Genuine revival, spiritual affections, and bodily manifestations

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Sam Storms:

The division among Christian folk during the revival we know as the First Great Awakening (1734-35; 1740-42) often was due to their different understandings of the nature and significance of physical or bodily manifestations.

Many of the so-called Old Lights in Jonathan Edwards’s day insisted on the spurious nature of the so-called “revival” by pointing to the physical and emotional phenomena that were occurring. These manifestations, so they insisted, are proof that the Spirit is not in the “revival”. The Spirit does not operate in such ways and thus these phenomena demonstrate that the religious excitement is merely a work of the flesh or of disturbed souls or, worse still, the Devil.

The ironic thing is that today there are many who insist on precisely the opposite conclusion. They regard such physical and emotional manifestations to be almost certain proof that the Spirit is present and at work. In the absence of such phenomena they would likely conclude that the Spirit was also absent. Thus whatever means or instruments or methods or moods that might elicit these manifestations are deemed fitting and acceptable.

Edwards would disagree strongly with both of these opinions. True religion is not primarily a matter of the body or of physical manifestations. True religion is primary a matter of the heart, of holy affections. Of course, such affections often times will have an impact on the body. But not always. Furthermore, the body can be influenced and manifestations awakened and sustained by causes other than affections.

Edwards was quick to point out, therefore, that bodily and emotional manifestations, whether crying, shaking, shouting aloud, falling down, or entering into a trance, prove nothing at all. Might they be the result of some work of the Holy Spirit in the heart? Yes. Might they be the result of some work of the flesh? Yes. Do they prove anything regarding the presence or absence of the Spirit? No. Ought such manifestations to be encouraged and stimulated? No. Ought such manifestations to be permitted? Yes.

Is it possible to experience some tangible, sensible bodily effect and there be no spiritual affection present? Yes. Is it possible to experience genuine spiritual affection and there be no tangible, sensible bodily effect? Yes, but only rarely. Such is the close connection that God has forged between the material and immaterial dimensions of our being that some alteration in the latter “almost always” results in some agitation in the former.

So, what, then are the unmistakable signs of the presence and operation of the Holy Spirit? How might we know that what we are witnessing is a genuine move of God in heaven-sent revival?

In his magnificent volume, The Religious Affections, Edwards first identifies those phenomena or experiences that prove nothing with regard to the presence or absence of genuine affections. There are twelve of them. The page numbers are those from the Yale edition of Edwards’s treatise.

1. “’Tis no sign one way or the other, that religious affections are very great, or raised very high” (127).

2. “’Tis no sign that affections have the nature of true religion, or that they have not, that they have great effects on the body” (131).

3. “’Tis no sign that affections are truly gracious affections, or that they are not, that they cause those who have them, to be fluent, fervent and abundant, in talking of the things of religion” (135).

4. “’Tis no sign that affections are gracious, or that they are otherwise, that persons did not make ‘em themselves, or excite ‘em of their own contrivance, and by their own strength” (138).

5. “’Tis no sign that religious affections are truly holy and spiritual, or that they are not, that they come with texts of Scripture, remarkably brought to the mind” (142).

6. “’Tis no evidence that religious affections are saving, or that they are otherwise, that there is an appearance of love in them” (146).

7. “Persons having religious affections of many kinds, accompanying one another, is not sufficient to determine whether they have any gracious affections or no” (147).

8. “Nothing can certainly be determined concerning the nature of the affections by this, that comforts and joys seem to follow awakenings and convictions of conscience, in a certain order” (151).

9. “’Tis no certain sign that the religious affections which persons have are such as have in them the nature of true religion, or that they have not, that they dispose persons to spend much time in religion, and to be zealously engaged in the external duties of worship” (163).

10. “Nothing can be certainly known of the nature of religious affections by this, that they much dispose persons with their mouths to praise and glorify God” (165).

11. “’Tis no sign that affections are right, or that they are wrong, that they make persons that have them, exceeding confident that what they experience is divine, and that they are in a good estate” (167).

12. “Nothing can be certainly concluded concerning the nature of religious affections, that any are the subjects of, from this, that the outward manifestations of them, and the relation persons give of them, are very affecting and pleasing to the truly godly, and such as greatly gain their charity, and win their hearts” (181).

The main section of Religious Affections is devoted to an explanation of those twelve signs that assuredly indicate a genuine work of the Holy Spirit in revival and in the hearts of men and women.

1. “Affections that are truly spiritual and gracious, do arise from those influences and operations on the heart, which are spiritual, supernatural, and divine” (197).

2. “The first objective ground of gracious affections, is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things, as they are in themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest” (240).

3. “Those affections that are truly holy, are primarily founded on the loveliness of the moral excellency of divine things. Or (to express it otherwise), a love to divine things for the beauty and sweetness of their moral excellency, is the first beginning and spring of all holy affections” (253-54).

4. “Gracious affections do arise from the mind’s being enlightened, rightly and spiritually to understand or apprehend divine things. Holy affections are not heat without light; but evermore arise from some information of the understanding, some spiritual instruction that the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge” (266).

5. “Truly gracious affections are attended with a reasonable and spiritual conviction of the judgment, of the reality and certainty of divine things” (291).

6. “Gracious affections are attended with evangelical humiliation” (311).

7. “Another thing, wherein gracious affections are distinguished from others, is, that they are attended with a change of nature” (340).

8. “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” (344-45).

9. “Gracious affections soften the heart, and are attended and followed with a Christian tenderness of spirit” (357).

10. “Another thing wherein those affections that are truly gracious and holy, differ from those that are false, is beautiful symmetry and proportion” (365).

11. “Another great and very distinguishing difference between gracious affections and others is, that gracious affections, the higher they are raised, the more is a spiritual appetite and longing of soul after spiritual attainments, increased. On the contrary, false affections rest satisfied in themselves” (376).

12. “Gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice. I mean, they have that influence and power upon him who is the subject of ’em, that they cause that a practice, which is universally conformed to, and directed by Christian rules, should be the practice and business of his life” (383).

If you read these and are hungry for a more detailed explanation of what Edwards meant, I recommend you actually read Religious Affections. Short of that, read my book, Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’s “Religious Affections” (Crossway, 2007).

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.