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Religious Affections


A Reader’s Guide to a Christian Classic

Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections is a tremendous book. It’s potentially a devastating book. The question it addresses — what are the distinguishing marks of one who is in favor with God? — is an unavoidable one for a follower of Christ. How do I know that my faith is genuine? How do I know that I’m a real Christian, and not a hypocrite?

The possibility that my faith is false, and the fact that this book might help to reveal the falsity, is why it is potentially devastating. But this sort of devastation is good. If my faith is misguided or lacking or deficient or false in some fundamental way, far better that I discover it now than that I arrive at the final judgment only to hear Jesus say, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matthew 7:23). Far better for Edwards to devastate me with his writings than for Christ to devastate me with his dismissal. Recovery from the former is possible; repentance is still an option. But there is no recovery from the latter. “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

But the book is potentially devastating for another reason. It’s a complicated book, a meticulous book, a book by a veritable genius, written in the style of an eighteenth-century pastor and theologian. It’s the fruit of decades of theological reflection on revival, religious experience, the challenge of assurance, and the difficulty of discerning the work of God on earth. It was written on the heels of the First Great Awakening, the fourth book on the subject by its author, and his most mature reflections on the challenges posed by the revivals that swept Europe and America in the middle of the eighteenth century. The complexity of the subject and the precision of the author’s prose mean that this book can be misunderstood. And in misunderstanding, we can be devastated. Our faith might be wrecked, not because it is false, but because it is real, and we wrongly apply Edwards’s signs to ourselves.

In commending this book to the reader, I’m mindful of both types of devastation. I want to foster the first kind, if needed, and avoid the second kind, if possible. To that end, I offer a ten-step orientation to the book as a whole. Think of these as ten items to keep in mind as you embark on the difficult but valuable journey before you.

1. Structure

The book has three parts. Part 1 introduces the thesis — true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections — and then proceeds to define what is meant by affections. Part 2 then identifies twelve unreliable signs of holy affections, and then part 3 identifies twelve reliable signs of holy affections (this is the meat of the book). Definitions. Unreliable Signs. Reliable Signs. That’s the basic structure.

2. Meaning of Affections

Understanding what Edwards means by affections requires understanding a bit about his view of humanity. As a human being, you are made up of a body and a soul. Your body has five senses, by which you take in impressions from the external world. Your soul, or your mind, has two fundamental faculties or powers. The first is the understanding. It’s the faculty by which you perceive, discern, view, and judge. It tells you what something is. The second faculty is the will, by which you like or dislike, love or hate, approve or reject what you perceive with your understanding.

If you go to a football game, it’s by means of your understanding that you identify the team in purple and gold as the Vikings, and the team in green and yellow as the Packers. But it’s by means of your will that you shout and cheer for the Vikings and boo and hiss at the Packers. Crucially, it’s the inclination of the will that governs our actions. Now, some inclinations of the will are mild and minor; they barely register at all (like choosing what socks to wear today). But other inclinations of the will are vigorous, persistent, and lively (like choosing whom you’re going to marry). Only the latter are termed affections. They are the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the will.

3. Importance of Affections

Why are affections so important? Affections are often the spring of men’s actions. They make the world go round. Without lively affections, few of us would do much of anything. What animates our actions is our loves and hates, our fears and desires, our griefs and joys. More importantly, affections reveal the fundamental orientation of the heart. When you see what a person loves, hates, fears, desires, rejoices in, and grieves over, you’re seeing the bent and tendency of his heart. So if we want to know what kind of heart we have, we need to look to our affections.

4. Evaluating Affections

It’s important, however, that we don’t make a mistake in evaluating our affections. Edwards is clear that we should focus primarily on the fixity, persistence, and strength of our habitual affections, rather than on the immediate intensity of any particular affection. Clarity will keep us from evaluating ourselves (and others) wrongly. A flash of emotion doesn’t tell us much one way or another. Nor should we measure the strength of our affections by the immediate outward effects (some of which are determined by personality and culture). Rather, we should mainly be concerned with the strength of our habitual affections, the tendency of our hearts over time and through challenges. This will keep us from jumping to premature conclusions because we have an unusually bad day (or an unusually good one).

5. Unreliable Signs

We need to be clear about what Edwards means by unreliable signs. Unreliable signs are not bad; they’re simply unreliable. In other words, the presence of an unreliable sign in your life isn’t defective; it just isn’t decisive. It doesn’t count against you, but neither does it count in your favor. In that sense, unreliable signs don’t tell us much. For example, intense affection is an unreliable sign. On the one hand, intensity could be good. Think of David in the Psalms. On the other hand, people have intense affections for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with Christ. Likewise with physical manifestations. When the prophets encounter the presence of God, they fall on their faces. This is good and right. But people faint at political rallies and rock concerts. So we shouldn’t put too much stock in physical manifestations of intense emotion.

Essentially, an unreliable sign is capable of being counterfeit. Edwards’s rule of thumb is this: if unbelievers can do it, it’s not reliable. If the devil can imitate it, it’s not reliable. So we shouldn’t fear or reject unreliable signs. Neither should we bank on them.

6. Reliable Signs

When it comes to the twelve reliable signs, they follow a distinct progression, and they can be clustered together into groups. Over the years, I’ve found it helpful to think of them as a tree. The first four signs are the roots. They are foundational to the tree, but often hidden and difficult to discern (especially in others). True affections are the result of a saving work of the Spirit that gives us a new sense of the heart, a new foundation in our soul. This new sense is able to see the moral excellency of divine things, the beauty of God’s holiness, which gives rise to a distinct kind of knowledge of God. Just as there’s a difference between knowing that honey is sweet (because you read it in a book) and actually tasting the sweetness of honey for yourself, so also there is a difference between knowing that God is holy (even the demons know that) and actually tasting the sweetness and delight of his holiness. It’s this deeper, experiential knowledge that God gives us in the new birth, and this knowledge is essential for genuine religious affections.

From the roots we move to the trunk in signs five to seven. True religious affections are “attended with” these signs. There’s a conviction of God’s reality that comes from a direct encounter with him through his word. We know Christ is real because we’ve tasted and seen his beauty for ourselves. Likewise, this sight of God’s holiness and beauty humbles us, since we become more aware of our own abiding sinfulness. We don’t just regret our sins because we might be punished; we loathe our sins because they are odious and disgusting. Finally, this sight of divine glory in the gospel transforms our very nature.

Out from the trunk come the branches of signs eight to eleven. These signs begin to be more visible. Our new nature reflects Jesus in his love, meekness, and mercy. Our hearts are softened and our consciences made sensitive to remaining sin. Our pursuit of holiness is comprehensive; we don’t simply pursue certain virtues to the neglect of others, but instead seek to show all of the fruit of the Spirit. What’s more, we don’t rest satisfied in our progress thus far, but are continually striving for more of God and holiness, more of love and grace.

The final sign, Edwards says, is the most important. It’s where all the other signs have been leading. The final sign, out on the branches, is the fruit of a holy life. We know trees by their fruit, and in this case, that means a universal, earnest, and persevering obedience to Jesus. Universal doesn’t mean perfect; it means that there is no area of our life off-limits, no pet sins that we keep untouchable. We seek to obey the Lord in every way that we can, and in doing so, we show the fruit of the grace that we have tasted and that has transformed us from the inside out.

7. Testing Edwards’s Insights

It’s worth noting that it’s possible to disagree with Edwards in his emphasis in certain signs. For example, in my own experience, I’m not sure that his counsel on humility in the sixth sign is always helpful. While I agree with his basic point — there’s a difference between legal humiliation (which makes us feel sorrow because we’re being punished) and evangelical humiliation (by which we’re sorry because we’ve grievously sinned) — Edwards’s exhortation to continually evaluate one’s pride to make sure you’re not taking pride in your humility or in your awareness of your pride in your humility can be debilitating. You can easily get stuck on a treadmill of introspection and lose yourself in navel gazing. And this is just an example. Edwards, for all of his wisdom and biblical insight, is still human, and it’s good to test what he says by the Scriptures and to evaluate his applications by wisdom.

8. Body, Circumstances, and Sin

As you read the signs, it’s important to remember that Edwards recognizes the role of the body, our circumstances, and sin in hindering our affections and our assurance. Alterations in the body can affect our imaginations, our minds, and our emotions. Depression (what Edwards calls melancholy) is real, and has a bodily aspect that can influence our thoughts and emotions. In fact, Edwards says, Satan takes advantage of these bodily weaknesses to prey upon weary and depressed saints. This means that a full prescription for someone in depression will include both spiritual counsel and bodily help. While Edwards focuses primarily on the spiritual dimension, he certainly recognizes the role of the bodily dimension. And so should we.

Likewise, pay attention to the beginning of part 3, where Edwards notes the way that circumstances and sin can rob us of assurance of salvation. Those who are low in grace and have fallen into deep sin should not expect to have assurance of salvation. The lack of assurance is a mercy from God, meant to drive us to repent and seek him wholeheartedly. For the one who is low in grace, God seems hidden, as though covered by a dark cloud. What’s more, being low in grace, our spiritual eyesight is dim, and the combination of dark clouds and bad eyes means that we cannot see his smiling face. No amount of signs written in a book will overcome the frustration and fear in such a case. The only remedy is turning to Christ afresh and growing in grace.

9. Seeking Assurance

The previous item leads to an absolutely crucial statement that Edwards makes for those who are struggling with assurance. If you find yourself low in grace and in assurance, doubting and fearing that you don’t truly belong to God, what should you do? Let’s make it more concrete. If reading this book devastates you and you wonder what you should do, remember this quotation from Edwards:

’Tis not God’s design that men should obtain assurance in any other way, than by mortifying corruption, and 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. Religious Affections, 195)

The way to grow in assurance is to kill sin, seek God’s grace, and exercise it as much as you can. Assurance comes not by looking inward, but by action, by looking to Christ and living out of what you see.

10. Humble Posture

The final item is less about the book itself and more a piece of pastoral advice. Read this book humbly. Don’t mainly read it so that you can evaluate the genuineness of others. Edwards, in fact, says that, while we can make a general judgment about the authenticity of others, we can’t infallibly and certainly know that another person is truly born again. We can’t see the heart. Ultimately, only the Lord knows those who are his. Nevertheless, we can have real assurance of our own standing with God, and this book can serve that assurance by directing our attention in the right directions.

If we read humbly, if we read carefully and wisely, if we read in community with others and under the guidance of wise pastors and counselors, then this book can be more than devastating. It can be a means of grace, a gift from God, one that leads you to truly know and deeply treasure all that God is for you in Christ.


 (@joe_rigney) is president of Bethlehem College & Seminary and a teacher for desiringGod.org. He is a husband, father of three, and pastor at Cities Church. His most recent book is More Than a Battle: How to Experience Victory, Freedom, and Healing from Lust.


Love Is Not Always Love


Why Feelings Must Bow Before God

The song “All You Need Is Love” was released in the summer of 1967 and quickly became one of the Beatles’ biggest hits. But for many people, it’s not just a great song — it’s a great philosophy. We see it on T-shirts, posters, and placards. In a world of competing creeds and beliefs, surely, they say, we can all get behind this. Let’s just love one another and not make it more complicated than that.

But the fact is, much of the time it is more complicated than that. “All you need is love” only works as an idea if we all have a shared understanding of what love is and should look like. Most of the time, we don’t.

When we stop and think about it, we’re actually quite confused about love. We know enough to know that it matters. We sense it is what life should be about, and that we can’t really live without it. But we find it surprisingly hard to pin down precisely what love is. We know we need it; we just struggle to articulate what “it” actually is.

How We Know Love

This matters profoundly. We base a lot of ideology, politics, and personal ethics on the assumption that a given course of action is loving. We use hashtags like #LoveIsLove and #LoveWins as though they settle the matter and we all know what we’re talking about. So if we don’t really know as much about love as we think we do, then some of our conclusions about love are not as firm as we think they are. Love is not as straightforward as we tend to think.

The New Testament assumes this when it tells us, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16 NIV).

Notice what is implied: apart from the coming of Christ, we can’t fully know what love is. Our grasp of it will be incomplete at best. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that most clearly shows us what love is. John goes on to ground this, famously, in three monosyllables: not Love is love, but God is love (1 John 4:816).

Counterfeit Feelings

Unless our understanding of love is grounded in the person and work of God himself, whatever form of love we think will be left to guide us will turn out to be empty, hollow and –– ultimately –– counterfeit. C.S. Lewis once wrote that love “begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a god.” He explains,

Every human love, at its height, has a tendency to claim for itself a divine authority. Its voice tends to sound as if it were the will of God himself. It tells us not to count the cost, it demands of us a total commitment, it attempts to over-ride all other claims and insinuates that any action which is sincerely done “for love’s sake” is thereby lawful and even meritorious. (The Four Loves, 7–8)

“God is love” doesn’t mean that God must approve of everything I think is love. It is very easy for us to mistake all sorts of intense and even harmful feelings for love. Instead, “God is love” means that God knows far more about love than we do, and that we must therefore listen to him if we are to love each other as we truly should and in the right way.

Love’s Different Faces

Most of us recognize that different contexts call for different types of love. Consider these statements:

  • I love my mother.
  • I love my spouse.
  • I love my dog.
  • I love burgers.

Each statement uses the same word, but we instinctively understand it in different ways appropriate to its object. Each is a love, but the loves are different. In fact, we would say they are necessarily different. Love for a spouse should look very different from love for a parent. And love for a parent should look very different from love for a pet. We know this. And people who don’t tend to grasp this end up being the subject of documentaries. There are different forms of love, and loving well in any given situation involves ordering those loves appropriately.

There are times this is obvious to us. We might sense that one form of love is straying into another, less appropriate form. What is meant only to be a friendship starts to cross over into something romantic. Or we sense that we are becoming too dependent on a parent in a way that’s unhealthy. Or we see someone trying to have “human” companionship with a pet. It’s why we need God’s help. He will show us what love should look like in each context.

Better Love Than Before

What God shows us will always be more loving than any alternative we might come up with. Obedience to him will never mean we end up loving people less. We might feel like that in some cases, but that is probably because we are wanting to love someone in the wrong kind of way, and God isn’t so much calling us to love them less than he is calling us to love them differently, which will really mean loving them better.

I recently met with two women who had been a lesbian couple before coming to Christ. They have an unusual story in that they both came to Christ and now are close Christian friends in the same church. A relationship that had been the occasion for, and expression of, rebellion against God has now, in an extraordinary turn, become a means by which both are being encouraged toward greater godliness. One of them told me, “Our friendship is far richer now that we’re sisters in Christ than it ever was when we were living in sin.”

The point is not that their story is typical or normative, but their testimony is revealing: turning from an unbiblical relationship to Christ is not turning from more love to less love, but from improper love to better love. We can never truly love someone more by disobeying the God who is love.

We can only say “All you need is love” when it is the love of God, shown in Christ, that we are talking about. Love is love may justify counterfeit love. God is love leads us into something far better.


 (@SamAllberry) is a pastor, apologist, and speaker. He is the author of Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?


If God Desires All to Be Saved, Why Aren’t They?


Good Friday, everyone — literally. It’s Good Friday on the calendar, a day set apart for serious joy, set apart for us to dwell on the death of our Savior Jesus Christ. This holiday is no funeral. It’s a celebration. It’s that odd celebration of ours, and “the main song” of eternity, that eternal song about the “unparalleled beauty and worth of the reigning Lamb, Jesus Christ, who was slain” (APJ 1601Revelation 5:6–14).

Today’s episode is not Good Friday focused, per se. But perhaps we will get into the majesty and mystery of the cross in God’s design. The question I think leads us here. We’ll see. It’s from a listener named Tim. “Pastor John, hello and thank you for this podcast. First Timothy 2:3–4 says God desires all men to be saved. He desires that end. But not all men are saved. Does that mean (1) God will not do what he wants to do? Or (2) God cannot do what he wants to do? It has to be one of these two options, right?”

No, because what the Bible shows over and over again is that there are, in many cases, two wants — W-A-N-T-S — two wills in God, not just one. So it’s not accurate to say that God will not do what he wants to do, since in choosing to do what he does not want to do, he’s doing, in another sense, what he does want to do. It would be superficial to jump to the conclusion that God is schizophrenic or double-minded or perpetually frustrated because, in the infinite complexity of God’s mind and heart, there are ways that he experiences multiple desires — layers of desires or wants or wills — in perfect harmony, each expressing some aspect of his nature in proper unity with other aspects.

God’s Wills in Scripture

Let me illustrate what I mean when I say the Bible repeatedly points to these different levels or ways of wanting or willing in God. For example, now, in 1 Timothy 2:4, the text that Tim is asking about, Paul says, “[God] desires” — that word is thelei in the Greek, which means “wills” or “desires” — “all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” But he does not save all. Now, why not?

Everybody has to face this, not just certain groups. Everyone who believes, as all Christians do, in the wisdom and power and goodness of God would say that the answer is that some other will — or some other desire or commitment of God — takes precedence over the desire for all to be saved. I think everybody would say that.

One group, sometimes called Arminians, says it’s because God is more committed to our free will, our ultimate self-determination, than he is to saving all. The desire to preserve human self-determination takes precedence over the desire for all to be saved. That would be the way an Arminian would describe it. The other group, sometimes called Calvinists, says that God is more committed to glorifying his own free and sovereign grace than he is to saving all.

Now, I think this second answer is right. One of the reasons I do is because of what 2 Timothy 2:25–26 says.

God desires repentance and withholds it.

In 2 Timothy 2:25–26, Paul says that we should exhort sinners with patience and gentleness, and “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,” which is a phrase from back in 1 Timothy 2:4. In other words, the reason some people believe and some do not believe is not because they have ultimate self-determination, but because God may or may not grant them to repent and believe. It’s a gift of sovereign grace.

So God wills that all be saved, but in another sense, he does not will that all be saved. One of these inclinations is a real expression of compassion, and the other is a real expression of sovereign wisdom and the freedom of grace. Now, I’m going to come back to that with an illustration from history that might make it a little more intelligible, but let’s keep giving illustrations of this idea of multiple layers of willing or desiring in God.

God forbids murder and ordains it.

Here’s another example. He commands, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). His will is that people not murder. That’s God’s will. But Acts 4:27–28 says that “Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel,” in murdering Jesus — they all teamed up and murdered him — did “whatever [God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place.” God planned the death of his Son at the hands of murderous, wicked men. Our salvation hangs on this reality. This is at the center of the gospel. This issue of God’s sovereignty over sinful men is at the center of the gospel, not some marginal theological dispute. God’s will that his Son be murdered took precedence over his will that people not murder.

Bible students, for centuries, have seen this and have called these two wills by various names, like “will of command” and “will of decree.” Another set of phrases is “moral will” and “sovereign will.”

God forbids false witness and sends it.

Here’s a third example of these two layers or levels or kinds of willing in God. “You shall not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:16). God’s will is that people tell the truth and not be misled, not think false thoughts, and not deceive others. Yet in 2 Thessalonians 2:10–12, it says,

[People] refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

They “believe what is false.” They speak what is false. They think what is false. Paul says God sent this delusion as a punishment. God’s will that people believe the truth and speak the truth is subordinated, in their case, to God’s other will, which is manifest in his sending them further into deception.

God cares for the wicked and destroys them.

Here’s another example. In Ezekiel 33:11, God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” Yet God often in the Bible justly takes the life of the wicked. Isaiah 11:4: “He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” He does not have pleasure in the death of the wicked. That is, he does not desire it. Nevertheless, he brings that death about. “I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deuteronomy 32:39).

God afflicts, but not ‘from the heart.’

Here’s one more example of these two wills in God. This example may take us most explicitly into God’s soul. At least, I have found for myself and for many people that Lamentations 3:32–33 is really illuminating concerning the nature of God and how his willing works. Here’s what it says: “Though he cause grief” — though God caused grief — “he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.” Now, this is really amazing. God does cause grief. God does afflict the children of men, but then it adds, “not . . . from his heart” (Lamentations 3:33). That’s a very literal and good translation.

Now, what are we to make of that? He wills to do it, but he does not will to do it “from his heart.” You can see why I say that the Bible, over and over, points to the mind and heart of God as complex: willing one thing, willing also that this other will not be put into action. And this is not owing — as it would be, say, in our case — to external forces. Nobody’s twisting God’s arm. All of the wisdom and all of the moral realities that form God’s choices come from within God himself.

Washington’s Example

Here’s an analogy that I said I would give to help perhaps make this a little more intelligible. This comes from The Life of George Washington. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote The Life of George Washington and tells the story that there was a certain Major André who had committed treason and put the new American republic at risk. George Washington signed André’s death warrant. He’s about to be executed. And John Marshall comments in his biography, “Perhaps on no occasion of his life did the commander-in-chief obey with more reluctance the stern mandates of duty and policy.” Two wills were operating in Washington: compassion and justice. One commentator on Washington’s decision said,

Washington’s volition to sign the death-warrant of André did not arise from the fact that his compassion was slight or feigned [unreal], but from the fact that it was rationally counterpoised by a complex of superior judgements . . . of wisdom, duty, patriotism, and moral indignation.

Then he adds, “The pity was real, but was restrained by superior elements of motive.” Washington had official and bodily power to discharge the criminal, but he had no sanctions in his own wisdom and justice to do it.

Similarly, I would say the absence of a volition in God to save does not necessarily imply the absence of compassion. It’s real. That willing in God, that desiring in God, is real. The fact that there are two wills in God points to a profound but complex unity in revealing aspects of God’s nature that are both true and both real. In our own experience, we may feel them as conflicting or as frustrating, but I think it would be rash to say that God experiences his compassion and the justice of his wrath that way. They are harmonious in God. He reveals them both to us so that we can get some true glimpse of what God is really like.


 (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Come, Lord Jesus.

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