This entry is part 20 of 21 in the series: Revival
- The Biblical idea of revival
- Divine and human agency in revival
- Examples of revival
- Conditions prior to revival
- Experience of God in revival
- Repentance and revival
- Prayer and revival
- The Word of God and revival
- Preaching and revival
- Results of revival
- Physical and emotional phenomena of revival
- The miraculous element in revival (I)
- The miraculous element in revival (II)
- Demonic activity in revival
- Problems associated with revival
- Evaluating Revivals
- Pentecostalism, baptism in the Spirit and revival
- Prospects for Revival
- ‘Lord, I have heard of your fame’ – stories of revival
- ‘Renew them in our day’ – prospects for revival
Notes of the second of two talks given in July, 2018.
The need for discernment
If, a generation ago, you asked anybody for their favourite verse from the Bible, they would probably quote John 3:16. Today, people are more likely to cite the words of Christ, when he said, “judge not, that you be not judged” (Mt 7:1). It suggests to them that we should accept all beliefs, all behaviours, all professions of faith without question. What such persons seem to forget is that Christ himself also said, “Beware of false prophets” (Mt 7:15), and “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with righteous judgement” (Jn 7:24). And John wrote, “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn 4:1). It is clear, then, that Scripture does require us to exercise a certain kind of judgement, albeit with humility and love. And this is particularly needful when considering times of spiritual excitement and awakening.
We have considered a number of the leading features of revival: fervent prayer, a profound experience of the presence of God, deep repentance, exalted joy, a hunger for the word of God and for biblical teaching, remarkable gains for the kingdom of God in terms of souls turning to Christ and wider benefits for society as a whole.
I would like to explore the need for discernment regarding revival in two ways: first, seeking to understand some of the hazards and pitfalls associated with revival; and second, exploring what Scripture has to say about the prospects for spiritual awakening in our own day.
The truth is, we must always expect some degree of error and evil to occur in connection with a revival:-
If they wait to see a work of God without difficulties and stumbling-blocks, it will be like the fool’s waiting at the river side to have all the water run by.
Edwards, Works, II, 273.
A genuine revival is the work of God; but it also contains the work of man, and to that extent will always be tainted by man’s imperfections:-
‘There always has been, mingled with these scenes of divine power and grace, more or less of human infirmity and indiscretion.’
Sprague, Lectures on revivals, 216.
If fact, the very unfamiliarity and excitement of a revival can make it a breeding ground for error:-
‘It must not be supposed…that all that occurs in the name of revival is automatically of God. At no time in its history is the Church more subject to error than in the midst of great revival blessing. One of the gravest dangers facing revival is the failure of revival leaders and subjects to discern the work of God on the souls of men and the work of the devil on the counter-revival.’
Alexander suggests a test of authenticity which is of seminal importance:-
‘A revival or religious excitement may exist and be very powerful, and affect many minds, when the producing cause is not the Spirit of God; and when the truth of God is not the means of awakening…Revivals ought to be distinguished into such as are genuine and such as are spurious. And the distinction should depend on the doctrines inculcated, on the measures adopted, and the fruits produced.’
Alexander, in Sprague, Lectures on revivals, App 1f.
One area in which discernment is especially required is with regard to:-
1. Divine and human agency in revival
I have little doubt that the ministry of Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) was associated with genuine revival, especially during its first ten years or so. But Finney came to the view that:-
‘revival is the result of the right use of the appropriate means.’
(Finney, Revivals of religion, 5.)
Samuel Chadwick, a Methodist leader of a few generations ago, wrote that
the Church can have revival when it will. Men greatly err if they are thinking to wait for God. God is waiting for men…A revival…is the sure result of certain divinely ordered processes followed carefully by man.
(in Egerton, Flame of God, 87.)
Put at its most blatant, the view we are describing says:-
‘In the Word of God there are numerous fundamental principles which must be observed if revival is to be granted. We can have revival when we want if we fulfil the divine conditions outlined. The responsibility rests with the Church – God is patiently waiting!’
(Egerton, Flame of God, 19.)
One effect of this teaching is that is some places the word ‘revival’ has come to mean nothing more than a series of evangelistic meetings.
But Scripture itself teaches us to honour God’s sovereignty in this matter. Walter Kaiser notes the apparent absence of human means in the revival under Josiah (2 Chron 34):-
‘Prior to this revival there were no services at the sanctuary. Furthermore, the Bible had been lost, and hence little instruction could have been expected from that source. Was someone praying somewhere? Had someone memorized the Word of God, and was he teaching it to children, among whom was to be found the young Josiah? It is impossible to decide for certain among these alternatives. But is it not possible then to make the point that there is only one ultimate source for all true revivals, and that is God Himself? Yes, it is, for just as we should not be frightened by the preparatory means that God has ordained to achieve revival, including His Word, prayer, repentance, seeking His face, turning from our wicked ways, and humbling ourselves, so we should not be shy in affirming the sovereignty of God in this whole work either.’
(Kaiser, Quest for renewal, 111ff.)
The crucial balance between the divine and human agency in revival is clearly stated by Richard Owen Roberts:-
‘There is much that people can do, and all that we can do we should do -with all our might. Men can and must evangelise; it is part of the Great Commission. Men can and must train Christian workers of we are to honour our Lord’s command. We can teach new converts the way of Christ and baptize them…We can pray; this burden is placed upon every believer. We must concern ourselves with the social needs of the world…Everything God has told us to do we ought to do, but having done it all, we must still wait upon him to do what he alone can do. Revival comes from God. The sovereign Lord of the universe must revive us again or we will never known what true revival is. If God does not act, our churches will forever remain unrevived.’
(Roberts, Revival, 22.)
2. The way of holiness
A second area requiring scriptural discernment relate to various ‘second blessing’ teachings. It is not surprising that believers whose languishing souls have been awakened should understand this as a change from one kind of Christianity to another kind. They then seek to recommend this experience by positing some kind of ‘formula’. Thus we have the Wesleyan teaching of ‘perfect love’, and the Pentecostal doctrine of ‘the baptism in the Holy Spirit’.
At about the time of the 1859 revival a small book appeared entiled The Higher Christian Life, by an American businessman named William Edwin Boardman. In it, the author argued that
‘entire sancitification was an immediate gift of God to be enjoyed by all who had faith in Christ…To enter into the rest of faith was to cease to struggle against sin, the world and the devil, and to enjoy constant peace.’
Russell, That Man of Granite with the Heart of a Child, p113.
This view was shared by Robert Pearsall Smith and his wife Hannah. Smith became a promiment holiness teacher on both sides of the Atlantic. In his 1870 book Holiness Through Faith
‘he declared that the blood of Christ cleansed the believer ‘not only from the stain of sin, or the punishment of sin, but from sin itself, and that sanctification, like salvation, is the gift of faith alone.’ Christians may know something better than a nominal Christian faith so frequently beset by temptations and sin, for God offers believers a life of constant joy and victory over all sin through simply trusting in Jesus.’
Russell, That Man of Granite with the Heart of a Child, p113.
In 1874 the Pearsall Smiths were invited to address a convention at Broadlands, near Romsey. One of those impressed by this teaching was Canon T.D. Harford-Battersby, vicar of St John’s Keswick. Convinced that the holiness movement and its teachings were of God, the following year he held the first of the famous Keswick Convention meetings, on the theme of ‘Holiness’.
Among those expressing grave concerns about the new holiness teaching was J.C. Ryle. In 1877 he published the first edition of his celebrated book Holiness:-
‘I suppose I belong to the old school of Evangelical theology, and I am therefore content with such teaching about sanctification as I find in the “Life of Faith” of Sibbes and of Manton, and in “The Life, Walk, and Triumph of Faith” of William Romaine. But I must express a hope that my younger brethren who have taken up new views of holiness will beware of multiplying causeless divisions. Do they think that a higher standard of Christian living is needed in the present day? So do I.—Do they think that clearer, stronger, fuller teaching about holiness is needed? So do I.—Do they think that Christ ought to be more exalted as the root and author of sanctification as well as justification? So do I.—Do they think that believers should be urged more and more to live by faith? So do I.—Do they think that a very close walk with God should be more pressed on believers as the secret of happiness and usefulness? So do I.—In all these things we agree. But if they want to go further, then I ask them to take care where they tread, and to explain very clearly and distinctly what they mean.’
Ryle argued from Scripture that holiness is an ongoing process, rather than a one-off event. We are deluded if we imagine that sinless perfection is attainable in this life. The truth is that we never quit, until we draw our last breath and depart to be with Christ, fighting against the world, the flesh, and the devil.
3. Extraordinary phenomena in revival
A third area in which discernment is required is in relation to extraordinary phenomena such as healing and prophecy.
‘The Reformers, harassed on the one side by Romanists who claimed that the miracles of the saints guaranteed the truth of their doctrine and on the other side by disruptive enthusiasts who claimed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, adopted as a theological convenience the notion that extraordinary gifts of the Spirit were attestations of new revelation and therefore limited to the final period of revelation, the New Testament era. The Puritans and the leaders of the First and Second Awakenings continued to discourage any emphasis on extraordinary gifts.’
Lovelace, Dynamics of spiritual life, 121.
For Jonathan Edwards, then, these gifts are not to be looked for or even desired by modern-day Christians:-
‘I do not expect a restoration of these miraculous gifts in the approaching glorious times of the church, nor do I desire it. It appears to me, that it would add nothing to the glory of these times, but rather diminish it. For my part, I had rather enjoy the sweet influences of the Spirit, showing Christ’s spiritual divine beauty, infinite grace, and dying love, drawing forth the holy exercises of faith, divine love, sweet complacence, and humble joy in God, one quarter of an hour, than to have prophetical visions and revelations the whole year.’
Edwards, Works, II, 275.
Edwards famously identified the distinguishing marks of a work of the Holy Spirit. It is by these that we may tell the difference between mere religious excitement and a genuine work of God.
The Spirit of God in his work in men raises ‘their esteem of that Jesus who was born of the Virgin, and was crucified without the gates of Jerusalem’, confirming ‘their minds in the truth of what the gospel declares to us of his being the Son of God, and the Saviour of men.’
The Spirit of God ‘operates against the interests of Satan’s kingdom, which lies in encouraging and establishing sin, and cherishing men’s worldly lusts.’
The Spirit causes ‘in men a greater regard to the Holy Scriptures, and establishes them more in their truth and divinity…The devil never would attempt to beget in persons a regard to that divine word…The devil has ever shown a mortal spite and hatred towards that holy book the Bible.’
The Holy Spirit always works as the Spirit of truth, ‘he represents things as they truly are.’
The Spirit produces in men ‘a spirit of love to God and man.’ He brings them to ‘high and exalting thoughts’ of God. He ‘works in them an admiring, delightful sense of the excellency of Jesus Christ’, and he constrains them to love others and earnestly to seek their salvation.
Edwards, Works, II, 266ff, as summarised by Murray, The necessary ingredients of a Biblical revival II, 26.
Searching the Scriptures
George Whitefield spoke for many when he said:-
‘The Scriptures are so far from encouraging us to plead for a diminution of divine influence in these last days of the gospel that on the contrary, we are encouraged to expect, hope, long, and pray for larger and more extensive showers of divine influence than any former age hath ever yet experienced. For, are we not therein taught to pray, “That we may be filled with all the fulness of God”, and to wait for a glorious epoch, “when the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”’
Whitefield, in Murray, The Puritan Hope, 150.
Gen 12:2f – ‘I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’
‘To Abraham, standing at the head of the Jewish economy, essentially local in its nature, it was promised that in his Seed, namely, Christ, all nations – all the families of the earth – should be blessed. A similar promise was repeated to succeeding patriarchs. And does it not distinctly point to universality? What can be more comprehensive than all nations, – all families of the earth?’
Lorimer, in The Revival of Religion, 189
Psa 86:9 – All the nations you have made will come and worship before you, O Lord; they will bring glory to your name.
C.H. Spurgeon writes on this verse as follows:-
‘David was not a believer in the theory that the world will grow worse and worse; and that the dispensation will wind up with general darkness, and idolatry…We look for a day when the dwellers in all lands shall learn righteousness, shall trust in the Saviour, shall worship thee alone, O God, “and shall glorify thy name.”’
Treasury of David
Isa 45:22f “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.”
With the passage just quoted in mind, Jonathan Edwards wrote:-
‘When God manifests himself with such glorious power is a work of this nature, he appears especially determined to put honour upon his Son, and to fulfil his oath that he has sworn to him, that he would make every knee bow, and every tongue confess to him. God hath had it very much on his heart, from all eternity, to glorify his dear and only-begotten Son; and there are some special seasons that he appoints to that end, wherein he comes forth with omnipotent power to fulfil his promise and oath to him. Now these are times of remarkable pouring out of his Spirit, to advance his kingdom; such is a day of his power, wherein his people shall be made willing, and he shall rule in the midst of his enemies; these especially are the times wherein God declares his firm decree, that his Son shall reign on his holy hill of Zion.’
(Edwards, Works, I, 380)
Joel 2:28/Acts 2:16 “And afterwards, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.”
There seems no biblical or theological reason to limit the wonder-working aspect of Joel’s prophecy to the day of Pentecost, for as F.F. Bruce points out:-
‘Luke probably sees in these words an adumbration of the worldwide Gentile mission, even if Peter himself did not realise their full import when he quested them on the day of Pentecost. Certainly the outpouring of the Spirit on a hundred and twenty Jews could not in itself fulfil the prediction of such outpouring “upon all flesh;” but was the beginning of the fulfilment.’
The Book of the Acts, 68
In one sense, Pentecost was unique: it was unique as a stage in the glorification of Christ, and it was unique as an event inaugurating the age of the Christian church. But as an outpouring of the Spirit, and as an equipping of the church for its work of evangelism, it was the first of many:-
‘Nothing can be more directly contrary to the intention and teaching of the Word than to expect a ‘second Pentecost’. I would as soon look for a second Calvary. But this does not imply that the experience of the disciples at Pentecost is not to be known again. On the contrary, it is because the Spirit, who then began his special work, is still present in the Church to continue it, that Pentecost admits of no repetitions. Whether the miraculous results may once more be seen in the latter days of the Church yet to come, we know not certainly; though the Book of Revelation seems to lead us to expect this. But the spiritual results have continued, in great or less measure, and among more or fewer of the people of God; and they are to be looked for, desired, asked, and by faith attained.’
Elder Cumming, in Wood, Baptised with fire, 114f.
Another famous passage which seems to teach a latter-day revival involving a large-scale turning of the Jews to Christ is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans:-
Rom 11:11 Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.
‘Nothing less than a restoration of Israel as a people to faith, privilege, and blessing can satisfy the terms of this passage. The argument of the apostle is not, however, the restoration of Israel; it is the blessing accruing to the Gentiles from Israel’s “fulness”…Thus there awaits the Gentiles, in their distinctive identity as such, gospel blessing far surpassing anything experienced during the period of Israel’s apostasy, and this unprecedented enrichment will be occasioned by the conversion of Israel on a scale commensurate with that of their earlier disobedience.’
The Epistle to the Romans
Then, the Apocalypse contains many words of cheer and encouragement for believers in the last, difficult times:-
‘[The] book of Revelation is, from beginning to end, not only a magnificent prophecy of the perpetuity of the church, in spite of the heresies, obstacles, and persecutions of many centuries, but also a prophecy of the ultimate and universal triumph of the kingdom of Christ. It contains a picture of the glory of true Christianity upon earth before passing into the ineffable glories and beatitudes of heaven.’
Lorimer, in The Revival of religion, 195.
Rev 14:6f Then I saw another angel flying in mid-air, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth-to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
But what about 2 Timothy 3, where the apostle speaks of ‘terrible times in the last days’? Does this not support the view that the period just prior to Christ’s return will be characterised by unmitigated wickedness and depravity, and that we can accordingly hold out no hope for revival today? No:-
- Paul, in referring to ‘the last days’ has in mind the gospel-age generally, and not just its final stages, cf Acts 2:17; Heb 1:2.
- Paul says to Timothy, ‘avoid such people’; showing that he had Timothy and his contemporaries very much in mind.
- Again, the Apostle states, ‘they will not get very far’; showing that the folly spoken of is limited in scope and duration.
Some today would argue that the church has fallen into irreversible decline; that she has entered the ‘Laodicean’ phase of terminal lukewarmness and compromise (Rev 3:14ff). In answer to this, it must be suggested that the habit of dividing the Christian era into seven stages, corresponding to Christ’s description of the seven churches of Asia (Rev 2 & 3), is fanciful. But even if the Laodicean description is applicable to the present day, we should still reply with Arthur Wallis:-
‘Has Christ presented us with the picture of Laodicea as an example to follow or a state to condone? Did he intend that we should resign ourselves fatalistically to the spirit of Laodicea because we believe that we are in the end times? The Lord warned this church that its lukewarmness would result in judgement unless there was repentance. Surely his purpose in this whole message was that the church might be moved to repent, and so be delivered from its lukewarmness and the judgement he had pronounced on it.’
Wallis, Rain from heaven, 23
A further argument urged against hoping for a latter-day revival is that we should be looking not for revival, but for Christ’s return. Arthur Wallis answers:-
‘Of course Christians should be looking for Christ’s return, but are they? Hardly, when, carnality, apathy, and worldliness are so rife. But such a state is incompatible with a people preparing and praying for God to come in power. A church ready for revival is a church ready for his coming. They have purified themselves, and John tells us that it is this purifying that is the indispensable preparation for Christ’s return, and the final proof that we really have the hope within us, 1 Jn 3:3.’
Wallis, Rain from heaven, 24.
Let us give ourselves to this work of praying for revival:-