The New England theologian Jonathan Edwards is famous for his description of the progress of redemption history: ‘It may here be observed, that from the fall of man to our day, the work of redemption in its effect has mainly been carried on by remarkable communications of the Spirit of God.’
‘Though there be a more constant influence of God’s Spirit always in some degree attending his ordinances, yet the way in which the greatest things have been done towards carrying on this work, always have been by remarkable effusions, at special seasons of mercy’.
These words have long provided the church with insight into, and encouragement to pray for, the Holy Spirit’s work in revival. They have also been a yardstick for evaluating the occurrence both of revivals and of intervening seasons of dearth.
Past studies of revival have tended to focus on how God has brought about awakenings, with particular reference to relevant social, cultural, religious and human factors. But what has received far less attention is why revivals always, sooner or later, come to a grinding halt.
It is this far more difficult question that we will be considering in these two articles. It is one that we need to consider, since many Christians in the Western world are experiencing a prolonged season of spiritual barrenness.
Where attention has been given to periods of spiritual decline, explanations for them have centred on manifestations of human sin. For example, Edwards described carnal fanaticism in some Christians as the reason the Lord withdrew his gracious influence from New England’s first Great Awakening and brought it to a close.
Such a perspective is necessary and has strong biblical warrant (e.g. Judges 2:14-23). But this is not the only valid perspective, for ultimately sin cannot be the final obstacle to revival blessing, otherwise there would have been no revival in the first place! The very concept of ‘revival’ reminds us of that fact.
Hard as we may find the thought to cope with, it is God himself who stops revivals. The ultimate cause of their cessation is not human sinfulness, nor even the devil’s machinations, but God’s sovereignty.
But how exactly are we to measure the significance of this truth? The answer to that question is found in Scripture. Ecclesiastes 3:1 says, ‘To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven’. ‘Everything’ means everything! So this assertion must take in times of spiritual dearth too. ‘The preacher’ then adds that God has ‘made everything beautiful in his time’ (verse 11).
So God has ordained even the worst seasons. And there is actually something ‘beautiful’ about them — if we can only perceive what the nature of that beauty is!
This may seem a perverse way to think. But it isn’t so, if anchored in a valid biblical framework. And such a framework has been bequeathed to us by Jonathan Edwards.
In 1739, Edwards preached a series of sermons in Northampton, Massachusetts, afterwards published posthumously (1774) under the title A history of the work of redemption. In this work, he surveyed the history of redemption, down from creation to his own day, and then projected his survey forward to the end of the world.
What emerged was the big scriptural narrative and a framework full of hope.
Edwards’ thesis is that all humanhistory is subservient to Christ’s work of redemption. Revivals are God’s main occasions for applying, by his Spirit, Christ’s redemption to sinners, yet every divine act — not just revival — has soteriological (saving) significance. Even acts of judgment pave the way for future redemption, and sometimes rapidly so.
Here are some examples of Edwards systematically working his way through the Bible with this idea. Angels were created before the world. We know that angels are ministering spirits serving the heirs of salvation (Hebrews 1:14). But, before the world was created, there was no need of salvation and, therefore, no ‘heirs of salvation’ needing their ministry. This can only mean that God was preparing to save sinners before mankind had fallen into sin. Consider the short span of human life in Moses’ day compared to before the Flood. ‘Man’s life being cut so very short, tended to prepare the way for poor, short-lived men, the more joyfully to entertain the glad tidings of everlasting life, brought to light by the gospel; and more readily to embrace a Saviour, that purchases and offers such a blessing.
‘If men’s lives were still commonly about nine hundred years, how much less would be the inducement to regard the proffers of a future life; how much greater the temptation to rest in the things of this world, and to neglect any other life but this! This probably contributed greatly to the wickedness of the antediluvians’.
Then, consider the fall of man (Genesis 3): ‘As soon as man fell, Christ entered on his mediatorial work … [He] immediately stepped in between a holy, infinite, offended Majesty, and offending mankind’. The seed of the woman was announced to Adam and Eve almost immediately after they had sinned.
After the fall, God did not wait centuries before he saved lost sinners. Adam and Eve were saved. Clothed with animal skins as a type of Christ’s righteousness, they believed in the promised ‘seed of the woman’.
Similarly, Abel, the first man to experience physical death — God’s punishment on mankind for sin — went straight to heaven. Indeed, as early as the seventh generation from Adam, Enoch was translated into heaven without seeing death at all.
Edwards continues: ‘God was pleased … in a most amazing manner to show his wrath against sin, in the destruction of [Sodom and Gomorrah]; which was the liveliest image of hell of any thing that ever had been; and therefore the apostle Jude says, “They suffer the vengeance of eternal fire”, Jude 7 … by this might be seen the dreadful wrath of God against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men; which tended to show the necessity of redemption, and so to promote that great work’.
Applying the principle
We can apply this Edwardsean principle ourselves to many other parts of Scripture. For example, the book of Job was one of the earliest scriptural texts penned. Yet the book is not primarily about creation or judgment, but about God’s involvement in the suffering of the righteous. It is an early adumbration of the sufferings of Christ on behalf of his people. Even as early as this, the compassionate Saviour of sinners is being set forth.
Or, consider Isaiah chapters 40-66 — Isaiah’s Book of comfort. Here Israel’s triumphant restoration from Babylon is promised, but long before the exile into Babylon has actually taken place. The Holy Spirit was not only preparing God’s people for national meltdown, but comforting them, well in advance of these sufferings, with rich promises of the Messiah.
Nor did the Lord wait until the first coming of Christ, or the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, before he swept a Gentile nation into his kingdom. Centuries earlier, Nineveh and the Assyrians had repented at the preaching of Jonah.
Similarly, not after the passage of hundreds of years of Christianity, but, right at Christianity’s beginning, the Lord grafted a hugely significant ‘natural branch’ (a Jew) back into the ‘olive tree’ (the true church) (Romans 11). That Jew was Saul of Tarsus.
We are left in no doubt as to how important the New Testament considers Paul’s conversion, since his testimony is repeated, at length, several times.
Here then was a powerful statement of God’s future saving intention for both Jew and Gentile — and a foretaste of what Romans 11 still holds in store for the world.
The key, then, that Edwards has put into our hand is this: that God has a soteriological purpose in virtually all that he does. In the concluding article, we will see how this key can help us towards an understanding of the cessation of revivals.
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