Access your downloads at our archive site. Visit Archive
Magazine Article

Jonathan Edwards and Spiritual Experiences

Many people arrive at church as if they were about to embark on a sanitized and boring packaged tour of an ancient religious ritual. They behave as if the relevance of these rituals for today’s worshipers can be appreciated only by those who specialize in archeological digs through the musty liturgical practices of people who were best forgotten. An alien watching from above would have no idea that these Christians have any concept of stepping into the special presence of God Almighty: a God Whose majesty, glory, and power are so infinite in holiness and all perfection that, if He revealed too much of Himself to fragile humans, they would be reduced to drooling, vegetable-brained idiots.

  • Monte E. Wilson, III,
Share this

Many people arrive at church as if they were about to embark on a sanitized and boring packaged tour of an ancient religious ritual. They behave as if the relevance of these rituals for today’s worshipers can be appreciated only by those who specialize in archeological digs through the musty liturgical practices of people who were best forgotten. An alien watching from above would have no idea that these Christians have any concept of stepping into the special presence of God Almighty: a God Whose majesty, glory, and power are so infinite in holiness and all perfection that, if He revealed too much of Himself to fragile humans, they would be reduced to drooling, vegetable-brained idiots. No, if Christians really believed that they stood before the throne of Jesus Christ, surrounded with angels and archangels, joined to the Church Triumphant in heaven and the Church Militant throughout the world, they wouldn’t show up in their Sunday best but with crash helmets, kneepads, and first-aid kits.

Consider. Moses sees God, kicks his shoes off, and starts stammering about how God should send Aaron. After conversing with the Law-Giver on the mountain, Moses returns to the people and they beg him to veil his face: the reflected glory is just too much for them to bear. Isaiah sees God, crawls under a church pew, and begins blubbering about how he needs his scummy mouth washed out. Jeremiah hears God and tells the Almighty that he’s just a kid and not up for the rough and tumble life of a prophet. Paul hears God, is knocked off of his donkey, and blinded by the light of glory. John is taken up into heaven and, upon meeting the angelic messenger, he falls on his face as dead. These are not pretty pictures. People “see” God and they are struck with terror. Holy God, plus sinful me, equals... dead me.

Tragically, Christians have historically gone through long periods of time where they forget Who God is. We then begin relating to Him primarily on a purely intellectual plane. He is a theological concept or proposition. Or, if we do think of Him as a Person, we reflect upon Him as a far distant uncle who has gone away and won’t return for years and years... we hope. There are few thoughts of “seeing” Him or of encountering Him in any way whatsoever. Consequently, rather than being the living, breathing Body of Christ, the institutional church becomes a club, a classroom, or an entertainment center. We become heartless, powerless, savorless, and Christ-less. Amazingly enough, from time to time God in His mercy and wisdom pours out His Holy Spirit upon us, who, upon getting reacquainted with Him, are then revived from our stupor. This is when we break out the crash helmets.

Sadly, many Christians today have been taught that spiritual experiences (you know, when the individual actually feeeeeels God’s presence moving within) and any accompanying supernatural events ceased when St. John died. One well-known theologian even wrote that emotions came when Adam fell into sin. God, he writes, is Pure Thought. No emotion. Great. Like science officer Spock in Star Trek, our God is a Vulcan. (“This is not life as we know it, Jim.”) Contrary to this theologian who is smuggling stoicism into the church under the guise of Biblical theology, I believe the Bible teaches that where there is no moving of the affections and no religious experience whatsoever, there is probably no true faith. As Jonathan Edwards wrote:

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. As on the one hand, there must be light in the understanding, as well as an affected fervent heart; or where there is heat without light, there can be nothing divine or heavenly in the heart; so, on the other hand, where there is a kind of light without heat, a head stored with notions and speculations with a cold and unaffected heart, there can be nothing divine in that light, that knowledge is no true spiritual knowledge of divine things. If the great things of religion are rightly understood, they will affect the heart.
(On Religious Affections, Section HI.I)

Revivals produce emotions. Conviction of sin, thoughts of eternity without God, the offer of grace in Jesus Christ — can I truly grasp these realities and not have my emotions stirred? Am I going to stand in the presence of God and say, “My... isn’t this interesting.”

The problem is, how do I know if a particular experience is from God or not? How can we differentiate between authentic and spurious spiritual experiences? There are counterfeits, demonic experiences, and psychological disorders. When someone announces that God is pouring out His Spirit in Toronto, how can we know if this is the case or not? When people by the thousands are falling down laughing and calling it a gift from God, how do we know if, in fact, this is the Holy Spirit or an epidemic of mental illness?

“Monte, Monte, Monte. It’s easy. If the religious experience causes me to feel intensely spiritual, then I know it is God.” Not really. This doesn’t tell us anything one way or the other. Such intensity can easily be self-induced. However, even if it is not self-induced, the experience could be the result of mass hysteria, an evil spirit, or some other source than God.

“But the experience made me praise God as I have never praised Him before.” All right, I believe you. But such behavior does not prove one way or the other that one’s experience is of God. Remember how the crowds yelled, “Hosanna to the Highest!” as Jesus rode through the streets on a donkey? Less than seven days later they were yelling, “Crucify him.” So much for the experience that led to their praise the week before.

“Okay, okay, okay.. .I know. If the experience is accompanied with Bible verses flooding the brain, it has to be from God.” No, it doesn’t. I have heard cult members spouting scores of verses while claiming to be moved by the Holy Spirit — and they denied Jesus was God!

“I know my experience is from God because it happened while I was reading the Bible.” Maybe yes, maybe no. This proves nothing. Many of us have had some fairly ludicrous thoughts and emotions spring into consciousness while reading the Bible.

“But my body went rigid/limp on the floor.” And? What does this prove? The same physical manifestations happen in séances. By the way, one of Edwards’ tests for true spiritual experiences was this: if the experience can be found in the Scriptures then it may be of God. If the experience is not mirrored somewhere in the Bible, it isn’t from God.

“What about feelings of love?” I know this may shock some of you, but this proves nothing, one way or the other. Most of us have met some very loving New Agers.

“Zealous attention to religious duties?” Maybe yes, maybe no. The Pharisees were zealous in their attention to religious duties.

“I’ve got it. When you know right down in the bottom of your knower that this is the work of God, then it is, in fact, the Holy Spirit.” Confidence proves nothing. We have all been confident of certain “words” or “impressions” or “leadings” only later to be embarrassed. No one is more confident than a fool.

One of Edwards’ great concerns as a pastor during the Great Awakening was that, in the middle of all the supposed manifestations of God’s presence, people were losing one of the key ingredients of holiness: self-distrust. When we begin thinking that we are so spiritual that we cannot be deceived, then we are in trouble. No one is above deception. The heart is deceitfully wicked. It will jump to defend our pride, ridicule those who question us, and justify any experience or belief we feel necessary to our ego.

Edwards and the evangelist George Whitefield both constantly warned of wild fire. “Satan will keep men secure as long as he can. But when he cannot do this he will endeavor to drive men to extremes so to dishonor God and wound religion” (Edwards). People who are used by the enemy to sow wild fire through fantastic experiences, words from God, and the like most often believe that they are being led of the Holy Spirit. The fact that they lack sobriety and self-distrust should sound a loud alarm to all who encounter them.

On Religious Affections

In our nation’s infancy, there was a tremendous outpouring of God’s Spirit, now referred to as the First Great Awakening. George Whitefield preached up and down the seaboard to scores of thousands of people. Thousands professed to have been converted by God’s grace and faith in Jesus Christ. Early on in his meetings, as well as in those of other ministers, there were physical manifestations such as crying out and falling down.

Upon hearing of these phenomena, pastors in Great Britain wrote Jonathan Edwards, pastor of a Congregational church in Massachusetts, about what was happening. Edwards was a leader in the Great Awakening and highly respected on both sides of the Atlantic. He is considered by both Christian and non-Christian historians to possess one of the greatest minds ever produced in the United States. It was under his ministry that the Great Awakening began, when he preached what is now one of the most famous sermons ever delivered, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Edwards was a perfect choice from which to seek an evaluation of what was happening. He was witnessing the revival first hand. As a pastor, he would be concerned with long-term fruit. As a theologian, he would be sensitive to orthodoxy and orthopraxy. And Jonathan was no frothing-at-the-mouth Pentecostal ranter. In fact, he read many of his sermons from a manuscript.

Edwards’ answer to the questions put to him about the Great Awakening and the accompanying physical manifestations is found in “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections.” (My copy of the treatise is found in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume I, and was published by Banner of Truth, 1979.) The arguments that I recited in the beginning of this article were basically taken from Edwards’ insights in this treatise.

Before we look at Edwards’ arguments and see how critical it is that revivals remain grounded to the Word of God, it is critical that we understand the spirit in which Edwards’ wrote:

The true saints have not such a spirit of discerning, that they can certainly determine who are godly, and who are not. For though they know experimentally what true religion is, in the eternal exercises of it; yet these are what they neither feel nor see, in the heart of another. There is nothing in others, that comes within their view, but outward manifestations and appearances: but the Scripture plainly intimates, that this way of judging what is in men by outward appearances is at best uncertain and liable to deceit.... They commonly are but poor judges and dangerous counselors in soul cases, who are quick to and peremptory in determining persons’ states, vaunting themselves in their extraordinary faculty of discerning and distinguishing, in these great affairs: as though all were open and clear to them. They betray one of these three things: either that they have had hut little experience; or are persons of a weak judgment; or that they have a great degree of pride and self-confidence, and are so ignorant of themselves. Wise and experienced men will proceed with great caution in such an affair. (Part II, Section XII)

“Showing What Are Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections.”

True religious affections (experiences) are grounded in Who God is, not what He has done or will do. True affections are founded on the moral excellency of divine things, not on any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest. (Sections I,II,III)

Someone who has truly had a converting experience will have, as his foundational commitment, a dedication to glorifying God as God because He is God, regardless of what happens to the person. Holy people love holy things primarily because they are holy, not because these things will make the person healthy, wealthy, and wise.

Edwards opens his Treatise by noting the importance of trials to testing our alleged experiences. Not only does the trial cause the difference between false religion and true religion to appear, it also reveals the genuine “beauty and amiableness” of true faith. Those who profess to have experienced God but who wither and die under trials are proven to be that stony ground to which Jesus referred.

“Gracious affectious arise from the mind being enlightened rightly and spiritually to apprehend divine things.” (Section IV)

Holy affections are not heat without light; but evermore arise from some information of the understanding, some spiritual instruction that the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge.

Edwards is saying here that the soul rises according to the level of enlightenment. Read of Jesus’ discussion with the two disciples after His resurrection (Lk. 24). What “warmed” their hearts? It was when He opened the Word of God to them.

If you wish to have deeper experiences with God, “to increase in heat,” then you must walk in the “light.” Seek God in the Scriptures: don’t seek experiences for experience’s sake.

“Gracious affections are attended with evangelical humiliation.” (Section VI)

Note the word “evangelical.” Edwards has rightly discerned that there are other forms of humility. False experiences engender pride masquerading as humility. “Look at my experiences. Am I not honored, special, holy, approved oft” Edwards’ rebuke is right on the mark here: these people are “full of the glory of their own humility.”

And, when, instead of keeping their eye on God’s glory, and Christ’s excellency, they turn it on themselves. They entertain their minds by viewing their own attainments, their high experiences and the great things they have met with, which are bright and beautiful in their own eyes. They are rich and increased in goods in their own apprehensions, and think that God has an admiring esteem of them, on the same account, as they have of themselves. This is living on experiences, and not on Christ; and is more abominable in the sight of God than the gross immoralities of those who make no pretense of religion. (Part II, Section XI)
However he may use humble terms, and speak of his experiences as of the great things God has done for him, and it may be calls upon others to glorify God for them: yet he that is proud of his experiences, arrogates something to himself, as though his experiences were some dignity of his. And if he looks on them as his own dignity, he necessarily thinks that God looks on them so too.... (Part III, Section VI)

When God grants some conscious measure of His presence, we are humbled. We become more teachable, more concerned with the welfare of others, and filled with greater courage to stand for the truth, whatever the cost to our own reputation. Moreover, the more we see of God in the light of this experience, the more we see our misery, shortcomings, and sinfulness. Think back to Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul, and John.

“True religious affectious are attended with a change of nature.” (Part III, Section VII)

Those who have experienced God in a saving manner are said to have been born again, converted, raised from the dead, transformed, partaken of the divine nature, dead to sin, raised to newness of life, and so forth. This will he true of all subsequent authentic spiritual experiences: the process of transformation will be continued.

“Another thing wherein those affections that are truly gracious and holy differ from those which are false is beautiful symmetry and proportion.” (Part III, Section X)

If our experiences do not cause us to grow proportionately, something is wrong. Consider the infant whose head keeps growing at a rapid rate while the body remains quite small. Or what of the heart that is enlarged and the brain remains the size of a thimble? Not a picture of health, is it? And yet how often is this the case with so many who claim to have incredible experiences with God?

[T]he higher gracious affections are raised, the more is a spiritual appetite and Longing of the soul after spiritual attainments increased: on the contrary, false affections rest satisfied in themselves. (Part III, Section XI)

The more we “see” Him, the more we wish to be like Him. The more we love Him, the more we wish to love Him. The further up in God we go, the more we are aware of how far we still have to go.

During Pentecost, the Apostles were blessed with a special outpouring of God’s presence. However, two chapters later they are back in another upper room begging God for more. The filling of the Holy Spirit is not like a bow that with single propulsion speeds the arrow toward the target. It is more akin to the winds of the sea, continually moving the boat toward its destination.

“Gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice.” (Part III, Section XI)

People who have encountered God increase in their obedience quotient. When the Spirit fell at Pentecost, the crowd cried out, “What must we do?” The Holy Spirit makes us witnesses in word and deed. Paul never mentions passivity as a fruit of the Spirit! Works are both a testimony to our conscience (1 Jn. 2:3) and to the world (light, salt, leaven). Wherever the Great Awakening erupted, orphanages, hospitals, and schools followed. In the end, the only way to know if our experience is from God is the fruit such experiences produce for the glory of God (Jn. 15).

  • Monte E. Wilson, III
More by Monte E. Wilson, III