Jonathan Edwards, in A history of the work of redemption, demonstrates that a soteriological (saving) significance is traceable in nearly all of God’s works.
He gives numerous scriptural examples to show how God, in different ways, is always preparing the field for the salvation of sinners. The Lord’s groundwork is even traceable in his acts of judgment.
On using this Edwardsean hermeneutical principle for ourselves in the study of Scripture, we discover that the Lord displays what we might call a ‘soteriological eagerness’ in redemption (see ET, April 2015, p.29). This eagerness is exemplified in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son.
Here, the father is keenly watching for the return of his wayward son. So, when he sees his son still a long way off yet homeward bound, he runs and welcomes him ecstatically (Luke 15:20).
This eagerness is not set aside during times of spiritual declension. While it is true that God alone fully understands the reasons for anything he does, Scripture reveals that ‘to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven’, and that God has ‘made everything beautiful in his time’ (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 11).
So, even the cessation of revivals has its own ‘beauty’ within the plan of God, as it serves his soteriological purposes. Redemption is always (though subtly sometimes) at work.
At this point, our reaction may be to think we cannot hope to trace out God’s purposes in dark times, and to drop the matter. But, here again, Jonathan Edwards provides us with profoundly stimulating insights.
In his treatise, penned in 1746 with the expressive title of An humble attempt to promote an explicit agreement and visible union of God’s people through the world, in extraordinary prayer, for the revival of religion, and the advancement of Christ’s kingdom on earth, pursuant to scripture promises and prophecies concerning the last time (often abbreviated to Humble attempt), he argues for united, expectant prayer among all Christians for universal revival before Christ returns. He argues for the validity of this from a range of Scripture prophecies and promises bearing on the theme.
He looks, for example, at Zechariah 8:20-22: ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: peoples shall yet come, inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, let us continue to go and pray before the Lord, and seek the Lord of hosts. I myself will go also.
‘Yes, many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: in those days ten men from every language of the nations shall grasp the sleeve of a Jewish man, saying, let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’.
Edwards says: ‘It is certain that many things, which are spoken concerning a glorious time of the church’s enlargement and prosperity in the latter days, have never yet been fulfilled. There has never yet been any propagation and prevalence of religion, in any wise, of that extent and universality which the prophecies represent’.
All past revivals were extraordinary seasons when Christ’s redemption was applied by the Spirit to multitudes of sinners. They interpolated the ‘ordinary’ seasons of grace, when gospel work went much more slowly. But there was always a final universal revival still to come, which should never have been lost sight of.
Besides this ‘latter day glory’, previous revivals will pale into insignificance. None of them, not even the Reformation, will be as glorious as the time when the earth shall, literally, be ‘filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea’ (Habakkuk 2:14).
Edwards’ logic here is highly persuasive as he bases his reasoning on the plain meaning of many scripture texts.
What then is ‘beautiful’ about spiritually dark seasons? Perhaps the best answer to that is this: the cessation of revivals serves to excite believers’ anticipation, prayers and longing for something much better yet to come; God is reserving the best wine until the climax of the kingdom feast (John 2:1-11; Revelation 11:7-11).
He is not going to allow the edge be taken off our spiritual appetite by prolonging what was only meant to be a harbinger of the greater blessing. Previous revivals have had their sovereignly ordained end-points, to humble the church for its faults and failings, but, above all, to excite prayer for that prophesied universal gospel triumph.
We were never meant to be satiated with the hors d’oeuvres and lose all interest in the main course!
Latter day fulfilment
In his Humble attempt Edwards details Scripture’s description of the latter day glory. Commenting on Habakkuk 2:14 — ‘the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea’ — he says: ‘I now proceed to show how this glorious work shall be accomplished. The Spirit of God shall be gloriously poured out for the wonderful revival and propagation of religion.
‘This great work shall be accomplished, not by the authority of princes, nor by the wisdom of learned men, but by God’s Holy Spirit, (Zechariah 4:6-7). “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts…”
‘This pouring out of the Spirit of God, when it is begun, shall soon bring great multitudes to forsake that vice and wickedness which now so generally prevail; and shall cause that vital religion, which is now so despised and derided in the world, to revive.
‘The work of conversion shall break forth, and go on in such a manner as never has been hitherto, (Isaiah 44:3-5). God, by pouring out his Holy Spirit, will furnish men to be glorious instruments of carrying on this work; will fill them with knowledge and wisdom, and fervent zeal for promoting the kingdom of Christ and the salvation of souls, and propagating the gospel in the world.
‘The gospel shall begin to be preached with abundantly greater clearness and power than had heretofore been. This great work of God shall be brought to pass by the preaching of the gospel, as it is represented, (Revelation 14:6-8); that before Babylon falls, the gospel shall be powerfully preached and propagated in the world…’
‘And there shall be a glorious outpouring of the Spirit with this clear and powerful preaching of the gospel, to make it successful for reviving those holy doctrines of religion which are now chiefly ridiculed in the world, and turning many from heresy, from popery, and from other false religions; and also for turning many from their vice and profaneness, and for bringing vast multitudes savingly home to Christ.
‘The work of conversion shall go on in a wonderful manner, and spread more and more. Many shall flow together to the goodness of the Lord, one multitude after another continually, (Isaiah 60:4-5). “Lift up thine eyes round about, and see; all they gather themselves together, they come to thee; thy sons shall come from far, and thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side. Then thou shalt see, and flow together.” And verse 8, “Who are these that fly as a cloud, and as doves to their windows?”
‘And as the gospel shall be preached to every tongue, and kindred, and nation, and people, before the fall of Antichrist; so we may suppose that it will be gloriously successful to bring in multitudes from every nation; and shall spread more and more with wonderful swiftness (Isaiah 66:7-9)’.
This writer agrees with Edwards’ prophetic approach and vision. But those spiritually minded believers who do not fully share his outlook will surely agree with him on this point, that one day Jesus Christ will gloriously triumph in our world. There is no doubt of that.
And we should all agree, whatever our viewpoint, that the best way to interpret prophecy is to wait prayerfully, and in faith, for its clarifying fulfilment!
Roger Fay is a director and editor of Evangelical Times, a director of Evangelical Press Missionary Trust, and pastor of Zion Evangelical Baptist Church, Ripon.