I was recently reminded of the following oft-misquoted passage from Jonathan Edwards’ book, Religious Affections:
As the first comfort of many persons, and their affections at the time of their supposed conversion, are built on such grounds as these which have been mentioned; so are their joys and hopes and other affections, from time to time afterwards. They have often particular words of Scripture, sweet declarations and promises suggested to them, which by reason of the manner of their coming, they think are immediately sent from God to them, at that time, which they look upon as their warrant to take them, and which they actually make the main ground of their appropriating them to themselves, and of the comfort they take in them, and the confidence they receive from them. Thus they imagine a kind of conversation is carried on between God and them; and that God, from time to time, does, as it were, immediately speak to them, and satisfy their doubts, and testifies his love to them, and promises them supports and supplies, and his blessing in such and such cases, and reveals to them clearly their interest in eternal blessings. And thus they are often elevated, and have a course of a sudden and tumultuous kind of joys, mingled with a strong confidence, and high opinion of themselves; when indeed the main ground of these joys, and this confidence, is not anything contained in, or taught by these Scriptures, as they lie in the Bible, but the manner of their coming to them; which is a certain evidence of their delusion. There is no particular promise in the word of God that is the saint’s, or is any otherwise made to him, or spoken to him, than all the promises of the covenant of grace are his, and are made to him and spoken to him; though it be true that some of these promises may be more peculiarly adapted to his case than others, and God by his Spirit may enable him better to understand some than others, and to have a greater sense of the preciousness, and glory, and suitableness of the blessings contained in them. [(Dover, ed. 2013) pp. 151-152]
This is one of those juicy quotes that in embellished form floats around the internet without bibliographic citation. At the time of Edwards’ writing, the “inward” trend of emphasizing an intensely subjective, mystical “personal relationship” with God was gaining momentum, which found full expression in the American revivalist preaching of the 1800s. Tellingly (as J. P. Moreland has pointed out in Love Your God with All Your Mind, p. 23), three of the major American cults emerged at that time: Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Science.
I once found a Christian tract in an airport “religious observance” room that had the phrases “personal relationship” and “know Jesus as your own personal Savior” almost every other sentence. The tract was so chalk full of these phrases that had I tried to write a tract satirizing this trend, I might have reproduced the same tract. I wish I still had it.
What do these phrases even mean? The idea that having a “personal relationship” with God means that God guides by whispering in your ear or “puts something on your heart” is unbiblical, lazy, self-centered, and immature. The modern notion of “listening to the voice of God in your heart” or “being spoken to by God” in some personal, subjective way as part of a normal and mature relationship with God is indelibly vague, confusing, and, I suspect–along with Edwards–delusional. The false expectations created by the inward trend has adversely affected the way we communicate to God and even the primary way He communicates to us; i.e., through his Word. The Bible is no longer a sober book of divine wisdom that means what it says. The Bible is latent with magical powers and Bible studies are séances.
Does this mean there’s nothing meaningful or true in the phrases? No. Does this mean God doesn’t communicate personally to individuals? No. But those are topics for another post.