7, 9 says, “Blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful and blessed are the peace makers”… these are the characteristics of one who bears witness of the Spirit; the one who reveals Who is manifested in him.
The whole section can ultimately be narrowed down into a few sentences, showing how the Lord’s operation upon the mind of the natural man works in making him spiritual, so that he is able to discern the characteristics that lie in the person, the will, and the work of Christ. These affections will then glorify God to His utmost, which is a perfect example of what Paul states in Galatians 5:16: “walk in the spirit and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.”