Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), described by Martyn Lloyd-Jones as ‘pre-eminently the theologian of Revival’, once said:
‘The Holy Spirit, in his indwelling, his influences and fruits, is the sum of all grace, holiness, comfort and joy or, in one word, of all the spiritual good Christ purchased for men in this world: and is also the sum of all perfection, glory and joy, that he purchased for them in another world.’
Edwards rightly discerned that neither the Father’s plan of salvation nor Christ’s actual work of redemption could have been realised without the gift and outpouring of the Spirit.
It is to the Holy Spirit that God the Father and God the Son have entrusted the indispensable task of applying the cross-work of Christ to sinners, both individually and corporately.
The era initiated at Pentecost – when Christ gave the Holy Spirit in all of his fulness and power – is one to which the Old Testament looked forward longingly. It remains one in which the Spirit of God is powerfully at work.
As Paul writes in Titus 3:6, the Holy Spirit has been ‘poured out on [believers] richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour’ (italics added). This is a truth to which all Christians should heartily assent.
Christian thinkers differ with regard to some aspects of the Spirit’s work, in particular, whether or not the ‘extraordinary’ gifts of the Holy Spirit (as theologians have historically called them) continued beyond the apostolic era.
Edwards was confident that these gifts were given only in certain biblical periods and especially in apostolic times – to establish the fledgling church and ‘to reveal the mind and will of God before the canon of the Scripture was complete’.
Lloyd-Jones, on the other hand, who keenly admired Edwards and was critical of the modern Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, nevertheless held that these gifts continued to be given throughout the history of the church.
But both would have agreed that the new covenant era is one in which the rich work of the Holy Spirit is all-pervasive. Among these new-covenant works of the Spirit are the following:
1. The Holy Spirit is the one who floods the heart of the sinner with God’s love for him or her (Romans 5:5).
2. Only the Spirit can impart life to those who are ‘dead in trespasses and sins’, and fill their hearts with the conviction that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Ephesians 2:5; 1 Corinthians 12:3).
3. The Spirit comes to indwell the heart of such sinners and makes them holy temples of the living God (1 Corinthians 3:16).
4. The Spirit is the seal of the salvation of believers and the guarantee of their future in the glory (2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 4:30).
5. The Spirit gives believers boldness to enter the awesome presence of the Almighty and call him ‘Dear Father’ (Galatians 4:6).
6.The Spirit undergirds and empowers the entirety of the Christian’s spiritual life. Paul urges believers in Galatians 5:25 – ‘since we live by the Spirit [since we have been given spiritual life by the Spirit] let us keep in step with the Spirit [let us live in genuine spirituality and holiness]’.
Revival in France
Prominent among these new-covenant works is ‘revival’ or ‘awakening’. Two examples will help us to understand something of the variety of what we are thinking about here.
Firstly, the massive advance of the gospel in Europe during the time of the Reformation can only be explained in terms of spiritual revival. Take France as an example.
From small beginnings in the 1520s, when handfuls of men and women there embraced the Evangelical faith (among them John Calvin, 1509-1564), the numbers grew year by year. By the time of Calvin’s death there were an estimated 1,200 Calvinistic congregations in the country with around two million members – about a tenth of France’s population.
And these congregations emerged in the space of less than fifty years! The French Reformation was like a mighty river that completely altered the historical landscape of that time.
Revival in Scotland
Our second example is drawn from seventeenth-century Scotland. A number of Calvin’s spiritual heirs, the English and Scottish Puritans, knew revival first-hand. These revivals, though, were far smaller than the French Reformation, and certainly not the nationwide awakening for which the Puritans longed and laboured.
At a celebration of the Lord’s Supper at Shotts near Glasgow on Sunday 20 June 1630, the service was attended by such a rich sense of the presence of God that at the conclusion of worship, instead of retiring to bed, folk continued together in prayer and devotion throughout the night.
God had so presenced himself with them that they were unable to part without further thanksgiving and praise. A Monday preaching service was therefore arranged, and a young man called John Livingstone (1603-1672), chaplain to the Countess of Wigton, was persuaded to preach.
He too had spent the previous night in prayer. Alone in the fields, at eight or nine in the morning, he was so overcome with a sense of his unworthiness (particularly as so many experienced ministers were present) that he thought he would slip away quietly.
He had actually gone some way and was almost out of sight of the church when the words, ‘Was I ever a barren wilderness or a land of darkness?’ were so impressed upon his heart that he felt bound to return and preach. There ensued a most remarkable demonstration of the power and grace of God.
Shower of blessing
Livingstone preached from Ezekiel 36:25-26: ‘Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh’.
His sermon was drawing to a close when a heavy shower of rain caused people in the churchyard to cover themselves hastily with their cloaks. This prompted the preacher to continue:
‘If a few drops of rain so discompose you, how discomposed would you be, how full of horror and despair, if God should deal with you as you deserve? And God will deal thus with all the finally impenitent. God might justly rain fire and brimstone upon you, as he did upon Sodom and Gomorrah, and the other cities of the plain.
‘But, for ever blessed be his name! the door of mercy still stands open for such as you are. The Son of God, by tabernacling in our nature, and obeying and suffering in it, is the only refuge and covert from the storm of divine wrath due to us for sin.
‘His merits and mediation alone are the screen from that storm, and none but those who come to Christ just as they are, empty of everything, and take the offered mercy at his hand, will have the benefit of this shelter.’
Livingstone continued preaching in such a vein for another hour or so, experiencing, in his words, ‘such liberty and melting of heart, as I never had the like in public all my lifetime’. It was later estimated that close to five hundred individuals were converted as a result of that single sermon.
History does not record another day like this in Livingstone’s ministry. Unlike the mighty river of the French Reformation, this revival was a rivulet that affected but a small area geographically. Yet, like the French Reformation, it brought the life-giving water of the Spirit to thirsty souls.
Revivals are unique works of God
Simply from these two examples it is evident that genuine revivals can vary considerably one from one another. Reasons for this are not hard to find.
Movements of spiritual renewal never occur in a historical vacuum. There are distinct cultural, social and economic factors that influence these revivals, and thus help to make each of them a unique work of God.
Moreover, Christians in these various movements of revival differ in temperament and experience, which creates further differences between the revivals. John Calvin, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Haddon Spurgeon – all were leaders in periods of spiritual renewal and advance. Yet they were very different individuals.
One should also note that the living God delights in variety and never quite repeats himself. This is evident in the realm of the natural world and is equally true in the realm of church history, especially in this matter of revival.