No, that’s not a typo in the title. Yes, I know that needs explaining.
This is actually the first article in a whole series that I am writing as I slowly work my way through A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, a book by Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century philospher, writer, theologian, pastor, and president of Princeton University. A whole group of Christian bloggers are going through this book together, led by Mr. Uber-Blogger himself Tim Challies. I plan not to summarize everything that Edwards is saying in this very challenging and complex book, but each week to take out one important idea that is worth reflecting on and applying to our own lives.
Edwards wrote Religious Affections in the 18th century during what became known as The First Great Awakening. What was The Great Awakening? It was a complex phenomenon, but basically the experience of what it meant to live a Christian life changed radically for many people during that time. People became more emotional, more passionate, and more excited about following God. As a result, many practices both within the church and in individual lives dramatically shifted, and there was much talk as to whether they shifted for good or ill. Edwards wrote Religious Affections to meticulously examine the role of emotion and passion in religion from both a theological, philosophical, and practical perspective. His insight and perspectives on this subject have influenced theologians down to the present day.
What Edwards wrote was no “ivory tower” academic posturing. He was regarded as one of the leaders of the Great Awakening, and took heavy criticsm from both “old school” and “new school” pastors. Many said his appeals to emotion and life change were dangerous and inappropriate. But he also was very concerned about objective truth and maintaining Bible-based doctrine, and garnered himself enemies when he spoke out against pastors and practices that he saw had went too far in their reforms and new ways of doing things.
The book attempts to answer the question “What is the nature of true religion, and what practices actually please God?” He looks at the subject from both a negative perspective (things that may appear to please God but don’t) and from a positive perspective (things that we can assure ourselves truly do please God).
In the book’s preface he explains why he wrote the book. He correctly sees that when people become involved and excited about something new and became emotionally invested in it, the “rose-colored glasses” effect comes into play. People become less concerned about whether what they believe in and practice is Biblical, because it is exciting and seems to work. As a result, wrong and false beliefs and practices creep in unawares, which lead people off track and end up making a mess of everything.
This is a much more serious problem than most people, then or now, give it credit. Edward states:
It is by the mixture of counterfeit religion with true, not discerned and distinguished, that the devil has had his greatest advantage against the cause and kingdom of Christ.
That (like everything else in the 300+ pages in this book) is a mouthful. It’s much easier to say, “Satan loves excited Christians.” Not that excitement is bad, but that it can cloud our vision. Edwards goes on to give a list of all the results of this clouded vision and mixing in of off-track ideas and practices in with the true. Here is my 21st-century re-do of his list:
- Satan loves when people are excited about doing things that they think please God, when in actuality they are displeasing God.
- Satan loves when people think that their souls are in good shape with God, when in fact they are far away from His blessing.
- Satan loves when people forget about what God truly values as pure religion (which the apostle James defined as helping the poor and being holy) because they’re so excited in their religious worship experiences and other “exciting” stuff.
- Satan loves when people get excited and do openly foolish things (like claiming they can heal any disease or raise people from the dead) that give non-Christians plenty of ammo to attack and ridicule what they now see as Christianity.
- Satan loves it when people excitedly think they’re helping God when they’re actually openly working against God, like giving financial support to someone who teaches doctrine that is actually against the Bible.
- Satan loves it as people excitedly promote false ideas and religion and think they’re advancing the Kingdom of God, when they’re actually tearing it down.
- Finally, Satan loves how false doctrine splits churches and denominations and friends, and causes people to spend time arguing with each other. As a result, Satan can influence people to go to one extreme or another, and grow farther apart and farther out of the path of true religion.
That’s a pretty stark list. Read it over again. Think it over. The question we all have to ask ourselves is, “Where have I been guilty of that in the past? Where am I guilty of that now?”
Edwards summarizes his “terrible consequences” of the mixture of truth and untruth in religion by saying:
God’s people in general have their minds unsettled in religion, and know not where to set their foot, or what to think, and many are brought into doubts, whether there be any thing at all in religion; and heresy, infidelity, and atheism greatly prevail.
If we’re serious about loving and pleasing God and advancing the Kingdom, then we need to be serious about getting excited in a good way about it, and guarding our souls from the twin evils of apathy and lack of discernment. As the weeks go by I’ll explore these topics in greater depth.