Saturday morning break time arrived during the conference at which I was a guest, and it seemed a good idea to take a stroll outside. It had been dark the night before and the church building across the road had been invisible. Now, as I walked over to have a look, I was startled by the words on the notice board: “Revival Here Next Week: Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.” So it is true, I thought. There really are Christians who believe that a church can plan, prepare for, and announce revival in advance!
It would be easy to be cynical and clever (Why no revival on Wednesday?) or lofty and superior (Don’t these people know about Charles Finney and how mistaken he was?).
Maybe the folks across the road really were planning a Bible conference like the one at which I was speaking—a time of more intensive ministry that would refresh and even “revive” them. Surely, I mused, no one who has experienced revival in the historic sense would advertise the dates on which it would take place. True revival has a very different effect.
But what is the difference?
Young bank tellers used to be taught to distinguish forged bank notes from real ones by spending hours handling the genuine article. By the same token, the best safeguard against mistaken revivalism is familiarity with the real thing.
In his Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, Jonathan Edwards draws on 1 John 4 to show that all true works of God share several features: (1) a high esteem for Christ; (2) the overthrow of Satan’s kingdom in our hearts; (3) a reverent view of, and close attention to, God’s Word in Scripture; (4) the presence of the Spirit of truth convincing us of the reality of eternity and the depth of our sin and need; and (5) a deep love for both God and man.
But what does this mean in flesh-and-blood terms?
Many years ago, I witnessed revival in its most microcosmic form in the sudden, unexpected, and remarkable work of God’s Spirit on a friend. The work was so dramatic, the effect so radical, that news of it spread quickly to different parts of the country. People were asking, “Just what exactly happened?”
It was 25 years before I felt it appropriate to ask my friend (who was unfamiliar with Edwards’ Distinguishing Marks) what this remarkable experience had involved. The answer was illuminating. Five things seemed to have happened, and they were still fresh in the person’s memory two and a half decades later.
- A painful exposure of the particular sin of unbelief occurred. Listening to preaching was a staple element of my friend’s spiritual diet, but what now came with overpowering force was the sense that God’s Word had actually been despised inwardly. How could it cleave through this particular heart to work with holy power? Then God’s own Word stripped away the mask of inner pride and outward (but false) spirituality. There was a fearful exposure of the truth.
- A powerful desire arose to be free from all sin. A new affection came, as if unbidden, into the heart. Indeed, a desire seemed to be given to have sin first revealed in order that it might be confessed, pardoned, and cleansed. Disturbing though it was, there was a sweetness in the pain.
- The love of Christ now seemed marvelous beyond measure. A love for Him flowed from a heart that could not get enough of Christ, ransacking Scripture to discover more and more about Him.
- A new love for God’s Word was born—for reading it, for hearing it expounded and applied, and especially for knowing every expression of God’s will, so that it might be obeyed.
- A compassionate love for others now flowed. It came from this double sense of sin and need on the one hand and grace and forgiveness on the other. Christian witness ceased to be a burden and became the expression of Spirit-wrought and powerful new affections.
It was thus for King David: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness … blot out.… Wash me thoroughly … cleanse me.… I acknowledge my transgressions.… You desire truth in the inward parts.… Purge me … wash me.… Create in me a clean heart.… Restore to me the joy of Your salvation.… My tongue shall sing aloud …” (Ps. 51).
There are echoes of it in Jonah, the prophet who needed personal revival before he became God’s instrument for Ninevite revival: “ ‘I cried out to me LORD.… I said, “I have been cast out of Your sight.” … You have brought up my life.… I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving’ ” (Jonah 2).
This is what happens “when the Spirit comes.” He convicts of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8–11). His work is the real thing. It preserves us from two dangers. The first is the (Arminian) danger of a false revivalism. Familiarity with the genuine is the best safeguard against the false. The second is the (Reformed?) danger of a false superiority. Here, as elsewhere, Paul’s wise words need to be taken to heart: Knowledge can puff up; love builds up. For of what value is it before God to be capable of exposing the false if we have no desire ourselves for the true?
At the end of the day, the best safeguard against a false revivalism is a knowledge of the true. And, ultimately, that is less a desire for revival than it is a desire for the knowledge of God.