Religious Affections - Signs Seven and Eight

(The following is the next installment in my ongoing participation in Reading the Classics Together at http://www.challies.com/ . We are currently reading Jonathan Edward's work Religious Affections.)

Truly, one of the clearest signs of conversion is "a new creature". Not to question the goodness and perfection of God in His providence, but if I'd encountered a single pastor, or lay-Christian, during the course of my 40 years of pre-Christian "life"who'd read this book, and read to me the words below (from the Seventh Sign), I may have been spared many years of hypocrisy:

"Another thing, wherein gracious affections are distinguished from others, is, that they are attended with a change of nature....'tis the power of a Creator only that can change the nature, or give a new nature....

"Therefore if there be no great and remarkable, abiding change in persons, that think they have experienced a work of conversion, vain are all their imaginations and pretenses, however they have been affected. Conversion (if we may give any credit to the Scripture) is a great and universal change of the man, turning him from sin to God. A man may be restrained from sin, before he is converted; but when he is converted, he is not only restrained from sin, his very heart and nature is turned from it, unto holiness: so that thenceforward he becomes a holy person, and an enemy to sin.

"If there be a very great alteration visible in a person for a while; if it ben't abiding, but he afterwards returns, in a stated manner to be much as he used to be; it appears to be no change of nature. For nature is an abiding thing. A swine that is of a filthy nature may be washed; but the swinish nature remains. And a dove that is of a cleanly nature may be defiled, but its cleanly nature remains."

And the work of sanctification continues on in the same manner as did the work of conversion:

"As it is with spiritual discoveries and affections given at first conversion, so it is in all illuminations and affections of that kind, that persons are the subjects of afterwards; they are all transforming. There is a like divine power and energy in them, as in the first discoveries: and they still reach the bottom of the heart, and the affect and alter the very nature of the soul, in proportion to the degree in which they are given. And a transformation of nature is continued and carried on by them, to the end of life; till it is brought to perfection in glory. Hence the progress of the work of grace in the hearts of the saints, is represented in Scripture, as a continued conversion and renovation of nature.
...gracious affections; they leave a sweet savor and relish of divine things on the heart, and a stronger bent of soul towards God and holiness."

Over the years I've heard professing Christians use the expression "life changing" over and over to describe any number of emotional "spiritual" experiences they'd had, from books they'd read, to retreats they'd attended. After a while, I began to be very skeptical of that phrase - cynical really. Why? Because I'd never witnessed any lasting change in anyone I'd heard say it. They were the same as ever, no kinder, no more patient, no more loving or joyful. But a true work of the Spirit brings forth lasting fruit of the Spirit. For the Scripture tells us, "...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control..." (Gal. 5: 22-23a) and our Lord says, "You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father, in My name He may give you. These things I command you that you love one another" (John 15: 16-17).

Now, I found the Eighth Sign, a bit convicting, and very helpful, because it helps me to judge whether I'm being moved by the Spirit of God, or by deceptive pride. This very next quote was all it took to make my forthright, sometimes arrogant, self cringe a bit:

"Truly gracious affections differ from those affections that are false and delusive, in that they tend to, and are attended with the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ; or in other words, they naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness and mercy, as appeared in Christ."

If I were asked to describe myself, I'm quite certain "lamblike" and "dovelike" are not the first words that would come to mind. That's not good. But, the cringing part of me is comforted somewhat, in that I am reading Marsden's biography, Jonathan Edwards, A Life, in tandem with this reading. It seems Edwards struggled for most of his life with some of the same character flaws (sins) that I'm dealing with. He did not see himself as perfectly lamblike and dovelike either. He grappled with pride in particular, irritability, and what he referred to as "evil-speaking", vowing at one point not even to listen when others speak sarcastically about someone. And this is the man who penned these words. Knowing that gives me courage.

He goes on to explain: "Christians are Christlike; none deserve the name of Christians that are not so, in their prevailing character. The new man is renewed after the image of him that creates him (Col. 3:10)...A Christian spirit is Christ's mark, that he sets upon the souls of his people; his seal in their foreheads, bearing his image and superscription....True Christians are as it were clothed with the meek, quiet, and loving temper of Christ; for a many as are in Christ, have put on Christ."

Penultimately, Edwards does not leave us with the idea we must not have boldness or fortitude, for these are indeed necessary to the Christian life. But he does not want us to use them as a cloak for un-Christlike behavior and so is careful to describe what those attributes look like in their true Christian expression:

"True Christian fortitude consists in strength of mind, through grace, exerted in two things; in ruling and suppressing the evil, and unruly passions and affections of the mind; and in steadfastly and freely exerting, and following good affections and dispositions, without being hindered by sinful fear, or the oppostion of enemies. But the passions that are restrained and kept under in the exercise of this Christian strength and fortitude, are those very passions that are vigorously and violently exerted, in a false boldness for Christ.....When persons are fierce and violent, and exert thier sharp and bitter passions, it shows weakness, instead of strength and fortitude."

"There is a pretended boldness for Christ that arises from no better principle than pride....'tis the nature of spiritual pride to cause men to seek distinction and singularity; and so oftentimes to set themselves at war with those that they call carnal, that they may be more highly exalted among their party. True boldness for Christ is universal and overcomes all, and carries 'em above the displeasure of friends and foes; so that they will forsake all rather than Chirst and will rather offend all parties, and be thought meanly of by all, than offend Christ. And that duty which tries whether a man is willing to be despised by them that are of his own party, and thought the least worthy to be regarded by them, is a much more proper trial of his boldness for Christ, than his being forward to expose himself to the reproach of opposers....He is bold for Christ, that has Chrisitan fortitude enough, to confess his fault openly, when he has comitted one that requires it...Such things as these are vastly greater evidence of holy boldness, than resolutely and fiercely confronting opposers."

And finally, and possibly most crucial, there's forgiveness to be considered:

"It is so as to a forgiving spirit, or a dispostion to overlook and forgive injuries. Christ gives it to us both as a negative and positive evidence; and is express in teaching us, that if we are of such a spirit, 'tis a sign we are in a state of forgiveness and favor ourselves; and that if we are not of such a spirit, we are not forgiven of God; and seems to take special care that we should take good notice of it, and always bear it on our minds." (See Matt. 6:12, 14-15; 18: 22 to the end, and Mark 11: 25-26.)

Once again, there is much food for thought. I'm still not over the Sixth Sign. I hope I never lose the impact of it, and that for me it will be truly life-changing.

(All emphasis mine.)

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