What is “true” religion?

[This is a guest post by Felicia Wetzel. Felicia is an M.A. student at Western Seminary and is participating in this summer’sTh.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.] 

Remember the context in which Edwards writes. In the wake of the revivalism of the Great Awakening, Edwards felt compelled to articulate the distinction between true and false religion in a much more thorough and pointed way than he had done in his previous works, such as in The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. In his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Edwards outlines twelve signs that indicate genuine religious affections, those signs that indicate genuine conversion. Not only do they serve as tests or standards of genuine piety, but they are themselves the very substance of the religious life. Affections serve as a kind of sign post indicating the direction of one’s soul, whether it is toward God in love or away from God toward the world. These are as follows.

First, affections that are truly spiritual and gracious, do arise from those influences and operations on the heart, which are spiritual, supernatural and divine. Second, the objective ground of gracious affections, is 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. Third, those affections that are truly holy, are primarily founded on the loveliness of the moral excellency of divine things. Or (to express it otherwise), a love to divine things for the beauty and sweetness of their moral excellency, is the first beginning and spring of all holy affections. Fourth, gracious affections do arise from the mind’s being enlightened, rightly and spiritually to understand or apprehend divine things. Fifth, truly gracious affections are attended with a reasonable and spiritual conviction of the judgment, of the reality and certainty of divine things. Sixth, gracious affections are attended with evangelical humiliation. Evangelical humiliation is a sense that a Christian has of his own utter insufficiency, despicableness, and odiousness, with an answerable frame of heart. Seventh, gracious affections are attended with a change of nature. Eighth, truly gracious affections tend to, and are attended with, the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ; or in other words, they naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness and mercy, as appeared in Christ. Ninth, gracious affections soften the heart, and are attended and followed with a Christian tenderness of spirit. Tenth, truly gracious and holy affections are beautiful in symmetry and proportion. In the truly holy affections of the saints is found that proportion which is the natural consequence of the universality of their sanctification. Eleventh, gracious affections, the higher they are raised, the more is a spiritual appetite and longing of soul after spiritual attainments increased. Twelfth, gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice. Their lives are universally conformed to and directed by Christian rules.

Edwards’ purpose in outlining these twelve signs is to test affections within one’s self, not to distinguish true from false affections in others. Further, he is primarily concerned with those operations of the Spirit which are saving in the heart of the individual.

One of the difficulties that I have encountered while reading Edwards is maintaining a clear understanding of what he means by his distinctions between such things as understanding, inclinations, will, heart, affections, etc. In all of his ability to maintain sharp distinctions between such concepts, it seems that he might run the risk of losing the unity and integrity of the human soul, or the self. This might not be that major of a point, however, considering the fact that throughout his argumentation these distinctions often times lose their sharpness.

Critical observations of Edwards aside, I am more interested in what you guys believe to be the signs of genuine “gracious affections.” In my paper, after I consider the twelve signs of genuine religious affections, I plan to describe them and then move to articulate what I believe to be the fundamental signs of a genuine believer. To begin our discussion, What do you believe to be the fundamental marks of a true believer? How would you answer the overarching question that Edwards sought to answer, “What is true religion?

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

About Guest Author

This is the Guest Author account for Scientia et Sapientia (westernthm.wordpress.com).

Posted on June 20, 2011, in Th.M. Program, The Enlightenment and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. My first thought when reading through your articulation of Edwards’ “12 steps” is that this is all primarily centered on the individual and their interior experience. He doesn’t say a thing about participation in the church. But that is something I care about in my context in Portland. Edwards’ concern in his time was that EVERYONE was in the church, and more than likely some were not genuinely converted. Hence, the need to help people suss out their true relation to Christ.

    # 2 seems so loaded, however. What divine things can we know “as they are in themselves”? And given that bad news (guilt and pollution of sin before a holy God) precedes the good news, how could I divorce self-interest (on some level) from desiring God? I think I know what he is getting at – that my desire for God would not simply be “fire insurance” but also true love for Him because of His majesty, etc. But this just seems impossible, and for a relatively sensitive conscience, recipe for gross doubt – not assurance or hope. I mean, how can I REALLY be sure that there isn’t some self-interest (somewhere) in my devotion to Jesus?

    • Alright… I’m going to try this one more time, although this go around is going to be MUCH more brief because I had a whole response, and then my computer freaked out… deleting e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. Just what I need… right??

      My initial response stated something like this…

      I think there is something to be said about the fact that he is reacting to a specific historical context. However, I think we could say that, across the board, anyone who makes a choice to follow Christ purely out of self-interest cannot be a genuine believer, because it takes a lot more than self-interest to persevere through persecution and suffering to the end of death/Christ’s return. Perseverance was Edwards primary and ultimate mark of a genuine believer. Self-interest and self-centered motives can only go so far because at one point or another, they will inevitably conflict with God’s will for a person’s life. A choice will have to be made, and more often than not, people will go with their self-interest over and against God’s will for their life…. save genuine believers, of course. And given the nature of perseverance, only time can tell. Therefore, the only way that you can REALLY be sure is if continue to make daily choices to say ‘no’ to yourself so that you will be ready and equipped to endure persecution and make choices of faith, which please God (Heb 11).

  2. The major question I come with when reading his outline of religious affections is what happens if I am not going all 12? Would Edwards say that I am not a true believer if only 11 of the 12 are true of me? I again confess I am not a well read Edwardsian so he might explain this elsewhere but I am really wrestling with this question.

    I also agree with what Pat said above that most of these seem very self-centered and inward focused and yes I understand the context but I believe there should be some aspect of community in religious affections. Shouldn’t there be a desire to be with other believers?

    Thank you for a good post on outlining the 12 Affections for us!

    • Thank you! However, I do apologize for such a late response. This summer has certainly thrown me for a whirlwind.

      I know what you mean. As I’ve been reading Edwards, I have found myself feeling the same insecurity. However, I do not think that Edwards’ purpose in writing was to isolate the SOLE 12 SIGNS OF A BELIEVER. Remember, he address those signs that have no bearing whatsoever on the genuineness of a person’s faith. However, I think Edwards would say that if a person is a genuine believer, then they will express these signs at one point or other, especially in light of the fact that many of the signs are intimately connected as necessary consequences of others. The primary mark, as I mentioned above in my response to another, however, is that of perseverance. If a person does not persevere to the end, then there is no way to conclude that that person was genuinely saved. So, I suppose the question that we would have to ask ourselves is, “Am I willing to persevere to the end, so that I can please Him and spend eternity with Him and His beloved?”

  3. I too am intrigued by the concept of disinterested love; to be more specific, I am not a fan. I agree that the beauties of Christ are lovely (loveable) in and of themselves, but to suppose that our love should not also flow from thankfulness pushes things too far. Why set thankfulness for blessings against love founded in the “transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things”? This seems a false dichotomy to me. It is as if we should love Christ because he is the type of person who would die for humanity, but not because he died for me.
    Perhaps I have misunderstood Edwards on this point.

  4. It seems the church today is, or at least needs to be, wrestling with this question since so much of the “pray and prayer and you’re in” theology has been so prevalent. Although lists are always dangerous to me because you wind up leaving things off that are important, I think Scripture is clear that love for Christ, love for and submission to the Word of God, remorse and repentance for sin, sanctification, desire for Church community, and evangelism are all marks of true religion. It amazes me that I talk with some people who don’t bear any of these marks, but have no problem calling themselves Christians. Our culture is inundated with the “God loves everybody and so we won’t send anybody to hell” gospel that true religion is more defined by people’s experience and ideology than Scripture. This is why I respect Edwards views here, because he attempts to move past just there experiential to the fruit that is produced. His words are still necessary today as people tend to migrate towards the emotional, but separate it from the logical and Scriptural authority.

    @Adam – I’m not sure that Edwards would say that our love for God must be disinterested in order to be genuine. I actually think he would react pretty strongly against such an inclination. I”m trying to sift this out in Edwards theology but he seems to say that all love to God is wicked self-love apart from regeneration. After regeneration, man’s love for God is guided by the Spirit and is expressed in many different ways – thankfulness being one of them. Until regeneration the root of love is either wicked self-love (all about me) or neutral love (which can be either good or bad depending on its object).

  5. Of all these twelve signs, I find the eighth to be very peculiar.

    Eighth, truly gracious affections tend to, and are attended with, the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ; or in other words, they naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness and mercy, as appeared in Christ.

    Lamblike/dovelike spirit seems to paint a very emasculated temperament. We certainly have other temperaments displayed in Jesus, why not Lionlike? Felicia, did you find Edwards rational for these twelve signs to be very convincing? I wonder how much of Edwards culture influenced which twelve came to Edwards mind, and how he would define what they looked like.

  6. Hmm, I’ll resist the temptation to argue that the true Christian must be a democratic socialist. Actually, at this time I will not attempt to define the Christian at all. Because, what stands out to me in Felicia’s blog (and Puritan thought in general) is the way Puritans constantly wrestled with whether they were really saved or not (sometimes they probably went too far). It makes me wonder, why do I not do that?

    Is it because my theology is “better” (I highly doubt it)? Am I simply too ignorant to understand the importance of such wrestling (seems more likely)? Could it perhaps be that a subtle pride/self-righteousness in me that assures me that I’ll be okay in the end (Yeah, that’s probably it). I have lots of affections, but most of them unfortunately seek the glory of myself. I’m glad Edwards doesn’t minister in my church… Well, actually, that wouldn’t be that big of a deal. I’d just get my coffee “to go” somewhere else.

  7. This is a fascinating question and I agree with Andreas that perhaps we do not wrestle with this enough, but I also wonder if we are missing a necessary element to the question. Perhaps Edwards deals with this in his book, but what seems to be missing as it is presented, is taking into account growth in Christ. The Bible several times uses the analogy of growth from infant/child to adulthood in describing spiritual maturity.

    One’s maturity impacts one’s desires. I do not expect my 2 yr old to love me with the depth that I love him. A newly-wed does not have the same depth of love for their spouse that one married for 30 years has. That is not to say that they do not love them dearly, passionately, but there is depth that develops over time. So too are desires. A child may desire to “help mommy” and that is a good thing, but lacks the depth that comes with adulthood so that there is a loving compassion which drives the adult child to help their elderly mother.

    So I think that it is appropriate to expect changes in quality and even quantity of desires as one matures in the Lord. I see no problem with desiring to not go to Hell. I certainly don’t want to. The more selfless desires and humility that Edwards lists as criteria are more what I would expect from a mature and growing believer, than from one recently converted. Further complicating this factor is that maturity does not have a direct correlation to temporal length of time in Christ. Paul exhorts Timothy (not me, I am plenty old enough already) not to let people disregard him because of his age, and the author of Hebrews warns some of his audience that while they should be teachers they have need of milk again. Temporally they should be spiritual adults but they have actually regressed to the point that they require basic Biblical teaching again.

    Because Edwards does not seem to consider this aspect it leaves his assertions somewhat one sided. If I were to hazard some postulations as to marks of a true Christian, I would say that they will vary by person and maturity in Christ, but first and foremost faith in God. It may be weak faith, easily upset, but the basis for Christianity (on our side at least in some sense) is faith in Christ. I am of course not talking about believing that there is a God, but faith in the sense of reliance upon Him. Beyond that I am not sure what I would list as absolutely necessary signs of conversion for introspective reflection.

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