“Spiritual understanding primarily consists in this sense, or taste of the moral beauty of divine things.” —Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections
Oh, how glad I would be if I could be of a little service to the souls of some of God’s people the way Jonathan Edwards has been to me. Neither he nor I is an inspired spokesmen of God, as the apostles were. But we are, with them, in some measure, “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1). These stewards were household managers of the owner’s resources, handling them in a way that brought benefit to the members of the house.
As a good steward, Edwards spoke of these “mysteries” — these once-hidden, now revealed wonders of God — in such a way that for forty years he has quickened my soul like no other teacher outside the Bible. What C.S. Lewis has done to waken me to the beauties of the world, Edwards has done to waken me to the beauties of God.
Here is a glimpse of one way Edwards has transformed the way I see God and his word. Perhaps you might experience something similar.
Two Kinds of Knowing
Most of us have a vague notion that there is a difference between knowing biblical truth intellectually and knowing it spiritually. We have read 1 Corinthians 2:14:
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
“What C.S. Lewis has done to waken me to the beauties of the world, Edwards has done to waken me to the beauties of God.”
We have read 3 John 11: “Whoever does evil has not seen God.” And we have surmised that there must be a kind of seeing that is more than the merely intellectual seeing that leaves us unchanged in our sin.
We have read the prayer of Jesus in John 17:3, where he says, “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God.” And we have inferred that this kind of knowing is different from what the devil has. This knowing is life.
For me, it was Jonathan Edwards who took hold of these two kinds of knowing — intellectual and spiritual — and gathered the biblical fragments, and brought them into the light of their coherent brightness, and showed me the vastness of their importance for all of life.
There is a distinction to be made between a mere notional understanding, wherein the mind only beholds things in the exercise of a speculative faculty; and the sense of the heart, wherein the mind . . . relishes and feels. . . . The one is mere speculative knowledge; the other sensible [= sensed or felt] knowledge, in which more than the mere intellect is concerned; the heart is the proper subject of it, or the soul as a being that not only beholds, but has inclination, and is pleased or displeased. (Religious Affections, 272, emphasis added)
Edwards riveted my attention on the phrase “spiritual understanding” in Colossians 1:9: “We have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” Then he made the obvious comment:
That there is such a thing as an understanding of divine things, which in its nature and kind is wholly different from all knowledge that natural men have, is evident from this, that there is an understanding of divine things, which the Scripture calls spiritual understanding. (270)
And what is this spiritual understanding? What makes it different from speculative or notional or intellectual understanding? Edwards answered,
It consists in a sense of the heart, of the supreme beauty and sweetness of the holiness or moral perfection of divine things, together with all that discerning and knowledge of things of religion, that depends upon, and flows from such a sense. (272)
New Language, Beyond Calvin
This was a new vocabulary for me: “sense of the heart” and “beauty and sweetness of holiness.” Edwards said that spiritual knowledge “is often represented by relishing, smelling, or tasting” (272–73). This was not the language of spiritual knowledge I had picked up in church or college or seminary.
We are so shaped by who our key teachers are. For example, contrast the ways John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards talk about the fact that the role of the Spirit in giving us spiritual knowledge does not include giving us new information that is not in the meaning of Scripture.
The office of the Spirit promised to us, is not to form new and unheard-of revelations, or to coin a new form of doctrine, by which we may be led away from the received doctrine of the gospel, but to seal on our minds the very doctrine which the gospel recommends. (Institutes)
Spiritual understanding does not consist in any new doctrinal knowledge, or in having suggested to the mind any new proposition, not before read or heard of: for ’tis plain that this suggesting of new propositions, is a thing entirely diverse from giving the mind a new taste or relish of beauty and sweetness. (278)
Both of Calvin’s and Edwards’s statements are true and accurate and important. But the note struck is different. Calvin says the work of the Spirit in giving spiritual understanding is “to seal on our minds the very doctrine which the gospel recommends.” Edwards says the work of the Spirit is to “give the mind a new taste or relish of beauty and sweetness.”
The language of Calvin remains in the realm of mind, doctrine, and sealing. The language of Edwards probes the actual experience of the sealing, and describes it as “tasting beauty and sweetness.”
A New Seeing
Edwards opened my eyes to the experiential biblical reality of Psalm 34:8: “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!” There is a seeing and tasting that the natural mind does not have.
“There is a seeing and tasting that the natural mind does not have.”
For example, Paul says that unbelievers are kept by Satan “from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). This blindness is overcome only because God “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
So there is a spiritual seeing that is different from natural seeing. And what is seen by the Spirit is “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” Light is seen. But not natural light. Rather, the light of divine glory. The glory of Christ, the image of God.
This is what Edwards is referring to when he says that what the “new spiritual sense” sees is
the supreme beauty and excellency of the nature of divine things. . . . It is in the view or sense of this, that Spiritual understanding does more immediately and primarily consist. (271–72)
A New Tasting
This spiritual seeing is also described as spiritual tasting. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119:103). “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation — if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:2–3).
Until I read Edwards’s Religious Affections, I passed over this kind of language with little appreciation of the profound spiritual, epistemological, and pastoral implications such words contain. But Edwards took me by the collar and rubbed my nose in it until I saw how staggering the implications are for the meaning of conversion, and the miracle of new birth, and the reality of communion with the living God.
For example, Edwards wrote this about Psalm 119:
In this psalm the excellency of holiness is represented as the immediate object of a spiritual taste, relish, appetite and delight, God’s law, that grand expression and emanation of the holiness of God’s nature, and prescription of holiness to the creature, is all along represented as the food and entertainment, and as the great object of the love, the appetite, the complacence and rejoicing of the gracious nature, which prizes God’s commandments above gold, yea, the finest gold, and to which they are sweeter than the honey, and honeycomb. (260, emphasis added)
Utterly and Supernaturally New
These words are not metaphorical for right thinking. They refer to the supernatural fruit of right thinking; namely, the spiritual affections — treasuring, prizing, delighting, relishing, enjoying, being satisfied. These acts of the soul are owing to a new capacity of spiritual discernment — spiritual sensing, perceiving.
This capacity did not exist before the new birth. It was a creation by the Spirit.
The mind has an entirely new kind of perception or sensation; and here is, as it were, a new spiritual sense that the mind has . . . which is in its whole nature different from any former kinds of sensation of the mind, as tasting is diverse from any of the other senses; and something is perceived by a true saint . . . in spiritual and divine things, as entirely diverse from anything . . . perceived . . . by natural men, as the sweet taste of honey is diverse from the ideas men get of honey by only looking on it, and feeling of it. (205–6)
“Drinking the milk of the word will lead to salvation not if you have heard, or known, or decided, but if you have tasted.”
Without this “new spiritual sense of the mind,” there is no salvation. This is what it means to be born again. How many professing Christians lack this spiritual capacity for delighting in God? One way to find out is for pastors and teachers to give more prominence to the conditional clause of 1 Peter 2:2–3:
Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation — if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Every pastor should ponder this if with great seriousness. Peter is saying that drinking the milk of the word will lead to salvation “if you have tasted.” Not if you have heard, or if you have known, or if you have decided. But if you have tasted.
I thank God that over sixty years ago, he entered my life, and gave me a new heart. I thank him that for over sixty years, he has awakened, and reawakened countless times, a taste for “the moral beauty of divine things.” I pray he will do this for you. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”