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Jonathan Edwards at The Banner of Truth Conference

Category Articles
Date May 30, 2003

Edwards’s careful analysis of genuine faith emphasized, in sum, that it was not the quantity of emotions which indicated the presence of true spirituality, but the origin of such emotions with God and their manifestation in works in accord with the law of God.

Mostyn Roberts of Welwyn spoke aat the Leicester Conference of the Banner of Truth on Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and the nature of true Christian Experience. Edwards was a Massachusetts Congregational minister who produced one of the most thorough and compelling bodies of theological writing in the history of America. Edwards, the son of a Congregational minister, entered the ministry in 1726 after a bachelor’s degree at Yale. He served in Northampton until he was dismissed in 1750 after a controversy with his congregation over standards for church admission. He then labored in frontier Stockbridge, Massachusetts, as minister to congregations of Indians and whites. His death from inoculation for smallpox came on March 22, 1758, only a few weeks after he began his work as president of the College of New Jersey.

Edwards’s claim to be regarded as America’s greatest theologian rests on both the depth and breadth of his writing and his importance for both practical and theoretical religion. He was the theologian of the First Great Awakening, and every bit as important in explicating that movement as George Whitefield had been in promoting it. He was also the eighteenth century’s most powerful exponent of experimental Calvinism. In between his active labors as a pastor and his more popular preaching and writing, he found time to compose works of deep theological construction which challenge scholars to this day.

Edwards argued that the "will" was not an independent faculty but an expression of more basic human motivation. To "will" something was to act in accordance with the strongest motives prevailing within a person. Uppermost in Edwards’s mind were the implications for conversion which this view of human nature entailed. It meant that a sinner by nature would never choose to glorify God unless God himself changed that person’s character or – as Edwards phrased it – implanted a new "sense of the heart" to love and serve God. Regeneration, God’s act, was the basis for repentance and conversion, the human actions. What does Edwards mean by the heart and the intellect. The intellect is the soul perceiving. The will is the soul choosing. When the mind wills it is called the heart. What is the connection between the heart and the will? The heart is also the unifying principle between intellect and will.

Edwards’s examination of true Christian experience arose directly out of his experiences in the Northampton revivals and later in the colonial Great Awakening as a whole. In particular, he responded to charges by anti-revivalists that the revival was all emotion, froth, and disorder. Edwards conceded that the emotionalism of the awakening could undercut authentic Christianity, but he also defended the revival by pointing to the more intense worship and to the permanently changed lives it left in its wake.

In 1746 Edwards published his most mature examination of this subject, A Treatise on the Religious Affections. This volume argued that true religion resides in the heart, or the seat of affections, emotions, and inclinations. But it also detailed with painstaking scrutiny the kinds of religious emotions that are largely irrelevant to any determination of true spirituality. The book closed with a description of twelve "marks" which indicate the presence of true religion. The first of these was a religious affection arising "from those influences and operations on the heart, which are spiritual, supernatural and divine." The last was the manifestation of true religion – genuinely gracious affections – in Christian practice. Edwards’s careful analysis of genuine faith emphasized, in sum, that it was not the quantity of emotions which indicated the presence of true spirituality, but the origin of such emotions with God and their manifestation in works in accord with the law of God.

Spiritual experience is God’s work in a Christian manifested in a life of love, or equally, in holiness. Where does it begin? The ‘new sense of the heart’ Describing his own conversion he made a distinction between his former insight – a ‘mere conviction’ about the absolute sovereignty of God – to what he called a ‘delightful conviction.’ A new delight in God came to him and that was at his conversion.

1. Theologically we need to be reminded of the absolute need of regeneration. We are nothing without it. The heart is depraved without this

2. The new sense of the heart leads to prayer. If prayer is the measure of love. Prayer is a longing after more holiness.

3 The ordinances of religion impresses us to love the truth, to display a more affectionate way of preaching about the great truths of religion. Their hearts touched as well as their heads informed are our congregations’ great needs. But anything feigned or forced is to be avoided. Preaching is to be an act of love and we need to work on our hearts to preach a felt Christ.

4. To create an appetite for Christ is why God has given us affections.


1. Simply to be thankful that God has made this knowledge of himself to be understood by the simple.

2. Examine yourself to see whether you have this knowledge.

3. Seek it earnestly.

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