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Singing and the affections

Singing and the affections

Can Jonathan Edwards help us understand the 'emotional charge' of singing?

The implicit question I left hanging at the end of last week’s Payneful Truth has been taken up and asked by a number of people in the few days since. 

We can all agree that we don’t want theologically dodgy emotional manipulation in our singing. But what is the place of emotions in singing? 

The best form of the question came in an email from Jack:

You say: “Singing for us is a form of speech—to one another and to God. It’s a more emotionally-charged form of speech, but it’s one facet of the word-based personal relationship we have with God and with one another.” Sure. But what then do we make of the ‘more emotionally-charged’ nature of singing? Clearly song is more than just speech (not wanting to detract from its intrinsic wordy-ness). I'd be keen to hear how you would give an account of the purpose of that emotional charge if ‘atmosphere’ is the wrong category.

What is that ‘extra’, then, that singing or music adds? What’s the ‘charge’ in its ‘emotional charge’? 

The position that I’m arguing against sees singing as a way of creating an atmosphere or getting people into the right spiritual mood; of arousing certain feelings within them that open them up to experience God and his truth in a new way. 

But do I have Jonathan Edwards against me? 

In a famous paragraph (that I heard quoted again at the Reach Australia conference just last week), the great New England Puritan said this: 

And the duty of singing praises to God seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move our affections. (Religious Affections, I.II.9) 

Is Edwards arguing in favour of what I’m opposing? Is he saying that God has given us singing to get us in the mood, as it were; to excite our affections and warm us up to a certain kind of Christian feeling that we don’t get just from the Word? 

Well, no—not if I understand him correctly (which is no easy thing). In fact, I think Edwards’s argument may help us to answer our question about the emotional nature of singing. 

A Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections was written in the context of the New England awakening, and the many dramatic and visible manifestations of emotion (or, as he would say, ‘affections’) that were evident at that time. Edwards wished to argue:

  • that these religious affections could be quite appropriate and genuine—and that, indeed, true religion very much consisted in the affections;

  • on the other hand, that the existence of ‘religious affections’, even high and intense ones, was no indication at all of true Christianity;

  • and that true religious affections had various distinguishing characteristics by which they could be recognized.

The well-known quote (above) comes from the introductory section in which Edwards notes that a Christianity without the affections is hard to imagine or support. Why, he asks, did God give us singing if our affections have nothing to do it?

However, it’s not only singing. Edwards also lists prayer, the sacraments, and preaching as God-given spiritual activities that involve the whole person; that affect our hearts and move us to grasp hold of God in love and faith. If Christianity was purely a matter of intellectual understanding, and not of the affections (Edwards argues) why not just give everyone a commentary to read on Sundays, rather than preaching a sermon to them? The sermon does more than just convey information: 

God hath appointed a particular and lively application of his word, in the preaching of it, as a fit means to affect sinners with the importance of religion, their own misery, the necessity of a remedy, and the glory and sufficiency of a remedy provided; to stir up the pure minds of the saints, quicken their affections by often bringing the great things of religion to their remembrance, and setting them in their proper colours, though they know them, and have been fully instructed in them already. (I.II.9)

So it’s by no means just singing or music that God has given for this purpose, says Edwards. Much of what we do involves ‘the whole person’ (as we would say). It engages not just the intellect but the ‘affections’.

It is at this point that we have to understand what Edwards means by the ‘affections’. He doesn’t mean just ‘feelings’ or ‘emotions’ (as we would use those words). He defines the affections as ‘the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul’ (I.I.2). 

This needs some unpacking. An ‘affection’, Edwards says, occurs when my soul is inclined towards or attracted to something in a way that I feel (or am ‘sensible’ of). When I love or delight in or am ‘affectionate’ towards something, I’m not just agreeing intellectually that it is good or beautiful or right or morally excellent. My whole self or soul is attracted to it, leans towards it, and wants to choose and embrace it (or on the other hand shy away from it in hatred, revolt or disdain). When we say we ‘love BBQ pork ribs’, it’s more than an intellectual assessment of their taste or nutritional benefits. Our delight in them is a felt inclination towards their delectability that makes us immediately order them when we see them on the menu (as my wife always does). 

It’s on this basis that Edwards then proceeds to list all the things that are no sign whatsoever that a ‘religious affection’ is genuine or not. It doesn’t matter, he says, whether ‘affections’ are very great or high, or whether they have great effects on the body, or whether they cause people to be excited or enthusiastic to talk about God. It doesn’t matter whether they come upon us in an extraordinary way, or whether they make us feel comforted or joyful, or even whether they motivate us to greater involvement at church. We might add—it also doesn’t matter whether people have their eyes closed or not, or whether they sway or not, or whether they have their hands raised or not (warming them before the invisible heater). 

All of these may accompany a genuine inclination of the will of the soul towards the great things of God—or they may not. People may experience these sensations or affections or inclinations for all kinds of reasons, good and bad, genuine and counterfeit. They are ‘no sign’, says Edwards, that a particular affection is a true spiritual affection, or not. 

The genuineness of a religious affection, Edwards argues, lies in its object—in the thing that our soul inclines towards or loves. Genuine religious affections arise when God illumines our understanding to grasp how good and great and gracious and holy he is, and when he warms and moves our will to incline towards or delight in what we have understood. 

In other words, for Edwards, the expressing and exciting of the affections (by singing or preaching or prayer or the sacraments) can never be separated from the Word or the understanding. In fact, it’s only as God’s Spirit supernaturally moves us to grasp the truth about God through his Word that true Christian affections can arise. 

What does all of this mean for our singing in church, and for understanding the ‘emotional charge’ of singing?

I think it means at least five things: 

  1. The felt movement of our will towards God—the love or devotion or gratitude or joy we have in him—is an indispensable aspect of Christian experience. These ‘affections’ are expressed in and incited by preaching and prayer and singing and small group Bible study and no doubt much else besides. It’s not the sole domain or purpose of singing, although singing is a rich opportunity for it.

  2. In all of these ‘affection-related’ practices, genuine affections arise by an act of God’s Spirit, as our hard hearts are softened and inclined to perceive and love the goodness of God in Christ. Edwards is very insistent that genuine spiritual affections cannot be manufactured or generated by any ‘natural’ activity alone, whether deeply moving music or a deeply moving sermon illustration. We should not correlate the emotional power of certain forms of music with genuine Christian affections. 

  3. All the same, singing is a very helpful means for stirring and expressing our affections because it not only turns our minds to some aspect of the truth (i.e. it is an activity of speech and word), but allows us to enter into that truth with our whole bodies—to stand and ‘own’ the truth by putting our whole selves into it, in a way that music can do. This is the sense in which singing is ‘emotionally-charged speech’—it matches and amplifies the content and intent of the speech, and allows us to express our ‘affectionate’ commitment to these truths. It’s the difference between writing on the airline arrivals form that my citizenship is ‘Australian’, and standing to sing the national anthem with hand on heart. 

  4. In practical terms, I think this means that we should express different aspects of the truth of God and Christ in different musical forms that ‘fit’ what is being spoken of, and enable us to own and love those truths with our affections. The nature of God’s character and works is multifaceted, and so are the poetic and musical possibilities for declaring and appreciating them. 

  5. This in turn leads me to question the increasingly one-dimensional nature of contemporary congregational songs—one particular genre of slower, intense songs, seeking to incite one particular form of affection, often with little coherent content (to come back to my original point). Under the widespread influence of a more charismatic theology of worship, have we begun to think that a genuine ‘religious affection’ is seen in a particular kind of feeling, generated by a particular kind of song? I worry that this is where we’re getting to. And Edwards would not approve.

The other question that was asked by several people is well represented in Greg’s email: 

Re your PS on ‘songs about singing’. I liked what you said. But then I don't know what to do with things like: “I will thank the Lord for his righteousness; I will sing about the name of the Lord most high” (Ps 7:17); or “Sing to the Lord, you his faithful ones, and praise his holy name” (Ps 30:4). 

There are a lot of Psalms that refer to singing. Weren’t they singing about singing? 

Excellent point. It can hardly be wrong to sing about singing—or none of the Psalms would make the cut! 

Two quick comments:

  • It’s obviously fine to mention ‘singing’ when singing, and even to call on one another to sing out loud! I was talking about frequency and emphasis—there are so many songs about singing now, and within those songs the singing is at the centre (in the chorus, as the climactic response to God). Hence why I don’t want to add any more songs about singing to our list. 

  • Also, the psalms do it differently. The invitation to sing is almost always followed or amplified by the content of what we’re singing or giving thanks for. The ‘praise’ to be sung is a rehearsal or declaration of how great God is and what he has done, and this leads in turn to other responses (prayer, faithfulness, obedience, and so on). In our songs about ‘singing’, the singing is in the chorus; it’s the climax and centre; it’s where it all leads. Put simply, many contemporary songs move towards singing as the goal and supreme response (because they implicitly equate the act of singing with ‘worship’ and ‘praise’). Those psalms that do contain a call to sing tend move from that call to the real point of the singing—which is to declare to one another and to God all that he is and has done. 

Hope that helps. 


It’s been just over a year now that I’ve been blathering away each week here on The Payneful Truth. I have to say that interactions (like the one above)—where you write in and we have a conversation—are just about the most enjoyable and encouraging aspects of the whole thing. Thanks again for your partnership in these discussions, and in supporting me through your subscriptions. 

I’ll be doing some tinkering over the next month or so, partly to The Payneful Truth website (because of some new options that are now available on the Substack platform), but also to the way I’m structuring things—including what goes out free to the whole list and what just goes out to you, my faithful partners. 

Here’s what I have in mind. I’d be really interested in your feedback before I finalize it. I’m thinking that for the next 12 months (at least), I’ll do it like this: 

  • Paying partners will receive:

    • My gratitude for generously supporting Christian writing! 

    • The Payneful Truth newsletter and/or podcast every week; 

    • A new Work-in-Progress Report every six weeks or so, where I let you know what else I’ve been writing, and send you draft chapters and samples. I figure that since you are generously supporting me in doing that work, I should make a more regular effort to share the fruit with you. 

    • The ability to post questions or comments on the website or via email.

    • A new monthly podcast interview that I’m calling Payneful Questions, where I’ll chat with a guest about the issues and questions that have come up in the last month on The Payneful Truth, plus anything else we want to shoot the breeze on. These guests will usually be one of you!

    • Partner-only specials every two months from my good mates at Matthias Media.

  • People on the free email list will receive: 

    • One free edition of The Payneful Truth each month; 

    • Access to listen to Payneful Questions (but not pose questions). 

Any comments or suggestions on any of that? Sound good? 

And here’s an image of Jonathan Edwards, going internally beserk with affections.

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