Jonathan Edwards was concerned with the faith of his flock. He knew that in order to be faithful to his calling he must constantly make judgments—judgments about the hearts and consciences of the people of his church. Edwards shepherded his flock during a time of revival (the First Great Awakening). When the Spirit works, Satan works, too, doing his counterfeiting work (2 Cor. 11:14). In his A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Edwards thinks through how we may discern between true religion and counterfeit religion. He works through some possible indications of whether someone has been truly converted by the Spirit or whether they have not been converted, though they be moral-spiritual-religious. Edwards wrote,
And so it is likely ever to be in the church, whenever religion revives remarkably, till we have learned well to distinguish between true and false religion, between saving affections and experiences, and those manifold fair shows, and glistering appearances, by which they are counterfeited; the consequences of which, when they are not distinguished, are often inexpressibly dreadful. But this means, the devil gratifies himself, that multitudes should offer to God, under the notion of acceptable service, what is indeed above all things abominable to him. But this means, he deceives great multitudes about the state of their souls; making them think they are something, when they are nothing; and so eternally undoes them: and not only so, but establishes many in a strong confidence of their eminent holiness, who, in God’s sight, are some of the vilest hypocrites.
So, where does Edwards settle? What conclusions does he come to when addressing the question of how we might have some assurance that someone is truly converted or not, whether his heart (the seat of the affections) is fully devoted to God or not, whether he loves God or not, whether the love of God has been poured out in his heart or not (Rom. 5:5), whether his affections arise from himself or from God?
Well, in the middle of things (Part 2, Section 12), he states clearly that only God infallibly knows those who have regenerate hearts (1 Sam. 16:7):
How great therefore may the resemblance be, as to all outward expressions and appearances, between a hypocrite and a true saint! Doubtless, it is the glorious prerogative of the omniscient God, as the great searcher of hearts, to be able well to separate between these sheep and goats. And what an indecent self-exaltation and arrogance is it, in poor fallible dark mortals, to pretend, that they can determine and know, who are really sincere and upright before God, and who are not.
Nonetheless, Jesus, Edwards says, has given us rules by which we may form “our judging of others’ sincerity.” Those rules aren’t the ones the typical church of our day has enshrined.
He starts with the negative. Here are some things he says do not prove whether someone is truly converted or not (summarized in my own words):
1. Heightened emotions prove nothing one way or the other (Part 2, Section 1).
2. Heightened emotions which cause the body to react (fainting, falling to ground, jumping up and down, or walking down the aisle) prove nothing one way or the other (Part 2, Section 2).
3. Increased and intense talk about spiritual things proves nothing one way or the other (Part 2, Section 3).
4. A claim that a person did not produce these affections by his own efforts proves nothing one way or the other (Part 2, Section 4).
5. That Scriptures unaccountably come to mind proves nothing one way or the other (Part 2, Section 5).
6. That there is an appearance of love to Christ in our affections proves nothing one way or the other (Part 2, Section 6).
7. That there is a combination of intense affections (love, sorrow, fear, gratitude) proves nothing one way or the other (Part 2, Section 7).
8. That comfort and joy are said to be in the heart of a person proves nothing one way or the other (Part 2, Section 8).
9. That someone spends a lot of time at church, in Bible study, in worship, in private devotions, etc. proves nothing one way or the other (Part 2, Section 9).
10. That someone uses his mouth to praise God proves nothing one way or the other (Part 2, Section 10).
11. That someone is confident of God’s favor proves nothing one way or the other (Part 2, Section 11).
12. That someone gives a great testimony of God’s work proves nothing one way or the other (Part 2, Section 12).
You may be scratching your head after reading some of the above. Take the time to slog through Edwards’ arguments for each of them, and you’ll begin to understand why he put them on his doesn’t-prove-a-thing list. In a nutshell, all of the above twelve are actions we can do, think, feel, or manufacture ourselves. They can arise in any man, whether or not the Holy Spirit has gone to work on his dead heart.
What follows, on the other hand, are some indicators that Edwards says are “distinguishing signs of truly gracious and holy affections.” Here are my summaries:
1. The affections of the heart are changed from outside the self, by a spiritual, supernatural, and divine work (Part 3, Section 1).
2. The affections arise first or primarily from a view of God’s perfection, only secondarily from an understanding of what He has done for us (Part 3, Section 2).
3. Fundamental and essential to a genuine love for God is a love for His holiness (Part 3 Section 3).
4. The enlightened mind not only thinks right thoughts of God, but his mind is governed by the heart which “relishes” and “feels” God’s greatness (Part 3, Section 4). Here’s Edwards’ illustration of this: “…he that has perceived the sweet taste of honey, knows much more about it, than he who has only looked upon and felt it.”
5. A Christian has faith as it is defined in Hebrews 11 (assurance of things expected). Edwards writes, “They no longer halt between two opinions; the great doctrines of the gospel cease to be any longer doubtful things, or matters of opinion, which, though probable, are yet disputable; but with them, they are points settled and determined, as undoubted and indisputable; so that they are not afraid to venture their all upon the truth.”
6. A Christian knows his own despicableness and yet still approaches God as a gracious Father (Part 3, Section 6).
7. A Christian has undergone a change of nature (Part 3, Section 7). Edwards writes, “A man may be restrained from sin, before he is converted; but when he is converted, his very heart and nature is turned from it unto holiness: so that thenceforward he becomes a holy person and an enemy to sin.”
8. A Christian lives a life after the pattern of Jesus Christ—1 John 2:6 (Part 3, Section 8).
9. A Christian has an always-soft heart or an ever-tender conscience (Part 3, Section 9).
10. A Christian is well-balanced in his affections, neither always joyful nor always sorrowful (Part 3, Section 10).
11. A Christian has an ever-increasing appetite for holiness (Part 3, Section 11).
12. A Christian bears fruit through real obedience to God’s Word (Part 3, Section 12).
13. Holiness of life is the “chief sign” of grace in the Christian, visible to others—”You shall know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16) (Part 3, Section 13).
14. Holiness of life is a “sure evidence” of grace in the Christian, to a person’s own conscience—”Hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3) (Part 3, Section 14).
In the end, Edwards concludes that holiness of life—real, tangible, visible obedience to God’s commands in His Word—is the ultimate distinguishing characteristic of the Christian.