This article appears as a chapter in A God-Entranced Vision of All Things. For all the citations see the chapter.
One of Scripture’s most arresting incidents occurs in the book of Numbers. Numbers records Israel’s wilderness wanderings. In chapter 25, Israel was encamped at Shittim getting ready to cross over the River Jordan into Canaan. But even there, right on the verge of the Promised Land, Israelite men began to indulge in sexual immorality and Baal worship with foreign women. God reacted fiercely to this and commanded Moses to execute the guilty Israelites. Yet even as Moses was carrying this out, Zimri, the son of one of the Simeonite leaders, brought a Midianite woman, Cozbi, into the Israelite camp in front of everyone. Here the text becomes a bit unclear, but it seems that Zimri and Cozbi went into his tent to have sex.
In any case, when Phinehas, one of Aaron’s grandsons, saw what was happening, he grabbed a spear and killed Zimri and Cozbi with a single thrust. God then declared to Moses, “Phinehas . . . has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel in that he was jealous with my jealousy” (verses 10-11). God praised Phinehas’s act because it arose from godly jealousy; and because of Phinehas’s jealousy, God made a special covenant of peace and perpetual priesthood with him and his descendants forever (see verses 12-13).
Jealousy is an emotion — a particularly intense emotion, as Scripture sees it (see Proverbs 27:4), and a negative one at that (see Deuteronomy 29:20; Romans 10:19). It is an emotion that arises from vigilance, when (rightly or wrongly) we prize something so much that we guard it and then feel fear when we think it is threatened, or resentment when we believe that it is being dishonored or eclipsed. For instance, in everyday situations we often become jealous when we fear that our right to someone’s exclusive attachment or loyalty is being threatened or when we resent someone else’s advantages or success. Usually we think that jealousy is a bad thing and something to be avoided, as it often is (see Acts 5:12-18; Romans 13:13; James 3:13-16).
Yet sometimes jealousy is a good thing (see 2 Corinthians 11:2-3; Ezekiel 36:1-7; Zechariah 8:1-8). If I am not jealous of my wife’s affections, then I don’t love her as I should. And if God were not jealous for the exclusive affection of his people, then he would not be serious about his covenant with them (see Exodus 20:1-6; Deuteronomy 4:23-24; Ezekiel 16:35-43). In other words, jealousy can be a godly emotion — an emotion that Scripture either portrays God as having or as wanting his people to have in particular circumstances. In these circumstances, being jealous is a sign of true faith (see Psalm 106:28-31). It is, then, one of many emotions that can indicate whether our hearts are right with God, as Jonathan Edwards argues in his great book, A Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections.
The Historical and Theological Background to Religious Affections
“Examine yourselves,” the apostle Paul commanded the Corinthians, “to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5). Part of Jonathan Edwards’s reason for writing Religious Affections was to encourage professing Christians to obey this command (See his Religious Affections in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, [Yale University Press, 1959], 169). Edwards published Religious Affections in 1746 as part of a prolonged analysis and qualified defense of the first “Great Awakening” in America, which began in his church in Northampton, Massachusetts, around 1734. Some historical and theological background here will help us to appreciate Edwards’s great book and understand why we should still study it today.
Contemporary observers described what was happening in New England after 1734 as a time of general “awakening” — that is, a time when significant numbers of people began to realize that they were under God’s judgment and thus needed his mercy and saving grace. Describing what was happening in New England after 1734 in this way involves some careful theological thinking. The Puritans who landed at Massachusetts Bay in 1620 intended New England to be a great experiment, the experiment of Calvinistic Christians sojourning to a new country to set up a whole way of life that would glorify God — a “city set on a hill” that could not be hid (Matthew 5:14), a holy commonwealth that would manifest God’s righteousness on earth and that might, by doing so, usher in the religious renewal of the whole world through God’s millennial reign.
They recognized, as all Christians should, that a person must do more than merely profess Christian belief to be saved. Merely saying, “Lord, Lord” to Jesus is not enough to insure that we will enter Christ’s kingdom (see Matthew 7:21). Conversion is necessary. And they knew that true Christian conversion makes people active and fervent for Christ because it involves their deliberately and consciously repenting of all sin and wickedness as well as their turning decisively to the Triune God in saving faith.
Most of the Pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic to come to America in the 1600s had showed signs of true conversion; indeed, it was their religious fervency that brought them here. Yet that fervency had cooled as the earliest generations of settlers spread out and gave way to later generations who shared the form of their parents’ faith but not necessarily the power thereof. New England’s churches, even in Jonathan Edwards’s grandfather’s time, were clearly becoming “mixed companies” of some who showed evidence of true Christian conversion and some who did not.
Puritans on both sides of the Atlantic had been convinced by Scripture that salvation is entirely from God; they knew that true conversion depends on God having regenerated a person’s heart. They also knew that Scripture represents God as ordinarily working in regular ways. They knew, for instance, that God has ordained preaching as the ordinary means by which sinners come to call upon the name of Christ in saving faith (see Romans 10:8-17; Mark 16:14-16; Acts 10:34-48). Gathering together all that they thought they had found in Scripture regarding the usual steps or stages that sinners will pass through on the way to true conversion, they developed a “morphology of conversion” — that is, a step-by-step analysis of what sinners would normally experience up to and through the moment when God regenerated their hearts.
This morphology remained somewhat flexible and could include more or fewer steps. For instance, in Jonathan Edwards’s father’s hands, it can be taken to involve just three essential steps: conviction, humiliation, and regeneration.
As Timothy Edwards saw it, the first essential step in the process involves “conviction” or a person’s “awakening sense of [his or her] sad estate with reference to eternity.” Because this step involves someone beginning to realize that he or she is breaking God’s law, it usually evokes some typical reactions, such as a sense of foreboding or fear at the prospect of angering God and then perhaps a resolution to change and do better.
Of course, reactions like these are natural when anyone is starting to wake up to his or her wrongdoing or sinfulness — for instance, children tend to react similarly to their parents when they realize that they have done what displeases them — and so they don’t in and of themselves guarantee that God has begun the process that will eventuate in regeneration. Mere awakening, then, needs to be followed by something more, namely, these Puritans thought, by a sinner’s clearer sense of his or her true state.
Timothy Edwards called this second step or stage “humiliation,” when sinners recognize that, despite their best resolutions, they are bound to sin and fully deserve eternal damnation. At this stage, as George Marsden observes, the Puritan morphology required potential converts to “be ‘truly humbled’ by a total sense of their own unworthiness.” So it involves a lot of emotional disturbance, even though, once again, a non-Christian could have similar emotions, and thus having them is not itself a sure sign of true conversion. Yet, as Marsden notes, the Puritans believed that it was only by going through this emotionally harrowing stage that a person became “sufficiently prepared to reach the third step” of receiving, by God’s grace, the radical change of heart that is known as regeneration.
Ordinarily, regeneration then manifests itself in signs of true conversion — that is, with evidence of sincere, wholehearted repentance and saving faith. So it was only at this third step or stage that the Puritans looked for what they considered to be “satisfying evidences” that God was savingly at work in someone’s life (See, Jonathan Edwards, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton, and the Neighbouring Towns and Villages of the County of Hampshire in New-England, in WJE, 4:148). Yet even then they often remained more cautious than many modern evangelists about identifying who is truly saved because they knew that, since salvation depends on God’s secretly regenerating our hearts, it is not itself directly observable and thus can only be surmised from the signs of true conversion that follow in our lives.
Because the Puritans took awakening to be an essential if still insufficient first step on the way to regeneration, Puritan home and church life was geared toward producing it. Children died frequently, and so parents and primers drove home the point that life is precarious and, unless God showed mercy, a flame-filled eternity awaited each and every human being. The same lesson was often preached. And so the seeds were planted in Puritan New England for sporadic awakenings.
Early in the 1730s, people in Northampton began to awake. The primary earthly catalyst was the “very sudden and awful death of a young man in the bloom of his youth” in April 1734, “who,” Jonathan Edwards relates, “being violently seized with a [lungs’ infection] and taken immediately very delirious, died in about two days” (Edwards, A Faithful Narrative, 147). Edwards then preached the young man’s funeral sermon on Psalm 90:5-6 —
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers
— with the design of convincing Northampton’s young people of the utter unreasonableness of their not immediately and completely turning from this world’s fleeting pleasures to embrace by faith God’s eternal pleasures as offered in Christ. This sermon seemed to precipitate a stream of conversions among Northampton’s young people. “By March and April of 1735,” Marsden observes, “the spiritual rains had turned the stream to a flood” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 159).
This awakening, although it was somewhat similar to earlier ones in Puritan New England, was unique in its speed, depth, and extent. For instance, the news of the conversion of a frivolous young woman, Edwards reports,
seemed to be almost like a flash of lightning, upon the hearts of young people all over the town, and upon many others. Those persons amongst us who used to be farthest from seriousness, and that I most feared would make an ill improvement of [her change], seemed greatly to be awakened with it. . . .
. . . a great and earnest concern about the great things of religion and the eternal world became universal in all parts of the town, and among persons of all degrees and all ages . . . . All other talk [except] about spiritual and eternal things was soon thrown by; all the conversation in all companies and upon all occasions, was upon these things only, unless so much as was necessary for people, carrying on their ordinary secular business.
Religion was, as Edwards continues,
with all sorts the great concern. . . . The only thing in their view was to get the kingdom of heaven, and everyone appeared pressing into it. The engagedness of their hearts in this great concern could not be hid; it appeared in their very countenances. It then was a dreadful thing amongst us to lie out of Christ [that is, not to have put one’s faith in Christ] . . . and what persons’ minds were intent upon was to escape for their lives, and to fly from the wrath to come. All would eagerly lay hold of opportunities for their souls; and were [accustomed] very often to meet together in private houses for religious purposes: and such meetings when appointed were [apt] greatly to be thronged. (Edwards, A Faithful Narrative, 149-150. The remaining quotations in this paragraph are from pp. 150, 158, and 209)
“There was scarcely a single person in the town, either young or old,” Edwards writes, that “was left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world.”
Those that were [inclined] to be the vainest and loosest, and those that had been most disposed to think and speak slightly of vital and experimental religion, were now generally subject to great awakenings. And the work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner, and increased more and more; souls did as it were come by flocks to Jesus Christ.
In contrast with past patterns, about as many males as females seemed to have been saved, and God seemed to have extended his saving mercy not only to teens and early adults but also and much more unusually “both to elderly persons and also those that are very young.” This led Edwards to “hope that by far the greater part of persons in this town, above sixteen years of age, are such as have the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.” Northampton, as well as some neighboring towns, certainly seemed to have become “a city on a hill.” And even after the initial awakening ceased, Edwards saw so much spiritual good remain that he concluded, “we still remain a reformed people, and God has evidently made us a new people.”
It is unreasonable to not immediately and completely turn from this fleeting world to the eternal Christ.
Yet within a few years of writing these words in 1737, Edwards retracted this blanket endorsement of what had happened in Northampton, acknowledging that he had been unduly confident about his own ability to tell when someone had been truly converted. In times of great awakening, he came to understand, there are many fair blossoms that fail to produce mature fruit. We must be cautious, then, in declaring what God is doing with other human beings. As he writes at the end of his The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, published in 1741:
I know by experience that there is a great aptness in men, that think they have had some experience of the power of religion, to think themselves sufficient to discern and determine the state of others’ souls by a little conversation with them; and experience has taught me that ’tis an error. I once did not imagine that the heart of man had been so unsearchable as I find it is. I am less charitable, and less uncharitable than once I was. (Edwards, The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, WJE, 4:285.)
In other words, by now Edwards was fully convinced that God alone has the ability and the right to determine the spiritual state of another person’s heart. Regeneration, as the basis of true conversion, really is a secret act of God that none of us can perceive directly in another human being. Yet, in agreement with the Scriptures, Edwards remained convinced that the unregenerate and the regenerate are fundamentally different, and that this difference normally manifests itself in ways that allow us to assess our own and others’ spiritual states.
Indeed, Edwards declares in the Religious Affections, Christ has given us rules that help us to assess others’ spiritual states “so far as is necessary for [our] own safety, and to prevent [us from] being led into a snare by false teachers, and false pretenders to religion,” even if “it was never God’s design to give us any rules, by which we may certainly know, who of our fellow professors are his, and to make a full and clear separation between sheep and goats” (Edwards, Affections, 193).
These rules, which specify the “marks” or “signs” of true conversion, can guide ministers as they tend their flocks; and they can also assure individual Christians that they themselves are truly converted, provided they are not so far removed from a properly spiritual state of mind that it is impossible for them to tell, while they are in that poor state, whether they are regenerate. Knowing what these marks or signs of true conversion are may even help some non-Christians to stop fooling themselves about their standing with God. Everyone, then, should know them; and Edwards wrote Religious Affections to show that Scripture sheds “clear and abundant light” on them.
Edwards’s Thesis: “True Religion, in Great Part, Consists in Holy Affections”
To that end, Edwards bases Religious Affections on these words from the apostle Peter’s first epistle: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8). Peter’s words, Edwards observes, reveal the spiritual state of the Christians to whom he was writing. They were under persecution — “grieved by various trials,” as Peter puts it (1 Peter 1:6) — and these trials tested the authenticity of their faith, which then manifested itself in the love and joy mentioned in verse 8. True faith, in other words, inevitably gives rise to godly desires and emotions.
Edwards’s antique way of putting this is to say that “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections” (Edwards, Affections, 95). He then dedicates Part One of his book to explaining and defending this statement.
Edwards knows that we will not understand what he means when he says that true religion consists very largely in holy affections if we don’t understand what he means by affections. Modern dictionaries often take this term to refer merely to what we call the emotions — and perhaps only to the more moderate emotions at that. But for Edwards our affections involve a lot more than just our emotions. They have to do with the whole side of us that values and desires and chooses and wills as well as feels.
Edwards contrasts this side of our nature with another side that we can call our cognitive side. Our cognitive side includes our power to perceive and to speculate; it is what we use to discern and think about things. Conforming to the standard terminology of his day, Edwards sometimes calls the cognitive side of our nature our “faculty of understanding.” He claims that God has endued human nature with understanding and one other faculty, namely, the faculty “by which the soul does not merely perceive and view things, but is some way inclined [or disinclined] with respect to the things it views or considers” — that is, either likes or dislikes them, is pleased or displeased by them, or approves or disapproves of whatever it is perceiving or thinking about.
In other words, this second faculty involves our taking some sort of stance toward what we are considering. In Edwards’s time, this “choosy” side of human nature was usually called the will or the faculty of volition, but Edwards recognized that calling it that tended to narrow our conception of it too much because we are then really referring to only “the actions that are determined and governed by” this part of us.
This leaves out the affective side’s more fundamental motions of merely being inclined — or mentally (but not necessarily physically) “carried out towards” — various objects and being disinclined — or mentally repulsed by — others. These motions start in the secret recesses of our souls; and we may resolve — or will — never to act on them. This is one of the reasons why Scripture refers to this side of our natures as our hearts (see Psalm 36:1ff.; Proverbs 4:20-23; Matthew 15:17-19) and declares that only God can know them (see 2 Chronicles 6:30; Jeremiah 17:9ff.).
Of course, our inclinations can be weaker or stronger. Sometimes, Edwards observes, the soul, in considering something, “is carried out [just] a little beyond a state of perfect indifference.” In such cases, our preferences are so weak that it would not be right even to call them desires. At other times, “the approbation or dislike, pleasedness or aversion, are stronger.” And sometimes our heart’s motions are so strong that “the soul comes to act vigorously and sensibly, and the actings of the soul are with that strength that (through the laws of the union which the Creator has fixed between soul and body) the motion of the blood and animal spirits begins to be sensibly altered,” and then we feel our inclinations as emotions. Our affections, Edwards tells us, are these “more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.”
In claiming, then, that true religion consists very largely in holy affections, Edwards means that those who have been truly converted will manifest the fact that God has regenerated their hearts by their having godly desires and emotions, such as the sort of Christian love and joy that Peter sees in his persecuted readers.
Edwards then argues, both from Scripture and by reason, that this claim must be true. For instance, he asks, “who will deny that true religion consists, in great measure, in vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart?” He answers this question by quoting biblical passages where God commands us to be “fervent in spirit” (Romans 12:11) and to fear and love and serve him with our whole hearts and our whole souls (see Deuteronomy 10:12; compare with 6:4-5 and Matthew 22:34-40).
Such “a fervent, vigorous engagedness of the heart in religion . . . is the fruit of a real circumcision of the heart, or true regeneration,” he observes; and it is this that “has the promises of life” (see Deuteronomy 30:6). He also reasons that for us not to be “in good earnest in religion,” with “our wills and inclinations . . . strongly exercised” when we consider the great Christian truths, indicates that we are not truly converted, because the “things of religion are so great, that there can be no suitableness in the exercises of our hearts, to their nature and importance, unless they be lively and powerful.”
This follows from a principle that we all generally acknowledge; namely, that our desires and emotions ought to be proportioned to the real value of their objects. For example, virtually everyone recognizes that there is something really wrong with spouses who don’t love their husbands or wives much more than they love their dogs or with parents who aren’t much more emotionally involved with their children than with their cars.
According to this principle, human beings should love God more than anything else: “In nothing, is vigor in the actings of our inclinations so requisite, as in religion; and in nothing is lukewarmness so odious.” This is what Edwards had preached to his young people in 1734 as he tried to convince them, after the sudden death of one of their own, of the utter unreasonableness of their not immediately and completely turning from this world’s fleeting pleasures to embrace in faith God’s eternal pleasures as offered in Christ.
“True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” –Edwards
As I have noted, New England’s Puritans were well aware that true Christian conversion makes people active and fervent for Christ, and they also saw New England’s fervency cooling as its earliest generation of pilgrims gave way to later generations. These later generations almost invariably shared the “form” of their parents’ faith — that is, they subscribed to the same truths — but they often lacked the power thereof. Edwards now tackles this problem head-on, arguing that True religion is evermore a powerful thing; and the power of it appears, in the first place, in the inward exercises of it in the heart, where is the principal and original seat of it. Hence true religion is called the power of godliness, in distinction from the external appearances of it, that are the form of it, “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power of it” (2 Timothy 3:5).
Those who are reborn of the Spirit are also indwelt by him (see John 3:18 with 14:15-17; Romans 8:9); and, Edwards observes, “The Spirit of God in those that have sound and solid religion, is a spirit of powerful holy affection; and therefore, God is said to have given them the spirit of power, and of love, and of a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7).” Consequently, regeneration always manifests itself in godly desires and emotions. Edwards grants that “true grace has various degrees, and there are some that are but babes in Christ, in whom the exercise of the inclination and will towards divine and heavenly things is comparatively weak”; but even in such babes in the faith, the Spirit who indwells them will ultimately prevail over “all carnal or natural affections.” So one sign of true conversion is the persistence of godly desires and emotions throughout a Christian’s life.
This summarizes just the first of ten arguments Edwards gives in support of the claim that true conversion will manifest itself in godly desires and emotions. His second and third arguments appeal to general features of human nature and thus are primarily philosophical, but all the rest of his arguments are primarily scriptural and theological. They stress that the Scriptures “do everywhere place religion very much in . . . affections . . . such as fear, hope, love, hatred, desire, joy, sorrow, gratitude, compassion and zeal”; that Scripture’s greatest saints — such as David and the apostles Paul and John and our Lord Jesus Christ himself — were full of godly desires and emotions; that the Scriptures very much condemn hardness of heart; and that they “represent true religion, as being summarily comprehended in love, [which is] the chief of the affections, and [the] fountain of all other affections.”
The truth of Edwards’s claim about the centrality of godly desire and emotion in true conversion can be driven home like this. Our emotions can be considered to arise from our beliefs and concerns. Our beliefs are what we take to be real or true — I believe right now, for instance, that I am composing this chapter on my Dell laptop computer, that I am looking at the Yale edition of Edwards’s Religious Affections, that God exists and that he speaks to me through the Christian Scriptures, and so on. Our concerns are our more persistent or insistent inclinations and desires. They are what we care about. For example, I am concerned for my own and my wife’s welfare, for the salvation of my daughter’s children, for my ability to work and pay the bills, and (near dinnertime) for eating enough to get rid of my hunger pangs.
Now our emotions arise from our beliefs and concerns like this. Suppose I care deeply about something, let’s say my wife’s welfare. And then suppose that I hear that she has just been in a car accident. If I believe what I’ve heard, then the combination of that belief and that concern will prompt an emotion, something like fear or anxiety about her physical state. Suppose that I then hear that it was a very minor car accident and that she wasn’t hurt. As my belief changes while my care for Cindy remains constant, my emotion will also change from fear or anxiety to something like relief and then perhaps to gratitude to God for keeping her safe.
Picture the linkage among our beliefs and concerns and emotions like this:
The line between beliefs and concerns with its double arrows signifies the way that our beliefs and concerns interact in producing our emotions. The lines with single arrows pointing from beliefs and concerns to emotions represent how our emotions arise out of the interaction of our beliefs and concerns.
This picture helps us to understand what our emotions can reveal about our beliefs and concerns. Suppose a teenage girl has just been seriously hurt in an automobile accident and then observes that her father is more distraught about the damage to his new Mercedes than about her injuries. If she loves her father and has always assumed that he loves her, then observing this will probably shatter her heart. For the fact that he is more emotionally distressed about his car than about her injuries manifests what he cares for most.
Or suppose that a staunchly orthodox pastor preaches regularly about the danger of everlasting punishment and yet doesn’t seem to be at all disturbed by the fact that none of his children is seeking salvation. His apparent lack of emotion about his children’s apparent spiritual destiny may tell us something about either his concerns or his beliefs: It may tell us either that he does not care enough about his children or that he doesn’t really believe what he preaches. For otherwise that concern and that belief would be likely to produce fear and anxiety about his children’s spiritual states.
Now transfer these general insights to Edwards’s claim about the centrality of godly desire and emotion in true conversion. These insights show how our desires and emotions can be signs or marks of our spiritual states. My spiritual state depends on whether or not God has regenerated my heart. Regeneration involves God giving me a radically different set of inclinations and desires (see Ezekiel 36:22-32; Jeremiah 32:3741). I go from being a child of the devil who does what he desires (see John 8:44; Ephesians 2:1-3) to being a child of God who is now capable of doing what the Spirit, who is living within me, desires (see Galatians 5:16-25; Colossians 3:1-17).
It is the Spirit living within me who gives me this whole new set of desires and concerns (see Romans 8:5, 9; Galatians 4:6). And these godly desires and concerns, combined with my beliefs, dispose me to have specific godly emotions. My having these emotions, then, indicates that my heart is regenerate. And my not having these emotions would indicate that my heart is not. My emotions, as feelings that indicate what I am genuinely concerned about, betray my spiritual state.
In typical Puritan fashion, Edwards draws some practical inferences from his claim that “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections” before closing Part One of his book.
The first practical inference is that it is a very great error to denigrate all religious affections “as having nothing solid or substantial in them.” This, as Edwards observes, was the position of many in his day, especially after the first Great Awakening had ceased. One main criticism of the first Great Awakening even while it was occurring was that it was marked by a lot of odd behavior. Even while fostering it, Edwards himself readily admitted that it was accompanied by many “imprudences and irregularities.”
For instance, George Marsden reports that in some meetings in 1741 in New Haven, Connecticut, it seemed that “all order had disappeared, [with] ‘some praying, some exhorting and terrifying, some singing, some screaming, some crying, some laughing and some scolding,’” so that a contemporary observer claimed it was “the most amazing confusion that ever was heard.” How, some asked, could spectacles like this come from God?
After it ended, the criticism sharpened. And thus, writing in about 1745, Edwards remarks that because
many who, in the late extraordinary season, appeared to have great religious affections, did not manifest a right temper of mind, and [ran] into many errors, in the time of their affection, and the heat of their zeal; and because the high affections of many seem to be so soon come to nothing, and some who seemed to be mightily raised and swallowed with joy and zeal, for a while, seem to have returned like the dog to his vomit: hence religious affections in general are grown out of credit, with great numbers, as though true religion did not at all consist in them.
This, Edwards says, seems to have been in reaction to the earlier, uncritical attitude that many took to the whole range of affections that displayed themselves during the Great Awakening. For despite the fact that some doubted such displays even during “those extraordinary circumstances and events,” there was overall, at that time,
a prevalent disposition to look upon all high religious affections, as eminent exercises of true grace, without much inquiring into the nature and source of those affections, and the manner in which they arose: if persons did but appear to be indeed very much moved and raised, so as to be full of religious talk, and express themselves with great warmth and earnestness, and to be filled, or to be very full, as the phrases were; it was too much the manner, without further examination, to conclude such persons were full of the Spirit of God, and had eminent experience of his gracious influences.
Similar polarizations to the display of religious affection are as prevalent in our day as they were then and as they were even in biblical times (see 2 Samuel 6:16-23; Acts 2:1-13).
“In nothing is vigor in the inclinations so requisite, as in religion; and in nothing is lukewarmness so odious.” –Edwards
Edwards always maintained that the awakening that began in Northampton around 1734 and then was renewed and spread through the preaching of George Whitefield and others in the early 1740s could only be explained as involving a great movement of God’s Spirit that had indeed resulted in many true conversions — and, that, consequently, could be ignored or denigrated only at great spiritual peril. He published his Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God in 1741 to defend the thesis that the Great Awakening was a bona fide work of God’s Spirit, even if many of those who were then being influenced by God’s Spirit were not in fact regenerated by him.
Edwards opened that book with these words from 1 John 4:1: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (KJV, my emphasis). That is then what he attempted to do, articulating nine kinds of considerations that don’t indicate, one way or another, whether some extraordinary awakening is a work of God’s Spirit, then developing from 1 John 4 five “sure, distinguishing, Scripture evidences and marks of a work of the Spirit of God, by which we may proceed in judging of any operation we find in ourselves, or see among a people, without danger of being misled” (Edwards, Distinguishing Marks, 248ff).
Edwards reprises and expands his analysis of “some things, which are no signs that affections are gracious, or that they are not” in Part Two of Religious Affections. This part of his book can be very valuable to us, for there is little doubt, to use Edwards’s own words, that in much of the emotion that we see displayed in various quarters of the contemporary church there are “some mixtures of natural affection, and sometimes of temptation, and some imprudences and irregularities, as there always was, and always will be in this imperfect state.”
Observing these mixed displays can tempt us to dismiss these odd and sometimes aberrant ways of fellowshiping and worshiping as being entirely beyond the realm in which God works. But Edwards’s arguments can help us to remember that such dismissals are unwarranted. We can and should deplore unscriptural and sinful excesses of affection among those who call on the name of Christ while recognizing that even in their midst God may be gathering some of his children to himself.
Yet Edwards’s main point in the first of his three applications in Part One of his text is that as much as we may be uneasy about excessive or aberrant displays of affection during times of awakening (or in specific quarters of the Christian church), condemning all religious affection is much more deadly. “If the great things of religion are rightly understood,” he declares, “they will affect the heart.” Granted, there are false and true religious affections and, consequently, someone’s “having much affection [doesn’t] prove that he has any true religion.” Yet “if he has no affection, it proves that he has no religion,” because those with no religious affections are “in a state of spiritual death.”
The right way forward, then, “is not to reject all affections, nor to approve all; but to distinguish between affections, approving some, and rejecting others; separating between the wheat and the chaff, the gold and the dross, the precious and the vile.” Edwards’s fullest account of Scripture’s approved affections is found in Part Three of Religious Affections; and his fullest account of those to be rejected is found in several chapters of Charity and Its Fruits. The next practical implication that Edwards draws from the fact that “true religion lies much in the affections” is that Christians will then want to convey their faith in ways that are most likely to move the affections. “Such books,” Edwards explains,
and such a way of preaching the Word, and administration of ordinances, and such a way of worshiping God in prayer, and singing praises, is much to be desired, as has a tendency to affect the hearts of those who attend these means.
Edwards recognizes that “there may be such means, as may have a great tendency to stir up the passions of weak and ignorant persons, and yet have no great tendency to benefit their souls” because these means act on natural human capacities that work independently of any saving grace. But, he insists,
undoubtedly, if the things of religion, in the means used, are treated according to their nature, and exhibited truly, so as tends to convey just apprehensions, and a right judgment of them; the more they have a tendency to move the affections, the better.
He felt so strongly about this that, for example, with regard to music, he urged all Christian parents to give their children singing lessons and proudly notes that his own congregation, especially during its times of awakening, sang loudly and heartily and in three parts. As he says a bit earlier in Part One of Religious Affections:
The duty of singing praises to God, seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned, why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move our affections.
In typical English translations of the Scriptures, words such as “sing,” “singers,” “singing,” and “songs” appear around 300 times.
Finally, he declares, as his third practical implication, that if true religion lies so much in godly affections, then we may learn “what great cause we have to be ashamed and confounded before God, that we are no more affected with the great things of religion.” If God has given to us the capacity to desire and to feel
for the same purpose which he has given all the faculties and principles of human life for, [namely] that they might be subservient to man’s chief end, and the great business for which God has created him, that is the business of religion,
then the fact that our desires and emotions are usually much more engaged and aroused regarding worldly things is a very bad sign about the sanctity of our hearts. We should be most moved by the great things that God has done for us through his Son, Jesus Christ. And the fact that we are not moved by this work means that we should “be humbled to the dust.”
We should turn our hearts and minds to hearken to the things of God, even while confessing that we know we are incapable of being moved properly by these things, and then pray that God’s indwelling Holy Spirit will move us to love and to take joy in what is godly above all else. Then, if God graciously grants our prayer, we will possess one of the chief marks of true conversion, as Paul’s words to the Thessalonians makes clear: “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. . . . And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:4-6).
The Role of Negative Desires and Emotions in the Christian Life
Christians sometimes seem to assume that godliness ought to be proof against having any negative desires or emotions. Numbers 25 contradicts that assumption. Phinehas had an intensely negative emotion, and God blessed him for it.
Negative desires and emotions involve our reacting against something. Our perceiving or considering something is then tinged with dislike, displeasure, disapproval, aversion, or something like that. It would be nice if it were possible to experience only positive desires and emotions — desires and emotions involving only mental states like pleasure, approval, and attraction. But the linkage that holds among our beliefs, concerns, and emotions is such that, in a world where we can know or believe or worry that something we care about is or may be threatened, the same concerns that give rise to positive emotions when we have certain beliefs will inevitably give rise to negative emotions when we have other beliefs. For the very same care or concern that disposes me to feel a particular positive emotion under certain conditions will dispose me to feel a particular negative emotion under others. If I am able to feel joy at my wedding, then I am also capable of feeling sorrow if something bad happens to my wife.
Indeed, when we think carefully about it, we see that many desires and emotions come in complementary pairs: love and hatred, joy and sorrow, fear and hope, gratitude and resentment, and so on. A desire or emotion is not “right,” then, just because it is a positive desire or emotion; it is right when it is the desire or emotion that is appropriate to the situation at hand, whether it is positive or negative. If, upon hearing that my wife has just been in a very serious automobile accident, I don’t experience any negative emotion, there is probably something wrong with me.
Edwards, utilizing both reason and Scripture, recognizes all of this and more. He says,
As all the exercises of the inclination and will, are either in approving and liking, or disapproving and rejecting; so the affections are of two sorts; they are those by which the soul is carried out to what is in view, cleaving to it, or seeking it; or those by which it is averse from it, and opposes it.
Of the former sort are love, desire, hope, joy, gratitude, complacence. Of the latter kind, are hatred, fear, anger, grief, and such like. . . .
And there are some affections wherein there is a composition of each of the aforementioned kinds of actings of the will; as in the affection of pity, there is something of the former kind, towards the person suffering, and something of the latter, towards what he suffers. And so in zeal [which is another term for what Phinehas was feeling in Numbers 25], there is in it high approbation of some person or thing, together with vigorous opposition to what is conceived to be contrary to it. (Affections, 98ff)
He then lists some of the positive and negative desires and emotions that, in appropriate circumstances, are among the signs of true conversion: “fear, hope, love, hatred, desire, joy, sorrow, gratitude, compassion and zeal.” He also argues that the Scriptures “represent true religion, as being summarily comprehended in love, the chief of the affections,” citing our Lord’s declaration that love to God and neighbor make up the two great commandments (see Matthew 22:37-40) as well as the apostle Paul’s commendation of love “as the greatest thing in religion, and as the vitals, essence and soul of it,” as found especially in 1 Corinthians 13. He then claims that love is the “fountain of all other affections.” From love, he argues,
arises hatred of those things which are contrary to what we love, or which oppose and thwart us in those things that we delight in: and from the various exercises of love and hatred, according to the circumstances of the objects of these affections, as present or absent, certain or uncertain, probable or improbable, arise all those other affections of desire, hope, fear, joy, grief, gratitude, anger, etc.
This general claim, applied to Christianity, yields claims like these:
From a vigorous, affectionate, and fervent love to God, will necessarily arise . . . an intense hatred and abhorrence of sin, fear of sin, and a dread of God’s displeasure, gratitude to God for his goodness, complacence and joy in God when God is graciously and sensibly present, and grief when he is absent,
as well as “a joyful hope when a future enjoyment of God is expected and fervent zeal for the glory of God.”
Edwards buttresses these claims with various Scriptures, but some additional biblical reflection is in order. I will concentrate on the emotional aspects of love and hatred, highlighting especially what Scripture claims about hate, since we tend to think that having strong negative emotions like it couldn’t possibly be godly.
Ecclesiastes confirms that “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: . . . a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; . . . a time to love, and a time to hate” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4, 8). Moreover, Scripture takes love and hatred as complementary, presenting some juxtapositions of them as inevitable: Those who fear God and love his law inevitably hate and abhor falsehood and evil (see Psalm 119:163; Proverbs 8:13); fools love being simple and hate knowledge (see Proverbs 1:22); and it is impossible to love both God and money (see Matthew 6:24). And sometimes Scripture commands us to juxtapose them: “O you who love the LORD, hate evil!” (Psalm 97:10; compare with Amos 5:15); “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Romans 12:9).
In addition, Scripture informs us that wrong loves and hates provoke God’s wrath. For example, Jehu the prophet at one point confronts King Jehoshaphat by saying, “Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the LORD? Because of this, wrath has gone out against you from the LORD” (2 Chronicles 19:2; compare with Exodus 20:5). Earlier, Moses warns the Israelites,
Know . . . that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today. (Deuteronomy 7:9-11; compare with 32:41)
Since the whole affective side of our natures involves our hearts, this means that God’s wrath rests on those who have wrong — that is, unregenerate — hearts.
This allows us to understand why David and some of the other psalmists cite their hatreds as proof of their pure hearts. Sometimes they say they hate the ways and works of those who sin (see Psalm 101:3; 119:128; compare with Revelation 2:6) or the gatherings of liars, hypocrites, evildoers, and sinners:
Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and my mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in your faithfulness. I do not sit with men of falsehood, nor do I consort with hypocrites. I hate the assembly of evildoers, and I will not sit with the wicked. (Psalm 26:2-5; compare with 119:161-163)
Sometimes, however, they declare that they hate not just ungodliness but ungodly people: “I hate those who pay regard to worthless idols” (Psalm 31:6); “I hate the double-minded” (Psalm 119:113); and, most shockingly,
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! . . . Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! . . . Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies. Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:17, 19, 21-24)
This is shocking to us because we have uncritically accepted the saying, “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” But David’s claims in Psalm 139 parallel Scripture’s claims about what God himself hates: God hates evil (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 12:31; 16:22; Proverbs 6:16-18; Isaiah 1:14; 61:8) and also evildoers (see Psalm 5:5; 11:5; Proverbs 6:19; Hosea 9:15).
Furthermore, hating specific things qualifies human beings for specific divinely sanctioned tasks, offices, and blessings. Thus Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, advises him on how to manage his workload by urging him to appoint others to help with specific tasks and says: “look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people . . . [to] judge the people” (Exodus 18:21ff.; compare with Proverbs 15:27). In Psalms, this sort of qualification gets picked up and applied to the kind of kings God blesses (see Psalm 45:6ff.), and ultimately it is applied in Hebrews to God the Son:
Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions. (Hebrews 1:8-9)
Finally, Jesus makes the right hates key to Christian discipleship and obtaining eternal life by declaring that “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26), and “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24ff.).
Hatred, dictionaries inform us, involves feeling extreme enmity or a strong aversion toward something or someone. When we hate something, we usually can’t stand the sight of it, and we want it damaged or destroyed. And so these declarations by Jesus seem a bit puzzling, especially in the light of 1 Timothy 5, where Paul declares that Christians who do not provide for their relatives are worse than unbelievers — and how likely are we to do that if we bear them such ill will? In these cases we need to remember that sometimes Scripture uses the word hate comparatively, as a way of contrasting how much we must value being Christ’s disciples over everything else, including our families or ourselves. In those cases, if we must choose, then we only avoid idolatry by choosing Christ and eternal life as if we hate everything else.
Scripture ascribes not only hatred but many other strong negative desires and emotions both to God and to God’s people. For instance, it often characterizes God as jealous (see Exodus 34:14; Deuteronomy 6:13-15; Nahum 1:2), and its references to God’s anger and wrath are too frequent to be easily counted (see, Exodus 4:14; Joshua 7:1; Ezra 8:22; Psalm 78:49; John 3:36; Romans 1:18; Revelation 14:9-11). Moreover, any adequate treatment of anger in Scripture must deal with what B. B. Warfield established in his article on “The Emotional Life of our Lord,” namely, that Jesus himself, as the sinless God/man, was often angry or upset (see Mark 3:5; 10:14; John 2:14-16).
Why does Scripture do this? It is not merely because we need to remember that strong negative desires and emotions are inevitable in a fallen world so that we will not be too discouraged or shocked when (in appropriate circumstances) we have them. It is also because we need the reassurance of knowing that God has them. God is majestic in his holiness (see Exodus 15:11; 1 Chronicles 16:29), which is manifested in his perfect righteousness, absolute justness, and moral purity (see Isaiah 5:16; Zephaniah 3:5), and which necessitates his inveterate hatred of all sin, wickedness, and evil (see Isaiah 61:8). We need to know that he hates these things because our fallen world contains so much that is wrong and evil. For instance, each of us gives and gets small but real affronts and injuries every day. Then there are less frequent but more horrifying evils and crimes against humanity.
Encountering these things reminds us that the world is not the way it is supposed to be and that these wrongs need righting. Yet often we cannot right them, and no one else rights them. So we need the reassurance of knowing that it is part of God’s nature and glory to get angry about sin (see Romans 2:6-11) and to be continuously indignant at the world’s many evils (Psalm 7:11; Nahum 1:2-13). God now disciplines us less than we deserve so that we are not consumed (see Ezra 9:13; Psalm 78:37-39; 103:8-14). Yet his anger and hatred against all wrongdoing and sin will endure until all wrongdoing is finally confronted and fully requited (see Deuteronomy 7:10; Psalm 1:5-6; 21:8-13; Proverbs 11:19-21; Zephaniah 3:8-10; Romans 2:1-5; Revelation 18:4-8).
Scripture ascribes hatred and other strong negative desires and emotions not only to God but also to God’s people because we must be encouraged to have them in the right circumstances. As counterintuitive as this may at first seem, to have such desires and emotions in the right circumstances is part of our glory, as creatures made in God’s image. They show that our hearts are attuned to God’s own heart and thus that we are indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit. Thus if God’s standards are flouted, then we should feel sorrow or indignation (see Jeremiah 13:15-17; Psalm 119:53). Consequently, one sign of true conversion is that we feel strong negative emotions when we should. As Edwards puts it, Christians “are called upon to give evidence of their sincerity by this, ‘Ye that love the Lord, hate evil’” (Edwards, Affections, 104).
But in addition to being reliable signs of true conversion, strong negative emotions in the right circumstances help us to be more godly in particular ways. One of the chief characteristics of a strong negative emotion like anger is that it motivates us. My being righteously angry can help me to think clearly and then act decisively. Of course, anger can be sinful or turn sinful; and so we must be very careful not to indulge it inappropriately and thus, as Paul says, “give . . . opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:27). But this does not mean all anger is wrong, as Paul’s counsel, “Be angry and do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26), makes clear.
“One sign of true conversion is that we feel strong negative emotions when we should.”
Again, hatred’s tendency to persist can keep us focused on confronting and countering truly horrific evils in exactly the way that God’s people should; and detesting wickedness — that is, loathing and abhorring it — is good. Scripture calls various sexual acts and practices detestable (see Leviticus 18:22; Deuteronomy 22:5; Jeremiah 13:24-27), which means that God detests them (see 1 Kings 14:22-24 with Deuteronomy 23:18), and so should we (see Deuteronomy 7:26). In Moses and the prophets, these acts and practices are detestable partly because they were associated with pagan religious rituals (see Deuteronomy 23:17-18; Jeremiah 5:7-9). Engaging in them thus meant breaking covenant with Yahweh and making covenant with pagan deities deliberately and explicitly (see Numbers 25:1-3 and 31:15-16 with Revelation 2:14).
Yet even then, the detestation that such acts and practices should produce was never completely separate from the fact that they fly in the face of the created order as God intended it (see, for instance, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 with Genesis 2:24). This aspect of their immorality or perversity becomes more central in the Wisdom literature and in the New Testament (see Proverbs 11:20; Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:18; 2 Peter 2:416). And it remains the primary reason why we, as God’s New Covenant people, should detest them.
As Michael Grisanti says, in his New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis articles on the Hebrew terms that the New International Version translates as “detestable,” “Yahweh’s demand for Israel’s heartfelt obedience . . . provided Israel with a tangible means to fulfill her divine commission to be a ‘treasured possession . . . a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exodus 19:56)” (Michael Grisanti, in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, [Zondervan, 1997], 4:315, 4:244).
Yahweh demanded that his people reject and loathe certain sexual acts and practices because they were incompatible with his holiness. He desired “to preserve the purity of his chosen people so as to enable them to clearly mirror his character to the surrounding pagan nations.” Whether or not they loathed these acts and practices “demonstrated their spiritual condition and served as an indicator of their coming fate.”
We, in God’s New Covenant times, are God’s new royal priesthood and holy nation (see 1 Peter 2:9). And we also are called to be holy because he is holy (see Leviticus 20:7-26; 1 Peter 1:15-16). This means that “there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity [among us], . . . because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Ephesians 5:3, NIV; see 5:3-20; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8). In the Beatitudes, Jesus stresses that the threshold for sexual immorality is much lower than the Jewish people had taken it to be (see Matthew 5:27-32). Paul is so averse to any sexual impurity that he rules even “foolish talk” and “crude joking” “out of place” (Ephesians 5:4).
But in our time the floodgates of sexual immorality and moral perversity have been thrown wide open. Many in our culture are constantly attempting to make us more tolerant and thus less inclined to react strongly against such things. One of their primary strategies involves their re-describing various forms of sexual immorality and moral perversity in ways that make those acts and practices less likely to arouse emotional aversion. For instance, some segments of the homosexual community are working hard to destigmatize the sexual molestation of pre- and post-pubescent boys by homosexual adults.
In 1998, an article appeared in the American Psychological Association’s prestigious Psychological Bulletin claiming that scientific evidence does not support the common belief that such sexual encounters invariably harm the boys involved. Consequently, it concluded, it is inappropriate to label all such encounters “sexual abuse.” Willing encounters “with positive reactions” should just be labeled “adult-child sex” (See Mary Eberstadt’s “‘Pedophilia Chic’ Re-considered,” Weekly Standard [January 1/January 8, 2001]). Similarly, in 2001 Peter Singer of Princeton University’s Center for Human Values published an essay on the webzine Nerve.com that tried to normalize bestiality by highlighting some of the “science” in Midas Dekkers’s pro-bestiality book, Dearest Pet.
In both cases, this strategy involved comparing these still generally abhorred practices with sexual practices that our culture no longer decries. The Psychological Bulletin article compared pedophilia with behaviors like masturbation, homosexuality, oral sex, and sexual promiscuity, all of which were once but are no longer classified as pathologies in the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Singer associates bestiality with the once-widespread beliefs that contraception and masturbation were wrong as well as with practices such as heterosexual sodomy and homosexuality that our society now tolerates and sometimes celebrates.
It is clear that, with the likely exception of contraception, God detests practices like these (see Leviticus 18:22-30; 20:13, 15-16; Deuteronomy 27:21). Yet is it clear that we do? Do we feel emotional aversion in the face of sexual immorality and moral perversion? Are we willing to serve as mirrors of God’s character to our culture by expressing it? On any given evening, any number of us watch television programs that break the bounds of propriety that the Scriptures set. We may think that our assent to Scripture’s sexual standards is enough and that it does not really matter that we do not emotionally detest what we see, but Scripture tells us otherwise: “O you who love the Lord, hate evil.”
Have we allowed the culture around us to “squeeze [us] into its own mould” rather than allowing “God [to] re-make [us] so that [our] whole attitude of mind is changed” (Romans 12:2, Phillips)? In Jeremiah, God condemns those who do not know how to blush (see 8:12). Paul declares that “it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret” (Ephesians 5:12, NIV). Strong negative emotions are important indicators of who — and whose — we are. To claim to be Christians and yet not to feel emotional aversion when Christian moral standards are violated is, at best, to exhibit a kind of mental schizophrenia between our heads and our hearts.
The Psalmist declares that God’s wrath against human beings brings him praise and that its survivors are restrained by that very wrath (see 76:10, NIV). It is part of our task, as God’s holy people, to manifest his holiness through our emotions. Moral perversion makes headway in our culture when we are not moved to decry the less-shocking forms of sexual immorality. How much better might the moral situation of our time be if many of us could say, “I never sat in the company of revelers, never made merry with them; I sat alone because your hand was on me and you had filled me with indignation” (Jeremiah 15:17, NIV)?
“Take and Read!”
Negative desires and emotions like jealousy, hatred, anger, indignation, and fear can be godly, then, if we have them in the appropriate circumstances. But then how can we tell that a desire or emotion is or is not godly, since we can’t just assume that all positive desires and emotions are godly and all negative ones are not?
The only sure indicator is that our desires and emotions conform to those that God approves of in his Scriptures. Holy affections are desires and emotions that God has or that he wants his people to have. The way that we know what he wants us to desire and feel is by reading the Scriptures and noting what his saints are represented as properly desiring and feeling as well as what God commands and counsels his saints to desire and feel.
This is what Edwards sets out to do in Part Three of his Religious Affections. Its whole purpose is to show us what in Scripture distinguishes “truly gracious and holy affections” from all others. Thus Part Three is the treasure trove in Edwards’s great work. Everything that I have written just gets you ready to appreciate it. And, somewhat in the manner of Philip’s reply to Nathanael early in John’s Gospel, to any Christian who doubts what is to be found there, I would say, “Come and see” (see John 1:43-46). Pore through those pages of Edwards’s great book, and you will find much to enlighten your mind and warm your heart. Indeed, you will find truths that will bring you joy from now throughout eternity.