Recently, I had the opportunity to preach a message at a Jonathan Edwards conference on The Religous Affections. I’d like to share a few practical applications for pastors when it comes to religious affections. But first:
What are Religious Affections?
One of Edwards’ most famous works is his Treatise on the Religious Affections. In this book, he sets forth signs of true and false affections as he attempted to discern between the good and bad fruit of the Great Awakening taking place in Colonial America. Edwards defines the affections as “the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.”
All people have affections, but not all people’s affections are set upon Christ. The lost man’s affections are turned inwardly upon self. This can even manifest itself in pretenders who feign Christianity in order to soothe their guilty conscience.
Religious affections aren’t the same as our emotion. They run deeper than that. They are our true desires and inclinations or disinclinations. We cannot change our affections from the inside. We can’t muster up our “free will” to love something we do not. So, the only hope a lost person has is the Spirit’s work through the gospel (John 6:63).
One key difference between a believer and a lost person is that a believer truly loves Christ. Both may be able to pass a seminary exam on justification by faith alone. Both may know the Bible well. Both may attend church every week. But a believer’s affections are set upon Christ as lovely and beautiful. Edwards says, “For although to true religion, there must indeed be something else besides affection; yet true religion consists so much in the affections, that there can be no true religion without them. He who has no religious affection is in a state of spiritual death, and is wholly destitute of the powerful, quickening, saving influences of the Spirit of God upon his heart.”
The Affections and Pastoral Ministry
With that very brief description of the affections, let me give us 4 practical ways this should affect pastoral ministry.
1. Pastors – Where are your affections?
This is my warning: Let us not think that just because we can construct good sermons, debate good theology, or enjoy good history on men like Edwards, that this means we are converted. Do you love Christ? Do you treasure Him? Do you live your time with Him in His Scriptures? Do you love communing with Him in secret prayer?
Would you pray to God even now to stir your affections? Oh the things our souls cling to that are not Christ! See the excellencies of Jesus afresh this day and glory in Him.
Love Him. Delight in Him. Treasure Him. Not your ministry or position. Your identity is in Christ! Where are your affections?
Edwards says “If true religion lies much in the affections, hence we may learn what great cause we have to be ashamed and confounded before God, that we are no more affected with the great things of religion.”
Pastors, ought we not be more affected than any other Christian given the amount of time we spend in the word and study upon Christ? Let us lead the way in gospel wrought repentance.
2. Preach to the affections
Edwards was a proponent of preaching in such a way that would “deeply affect the hearts of those who attend.” The truths that we proclaim my brothers are not cold facts. We aren’t proclaiming the location of organs inside a frog we dissected in biology. We are proclaiming the living God and what He has done for us in Christ!
May our preaching be filled with proper passion and with pleading for our people to see the greatness and excellency of Christ and holy living. If we parse Greek grammar but don’t point to God’s glory we are failing. Preach to the affections.
John Piper says: “Good preaching aims to stir up ‘holy affections’—things like hate for sin, delight in God, hope in his promises, gratitude for his mercy, desire for his holiness, tender compassion. The reason for this is that the absence of holy affections in Christians is odious…”
3. Exercise discernment when seeing affections displayed
Edwards wrote his book on The Religious Affections because of some of the misuse of the affections out there. He warned that there are many things we might see in a person that might be of God but it might not be. So, we must use biblical discernment when counseling souls. Not everyone who says they are religiously affected actually are religiously affected.
True religious affection softens the heart. It leads to humility. It produces true gospel fruit in the lives of believers. As pastors, we have to be careful of playing the numbers game and counting everyone a disciple who has some sort of experience.
4. The Spirit still gives life (John 6:63)
The gospel is our great hope. Bank everything on the life, death, resurrection, and person of Christ. Keep preaching Jesus. Keep sharing Jesus. Keep pointing to Jesus. Why? The Spirit still gives life!
We don’t have to resort to gimmickry or compromise because the sovereign God of the universe still gives life and the flesh is still no help at all. The flesh hasn’t improved over the last 2,000 years. It still stinks. It’s still dead and devoid of religious affections. So, herald the gospel brothers. Because true religion exists in the affections and it is the Spirit who gives life. Bank everything on the gospel.
Soli Deo Gloria.