The heart of Jonathan Edwards’ spirituality (3)
In the last two articles in this series we have been considering the spirituality of Jonathan Edwards, particularly as it is found in his classic work The Religious Affections. We have looked at the background to this book as well as the first six ‘marks’ of what Edwards considers to be genuine spirituality.
Rooted in conversion
The seventh sign is very similar to the first; authentic Christian spirituality has its roots in conversion. What a decisive change is wrought by what we call the new birth or conversion! Gracious affections depend upon this radical event that turns us towards God and away from our corrupt nature, that changes our goals, motivations, and outlook on life.
In discussing ‘conversion’, it is noteworthy that Edwards is not concerned about ‘the exact moment’ when an individual is saved (something that Evangelicals in more recent days have tended to focus on). Like the Puritans, Edwards is more intent on discerning whether or not this great change has taken place, than on dating it.
Moreover, Edwards stresses that conversion does not bring immediate perfection. Past sins and inclinations do not disappear. However, their dominion is broken, because these sinful patterns of behaviour must now contend with the new ‘self’ (or ‘new man’, see Ephesians 4:24) which, in virtue of its permanent place in the believer’s life, must reveal itself over the course of time.
‘Conversion’, Edwards writes, ‘does not entirely root out…those sins which a man by his natural constitution was most inclined to before his conversion’, but ‘it is of great power and efficacy… to correct’ them. Edwards thus emphasises that genuine spirituality has its roots not only in a new nature, but in an abiding new nature.
Christ like gentleness
Edwards’ eighth sign is that genuine conversion is accompanied by a Christ like character, ‘the lamb-like, dove-like spirit and temper of Jesus Christ’. This does not mean that Christian spirituality is ‘wimpish’ or that boldness for Christ or Christian zeal are wrong.
But Edwards is concerned that sometimes ‘a pretended boldness for Christ … arises from no better principle than pride’, and that zeal for Christ can be marked by ‘bitterness against the persons of men’. Christian boldness and zeal are ‘indeed a flame, but a sweet one’.
He instances Christ in his fiercest battle against the forces of darkness, namely at the cross and in the events leading up to it. What temper marked him then, he asks. His holy boldness and valour were not shown in ‘fierce and violent speeches’, displaying ‘sharp and bitter passions’. On the contrary, there was an ‘all-conquering patience’, love and prayer for his enemies: ‘never did he appear so much a Lamb, and never did he show so much of the dove-like spirit as at that time’.
A burnt child dreads the fire
Ninth, Christians have a tender heart, especially towards God. They are sensitive to all that displeases him. They are ‘like a burnt child that dreads the fire’. They are very conscious of how sin separates them from the God they love. So they strive not to readmit it to their lives and press on to be as godlike in behaviour and conduct as they can.
Such tenderness of conscience, Edwards affirms, is the only proper attitude for one trying to respond to the heart-work of the Spirit.
The tenth sign deals with the aesthetic side of the Christian life. Edwards never tires of emphasising that God’s holiness is beautiful in the most profound sense of that term. This beauty is expressed by the harmony and balance in the life of the believer. Where there is true piety, there is balance.
Why is this so? Because the Spirit of Christ, who is the source of all genuine Christian affections, now indwells them. It is the Holy Spirit who brings this balance. Moreover, the Holy Spirit is transforming the believer into the image of God, who is himself beauty and harmony. So one can rightly expect Christians to reflect this in their own personalities.
Hypocrites, on the other hand, are bound to reveal a disharmony and disproportion in their affections. In some of them there is ‘the most confident hope, while they are void of reverence, self-jealousy and caution’. While ‘many hypocrites rejoice without trembling’, ‘joy and holy fear go together’ in the saints.
Here Edwards is being critical of those whose religion consists of what he calls ‘fits and starts’. Those who are committed only at certain seasons, or who focus on this or that virtue to the neglect of all else.
Such men and women fail to exhibit the symmetry of true spirituality. Edwards compares them to ‘waters in the time of a shower of rain which, during the shower and a little after, run like a brook and flow abundantly, but are presently quite dry’.
The true saint, on the other hand, is ‘like a stream from a living spring, which, though it may be greatly increased by a shower of rain and diminished in time of drought, yet runs constantly’.
‘A holy breathing and panting’
Edwards’ eleventh sign is that true Christian spirituality is marked by a longing for more of God. He ties this sign closely to one he has enumerated earlier, namely, that of evangelical humility.
The more grace believers receive, he says, ‘the more they see their imperfection and emptiness, and distance from what ought to be’. Conscious of how far they have yet to go in the Christian life, true believers long after God, to know and experience more of him.
Moreover, Edwards emphasises that the more ‘holy affections’ persons have, the more they have of that spiritual taste for God’s beauty and glory that he mentions earlier. ‘Spiritual good’, he writes, ‘is of a satisfying nature; and for that very reason, the soul that tastes and knows its nature, will thirst after it, and a fulness of it, that it may be satisfied.
‘And the more a man experiences and knows this excellent, unparalleled, exquisite, and satisfying sweetness, the more earnestly will he hunger and thirst for more, until he comes to perfection’.
As Edwards puts it in a remarkable turn of phrase, ‘There is a holy breathing and panting after the Spirit of God to increase holiness’.
The fruit of the Spirit
To the twelfth and final sign Edwards devotes more space than to any of the others, thus indicating that it loomed largest in his mind. True spirituality bears fruit in Christian practice and living in the world.
This practice has three major characteristics. Firstly, it is shaped by what Edwards calls ‘Christian rules’; that is, by ‘the laws of Christ, laws that he and his apostles did abundantly insist on as of the greatest importance and necessity’.
Secondly, living the Christian life is the believer’s main business in this world. As Edwards notes, Christ’s people ‘not only do good works, but are zealous of good works’ (Titus 2:14).
Thirdly, genuine Christian spirituality exhibits the crucial quality of perseverance. The real believer makes Christianity his main business, not only on Sundays or at certain extraordinary seasons, but a ‘business which he perseveres in through all changes, and under all trials as long as he lives’.
In other words, while works do not save us, we cannot be saved without them. ‘Obedience, good works, good fruits, are to be taken … as a sure evidence of a true principle of grace’.
In this third and final instalment regarding Jonathan Edwards’ spirituality, we also bring to a close this series on Evangelical spirituality. If we could summarise in one text all that has been noted about Evangelical spirituality, no finer passage could be found than a verse from one of the poems of Ann Griffiths (1776-1805), the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist hymnwriter. In a nutshell, it defines for us the glory of Evangelical spirituality:
Let my days be wholly given
Jesus’ blood to glorify,
Calm to rest beneath his shadow,
At his feet to live and die,
Love the cross, and bear it daily,
(‘Tis the cross my Husband bore),
Gaze with joy upon his Person,
And unceasingly adore.