The sound and fury of the Great Awakening involved a grand display of lively affections and their affects, including an extraordinary measure of talk about Christ, the Gospel, and divine things. But, as with the great bodily effects and the other phenomena of the Awakening, abundant religious talk appeared to some as more of the same worldly ungodliness—the mark of puffed-up “Pharisees and ostentatious hypocrites.” In contrast, others viewed the same as the fruit of God’s work on the heart. Edwards, however, took a more biblically informed approach, granting that “fluent, fervent, and abundant religious talk” can flow from a worldly or spiritual source.
On the one hand, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” We sing the praises of that which we love—parents speak of their kids and grandkids, while newlyweds praise their spouse. Why, then, should anyone immediately presume an ungodly cause behind the frequency and fervor of people extolling the greatness of God and His blessings? Shouldn’t we proclaim His excellence from the rooftops? Yet, in the same way that some rejected all religious affections as important to the Christian life, so they wrongly concluded that affections producing fervent and fluent speech about Christ and the things of God came from an ungodly source.
On the other hand, talk is cheap. Wordiness often floats on shallow waters or flows from pride or self-exaltation. The hypocritical religious leaders during Christ’s earthly ministry were full of showy talk that drew great condemnation from Christ. Thomas Shepard put it this way;
A Pharisee’s trumpet shall be heard to the town’s end, when simplicity walks through the town unseen. Hence a man will sometimes covertly commend himself (and myself ever comes in), and tells you a long story of conversion; and a hundred to one if some lie or other slip not out with it. Why, the secret meaning is, I pray admire me, and Pray think what a broken-hearted Christian am I.”
Earnest and sincere religious talk can easily flow from the most diabolical of unredeemed hearts, while still waters often run deep as wisdom listens and restrains its words. Indeed, “A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in revealing his own mind” (Proverbs 18:2 NAS). Moreover, the profound love between a saint and God does not always lend itself to abundant speech.
O reader, if thy heart were right with God, and thus didst not cheat thyself with a vain profession, thou wouldst have frequent business with God which thou wouldst be loth thy dearest friend, or the wife of thy bosom, should be privy to…. Religion doth not lie open to all, to the eyes of men. Observed duties maintain our credit; but secret duties maintain our life.”
Additionally, “A person may be over-full of talk of his own experiences, commonly falling upon it everywhere and in all companies; and when it is so, it is rather a dark sign than a good one.” Exalting one’s experience is not the same thing as exalting God. Many were moved by natural affections to praise God at the sight of Christ’s great miracles or shout Hosanna! in hope of earthly deliverance from the tyranny of Rome. Multitudes proclaimed their affections and loyalty to Christ during His earthly ministry, but, Edwards asks, “what did these things come to in the greater part of them?” Nothing or worse when they shouted for His crucifixion.
Edwards wrote The Religious Affections with the wisdom of hindsight, informed by experience with the shining and noisy stars of the Awakening—short-lived luminaries that spoke often and passionately of their experiences and love to God that fell away when the heat of the Awakening died down. He compares great religious talk to the leaves of a tree, “which, though the tree ought not to be without them, yet are nowhere given as an evidence of the goodness of the tree.” In the end, “fluent, fervent, and abundant” talk about God and one’s religious experiences may be from a good or bad cause.
Next, we’ll examine why religious affections and their effects that seem to come from an external, supernatural source are not necessarily the work of God the Holy Spirit.
 BT, 62-63; Yale, 135-136.
 BT, 63; Yale, 136.
 Shepard, Parable of the Ten Virgins, 284; quoted in BT, 64-65, footnote; Yale, 137, footnote 3.
 Flavel, Touchstone of Sincerity. Works Vol. 5, 520; quoted in BT, 65, footnote; Yale, 137, footnote 3.
 BT, 64; Yale, 137.
 BT, 63-64; Yale, 136-137.
 BT, 62-63; Yale, 135-136.
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© 2017 Craig Biehl, author of God the Reason, The Box, The Infinite Merit of Christ, and Reading Religious Affections
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