Edwards on the Nature of True Religion
I would say, though it is an exaggeration, I would like to sit at Jonathan Edwards' feet to learn what is true religion, and at Thomas Boston's to learn how I am to get it ... but between Boston and Edwards there is no contradiction, and they are important to each other ... I would like to see a divine arise in whom I Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Boston were thoroughly welded into one.Dr John ('Rabbi') Duncan
Although The Religious Affections is eminently a 'practical' and experimental book, it proceeds from a definite doctrinal conviction, namely, that holiness is necessarily involved at the outset of true Christian experience. Grace planted in the heart in the new-birth is 'a principle of holy action or practice'. Therefore, wherever a profession of conversion does not result in holiness of life it must be understood that regenerationhas not occurred.
If this basic conviction of Edwards (and Reformed Theology) is not granted, the alternative is to argue that persons can be renewed, that is to say, can be truly saved, and, then, ultimately be lost. For John Wesley this alternative was the obviously true explanation of what had happened in New England. In his greatly abridged version of Edwards' Religious Affections, published in 1773, Wesley thought it necessary to warn the readers of the author's fundamental mistake:
The design of Mr. Edwards in the treatise from which the following extract is made, seems to have been chiefly, if not altogether, to serve his hypothesis. In three preceding tracts he had given an account of a glorious work in New England ... But in a few years a considerable part of these 'turned back as a dog to the vomit'. What was the plain inference to be drawn from this? Why, that a true believer may 'make shipwreck of the faith'. How then could he evade the force of this? Truly, by eating his own words, and proving as well as the nature of things would bear, that they were no believers at all.
In order to this, he heaps together so many curious subtle, metaphysical distinctions, as are sufficient to puzzle the brains, and confound the intellects, of all the plain men and women in the universe, and to make them doubt of, if not wholly deny, all the work which God had wrought in their souls.1
There is clearly a serious difference between Edwards and Wesley and it does not simply relate to the perseverance of believers. Wesley's charge is that 'Christian' experience is so basically simple that it is needless to attempt distinctions between the real and the false in those who claim to be rejoicing in Christ. If a person who has assurance of salvation later loses it, and abandons the Christian practice which he once followed, he is plainly a case of a person losing his salvation. So Wesley thought. Edwards would have been almost nonplussed by such an approach. For him it was axiomatic that there are affections, whether of joy, zeal, love or whatever, which the Scriptures teach may be the result of influences other than the saving work of the Holy Spirit. The ways in which men are misled are 'so many that no philosophy or experience will ever be sufficient to guide us safely through this labyrinth and maze, without our closely following the clue which God has given us in His Word.'2
However much we may regret it, Edwards believed that the problem involved in recognizing true Christian experience is a fact. Simplistic judgments, for example, the judgment of those who would make a certain type of conversion the proof of a genuine experience, are therefore thoroughly dangerous. Difficulties are inevitable both because of the variety and mystery of the Holy Spirit's work and because of the complexity of the human personality, yet he believed that the Scriptures do give us directions and that it is only when men neglect them that they will be 'bewildered, confounded and fatally deluded'.
Edwards argues that there are always certain things missing from the 'affections' of those who have no true grace. Humility is missing. Thus he regarded much talk of 'great experiences' as no mark of godliness.3
There are some persons that go by the name of high professors ... I do not believe there is an eminent saint in the world that is a high professor. Such will be much more likely to profess themselves to be the least of all saints. ... Such is the nature of grace and of true spiritual light that they naturally dispose the saints in the present state to look upon their grace and goodness (as) little and their deformity (as) great ... The more grace a person has, the more the smallness of his grace and love appear strange and wonderful: and therefore he is more ready to think that others are beyond him.4An abiding sense of sin is missing. 'All gracious affections are broken-hearted affections 5... True saints are spoken of in Scripture not only as those that have mourned for sin, but as those that do mourn, whose manner it is still to mourn' (Matthew 5:4).
Accordingly, those who lack 'gracious affections' have no reverential fear, they are 'familiar' with God in worship and 'bold, forward, noisy and boisterous' with men.6In Scripture, Edwards argues, rejoicing is not the opposite of 'godly fear' but it is ever joined with it. There is always a true balance missing from the seeming grace of an unregenerate 'evangelical' professor of Christ. The real Christian, enjoying assurance of salvation, has 'holy boldness' but he also 'has less of self-confidence and more modesty ... He is less apt than others to be shaken in faith, but more apt than others to be moved with solemn warnings, and with God's frowns, and with the calamities of others. He has the firmest comfort, but the softest heart. Richer than others, he is the poorest of all in spirit: the tallest and strongest saint, but the least and tenderest child among them'.7
It is true that as Edwards works out these differences at some length, an effort is sometimes required to keep with him. The Religious Affections is deep and profound. The content was originally preached, it should be remembered, not to the young converts of 1735 but to those who had, or professed to have, much spiritual experience seven years later. Yet Edwards' basic and recurring theme is straightforward enough. The love and the pursuit of holiness is the enduring mark of the true Christian. Although the experience of a young Christian may be 'like a confused chaos', he will follow holiness, and true religious affections differ from false affections in that they are always related to holiness.
Natural men have no sense of the goodness and excellency of holy things, at least for their holiness but, for the saints, holiness is the most amiable and sweet thing that is to be found in heaven or earth.8
When persons are possessed of 'false affections', and 'think themselves out of danger of hell, they very much put off the burden of the cross, save themselves the trouble of difficult duties, and allow themselves more of the enjoyment of their ease and their lusts.' 'Some of these', he adds, 'at the same time make a great profession of love to God and assurance of his favour, and great joy in tasting the sweetness of his love'.9
In Edwards’ own short manuscript notes on 'Directions for Judging of Persons' Experiences', he writes, 'See to it that they long after holiness and that all their experiences increase their longing ... See to it, whether their experience makes them long after perfect freedom from sin, and after those things wherein holiness consists.' This is the point which is so fully expanded in The Religious Affections. Where 'joys and other religious affections are false and counterfeit', he writes,
individuals, once confident that they are converted, have no more earnest longings after light and grace ... they live upon their first work, or some high experiences that are past, and there is an end to their crying and striving after God and grace. But the holy principles that actuate a true saint have a far more powerful influence to stir him up to earnestness in seeking God and holiness ... The Scriptures everywhere represent the seeking, striving, and labour of a Christian, as being chiefly after his conversion, and his conversion as being but the beginning of his work. And almost all that is said in the New Testament, of men's watching, giving earnest heed to themselves, running the race that is set before them, striving and agonizing, wrestling not with flesh and blood but principalities and powers, fighting, putting on the whole armour of God, and standing, pressing forward, reaching forth, continuing instant in prayer, crying to God day and night; I say, almost all that is said in the New Testament of these things, is spoken of and directed to the saints. Where these things are applied to sinners' seeking conversion once, they are spoken of the saints' prosecution of the great business of their high calling ten times.10
John Wesley was, like Edwards, concerned for holiness, indeed for 'Christian perfection' in Christians, but a fundamental difference between the two men has to do with what happens to an individual in regeneration and conversion. Edwards believed, as already said, that a renewal in holiness is basic to conversion. For the Christian, holiness is the beauty of the God whom he has been brought to know, and having now a principle of holiness in his own nature he delights in God and seeks to be like him. 'There is a holy breathing and panting after the Spirit of God to increase holiness, which is as natural to a holy nature as breathing is to a living body.'11Instead of being something separable from salvation, holiness is the very purpose of salvation. Once a person is renewed, a life of holiness is instantly begun.
A survey of evangelical history since Edwards wrote his Religious Affections reveals that his viewpoint — the viewpoint of the Reformers and Puritans — has commonly been exchanged for that of Wesley. Arminian beliefs inevitably depreciate the radical nature and the full significance of the re-birth, and, where such beliefs are accepted, the experimental divinity of Edwards will always receive the kind of criticism which Wesley gives it above. But there is something more which also needs to be said here by way of explanation for the neglect of the convictions outlined above. An argument which was already gaining ground when Edwards published The Religious Affections has since obtained much wider support. It is the claim that if holiness is made necessary for salvation then the gospel of salvation through simple faith in Christ alone is being undermined. Further, it is said, that if assurance of salvation is related to personal holiness instead of to faith in Christ, or to direct experiences of the Holy Spirit, then a system of 'legalism' is being advanced. These were charges which evangelical 'enthusiasts' and separatists were bringing against Protestant orthodoxy in the 1740's and Edwards answers them. To the first charge — if holiness is inseparable from salvation then justification by faith alone is undermined — his reply was that, while faith is the means by which we rest on Christ for salvation, it never exists apart from regeneration. Certainly the sinner is not to wait for some sign of God's work in him before he believes; nonetheless it is the sight of Christ, given by the light of the Spirit in regeneration, which is the immediate cause of faith.12Such faith which rests upon Christ alone is therefore faith accompanied by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer and it must coincide with newness of life. Christ's work, and not the work of the Spirit in renewing the sinner, is the sole basis of justification, yet the work of Christ and the work of the Spirit are inseparable parts of salvation.
To the further charge that when men look for signs or evidences of holiness in their lives they have fallen into a 'legal' way of seeking assurance, Edwards gives more extended treatment.
His main answer is to marshal the sheer weight of scriptural evidence, that holy practice is the principal evidence that we ought to make use of in judging both of our own and others' sincerity ... this evidence is ten times more insisted on as a note of true piety throughout the Scriptures, from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation, than anything else ... If we make the Word of Christ our rule, then undoubtedly those marks which Christ and his apostles did chiefly lay down and give us that we might try ourselves by them, those same marks we ought especially to receive, and chiefly to make use of, in the trial of ourselves.13
But that the worthiness of nothing in us recommends us and brings us to an interest in Christ, is no argument that nothing in us is a sign of an interest in Christ.14
The freeness of grace, and the necessity of holy practice, which are thus from time to time joined together in Scripture, are not inconsistent one with another. Nor does it at all diminish the honour and importance of faith that the exercises and effects of faith in practice should be esteemed the chief signs of it; any more than it lessens the importance of life, that action and motion are esteemed the chief signs of that.15
Edwards and his brethren who were leaders in the Great Awakening realized that the new danger among the professedly orthodox was Antinomianism. Its advocates were repeating — probably unbeknown to themselves — the very errors which sectaries had raised in England and New England in the previous century. The Antinomians made particular experiences, understood in terms of emotions ('affections'), the basis of assurance. Sometimes the experience on which they rested was that of 'conversion'. It was charged against one such teacher (and in the same year that The Religious Affections was published) that,
He has publicly taught that it is as easy for persons to know when they are converted, as it is to know noon daylight from midnight darkness; making the only sure evidence of conversion to consist in inward feeling, and a sense of their love to God.
He has declared in public, that believers never doubt of their interest in Christ, after conversion; and if they do, it is the sign of an hypocrite; rendering sanctification no evidence of conversion or justification, and that believers are never in the dark.16
In this view, assurance is of the essence of salvation and therefore once 'saved', the convert need never doubt it, no matter how he lives. But even more widespread in the same circles was another opinion. This also rested assurance on one experience, in this case the experience of an 'immediate witness' of the Holy Spirit. Both these opinions were united in claiming to be more evangelical, more honouring to grace, and more worthy of the Holy Spirit than those hitherto preached in the churches.
Edwards, perhaps more than any man in New England, had long been closely identified with the very emphases which these teachers now claimed to advance but he regarded their claims as a great delusion.
There is a sort of men, who indeed abundantly cry down works, and cry up faith in opposition to works, and set up 'themselves very much as evangelical persons in opposition to those that are of a legal spirit, and make a fair show of advancing Christ and the gospel and the way of free grace, who are indeed some of the greatest enemies to the gospel way of free grace, and the most dangerous opposers of pure humble Christianity...17
Edwards' conviction was that the New Testament teaches no one experience as being the permanent source of the believer's assurance. Certainly the true believer may have assurance immediately upon his first believing, an assurance resting upon the objective facts of the gospel. As he proceeds in the Christian life, however, his assurance is maintained not by this past experience but by a present and continuing work of the Holy Spirit. This inward work of the Spirit is not an alternative to the assurance obtained through resting in Christ, rather it is only those who walk in the Spirit, and in obedience to the precepts of Scripture, who are given an ongoing assurance through faith in Christ. He insists, from Scripture, that action on the part of the believer is involved in order to assurance and that such assurance as is maintained permanently, without any regard or care for holiness of life, is false assurance.'18Antinomians, in wanting to base assurance solely on 'experience' of Christ and the Holy Spirit, Edwards asserts, make an unbiblical distinction between inward experience and outward behaviour:
Indeed, all Christian experience is not properly called practice, but all Christian practice is properly experience ... Holy practice is one kind or part of Christian experience and both reason and Scripture represent it as the chief and most distinguishing part of it .. "This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments" (1 John 5:3); "This is love, that we walk after his commandments" (2 John 6).19
At first sight, it is perhaps surprising that Edwards, the theologian of the Holy Spirit, should oppose as he does the separatists' emphasis upon the 'immediate witness'. On this point he speaks extensively. It is not his purpose to deny what he personally knew, namely, large and glorious communications of the Holy Spirit.
The believer, receiving 'the earnest of the Spirit' may know 'such unutterable and glorious joys' as are 'too great and mighty for weak dust and ashes'.20
And who shall limit God in his giving this earnest, or say he shall give so much of the inheritance and no more?' There is indeed a work of the Spirit in witnessing or sealing and, he says, 'this seal of the Spirit is the highest kind of evidence of the saints' adoption that ever they obtain'.21
His objection is to the word 'immediate', as though the believer receives a witness 'by immediate suggestion or revelation'. Rather the 'witness' or 'seal' is the Spirit's 'holy stamp, or impressed image, exhibiting clear evidence to the conscience that the subject of it is a child of God22— a witness which so enlivens faith and love in the believer that there is such an evidence to the reality of salvation as can never be imitated by the devil. Yet although this be 'the highest sort of witness of the Spirit which is possible', it is not a once-and-for-all experience, as the separatist teachers made it. An increase of assurance is ever to be sought in ongoing communion with God:
A man, by once seeing his neighbour, may have good evidence of his presence; but by seeing him from day to day, and conversing with him in various circumstances, the evidence is established.23
For Edwards, glorious as the witness of the Spirit is, it is part of his whole care for the children of God,24and he was alarmed that errorists spoke of 'immediacy' in a way which belittled the Spirit's general and constant work. There can be no true assurance of any kind for the believer without the work of the Spirit. By separating 'the witness' from the evidence of grace in the heart and life, Antinomians were rejecting the main emphasis of the New Testament:
It is greatly to the hurt of religion for persons to make light of, and insist little on, those things which the Scripture insists most upon as of most importance in the evidence of our interest in Christ, under the notion that to lay weight on these things is lega.25
However we assess the greatness of Edwards' Religious Affections as compared with his other works, there should be no question as to its first-place in enduring relevance. The troubles of the 1740's were thus the means of bringing forth what is unquestionably one of the most important books possessed by the Christian church on the nature of true religion.