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We are a people bent on bending the will of others to our own liking. Thus, advertising is the medium of our age. Marketing even determines who will be our nation’s leader (on those rare occasions when the courts do not decide). Political candidates raise money for one fundamental purpose—advertising. Even the more high-brow approach of political debate has devolved into a charade, where candidates are concerned not with making carefully reasoned defenses of the policies to which they are committed but with projecting particular images. Overcoming a history of smirks with charm and undoing a history of wonkism by appearing to be an “alpha male” are also “essential” skills.
All our lives are spent in an endless stream of consumer decisions, with the masters of Madison Avenue trying their best to pull our strings. It’s all about technique, about how to get past our rational faculties and manipulate our wills. And the church, as is its wont, has swallowed the bait. We have succumbed to the advertisers’ advertising, believing their over-blown promises that if we will but put our product in their hands, they’ll find us a viable market. We have reduced the Gospel to the level of toothpaste, just another product looking for another batch of consumers.
That makes our task here all the more difficult. Last month we looked at genuine revival. This month we look at its clever but malicious doppelganger, revivalism, an essentially man-made phenomenon that is marked by a commitment to technique. Our desire is to help our readers learn to tell the difference, that they might not fall for the huckster’s hustle. But in trying to help our readers not fall into the fallacy of revivalism, how can I keep from being hoisted on my own petard? I cannot give you “Three Easy Steps to Recognize the Folly of Three Easy Steps to Revival.” I cannot provide a technique to help you eschew technique. So what do I do?
The antidote to revivalism is not technique but the plain, straightforward preaching of the Gospel of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. It’s not flashy. It doesn’t make for great fund-raising. But it is our calling.
The first preacher of revival was perhaps John the Baptist. He was certainly a sight to behold, practicing the peculiarities of the prophet. He did not come equipped with PowerPoint. And he was not an attractive messenger: “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6). This was not the kind of man you would invite to a businessman’s lunch where some athlete affirms the blessings of depending on “the Man upstairs.” This was no tent crusader.
Neither did John’s message come with a spoonful of that wild honey. He called for a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. He came to a people convinced of their right standing with God. They believed they were safe, that God’s wrath was directed at others and not at them. But John told them to repent, confess, and turn from their wickedness. He did not offer a series of benefits for embracing the message; he did not promise the repentant fulfilling lives. He told them to flee from the wrath that was to come. And we are told, “Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5).
John was an important man. He was recognized as the first prophet sent from God in four hundred years. His disciples were many. His fame grew to such a height that the very ruler of the land was in fear of him. But John, the preacher of revival, knew his role. The crowds that flocked to him, hung on his every word, and sought out his counsel were left with this message: “‘There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’ ” (Mark 1:7–8). The great evangelist understood that the greatness was not in the evangelist, but in the Evangel.
John preached to the Jews. But when Paul was commissioned to bring the Evangel to the Gentiles, neither the message nor the approach changed. Paul did not reason that while Jews were used to prophetic challenges and direct discourse, the Gentiles were a sensuous people, a people who would need the message recast for their temperament. To the Corinthians he expressed his purpose: “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:1–2). Paul preached Christ because he wanted people to be converted to Christ. They were to embrace His life and death, not the methods of the messenger; as he tells them, “I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:3–5).
To avoid the trap of revivalism, we need only follow the Biblical model of the proclamation of the Gospel, and do so for the very reasons the Bible gives. We need to believe the Gospel enough to know that it is about what Christ has done and what the Spirit is doing, not our own efforts. We cannot, in short, proclaim the Gospel of the power of God in our own power. If we believe in the power of the Gospel to effect our salvation, we must believe in the power of the Gospel preached to bring in His elect. If we deny our own power to earn the favor of God for ourselves, we must deny our own power to bring others into that same peace. This is no technique, but the refusal of all techniques. Like John, we must be direct and call for the fruit of repentance. And we must affirm with Paul, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).