Jonathan Edwards was a pastor, a philosopher, and a missionary and he was also a part of the church’s spiritual great awakening. To Edwards, biblical Christianity meant true religion and he sought to quantify what a true encounter with God would look like. In his endeavors, he contrasted the diverse experiences of those who claimed to have received a special revelation. He took the two opposing views suggesting an experience only pertains to head knowledge, truth, and non-emotional rational thinking, with the other extreme which argued the experience itself was more important by discounting the truth, duty, and obedience claiming they are not as important. In the end, Edwards would attempt to combine the experience of truth with the feelings, emotions, and affections we have as Christians and how both of these experiences can come together to create an exponential transformation.
Often, using I Peter 1:8 to define spiritual affections, Edwards illustrated there are two great outcomes that come out of the Christian faith, especially when enduring trials. The first is that it reveals one’s true love for Christ and second; it reveals one’s true joy in Christ. As Peter Davids illustrates in this passage:
The focus of their joy is not the inheritance nor the glory, but the returning Christ. Here one finds a paradox. Unlike Peter and others of the first generation who had seen Jesus, they have neither seen him in the past nor do they see him at present; their faith is not based on their perceptual experience… This paradox of faith without sight… [Is] the really important thing [because it] is not what they can see (e.g., the trials they have and their enemies), but whom they love and are committed to even though they do not see him.
Upon this realization of unspeakable joy is when Edwards realized there were specific spiritual affections, which he then sought after. Edwards would classify these spiritual affections as sensible exercises or inclinations of a person’s will or soul because they could be felt. Ultimately, one’s heart is always either moving away from God or towards Him and this was the hypothesis Edwards used to define which behaviors enhanced one’s relationship with God. By recognizing the heart is either attracted by something or repelled by it, Edwards showed how the things of the world attempt to pull people away from God, while the things that are holy and righteous draws one closer to Him and the more one is drawn towards God; the deeper the spiritual transformation will be. While he defined many specific emotions, alone these emotions could not guarantee someone being a Christian, so he would further attempt to define twelve ways or guidelines to demonstrate the true desire of one’s heart. For example, someone who is truly about serving the Lord would turn their pride into humility as they allowed their love for God to flow through them. As Dr. Dwayne Miliani concludes, “When God works within a believer, He does so from the inside out and true spiritual affection always corresponds to the compassion and purity of a believer’s emotions best expressed by an understanding of Christ; they soften us and move us to holiness by revealing the fruit of Christ in our life.”
Todd Smith, in Real Christian, defines “real” as something you can see, playing off the same message in I Peter 1:8 and he picks up exactly where Edwards in Religious Affections left off by showing it is by the fruit we bear as Christians that defines our true faith. Living a life of discipleship, transformation, and pure joy, even in times of persecution and trials, should be the evidence of a true Christian. As Preston Sprinkle says, “With a heart for people and a mind for God – and a mind for people and a heart for God Wilson unleashes a challenging message for a church drunk on safety and security.” Wilson’s primary goal is showing what it means to be a genuine child of God, just as Edward’s primary goal was enlightening spiritual truths in the hearts and minds of others by understanding what God’s word calls disciples to do. Wilson then demonstrates how easy it is to fake being a Christian by merely learning doctrine or by changing behaviors, but he makes it abundantly clear that professing faith does not mean one possesses faith.
By combing both of these author’s thesis, a biblical warrant for the necessary and requisite marks of true affections for the maturing believer starts with being real. Wilson illustrates how, “The greatest threat to the church’s witness is one of our own making – an image problem. Many outside the church view Christians as unchristian in their attitudes and actions – bigoted, homophobic, hypocritical, materialistic, judgmental, self-serving, and overly political.” As a result, the world knows more what the church is against than for. While Edwards defined twelve signs of genuine faith, Wilson has condensed those down to six: humility, meekness, contrition, wholeness, hunger, and perfected love. These traits are never outgrown and are fundamental to authentic faith by making Christ the center of one’s life. Our heart demonstrates not only the wellspring of our actions, but also the foundation of our character.
Wilson not only says humility is hard to define but also that it is often misunderstood. Perhaps C.S. Lewis offers the best definition as, “Humility involves being a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.” Wilson goes on to insist humility is not merely lowly thoughts of self, but it is, “self-forgetful… [And] transcendent self-confidence [with its] purpose [not being] to make you think less of who you are, but to enable you to love others regardless of who they are.” The ultimate goal of humility is to have the mind of Christ, which Wilson demonstrates, “Means not holding on to status in a way that hinders love.” As followers of Christ, we can ask and pray for humility, which is vital so pride is not allowed to set in. True humility only comes from one’s genuine faith in God and it always has a cost.
The second mark of a maturing believer is meekness, which is not to be confused with weakness. Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek” and He is speaking to followers who were facing extreme suffering and persecution. One’s meekness must also flow out of one’s love for Christ as you respond with forgiveness instead of vengeance and as you remain patient and eager to learn in times of rejection or criticism. Meekness means obeying what Paul instructed the Romans to do, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.” As Wilson says, “To become meek you must entrust yourself to the sovereign goodness of God.”
The third mark of a maturing believer is contrition and Wilson demonstrates that a broken and contrite heart is something God will never despise and is another mark of true authentic faith. Wilson shows how one’s response to sin may manifest itself in the form of guilt, embarrassment, or even regret, but how these responses are not truly contrition. Instead, Wilson portrays contrition as, “Not a fear of punishment, [but] it is a fear of displeasing the one who ought to be obeyed.” King David is one of the best examples of someone who grew to have contrite heart and as believers we have the assurance there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. A true change of heart is required of a contrite person because as Wilson illustrates, “Only a real Christian grieves over sin because it is sin rather than because it brings with it shame, embarrassment, guilt, regret, or punishment.” Another interesting paradox presents itself in this stage as Wilson shows, “While the fear of punishment decreases, if not altogether ceases, conviction of sin increases… As your fear of punishment decreases, your dread of sin and your dislike of it increase… While the fear of hell is removed, the fear of sin is enlarged.”
The fourth mark of a maturing believer is wholeness, which brings the full image of Christ into focus. Wilson demonstrates how, “Wholeness is one of the marks of a real Christian, because when you are real, you have received not half of Christ, but the whole Christ.” Wilson warns that those who are not real may love God’s justice, but care little for His grace. Wholeness means balance in thought, words, and action while bearing the image of Christ. The full image of Christ should permeate in every area of a believer’s life because as you allow Christ to fill you up, the only thing you can do is reflect the image of Christ in everything you do. Once again, Jesus is the perfect model for believers to follow as Wilson illustrates how balanced Jesus was, “He was meek before accusers, yet bold before Pharisees. He was compassionate toward the hurting, yet forthright with the crowds. He was patient with His disciples, yet overturned tables in the Temple. He blasted hypocrisy, yet humbly received scourging. He was eaten up with zeal for God, yet would often slip away quietly to pray.” Ultimately, real Christians should have wholeness by desiring a personal relationship with God as they seek to bear the image of Christ in all they are and in all they do.
The fifth mark of a maturing believer is hunger and as Wilson illustrates, “There is a difference between real hunger and what I will call ‘fake’ hunger. A real Christian’s hunger may begin slowly, but it will grow over time, so that by the end of life a real Christian is hungrier than ever for God.” However, those who are not real in their faith may start off with a strong hunger to know God more, but over time their hunger diminishes as they settle, instead of pursuing God with reckless abandonment even after they have found Him. The initial hunger starts off as wanting to know God more, but the more you begin to know the person of God, the more you will desire to do His will. God’s word is the wellspring of life, so continually reading scripture and meditating on it is paramount to creating and quenching your hunger for more. It is in this stage Wilson cautions that many downplay the importance of maintaining a hunger for God because apathy, complacency, and contentment will set in when one is satisfied with what they find. Ultimately, sin destroys one’s hunger for God, while worship breaths new life into a believer as a deer pants for flowing streams, so should a believer’s soul pant for God.
The final mark of a maturing believer is a perfected love and this is the surest evidence of authentic faith. God’s love is perfected in the believer , it casts out all fear and as Wilson concludes, “Perfected love is the goal of [all] the other marks.” Perfected love is at the core of the Godhead and it is visible, tangible, and sacrificial. As evidence by I John 3:16, “Perfected love is the person of Christ” as Christ laid down His life for us. Because perfected love comes from God, it must not have any conditions or motives attached. Instead, perfected love as Wilson defines it is, “To love God for no other reason than because God is lovely.” In one’s efforts to reach perfected love, many fall short by adhering only to imperfected love. Wilson contrasts the two by showing, “Imperfected love is love in thought, but not in practice. Imperfected love is not bad; it is just incomplete. It is good in principle; it just has not reached its goal.” Like a seed yet to be planted, it wants to grow, but has not yet been planted or watered. To turn imperfected love into perfected love, Wilson stresses the importance of prioritizing and protecting it by learning to abide in Christ. Wilson concludes by showing, “Often what hinders love from reaching its goal in our lives is [our own] insecurity.”
We all fall short of the glory of God at some point. Our righteousness is compared to filthy rags and our holiness is only found in Christ Jesus, but our perseverance is proof that we are real and that God and His promises are real as well. Wilson illustrates how, “Our perseverance vindicates God’s sustaining grace, proves God has given you a new heart, and proves you have been born again.” Charles Spurgeon said it best, “If you trust yourselves to God, He will preserve you; but if you try to keep yourselves, you will fail.”
Humility, Meekness, Contrition, Wholeness, Hunger, and Perfected Love all lead to becoming a real Christian. This book has illuminated several areas in my life, which will help lead me to a closer relationship with the Lord, and in my pursuit of holiness. My need for significance and approval if not kept in check can lead to looking to world for fulfillment. In addition, by appearing to have it all together, you are only fooling yourself, as it is nothing more than a façade, so maintaining transparency is crucial to staying humble. Real faith in Jesus Christ should change us from the inside out, so in the area of meekness I must always remember to forgive those who trespass against me, so that Christ will also forgive me. Holding un-forgiveness against someone only imprisons you to them, so giving everything to God removes the burden and need for retribution or revenge off of your shoulders. In the area of contrition, I must remind myself of the grace God has shown me with a spirit of gratitude. I also must not let past sin make me feel guilt, embarrassment, or regret. We can do nothing about the past, but we can do something about today and the best way to do that is by allowing God to use whatever mistakes may be in our past to advance the kingdom of God and bring Him glory. In the area of wholeness, I must continually allow God to fill me up daily with the intent to pour that love, compassion, and truth out in the lives of the people I interact with. When people see me, they should see Christ in me. My hunger for God must be unquenchable and the more I know Him, the more I should seek to do His will by allowing Him to work in and through me. Finally, in the area of perfected love I must allow my love for God and others to be visible, tangible, and sacrificial. In the Great Commandment, Jesus told His disciples; it was by their love for others that the world would know they were His disciples. The only motive behind our love should be because Christ first loved us and died on the cross for our sins while we were still sinners. My perfected love must be the priority in my life and my motivation in all I do. It also must be protected by the distractions, deceptions, and the illusions of the world. Out of perfected love comes the assurance that God is who He says He is, He can do what He says He can do, and that I am a child of His.
Davids, Peter H. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The First Epistle of Peter. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.
Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. 1952; repr., New York, NY: Macmillan, 1960.
Spurgeon, Charles. “The Preservation of Christians in the World.” Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia, vol. 12. 1951; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996.
Wilson, Todd. Real Christian: Bearing the Marks of Authentic Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 2014.