The New Resultant Actions of the Soul
Edwards did not simply base Christian assurance upon internal evidence, not even internal evidence as strong as the new sense. Rather, he coupled the new sense inseparably with new action. In Affections’ first positive sign, in the midst of the introduction of the new sense, he pointed to his greater design: “if grace be, in the sense above described, an entirely new kind of principle; then the exercises of it are also entirely a new kind of exercises.”
But it was in the twelfth positive sign that Edwards developed the new action in its fullness and depth. “Gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice. I mean, they have that influence and power upon him who is the subject of ’em, that they cause that practice, which is universally conformed to, and directed by Christian rules should be the practice and business of his life,” he observed. Edwards then related the previous eleven signs of gracious affections to this last. Most importantly, he argued that
the power of godliness is exerted in the first place within the soul, in the sensible, lively exercise of gracious affections there. Yet the principal evidence of this power of godliness, is in those exercises of holy affections that are practical, and in their being practical; in conquering the will, and conquering the lusts and corruptions of men, and carrying men on in the way of holiness, through all temptation, difficulty and opposition.Therefore, the individual had his first assurance from an internal working of the Spirit, preserving Cotton’s argument. But the principal, the most important, the “chief” evidence was the consistent practice of godliness, preserving Shepard’s argument. Christian practice assured both the individual and the community about the person’s gracious state. Regeneration had “a direct relation to practice; for ’tis the very end of it, with a view to which the whole work is wrought.” Every gracious experience had its end in practice. This connection between profession and practice, experience and evidence, was one that Edwards called “constant and dissoluble.” In true saints, “their good profession and their good fruit, do constantly accompany one another: the fruit they bring forth in life, evermore answers the pleasant sound of their profession.” He was careful not to collapse the “root” of faith and the “fruit” of faith, but rather maintained the distinction. If there was a holy action, it indicated that there was a holy root that produced it.
In this way, Edwards supported Shepard’s contention that one evidenced justification by sanctification. If there truly was fruit, there must be some life principle producing that fruit. He called Christian practice, the “sign of signs,” in that “it is the great evidence, which confirms and crowns all other signs of godliness. There is no one grace of the Spirit of God, but that Christian practice is the most proper evidence of the truth of it.” Practice evidenced saving faith, repentance, saving knowledge of Christ, thankfulness, and holy joy. He, however, also reminded his readers that “no external manifestations and outward appearances whatsoever, that are visible to the world, are infallible evidences of grace.” No one could see another person’s heart; evidences could not be an infallible rule in judging someone else’s profession.
Edwards also supported a theme that Shepard took up in The Parable of the Ten Virgins, the necessity of Christian practice as an evidence of justification. It was no accident that he quoted Shepard over seventy times in the footnotes of Affections. Edwards used Shepard with a two-fold aim: first, he used Shepard’s cultural authority to ward off Chauncy’s charge of antinomianism. However, he also used Shepard to attack the true antinomians of his own day. A careful analysis of the way he quoted Shepard would demonstrate that the incantation of Shepard occurred with greatest frequency when he was attacking his antinomian opponents.
In Affections, Edwards synthesized the two American Puritan positions, forged during the Antinomian Controversy, reconciling the Spiritual Brethren and Intellectual Fathers in his own creative position. With Cotton and the Spiritual Brethren, Edwards held the primacy of the new sense of the heart. This new principle that the Spirit infused into the regenerate’s heart was properly the first internal evidence or assurance in which the soul gained an ideal apprehension of Christ. The soul gazed upon the excellencies of Christ, which consisted in his holiness; in doing so, the soul gained a genuine understanding of spiritual truth and a new spiritual conviction concerning the reality of divine things. This conviction, born of an ideal apprehension of the divine, produced a new sense of innate corruption. Hence, the gracious soul was not proud, but rather experienced further evangelical humiliation that in turn produced the character of Christ, especially the meekness and gentleness of the Savior. There was beautiful symmetry and proportion in the character regulated by the new sense. Christians loved Christ and hated sin in perfect proportion, in excellency; yet, they were not satisfied with their current state, but continued on with a changed nature, desiring to be more like Christ.
Picking up the emphases of Shepard and the Intellectual Fathers, Edwards affirmed that holy practice was the chief evidence of one’s regenerate state. New practice evidenced that one had the new sense of the heart. Just as the fruit of tree indicated there was life in the tree, so holy practice demonstrated there was the holy root of the new sense in the individual. Edwards was careful not to collapse the distinction between the new sense and Christian practice. Yet the bond between them was “constant and indissoluble”; it was not possible to divorce practice and profession, experience and evidence.
Therefore, though Edwards may have used some Lockean terminology, such as the “new simple idea,” his starting point was not Lockean, but rather Puritan. Understanding Affections requires an appreciation of its American Puritan context and the theological battles of the earlier Antinomian Controversy.