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