Introductory Note:

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was a Congregational pastor and a key figure in the eighteenth-century “Great Awakening.” He is considered one of America’s greatest theologians. Born in Connecticut and educated at Yale, he ministered for twenty-three years at a church in Northampton, Massachusetts. He later became a missionary to Native Americans at Stockbridge. In 1758 he was named president of Princeton University but died only a few weeks after taking office.

Edwards produced a theology of Christian spirituality for his age that blended together Lockean philosophy and his own Calvinist theology. His main concern was the question, How do we distinguish the presence of the Holy Spirit? Christian experience, according to Edwards, is a gift of God, but he spent his life working out the ways in which we define that experience. A central theme of his writings—evidenced in the following selection—is the importance of religious “affections,” which he defined as the passions that move the will to act.

—James Bryan Smith and Richard J. Foster

Excerpt from Devotional Classics

1. Engage­ment of the Heart

The kind of reli­gion that God requires, and will accept, does not con­sist in weak, dull, and life­less would­ings” — those weak incli­na­tions that lack con­vic­tions — that raise us but a lit­tle above indif­fer­ence. God, in his word, great­ly insists that we be in good earnest, fer­vent in spir­it, and that our hearts be engaged vig­or­ous­ly in our reli­gion: Be fer­vent in spir­it, serv­ing the Lord” (Rom. 12:11, mod­i­fied KJV). And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? To fear the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 10:12). This fer­vent, vig­or­ous engage­ment of the heart is the fruit of a real cir­cum­ci­sion of the heart that alone has the promise of life: And the Lord your God will cir­cum­cise your heart, and the heart of your chil­dren, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul that you may live” (Deut. 30:6).

2. Holy Affection

If we are not earnest in our reli­gion, and if our wills and incli­na­tions are not strong­ly exer­cised, we are noth­ing. The impor­tance of reli­gion is so great that no half­heart­ed exer­cise will suf­fice. In noth­ing is the state of our heart so cru­cial as in reli­gion, and in noth­ing is luke­warm­ness so odious.

True reli­gion is a pow­er­ful thing. The pow­er of it appears, first, in the inward exer­cis­es of the heart (which is the seat of all reli­gion). There­fore, true reli­gion is called the pow­er of god­li­ness,” in con­trast to the exter­nal appear­ances of it, i.e., the mere form”: Hav­ing the form of god­li­ness but deny­ing the pow­er of it” (2 Tim. 3:5). The Spir­it of God is a spir­it of pow­er­ful holy affec­tion in the lives of those who have sound and sol­id reli­gion. This is why it is writ­ten that God has giv­en his peo­ple the spir­it of pow­er, and of love, and of a sound mind (2 Tim. 1:7). When we receive the Spir­it of God, we receive the bap­tism of the Holy Ghost who is like fire,” and along with it the sanc­ti­fy­ing and sav­ing influ­ences of God. When this hap­pens, when grace is at work with­in us, it some­times burns” with­in us, as it was for Jesus’ dis­ci­ples (Luke 24:32).

3. The Exer­cis­ing of the Will

The work of reli­gion has been com­pared to the doing of exer­cis­es, where­in we desire to have our hearts engaged in God. Metaphors like run­ning the race,” wrestling with God,” striv­ing for the great prize,” and fight­ing with strong ene­mies” are often used to describe the exer­cis­es we engage in.

But true grace has vary­ing degrees. There are some who are new in the faith — babes in Christ” — in whom the incli­na­tion to engage in these exer­cis­es is weak. Yet every one of us who has the pow­er of god­li­ness in our heart will be inclined to seek the things of God. And what­ev­er our state, this pow­er will give us strength enough to over­come our weak incli­na­tions so that these holy exer­cis­es will pre­vail over our weaknesses.

For every true dis­ci­ple of Christ loves him above father and moth­er, sis­ter and broth­er, spouse and chil­dren, hous­es and land— yes, even above his own life. From this it fol­lows that wher­ev­er true reli­gion is, there is a will that moves that per­son to spir­i­tu­al exer­cis­es. But what we said before must be remem­bered: the exer­cis­ing of the will is noth­ing oth­er than the affec­tions of the soul.

4. The Spring of Action

The nature of human beings is to be inac­tive unless influ­enced by some affec­tion: love or hatred, desire, hope, fear, etc. These affec­tions are the spring of action,” the things that set us mov­ing in our lives, that move us to engage in activ­i­ties. When we look at the world, we see that peo­ple are exceed­ing­ly busy. It is their affec­tions that keep them busy. If we were to take away their affec­tions, the world would be motion­less and dead; there would be no such thing as activ­i­ty. It is the affec­tion we call cov­etous­ness that moves a per­son to seek world­ly prof­its; it is the affec­tion we call ambi­tion that moves a per­son to pur­sue world­ly glo­ry; it is the affec­tion we call lust that moves a per­son to pur­sue sen­su­al delights. Just as world­ly affec­tions are the spring of world­ly actions, so the reli­gious affec­tions are the spring of reli­gious actions.

5. A Heart Deeply Affected

A per­son who has a knowl­edge of doc­trine and the­ol­o­gy only — with­out reli­gious affec­tion — has nev­er engaged in true reli­gion. Noth­ing is more appar­ent than this: our reli­gion takes root with­in us only as deep as our affec­tions attract it. There are thou­sands who hear the Word of God, who hear great and exceed­ing­ly impor­tant truths about them­selves and their lives, and yet all they hear has no effect upon them, makes no change in the way they live.

The rea­son is this: they are not affect­ed with what they hear. There are many who hear about the pow­er, the holi­ness, and the wis­dom of God; about Christ and the great things that he has done for them and his gra­cious invi­ta­tion to them; and yet they remain exact­ly as they are in life and in practice.

I am bold in say­ing this, but I believe that no one is ever changed, either by doc­trine, by hear­ing the Word, or by the preach­ing or teach­ing of anoth­er, unless the affec­tions are moved by these things. No one ever seeks sal­va­tion, no one ever cries for wis­dom, no one ever wres­tles with God, no one ever kneels in prayer or flees from sin, with a heart that remains unaf­fect­ed. In a word, there is nev­er any great achieve­ment by the things of reli­gion with­out a heart deeply affect­ed by those things.

6. True Religion

The Holy Scrip­tures clear­ly see reli­gion as a result of affec­tions, name­ly, the affec­tions of fear, hope, love, hatred, desire, joy, sor­row, grat­i­tude, com­pas­sion and zeal. The Scrip­tures see reli­gion as the result of holy fear. Tru­ly reli­gious per­sons trem­ble at the Word of God. It is his holi­ness that makes them fear. The fear of God is a great part of godliness.

So also, hope in God and in the promis­es of God, accord­ing to the Scrip­tures, is a very impor­tant part of true reli­gion. It is men­tioned as one of the three great things of which reli­gion con­sists (1 Cor. 13:13). Hap­py is the one whose hope is in the Lord” (Ps. 146:5). It is spo­ken of as the hel­met of the Chris­t­ian sol­dier, the hope of sal­va­tion” (1 Thess. 5:8). It is a sure and stead­fast anchor of the soul (Heb. 6:19).

7. Par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Blessings

So also, love is giv­en a high place in the Scrip­tures as a prop­er affec­tion. We are called to love God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and our neigh­bor. The texts that speak of the impor­tance of love are too many to men­tion. The con­trary affec­tion — hatred — is also a part of true reli­gion, but in the sense that we hate sin and evil: The fear of the Lord is to hate evil” (Prov. 8:13).

Also, holy desire, which finds its expres­sion in long­ing and thirst­ing after God, is also a part of true reli­gion. As the deer pants after the water­ing stream, so my soul pants after you, O Lord” (Ps. 42:1 – 2). Jesus also said, Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after right­eous­ness, for they shall be filled” (Matt. 5:6). This holy thirst is spo­ken of as a con­di­tion of par­tic­i­pa­tion in the bless­ings of eter­nal life. Also, the Scrip­tures speak of joy as a great part of true reli­gion. Delight your­self in the Lord, and he shall give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4). It is men­tioned among the prin­ci­pal fruits of the Spir­it of grace: The fruit of the Spir­it is love, joy, … ” (Gal. 5:22).

8. A Pleas­ing and Accept­able Sacrifice

Reli­gious sor­row, mourn­ing, and bro­ken­ness of heart are also fre­quent­ly spo­ken of as a great part of true reli­gion, a dis­tin­guish­ing qual­i­ty of the saints. Blessed are they that mourn,” said Jesus, for they shall be com­fort­ed” (Matt. 5:4). It is also a pleas­ing and accept­able sac­ri­fice to God: The sac­ri­fices of God are a bro­ken spir­it; a bro­ken and con­trite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17).

Anoth­er affec­tion often men­tioned is grat­i­tude, the exer­cise of which much of true reli­gion con­sists, espe­cial­ly as exer­cised in thank­ful­ness and praise to God. This is spo­ken of so much in the Book of Psalms and oth­er parts of the Bible I need not men­tion any par­tic­u­lar texts.

In addi­tion, the Holy Scrip­tures also speak of com­pas­sion as an essen­tial affec­tion in true reli­gion, so much so that all of the good char­ac­ters in the Bible demon­strate it. The Scrip­tures choose this qual­i­ty as the one which will deter­mine who is right­eous: The right­eous show mer­cy” (Ps. 37:21). It is our way of hon­or­ing God: He that hon­ors the Lord shows mer­cy to the poor” (Prov. 14:31). Jesus him­self said it is the way we obtain mer­cy: Blessed are the mer­ci­ful, for they shall receive mer­cy” (Matt. 5:7).

9. Miss­ing from the Lukewarm

Final­ly, zeal is spo­ken of as a very essen­tial part of true reli­gion. It is spo­ken of as some­thing which Christ had in mind for us when he paid for our redemp­tion: Who gave him­self for us, that he might redeem us from all iniq­ui­ty, and puri­fy unto him­self a pecu­liar peo­ple, zeal­ous of good works” (Titus 2:14). It was also the essen­tial thing miss­ing from the luke­warm Laodiceans (Rev. 3:15 – 16). I have men­tioned only a few texts out of an innu­mer­able mul­ti­tude to show that through­out the Bible, true reli­gion is placed in the affec­tions. The only way to deny this claim is to use some rule oth­er than the Bible by which to mea­sure the nature of true religion.

Bible Selec­tion: Deuteron­o­my 10:12 – 22 

So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the com­mand­ments of the LORD your God and his decrees that I am com­mand­ing you today, for your own well-being. Although heav­en and the heav­en of heav­ens belong to the LORD your God, the earth with all that is in it, yet the LORD set his heart in love on your ances­tors alone and chose you, their descen­dants after them, out of all the peo­ples, as it is today. Cir­cum­cise, then, the fore­skin of your heart, and do not be stub­born any longer. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awe­some, who is not par­tial and takes no bribe, who exe­cutes jus­tice for the orphan and the wid­ow, and who loves the strangers, pro­vid­ing them food and cloth­ing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the LORD your God; him alone you shall wor­ship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awe­some things that your own eyes have seen. Your ances­tors went down to Egypt sev­en­ty per­sons; and now the LORD your God has made you as numer­ous as the stars in heaven.

Reflec­tion Questions 

The fol­low­ing ques­tions can be used for dis­cus­sion with­in a small group, or used for jour­nal reflec­tions by individuals.

1. Accord­ing to Edwards, what is the spring of action,” the source of moti­va­tion behind every­thing we do?

2. Think of a time when you decid­ed to get involved in some activ­i­ty (e.g., join­ing a club, learn­ing a new sport, going to a church). What were the affec­tions” that led to it?

3. Edwards believes that no one is ever changed, either by doc­trine, by hear­ing the Word, or by the preach­ing or teach­ing of anoth­er, unless the affec­tions are moved by these things.” Describe a time when you were sud­den­ly moved by a doc­trine or a Bible verse or a ser­mon, and were sub­se­quent­ly changed.

4. Accord­ing to Deuteron­o­my 10:12 – 13, what are the affec­tions” and the actions” that are required of us?

5. Begin­ning in sec­tion 6, Edwards lists and describes nine affec­tions that Scrip­ture encour­ages us to have: holy fear, hope, love, holy desire, joy, reli­gious sor­row, grat­i­tude, com­pas­sion, and zeal. Which of these affec­tions have you felt the most? In which would you most like to see growth?

Sug­gest­ed Exercises 

The fol­low­ing exer­cis­es can be done by indi­vid­u­als, shared between spir­i­tu­al friends, or used in the con­text of a small group. Choose one or more of the following.

1. In sec­tion 4. Edwards writes that all of us would be inac­tive were it not for affec­tions. Exam­ine your actions this week, sim­ply writ­ing down the things you do with­out any judg­ment. At the end of the week sit down and pen­cil in a prob­a­ble moti­va­tion for each action. Try to be hon­est as you exam­ine why you did what you did.

2. Use the list of nine holy affec­tions in sec­tions 6 – 9, focus­ing on the one in which you would like to see growth in your life. Notice that each affec­tion is based on a scrip­tur­al foun­da­tion. Do a per­son­al Bible study on that par­tic­u­lar affec­tion (e.g., hope), pay­ing atten­tion to the the­ol­o­gy and doc­trine that under­girds it (e.g., the promise of salvation).

3. In Deuteron­o­my 10:20ff., Moses exhorts his hear­ers to fear God, to cling to God and praise him, because of what God has done for them. As Edwards notes, there must be a moti­va­tion (or affec­tion) behind the action, and in this case the moti­va­tion for rev­er­ence, adher­ence, and praise is reflect­ing on all that God has done. Make a list of all the things that God has done for you. The list will like­ly be quite long. Look over this list and let praise begin to fill your mouth.

4. Wor­ship this week. Real­ly wor­ship. Use Sat­ur­day evening to begin prepar­ing for wor­ship. Set aside a time of soli­tude when you can reflect on the pow­er and the glo­ry of God. Med­i­tate on his love for you. Go ear­ly to church and spend time wor­ship­ing and thank­ing God. Pray for those around you that they might be moved by God dur­ing the ser­vice. Above all, allow your­self to tru­ly feel the pres­ence of God mov­ing among the people.


Jonathan Edwards teach­es us that the intel­lec­tu­al life and the pas­sion­ate life should be friends, not ene­mies. With­out the slight­est con­tra­dic­tion, it is pos­si­ble to be both tough-mind­ed and ten­der­heart­ed. What we learn to do is to descend with the mind into the heart and there wait in antic­i­pa­tion for the heav­en­ly Whis­per. We wor­ship God with brain and viscera!

We today des­per­ate­ly need this les­son because a mod­ern myth abounds that true objec­tiv­i­ty must be pas­sion­less. As a result, we ana­lyze and dis­sect the spir­i­tu­al life with­out the slight­est per­son­al involve­ment or com­mit­ment and think we under­stand it. But the spir­i­tu­al life can­not be under­stood in this detached way. We under­stand by com­mit­ment. And we enter into com­mit­ment and sus­tain com­mit­ment by what Edwards right­ly calls holy affec­tions.” ‑RICHARD J. FOSTER

Going Deep­er

Edwards, Jonathan. The Nature of True Virtue. Ann Arbor, MI: Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan Press, 1960. For those inter­est­ed in more philo­soph­i­cal­ly ori­ent­ed essays.

Edwards, Jonathan. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Edit­ed by Per­ry Miller. 5 vols. New Haven, CT: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1959. This series (which you should be able to locate in most libraries) is the best com­pi­la­tion of Edward­s’s writ­ings and con­tains more than most peo­ple are ever able to read. Vol­ume 2 is his five-hun­dred-page trea­tise on Reli­gious Affec­tions from which the excerpt for this read­ing has been tak­en. You should also know about an edi­tion of Reli­gious Affec­tions that was edit­ed by James Hous­ton of Regent Col­lege, Van­cou­ver, B.C. It is part of an excel­lent series of devo­tion­al clas­sics edit­ed by Hous­ton and pub­lished by Mult­nom­ah Press (Port­land, OR1990).

Simon­son, Harold. Jonathan Edwards: The­olo­gian of the Heart. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerd­mans, 1974. A seri­ous inter­pre­ta­tion of Edwards from both a lit­er­ary and a the­o­log­i­cal point of view. Con­trary to many schol­ars who focus on the influ­ence of John Locke, Simon­son insists that the deep­er influ­ences on Edwards were Calvin, Augus­tine, and ulti­mate­ly the Bible itself. And Simon­son takes seri­ous­ly the heart-felt piety of Edwards as foun­da­tion­al for his life and thought.

Excerpts tak­en from Devo­tion­al Clas­sics: Select­ed Read­ings for Indi­vid­u­als and Groups (Richard J. Fos­ter & James Bryan Smith, Edi­tors. Harper­Collins, 1993.) and used with permission.

Pho­to by Pawel Czer­win­s­ki on Unsplash

Text First Published December 1989 · Last Featured on October 2022

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