Aaron Pelttari

Rel 319

Prof. Westblade      



Divine and Supernatural Love against Self-Love


“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.[1]


            Divine and supernatural love has its foundation in the transcendent excellence of God as He is in himself and not in any conceived relation to self or self-interest. This, a summary of the second point of Jonathan Edwards’s delineation of the distinguishing signs of the truly gracious and holy affections in his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, points to the literally supernatural character of religious affections. In the section prior to this, Edwards expounds on the spiritual, supernatural, and divine nature of religious affections. Were it not for this prior explanation of supernaturally caused religious affections, Edwards might be seeming to suggest that religious affections are more dutiful that joyous. A sense of divine beauty, however, compels a Christian to love God both primarily for the sake of his holiness and with a great joy; furthermore, when God makes his elect a new creation by imparting a sense to them for his holiness, they also receive from him a sense to love God quite apart from any benefit or relation to themselves. Then, the verse in which Paul explains his way of life is applied to the regenerate believer: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me.”[2] When Christ lives in the believer, love testifies to the truth of Christ’s indwelling life, as is evident by the quotation above from I Cor. 13. Love, the supernatural work of grace in our lives, is the beginning of our holiness, for from it spring virtue and joy. Therefore, the reason why gracious affections must have their grounds in the transcendent excellence of God is shown to be the fact that gracious affections have a divine justification as opposed to the self-interested ground of natural affections.

            In chapter IV of his treatise on The Nature of True Virtue, Edwards makes a distinction between two kinds of self-love. He begins by saying that self-love is generally defined as “a man’s love of his own happiness.”[3] However, he adds that this common definition is too vague, because “his own” can mean the happiness one gains either universally or in relation to his private and independent good. In the first case, all men do love what is pleasing to themselves; so in this sense all men desire their own happiness, which desire is called love. In this way, self-love is most proper for all men; nevertheless, Edwards makes a point of saying that although love to others is pleasurable it is not motivated by one’s own pleasure (i.e. I am glad to love; but my joy from loving cannot be the cause of my love, since it does not exist until after I have loved; for “the being of inclinations and appetites is prior to any pleasure in gratifying these appetites”).[4] Edwards treats the second type of self-love next. He defines it as “a man’s regard to his confined private self [sic], or love to himself with respect to his private interest.”[5] This second self-love stands unequal to the first, proper kind of self-love, because it is only loved with reference to one’s own individual good. From now on, self-love in this first definition of Edwards’s will be referred to merely as “love,” because he explains that all love is self-love in this sense; and self-love in his second sense will be what is meant by “self-love.”

            Man naturally loves others for the sake of his own good; however, Edwards see no true virtue in this, precisely because such love is a natural act.[6] Since natural, unregenerate, men possess it in abundance, self-love does not distinguish the spiritual man from his natural counterparts.[7] Rather, Christians, motivated by the influence of the Spirit sent by Christ, exceed the love that is common to all men. Edwards believes that the person who has been given a divine and supernatural revelation of the knowledge of Christ acquires a new sense that becomes a principle for action. This understanding clarifies his insight into Christian love.

            Edwards begins Section I of Part III of Religious Affections with the following heading: “Affections that are truly spiritual and gracious, arise from those influences and operations on the heart, which are spiritual, supernatural, and divine.”[8] He provides several verses as evidence that in the New Testament the spiritual things are distinguished from the natural. I Cor. 2:14 says, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” Jude 19 says, “These are the men who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit.”[9] The absence of physical matter does not set apart the things of the Spirit, but “those qualifications . . . are said to be spiritual [sic] in the language of the New Testament, which are truly gracious, and peculiar to the saints.[10] By “gracious,” he means that they are works of God’s grace in our lives. By “peculiar to the saints,” he intends that only regenerate men can be the subjects of these gracious movements. In as much as only the saints experience the grace of spiritual life in regeneration, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”[11]

            Although gracious affections are always different from natural affections, they do not differ in every respect, for our love to God has many things in common with our love for a friend or a father or spouse.[12] The way in which they are different makes all the difference, however, because one could never arrive at graceful love from the foundation of natural affections. Edwards tries to explain the difference in this way:

Both spiritual love and natural, cause desires [sic] after the object beloved; but they are not the same sort of desires; there is a sensation of soul in the spiritual desires of one that loves God, which is entirely different from all natural desires. Both spiritual and natural love are attended with delight in the object beloved; but the sensations of delight are not the same, but entirely and exceedingly diverse. Natural men may have conceptions of many things about spiritual affections; but there is something in them which is as it were the nucleus, or kernel, of which they have no more conceptions, than one born blind has of colours.

Although it is easy to understand that natural men cannot understand spiritual truths, the more difficult thing is to explain what they cannot understand. Explaining it, Edwards calls the new means of understanding a new simple idea, a sense, and a taste.[13] This new sense in turn motivates one to act in a spiritual manner. Furthermore, Edwards says later in this treatise that moral excellency “gives beauty to, or rather is the beauty of, their natural perfections.”[14] Thus, the spiritual things make natural beauty beautiful. However, the beauty comes from the outside, from grace, and not by natural means. So then, Edwards says that the two affections are similar in some ways, the sensations of delight from each are different, and gracious affection gives beauty to natural affection.

            Edwards preached on this influence of the divine upon the natural in his sermon entitled “A Divine and Supernatural Light.” He differentiates in this sermon between the natural and supernatural influences of the Holy Spirit to show that all the imaginations and convictions and weepings of emotionalism are nothing without a true sense for God’s holiness. As for common grace, it “only assists the faculties of the soul to do that more fully which they do by nature, as natural conscience or reason will by mere nature make a man sensible of guilt, and will accuse and condemn him when he has done amiss.”[15] On the other hand, he calls the spiritual and divine light, “A true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the word of God, and a conviction of the truth and reality of them thence arising.”[16] The divine light is a sense and a taste for the beauty of God’s holiness that sets the redeemed apart from the ungodly. And he argues that the numerous scriptures which speak of Christians knowing and seeing God mean just this.[17] Moreover, this knowledge is more than mere logic, for “Reason may determine that a countenance is beautiful to others, it may determine that honey is sweet to others; but it will never give me a perception of its sweetness.”[18] From this doctrine, Edwards makes three applications for his congregation: they ought to reflect on God’s goodness that has provided a means of grace by which even the slowest mind can know Him, to examine whether they themselves have ever truly known Christ, and to seek more earnestly this most excellent and spiritual light.[19] Edwards places great emphasis on the importance of this doctrine, that God immediately imparts the knowledge of himself to his saints, for he desires to give God all the praise for the conversion of sinners. Moreover, the divine light works beyond the bounds of all the natural works of learning and preaching and enthusiasm.

            In the same vein, regeneration effects a change in natural man by which he becomes the recipient of spiritual, supernatural, and gracious knowledge, affections, and motivations. Although their knowledge may not seem different than it was, the regenerate saints have taken every thought captive to Christ. Though their affections may appear unchanged, they love those who do not love them. Many of their motivations look similar, but they store up treasures in heaven.[20] Even if it seems like the regenerate and unregenerate have many things in common, all things are new for the regenerate in that everything they do has been subordinated to Christ and that the Holy Spirit is now dwelling within them. It is not that the object of one’s love always changes, but every love and affection is made subordinate to Christ. For, an unsaved man may love his neighbor, but only the saved one loves his neighbor as an expression of his final love for Christ. Furthermore, the Spirit implants his fruit within the believer; the Father strengthens the believer through his Spirit; and the believer receives power with the coming of the Holy Spirit.[21] These things show that the person who has been born again truly has been changed both in the object and quality of his love.

            Since the saints are able to love God above all other delights, their love to others and to Him need not be self-love. As Edwards says, "The first objective ground of gracious affections, is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things, as they are in themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest."[22] Edwards asserts this most confidently, because the natural man has no part in God, until after he has been united to Christ in faith. The blessings of union with God do not come about until after the saint has become a saint, so his own self cannot be the grounds of his love to God while God has no union with him. Rather, one first loves God (with joy for his beauty, of course, and not as a chore) and then rejoices in the benefits of that love. Edwards explains one way that those who start with self-love go astray: "If that opinion which they have of themselves [that they are eminent saints], if they thought they were some of the lower form of saints, (though they should yet suppose themselves to be real saints,) their high affections would fall to the ground."[23] On the other hand, "As to truly gracious affections, they have their foundation in God and Jesus Christ; and therefore a discovery of themselves, of their own deformity, and the meanness of their experiences, though it will purify their affections, yet it will not destroy them, but in some respects sweeten and heighten them.[24] A sinner and a worm can be the ground of his own love for God neither by loving God for blessings received nor by loving God for merit granted. This is the first way that God must be the objective ground of the saints' affections: before he loves God, the saint is in no way lovely.

            The natural kind of love is self-love; therefore, it cannot be a truly gracious and supernatural love. In I Cor. 13, Paul says that all kinds of good works provide no good, unless love is evident. Speaking in the tongues of men and of angels and fathoming mysteries proves nothing worthwhile, for many unrighteous people like Balaam have been used by God. Sinners throughout time have loved others for their own sake, and the love of saints must be different than natural love, so the love of saints must be different. "For," Edwards says, "Self-love is a principle entirely natural, and as much in the hearts of devils as angels; and therefore surely nothing that is the mere result of it, can be supernatural and divine, in the manner before described."[25] Edwards admits freely that much love to God arises out of gratitude or thankfulness to God for his graces, but he stresses that this gratefulness is primarily founded in love to God as He is in himself.[26] As is fit, he wants to stress the importance of loving God as opposed to loving oneself. And while it is likely that those whom he meant to correct in this treatise firmly agreed that God and not ourselves must be the center of our lives, Edwards thought it was necessary to state this explicitly and with confidence. Very few Christians who say that self-interest is the ground of all loves want to say that man is more important than God; they passionately say just the opposite, that God deserves all the glory. Despite this overwhelming agreement about the end of love, understanding how love itself works makes a difference in how one thinks about approaching God. God's excellency demands for itself love beyond any relation to an individual's benefit, and supernatural love responds thus, with God-interested love.

            Just as Edwards differentiated between two kinds of self-love in his treatise on True Virtue, so does he intend section II of Religious Affections. For, he writes, "It is not strong arguing, [that] because after [sic] a man has his heart united to God in love, and, as a fruit of this, he desires his glory and enjoyment as his own happiness, that therefore a desire of this happiness must needs be the cause and foundation of his love; unless it be strong arguing, that because a father begat a son, therefore his son certainly begat him.”[27] Edwards wrote True Virtue after Religious Affections, and he explains himself more fully in the later work but more specifically for these purposes in the earlier one. He argued in the later work that virtuous self-love cannot logically have its own reward as its ground, and he argues in Religious Affections that gracious affections cannot be grounded in their own reward. Moreover, he writes, "They whose affection to God is founded first on his profitableness [sic] to them, begin at the wrong end.[28] When God is loved as the end and chief object of our love, then come the delights of union in Christ; but when we love God out of duty or out of any other self-interested principle, then we are restricting the flow of his delights.

            Two things should be kept in mind: that truly divine love of God often appears to be motivated by self-love and that true love to God implies love for everything that He loves. Many things are difficult to love for their own sake at first, but after some period they appear lovely in themselves. For example, Greek can be very daunting to those in a 101 class. There may seem nothing lovely about it, and one may stick with the work of Greek only for the joys of reading Plato and the Apostle John that he has heard about from other sources than his own delight.[29] In the same way, a lost sinner may be drawn to Christ by reports of free mercy and grace. As an advanced Greek student must come to love reading Greek without having to remind himself of the rewards he will reap down the road (That is, he must do this to rightly be called a lover of Greek.), so does the lost man, in being born again, come to love Christ himself. Moreover, at least a rudimentary love for God will motivate one to seek him more; in a miscellany on repentance, Edwards rhetorically asks, "How does it appear, that he [an unsaved man], if he tries only from fear & self-love, can make his heart better & make hims. love God?"[30] Secondly, loving God implies loving what he loves, so that the question Edwards faced, whether a sinner could resign himself to hell out of love for God, becomes irrelevant. God does not want anyone to perish,[31] so no man should seeks his own damnation. (God obviously wills the destruction of many people, or else they would not be damned; but because his decreed will is that all men be saved, all men should pursue his salvation.) The Psalmist recognizes this when he praises the law of God, for he says, "I remember your ancient laws, O Lord, and I find comfort in them."[32] The Psalmist cannot love God without also loving his laws, and thus the saints also love all the good things from God as the natural expression of their love for God.

            Edwards knew how to love God and how to love his gifts, for his sermons overflow with praise and with descriptions of joy and blessedness in God. Edwards recounts his own affections in his diary:

Another Saturday night, January, 1738-9, [I] had such a sense, how sweet and blessed a thing it was, to walk in the way of duty, to do that which was right and meet to be done, and agreeable to the holy mind of God; that it caused me to break forth into a kind of loud weeping, which held me for some time. . . . I could not but as it were cry out, "how happy are they which do that which is right in the sight of God! They are blessed indeed, they are the happy ones!" I had at the same time, a very affecting sense, how meet and suitable it was that God should govern the world, and order all things according to his own pleasure; and I rejoiced in it, that God reigned, and that his will was done.[33]

With such a sense for God's holiness, Edwards taught and wrote theology. And so, one writer has praised his treatises on True Virtue and Religious Affections by saying, "[T]hey present the ultimate foundation of ethics (a metaethics) in the beauty of a personal response to God, the convergence of duty and enjoyment in a pattern which is based upon the comprehensive paradigm of God's own agency in creation."[34] In other words, joy and duty meet at the moment when one beholds Christ as He truly is. Such joy came over Edwards that he praised God for his holiness and that he rejoiced to do the things acceptable in God's sight.

            Finally, love of God must have its ground in the supernatural nature of divine things because regeneration incorporates a dying to the old self. Dying to self and self being the grounds of religious affections is not ultimately compatible. Christ says, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it."[35] Certainly, Christ frequently promised great rewards, the greatest possible, to those who follow him; but he also demands all their life and desires. Christ promised abundant blessings in heaven and on earth to those who leave all for him.[36] As a follower of Christ, Edwards often preached of the blessings of heaven and the benefits of grace. However, these promises do not negate the severity of Christ's call; rather, the promises have two functions: to encourage one who is lost to seek Christ and to encourage the believer that all is well. The promises can make the sinner want to pick up his cross and can make the believer rejoice in his call; but in the moment of regeneration, the sinner actually denies himself and grounds his love of God in God's nature and not in any relation of divine things to his own self-interest. Paul, looking back from a regenerated viewpoint, writes, "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires."[37] Again, the old has gone and the new has come, so that everything that was natural has been renewed in the life of the Spirit. And by the influence of the Spirit, the saint's first objective ground of loving God is the transcendently excellent nature of divine things and not any self-interest. The old self has been crucified with Christ,[38] and the only boasting left for the saint is in Christ.[39] In this way, the ground of all the love of a saved man is in Christ and not at all in his own interests. Every subsequent love that the born-again have for themselves, for others, and for God was born with their re-birth, when they are born of the Spirit, and after they died to themselves and were raised with Christ. And so, Edwards insists that self-interest is not the fitting instrument of God's grace in his glorious work of redemption. As though he has recognized just the right nail for the job, Edwards sees that simple love is the instrument which God has used to renew lost sinners.


Edwards, Jonathan. A Dissertation on the Nature of True Virtue. In The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol.1. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003. pp. 122-142.

--------. A Divine and Supernatural Light immediately imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, shown to be both a Scriptural and Rational Doctrine.” In The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003. pp. 12-17.

--------. Miscellanies: a-500. ed. Thomas A. Schafer, Vol. 13 in The Works of Jonathan Edwards. New Haven: Yale, 1994.

--------. Miscellanies: 501-832. ed. Ava Chamberlain, Vol. 18 in The Works of Jonathan Edwards. New Haven: Yale, 2000.

--------. Miscellanies: 835-1360. Currently unpublished, made available for Rel 319 by Don Westblade.

--------. A Treatise on Religious Affections in Three Parts. In The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol.1. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003. pp. 234-343.

Spohn, William. "Sovereign Beauty: Jonathan Edwards and the Nature of True Virtue," Theological Studies 42 Spring 1981. pp. 394-421.




[1] I Cor. 13:1-3, all scripture passages are quoted from the New International Version.

[2] Gal. 2:20.

[3] Edwards, Jonathan. The Nature of True Virtue, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003. Vol. I, P. 130.

[4] Ibid. I, 130.

[5] Ibid. I, 130.

[6] Ibid. I, 130-1.

[7] Jonathan. Religious Affections, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003. I, 275-278.

[8] Ibid. I, 264.

[9] In addition, Col. 1:9, Rom. 8:6, 1 Peter 2:5, and Ephesians 1:3 distinguish the spiritual things. As Edwards argues in Section I of Part III of the Religious Affections, the Greek distinguishes between ψυχικός, which is used in Jude 19 and I Cor. 2:14 and πνεûμα, a form of which (either this noun, the adjective derived from it or the adverb derived from this adjective) is used in each of these verses.

[10] Jonathan. Religious Affections, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003. I, 264.

[11] II Cor. 5:17.

[12] Jonathan. Religious Affections, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003. I, 267.

[13] Ibid. 266, 267, 267.

[14] Ibid. 279.

[15] Edwards, Jonathan. A Divine and Supernatural Light immediately imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, shown to be both a Scriptural and Rational Doctrine.” In The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003. p. 13.

[16] Ibid. 14.

[17] Ibid. 15-16. Edwards references I John 3:6, III John 11, John 14:19, John 17:3, Matt. 11:25-27, II Cor. 4:6, Gal. 1:15-16, Psalm 119:18, Psalm 25:14 et cetera.

[18] Ibid. 17. For Edwards’s arguments for Christian knowledge see “Christian Knowledge: or, the Importance and advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth,” wherein he argues that since man, as a rational creature, was made to learn and to seek knowledge, all Christians ought to do the same by virtue of their dignity as rational beings.

[19] Ibid. 17.

[20] II Cor. 10:5; Matt. 5:46, Luke 6:32, Job 1:9,10; Matt. 6:20.

[21] Gal. 5:22-3, Eph. 3:16, Acts 1:8.

[22] Jonathan. Religious Affections, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003. I, 274.

[23] Ibid. 278.

[24] Ibid. 278.

[25] Ibid. 275.

[26] Ibid. 267-7.

[27] Ibid. 275.

[28] Ibid. 275.

[29] This analogy was borrowed from C.S. Lewis, who used it in "The Weight of Glory," The Weight of Glory. San Francisco: Harper, 2001. pp. 26-9.

[30] Misc. 1304, made available for Rel 319 at http://www.hillsdale.edu/academics/phil&rel/JE/Misc/1304-1320.htm .

[31] II Pet. 3:9.

[32] Psalm 119:52.

[33] Edwards, Jonathan, quoted by William Spohn in "Sovereign Beauty: Jonathan Edwards and the Nature of True Virtue," Theological Studies 42 S 1981. p. 409; quoted there from David Levin, ed., Jonathan Edwards: A Profile (New York: Hill and Wang, 1969) 29.

[34] Spohn, William, "Sovereign Beauty: Jonathan Edwards and the Nature of True Virtue," Theological Studies 42 S 1981. p. 396.

[35] Luke 9:23-4.

[36] Mark 10:29-30.

[37] Gal. 5:24.

[38] Rom. 6:6.

[39] Gal. 6:14, I Cor. 1:31, II Cor. 10:17.