True Religion Consists in Holy Affections: Jonathan Edwards’ Reflections on 1 Peter 1:8
In his classic treatise on the nature of the Christian experience, Jonathan Edwards begins Religious Affections with a brief and fruitful examination of 1 Peter 1:8. As this verse stands in the middle of this Sunday’s sermon, I share the opening pages from the abridged and updated version. As many have experienced, Edwards writing is challenging, but his vision of God is glorious. Thus, it is always worth wrestling with words. Here, however, we find in language more accessible to modern readers, an explanation of the way trials purify believers and enlarge our love for Christ and our joy in Christ. The section is not long and I share it as an introduction to Edwards, Religious Affections, and some of the themes we will see on Sunday.
8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him,
you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory,
— 1 Peter 1:8 —
With these words the apostle demonstrates the state of mind of the Christians to whom he wrote. In the two preceding verses, he speaks of their trials: *the trial of their faith*, their *being in heaviness through manifold temptations*. These trials benefit true faith in three ways.
First, above all else, trials like this have a tendency to distinguish between true faith and false, causing the difference between them to be evident. That is why in the verse immediately preceding the text, and in innumerable other places, they are called trials because they try the faith of people who profess to be Christians, just as apparent gold is tried in the fire to see whether it is true gold or not. When faith is tried this way and proved to be true, it is “found unto praise and honour and glory” (1 Pet. 1:7).
Second, these trials are of further benefit to true faith, not only because they reveal its truth, but also because they make its genuine beauty and sweetness remarkably clear. True virtue never looks so lovely as when it is most oppressed, and the divine excellence of real Christianity is never demonstrated as clearly as when it faces trials; that is when true faith appears more precious than gold, “found unto praise and honour and glory.
Last, trials benefit true faith by purifying and strengthening it. They not only show its reality, but they also tend to refine it, delivering it from anything that might get in its way, so that all that’s left is what’s real. Trials tend to make the loveliness of true faith appear at its best advantage, while also tending to increase its beauty by planting it firmly, making it more lively and vigorous, purifying it from anything that dulls its shiny glory. When gold is tried in the fire, its impurities are purged, and it comes out more solid and beautiful, and in the same way when true faith is tried in the fire, it becomes more precious, and thus, again, it is “found unto praise and honour and glory.’ The apostle seems to refer to each of these benefits that trials give true faith. And the apostle also mentions two ways that suffering strengthens true faith.
I. The Love of Christ
“Whom having not seen, ye love.” The world wondered what strange principles influenced the saints to expose themselves to such great suffering, to forsake the visible world, and to renounce all the sweet, pleasant things offered by the senses. They seemed to the world around them as though they were beside themselves, as though they hated themselves; nothing in the world’s view would justify that kind of suffering, and the world knew of nothing that could carry them through such trials. But although they had no visible comfort, nothing that the world saw, nor that the Christians themselves ever saw with their physical eyes, yet they had a supernatural foundation of love: They loved Jesus Christ, for they saw Him spiritually, even though the world could not see Him and they themselves had never seen Him with physical eyes.
2. Joy in Christ
Though their external suffering was severe, yet the spiritual joy inside them was greater than their suffering, and this joy supported them and enabled them to suffer cheerfully. The apostle remarks on two aspects of this joy. First, its source: Christ, though unseen, is the foundation of it through faith; which is the evidence of things not seen: “In whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice.” Second, the nature of this joy: “unspeakable and full of glory.” It is very different from worldly joys and physical delights; its nature is vastly more pure, sublime, and heavenly, since it is something supernatural, truly divine, and indescribably excellent. There are no words for its exquisite sweetness. And not only is the quality of this joy inexpressible, but its quantity also, for God was pleased to give them this holy joy with a liberal hand, in large measure, in the midst of their trials.
The saints’ joy was full of glory. In their rejoicing, their minds were filled, as it were, with a glorious brightness, and their natures were exalted and perfected. This rejoicing was worthy and noble, and it did not corrupt and reduce the mind’s strength, as many earthly joys do, but instead it beautified and dignified it. It was a foretaste of the joy that will be poured out in heaven, and it filled their minds with the light of God’s glory, so that they themselves shone.
Therefore, based on these verses, I propose that: True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections. (pp. 19–22)
From this introduction, Edwards goes on to consider “The Nature of ‘Affections,’ and Their Importance” (Part 1), “How to Tell Whether or Not Religious Affections Come from God’s Grace” (Part 2), and “The True Characteristics of ‘Holy Affections” (Part 3). Perhaps, on another day, I’ll outline the features of genuine religious affections that Edwards provides. Until then, let me encourage you to meditate on truths found in 1 Peter 1:6–9, that the joy God gives in the new birth (1 Pet. 1:3–5) is an everlasting joy, one that is purified in the trials of life, proven in an abiding love for Christ, and rewarded with glory when the risen Christ is revealed on the last day.
Until that Day, let us continue to set our eyes on Christ, knowing that only as we hold fast to him will we have the faith, joy, and love necessary to endure the trials that God has appointed for us. As Edwards points out, these trials have a salubrious effect for the Christian. So let us not complain about their presence, but let us trust God with them, such that our initial joy in the Lord will be carried by grace to an eternal joy that is experienced when faith becomes sight.
N.B. Should you want to read Edwards entire work, in his original language, you can find it here in this PDF.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds