Jonathan Edwards isn’t always known for being one of the most available theologians to read. People often find his writing style beyond the scope of “easy reading.” Yet there are numerous reasons why he’s still a huge benefit for the church. There is, of course, a renewed interest in Edwards and you’ll find that by the numerous volumes of scholarly literature covering his life and theology.
One of the helpful ways in which Edwards is still relevant today is through his thinking in his infamous Religious Affections. When the Great Awakening was in full swing, there were many critics and many advocates for what appeared to be a move of God. In all of my reading on revival, this is common. So how can we discern if a “revival” is a work of God? According to Edwards, there are some negative signs and some positive signs. Throughout these cautions and positive signs, I think Edwards intended for us to obviously be cautious but to be very careful to not resist or quench the work of the Holy Spirit. So what are these cautions and positive signs?
- What’s happening in a church is new, unprecedented, and surprising.
- People are emotionally moved, trembling and weeping, even passing out.
- It attracts attention and causes a public stir.
- People have intense experiences, and spiritual things become vividly real.
- What draws people in is the example of others.
- The people involved misbehave and get weird.
- Satan mixes in his deception.
- Some of the people involved fall into bad doctrine and sin.
- The preachers scare people with their portrayal of God’s wrath and hell while ignoring the beauty of redemption.
These “signs” didn’t prove that what is happening isn’t of God, but indicated that more examination needed to be done. That’s an important qualification. Some people have suggested that Edwards’ point with these nine “negatives” was to suggest that if you had any of these qualities about you, you were in error. Not so. Edwards was more so wanting people to be theologically reflective in how they discerned what was going on. If any of the above “signs” are happening, we need to be cautious and continue to investigate whether or not those things are just some of the “baggage” that comes along with God’s work or if they are the end result of what’s happening.
So what were, according to Edwards, the positive signs that something was a work of the Spirit?
- People lovingly raise their passion for Jesus as displayed in the gospel.
- People push back against sin and Satan’s hold on people’s lives.
- People honor the authority of Scripture with a strong conviction that it is God’s truth.
- People receive and are helped by good doctrine, even though it means they have to change.
- People grow in love for Christ and in loving humility toward one another.
What strikes me as so difficult for us is to remain reflective throughout the entire “move.” I think there is a tendency among Christians to either be an advocate for or in opposition to an alleged “revival.” Sometimes this is clearly a legitimate option if a “revival” is, upon closer examination, not a work of the Spirit. Yet throughout history, it would seem that most moves of God were similar to what happened in the Great Awakening. As Edwards essentially indicated, some things happening were of the Lord and other things were the result of human nature and/or Satan’s work.
So what’s the key to discernment throughout “revival” or “moves” of God? I think we need to remain discerning and reflective. We need not give a blank check to the work or assume all is of the devil. Why? Because clearly we see throughout Scripture and throughout history that when God moves upon people, things can get messy. Sometimes people respond in ways which we are comfortable and other times they respond in ways that are outside of our box. When such responses occur, we need to weigh them. Edwards’ cautionary and positive signs can help us through that reflection.