Jonathan Edwards and the Sanctified Emotions

Jonathan Edwards and the Sanctified Emotions September 29, 2015

A recent e-mail conversation with Lauren Winner raised an important question – in the view of Jonathan Edwards and similar eighteenth-century evangelicals, do the emotions become more, or less, central to the Christian life as the believer proceeds in sanctification? After the resurrection, and during the millennial reign of Christ, will believers’ emotions be “engaged and firing”?

Contemporary evangelicals often are suspicious of emotions or the “affections.” How many times have I heard people say something like “don’t base your faith on feelings, but on the Word of God!” Fair enough – just because you’re struggling with discouragement or depression does not change anything about God and His character. But as students of Edwards (and readers of John Piper) know, feelings are actually an indispensable part of the mature Christian life. Edwards suggests (as Dr. Winner suspected) that in our resurrected state, our affections will be even more attuned to and delighting in God’s glory.

Edwards wrote in The Miscellanies no. 721 that

“As the saints after the resurrection will have an external part, or an outward man, distinct from their souls, so it necessarily follows that they shall have external perception or sense. And doubtless then all their sense, and all the perception that they have, will be delighted and filled with happiness. Every perceptive faculty shall be an inlet of delight. Particularly then, doubtless they will have the sense of seeing, which is the noblest of all external senses; and then without doubt, the most noble sense will receive most pleasure and delight. The sensory will be immensely more perfect than now it is. And the external light of the heavenly world will be a perfectly different kind of light from the light of the sun, or any light in this world, exciting a sensation or idea in the beholders perfectly different of which we can no more conceive than we can conceive of a color we never saw, or than a blind man can conceive of light and colors— a sort or light immensely more pleasant and glorious, in comparison of which the sun is a shade, and his light but darkness. And this world full of the light of the sun is a world under the darkness of night, but that a world of light, affording inexpressible pleasure and delight to the beholders immensely exceeding all sensitive delights in this world.” [bolds added]

Voronet murals 2010, Voroneţ Monastery, Romania. By Man Vyi. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

For Edwards, then, the problem is not our emotions per se, but unsanctified emotions. The kinds of craven, temporary pleasure we derive from lust or greed takes us away from the superior delights of the glory and grace of God. But as we grow into greater maturity, our taste for God’s goodness, and our distaste for sin, becomes more refined.

In the totally sinless state of our resurrected bodies, our senses will also be sanctified. Far from being muted or irrelevant, they’ll be “immensely more perfect” than what they are now. We will perfectly delight in that which we were designed for.

Edwards would caution us not to disparage the role of the emotions, but to cultivate the right kind of emotions. For Christians, this holy cultivation is part of sanctification. In the end, we will perfectly delight in the things of God.

See more generally Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections.

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  • Scott Christensen

    I was always under the impression that Edwards’ use of the term “affections” was not strictly equivalent to emotions. In the passage you cited he seems to posit the idea that affections refer to one’s powerful inclinations that can be described as “delight” or what is internally pleasing. For example one can be especially delighted in eating chocolate ice cream, but less delighted about eating broccoli. Similarly, the religious affections refer to one’s delight in God and the things of God. This would be distinct from, although not entirely unrelated to, emotions like anger, sorrow, envy, etc.

  • kierkegaard71

    Your comment drew me to a previous summary I had written of Edwards’ concept of “affections”: Basing his discourse on 1 Peter 1:8, Edwards begins Religious Affections with the question: what is the distinguishing mark of a true Christian? His central assertion is that authentic Christian faith is found where one’s inclination and will are directed toward God and his holiness, i.e. where one experiences new “affections.” In each individual are two discernible parts: 1) the individual’s understanding (a rational component) and 2) the individual’s will and affections (the will and affections not being essentially divisible). For the authentic Christian, the truth of the gospel, while received and processed by the rational understanding, penetrates to actually effect change in one’s inclinations and will.