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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.” So said Jonathan Edwards, who, it is commonly agreed, is the greatest theologian of true revival in church history.
If “remarkable effusions” refers to revival, what is the “constant influence of the Spirit”? Put another way, does the present prolonged delay of “remarkable effusions” indicate that we lack something basic for living the Christian life? Are we at a significant disadvantage when revival tides are out? Our answer has great bearing on how we live during times when true revivals are scarce.
We must understand several basic truths revealed in Scripture about the present age and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. We have the clear promise of Christ that the Spirit indwells His disciples (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). Our Lord refers to the Spirit as “the Helper,” a title that plainly emphasizes the Spirit’s direct role in encouraging, assisting, and counseling us. The Holy Spirit also assures believers that they are children of God (Rom. 8:14–16) and that God loves them (Rom. 5:5). Further, He assures us that Jesus lives in us by His presence (1 John 4:13) and that this presence is God’s power at work within us (Gal. 3:5). He makes Christ known to us experientially (1 Cor. 2:10–12) and assures us of our final victory in Christ in the Last Day (Rom. 8:11, 15–17, 23; 2 Cor. 5:5).
In addition, we have a peace given directly to us by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17; cf. again John 14:16–18). This “peace” is a divinely given sense of well-being and contentment in all circumstances. The Holy Spirit floods our minds with the truth of God (Eph. 1:17–18) and convicts us of our need to change and grow in the grace of God (Rom. 8:5–9). We also have been given gifts for spiritual ministry (Rom. 12:6–8; 1 Cor. 12:4–6). In addition, we have the ordinary work of the church in dispensing the graces of the Word and sacrament, and the grace of church discipline.
Thus, the absence of “remarkable effusions” cannot mean that any of these ministries of the Spirit are hindered in any way. Whether we grow in grace rapidly or slowly has something to do with our own hunger and thirst. But there is mystery here as well. Each of us “stands or falls” to the Lord, and “God is able to make each one stand” (Rom. 14:4). Our fruitfulness, to varying degrees, is connected with His sovereign gifts. He clearly gives to some the ability to produce fruit that is thirtyfold, to others sixty, and to still others one hundred (Matt. 13:8).
With these blessings placed firmly in our minds, we should observe that several false notions regarding revival presently abound. Perhaps the most serious one is this—God must necessarily send “remarkable effusions” if we humble ourselves, seek Him, and turn away from all sin. I have met this mistake time and again.
Once, when being interviewed on live radio, two ministers who were in the midst of what they insisted was a massive city-wide revival asserted that I could not prove revival depended entirely on God. They argued that if people “flooded the altar with tears, cries, and deep repentance,” revival would necessarily follow. I took their challenge. I turned them to the account of Josiah’s powerful reforms in 2 Kings 23. Josiah restored true worship and “made a covenant before the LORD, to follow the LORD and to keep His commandments.… All the people took a stand for the covenant” (23:3). His actions were consistent, for “he removed the idolatrous priests” (23:5) and “tore down the ritual booths” (23:7). He even “executed all the priests of the high places” (23:20). The conclusion of the matter makes it very clear that he did everything the Lord required: “Now before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses; nor after him did any arise like him” (23:25). I then asked the two ministers: “Did Josiah do everything necessary to seek the Lord and to bring about true revival?” They answered, with some timidity, “Well, I suppose he did since there is nothing else he could have done!” With a bit of carnal joy, I confess, I asked them to then read 2 Kings 23:26: “Nevertheless the LORD did not turn from the fierceness of His great wrath, with which His anger was aroused against Judah.” God’s leader and God’s people obeyed Him. They did everything the covenant required, but God did not send revival.
The only safe conclusion to draw from this is simple—God will be God and will send revival where and when He pleases. We must obey Him. If we do, we can experience the joyful, powerful presence of the Holy Spirit in us, but “remarkable effusions” of mercy will come on God’s timetable, according to His purposes, never ours.
One other lesson should be kept in mind. God once asked Zechariah, a faithful prophet, “ ‘Who has despised the day of small things?’ ” (Zech. 4:10). This question came because discouragement prevailed among the people. The work of rebuilding the temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians, was under way. The foundation was laid but the work was moving slowly. The walls were not complete. Progress seemed impossible. Worst of all, at least in the eyes of the people, the new temple seemed weak in contrast with the one they had previously known. As a result of these circumstances, the people had begun to “despise the day of small things.” They had grown greatly discouraged.
Revivals are marvelous blessings. They are to be prayed for, studied, and pondered with wisdom and care. But they are uncommon and unique. In Zechariah’s time, the grave danger was looking back and despising what was happening in their own time. The same danger exists today. We read of the great visitations of God’s Spirit upon His people in times past. We look at our nation and our churches, and we see sad divisions and spiritual impotency. We cry for revival mercy. But God is pleased to withhold such “remarkable effusions,” at least for now. Therefore, we must be exceedingly careful not to despise the gifts He has given. They are indeed great.
As important as it is for us to pray for true revival, we must never lose sight of this simple fact—God is still actively working in us and in the church, whether He grants widescale awakening or not. Let us give thanks for the Spirit’s powerful present ministry and continue to ask that God would still “rend the heavens [and] … come down!” (Isa. 64:1) with “remarkable effusions.”