Today we pick up with the next distinguishing mark of genuine religious affections.
4. Genuine religious affections are nature-changing.
Though I suppose that this one should be obvious, it apparently is not. When the Bible talks about salvation and conversion and becoming a Christian, it uses language like “born again,” “new creatures,” “taking off the old man and putting on the new man,” “being made partakers of the divine nature” and so on. These images do not present genuine Christian life as an add-on or a surface level change or simply behavior modification. Genuine religious affections stem from an entirely different, completely changed, new nature.
Of all the changes, perhaps the single most affected part is our perspective on ourselves. That is to say, genuine religious affections are always distinguished by the presence of humility. Whereas the natural man and the hypocrite are always lifting themselves up, genuine affections cause a man to be low. We know we must decrease while Christ increases. Edwards defined this “evangelical humiliation” as the
sense that a Christian has of his own utter insufficiency, despicableness, and odiousness with an answerable frame of heart. (237)
Religious posers compare themselves with others. They think that they are not nearly as bad as most everyone else and figure that they have done numerous noteworthy religious things. They are like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable who thanked God that he was not like others. They tend to be the hero of every story they tell.
But true saints compare themselves with God’s standard. And in proportion to God’s position and requirements, no one in this world is what they ought to be. The highest love that any have in this life is but skimpy, tepid, and diluted in comparison to what our obligations are. Edwards’ logic is watertight here.
The least sin against an infinite God has an infinite hatefulness or deformity in it; but the highest degree of holiness in a creature has not an infinite loveliness in it.
Our obligation to love and honor any being is in some proportion to his loveliness and honorableness, or to his worthiness to be loved and honored by us…We are surely under greater obligation to love a more lovely being than a less lovely; and if a Being be infinitely lovely or worthy to be loved by us, then our obligations to love Him are infinitely great, and therefore whatever is contrary to this love, has in it infinite iniquity, deformity, and unworthiness.
So much the greater distance between God and the creature, so much the less is the creature’s respect worthy of God’s notice or regard. A great degree of superiority increases the obligation of the inferior to regard the superior, and so makes the want of regard more hateful. But a great degree of inferiority diminishes the worth of the regard of the inferior; because the more he is inferior, the less he is worthy of notice; the less he is, the less is what he can offer worth…as he is little, and little worth, so is his respect little worth.
In other words, our wickedness is infinitely despicable and our best love is hardly admirable compared to what He deserves. Of course, we tend to overestimate our position and therefore underestimate the distance between ourselves and God. This is a monumental mistake.
Though the following illustration is far from Edwardsean, perhaps it will help to knock us off our proud pedestals.
Imagine that you are the curator of a worm farm. You have acquired an aquarium and collected a great number of worms for your colony. You provide your worm community with food, water, protection from attack, and all other things necessary for their pursuit of happiness. In return you require the group to follow, let’s say 10 commands. You even display those commands on a poster on the side of the aquarium for all to see. Most of the worms appreciate your care and oversight, so much so that they decided to hold weekly services to sing songs of thanks and praise.
But here are two very important questions. First, would that worm worship make you feel truly respected? When you were ignored at parties, would your self-image be boosted by remembering that at least the worms love you? Probably not. They are worms. Their admiration and submission is only worth so much.
And the second question is, what would you do if one of those worms disobeyed? Would you not find that utterly inappropriate and reprehensible? How dare a worm disregard you!
And though God is graciously more mindful of man than men are of worms, the point is in the parallel. The more we understand how infinitely great and holy God is the more we see how wicked and pathetic we are. And as we see the distance between us we will must be more humble. The best we can offer Him is worthless. The worst we can offer Him is infinitely bad. The more actually holy we get the more sense and sensitivity we will have to how holy we still are not. We will never imagine our humility to be low enough. As Edwards wrote,
It is really no argument of any great conviction of sin for some men to think themselves to be sinful beyond most others in the world; because they are so indeed very plainly and notoriously. (260)
So gracious affections come from a changed nature, and one evidence (on a great heap of evidences) of a changed nature is developing humility.