Posted by: Philip Rushton | January 31, 2011

Is This God or is This Just Emotionalism?

This winter I’ve been teaching a course on spiritual discernment. This past week we took a look at Jonathan Edwards book The Religious Affections. Edwards wrote this book in the midst of the great awakening. In the 1730’s and 40’s there was a huge revival taking place in the American Colonies. People were experiencing God in personal and heartfelt ways. Evangelists like George Whitefield were attracting thousands of people to open air revival meetings. These meetings often evoked responses of exuberant celebration or heartfelt confession.

There were two extreme reactions to the Great Awakening. On the one hand some people viewed any emotional experience as a sign of God’s presence. On the other hand some were skeptical of these experiences and ruled them out as pure emotionalism. Jonathan Edwards, by contrast, took an important middle ground. Though an intellectual himself, Edwards locates religion primarily in the heart. He writes, “The Holy Scriptures do everywhere place religion very much in the affections; such as fear, hope, love hatred, desire, joy, sorrow, gratitude, compassion and zeal.” Edwards, then, does not rule out emotion from the Christian life. He recognizes that our encounter with God involves the affections, which he defines as the deep movements of the heart.

However, Edwards also argues that not all emotional experience is from God. He offers 12 criteria for discerning true religious affections. Gordon Smith condenses these 12 criteria down to 4, which, for the sake of brevity, I will utilize. Edwards, after all, was known to be quite long winded and repetitive! The four main criteria are as follows:

1. Authentic spiritual influences arise from that which is spiritual.

By ‘spiritual’ Edwards does not mean non-material. He is not claiming that we cannot encounter God through art, or nature. Instead he is asking us to look at the cause of our spiritual experience. Does it come from focusing on that which is good and true. In the words or Paul in Phillipians 4:8, are we dwelling on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable.” The reality is that we can potentially have an emotional high based on something that is not from God. We might experience a counterfeit experience of peace that originates from a false presentation of the gospel that condones sin or promises health and wealth.

2. Authentic religious affections arise from an enlightened mind.

Edwards continually emphasizes that emotional experience does not bypass the mind. Like the former criteria, an authentic spiritual experience must be rooted in our reflection on truth. Furthermore, emotion must not be left unexamined. We need to examine whether what we are experiencing is rooted in our response to the truth of scripture. This is critical when evaluating our emotional response to music. Is the song we are singing just a good tune or is it leading us into scriptural truth?

3. The fruit of authentic religious encounter is humility.

Edwards argues that humility should be a key byproduct of religious experience because humility is a sign of Christ likeness. As Paul says in Philippians 2, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.” The other reason Edwards emphasized this is because religious enthusiasm can easily lead to pride. Some people who had had profound religious experiences were behaving as if they were above the law, or if they were spiritually superior. Also, people who come off spiritual highs often dump unrealistic expectations on themselves. They make commitments to spiritual perfection that are unrealistic and do not account for human depravity.

4. True religious affections lead to a transformation of character.

This is the key point for Edwards. He writes, “truly gracious affections differ From those that are false and delusive, in that they naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness quietness, forgiveness and mercy, as appeared in Christ.” Edwards emphasizes that true religious experience results in transformation. Therefore, people who experience a true grief over sin during a revival meeting should start to move away from sin in everyday life. Or those who encounter a deep joy in worship should start to live a more joyful life in general. True religious affections lead us towards a transformed life.


  1. Thanks Phil for the balance between emotion and knowledge. My struggle is that after 40 years of trying to follow Christ, I may know a lot, but often there is only occasional “religious affection”. It seems that I either focus on the intellectual pursuit of God(great sermon or great book) or on an emotional experience (great worship), but what seems to be most important is a melding of the two. Both are necessary and very compatible.
    Keep striking that healthy balance!

  2. “those who encounter a deep joy in worship should start to live a more joyful life in general”……Lord, start the work in me!!

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