In A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards asserts that the way Christians live is the real sign of having a true Christian faith. Since “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections,” a believer who lives in the true religion necessarily should have holy affections (p. 141). However, the opposite is not true: the fact that someone might possess several religious affections does not mean she is living out a true religion. Discerning the mysterious ways of the Spirit’s work, therefore, is never done with one’s understanding but of the Spirit’s. Then, the result of being obedient to God’s Word and His Spirit is the main characteristic that shows Christians that they are indeed following Christ, are in union with Him and have a true zeal for their faith.
Following Edwards’s line of thinking, affections are the different passions that human beings have. They are work of the Spirit because they are God’s gifts given to humanity by His grace. In this respect, Edwards states, “The Author of the human nature has not only given affections to men [and women] but has made ’em very much the spring of men’s actions.” (p. 144) These affections should be understood as “the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.” (p. 141, emphasis mine) As Edwards also claims, “[They] are not essentially distinct from the will, nor do they differ from the mere actings of the will and inclination of the soul.” (p. 142) This means that affections are shown when we have any kind of inclination towards something or someone, understanding inclination as “[T]he faculty by which the soul does not behold things, as an indifferent unaffected spectator, but either, as liking or disliking, pleased or displeased, approving or rejecting.” (p. 141)
The presence of religious affections in us is not a guarantee that we are living out a genuine faith. That is, if we have a particular religious affection and it does not lead us directly to know God more intimately, that affection -though it could be a good one- cannot be a sign of true religion: The chapter thirteen of Corinthians is a good example that shows us that possessing gifts of the Spirit is purposeless if we do not have love for God and His mission on earth. So that living out the true faith means that not only we are having holy affections that reflect our strong inclination towards God, but that we indeed share God’s mission of the kingdom. And sharing God’s mission is only possible when we follow Christ and we are obedient to the Spirit that dwells within us while He guides us to our true identity in Christ, as Edwards correctly states, “To follow Christ in heart, is to have a heart to follow him. To deny ourselves in heart in Christ, is the same thing as to have a heart to deny ourselves for him in fact.” (p. 169)
Having religious or holy affections cannot be the only sign of having a true religion since having a real zeal for our faith requires action, and that is reflected in the way we live out our Christian life. Contrary to the affections, the fruit of having a life submitted completely to God by being obedient to His Word and being a follower of Him is something that cannot be imitated, as the Scriptures affirms, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27, NIV)
Notes & References
All quotes are taken from Jonathan Edwards, Jonathan Edwards Reader, ed. Harry Stout, and Kenneth Minkema John Smith (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2003).