Revival, Bane Or Blessing?

What a silly question! Of course a revival is a blessing.  It is a glorious thing that God visits us by His Spirit and brings times of conviction, confession, conversion and refreshing. But careful reflection reminds us that revivals are like everything else in this fallen world. They have the potential to be both bane and blessing because they partake of the same mixture of Divine grace and human sin that characterizes all of our experience. The Westminster Confession of Faith reminds us in Chapter 25, Paragraphs 4 and 5, “This catholic (universal) Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible, and particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered,, and public worship performed more or less purely in them…the purest churches under heaven are subject to both mixture and error.” What is ordinarily true of the Church is equally true in exceptional and extraordinary times such as revivals. There is a mixture of bad and good, false and true, flesh and Spirit, abuse and blessing. It cannot be otherwise while we are this side of heaven and glory.

The greatest mistake we can make is to ignore both history and Scripture and rush to shallow generalizations about any movement of the Spirit of God. We are so apt to judge movements hastily and to indulge in either indiscriminate approval or sweeping condemnation. Those caught up in the movement are prone to give wholesale support, and those outside of it are predisposed to comprehensive denunciation. It is at this point we could learn a lesson from the man who has been called the last great Puritan, Jonathan Edwards.

Providentially Jonathan Edwards was forced into the role of apologist for the “Great Awakening.” People outside of New England were dubious about this early 18th century revival. Edwards wrote A Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in which he defended the revivals in New England as a true work of God. But Jonathan Edwards was also concerned to separate the false from the true in this experience, and so he wrote A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections and Judging of Experiences. He said, “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.” Edwards understood the importance of separating the wheat from the chaff.

As we ponder the revivals of our own time, we do well to listen to the advice of the “Puritan Sage,”  Jonathan Edwards. He reminds us that “It is by the mixture of counterfeit religion with true, not discerned and distinguished, that the Devil has had his greatest advantage against the cause and the kingdom of Christ all along, hitherto. It is by this means that he has prevailed against all revivings of religion that ever have been since the first founding of the Christian Church.”  Thus we are reminded of the utter folly of rushing to judgment and hastily condemning a movement that may be the work of God’s Spirit. But it is equally true that those who are attracted to or involved in such movements ought to be as circumspect as Edwards in separating the wheat from the chaff.

The only means by which we may properly judge what is false or true, flesh or Spirit, abuse or blessing in a movement is by the standard that God has given us. In the end it is the Scripture and the Scripture alone which can illumine whether the Gospel of Christ is being purely preached and embraced, or perverted. Only the Bible will tell us whether the worship is being performed more or less purely and the ordinances of Christ properly or improperly administered. Those captivated by revivals are often resistant to bringing the practices under the judgment of God’s word. Those untouched by the vitality of the movement are apt to focus only on the abuses and engage in wholesale condemnation. Let us learn the lessons of history and Scripture. Let the conscience of both those within and those without be captive to the Word of God.