Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit (Part 2)

Continuing in the discussion of Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God by Jonathan Edwards, here are the five remaining “negative signs.” Remember: 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 do not conclusively prove or disprove that the Spirit is working. These signs may be present in a true movement of the Spirit, but they may also be found in counterfeit movements.

5. When people are stongly influenced by the personal example of others. Personal example plays an important role in human life and in all interactions among people whether or not the Spirit is moving. If many people begin to take action after being influenced by someone’s personal example, and if many people or many groups begin to exhibit similar thoughts and behaviors, it means nothing.

6. When the behavior of people affected by a movement seems irrational or incoherent. Edwards writes, “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.” The Spirit works to draw people to God and is not much concerned about appearances or outward behaviors. During outpourings of the Spirit, all kinds of people may be affected, including those who may be young, inexperienced, or unbalanced. It is very natural that some could behave unreasonably and irationally. They may break rules about behavior and act in ways that are unscriptural while being under the influence of the Holy Spirit. People remain sinners all their lives, and the corrupted nature still lives in them and affects them. The church in Corinth provides a good example of this. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he points out many problems and sins in the congregation, and yet there was still powerful evidence of the Holy Spirit in their midst. God does not want us to be lukewarm. Spiritual enthusiasm is a wonderful thing. But when Spirit-driven enthusiasm comes, human corruption — the pride and passions of the flesh — may be invisibly mixed in with it. The time of enthusiasm may also be a time of dangerous, unbiblical extremes, and movements of the Spirit can bring forth good fruits in the presence of these corrupt fruits.

7. When mistakes in thinking and even satanic deceptions are present. The Spirit does not wait until people have pure, infallible doctrine in order to work in them. Many godly, Spirit-led people have exhibited incorrect teachings and practices. All saints live in a state of corruption, and until Jesus comes, the kingdom of God will coexist with evil.

8. If some people who were involved in a movement later left or even became great heretics. The presence of false teachings does not rule out the presence of truth. Great movements of the Spirit are often accompanied or followed by great errors. For example, the heresy of Gnosticism arose during the age of the Apostles. Edwards, who was unabashedly Protestant, noted that, “How great was the number of those who for a while seemed to join with the reformers, yet fell away into the grossest and most absurd errors, and abominable practices.” Even in the ministry of Jesus, among the twelve apostles there was a Judas.

I want to stop here for a moment and say that Points 6, 7, 8 were very interesting and challenging to me. I learned two important principles here. First, I learned that when mistakes, sins and heresies are present, that is not conclusive evidence that a whole movement is not inspired by the Holy Spirit. This makes me want to be very careful in making judgments and jumping to fast conclusions. As long as we are living in this present world, we cannot expect everthing to appear just black or white.

The second thing I learned is that even when the work of the Holy Spirit is clearly present, we should expect human mistakes and sins to be intermingled with the Spirit’s work. People who are moved by the Spirit may be seriously sinful, mistaken and deceived on some points. So, even in the presence of great evidence of the Spirit’s work, no one can be sure that he is above reproach. Even when God is using someone greatly, he must always be ready to repent and correct his ways.

9. When hell and God’s holy law are strongly emphasized. Jonathan Edwards is remembered for preaching on God’s wrath, judgment and hell, and some of his critics thought that he over-emphasized these things. Edwards argues that the holiness and wrath of God may be preached in order to lead people to the gospel. Preaching God’s holy law is useless without Gospel, but apart from the law the gospel makes no sense. It is perfectly reasonable for Spirit-led preachers to speak of God’s holiness and wrath to prepare the way for the gospel. But they must never do so in a cold, insincere, uncaring or flippant manner. And Edwards acknowledges that some ministers emphasize law and wrath too much and preach on other topics too little.


  1. David, I think that you are right. As long as we remain in this fallen world, good and evil will be mixed. There must be many issues on which I am wrong, but I do not know what they are, because everyone is naturally blind to his own failures and the problems of his own tradition. This makes me hesitant to stand in judgment of others until I have really, truly tried to see things from their perspective and understand why they believe  as they do. Some people may interpret this as being compromised, weak or wishy-washy, but from my perspective it seems only prudent and realistic.

    N.T. Wright said: “I frequently tell my students that quite a high proportion of what I say is probably wrong, or at least flawed or skewed in some way which I do not at the moment realize. The only problem is that I do not know which bits are wrong; if I did I might do something about it. … I make many mistakes in moral and practical matters, why should I imagine my thinking to be mysteriously exempt?”

    • david bychkov

      Many thanks for help with editing the piece, Joe. I like the quate from Wright.
      This work of Edwards changed my mind and in some ways set me free while ago. I always thought, and I possibly was taught to this kind of thinkig – if God has worked through us, our ministry and practices – it nothing but good. And if it is not so, if we (ministry, theology, practices etc) are wrong (something in them is really wrong) that could mean just 1 thing – God has not used us, he is not working in us. This kind of thinking made me be horrified of any kind of criticism. Not just some external criticism, so I could just break all relations with those who was critical. But internal as well. I think (at least particularly) b/c of this I made myself blind or double standartad. I became a lier on truth.
      And when I learned from Edwards this simple truth, my eyes opened. I could be free to see and recognize true failures and still believe that God is with us, we just need to be humble and ready to repentance. I don’t have to be lier. And in the same I don’t have to just live the church if something is wrong.

      Regarding your words of carefully considering another perspective, basicly I agree. Just want to add that often we could not really ground – why do we feel something is really wrong, or something could be good. We just feel it, it tasted for us – as good or wrong, or even really wrong. And If I really feel – something is really wrong and I have to point it out, I try to do so even if later I would have to repent and ask forgiveness.

    • Jonathan Edwards was a great example of someone who was willing to repent and accept correction from others, even when he was at the height of his popularity. When Christian leaders pointed out aspects of his preaching that seemed unbalanced, he listened carefully to them and incorporated their criticism into his thinking and teaching, even though his  critics did not have as many “sheep” as he did.

      I believe that he gained great wisdom from allowing others to challenge him and not being defensive. He learned a great deal from others, especially from those with whom he disagreed. Although he was a committed Calvinist, he maintained a good relationship with John Wesley, who was Arminian. I think the process of having his faith and practice challenged by others gave him humility and wisdom.

  2. Thanks, David. I used to “threaten” my Bible student, saying, “If you don’t repent, God will give you a brain tumor, AIDS, and the Ebolo virus.” Surprisingly, this young man repented and became a Christian.

    But as I got older, I realize that “there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” and that Jesus likely did not adopt my threatening tactics. So, I stopped threatening my Bible students. But someone said to me, “But it worked,” implying that I had “gone soft” on my Bible students.

    As you said, just because “something worked” doesn’t always mean that I did the right thing. And if something doesn’t work, it doesn’t always mean that I did something wrong.

    Surely, we should always reasses and reevaluate ourselves and our ministry methods before God and before His Word.

    • Wow, Ben, your Bible studies must have been full of excitement!

    • Yeah, Brian. “Excitement” might be an understatement.

      Once I had a 5 hour 1 to 1 Bible study from 10 pm to 3 am, where we were literally screaming at each other virtually the entire time. Then after 5 hours, we were still not finished answering Question 1 of the Bible study questions!

  3. GerardoR

    Interesting article David. I had to carefully consider each point. I was particularly interested by this point: “First, I learned that when mistakes, sins and heresies are present, that is not conclusive evidence that a whole movement is not inspired by the Holy Spirit.”

    I am encouraged by your willingness to accept the possibility that you may be wrong and even commit heresies. It’s hard to hold that possibility regarding one’s Church. Most people put everything in to their Church and do not want to feel that they have invested themselves totally in a Church that teaches error in this or that. But I think you rightly point out that a Church can teach error in X or Y and we should be humble enough to admit that, but that initself doesnt justify the entire Church not being led by the Holy Spirit. Great point.  

    Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that we have an overabundance of applicants for the Popes office but none for the general priesthood. What he meant was that everyone thinks their view of the Faith is right and want to be placed on a pedestool but no one very few are willing to be obedient and live out their faith in daily acts of self sacrifice.

    An interesting psychology related to this point is realted to cognitive dissonance. They had a group of people do a long boring task for about an hour. After the task, half of the people were offered $20.00 for their time and others were offered only $2.00. A week later, when both groups of participants were interviewed, guess who rated the experience as more enjoyable?

    It was the group who only got paid $2.00. They didnt want to feel that they subjected themselves to a bad experience for nothing. They wanted to know that their effort was not in vain so they made themselves believe that the task was really enjoyable. Else, why would they do it for only $2.00?

    My point is that, some people would rather convince themselves that their experience was enjoyable when it wasnt than to admit that perhaps it was not enjoyable and you waisted your time, or perhaps this aspect of it is no good but the rest of it was good.  

    Again, great article.

    • david bychkov

      Very interesting example with $2.00 and $20.00. thank you, Gerardo

    • Yes, excellent example Gerardo. My joy in Christ was genuine for much of my Christian life. But I must admit to being a “2$ Christian” far too often.

  4. A friend once told me, “If you ever find the perfect church, make sure you don’t start going there, because you’ll ruin it.” This seems like wise advice to me.
    It is so amazing that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the perfect God, makes imperfect creatures like us His own dwelling place and temple. Knowing this can give us great confidence to live boldly as children of God in spite of our weaknesses, while also keeping a deep openness to correction from the Lord.
    I am impressed by (and hope to learn from) Edward’s’ ability to humbly learn from others who critiqued his preaching. It seems to me to be really ideal and necessary to subject ourselves to the loving (and even sometimes the not-so-loving) criticism of others and to listen to God’s voice in it and learn and grow. I say “necessary” because, as has been pointed out in this article and the comments, given our overall fallen nature, it simply has to be the case that alot of our thinking and teaching is also flawed, and potentially deeply so. His ways are above ours as high as the heavens are above the earth. And yet he uses us and speaks through us, and even loves us completely. Amazing God!

  5. David, I’m looking forward to the rest of this series!

  6. David Bychkov

    Let me share here 1 quote from “Relegious Affections” by Edwards, which I found to be very true:
    “It is a hard thing to be a hearty zealous friend of what has been good and glorious, in the late extraordinary appearances, and to rejoice much in it; and at the same time to see the evil and pernicious tendency of what has been bad, and earnestly to oppose that. But yet, I am humbly but fully persuaded, we shall never be in the way of truth, nor go on in a way acceptable to God, and tending to the advancement of Christ’s kingdom till we do so. There is indeed something very mysterious in it, that so much good, and so much bad, should be mixed together in the church of God; as it is a mysterious thing, and what has puzzled and amazed many a good Christian, that there should be that which is so divine and precious, as the saving grace of God, and the new and divine nature dwelling in the same heart, with so much corruption, hypocrisy, and iniquity, in a particular saint. Yet neither of these is more mysterious than real. And neither of them is a new or rare thing. It is no new thing, that much false religion should prevail, at a time of great reviving of true religion, and that at such a time multitudes of hypocrites should spring up among true saints. “