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Reading Classics - The Religious Affections (I)

Today we come to the second week of reading through The Religious Affections. You can click here to read more about this effort.

This weeks’ reading really marked my first significant attempt at plowing through a substantial part of Edwards’ work. While I began with some trepidation, I have to say that it wasn’t as bad as I may have feared. Sure the language was a bit obscure and sure Edwards often uses several sentences when he could probably get away with just one, but overall I didn’t find that it was too difficult. Tough, yes; impossible, no.

Summary

Our assigned reading for this week was nothing less than the entirety of Part 1. While the reading was long, I think it made sense to read it as a unit rather than dividing it into two smaller portions. This makes sense logically as well as in terms of timing since it will take a very long time to read this book if we do only 15 pages at a time. In this first part, Edwards writes about the nature of the Affections and their importance in religion.

Having said that, a reader who is participating in this reading challenge sent along this comic. I definitely feel some of this:


Edwards first seeks to define true religion, saying, “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” He defines the affections in this way: “The affections are no other than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.” He bases this definition on the understand that the human soul has two faculties, one of which he terms understanding. This is the faculty that allows the human soul to discern, view and judge. The second faculty he terms inclination or will or heart. It is this one that allows the soul not to just perceive and view things, but to incline or disincline it. Holy affections are those that are distinguished by “vigorous exercise of the inclination and will towards divine objects.”

The bulk of the chapter is given to ten biblical proofs that true religion lies much in the affections. It concludes with three inferences or applications from this doctrine.

Discussion

This was a long and dense chapter but one of uneven importance, meaning that there were some portions that were more important than others. I’m grateful for this since otherwise I don’t know that I could have absorbed very much! I am going to provide thoughts on just a few areas that jumped out at me.

After providing his ten biblical proofs that true religion requires true affection, Edwards summarizes by saying, “It is evident that religion consists so much in affection, as that without holy affection there is no true religion; and no light in the understanding is good which does not produce holy affection in the heart: no habit or principle in the heart is good which has no such exercise; and no external fruit is good which does not proceed from such exercises.” All of this to say that an affectionless Christian is no Christian at all. While the presence of affection does not necessarily prove a person to be a Christian, the complete absence proves that he cannot be one. Just last night my son asked how he can know that he is a Christian and here Edwards gives us a mark to look for. Is your heart stirred by these affections? If it is, that may point you to the reality that you are saved; if it is not, it will point you to the sad reality that you are unsaved. Affections are too close to the heart of the faith to be completely absent. At one point Edwards says, “I am bold to assert that there never was any considerable change wrought in the mind or conversation of any person, by anything of a religious nature that ever he read, heard or saw, that had not his affections moved.”

Edwards’ second inference about the affections is a logical one. If true religion lies in the affections, we must pursue those things that tend to move our affections. Here he points to prayer, preaching and praise. True Christians will necessarily wish to pursue such means of grace to stir our hearts and to grow in our affections. The application is obvious: do you find that your affections are tied to such means of grace? Is listening to a sermon a delight or a chore? Is prayer a duty or a delight?

The chapter’s final exhortation is one worth pondering. “So has God disposed things, in the affair of our redemption, and in his glorious dispensations, revealed to us in the gospel, as though everything were purposely contrived in such a manner as to have the greatest possible tendency to reach our hearts in the most tender part, and move our affections most sensibly and strongly. How great cause have we therefore to be humbled to dust that we are no more affected!” And really, what excuse do we have for being so little affected by the great things revealed to us? What a hard-hearted people we are…

Next Time

Our reading for next week will take us from the beginning of Part 2 up to the end of the seventh (VII) point. So stop when you hit point VIII and see “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.” In my book (the Banner of Truth edition) this will take us from page 54 until page 78.

Your Turn

I am eager to know what you gained from this part of the book. Feel free to post comments below or to write about this on your own blog (and then post a comment linking us to your thoughts). Do not feel that you can only say anything if you are going to say something that will wow us all. Just add a comment with some of the things you gained from the this week’s reading.