In the 1730s and 40s, New England and others of the colonies were in the midst of that great dispensation of God’s grace that we call The Great Awakening. Through the itinerant preaching of George Whitefield and the theological ministry of Jonathan Edwards, large numbers were coming under the conviction of sin and turning to God in repentance and faith in Christ.
Yet in the thick of these revivals many of those who professed Christ would be so caught up with themselves emotionally that the display of “affections” became to be the marker of spiritual maturity. If you were powerfully affected by the truth of spiritual things, you could be assured that your state before God was acceptable.
In response to this, others began to become suspicious of such displays of religious affections, recognizing that they can be easily fabricated and resembled mere “swoonings.” The pendulum had swung, and the trend became to deny the importance of affections altogether, and rather emphasized reason and judgment only.
Listen to what Edwards observes about the nature of sin and the strategy of Satan amidst this trouble:
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Because many who, in the late extraordinary season, appeared to have great religious affections, did not manifest a right temper of mind, and [did] run into many errors, in the heat of their zeal; and because the high affections of many seem to be so soon come to nothing, and some who seemed to be mightily raised and swallowed with joy and zeal for a while, seem to have returned like the dog to his vomit: hence religious affections in general are grown out of credit with great numbers, as though true religion did not at all consist in them.
Thus we easily and naturally run from one extreme to another. A little while ago we were in the other extreme; there was a prevalent disposition to look upon all high religious affections as eminent exercises of true grace, without much inquiry into the nature and source of those affections, and the manner in which they arose. If persons did but appear to be indeed very much moved and raised, so as to be full of religious talk, and express themselves with great warmth and earnestness, and to be filled, or to be very full, as the phrases were; it was too much the manner, without further examination, to conclude such persons were full of the Spirit of God, and had eminent experience of his gracious influences. This was the extreme which was prevailing three or four years ago.
But of late, instead of esteeming and admiring all religious affections, without distinction, it is much more prevalent to reject and discard all without distinction. Herein appears the subtlety of Satan. While he saw that affections were much in vogue, knowing the greater part were not versed in such things, and had not had much experience of great religious affections, enabling them to judge well, and to distinguish between true and false; then he knew he could best play his game, by sowing tares amongst the wheat, and mingling false affections with the works of God’s Spirit. He knew this to be a likely way to delude and eternally ruin many souls, and greatly to wound religion in the saints, and entangle them in a dreadful wilderness, and by and by to bring all religion into disrepute.
But now, when the ill consequences of these false affections appear, and it is become very apparent, that some of those emotions which made a glaring show, and were by many greatly admired, were in reality nothing; the devil sees it to be for his interest to go another way to work, and to endeavour to his utmost to propagate and establish a persuasion, that all affections and sensible emotions of the mind in religion, are nothing at all to be regarded, but are rather to be avoided, and carefully guarded against, as things of a pernicious tendency. This he knows is the way to bring all religion to a mere lifeless formality, and effectually to shut out the power of godliness and every thing spiritual. 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. As there is no true religion where there is nothing else but affection, so there is no true religion where there is no religious affection.
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We can learn from this. First, more generally, in our devotion to correct error, we all need to guard against overcorrection — against swinging the pendulum so far in the other direction that we miss the biblical target and fall into the opposite error. Satan is delighted at this, because no one is more impervious to correction than when he believes he is valiantly correcting another’s error. And so we go about our business thinking we’ve been discerning, all the while sinning in the other direction. I’m not one who hails “balance” as the supreme Christian virtue, as if the Hegelian synthesis is the test of orthodoxy. (I think my friend Dan Phillips strikes a masterful…heh…balance regarding that here.) Sometimes the via media leads to destruction. But having said that, I think this is a point we need to heed.
Second, as we get more specific, we should recognize that we can apply this in a multitude of ways. But I think there’s a particularly valuable lesson for us regarding the subject Edwards himself was speaking about. Those of us who would place ourselves in the noncharismatic camp desire to correct the excessive emotionalism and lack of intellectualism that characterizes much of that movement. We recognize that neither the Holy Spirit Himself nor the Word that He’s inspired is anti-intellectual. The mind is not to be bypassed in favor of spirituality; rather the mind is to be engaged in service of spirituality (or as Edwards would put it: in the service of holy affections).
But we need to guard against running to the opposite error of an anti-emotional intellectualism — a stoicism that makes us suspicious of all display of affections. We need to remember that the glories of Christ and of His salvation are such worthy and compelling realities, that it is sin to be unmoved and unaffected by them. Those whose hearts have been quickened to perceive the loveliness of divine things must be affected by those things, and thus they will feel deeply. And while different people express such affection in different ways, we should not immediately write off the more external expressions of affection as a shallow, overzealous emotionalism. Not every worshiper who raises his hands and smiles while singing should be accused of “going charismatic.” Not every preacher who raises his voice or is emotionally moved in the pulpit is a histrionic, manipulative huckster, or tossed to and fro by his uncontrollable passions. To fall into this error would be to aid the enemy in “bring[ing] all religion to a mere lifeless formality, and effectively to shut out the power of godliness and everything spiritual.” Let us remember that “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.”
Though our love for the truth might exasperate us in the face of error, let us not show a lack of faith in the sovereignty of God and the sufficiency of His Word by seeking to overcorrect that error, and so give the enemy a foothold. Let us always aim for the biblical center — the bull’s eye of God’s Word. If we hit that target, we can’t miss anywhere else.