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As Gerald McDermott explains, Jonathan Edwards saw affections as “strong inclinations of the soul that are manifested in thinking, feeling and acting” (Seeing God: Jonathan Edwards and Spiritual Discernment, p. 31).

A common confusion is to equate “affections” with “emotions.” But there are several differences, as summarized in this chart from McDermott (p. 40):

Affections Emotions
Long-lasting Fleeting
Deep Superficial
Consistent with beliefs Sometimes overpowering
Always result in action Often fail to produce action
Involve mind, will, feelings Feelings (often) disconnected from the mind and will

He explains why affections are different than emotions:

Emotions (feelings) are often involved in affections, but the affections are not defined by emotional feeling. Some emotions are disconnected from our strongest inclinations.

For instance, a student who goes off to college for the first time may feel doubtful and fearful. She will probably miss her friends and family at home. A part of her may even try to convince her to go back home. But she will discount these fleeting emotions as simply that—feelings that are not produced by her basic conviction that now it is time to start a new chapter in life.

The affections are something like that girl’s basic conviction that she should go to college, despite fleeting emotions that would keep her at home. They are strong inclination that may at times conflict with more fleeting and superficial emotions. (pp. 32-33)

Here is how Sam Storms explains the difference in Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ “Religious Affections:

Certainly there is what may rightly be called an emotional dimension to affections. Affections, after all, are sensible and intense longings or aversions of the will. Perhaps it would be best to say that whereas affections are not less than emotions, they are surely more.

Emotions can often be no more than physiologically heightened states of either euphoria or fear that are unrelated to what the mind perceives as true.

Affections, on the other hand, are always the fruit or effect of what the mind understands and knows. The will or inclination is moved either toward or away from something that is perceived by the mind.

An emotion or mere feeling, on the other hand, can rise or fall independently of and unrelated to anything in the mind.

One can experience an emotion or feeling without it properly being an affection, but one can rarely if ever experience an affection without it being emotional and involving intense feelings that awaken and move and stir the body. (p. 45)

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20 thoughts on “What Is the Difference between Affections and Emotions?”

  1. Bruce Russell says:

    Abraham’s affections rested on his faith and obedience to God’s Promise.

    Abraham’s emotions involved him in the desperate liaison with Hagar.

    1. anaquaduck says:

      Abram got involved with Hagar at Sarai’s suggestion over their deep concern of not having a child of their own.In this I see a mixture affection, emotion & a lack of trust.

      It is a difficult thing to understand, The Psalms at times interpret to me as both affection & emotion.

      1. Bruce Russell says:

        Can wholesome affections arise out of a bad conscience?

          1. Bruce Russell says:

            Sarah’s provision of Hagar was a reenactment of Eve’s provision of the forbidden fruit. It was the human attempt to fulfill the New Creation Promise through sin. It was based on wayward emotions built on unbelief. A wholesome affection is built on an unwavering trust in God who raises the dead (and vivifies the dead womb) and keeps His promises.

            Wholesome affections are built on this Rock: a conviction that God will deliver life in the face of death.

            1. anaquaduck says:

              I am a bit puzzled by bad conscience, having said that, the decision by God to grant Abraham & Sarah a son from their tired & ageing bodies was met with laughter.

              After observing the table, I see the general idea but it isn’t sitting with me yet, hence the difficulty. It rings true but only to a point.

              1. Bruce Russell says:


                The heir was promised through Sarah’s womb, not Sarah’s designated womb. This was rationalization, and a sin.


              2. anaquaduck says:

                As to your last comment below…
                On the part of Abram, yes, this was a rationalisation, & a sin & involved mind, will & feeling, hence the difficulty for me as to how it all interacts.

  2. Travis says:

    It is fine to understand that emotions are not an end in and of themselves, but I believe it is incredibly important for us as gospel centered theologians to understand the role of emotions beyond the characteristics listed here. This leans a little heavy on discounting them. (Leans heavy, I recognize the article doesn’t push emotions over the cliff)

  3. Indeed it leans heavy, too much so. To assert that “An emotion or mere feeling, on the other hand, can rise or fall independently of and unrelated to anything in the mind” and that “Feelings [are](often) disconnected from the mind and will” is to significantly misunderstand how emotions work. Some of the best and most recent work on emotions (see, e.g., M. Elliott Faith Feelings [Kregel 2006]; R. C. Solomon Not Passion’s Slave [Oxford 2003]; R. C. Roberts, Emotions: An Essay in Moral Psychology [Cambridge 2003]) defends a cognitive view of the emotions. Scripture seems to presuppose such a view. If most (not a small percentage of) emotions have a cognitive element, then they are not to be ignored as mere fleeting feelings.

    If Jesus is fully human, absolutely sinless, and and always virtuous, than any emotion he experienced (fear, anger, rejoicing, sadness) is not an option for Christians but a mandate.

  4. Dane Ortlund says:

    This is helpful, JT…

  5. Dave says:

    These are all interesting theories, and not necessarily wrong, but the question I have to ask is ‘where does Scripture teach these distinctions?’

    I can’t see that it does. Which means what we have, in Edwards’ theories about affections and emotions, are a collection of hypothetical constructs, not scriptural truths.

  6. Adam says:

    With all due respect and appreciation for the general point you’re driving at, I think the definitions you are using (and their concomitant distinctions) are incorrect, unhelpful, and perhaps even harmful. I certainly appreciate that we as a culture, and as Christians living in this culture, often chase after fleeting emotions all too often. I think this is the point you’re getting at, but this post in broadly oversteps this concept. I can think of no one better than Jonathan Edwards, whom you mentioned in the first sentence of this post, to illustrate your errors.

    Jonathan Edwards used “affections” in a way that is entirely inconsistent with the definitions you’ve drawn. For example, Edwards writes that the primary purpose of praise music should be that it stir man’s affections for God. He is describing a relatively temporary (not long-lasting), but God-glorifying, experience in which man is drawn closer to God through singing. This experience would fit more closely with the “emotion” side of the chart you drew, and I think it shows the shortcomings of the definitions you’re using.

    Similarly, and much more importantly, Jonathan Edwards does not claim that affections “always result in action.” In fact, you have it perfectly backward: instead, the chief end of all actions should be, as Jonathan Edwards argues, to develop man’s affections for God. Affections are the goal, not the process. Actions are the process, not the goal. You have it backward: that actions are the goal and that affections are the process. A strict application of its backwardness would lead to a works-centric grace.

    There are plenty other things to quibble about (e.g., whether ALL emotions are intrinsically and necessarily fleeting or superficial), but a comment-response can only hit the high notes.

  7. Bruce Russell says:

    Emotions become disciplined affections when we pursue the most wholesome objective: the Resurrection from the Dead.

  8. Raj says:

    Has anyone read Thomas Chalmers’ The Expulsive Power of a New Affection. I read it just a short whiles ago and found it to be difficult(!) reading. I will need to read it again to have it sink in.

    Anyway – my question is this.

    Does anyone understand how Chalmers’ A-ffection with a capital ‘A’ relates to Edwards’ a-ffection-s with a lower case a and the plural ‘s’?

    Perhaps the definition given in the post up above is more applicable to Chalmers’ A-ffection.

    In Christ,
    ~ Raj Rao

    1. MarkO says:

      here’s how it seems to me:

      A-ffection = object (or person) of highest desire

      a-ffection-s = desires being seat of want within the soul

  9. Garland says:

    I wonder if the social sciences might provide some insights into the distinction. The affective domain in education is the domain associated with feelings and values. While associated with mood, it is a complex conglomeration of perception, reaction, and emotion. Having read both McDermott and Edwards, I couldn’t help but conclude that what Edwards meant by “affection” translates into “values” today.

    In other words, for Edwards, affections are “that which I consider to be valuable and important,” which derives from what I know (cognition) and also from my will and volition (conation). Based on that, affection can be shaped, molded, and directed according to that which I believe.

    Emotions, then, are the internal reaction I have to a perceived event, and are transient based upon my perception of the even. While emotion is true, in the sense that it is a genuine reaction, it may be based upon false or inadequate perception. If you kick me in the shin, I will experience anger. If you tell me you prevented a scorpion from stinging me by kicking me in the shin, my knowledge is altered, as is my perception, and my emotion will then change.

  10. rick says:

    I would be curious as to what others think about this statement (not sure where I picked it up from)?:

    God’s affect is on my heart – what the heart wants or desires or loves is what the will chooses and what the mind justifies or the mind is captive to what the will wants and the will wants what the heart desires

  11. Jake Magee says:

    I wrote an blog article about this a few years back:

    Clouds and Oceans: The Role of Emotions in the Christian Life.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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