Affectionately Desirous of Him | Part II: Understanding the Affections

“Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth” KJV Colossians 3:2

What are the affections? Are they our “hearts”? Are they our “wills”? Are they our “emotions”? Our affections include all of these, but our affections might be described more specifically as the intersection between the mind or understanding, and the heart and will of man whereby our souls are embraced by God’s love, and are ignited to burn with love to live righteously for God in delight and joy. The affections are our soul’s understanding and embracing God’s truth, and our wills moving us to love and live for Him.

We speak of  being affectionate toward others, but our Puritan forefathers meant more than merely a kind and loving feeling toward another, although it is not less than this. To use a mechanical illustration, the mind and affections are like two cogs or gears that fit together that then move the body into action in a particular direction, with a force, and a goal of obtaining what is sought after. John Owen, in his work on the Holy Spirit in sanctification says that the sanctifying work of the Spirit “inclines and disposes the mind, will, and affections, unto acts of holiness…to make us meet to live unto God…It does not only incline and dispose the mind, but gives it power (Owen’s emphasis), and enables it to live unto God in all holy obedience.”1John Owen, The Holy Spirit, in Works, III: 473.

John Owen (1616-1683) taught that our mind is the guide that leads the soul with light from God. He taught that our will is the governor who rules over the soul through conviction from the truth or light through the mind. With our minds we receive and are informed by truth; the mind receives truth and gets understanding by the light of God’s Word. The affections are not just receivers, but the part of our souls that is warmed by this light as the truth is received. There is light from the truth, but there is also fire, or warmth that comes forth from this truth. This motivates, or inclines our will toward the object of our desires, who is God, the glorious Creator and Redeemer of our Souls! Our souls find what they are looking for and seeking in Him. The mind and the affections move the will with a gracious force to pursue God.

Affections are very similar to what we would call desires or passions of the heart. Affections cause our hearts to be inclined in a particular direction toward something or someone, and then when it is attracted and is fixed, it will be disinterested and even repulsed by anything that would hinder the obtaining of the desire. Affections incline our wills, move our souls toward something, place our spiritual lives on a certain trajectory, to pursue after passionately, and desire vehemently.  Affections can make us have a passion or desire after God, and to desire after God is to desire passionately to be like God. This is why that a truly converted person, one who has been influenced by the saving work and power of the Holy Spirit will demonstrate a certain degree of loving desire and passion to not only know God, but to be with Him and to commune with Him to know Him, and to serve Him, producing works for His glory. Antinomianism cannot long exist in the heart of a true Christian that desires passionately to know and serve God!2For a recent excellent study of Antinomianism and it’s dangers for us, see Mark Jones, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed … Continue reading

Affections are like emotions in that there is an emotional element to them, and they cause the soul to feel a certain inclination and love toward something or someone. Holy affections move us to love, rejoice, seek delight, and rest in God from the heart. When speaking about our affections toward God they describe the soul’s desire and inclination to know God, to meet with Him, to commune with Him, to have more of Him, to know that only God can ultimately satisfy and bring us complacent rest. John Owen wrote concerning love as a chief holy affection, that the “principle end why God endued our natures with that great and ruling affection [of love], that hath the most eminent and peculiar power and interest in our souls, was, in the first place, that it might be fixed on Himself—that it might be the instrument of our adherence unto Him…No affection hath such power in the soul to cause it to cleave unto its object, and to work conformity unto it.”3John Owen, Christologia, in Works, I:150. Our affections, when they are desirous of God in Christ, are never satisfied until they have obtained a certain degree of pleasure and communion with and in God.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), often considered the last of the great Puritans, wrote in his excellent treatise On the Religious Affections wrote making distinctions between passions, or mere emotions and what affections are:

The affections and the passions are frequently spoken of as the same; and yet, in the more common use of speech, there is some difference…Affection is a word…that seems to be something more extensive than passion, being used for all vigorous lively actings of the will or the inclination…As all the exercises of inclination and will, are concerned either in approving and liking, or disapproving and rejecting; so the affections are of two sorts: they are those by which the soul is carried out to what is in view, cleaving to it, or seeking it; or those by which it is averse from it, and opposes it. Of the former sort are love, desire, hope, joy, gratitude, complacency. Of the latter kind are hatred, fear, anger, grief, and such like.

The Puritans were experts in understanding the workings of man’s soul. If the mind understands, and it understands by the help of the Holy Spirit that something is true and a truth that is good, then the soul will feel it, it will be affected by this understanding, and that will engage the affections to move and incline the will toward God; the will will vehemently (even violently) seek after God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says that the violent take the Kingdom by force (Matt. 11:12). If the mind has been satisfied and saturated with the truth of God, it will mean sanctification of the soul by God’s grace. As our Lord Jesus prayed to the Father on the night of His betrayal: “Sanctify them by the truth, your Word is truth” (John 17:17).4Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2012), I: 237.

To put it another way, truth received by the soul as true and good, should always be transformative. The truth as received by the power of the Holy Spirit is particularly “transformative truth”; it will not, it cannot leave the soul unchanged. As Richard Sibbes wrote thoughtfully as an example of Puritan thinking on the mind affecting the heart and the will of the soul of man:

Desires are the issues of the heart. Thoughts and desires are the two primitive issues of the heart, the births of the heart. Thoughts breed desires. Thoughts in the mind or brain, the brain strikes the heart presently. It goes from the understanding to the will and the affections. What we think of, that we desire it, if it be good. So thoughts and desires, they immediately spring from the soul; and where they are in any efficacy and strength, they stir up motion in the outward man. The desires of the soul, being the inward motion, they stir up outward motion, till there be an attaining of the thing desired, and then there is rest…When motion comes once to rest, it is quiet (satisfied). So desire, which is the inward motion, it stirs up outward motion, till the thing desired be accomplished, and then the soul rests in loving contentment, and enjoying of the thing desired.5Richard Sibbes, A Breathing After God, in Works, II: 218.

The affections are powerful in this way. If possessed by God and ravished by His holiness, and satisfied in His love, then our affections will cause us to be motivated to seek Him, to pray to Him, to seek the means of grace, to love Him and others as ourselves, and to produce an abundance of good works for the glory of God.

Here are some questions to ask our souls to better understand our affections and what we are moving toward and desiring to determine what direction our wills are inclined. I invite you to ponder these questions slowly: “What do I find to be most lovely in my life?” “What is trying to fill me?” “What is my heart desiring to feed on?” “What do I daydream about?” “What arouses the passions within me?” “What am I being drawn toward?” “When I am doing nothing else, what direction does my mind (and heart!) tend to move?” “What brings me happiness?” “Where do I seek joy?” “What things possess me?” “What has caused my heart to ‘thrill’, ‘exult’ and ‘hope’ in lately?”     If one is a Christian, desires are helpful to discover our spiritual state and level of maturity. Sibbes (1577-1635) wrote that desires issue from our affections, and they show the frame of the soul more than anything in the world. He encouraged our souls to ask: “What is thy desire?” “What is the bent of thy soul?” Sibbes wrote “the bent and sway of the soul shows what a man is.”6Richard Sibbes, A Breathing After God, in Works, II: 220-21.

Having a better understanding of our affections and how they work, should help Christians to understand why idolatry is so common, and so very deadly. If our minds are under the impression that evil is good, and good is evil, and we do not hear or heed God’s Word, but do what is right in our own eyes, our affections will love what is wrong, and ungodly; this will move us to love sin and be repulsed by what is good and true (cf. 3:19; Phil. 4:8). As William Greenhill wrote in Stop Loving the World, “When our affections are set on something, we love that thing.”7William Greenhill, Stop Loving the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 8.

In the regenerate person, there is a constant conflict to love the good, and to hate evil (as we see in Paul in Romans 7:15-26), but the mind must meditate upon the great and precious truths of Scripture, so that by the help and power of the Holy Spirit, the affections will be set upon doing good for the glory of God (Psa. 63:6; 77:3, 6, 12; Rom. 6:11, 17; Col. 3:1-4; Heb. 12:2-3). By nature, the will is bent toward and inclined to evil “always and continually,” said Owen.8John Owen, The Holy Spirit, in The Works of John Owen, D.D. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006), III: 238-39. “True grace fixes the affections on spiritual things,” and produces a new bent “toward the spiritual” in regeneration.9John Owen, The Holy Spirit, in Works, III: 240. He wrote: “Saving grace fills up the affections with spiritual things, fills the soul with spiritual love, joy, delight…”10John Owen, The Holy Spirit, in Works, III: 240.

The Spirit must be sought for enlightenment in our souls; we must have eyes to see with our minds and hearts the goodness of God’s truth for us! (Eph. 1:15ff; 3:17-19; 2 Cor. 3:18; Psa. 119:18, 37). There will be a response of our souls to what we find most lovely, that draws our affections to it (Psa. 119:32, 34-37; Phil. 4:8). There will also be feelings and emotions, but more than that. Once we experience this, it begins not only to make us feel a certain way, it is more than an emotion, it has drawing power; it has a power to transform us, to assimilate us; it possesses us, and makes us live a certain way. This is not only knowing that God loves you, but knowing that He loves you in way that surpasses knowledge (Eph. 3:19); it is not only knowing God is good, but a “tasting and seeing that God is good”! (Psa. 34:8).

As Christians, we want to resist ungodly evil influences, and live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age because of the grace of God that has set our souls free to understand the truth (Titus 2:11-14). We want the truth of God, by the Spirit’s help, to cause us to love the truth passionately, being obedient to God from our hearts. We want to say with the Psalmist: “It is good for me to be near to God” (Psa. 73:28) and “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart” (Psa. 119:34).  May our affections be kindled and set aflame by God’s holy Word, so that we have a passion for Jesus Christ! As John Bunyan (1628-1688) exulted in his excellent sermon ‘Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ,’:

Oh, the heart-attracting glory that is in Jesus Christ, when He is discovered, to draw those to Him who are given to Him of the Father…There is a heart-pulling glory in Jesus Christ.11John Bunyan, Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, Puritan Paperbacks (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), 73.{[(|fnote_end|)]}

Affections have great power in compelling us to love and to serve God in order to please Him. Affections of gratitude and warm devotion to Jesus will move us to seek Him, to pray, to want to share ourselves with Him. Our affections as they are drawn spiritually toward God and find satisfaction in His holiness, will find more desire and an earnest “breathing after” or “longing” or “seeking after” more of God and to please Him more and more! Let us seek a taste of this in Christ. As the Psalmist says: “Taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him! (Psa. 34:8).

Part III: Tasting and Experiencing God’s Love in Christ

In Christ’s Love,
Pastor Biggs


1 John Owen, The Holy Spirit, in Works, III: 473.
2 For a recent excellent study of Antinomianism and it’s dangers for us, see Mark Jones, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2013), particularly pgs. 89-96.
3 John Owen, Christologia, in Works, I:150.
4 Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2012), I: 237.
5 Richard Sibbes, A Breathing After God, in Works, II: 218.
6 Richard Sibbes, A Breathing After God, in Works, II: 220-21.
7 William Greenhill, Stop Loving the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 8.
8 John Owen, The Holy Spirit, in The Works of John Owen, D.D. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006), III: 238-39.
9, 10 John Owen, The Holy Spirit, in Works, III: 240.
11 John Bunyan, Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ