Edwards and Demons (Part II)

This is part two of a series exploring Jonathan Edwards’ thought about Satanic delusion in the hearts of believers and unbelievers. All page numbers reference Religious Affections in Hendrickson’s The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 1 (Jump to Edwards and Demons: Part I).

Part 2 of Religious Affections consists of Edwards detailing “what are no certain signs that religious affections are truly gracious, or that they are not” (245). Much of this material builds upon his Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, published in 1741. The rhetorical structure of each proposition discussed elucidates Edwards’ position as both a great supporter of the revival, and a great critic of the excesses to which the revivalist spirit was taken. A sampling of his subject matter reveals that Edwards is greatly concerned about the emphasis on flamboyant emotion and practices as proof that a work is produced by regeneration, or that such flamboyance is proof that it is not a work of the Spirit.

    • It is no sign, one way or other, that religious affections are very great, or raised very high (245).
    • It is no sign that affections have the nature of true religion, or that they do not, that they have great effects on the body (246).
    • It is no evidence that religious affections are saving, or that they are otherwise, that there is an appearance of love in them (250).
    • It is no certain sign that affections have in them the nature of true religion, or that they have not, that they dispose persons to spend much time in religion, and to be zealously engaged in the external duties of worship (255).

Central to all of Edwards’ considerations is a tremendous skepticism of the heart’s ability to discern its own state before the Lord. Because of the guilt incurred by man from the fall, every man is possessed by a desperation towards delusion in an attempt to justify himself before the tribunal of his own conscience. Natural man desires to believe himself either to be free from the claim of the law or to be justified before the Law. Add to this the malicious work of Satan, whose work is described in Scripture as work of deception and blinding, and there is ample reason for such skepticism.

Given that Edwards has defined true religion as “in the great part, consist[ing] in holy affections” (236) which are indistinguishable from actions as ordered by the affections-informed will, the conclusion of Part Two leaves us in a difficult position. Edwards has categorically and methodically argued against judging spiritual health by perception of religious affections, yet he speaks of affections as proved by the actions. To solve this dilemma we must understand that a man’s perceptions of reality and reality itself may be two very different objects. The role of Satan as a counterfeiter will be explored in the second half of this paper, but at this juncture we must understand that it is precisely this tension that Edwards is attempting to solve. The world is not a simplistic environment where all is as it seems. Actions are the greatest proof of affections, but in a world of counterfeits, a man must be willing to diligently study every facet of his actions to seize a glimpse of the nature of his affections.

It is in Part Three that Edwards turns to this, “showing what are distinguishing signs of truly gracious and holy affections” (262). Edwards quickly places two caveats that the reader must keep in mind. His propositions are not infallible guides, for Edwards acknowledges that hypocrites will most likely twist anything to convince themselves of their own favorable state. He writes,

I am far from undertaking to give such signs of gracious affection, as shall be sufficient to enable any certainly to distinguish true affections from false in others; or to determine positively which of their neighbors are true professors or hypocrites. . . . No such signs are to be expected, that shall be sufficient to enable those saints certainly to discern their own good estate, who are very low in grace, or are such as have much departed from God, and are fallen into a dead, carnal, and unchristian frame (262, 263).

In our modern day, we typically think of assurance as a synonym for positive emotions confirmed by deep introspection. To be assured of something means to be at peace regarding it, to be convinced because of a lack of emotions suggesting the contrary. Emotions, not deeds, are proof of saving grace. While this model does positively guard against works-righteousness salvation, it also serves to convince those without grace that they possess it because they have no feelings to the contrary. Edwards finds this emphasis upon introspection as contrary to the way Scripture evaluates assurance.

It is not God’s design that men should obtain assurance in any other way, than by mortifying corruption, increasing in grace, and obtaining the lively exercises of it. And although self-examination be a duty of great use and importance, and by no means to be neglected; yet it is not the principal means, by which the saints do get satisfaction of their good estate. Assurance is not to be obtained so much by self-examination as by action.

There is a violence in assurance that is not often bespoken of in contemporary thought. Mortification of sin is the principal demonstration of saving grace, as said in Proverbs 8:13, “The fear of Yahweh is hatred of evil.” Counterfeit will not be intent upon mortifying that which feeds it, for all false work is ultimately fed by evil desires. There may be the appearance of mortification in a false work by shifting sin from one category to another, but a work of grace will see mortification touch every category of thought and deed.

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