Request your free, three-month trial to Tabletalk magazine. You’ll receive the print issue monthly and gain immediate digital access to decades of archives. This trial is risk-free. No credit card required.Try Tabletalk Now
Already receive Tabletalk magazine every month?
Verify your email address to gain unlimited access.
In 1740, a mighty movement of the Spirit of God occurred in the Northampton, Mass., church where Jonathan Edwards was the pastor, as well as in churches in other vicinities. Compelled to deal with the issues raised by this work of the Spirit, Edwards wrote a small but significant treatise titled The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God.
It would seem that a strong movement of the Spirit would be cause for rejoicing among Christians everywhere. But the expressions of emotional fervor that were characteristic of the revival made it a matter of sharp controversy. Instead of rejoicing in it, many denounced it as the work of the devil. But Edwards disagreed. While he had no doubts about the ability of the devil to distort and discredit the work of God—Satan, he said, “trained in the best divinity school in the universe”—he was convinced that the grounds upon which the revival was being attributed to the devil were mistaken.
This controversy drove Edwards to the fourth chapter of 1 John, a chapter that begins with this exhortation: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
Edwards writes: “… we are to take the Scriptures as our guide in such cases. This is the great and standing rule which God has given to His church, in order to guide them in things relating to the great concerns of their souls; and it is an infallible and sufficient rule.… Doubtless that Spirit who indited the Scriptures knew how to give us good rules, by which to distinguish His operations from all that is falsely pretended to be from Him.”
Edwards divides his exposition of this matter into three parts. First, he gives signs that must not be considered as proofs that a revival is spurious or counterfeit. Included in this section are nine subheadings, under which Edwards takes on the major objections of the critics. He argues that effects on the body, imprudent and irregular behavior, errors in judgment, and even the falling into sin of professing Christians do not in any way prove that a work is not of God. The fact that the devil sows tares does not make the wheat less real.
Edwards rebukes those who regarded such things as infallible proofs of the counterfeit nature of the work. On the one hand he writes: “A thousand imprudences will not prove a work to be not of the Spirit of God” (Works, p. 264). On the other hand, he observes: “… indeed spiritual and eternal things are so great and of such infinite concern, that there is great absurdity in men’s being but moderately moved and affected by them …” (Works, p. 262).
He also writes: “Lukewarmness in religion is abominable, and zeal an excellent grace; yet above all other Christian virtues, this needs to be strictly watched and searched; for it is that with which corruption, and particularly pride and human passion is exceedingly apt to mix unobserved. And it is observable that there never was a time of great reformation to cause a revival of zeal in the church of God, but that it has been attended, in some notable instances, with irregularity, and a running out some way or other into an undue severity.”
While such things do not infallibly prove a work is not of God, Edwards also would be quick to argue the converse—that the presence of these things does not assure that a work is of God. We may at this point remind ourselves that the prophets of Baal abounded in emotional outbursts and all sorts of physical gyrations, but Elijah, who was downright tame by comparison, had the truth (1 Kings 18:26, 28, 36–38).
The second part of Edwards’ work is devoted to those signs that infallibly prove a work is of God. Five major signs are included, each of which is clearly supported by 1 John 4. According to Edwards, a work is most assuredly of God when:
1. It raises our esteem of Christ (vv. 2–3).
2. It operates against the interests of Satan’s kingdom (vv. 4–5).
3. It creates a higher regard for the Scriptures (v. 6).
4. It leads to truth and convinces of those things that are true (v. 6).
5. It creates a spirit of love for God and man (vv. 6–21).
A true work of God, then, is invariably Christ-exalting, Satan-defeating, Bible-revering, and love-generating.
True revivals exalt Christ. Evangelical churches claim to honor Christ, but the Christ that many honor has been shorn of much of His fullness and glory. His full deity and full humanity, His threefold office (Prophet, Priest, and King), His righteous life meeting the demands of God’s holy law, and His substitutionary death are all too often discarded or muted in favor of a practical “life-management” Christ who is more concerned to provide people with coping skills than to present them faultless before the throne of God’s glory. Church leaders often appear to be more concerned about dispensing practical advice that will get their people through Monday than about telling of the Christ who will get them safely into eternity.
True revivals also launch a frontal attack on Satan’s kingdom by emphasizing the reality of human sin. Believers who have been able to rationalize sinful thoughts, attitudes, and actions now find each to be as intolerable as sharp sticks in their eyes. They no longer are able to take comfort in the popular “carnal Christian” teaching, which maintains that one can be truly saved and continue to live in sin, a teaching that can hardly claim to operate “against the interests of Satan’s kingdom” (Works, p. 267).
True revivals turn the people of God into busy Bible-beavers. Bibles long set aside in favor of TV Guide began to be eagerly searched and devoured. Many years ago, a revival broke out in a foreign land. One of the young converts had failed to catch the word revival. In reporting what was going on, he said: “We are having a great re-Bible here.” The Bible is so central to God’s reviving work that, while we smile at his mistake, we also have to say that there is no difference at all between revival and “re-Bible.”
True revivals build people up in the truth. Doctrine, so often treated as unnecessary and impractical, is no longer disparaged but cherished. Edwards emphasizes in particular the truth “that make men more sensible than they used to be, that there is a God, and that He is a great and a sinhating God; that life is short and very uncertain, and that there is another; that they have immortal souls, and must give account of themselves to God; that they are exceeding sinful by nature and practice; that they are helpless in themselves.…”
True revivals foster a spirit of love for God and man. Cold hearts melt in love for God, and the people of God are astonished that they could have become so indifferent. Love for others becomes the order of the day as Christians set aside silly, petty differences and unite in devotion to God and His Word.
J.I. Packer offers this summary of Edwards’ position on revival: “Though it is through the knowledge of Bible truth that the Spirit effects His reviving work, revival is not merely, nor even primarily, a restoring of orthodoxy. It is essentially a restoring of religion … an experimental acquaintance with, and a hearty, practical response to, the divine realities set forth in the Gospel. It is this that languishes during the time of sleep and barrenness before revival comes, and it is this that the outpouring of the Spirit renews. Hence, ‘the distinguishing marks of a work of the Spirit of God’ i.e., of a revival, all have to do with a deepening of experimental piety.”
Edwards wraps up his work by drawing the following conclusions:
1. The work in question was indeed a genuine moving of the Spirit of God.
2. This work should not be opposed or hindered in any way but rather encouraged and promoted.
3. Those who supported the revival should avoid doing anything that would “darken and obscure the work” (Works, p. 273).
These inferences should cause us to resolve firmly that we will:
1. Earnestly pray that God will do such a work in His church that Christians everywhere will be compelled to consider what constitutes true revival and to apply Edwards’ teaching on 1 John 4.
2. Determine that we will not be so zealous for the status quo and so frightened of excesses that we actually hinder a true work of God.
3. Determine, if we should see God do a mighty work of revival, that we will focus on the things that really matter and not get caught up with the features that can be used by Satan to discredit the revival.
We should hope that Edwards’ Marks will become very well known and much appreciated in the church in our time. If it does, it will mean that we are experiencing the joys, and, yes, the problems and challenges, of true revival.