Throughout the centuries, pastors have tried to understand what God is doing in their congregations. Sometimes, there have been periods of dryness and deadness when there has seemed to be little interest in God’s Word, even among those who claim to be Christians. But at other times, there have been periods of “great awakening” when God has seemed to be on the move, when people have experienced intense spiritual interest, and when revival has seemed to be all around.
It was at those times that pastors offered guidelines or marks that might help them and others distinguish true conversions from false conversions and thus true revival from false revival. In our own time, when so much is presented under the name of gospel-centered Christianity, when large groups of people are gathered and then dispersed when the charismatic leader passes from the scene, we still need for understanding what is true. How do we go about testing the spirits of those to whom we minister?
In some ways, it is easier to point out what might be false or inconclusive signs of spiritual interest or genuine conversion. In what follows, I will offer five such false or inconclusive signs before concluding with several true or trustworthy signs of genuine conversion and revival.
One false or misleading sign of religious interest might be heightened emotions. Simply because someone has powerful impressions of God’s love or overwhelming feelings of sadness over sin doesn’t mean that conversion has occurred.
We can think of contemporary examples where powerful, heightened emotions do not mean anything spiritual is happening. For example, people who watch the World Series or the Super Bowl might find their emotions raised to a fever pitch; that doesn’t mean, of course, that anything spiritual has happened. Likewise, in politics, citizens’ affections can be raised to great joy or to deep anger by a political harangue; that doesn’t mean those are emotions that lead to conversion.
It is the same in the spiritual realm: think of religious services that you’ve attended or watched on television. The music and preaching were deeply affecting—your emotions were moved and you thought that you would do anything in that moment for Christ. But those emotions did not actually move the will to bring about significant change in the life: there was not a new sight of Christ produced by the Holy Spirit that produced new practices of holiness in our lives. Our emotions might have been raised, but they did not produce lasting fruit.
Another sign that may prove to be false or misleading about our spiritual condition is a readiness to speak about our Christian experience. We tend to think that it must be a sign of true conversion if someone testifies to a change of heart and can describe that in great detail at a moment’s notice.
But as John Bunyan’s character Talkative in The Pilgrim’s Progress warns us, simply because someone can talk about Christian experience or doctrine doesn’t mean that he has experienced the reality of it in his heart. In fact, those with counterfeit religious experiences are much more prone to talk about them because they are motivated by spiritual pride and ambition, by a desire to be seen and known. This is an evidence that they are self-deceived and in a desperate spiritual condition.
A third sign that is untrustworthy in validating genuine conversion and true revival is the ability to quote Scripture at great length. Or perhaps there was a particular Bible verse that came directly to mind upon which people depend as evidence of genuine spiritual experience. But this is no sure proof: the devil himself can bring texts of Scripture to mind and misapply them in such a way so as to draw people away from God rather than to Him. After all, he tried to do just that in his temptation of Jesus, misquoting Psalm 91 in an effort to turn Christ Himself away from His Father.
In fact, some people might actually receive God’s Word joyfully for a time, only to turn away from it in the end. Matthew 13 teaches Christians that the stony-ground hearers received God’s Word with joy, but when time of trial came they proved to be false converts. That means there may be those who hear God’s Word gladly and give the appearance of growth, only to demonstrate in a time of trial in their marriage or family or work that there was no genuine following after Christ. Simply because there are Scripture proofs or apparent love for and interest in the Bible doesn’t mean that true conversion or revival has necessarily occurred.
Someone might even experience a sense of deliverance from sin or Satan and yet not truly be converted. There might be a situation where someone has experienced deep spiritual concern about his liability to eternal judgment and is feeling deep despair; perhaps he is experiencing significant spiritual—even demonic—oppression.
Then, immediately and seemingly miraculously, he feels delivered all at once, as though the devil has been cast out, the oppression ceases, the addiction comes to an end. This might happen through a dream or vision, perhaps of a person of great beauty with wounds in his hands or side that the individual takes to be a vision of Christ. And yet, even with such an experience, it does not mean that the individual is truly saved. The Bible nowhere teaches that such things provide a solid ground for assurance of conversion or for genuine revival.
Freedom in Worship
Finally, simply because someone knows freedom and engagement in worship does not mean that he has been converted. Going to worship services, regular attendance in religious education, attending revival meetings—none of these means that someone has truly been converted. Simply because there are large crowds in worship services or that people are highly participatory doesn’t mean that revival has come.
In addition, a freedom in praising God or in singing and magnifying His name does not provide indisputable evidence of a change of life. Freedom in bodily expression, loudness in singing, a “holy hush” during the preaching—none of these things necessarily means that God is present. Obviously, those who have experienced God’s transforming grace long to be in God’s presence, but such evident longing is not a sure sign of conversion or revival.
These five signs are at best inconclusive tests, if not false proofs of religious interest, genuine conversion, or true revival. Those who rest on these signs have the potential of being self-deceived about their condition. What, then, might be trustworthy signs of true revival, genuine conversion, and spiritual experience?
One sign is what Jonathan Edwards called “a gracious gratitude” that loves God for who He is in Himself as opposed to what He can do or has done for me. The believer realizes that coming into right relationship with God is everything, and meditating upon His character and delighting in His ways are the way of discipleship.
Especially, there is a great delight in God’s holiness. Believers begin to develop a taste and relish for the sweetness of God’s holiness and an equal distaste for and hatred of sin, which becomes increasingly bitter to them. As the Holy Spirit dwells in them, they find that God leads them to love His holiness, and they long to be like Him.
A third sign that God is at work in granting new affections to an individual is a humility that pervades his life. In the light of how great and glorious God is, believers come to see their own place in relation to Him and others. Such humility can only come from the influence of God’s Spirit as He works new ways of being and living into the heart. Genuine conversion will always be accompanied by humility because, at its heart, it is a rebuke to pride and a ceasing of self-willing: we rest in God through Christ who saves us. But the most important sign of God’s work in someone’s life is new practices of holy obedience. If God the Holy Spirit is truly indwelling the individual, there will inevitably be new practices of holiness as a result. Holiness doesn’t simply remain as a private faith. Rather, there are no little places and no small issues where the Christian does not desire and practice holy obedience.
A church filled with men and women who are delighting in God and His holiness, who are humble before God and others, and who are living out that holy delight in obedience to God’s Word—that is a church that is experiencing genuine revival. Such a church would not only be attractive to those who long for spiritual reality, but it would be a great witness to the incoming kingdom of God. May God grant us such churches and people in this day.