How do we discern between true and false revival?
With what appears to be some moves of God in some American campuses, plenty of talk about revival is again being heard. And well it should. We should always be asking God to bring heaven-sent revival to our spiritually-parched churches and nations. We should all be praying Psalm 85:6: “Revive us again, O God!”
I have already written about the events now happening at Asbury in Kentucky. As is to be expected, there has been much said about this, both by critics, by supporters, and those somewhere in the middle. See my thoughts on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2023/02/16/on-revival-and-the-asbury-revival/
Here I want to offer four necessary considerations on things like revival and renewal, and then again return to someone we should all be aware of in this regard.
One. When it comes to a religious experience or activity, whether individual or corporate, there are two opposite errors to avoid:
-Simply be gullible and naive and accept everything and question nothing. We are to test all things.
-Simply bad mouth, attack, doubt and criticise everything and accept nothing. We are to be open to real moves of God.
So yes, discernment is needed, but these two extremes help no one.
Two. Here is another set of opposites that we must also avoid:
-Simply run on emotions, allowing them to trump everything, including our minds and the Word of God.
-Simply avoid all emotion and act as if we are only made to be intellects.
God created us as whole persons, and that includes our emotions, but like everything they need to be kept in check and not made into an absolute.
Three. On this earth – in this fallen world – there is no perfect anything:
-There is no perfect Christian. There is always a mix of Spirit and flesh.
-There is no perfect church. There is always a mix of Spirit and flesh.
-There is no perfect revival. There is always a mix of Spirit and flesh.
So some humility and grace is needed as we deal with other believers, other churches, and other experiences.
Four. When a revival or awakening or move of God takes place, we know from church history that:
-Many people will have a wonderful encounter with the living God.
-Satanic counterfeits will also be present.
God’s people always need real discernment and understanding as they seek to separate the genuine from the fake.
As to a key thinker on all this, I refer once more to Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). He has been called America’s greatest theologian and philosopher. He was also a pastor and a revivalist. Because he was involved in revival, he carefully sought to distinguish true revival from false, true religious affections from false. Perhaps no one has done more along these lines, and his thoughts are always worth revisiting.
In the article I link to above I speak more about his thinking on revival, and offer links to two articles that discuss all this in much more detail. The best thing I can suggest is that you read some of the many important works by Edwards yourself. But second best thing is to read what others have said about him. As to that, see the twenty volumes I list below.
But let me offer just one important commentator on revival, reformation, and Edwards. I refer to the now classic 1979 volume, Dynamics of Spiritual Life (IVP) by church historian Richard Lovelace. He offers useful background information on the church of Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts and the awakening that took place there:
When Edwards inherited his grandfather Stoddard’s congregation in 1727, he tells us, they were “dry bones,” possessing the form of godliness but denying its power. As Edwards saw them, they were respectable, and they had a kind of rote orthodoxy which shuffled doctrines aimlessly like faded packs of cards. But their ultimate concerns were not God and his kingdom, but land and pursuit of affluence. Their children, Edwards says, were given to night walking and tavern haunting; no doubt, if they had had drugs, they would have used them.
But the generation gap between a powerless orthodoxy and its apostate children was reversed in 1734, as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit began to “turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Mal. 4:6). Edwards describes the ensuing revival in his Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. A stirring of interest began in the young people as they suddenly seemed to come in direct touch with the realities behind the God-talk of the minister, and this interest spread to their parents. As the Holy Spirit opened the eyes of their hearts and illuminated theological concepts, the opaque orthodoxy of the laity suddenly became a transparent medium for vision through which they saw the glory of God. The gravity of covetousness which had drawn their hearts to earthly concerns was reversed, and merchants began to neglect their business to talk about God and their souls. The Word of God suddenly had free course in congregational worship since the laity were now in touch with the regions described in the minister’s sermons. Hymns were now a delight rather than a habit and a duty. The lay people’s passivity in witness gave way to a new concern for others.
The illumination of the heart which brought converts in touch with the reality of God simultaneously revealed to them how deeply sin gripped their own lives. They suddenly became aware that their problem was not isolated acts of conscious disobedience to God, but a deep aversion to God at the root of their personalities, an aversion which left them in unconscious bondage to unbelief, selfishness, jealousy and other underlying complexes of sin. Some were in agony—even convicted because they were not more sensibly convicted—until they broke through to the realization that the only righteousness that could reconcile such depravity to a holy God was that of Jesus Christ, who offered himself for them on the cross. The new lives which they began to live issued out of hearts thoroughly broken because of sin.
Now that is revival, when people experience the convicting power of the HOLY Spirit. That is what we hope will be taking place at Asbury. And the insights of Edwards on how we can assess and discern what is happening in a revival, and with the religious affections, remain a sound and helpful guide as we assess this and other new movements of God around the world.
As I say, it is early days yet, and the movement happening in Kentucky (and now spreading to other campuses and other places) is midstream. We will have to wait and see how it all pans out. But we can say already that the enemy will seek to bring in counterfeit measures. That always happens. Let’s pray for the leaders there that they have godly wisdom and discernment as these events continue to take place.
We really do need revival.
Further reading on Jonathan Edwards
Byrd, James, Jonathan Edwards for Armchair Theologians. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
Crisp, Oliver, Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians. Eerdmans, 2015.
Crisp, Oliver and Kyle Strobel, Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought. Eerdmans, 2018.
Everhard, Matthew, Holy Living: Jonathan Edwards’s Seventy Resolutions for Living the Christian Life. Tyndale House, 2021.
Finn, Nathan and Jeremy Kimble, eds., A Reader’s Guide To the Major Writings of Jonathan Edwards. Crossway, 2017.
Hoehner, Paul, The Covenant Theology of Jonathan Edwards. Pickwick, 2021.
Lawson, Steven, The Unwavering Resolve of Jonathan Edwards. Reformation Trust Publishing, 2008.
McClymond, Michael and Gerald McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards. OUP, 2011.
McDermott, Gerald, ed., Understanding Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to America’s Theologian. OUP, 2008.
Marsden, George, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. Yale University Press, 2003.
Murray, Iain, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography. Banner of Truth, 1987.
Nichols, Stephen, Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought. P&R, 2001.
Nichols, Stephen, Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edward’s Vision of Living in Between. Crossway, 2006.
Ortlund, Dane, Edwards on the Christian Life. Crossway, 2014.
Piper, John, God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards. Crossway, 1998, 2006.
Piper, John and Justin Taylor, A God Enhanced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards. Crossway, 2004.
Sproul, R. C. and Archie Parrish, The Spirit of Revival. Crossway, 2000.
Storms, Dan, Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections. Crossway, 2007.
Stout, Harry, The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia. Eerdmans, 2017.
Strachan, Owen and Douglas Sweeney, The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America’s Greatest Theologian. Moody, 2018.