Revivalism and the Ordinary Means of Grace

horton_michael_0Article: Do You Hear the Spirit? Revivalism and the Ordinary Means of Grace by Dr. Michael Horton

Duke historian Grant Wacker tells us that in the winter of 1887, a group calling itself the Evangelical Alliance for the United States met in Washington, DC. It was an appropriate site for a noble assemblage of scholars, pastors, college presidents, and other leaders who were intent on recapturing the moral, spiritual, and political clout which they had once garnered in American society. As Wacker explains,

The first session opened with the hymn, “Come Gracious Spirit, Heavenly Dove.” The participants then read the second chapter of the Book of Acts… At the end of the week, William E. Dodge, president of the Evangelical Alliance, asked the delegates to search their hearts to see if they too were open to the Spirit’s guidance. “Christ is waiting for us, he urged. “Are we ready?”1

This could have been a common event in contemporary evangelicalism, but it was, in fact, a significant contributing factor in the success of the Social Gospel movement at the turn-of-the-century. Higher critics with Americanized Hegelian bents (identifying God with progress) preached beside Wesleyan-Holiness revivalists and evangelical preachers. When doctrinal differences divide, such movements often turn to the Holy Spirit as the tie that binds. Invoking the “Spirit” hardly proves as controversial as appeals to the Father and the Incarnate Son do. As many modern feminist and radical theologians are also discovering, the “Spirit” rarely embarrasses. Even the Hopi tribe worships the Great Spirit.

But is this “Spirit,” the Holy Spirit, as in “the Lord and Giver of Life who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets”? That one? Is he the Spirit who is identified in Scripture as “the Spirit of Christ,” that is, the One whose person and work is essentially as well as instrumentally united to that of the Son of Man? Harry Emerson Fosdick, scion of liberalism and champion of modernism against the likes of J. Gresham Machen, wrote a book titled The Secret of the Victorious Christian Life, which was well received by the evangelical masses despite its moralistic optimism (perhaps because of it). And we all know how Norman Vincent Peale, a quite outspoken liberal, was so well received. Billy Graham even counted Peale among his closest allies. The World Council of Churches and similar groups arose out of missionary conferences in which doctrinal differences (i.e., the Word) were set aside in favor of common mission and experience, especially conversion and the New Birth (i.e., the Spirit).

In the past few decades, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), based in Wheaton, Illinois, has reflected the breadth of these older heirs of American Protestantism in a more conservative form. But denominations no longer steer the evangelical ship (or, more accurately, the evangelical regatta). Rather, it is the successive outbursts of revivalism which continually define and redefine the American religious landscape. It is not churches or schools, but movements, which shape American church life. Though Jesus founded a Church, an observer of American evangelicalism might surmise that the Holy Spirit started a revival as competition.

Of course, this state of affairs is tragic for a number of reasons. First, it is deeply dishonoring to God and his Word and Spirit. But second, it is a serious danger for those to whom we wish to bring the good news. In this article, I want to emphasize the important link between Word and Spirit and its consequence for our expectations about extraordinary works of God in our day.

The Historical Problem
As early as the Book of Acts, we see characters like Simon Magus who sought to market their own brand of Christianity by circumventing the Church. It was St. Paul especially who was vexed with these “super-apostles” as he called them: itinerant, self-appointed Christian leaders who made up their theology as they went because they considered themselves “apostles” who received divine revelation of deeper mysteries than those revealed by the ordinary apostles in Jerusalem. They thought that their “ministries” could evangelize, disciple, and perform similar functions to those entrusted to the visible Church. Facing this “sect-spirit” directly in 1 Corinthians, Paul warns, “According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (3:10-11). On that day of God’s judgment, the work of so-called “ministries,” which tried to lay another foundation, says Paul, will be burned as hay, wood, and straw (v. 12-15). Continue reading

Genuine Revival

“There were earnest longings that all God’s people might be clothed with humility and meekness, like the Lamb of God, and feel nothing in their hearts but love and compassion to all mankind; and great grief when anything to the contrary appeared in any of the children of God, as bitterness, fierceness of zeal, censoriousness, or reflecting uncharitably on others, or disputing with any appearance of heat of spirit.” – Jonathan Edwards, “Thoughts on the Revival,” in Works (Edinburgh, 1979), I:377, recording the experience of his wife under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

At The Gospel Coalition National Conference at Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando, earlier this year, Tim Keller explored the theme of “A Biblical Theology of Revival.” Here’s a short clip where he makes note of the fact that genuine revivals are usually quiet affairs:

Revivals Make Churches Quiet from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Here’s the full workshop address:

A Biblical Theology of Revival – Tim Keller (TGC13 Workshop) from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

When God is really at work

magnifying-glass5Ray Ortlund:

In The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741), Jonathan Edwards pulled out of 1 John 4 the biblical indicators that God is at work, even if the people involved are complicating it with their own sins and eccentricities. And we do complicate it. In this life, the work of the gospel is never pure, always mixed. But we do not need to be stuck in analysis-paralysis. The true gold of grace is discernible, within all the mess, in four ways:

One, when our esteem of Jesus is being raised, so that we prize him more highly than all this world, God is at work.

Two, when we are moving away from Satan’s interests, away from sin and worldly desires, God is at work.

Three, when we are believing, revering and devouring the Bible more and more, God is at work.

Four, and most importantly, when we love Jesus and one another more, delighting in him and in one another, God is at work.

Satan not only wouldn’t produce such things, he couldn’t produce them, so opposite are these from his nature and purposes. These simple and obvious evidences of grace are sure signs that God is at work, even with the imperfections we inevitably introduce.

If we hold out for perfection, we will wait until we are with the Lord. True discernment keeps our eyes peeled for fraudulence but also unleashes us, and even requires us, to rejoice wherever we see the Lord at work right now.

Don’t turn away because of the non-gold; prize the gold. Defend it. Rejoice over it. God is giving it.

A Call to Anguish

David Wilkerson went home to be with the Lord earlier this year. Though I would have some theological differences with him, there is no doubting that he was a true man of God. The fruit of his ministry is well known – decades of faithful service and countless people won to Christ.

One of the tests of true ministry is to question where it leaves us after encountering it. Did it leave us merely intellectually stimulated, filled up with head knowledge, or did it do more than that and leave us closer to God than before?

Some of us reformed people are right in the head but wrong in the heart. We have right and correct doctrine but yet we have cold and calloused hearts. We wax eloquent about the doctrines of grace but there is very little grace flowing from us to others. People who encounter us do not catch on fire for God, to burn with a Holy Spirit ignited passion, zealous for God and for people, aflame for the Gospel of Christ….and how indeed could they, for there is no evidence of a flicker of a flame in our own personal lives. Oh God, save and deliver us from passionless and lukewarm religion!

I can think of no greater acolade to give to a preacher than this one: This brief excerpt of a sermon by David Wilkerson spoke directly to my heart and provoked in me a burning desire to seek God for Himself.

Today, if you also hear His voice in this, do not harden your heart.

It is time to seek the Lord.