Jonathan Edwards’ Rules for Spiritual Discernment – John Boruff

Like the Catholic mystical theologians that preceded him–Jean Gerson, Ignatius of Loyola, etc.–Jonathan Edwards wrote a small book on “rules for the discernment of spirits.” The name of this book was The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741). It was written during the Great Awakening, or the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in his church at Northampton, Massachusetts, and other places in the New England colonies. It is similar to Guy Chevreau’s Catch the Fire (1995), which provided not only guidelines, but an apologetical defense of the Toronto Blessing revival. Most of the book reads like a work of mystical theology–with references to prophetic ecstasies and even meditation and contemplation. There were many young people in the revival who were experiencing prophetic revelations through visions, voices, and impressions. Much of Edwards’ defense revolves around physical manifestations of the Holy Spirit (like the Toronto Blessing)–tears, trembling, shaking, groans, loud outcries (Ps. 32:3-4), strong emotions, agonies in the body, falling down (Acts 16:29), and the failing of bodily strength (slain in the Spirit, ecstasy, trance). He argues, as does Chevreau, that those clergymen of the religious church Establishment who are offended at these physical manifestations, and are quick to write them off as demonic manifestations–would do well to know that (1) The Bible is completely silent about discerning the works of the Holy Spirit by physical manifestations. (2) Jesus’ rule for spiritual discernment was that “by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matt. 7:20). Nowhere does the Bible say, “By their physical manifestations you will recognize them”–but rather, it says, “by their fruit.” If you read the context of Matthew 7:20, it becomes clear that what Jesus meant by His usage of the symbol of “fruit” was the behavior and general ethical conduct of people. Jesus’ idea of “good fruit” in the given passage, was along the lines of moral virtues, such as doing God’s will (v. 21), which means living according to God’s law (v. 23, NASB).

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.  — 1 John 4:1

The standard that Edwards held to, in order to discern the works of the Holy Spirit from the works of the devil, were THE RULES AND COMMANDMENTS OF THE BIBLE. But particularly, he felt that 1 John 4–the entire chapter, was written by the apostle John (who was that great seer of the Book of Revelation)–in order to guide the early Charismatic Christians, from counterfeit spirits, who were roaming around and luring Christians into Gnosticism. Edwards looked at this chapter as the major place in Scripture where the issue of the discernment of spirits was handled the most clearly: “Those marks,” he wrote, “which are given us by the apostle in the chapter wherein is my text, where this matter is particularly handled, and more plainly and fully than anywhere else in the Bible” (Section II). So, what were these rules for discernment? Edwards takes the approach of a Bible expositor on 1 John 4, and creates his rules based on his interpretations of that chapter. In a condensed form, these rules are the following: The Holy Spirit can most certainly be discerned by the following experiences and thoughts of inspiration:

1. Revelations That Confirm Evangelical Christology – If someone receives a dream, vision, voice, or impression that confirms the orthodox Evangelical doctrines about Jesus Christ–then that spirit is certainly from God, whether it be the Holy Spirit, an angel, a saint, Jesus Himself, or God the Father. Although Edwards was only thinking of the Holy Spirit, I have no problem including the works of these other heavenly spirits. The Evangelical doctrines of Christ that Edwards particularly had in mind were: His virgin birth, His crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection, His Deity as the Son of God, His being the Lord and Savior of men; and that He is fully man and fully God in human form.

2. Experiences of Spiritual Warfare and Deliverance from Sin – Any spiritual experience that leads a person to resist the devil, and sinful desires, is most certainly from the Holy Spirit. Particularly against those sinful desires which encourage men to engage in ungodly pleasures, the greedy pursuit of wealth, and the pride of being honored by other people. Instead, the Holy Spirit inspires men to be concerned about their lives in the future, in Heaven, and drives them to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33). It also creates a fear of the Lord, and of Hell fire, the guiltiness of their sins, and inspires men to repent and get right with God. The devil might condemn men, and make them feel like they are terrible rotten sinners (which is true!), but he will never go further, and show them the Gospel light of Jesus, and the ways of repentance and God’s forgiveness of sins. It is impossible for satan to convict of sin, and show men the way to be forgiven of sin through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because that goes directly against the devil’s purpose–which is to lure men deeper into sin and temptation: “If satan drives out satan, he is divided against himself” (Matt. 12:26).

3. Reverence, Honor, Respect, and High Regard for the Bible -Inspired by God, the Holy Scriptures are the foundation for Christian faith and practice, and were written by the prophets and apostles of Bible times (Eph. 2:20). There is no way that the devil would ever lead people to love or revere the Bible; rather, he inspires a hatred of it, because its words all throughout the ages have thwarted his plans and exposed his deceits. Edwards quotes that passage, which along with 1 John 4:1, is found in many Christian books on spiritual discernment: “When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the Law and to the Testimony! If they do not speak according to this Word, they have no light of dawn” (Isa. 8:19-20).

4. Revelations That Confirm Evangelical Soteriology and Theology – Soteriology is that branch of Christian theology which deals with the subjects of salvation and sanctification. Edwards believed that if someone has a spiritual experience, which seems to confirm the Evangelical doctrines of soteriology, then it is from the Holy Spirit: mainly the doctrines that there is a God who hates sin, and “that life is short, and very uncertain; and that there is another world; that they have immortal souls, and must give account of themselves to God, that they are exceeding sinful by nature and practice; that they are helpless in themselves; and confirms them in other things that are agreeable to some sound doctrine.” Surely the Spirit that reveals these things is the Spirit of God.

5. Experiencing the Feeling of God’s Love -That mysterious, yet very real sense of the Holy Spirit, indwelling the heart of the Christian, which incites him to tenderly and affectionately love God with all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love his neighbor as himself (Matt. 22:37-40). It is a supernatural love–yea, it is God Himself, the Holy Spirit Himself, for “God is love” (1 John 4:8); and is mentioned without chance as the first fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). It is a humble love–not giving way to arrogant notions of being the most loving person in the world, but still retaining a strong sense of one’s own sinfulness and depravity. It is a holy love, in keeping with the moral rules of Scripture, and energizes the heart to the holy obedience of every commandment in the New Testament. It is love that is from the Holy Spirit, and operates like this: it inspires a certain kind of vision into the mind and will, which sees all of God’s creatures as their Creator sees them, with His holy and condescending Creator’s love. Also, a vision is implanted into the spirit of the great and high glories of the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal majesty of God, and of His wonderful love, so inexpressible, yet completely understandable in the spirit. These strong motions of spiritual love, swoon and sway over the heart of the Christian, at times creating an ecstasy beside oneself, yet generally incites him to be peaceful and good-intentioned, wanting to be nice and kind to everyone; also, there is a strong desire to see souls saved from the eternal punishment of Hell fire; and a strong affection between those who are walking in the kingdom of God.

Jonathan Edwards’ Limitations on the Prophetic

You would think that up until this point, Edwards was a Charismatic Christian. Partly he was, but mainly he was not. He was what I would call a limited Charismatic. Although I have a high regard for Jonathan Edwards, and count him among the great saints of Heaven, I definitely disagree with him when he wrote: “I do not expect a restoration of these miraculous gifts in the approaching glorious times of the church, nor do I desire it.” WHAT!? He not only said that he didn’t expect spiritual gifts, but that he didn’t desire spiritual gifts! This goes directly against Scripture: “Eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (1 Cor. 14:1). Why did Edwards say such a thing? How could he give such great rules on how to discern spirits, and yet completely reject the prophetic? I think it was because he was sort of uncertain about it. He was certainly confronted with the prophetic for years during the Great Awakening. In this way, he reminds me of John Wimber, who involved himself in the prophetic with the Kansas City prophets, and then pulled away from it all. There were many people during the Great Awakening who fell into trances, saw dreams and visions, heard the voice of God, received revelations, and words of knowledge, etc.

Edwards had a Cessationist upbringing which taught him that according to 1 Corinthians 13, faith, hope, and love, have CANCELED OUT the church’s need for the miraculous gifts. Although he remained much more open-minded than most clergymen during the Awakening, by his experience with those who claimed revelations of the future or the secrets of men’s hearts–he couldn’t see enough evidence that these were anything more than the delusions of satan, or the illusions of men’s imaginations, or of a sickened brain brought about by too much meditation. This is not to say that Edwards was against all revelations and visions; if that were the case, then all of his rules for the discernment of spirits were pointless for the writing. But he only approved of visions that were of Heaven, Hell, Christ, salvation, victory over satan, and that which glorified the Bible. (Because these truths are already in the Bible–and any visions of them serve to CONFIRM it.) But he rejected any vision that claimed to predict the future, as well as any revelation that claimed to read the secrets of men’s hearts. There were simply no ACCURATE PROPHETS, that he had any EXPERIENCE with, who successfully CONVINCED him that these gifts too had been restored. So, in the end, Edwards–although I respect him as a saint of God–apparently turned out to take a sort of pick-and-choose approach to spiritual gifts. Healing and casting out demons are made as passing references, and he hardly touches on that point at all, not even mentioning any such occurrence in this particular book.

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About John Boruff

John Boruff is the founder of WesleyGospel.com, a husband, father, and sometimes an open air preacher. He graduated from UNC Pembroke in 2008 with a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion and views himself as a Baptistic Pentecostal. As a Christian, he feels connected with all members of the body of Christ, but can identify the most with churches like the Assemblies of God and the Vineyard. In 2015, he released "The Gospel of Jesus Christ," which is meant to be a Bible study for open air preaching. For his other writings, search articles on this site or see the E-Books section.
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One Response to Jonathan Edwards’ Rules for Spiritual Discernment – John Boruff

  1. Oengus says:

    Quote: …he reminds me of John Wimber, who involved himself in the prophetic with the Kansas City prophets, and then pulled away from it all.

    I recommend the book The Quest for the Radical Middle by Bill Jackson. It is an invaluable picture into John Wimber’s ministry, and it deals with some of the problems he encountered, including the “KCP” episode. Another valuable sidelight comes from Mike Bickle’s book Growing in the Prophetic, in which Bickle freely admits that he made several mistakes at that time in dealing with the “prophetic” people. It is a rather complicated picture, but it is hard for me to blame Wimber for feeling somewhat “burned” by the experience. But probably the most touching, and eloquent, book about Wimber was his widow’s memoir regarding him, entitled The Way It Was, by Carol Wimber.

    I very deeply regret that although I was contemporaneous with Wimber, and lived down in SoCal just a short distance from the Yorba Linda Vineyard, I never met the man or heard him speak. At the time, I was stuck in a church that jolly well made sure his name was never mentioned.

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