Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit (Part 1)

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world (1 John 4:1).

Jonathan Edwards was a witness to and one of key figures in the Great Awakening (c. 1730-1745). During this great revival, the Holy Spirit came and worked in new and unexpected ways. This revival touched many lives and had many followers, but it had many strong opponents as well. The opponents pointed to unusual phenomena within this movement, claiming it was not the true work of the Spirit, and because of it questioned the validity of whole movement.

Very often (if not always), a great work of the God’s Spirit will be accompanied by false imitations. Phenomena which are not produced by Holy Spirit, even though they may appear to be acts of the Holy Spirit, can be dangerous and ruinous. This happened even in the earliest days of the church.

In his short book The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, Edwards defended the Great Awakening as an authentic work of the Holy Spirit. He described phenomena which were wrongly used as evidence against the movement, and he showed how the authentic works of the Holy Spirit could be recognized according to 1 John chapter 4 which the Apostle John devoted to this very question.

In Part 1 of the book, Edwards mentions nine “negative signs,” characteristics which do not provide conclusive evidence one way or the other of whether a movement is a true work of the Spirit. Edwards talks very specifically here, because he wanted to defend what had happened locally during the Great Awakening, but his observations are interesting and seem broadly applicable to other times and places.

Here are the first four of the negative signs mentioned by Edwards. Once again, by calling them “negative signs,” Edwards is not saying that these marks prove that the Holy Spirit is not at work. He is saying that these signs may accompany a true movement of the Spirit, but they may be found in counterfeit movements as well.

1. When people experience a dramatic change of mind and are influenced in extraordinary ways. God is very creative and powerful. He has done unexpected, marvelous things in the past and surely he will do them again. His own word in the Bible does not limit his activity, so we should not limit his activity either. An activity may be inspired by Holy Spirit even if we don’t like it and have not seen anything like it before. Quite the opposite, it is in line with God’s character to amaze people and angels. So even if people behave in ways that we have never encountered, we cannot not use their unusual behavior as evidence against the presence of the Holy Spirit.

2. Tears, trembling, groans, loud outcries, agonies of body, or the failing of bodily strength. The human soul is confined by space and time within a physical body. If someone’s soul is significantly affected by the work of the Holy Spirit, it is clear that his body may be affected as well. Realization of the truths of God’s judgment and hell, of God’s holiness, forgiveness and love are powerful enough to affect people’s physical bodies, but they are not required to do so. Edwards pleads for an open mind on this part. The presence or absence of physical side-effects does not prove that the Spirit is or is not working.

3. When the activity is accompanied by a great deal of noise about religion. When there is a lot of talk about Christianity the Bible, it doesn’t mean that the work of the Holy Spirit is going on. Edwards points out that even the Pharisees talked a great deal about religion.

4. Vivid imagination, ecstatic experiences and visions. Even without any supernatural interference, a strongly affected mind can conjure up images of Christ, of heaven or hell. Intense dreams and visions may be the work of God, but they are not necessarily so.

If we take the Bible seriously, none of these marks mentioned so far should surprise us. These signs were regarded as unusual in Edwards’ day, and when bystanders saw them during the Great Awakening — for example, what they saw highly emotional outbursts in church settings that were normally staid — some claimed it was evidence that the Holy Spirit could not be at work. But it should not surprise us if the Spirit produces dramatic reactions in people, because the Holy Spirit is powerful and creative.


  1. Thanks, David, for writing about Jonathan Edwards, America’s greatest theologian and philosopher. His writings, though quite hard to read for me, is quite edifying, thought provoking and Christ exalting. John Piper recommends that Christians try to read Edwards about 15 min a day. I wish I were disciplined enough to do so.

    For sure, we need God’s mercy in granting us another “great awakening,” which may be already happening in parts of Asia, Latin America, Africa. Yet, as had happened in Edward’s day, some staid Christians who are used to formality and tradition, criticize it and oppose it when it does happen, perhaps like the Pharisees who criticized and opposed Jesus and the early Christians.

  2. GerardoR

    This is definately something I struggle with myself. I am reminded of this very popular book among new age spiritualist. I believe it is called, “conversations with god.” In the book, the author claims he once asked god a question (not expecting an answer) and was shocked when god replied. So the book is essentially a giant transcript of his questions and gods answers. The interesting thing is that all of “gods” answers sound awfully similar to what most non devout spiritualist would already say. Apperantly, we had it all wrong. god doesnt want people to repent, sex outside of marriage isnt a sin, he doesnt really care about what we do and the goal of life is to have a good time.  

    Anyway, I bring this book up because it highlighted to me how we can often confuse the voice of God with our own selfish voice. I have a friend who was deeply considering becoming a nun but wasnt sure. So she once went into the santuary to pray. She finally gave up and said, “God, if you want me to become a nun, then give me an obvious sign.” I kid you not, 10 seconds later, a monk walks into the  sanctuary  and gives her his rosary as a gift. My friend replied inside her mind, “Wait! That doesnt count!”  ^_^
    I love that story because it shows how even when God does speak to us we want to say to him, “let my will be done.”

  3. David,

    This deserves some more discussion I think. Just because someone is changed or has a great vision, doesn’t mean it was God’s Spirit that worked. We need some other “marks” to tell for sure.

    • David Bychkov

      Yes, Brian. That was the point of Edwards. In this and second part of series he descibed marks which do not necesserily prove, that the movement is inspiring by Holy Spirit. But he wanted to show, that they could not prove opposite view (the movement or action is false) as well.
      My thought here was that we shouldn’t be amazen and really skeptical when hearing or seeing unusual things or behavior during some spiritual movement. And the Holy Spirit is powerful and creative enough to amaze us. But this couldn’t be used as mark. The positive marks are described in part 3 of this series. I just think Joe is really busy and had not time for helping with editing. the draft is posted in the dashboard.