This is part four of an essay written by my pastor, John Fanella.
Jonathan Edwards On Outward Religion
Outward religion was the topic of 18th Century theologian and philosopher Jonathan Edwards’ book, The Religious Affections. Samuel Logan, Chancellor of Westminster Seminary, has said, “The Religious Affections is the most important book ever written on American soil.” I would certainly agree. Never has there been such a piercing and exhaustive distinguishing between outward faith and true Christianity as Edwards’ Affections.
The Religious Affections were essentially an exposition of 1 Peter 1:8, which reads, “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’s objective in the book is to establish the fact that true faith is not measured by outward forms of religion, but by the internal joy, love, and delight of the human soul toward the person of God in all of His glory.
Written as a response to the Great Awakening, The Religious Affections was Edwards’ attempt to teach the church of his day the basic principle that I am trying to communicate here—that outward spirituality isn’t enough. Edwards maintains that the essence of true faith is not in outward displays, not in eccentric outbreaks, and not in learned behavior, but in a person’s heart response to the character, sovereignty, and glory of God. For Edwards, the extent of a person’s delight in God’s character determines the validity of his religious experience.
Edwards’ corrective to outward spirituality is a needed antidote in our day as much, if not more, than it was in his own day. Evangelicalism needs to hear Edwards’ call to a God-centered faith. They need to question whether God in His sovereign majesty has been the true object of their faith, or whether their object has simply been a god created in their own image that meets their “felt” needs and serves their political and social causes. They must grasp the true essence of Christian experience—what Edwards called “religious affections.”
So what does Jonathan Edwards classify as the essence of true Christianity? What are the religious affections? Following is a partial list that he includes in the third section of Religious Affections. Notice how different his list is from the tests of authenticity we hear in contemporary Evangelicalism.
Religious affections are spiritual, supernatural, and divine. The Christian experience cannot be duplicated anywhere else in all of creation. The joy, freedom, and delight of being in Christ are unique to the operation of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Do you recognize that your faith is absolutely unique to the time when the Spirit of God converted you? Was the change that he brought new to you, never before experienced before your conversion? If so, this is an evidence of true religious affections.
Religious affections are grounded in the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things as they are in themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self or self-interest. When we think about God, is the thought of him excellent in our mind regardless of what he promises us? In other words, even if God promised us nothing, would we still be convinced of his moral beauty and excellence of character? If so, this is an evidence (a main evidence for Edwards) of religious affections.
Religious affections are attended with certainty. The Holy Spirit gives a conviction of Biblical truth that cannot be explained with words. When this conviction is present in people, it is a sign that the Spirit of God is at work.
Religious affections soften the heart. Religious affections bring tenderness, gentleness, and humility. When all of life is seen in relation to the excellence of God, love becomes the fountain of all expression. If you find love and tenderness dominating your emotions, it is a sign of true faith.12
Genuine faith is rooted in our heartfelt delight in God’s character, not in the promise of self-fulfillment and personal development. True faith, or religious affections, is deeply God-centered, or better yet God-exalting. True Christian faith is ultimately an exalting in the glory of God not in the potential of man. Unfortunately, as research has shown, contemporary Evangelicalism has misplaced this central truth. Instead of rejoicing in the unseen God with “an inexpressible and glorious joy,” Evangelicalism has preferred the exultation of man and has made the needs of man its highest priority.
That is why Evangelicalism is now as much a target for evangelism as any non-Christian nation or people group. The mission is not to introduce Evangelicals to the idea of God or even of redemption through Christ. The mission is to introduce them to the fullness of God, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, and the distinctiveness of the Christian way of life. It is a mission to introduce them to the “power of godliness.” The mission is to confront the idolatry of Evangelicalism, introducing them to the one, true God of the Bible and the lifestyle His Son called us to lead. It is a mission to persuade Evangelicals of the sovereignty of God and his absolute worth, holiness, and supremacy.
12 Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 1994), 124-347.