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Summary and Analysis

A.            The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God

The substance of this work was originally delivered by Edwards as the commencement speech to the faculty and student body of Yale University on September 10, 1741. Edwards expanded the work and published it later that same year with a preface by the Rev. William Cooper of Boston. The complete title of the work is:

The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, Applied to that Uncommon Operation that has lately Appeared on the Minds of Many of the People of This Land: With a Particular Consideration of the Extraordinary Circumstances with Which this Work Is Attended.

Edwards' design in this work was "to show what are the true, certain, and distinguishing evidences of a work of the Spirit of God, by which we may safely proceed in judging of any operation we find in ourselves, or see in others" (87). Edwards believed he found a biblical standard for this in 1 John 4:1-6.

His approach is two-fold. He begins with what he calls "Negative Signs," or signs/events/experiences/phenomena from which we may conclude nothing. One is not free to conclude from the presence of these occurrences either that the Holy Spirit produced them or that He did not. Edwards then turns to those signs which are indeed sure and certain evidence of the Spirit's work.

Negative Signs

1.             "Nothing can be certainly concluded from this, that a work is carried on in a way very unusual and extraordinary; provided the variety or difference be such, as may still be comprehended within the limits of Scripture rules" (89).

This initial argument is so crucial that we would do well to consider it in detail. Edwards explains:

"What the church has been used to, is not a rule by which we are to judge; because there may be new and extraordinary works of God, and he has heretofore evidently wrought in an extraordinary manner. He has brought to pass new things, strange works; and has wrought in such a manner as to surprise both men and angels. And as God has done thus in times past, so we have no reason to think but that he will do so still. The prophecies of Scripture give us reason to think that God has things to accomplish, which have never yet been seen. No deviation from what has hitherto been usual, let it be never so great, is an argument that a work is not from the Spirit of God, if it be no deviation from his prescribed rule. The Holy Spirit is sovereign in his operation; and we know that he uses a great variety; and we cannot tell how great a variety he may use, within the compass of the rules he himself has fixed. We ought not to limit God where he has not limited himself" (89).

N.B. If a criterion for determining the origin of a religious work is its conformity to past experience, i.e., if a work is to be excluded simply because it is unprecedented and strange, then we would be compelled to reject what occurred in the book of Acts. "The work of the Spirit then," writes Edwards, "was carried on in a manner that, in very many respects, was altogether new; such as never had been seen or heard since the world stood" (90).

2.             "A work is not to be judged of by any effects on the bodies of men; such as tears, trembling, groans, loud outcries, agonies of body, or the failing of bodily strength" (91).

"We cannot conclude that persons are under the influence of the true Spirit because we see such effects upon their bodies, because this is not given as a mark of the true Spirit; nor on the other hand, have we any reason to conclude, from any such outward appearances, that persons are not under the influence of the Spirit of God, because there is no rule of Scripture given us to judge of spirits by, that does either expressly or indirectly exclude such effects on the body, nor does reason exclude them" (91).

But the question remains: Why should we expect or even be open to the possibility of bodily, physical manifestations? Edwards' answer is an appeal to what he calls "the laws of the union between soul and body" (91). See pp. 91-94.

3.             "It is no argument that an operation on the minds of people is not the work of the Spirit of God that it occasions a great deal of noise about religion" (94).

4.             "It is no argument that an operation on the minds of people is not the work of the Spirit of God that many who are the subjects of it have great impressions made on their imaginations" (95-96).

So far is this from being a reason for rejecting the presence of the Spirit that Edwards wonders how it is possible not to have one's imagination stirred while under the influence of the Spirit's power. He explains:

"I dare appeal to any man, of the greatest powers of mind, whether he is able to fix his thoughts on God, or Christ, or the things of another world, without imaginary ideas attending his meditations? And the more engaged the mind is, and the more intense the contemplation and affection, still the more lively and strong the imaginary idea will ordinarily be; especially when attended with surprise" (96).

"It is no argument that a work is not of the Spirit of God that some who are the subjects of it have been in a kind of ecstasy, wherein they have been carried beyond themselves, and have had their minds transported into a train of strong and pleasing imaginations, and a kind of visions, as though they were rapt up even to heaven and there saw glorious sights. I have been acquainted with some such instances, and I see no need of bringing in the help of the devil into the account that we give of these things, nor yet of supposing them to be of the same nature with the visions of the prophets, or St. Paul's rapture into paradise. Human nature, under these exercises and affections, is all that need be brought into account. If it may be well accounted for, that persons under a true sense of a glorious and wonderful greatness and excellency of divine things, and soul-ravishing views of the beauty and love of Christ, should have the strength of nature overpowered, as I have already shown that it may; then I think it is not at all strange that amongst great numbers that are thus affected and overborne, there should be some persons of particular constitutions that should have their imaginations thus affected. The effect is no other than what bears a proportion and analogy to other effects of the strong exercise of their minds. It is no wonder, when the thoughts are so fixed, and the affections so strong -- and the whole soul so engaged, ravished, and swallowed up -- that all other parts of the body are so affected, as to be deprived of their strength, and the whole frame ready to dissolve" (97).

Edwards, being a cessationist, does not equate such experience with any of the revelatory gifts or such phenomena as dreams, visions, etc. But he maintains, nonetheless, that the experience is of God.

5.             "It is no sign that a work is not from the Spirit of God that example is a great means of it" (98).

Some objected that if the Spirit were to work, he would not produce such phenomena through means, but rather do so immediately and instantaneously. Edwards disagrees. If it is biblical (and it is) that people are influenced in matters of practical virtue by the example of others, why should not the same hold true when it comes to the more visible and vocal manifestations of the Spirit? He explains:

"It is therefore no argument against the goodness of the effect, that persons are greatly affected by seeing others so; yea, though the impression be made only by seeing the tokens of great and extraordinary affection in others in their behaviour, taking for granted what they are affected with, without hearing them say one word. . . . If a person should see another under extreme bodily torment, he might receive much clearer ideas, and more convincing evidence of what he suffered by his actions in his misery, than he could do only by the words of an unaffected indifferent relater. In like manner he might receive a greater idea of any thing that is excellent and very delightful from the behavior of one that is in actual enjoyment, than by the dull narration of one which is inexperienced and insensible himself" (99).

6.             "It is no sign that a work is not from the Spirit of God that many who seem to be the subjects of it are guilty of great imprudences and irregularities in their conduct. We are to consider that the end for which God pours out his Spirit is to make men holy, and not to make them politicians" (101).

Says Edwards: "That it should be thus may be well accounted for from the exceeding weakness of human nature, together with the remaining darkness and corruption of those that are yet the subjects of the saving influences of God's Spirit, and have a real zeal for God" (101). Two biblical examples cited by Edwards to prove his point are the church at Corinth and the experience of Peter as described by Paul in Gal. 2:11-13.

7.             "Nor are many errors in judgment, and some delusions of Satan intermixed with the work, any argument that the work in general is not of the Spirit of God" (103).

The fact that Jannes and Jambres, Pharoah's court magicians, worked false miracles by the power of Satan does not mean the Spirit was not present in the miraculous deliverance of Israel from Egypt.

8.             "If some, who were thought to be wrought upon, fall away into gross errors, or scandalous practices, it is no argument that the work in general is not the work of the Spirit of God. That there are some counterfeits is no argument that nothing is true: such things are always expected in a time of reformation. If we look into church history, we shall find no instance of any great revival of religion, but what has been attended with many such things" (104).

For example, the presence of Judas Iscariot as a counterfeit among the disciples does not mean the Spirit was not at work in the other eleven!

9.             "It is no argument that a work is not from the Spirit of God that it seems to be promoted by ministers insisting very much on the terrors of God's holy law, and that with a great deal of pathos and earnestness" (106).

In particular, if there is a hell to which all unbelievers will be eternally consigned, why would we not proclaim that truth with the greatest urgency and pathos possible? Says Edwards, "Some talk of it as an unreasonable thing to fright persons to heaven; but I think it is a reasonable thing to endeavour to fright persons away from hell" (108).

Edwards then proceeds "to show positively what are the sure, distinguishing Scripture evidences and marks of a work of the Spirit of God, by which we may proceed in judging of any operation we find in ourselves, or see among a people without danger of being misled" (109). Here Edwards bases his argument on principles gleaned from 1 John 4:1-6.

Positive Signs


1.             "When the operation is such as to raise their esteem of that Jesus who was born of the Virgin, and was crucified without the gates of Jerusalem; and seems more to confirm and establish their minds in the truth of what the gospel declares to us of his being the Son of God, and the Saviour of men; it is a sure sign that it is from the Spirit of God" (109).

Edwards derives this principle from vv. 2-3 and v. 15. Therefore, if people are led to deeper conviction that Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh, if they are led to deeper devotion and esteem for Christ, if they are led to more honorable thoughts of him, "it is a sure sign that it is the true and right Spirit" (110). Satan would never do this. He "never would go about to beget in men more honourable thoughts of him, and lay greater weight on his instructions and commands. The Spirit that inclines men's hearts to the seed of the woman is not the spirit of the serpent that has such an irreconcilable enmity against him" (111).

2.             "When the spirit that is at work operates against the interests of Satan's kingdom, which lies in encouraging and establishing sin, and cherishing men's worldly lusts; this is a sure sign that it is a true, and not a false spirit" (111). See vv. 4-5.

3.             "The spirit that operates in such a manner as to cause in men a greater regard to the Holy Scriptures, and establishes them more in their truth and divinity is certainly the Spirit of God" (113). See v. 6.

4.             In view of the reference in v. 6 to "the spirit of truth and the spirit of error," Edwards concludes that "if by observing the manner of the operation of a spirit that is at work among a people, we see that it operates as a spirit of truth, leading persons to truth, convincing them of those things that are true, we may safely determine that it is a right and true spirit" (115).

5.             "If the spirit that is at work among a people operates as a spirit of love to God and man, it is a sure sign that it is the Spirit of God" (115). Edwards appeals to what John writes beginning with v. 6 and extending to the end of the chapter.

Edwards' point is that there are certain things that Satan either cannot do or would not do: he would not awaken the conscience of the sinner or make them sensible of sin and guilt; he would not confirm their belief in or their love for the Son of God; he would not increase their love for and belief in the truth and authority of the Scriptures; he would not increase our love or humility. Thus Edwards concludes that

"when there is an extraordinary influence or operation appearing on the minds of a people, if these things are found in it we are safe in determining that it is the work of God, whatever other circumstances it may be attended with, whatever instruments are used, whatever methods are taken to promote it; whatever means a sovereign God, whose judgments are a great deep, employs to carry it on; and whatever motion there may be of the animal spirits, whatever effects may be wrought on men's bodies. These marks that the apostle has given us are sufficient to stand alone, and support themselves. They plainly show the finger of God, and are sufficient to outweigh a thousand such little objections, as many make from oddities, irregularities, errors in conduct, and the delusions and scandals of some professors" (118-19).

Edwards now turns to several practical inferences from the preceding.

1.             "From what has been said, I will venture to draw this inference, viz, that the extraordinary influence that has lately appeared causing an uncommon concern and engagedness of mind about the things of religion is undoubtedly, in the general, from the Spirit of God" (121). Under this general heading, Edwards makes several comments that are helpful in evaluating the move of the Spirit.

·          Greater precision is possible in determining the source of religious phenomena "when it is observed in a great multitude of people of all sorts and in various places [as was the case in the Great Awakening], than when it is only seen in a few, in some particular place, that have been much conversant one with another" (122).

·          Those people who have been the subject of intense bodily manifestations were either "in great distress from an apprehension of their sin and misery" or were "overcome with a sweet sense of the greatness, wonderfulness, and excellency of divine things" (123).

·          Edwards believed that "there have been very few in whom there has been any appearance of feigning or affecting such manifestations, and very many for whom it would have been undoubtedly utterly impossible for them to avoid" (124).

·          Edwards observed that "generally, in these agonies they have appeared to be in the perfect exercise of their reason; and those of them who could speak [implying that some were so overcome that they could not speak] have been well able to give an account of the circumstances of their mind, and the cause of their distress, at the time, and were able to remember and give an account of it afterwards. I have known a very few instances of those who, in their great extremity, have for a short space been deprived in some measure of the use of reason; and among the many hundreds, and it may be thousands, that have lately been brought to such agonies, I never yet knew one lastingly deprived of their reason" (124).

·          To the objection that the "revival" was not of God because he is the author of order, not confusion, Edwards responds:

"But let it be considered what is the proper notion of confusion, but the breaking that order of things whereby they are properly disposed, and duly directed to their end, so that the order and due connection of means being broken they fail of their end. Now the conviction of sinners for their conversion is the obtaining of the end of religious means. Not but that I think the persons thus extraordinarily moved should endeavour to refrain from such outward manifestations, what they well can, and should refrain to their utmost, at the time of their solemn worship. [Edwards' point here is that during times of worship, during those moments when reverence, awe, silence, and the like, seem proper, if possible, people should try to restrain those sorts of manifestations that would prove inconsistent with the atmosphere of the service.] But if God is pleased to convince the consciences of persons, so that they cannot avoid great outward manifestations, even to interrupting and breaking off those public means they were attending, I do not think this is confusion or an unhappy interruption, any more than if a company should meet on the field to pray for rain, and should be broken off from their exercise by a plentiful shower. Would to God that all the public assemblies in the land were broken off from their public exercises with such confusion as this the next Sabbath day! We need not be sorry for breaking the order of means, by obtaining the end to which that order is directed. He who is going to fetch a treasure need not be sorry that he is stopped by meeting the treasure in the midst of his journey"(126-27).

·          Edwards talks further about many "who have had their bodily strength taken away" (127) because of a sense of Christ's beauty and dying love; others "had their love and joy attended with a flood of tears" (127); and "many have been overcome with pity to the souls of others, and longing for their salvation" (127).

·          Edwards attributes the imprudences and irregularities, at least in part, to the fact that the Awakening came "after a long continued and almost universal deadness" (128).

·          He also attributes much of the excess to the fact that the principal recipients of the Spirit were young people, "who have less steadiness and experience, and being in the heat of youth are much more ready to run to extremes" (129).

·          Edwards also notes that when the ministers of those who have been touched by the Spirit oppose the work, the people are left without guidance. "No wonder then that when a people are as sheep without a shepherd, they wander out of the way" (129).

2.             "Let us all be hence warned, by no means to oppose, or do any thing in the least to clog or hinder the work; but, on the contrary, do our utmost to promote it" (130).

To those waiting to see the results of the revival, Edwards says: "If they wait to see a work of God without difficulties and stumbling-blocks, it will be like the fool's waiting at the river side to have the water all run by. A work of God without stumbling-blocks is never to be expected. . . . There never yet was any great manifestation that God made of himself to the world, without many difficulties attending it" (133).

Clearly, Edwards did not condone excess or difficulties or stumbling-blocks. As much as is humanly possible, with the help of divine grace, we should work to eliminate anything that might hinder or bring reproach upon the work of Christ (as the subsequent argument makes clear). His point is simply that when the Spirit genuinely moves in extraordinary power, there will always be a mess, and that we cannot afford to sit idly waiting for a revival that is free of them.

3.             "Let me earnestly exhort such [friends of the revival] to give diligent heed to themselves to avoid all errors and misconduct, and whatever may darken and obscure the work; and to give no occasion to those who stand ready to reproach it" (136).

·          Edwards especially warns about the destructive impact of pride. "Let us therefore maintain the strictest watch against spiritual pride, or being lifted up with extraordinary experiences and comforts, and the high favours of heaven that any of us may have received" (136). Cf. 2 Cor. 12:7.

·          Edwards then tries to argue (mistakenly, in my opinion), that none of the phenomena of the revival are to be equated with the extraordinary or miraculous gifts of the Spirit. For his weak defense of cessationism, see pp. 137-41.

·          He also warns (rightly, this time) against the tendency to despise human learning because of the depth of spiritual experience .

·          He issues strong warnings against any further censoring of those who are judged to be hypocrites or unsaved. Leave that judgment to God for the final day. "They, therefore, do greatly err who take it upon them positively to determine who are sincere, and who are not; to draw the dividing line between true saints and hypocrites, and to separate between sheep and goats, setting the one on the right hand and the other on the left; and to distinguish and gather out the tares amongst the wheat" (143).