This entry is part 16 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
In this section, some further attempt will made to identify the principles which will help us to evaluate revivals; which will help us, in other words, to distinguish between good and evil, truth and error.
The need to evaluate spiritual movements
We are living in an age when few Christians are able or willing to apply Scriptural tests to spiritual phenomena. They will often quote the words of Christ, when he said, “judge not, that you be not judged” (Mt 7:1), as though we should accept all behaviour, all doctrine, and all professions of faith without question. What such persons seem to forget is that Scripture encourages a certain use of judgement, albeit exercised with humility and love. For 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, therefore, both legitimate and needful to subject spiritual experiences in general, and revival movements in particular, to biblical and theological scrutiny.
Such scrutiny is especially important in connection with a spiritual awakening, since, as we have seen, the devil himself will be particularly active in counterfeiting or opposing this work. Whenever there is a revival, he will do his best to deceive and to confuse the unwary:-
We have to remember that the devil can produce the outward forms of religious excitement, as well as the Spirit of God, and that in fact Satan has often wrought havoc in the church through movements of self-deceived fanaticism which announced themselves…as movements of the Holy Spirit in revival. We need a criterion for telling the two apart; otherwise Satan will be free to fool us as he pleases by gratifying our hunger for revival with his own particular brand of ‘enthusiastic’ delusions.
Packer, in Increasing in the knowledge of God. (Puritan & Reformed Studies Conference, 1960), 19.
An ‘ideal type’?
One way of making a general assessment of a movement of revival would be to compare it with some kind of ideal. In this connection, let us listen to Archibald Alexander, as he describes what, in his view, a ‘purer’ kind of revival would be like:-
The impressions on the minds of the people in such a work are the exact counterpart of the truth; just as the impression on the wax corresponds to the seal. In such revival there is great solemnity and silence. The convictions of sin are deep and humbling: the justice of God in the condemnation of the sinner is felt and acknowledged; every other refuge but Christ is abandoned; the heart at first is made to feel its own impenetrable hardness; but when least expected, it dissolves under a grateful sense of God’s goodness, and Christ’s love; light breaks in upon the soul either by a gradual dawning, or by a sudden flash; Christ is revealed through the gospel, and a firm and often joyful confidence of salvation through him is produced: a benevolent, forgiving, meek, humble and contrite spirit predominates – the love of God is shed abroad – and with some, joy unspeakable and full of glory, fills the soul. A spirit of devotion is enkindled. The word of God becomes exceedingly precious. Prayer is the exercise in which the soul seems to be in its proper element, because by it, God is approached, and his presence felt, and beauty seen: and the new-born soul lives by breathing after the knowledge of God, after communion with God, and after conformity to his will. Now also springs up in the soul an inextinguishable desire to promote the glory of God, and to bring all men to the knowledge of the truth, and by that means to the possession of eternal life.
Alexander, in Sprague, Lectures on revivals, App 4f.
And, says Alexander, a relative purity has indeed characterised some revivals with which the church has been blessed:-
In some cases revivals are so remarkably pure, that nothing occurs with which any pious man can find fault. There is not only no wildness and extravagance, but very little strong commotion of the animal feelings. The word of God distils upon the mind like the gentle rain, and the Holy Spirit comes down like the dew, diffusing a blessed influence on all around. Such a revival affords the most beautiful sight ever seen upon earth. Its aspect gives us a view of what will be the general state of things in the latter-day glory, and some faint image of the heavenly state.
Alexander, in Sprague, Lectures on revivals, App 4.
Alexander’s conception of ‘purity’ in revival is coloured by his suspicion of strong expressions of emotion. Nevertheless, the point is well taken.
Mixture of good and evil
But 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.
Indeed, some revivals, though genuine works of the Spirit, have been marred by extensive evil:-
In many instances, there can be no doubt, that genuine effusions of the Holy Spirit, by means of which large additions have been made to the Church of Christ, have, in their progress, been tarnished by human management, and unhallowed mixtures; and, in not a few cases, arrested by transactions and appearances, which pained the hearts of intelligent Christians; disgusted and alienated serious inquirers; grieved away the Spirit of God; left the state of the population thus graciously visited, perhaps less favourable than it was found; and greatly strengthened the hands of the enemies of the revival cause.
Miller, in Sprague, Lectures on revivals, App 23.
Edwards points out that the presence even of considerable error in a revival should not lead us to discredit the work as a whole:-
It is no sign that a work is not from the Spirit of God, that many, who seem to be the subjects of it, are guilty of great imprudences and irregularities in their conduct. 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…A thousand imprudences will not prove a work to be not of the Spirit of God; yea, if there be not only imprudences, but many things prevailing that are irregular, and really contrary to the rules of God’s holy word. That it should be thus may be well accounted for from the exceeding weakness of human nature, together with the remaining darkness and corruption of those that are yet the subjects of the saving influences of God’s Spirit, and have a real zeal for God.
Edwards, Works, II, 264.
Indeed, suggests Edwards, the presence of evil in revival can even serve to enhance the glory of the work:-
There being a great many errors and sinful irregularities mixed with this work of God, arising from our weakness, darkness, and corruption, does not hinder this work of God’s power and grace from being very glorious. Our follies and sins in some respects manifest the glory of it. The glory of divine power and grace is set off with greater lustre, by what appears at the same time of the weakness of the earthen vessel. It is God’s pleasure to manifest the weakness and unworthiness of the subject, at the same time that he displays the excellence of his power and the richness of his grace.
Edwards, Works, I, 380.
Archibald Alexander, too, reminds us that the presence of error and excess should not be allowed to obscure the fact that a genuine work of the Holy Spirit may be in progress:-
A real work of the Spirit may be mingled with much enthusiasm and disorder; but its beauty will be marred, and its progress retarded by every such spurious mixture. Thus also, individual who are the subjects of special grace, may for a while, be carried away with erroneous notions and extravagant feelings. We must not, therefore, condemn all as deluded souls, who manifest some signs of enthusiasm.
Alexander, in Sprague, Lectures on revivals, App 3.
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.
The intrusion of human sinfulness into the blessed work of revival is well stated by a Welsh revivalist:-
It is quite true that the emotions kindled in revival are not pure, unmixed spiritual experiences. To quote William Williams of Pantycelyn…’When our soul came to taste the feasts of Heaven, the flesh also insisted on having its share, and all the passion of nature aroused by grace were rioting tumultuously.’
Roberts, Revival and its fruit, 9.
This mixture of good and evil helps to explain some of the differences between revivals. It also helps to explain the occurrence, from time to time, of what might be called ‘para-revival’ movements. These are spiritual movements containing perhaps much that is of God, but which fall short of being genuine revivals on account of the presence of important error or inadequacy. Into this category might fall the Montanists, the Albigenses, the Anabaptists, and the Irvingites. It seems to some too that the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, although containing much that is genuinely of the Holy Spirit, fail to meet some of the essential criteria of revival. This will be discussed in a later chapter.
But there is also such a thing as an entirely spurious revival; and it is obviously vitally important to be able to distinguish this from the genuine article:-
It is not to be concealed or denied that much has passed at various periods under the name of revivals, which a sound and intelligent piety could not fail to reprobate. There have been scenes in which the decorum due to christian worship has been entirely forgotten; in which the fervour of passion has been mistaken for the fervor of piety; in which the awful name of God has been invoked not only with irreverence but with disgusting familiarity; in which scores and even hundreds have mingled together in a revel of fanaticism.
Sprague, Lectures on revivals, 62f.
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 a 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.
But the possibility of counterfeit revival is no argument against the genuine:-
If some, who were thought to be wrought upon, fall away into gross errors, or scandalous practices, it is no argument that the work in general is not the work of the Spirit of God. That there are some counterfeits, is no argument that nothing is true: such things are always expected in a time of reformation.
Edwards, Works, II, 265.
How then can we evaluate revivals?
It is time now to lay down some general criteria, some negative, some positive, for evaluating revival movements.
1. We should not attempt to evaluate a revival simply by comparing it with what we have used to. A revival is, almost by definition, a phenomenon unfamiliar to the experience of most of us. Therefore it would be a capital error to judge a revival by the rule of what we have be used to in the past. Jonathan Edwards states this well:-
Nothing can be certainly concluded from this, That a work is carried on in a way very unusual and extraordinary; provided the variety or difference be such, as may still be comprehended within the limits of Scripture rules. What the church has been used to, is not a rule by which we are to judge.
Edwards. Works, II, 261.
J.I. Packer points out that revivals cannot be expected to conform in every respect to some previous pattern. He refers to this assumption as the ‘antiquarian fallacy’:-
…the assumption that any future renewal will become recognizable by conforming to some pattern set in the past. That there are such patterns is not in doubt; they merit careful examination…But we should limit God improperly, and actually quench the Spirit, if we assumed that future movements of renewal will correspond in outward form to some past movement, and that we can rely on this correspondence as a means of identifying them. Renewal is precisely God doing a new thing, and though every work of renewal has basic qualities, in common with every other, we must recognize that the contours of the cultures within which the church has from time to time lost its validity, and also the contours of that loss in itself, have varied; which means that it is not safe for us to assume that the outward forms and phenomena of revival in this or any future age will always prove to have exact historical precedents.
Packer, God in our midst, 10f.
We ought, accordingly, to recognise the necessary variations between revivals due to historical, social and other factors:-
In the first place, spiritual movements are partly shaped by preexisting needs, which in their turn reflect all sorts of nonrecurring cultural and economic factors, as well as many aspects of the morbid pathology of sin and spiritual decline; and, in the second place, the spiritual experiences of Christians are determined in part by temperament, by atmosphere, and by pressure groups, all of which are variables; and, in the third place, God the Lord appears to delight in variety and never quite repeats himself.
Packer, God in our midst, 25.
2. We should not test revivals by the absence or presence of physical and emotional phenomena. It has already been pointed out that some writers have made the relative absence of physical and emotional phenomena a test of quality of revivals. Thus a recent author compares the Second Great Awakening with the First, and notes with satisfaction that:-
in the opinion of many who lived at the time, the revivals of the second awakening, though just as powerful as those under Edwards and Whitefield, were attended with fewer extravagances, such as visions, trances, and violent bodily movements (in New England at least).
Thornbury, God sent revival, 22.
Although it is natural for emotions to run high in revival, their presence (or relative absence) is no sure measure of the authenticity of the spiritual work:-
A considerable degree of excitement in such circumstances is perfectly inevitable; and yet it must be evident, that it is not essential either to the conversion of a sinner, or to the re-awakening of a dormant believer, but has its source chiefly, if not entirely, in the sympathetic principle of human nature, which is so powerful in producing, increasing, and extending emotions of every kind. The existence of excitement, therefore, is no proof whatever of the genuineness of conversion, or of a revival; and remains fairly within the province of human reason to enquire into its cause, to ascertain its nature, and to guide, modify, or check its progress, without in the very slightest degree presuming to intermeddle with the sacred and mysterious work of the Holy Spirit. At the same time the existence of excitement furnishes no just ground of distrusting the reality of conversion; for it is scarcely possible to imagine so great a change effected within the soul…without producing in the person by whom it is experienced a thrill of new, strange, and rapturous emotion throughout his entire frame, such as no words can ever adequately describe.
The revival of religion, xiv.
The Christian faith undoubtedly has its emotional aspects, but always, and expecially in the excitement of a revival, it is longer-term fruitfulness in the Christian life which must be looked for as a surer sign of regeneration:-
Those who have been most conversant with the subject of religious experience, do not rely chiefly for evidence of piety on the pungency of one’s convictions, or the transports by which they may be succeeded, or the professions which may be made of devotedness to Christ; for they have learned that all this is equivocal; and that delusion and self-deception are consistent with the most promising appearances which are ever exhibited. While, therefore, they may hope favourably from what they see at the beginning, before they form a decisive opinion they wait to see whether the individual can endure temptation; whether he is faithful in the discharge of all duty; whether he is a good soldier for Jesus Christ. And if they see the fruits of holiness abounding in the life, whether the appearance at the beginning were more or less favourable, they infer with confidence that a principle of holiness has been implanted in the heart.
Sprague, Lectures on revivals, 21.
3. We should not measure revivals by the number of professed converts. It is perfectly true, of course, that a leading characteristic of revival is the unusual success of the gospel leading to a large number of conversions. But to rush into a ‘head-count’ of those who have recently professed faith, and to use this as a criterion of genuineness, can be dangerously misleading:-
We are too much inclined, if I mistake not, to estimate the character of a revival by the number of professed converts; whereas there is scarcely a more uncertain test than this. For who does not know that doctrines may be preached, or measures adopted, or standards of religious character set up, which shall lead multitudes, especially of the uninstructed, to misapprehend the nature of conversion, and to imagine themselves subjects of it, while they are yet in their sins?
Sprague, Lectures on revivals, 14.
1. Turning now to positive principles of evaluation, revivals should, firstly, be judged according to their conformity to scriptural doctrine. Whatever the claims made on behalf of a revival, whatever the number of apparent conversions, and whatever the emotional excitement generated, to the extent to which any religious excitement departs from Scripture, it must be judged false and delusive:-
Suppose there were to be a powerful excitement on the subject of religion produced by means which are at war with the spirit of the gospel; -suppose doctrines were to be preached which the gospel does not recognize, and doctrines omitted which the gospel regards as fundamental; -suppose that for the simple, and honest, and faithful use of the sword of the Spirit, there should be substituted a mass of machinery designed to produce its effect on the animal passions; -suppose the substance of religion, instead of being made to consist in repentance, and faith, and holiness, should consist of falling, and groaning, and shouting, -we should say unhesitatingly that that could not be a genuine work of divine grace; or if there were some pure wheat, there must be a vast amount of chaff and stubble.
Sprague, Lectures on revivals, 17f.
2. We should test revivals by their longer-term effects on hearts and lives. Revivals should be judged, not so much by their immediate effects, but by their longer-term influence on the moral and spiritual lives of God’s people:-
It is…vitally important to judge spiritual movements, not by their immediate phenomena or by-products, but by their ultimate effects in the lives of those involved in them. If you concentrate on the phenomena, you can always find a great deal that is spurious, and ill-considered, and wrong-headed, and wild, and fanatical; and then you will be tempted to conclude that there is nothing of God in the movement at all. But…the right way to assess what is happening is to see whether, amid all the tumult and disorder, the ‘distinguishing marks of a work of the Spirit of God’ are appearing. If they are, then we may know that it is God at work.
Packer, in Increasing in the knowledge of God, 26f.
In elaborating the positive tests of revival, we can do no better than to give the headings of Jonathan Edwards’ great treatise on The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, alluded to in the previous quotation. Here surely we have a key to evaluating any spiritual movement:-
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.
It is vitally important to measure and test apparent movements of God’s Spirit by the criteria which the Lord himself has laid down and approved. And in assessing the quality of such a work, we should especially look for what have been referred to in the present book as the ‘primary elements’ of revival: a sense of the presence of God, prayer, repentance, recognition of the authority of God’s word, and an outflowing of spiritual vitality in evangelistic success and philanthropic effort. If these are abundantly present, than we shall have reason to bless God for his grace and favour. If these are absent, then we have no right to assume that we are the subjects of his reviving mercy.