What is the distinction between the normal and the extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit? In this article, the author discusses what true revival is. 

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1998. 4 pages.

'Larger Measures of the Spirit of God'

In the first chapter of his forthcoming book Pentecost — Today? of which this is an extract, lain Murray discusses three views of revival. Having dealt with the view that the whole concept of occasional revivals is not biblical and the view that revival is conditional upon the obedience of the church, he now takes up the view that revivals are 'larger measures of the Spirit of God'.

We move on to a third understanding of revival which, I will seek to argue, supplies a more biblical explanation for the phenomenon. This is the view which once prevailed in the English-speaking churches on both sides of the Atlantic and I will refer to it as the 'old-school view'.1 It rests upon the New Testament doctrine respecting Christ as the exalted head of the church. In the Gospels Jesus appears as the 'Christ' — the 'anointed'; the One who, for the accomplishment of the work of redemption, received the uninterrupted fulness of the Holy Spirit: 'God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him' (John 3:34). With Christ's redemptive work now completed, believing sinners enter into what belongs to their Saviour; they, too, are now anointed; they are 'Christians'. Pentecost declared that the plenitude of the Spirit was not for Jesus alone, 'he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear' (Acts 2:33). The Holy Spirit is 'shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour' (Titus 3:6).

This third view, then, agrees with the first already stated, namely that at Pentecost the Spirit of God was given once and for all to the church — a giving as final as Calvary itself. But there is a vital difference. Old-school spokesmen believed that, while the Spirit was permanently given, he was not given permanently in the same measure and degree as was witnessed at Pentecost. Two things overlapped at Pentecost: the first was the coming of the Spirit which established the norm for the whole gospel age — the Spirit was given, never to be removed, and therefore the work of conversion and sanctification in the whole earth is never to cease. But the second thing was the largeness of the degree in which the influences of the Spirit were then experienced by the church and by thousands who until that day were ungodly. This was extraordinary and not continuous. It was not the permanent norm that the whole body of Christians should be 'filled with the Holy Spirit' in the particular sense in which that expression is used in the Acts of the Apostles; not the norm that three thousand should be simultaneously converted; and not the norm that, wherever the church exists, fear should come 'upon every soul' (Acts 2:43). So, from Pentecost onward, the work of the Spirit can be viewed in two aspects, the more normal and the extraordinary. These two differ not in essence or kind, but only in degree, so much so that we can never certainly determine where the normal ends and the extraordinary begins. It should also be noted that by the word 'extraordinary' I do not mean to include what are sometimes called the 'extraordinary' or miraculous gifts of the Spirit, to which I will return later. These gifts were auxiliary to Pentecost rather than integral to it. They existed before Pentecost (e.g. Matthew 10:2, 8) and, while more lavishly bestowed at the inception of the Pentecostal age, they form no part of the permanent giving of the Spirit to the church as promised in John 14-16.

What is the biblical support for this distinction between the 'normal' and the 'extraordinary'? Let me offer two lines of proof, and support these from church history:

  1. It is clear from the book of Acts that all Christians did not remain permanently 'filled with the Spirit' in the sense of Acts 2:4. Had that been so it would not have been possible to say of the same persons again in Acts 4:31, 'and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost'. Here was an element of Pentecost which was clearly repeatable; there was a further giving of what they already possessed. Again, if being 'filled with the Spirit' was uniform in every Christian, what would be the point of the apostles instructing the disciples in Acts 6 to look for a characteristic which all possessed, 'Look ye out seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost'? It must be true, as the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Assembly states (Question 182), that, while the Holy Spirit is given to all Christians, his working is 'not in all persons, nor at all times, in the same measure'.

    Against this it is sometimes urged that we cannot speak of different measures of the Holy Spirit. It is asked, Can a believer have all of Christ and only part of the Holy Spirit? Can we believe that the Holy Spirit, in the body of the believer, dwells in a temple which he does not fill? But our knowledge of the mode of the Spirit's indwelling is far too small for us to be ruled by such logic.

    What is indisputable is that there are differences in the manifest presence of the Spirit of God. Thus Scripture says that the Spirit was present in the Old Testament, while John 7:39 says, 'the Holy Spirit was not yet given'; and Jesus in the upper room said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit,' while, at the same period, he pointed to a future coming of the Spirit, 'You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you' (John 20:22; Acts 1:8). So these various references to the Spirit cannot be taken in an absolute sense. 2The thought behind the word 'measure' is clearly scriptural. We have to say with the Westminster Confession, 'Christ has purchased for believers under the gospel ... fuller communications of the free Spirit of God'.3Yet even the fulness now to be enjoyed by Christians is only the beginning — 'the first fruits of the Spirit' (Romans 8:23).

    The idea of variation in the 'measure' in which the Spirit is known is commonplace in Puritan writing. Isaac Ambrose, for instance, writes of the Spirit:

At first (i.e. in Old Testament times), he was sent only in drops and dew, but now he was poured out in showers in abundance, 'The Holy Ghost (saith Paul) was shed on us abundantly through Jesus our Saviour,' Titus 3:6. As there are degrees of wind, a breath, a blast, a stiff gale: so we cannot deny degrees in the Spirit; the apostles at Christ's resurrection received the Spirit, but now [at Pentecost] they were filled with the Spirit; then it was but a breath, but now it was a mighty wind.4

  1. The New Testament indicates that while the Spirit it always present in the church the degrees of his power and influence remain subject to Christ himself. The plenitude remains with the head of the body and from that fulness he gives according to his will. Referring to Peter's use of the Word of God through Joel on the day of Pentecost (I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh'), George Smeaton observed: 'According to the New Testament quotation, there is a shade of meaning not to be lost in the words "of my Spirit" (apo), distinguish­ing between the measure vouchsafed to men and the inexhaustible fulness in the resources of the fountain.' 5So the apostolic churches received repeated givings of the Spirit because there is always more of him who is infinite in grace and power to be given. The church in Jerusalem received more in Acts 4. Paul prays for the Christians at Ephesus that they will receive more — that 'the Father of glory may give unto you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him' (Ephesians 1:17; or again, 3:16). Thus Bishop Moule, in commenting on Ephesians 1:17, wrote: 'We are not to think of the "giving" of the Spirit as of an isolated deposit of what, once given, is now locally in possession. The first "gift" is, as it were, the first point in a series of actions, of which each one may be expressed also as a gift.' 6

    In other words, the church is ever dependent upon Christ, her ever-living head, for the 'actual influence' of the Holy Spirit. 7Thus Paul looked for 'the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ' (Philippians 1:19), the genitive being one of possession or origin, 'the Spirit which Jesus Christ has or dispenses'. Similarly, the declining church of Sardis, rebuked with the words, 'thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead,' is to listen to Christ because of what he has authority to give, 'These things saith he that bath the seven spirits of God'. Whatever the condition of the churches, the plenitude of the Spirit remains with Christ. So while Pentecost instituted a new era, the work of Christ in bestowing the Spirit did not end then. And the fuller communication of the Spirit which marks the whole age of 'the last days', begun at Pentecost, was not to be constant and unvarying; for, were it so, what purpose could be served by prayer for more of the Spirit of God as disciples are clearly directed to do? It was in response to the request 'teach us to pray' that Jesus said: 'If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?' (Luke 11:13). This promise has no continuing relevance for Christians unless there is always more to be received. 8

  2. A third line of proof for this understanding comes from church history.

    How can the view which sees no justification for occasional revivals offer any convincing explanation for such great and sudden turning points in church history as the Reformation? How are these extraordinary eras to be explained if the Spirit is always uniformly present? John Knox believed he knew the true explanation of the events of his days when he testified, 'God gave his Holy Spirit to simple men in great abundance.' 9It was not that at a certain date the reformers realised what they already had and therefore decided to act; it was rather that something had first happened to them. There was an impulse from the Holy Spirit himself. Robert Fleming interpreted the extraordinary multiplication of Christians which was seen in South-West Scotland in the mid-1620s in exactly the same way. It was, he wrote in 1669, 'a very solemn and extraordinary out-letting of the Spirit'. Likewise, James Robe described the revivals at Cambuslang and Kilsyth under the title, Narratives of the Extraor­dinary Work of the Spirit of God10

    Witnesses to revivals invariably speak of something being given which was not there before — something much more than a decision on the part of Christians to be more faithful or to make greater efforts. 'Men have felt as if the Lord had breathed upon them. They were first affected with awe and fear — then they were bathed in tears — then filled with a love unspeakable' 11'The language of James M'Gready, describing the Kentucky awakening, is typical:

The year 1800 exceeds all that our eyes ever beheld on earth. All the blessed displays of Almighty power and grace, all the sweet gales of the divine Spirit, and the soul-reviving showers of the blessings of Heaven which we enjoyed before, and which we considered wonderful beyond conception, were like a few scattering drops before the mighty rain.12

Edward Griffin says that at the beginning of the revival at Newark, New Jersey, 'The appearance was as if a collection of waters, long suspended over the town, had fallen at once, and deluged the whole place.' 13

The sheer unexpectedness of such events bears equally against the view that revivals are conditioned by the preceding actions and efforts of Christians. Those who believe that a certain line of conduct or prayer must secure revival have history against them. Revivals come unheralded. They are, as Edwards witnessed in Northampton in 1735, 'the surprising work of God'. Of the Great Awakening of 1740 it is said that 'it broke upon the slumbering churches like a thunderbolt rushing out of a clear blue sky'.

Records of the cessation of revivals enforce the same lesson. If Christians can secure revivals, then surely such Christians as have just experienced a high tide of spiritual life would be best able to preserve the condition which they so prized. But it has not been so. H. Elvet Lewis, one of the observers of the 1904-5 revival in Wales concluded: 'No amount, no form, of organised effort could produce in 1906 what seemed as natural as a breath of air in the early months of 1905. I have seen, occasionally, an elaborate attempt to make it come: nothing was produced but disaster.' He concluded, 'We are in the presence of an unexplained but impressive mystery.' 14

The evidence of history thus coincides with the interpretation of Scripture we have sought to give above. Such outpourings of the Spirit as are witnessed in the book of Acts have not been uniformly present in the life of the churches in all ages. They have not been the permanent norm, nor were they intended to be. Rather they belong, as Smeaton says, to creative epochs, ushered in by the church's ever-living head: 'When a former awakening has spent its force, when the elements of thought or action previously supplied threaten to become effete, a new impulse is commonly communicated by Him who interposes at various stages to make all things new ... Men look on with awe and wonder when some supply of the Spirit, of which they can neither tell the laws nor estimate the momentum, breaks forth from the kingdom of God and sweeps over a community.' 15

To summarise, then, this third view: a revival is an awakening to a new degree of life in the churches, attended by a widespread movement among the unconverted, brought about by the intercession of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. It is an extraordinary communication of the Spirit of God, a superabundance of the Spirit's operations, an enlargement of his manifest power. In the words of Jonathan Edwards: 'Though there be a more constant influence of the Spirit attending his ordinances, yet the way in which the greatest things have been done has been by remarkable effusions, at special seasons of mercy.' 16


  1. ^ I have written of this more fully in The Puritan Hope (Banner of Truth, 1971); and Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Banner of Truth, 1987). 
  2. ^ Perhaps the same point is clearer with reference to Christ himself. John Owen writes of 'the full communication of the Spirit unto him ... yet it was carried on by several degrees and distinctions of time; for, (1.) He was anointed by the Spirit in his incarnation in the womb, Luke 1:35. (2.) He was so at his baptism and entrance into his public ministry, Matthew 3:16. (3.) He was peculiarly anointed unto his death and sacrifice in that divine act of his whereby he "sanctified himself" thereunto, as John 17:19. (4.) He was so at his ascension, when he received of the 'Father the promise of the Spirit.' Works, vol. 4, pp. 392-3.
  3. ^ Westminster Confession, ch. xx, i.
  4. ^ Isaac Ambrose, Looking unto Jesus, vol. 2 (Berwick: Richardson, 1816), p. 209.
  5. ^ The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, 1882 (repr. Banner of Truth, 1974), p. 28. 
  6. ^ H. C. G. Moule, Epistle to the Ephesians, with Introduction and Notes (Cambridge University Press, 1893), p. 58.
  7. ^ See Westminster Confession, ch.xvi, iii. 
  8. ^ George Smeaton writes: 'No more mischievous and misleading theory could be propounded, nor any more dishonouring to the Holy Spirit, than the principle that because the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost the Church has no need, and no warrant, to pray for effusions of the Spirit of God. On the contrary, the more the Church asks the Spirit and waits for His communications, the more she receives.' Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, p. 255.
  9. ^ The Works of John Knox, vol. 1 (Edinburgh, 1846), p. 101. 
  10. ^ James Robe, Narratives of the Extraordinary Work of the Spirit of God at Cambuslang and Kilsyth (Glasgow, 1790). 
  11. ^ James Gibson, The Year of Grace, A History of the Ulster Revival of 1859 (Edinburgh: Elliot, 1860), p. 432.
  12. ^ Murray, Revival and Revivalism, p. 151.
  13. ^ Ibid., p. 202.
  14. ^ H. Elvet Lewis, With Christ Among the Miners (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1906), pp. 7, 10.
  15. ^ Smeaton, Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, pp. 252-3.
  16. ^ Edwards, Works, vol. 1, p. 539.

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