Religious Affections - the Ninth & Tenth Signs
As we near the end of this reading, and the two months or so of reflection and prayer it has provoked, I feel ready to say with some certainty that I will never be quite the same. I certainly hope I never am. Few books have had the profound effect on my heart as this one has. You see, this book is useful not merely for evaluating whether or not you are, or any one else is, among those who are being saved – though it provides assistance in that regard, as well as great assistance in understanding the phenomena of hypocrisy and apostasy. Even more valuably, it gives tools for evaluating ongoing, day-to-day, religious affections. Even solid Christians experience ungodly affections, or just plain natural affections, which they may confuse with the workings of the Holy Spirit in their lives. It is by this very means which the evil one often deceives us. Edwards gives us tools for sober self-assessment, for discernment. One of the things that has astonished me as I’ve struggled through these "signs" has been the mixture of true and false affections harbored in my soul. I’ve thought, "Oh, no, that wasn’t love for God at all! It was a false affection. Lord help me." Thankfully, and comfortingly, I’ve also been able to discern some true spiritual affections along the way.
I’ve recently begun listening to a series of teachings through the book of Hebrews. I’m so glad to have Edwards’ counsel in my heart alongside that study. He has greatly enriched my understanding, as Hebrews has heavily underscored the importance of Edward’s message.
Edwards has helped flesh out the exhortation of the writer of Hebrews:
"Therefore we must pay the closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For if the message declared by angels was valid and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? (Heb. 2: 1-3)
"Take care brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today", that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end, while it is said, ‘Today, when you hear his voice do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion’…" Heb. 3: 12-15
And on and on goes the writer of the Hebrews, in essence telling the elect of God to strive to make their calling and election sure. What an odd paradox striving is to election, yet both things are so: we cannot fall away if we are His, and if we are His we must strive to the end.
With that in mind, I took to The Ninth Sign:
"Gracious affections soften the heart, and are attended and followed with a Christian tenderness of spirit."
This tenderness he refers to is not what I expected. I was thinking along the lines of warm-hearted feelings, like the kind you have toward puppies, kittens, and newborn infants. Edwards, rather, is referring to the attitude of our heart toward the things of God – His Word, the working of His Spirit of conviction upon us, etc.
"But false affections, with the delusion that attends them, finally tend to stupefy the mind, and shut it up against those affections wherein tenderness of heart consists; and the effect of ‘em at last is, that persons in the settled frame of their minds, become less affected with their present and past sins, and less conscientious with respect to future sins, less moved with the warnings and cautions of God’s Word, or God’s chastisements in his providence, more careless of the frame of their hearts, and the manner and tendency of their behavior, less quick-sighted to discern what is sinful, less afraid of the appearance of evil, than they were while they were under legal awakenings and fears of hell."
And further, those under the influence of false affections…
"are in no measure so alarmed at the appearance of their own defects and transgressions…"
"…now they think themselves out of danger of hell, they very much put off the burden of the cross, and save themselves the trouble of difficult duties, and allow themselves more of the comfort of the enjoyment of their ease and their lusts."
"…instead of embracing Christ as their Saviour from sin, they trust in him as the Saviour of their sins….They trust in Christ to preserve to ‘em the quiet enjoyment of their sins, and to be their shield to defend ‘em from God’s displeasure; while they come close to him, even to his bosom, the place of his children, to fight against him, with their mortal weapons, hid under their skirts.
"However some of these, at the same time, make a great profession of love to God, and assurance of his favor, and great joy in tasting the sweetness of his love."
And from one of the extensive footnotes (the footnotes in this book are fantastic):
"Again, Mr. Shepard speaks of such hypocrites as those ‘who like strange eggs, being put into the same nest, where honest men have lived, they have been hatched up; and when they are young, keep their nest, and live by crying and opening their mouths wide after the Lord and the food of his Word; but when their wings are grown, and they have got some affections, some knowledge, some hope of mercy, are hardened thereby to fly from God.’ And adds, ‘Can that man be good, whom God’s grace makes worse?"
"Gracious affections are of a quite contrary tendency; they turn a heart of stone more and more into a heart of flesh…to make it tender, and to fill it with a dread of sin, or whatever might displease and offend God, and to engage it to watchfulness and care and strictness, than a slavish fear of hell."
"…gracious affections don’t tend to make men bold, forward, noisy and boisterous; but rather to speak trembling….There is in some persons, a most unsuitable and unsufferable boldness, in their addresses to the great Jehovah, in an affectation of an holy boldness, and ostentation of eminent nearness and familiarity; the very thoughts of which would make ‘em shrink into nothing, with horror and confusion, if they saw the distance that is between God and them…if they saw their vileness, they would be more like the publican, that stood afar off, and durst not so much as lift up his eyes to heaven…"
The Tenth Sign took a bit of explaining at first (I’d read Tim’s comments before began this section, which helped me get the point faster than I might have on my own), but then the meaning became very clear. It’s a funny thing how Edwards has become characterized in the minds of many people, because of a single sermon, as a dark, stern, fire and brimstone preacher. Really his work is more characterized by a strong vision of the greatness, and beauty of God and the loveliness of the Christian life.
"Another thing wherein those affections that are truly gracious and holy, differ from those that are false, is beautiful symmetry and proportion….which is the natural consequence of the universality of their sanctification….there is every grace in them, which is in Christ."
Well, this sounds lovely, but what does he mean? He begins his explanation by contrast:
"It is with hypocrites…there is commonly no manner of uniformity in their affections.
There is in many of them a great partiality, with regard to the several kinds of religious affections: great affections in some things, and no manner of proportion in others. An holy hope and holy fear go together in the saints….But many of these [hypocrites] rejoice without trembling: their joy is of that sort, that is truly opposite to godly fear."
"But particularly, one great difference between saints and hypocrites is this, that the joy and comfort of the former is attended with godly sorrow and mourning for sin."
I really liked this illustration:
"A true saint is like a little child in this respect; he never had any godly sorrow before he was born again; but since has it often in exercise: as a little child, before it is born, and while it remains in darkness, never cries; but as soon as ever it sees the light, it begins to cry; and thenceforward is often crying."
"Not only is there often in hypocrites, an essential deficiency, as to the various kinds of religious affections; but also a strange partiality and disproportion in the same affections, with regard to different objects."
" Thus as to the affection of love some make high pretenses, and a great shew of love to God and Christ, and it may be have been greatly affected with what they have heard or thought concerning them: but they have not a spirit of love and benevolence towards men, but are disposed to contention, envy, revenge, and evil-speaking; and will, it may be suffer an old grudge to rest in their bosoms towards a neighbor….And on the other hand, there are others, that appear as if they had a great deal of benevolence to men, are very good-natured and generous in their way; but have no love to God."
"They are full of dear affections to some, and full of bitterness towards others. They are knit to their own party, them that approve of ‘em, love ‘em and admire ‘em; but are fierce against those that oppose and dislike ‘em….Some shew a great affection to their neighbors, and pretend to be ravished with the company of the children of God abroad; and at the same time are uncomfortable and churlish towards their wives and other near relations at home, and are very negligent of relative duties."
" ‘tis a sign that affections are not of the right sort, if persons seem to be much affected with the bad qualities of their fellow Christians, as the coldness and lifelessness of other saints, but are in no proportion affected with their own defects and corruptions. A true Christian may be affected with the coldness and unsavoriness of other saints, and may mourn much over it. But at the same time he is not so apt to be affected with the badness of anybody’s heart, as his own. This is most in his view; this he is most quick-sighted to discern; this he sees most of the aggravations of, and is most ready to cry out of."
There were several further examples of disproportion given, such as love for the brethren which extends to their souls, but not their practical needs, or visa versa, meeting practical needs with no concern for the soul. Or the example of one so "spiritual" as to claim even to be willing to be damned were it to the glory of God, yet who cannot tolerate the smallest of difficulties their financial or other daily matters. Or the example of people who major on the minors, while the majors run about unchecked. Or the example of those with "false zeal": "False zeal is against the sins of others, while men have no zeal against their own sins. But he that has true zeal exercises it chiefly against his own sins: though he shews also a proper zeal against prevailing and dangerous iniquity in others."
Certainly there’s at least a touch of these "imbalances" in each of us. Edwards was keenly aware of that, and thankfully began this section with the following proviso:
"Not that the symmetry of the virtues, and gracious affections of the saints, in this life, is perfect: it oftentimes, is in many things defective, through the imperfection of grace, for want of proper instructions, through errors in judgment, or some particular unhappiness of natural temper, or defects in education, and many other disadvantages that might be mentioned. But yet there is, in no wise, that monstrous disproportion in gracious affections, and the various parts of true religion in the saints, that is very commonly to be observed, in the false religion, and counterfeit graces of hypocrites."
Some comfort there.