Awake Indeed Revival renews not only the church but the world
Tis not unlikely that this work of God's Spirit, that is so extraordinary and wonderful, is the dawning, or at least a prelude, of that glorious work of God, so often foretold in Scripture, which in the progress and issue of it, shall renew the world of mankind
So wrote Jonathan Edwards, the Christian Church's greatest theologian of revival, in 1742 in the midst of the Great Awakening in America. Here he tells us that revival is the work of God's Spirit, that it is an extraordinary work, and that it is foretold often in Scripture, and he prophesies that it would renew, not only the church, but the whole "world of mankind".
Let us begin with the prophecy first. For if he was wrong about that and revivals do not do their work of renewing humankind, there is not much point in studying the role of the Holy Spirit in revival or the places where revival is foretold in Scripture.
Most modern historians would argue that Edwards got it wrong, and the world since the Great Awakening in the 1740s has not been renewed by religious revivals. Rather the history of the world since the French Revolution has been one of the inexorable progress of secularism, of the triumph of reason over faith, and the eclipse of Biblical "truth" by the real truth which comes from science.
Most Western Christians, even theologians, would tend to side with the secular historians here. They are not particularly interested in revivals which are too episodic to be relied on, too dependent on the sovereignty of God to evoke any human effort, and too divisive within the church, unleashing either an unhealthy fanaticism or coldhearted rejection.
Yes, revivals are episodic. They do not last. But some Christian historians since Edwards have argued that this is the way history works. There have been many revivals and national and even international awakenings since the 1740s. Through them the church is reformed and refreshed, and the world challenged and renewed. Then the world (and the church!) seeks to go its own way again, and there is a fresh need for a new revival movement and a new challenge to the "world of mankind".
Furthermore, these same historians observe, the new revival movements typically originate among the marginalised, the poor and the weak. They invigorate the periphery while the heartlands of faith atrophy in their pride and independence of the Spirit and the law of Christ. But it is through such passing movements of the Spirit that God is building His kingdom within "the world of mankind". For do notice in Edwards's words above that revival is for the world. True revival spills over from the church into the world.
Revival works for the renewal of the world through a number of means. It is typically a movement of God's Spirit grasped by a new leader who takes the old truths of the gospel and applies them to new situations and people who had not before appropriated those truths.
Leaders of revivals are men who proclaim the gospel with anointed passion, but who are neither reactionaries who condemn all that is new in the church nor radicals who argue that only the new is true. The leaders of the Great Awakening were known as "new lights", and it has been recently suggested that every revival movement has leaders who, in their fresh understanding of the truth of the gospel and the power of the Spirit, are all "new lights".
Jesus was the archetypal new light leader who translates Old Testament truth into teaching which liberates and gives hope and who transfers the power to lead from priests to apostles. In many of the awakenings of the 20th century, through which Christianity expanded numerically more exponentially than in any other century, power was transferred to these new light leaders away from the leaders formally appointed within traditional denominations.
If all new light leaders have one gift in common, it is the gift of anointed preaching. They believe, with Edwards, that preaching is a union of truth and fire, and this union is found in all revivals. Preaching for revival requires the fusion of the affectional and the rational, of heart and head. The preacher, in love with the love of God, is more motivated to lure people into heaven, which Edwards understood as "a world of love", than to frighten them out of hell. Edwards certainly preached on hell, but the fire of anointed preaching is the fire of love, more than the fires of hell.
The effect of the union of truth and fire is to take the hearer through truth into reality. New light preachers dare to believe that the purpose of preaching is not so much to teach people the truth about God, but to awaken people to see the reality of God.
Revival is when people see reality, which is the world as it is perceived by God. It is when hearers see themselves and their world and the Lord Himself from God's perspective. The apprehension of reality comes as such a shock to hearers that they are said to have experienced an "awakening". A great awakening such as Edwards' hearers experienced in the 1740s is when many experience the same shock.
Edwards's understanding of revival was so constituted out of Scripture that it is feasible to argue that the whole of the New Testament is a revival manual. But the whole is sometimes encapsulated in the parts. In Acts 2:44-47, for example, Luke deftly characterises a revival fellowship. It was forged out of Peter's Spirit-anointed preaching at Pentecost. It was preaching which made them behold reality: they came to see that they had crucified the Lord's anointed. They repented of their distorted view of reality and believed the gospel. They formed a fellowship in which they belonged to the Lord and to each other. And they behaved according to the requirements of a missional lifestyle of outreach and service.
Membership of a revival fellowship, then, involves beholding, believing, belonging and behaving.
To understand Edwards's views on revival is to understand what to pray for in connection with revival:
- That God will "renew the world" through repeated episodes of revival.
- That the most marginalised and needy people in the world will experience revival to give them hope and uplift and to grow Christ's Kingdom in the world.
- That God will raise up "new light" leaders who will engage the unreached with the Gospel.
- That these leaders will preach anointed sermons which awaken their hearers to reality.
- That revival fellowships will be formed to enrich the church with those who behold the truth, believe reality, belong to Christ and to each other, and behave out of love in service and mission.