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‘The dungeon flamed with light’- Evangelical revivals of the 18th century

September 2004 | by Michael Haykin

Four marks of revival 3

The Farewell Discourse of John 14-16 contains some of the richest teaching on the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. Among the things that our Lord teaches about the Spirit is that when he comes in Pentecostal power he would ‘convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement’.

Not surprisingly, in light of the awareness of God’s holy presence and the teaching of his Word, genuine revivals normally include a profound sensitivity to sin, a ‘deep awareness of what things are sinful and how sinful we ourselves are’.

Sensitivity to sin

J. I. Packer notes: ‘No upsurge of religious interest or excitement merits the name of renewal if there is no deep sense of sin at its heart. God’s coming [near], and the consequent impact of his Word, makes Christians much more sensitive to sin than they previously were: consciences become tender and a profound humbling takes place’.

As American historian Richard Lovelace rightly observes: ‘Christians whose spiritual lives are grounded and nurtured only on self-esteem and positive thinking, without a vision of the depth of sin, are going to be lacking in depth, reality and humility.

‘Spirituality is imparted by the Holy Spirit, and since he is the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17), he cannot dwell in fullness where there is only partial openness to truth. If we cannot face the bad news about the depth of sin and the height of holiness, we cannot fully grasp the good news of salvation and the transformed life in Christ.’

Jonathan Edwards, thinking about what constitutes genuine revival, was not slow to place sensitivity to sin as one of the marks of an authentic work of the Spirit. He writes:

‘If we see persons made sensible of the dreadful nature of sin, and of the displeasure of God against it, and of their own miserable condition as they are in themselves by reason of sin, and earnestly concerned for their eternal salvation, and sensible of their need of God’s pity and help, and engaged to seek it in the use of the means that God has appointed, we may certainly conclude that it is from the Spirit of God…’

And George Whitefield (1714-1770), whose remarkable preaching of the Word brought multitudes to Christ, could state: ‘If you have never felt the weight of … sin, do not call yourselves Christians’.

Christ-centred revival

Although the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work in times of revival, it is Christ who is central. Thus, Jesus told his disciples that when the Spirit comes, ‘he will glorify me’.

These words set forth what Packer rightly calls the ‘Holy Spirit’s distinctive new covenant role’ — ‘directing all attention away from himself to Christ’ and making sure that Christ is ‘known, loved, honoured, praised and [has the] preeminence in everything’. This is utterly central to the New Testament.

If this is the central thrust of the Spirit’s work in the era initiated by Pentecost, and if the New Testament is an era of awakening and revival, then one can rightly say that revivals (which witness the intensification of the Spirit’s work) are by nature Christ-centred events.

Consider some New Testament evidence.

Evidence

1. Acts 2:14-40. Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost is Christ-centred. The Holy Spirit is mentioned right at the beginning of the sermon in the citation from Joel but then — taking his cue from the citation which states that ‘everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’ — Peter preaches Jesus, crucified, risen and seated at the Father’s right hand as Lord and Messiah.

2. Acts 4:8-12. Peter and John have been arraigned before the Sanhedrin, and Peter, ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’, preaches Jesus as the only way of salvation.

3. Ephesians 5:18-19 tells us that when believers are filled with the Spirit, they become worshippers of the Lord Jesus, lifting him up in psalm and hymn and Spirit-given song.

4. The vision in Revelation 4-5 of the throne room of heaven informs us that Christ is worthy to receive ‘honour and glory’. With the Father, he is rightly the object of universal adoration.

5. Hebrews 1:1-6 tell us that Christ is the object of angelic worship, for he is the creator, heir and sustainer of the universe — the ‘radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature’.

Floodlight ministry

The overall tenor of the New Testament revival era was Christ-centred. Its written products confirm this view. For example, Paul’s letter to the Colossians, though undoubtedly Spirit-inspired, barely mentions the Holy Spirit.

Instead, it is filled with lavish praise of Christ, who is set forth as the one who sustains the universe and is pre-eminent in all of it, being the ‘hope of glory’ (1:18,17, 27). In Christ dwells all the fulness of the deity and all the ‘treasure of wisdom and knowledge’ (1:19; 2:9,3).

To illustrate the ministry of the Spirit in relation to Christ in this present age, Packer refers to the Spirit’s work as ‘a floodlight ministry’. The truth of this came home to me some years ago when I was teaching at a French Baptist seminary located in a prestigious area of the West Island of Montreal.

One summer night I decided to go for a walk in the neighbourhood. I noticed that many of the wealthy homes in the area were floodlit so that passers-by like myself might ooh and aah about their imposing size and beauty.

Now, if instead of focusing on the floodlit homes I had concentrated on the floodlights themselves: ‘Oh, that’s an interesting-looking floodlight; I wonder how powerful it is’ — I would have missed the whole point. The home-owners had installed floodlights so that I should admire their homes, not the source of illumination!

To love Christ

So it is with the Spirit’s ministry. He was sent to focus our attention on Christ — to kindle in our hearts an unquenchable love for Christ and his purposes, and enable us to reflect his person and character.

The Spirit has not come primarily speak to us about himself. He has not been given that we should focus on him and his work. He has come to inhabit our mortal frames so that we should love Christ and adore him; that we should seek to live each day in obedience to Jesus.

How much more true is this in times of spiritual awakening! The work and ministry of the Holy Spirit in revival has this indispensable mark — it is Christ-centred. It is designed to exalt Christ and glorify him in the minds and hearts of men and women, boys and girls.

The great nineteenth-century Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) — who saw revival in his early ministry — put it this way:

‘If we do not make the Lord Jesus glorious; if we do not lift him high in the esteem of men, if we do not labour to make him King of kings, and Lord of lords; we shall not have the Holy Spirit with us. Vain will be rhetoric, music, architecture, energy, and social status: if our one design be not to magnify the Lord Jesus, we shall work alone and work in vain’.

Songs of praise to Christ

No wonder, then, that times of revival are also times when there are outpourings in song, praising Christ’s glory, worth and peerless work. In the eighteenth century one thinks of the vast corpus of hymns written by Charles Wesley, whom Packer describes as ‘the supreme poet of love to Jesus in a revival context’.

Ranged alongside him was an array of other hymn-writers — drawn from Anglican, Moravian, Methodist, Congregation-alist and Baptist camps. But all were intent on lifting high the Lord Jesus.

Consider this Christo-centric hymn of Congregationalist Joseph Hart (1712-1768):

Come, ye sinners, poor and wretched,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity join’d with power:
He is able, he is able, he is able;
He is willing; doubt no more.

Ho! ye needy, come and welcome;
God’s free bounty glorify:
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings you nigh,
Without money, without money,
without money,
Come to Jesus Christ and buy!

Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him:
This He gives you, this He gives
you, this He gives you;
’Tis the Spirit’s rising beam.

Come, ye weary, heavy-laden,
Bruis’d and mangled by the Fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all:
Not the righteous, not the righteous,
not the righteous;
Sinners, Jesus came to call.

View Him prostrate in the garden,
Lo! your Maker prostrate lies!
On the bloody tree behold Him,
Hear Him cry before He dies,
It is finished! It is finished! It is finished!
Sinner, will not this suffice?

Lo! the incarnate God, ascended,
Pleads the merit of His blood;
Venture on Him, venture wholly,
Let no other trust intrude:
None but Jesus, none but Jesus,
none but Jesus,
Can do helpless sinners good.