Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Spirit-Anointed Preaching and its Role in Revivals (2)

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
Editor's Note: In last month's instalment the point was made that when God works true revivals He equips ministers with a special measure of His Holy Spirit, enabling them to preach with great unction and power. We also saw that the content of the sermons preached during the great revivals was essentially the same as what was proclaimed from pulpits in "normal" periods, except that the great truths of the Gospel were now preached with unusual power and urgency.
It is very important to see this clearly. As Iain Murray points out:

In every true revival evidence of the Holy Spirit's normal work
will be presentÉ[Although] a revival, by definition is not the
normal state of the church ... the difference between the more
ordinary condition of the church and the condition of revival is
a difference of degree and not of kind. Religious experience in
revivals is not of a different nature from the spiritual
experience of other days. What happens in revivals is only a
heightening of normal Christianity. In revivals convictions may
be deeper, and feelings more intense, but the saving and
sanctifying operations of the Spirit of God are of the same
nature when there is no revival. The Holy Spirit convicts the
mind by truth; he humbles the heart; he leads men to rest upon
Christ's righteousness; and he brings forth the fruits of
holiness in the life. This is his 'normal' work and whether in a
single person, or in a great multitude in a time of revival, the
biblical pattern remains fundamentally unchanged... (Banner
of Truth Magazine, Issue 184, p.25).

What Murray says here is very important because it helps us to compare modern revivals with their older counterparts. To say as many do that there is a great similarity between them in that both are characterised by unusual displays of emotion is partly true, but there is more that needs to be said. The criterion is not the presence or absence of extraordinary physical manifestations, but whether the saving work of the Spirit is in evidence.

Whenever excesses occurred at the older revivals, the leaders were concerned about this and tried to discourage them. They knew that a mere emotional response to the preaching is not necessarily indicative of a saving work of the Holy Spirit. These things can be explained in terms of human factors--the impact of mass psychology for instance. When evaluating revivals, therefore, what one should look for is not the extraordinary, but the ordinary or normal work of the Spirit in producing conversions and causing believers to grow in holiness.

Historically, revivals usually came after congregations showed signs of a Laodicean spirit. Faithful preachers, alarmed by this sad declension of spiritual vitality among their people, realized they had to address the situation in their preaching and pastoral work. In doing so they would naturally choose texts that speak to the problems at hand. When in the 1730's Edwards saw how many of his people lived in ignorance and indifference, fast asleep in false peace, he felt he had to shake them out of their dream world, and shake them he did!

Authentic revival preaching always includes a serious call to the unconverted to turn from their sins and to turn to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, as well as exhortations to believers to confess their backslidings and rededicate themselves to the Lord. One preacher, the Rev. Alvan Hyde, pastor of the Congregational Church in Lee, Massachusetts, who saw a series of revivals taking place in his congregation between 1792 and 1832, recalls later what his preaching was like in those days.

The truths which I exhibited in my public discourses ... were in
substance the following: the holiness of God; the purity and
perfection of his law; the entire depravity of the heart,
consisting in voluntary opposition to God and holiness; the
fullness and all-sufficiency of the atonement made by Christ;
the freeness of the offer of pardon, made to all, on condition
of repentance; the necessity of a change of heart by he Holy
Spirit, arising from the deep-rooted depravity of men, which no
created arm could remove; the utter inexcusableness of sinners,
in rejecting the kind overtures of mercy, as they acted freely
and voluntarily in doing it; and the duty and reasonableness of
immediate submission to God. These are some of the truths which
God appeared to own and bless, and which, through the agency of
the Spirit, were made quick and powerful and sharper than any
two-edged sword. (Sprague, Lectures on Revivals, Appendix
5, pp.47,48).

Another New England minister, Samuel Blair, gives this account of the awakening under his ministry in 1744:

Religion lay as it were a-dying and ready to expire its last
breath of life in this part of the visible church ...; and
accordingly the scope of my preaching through that first winter
after I came here was mainly calculated for persons in a
natural, unregenerate state. I endeavoured, as the Lord enabled
me, to open up and prove from the Word the truths that I judged
were most necessary for such as were in that state to know and
believe in order to their conviction and conversion. I
endeavoured to deal searchingly and solemnly with them; and
through the concurring blessing of God, I had knowledge of four
or five brought under deep conviction that winter... (Eifion
Evans, "Preaching and Revival," in Banner of Truth, Issue
87, p.19).

Revival preaching, however, included more than alarming the conscience and conviction of sin. Preachers like Edwards and Whitefield, as well as lesser known figures such as Hyde and Blair, also knew how to present Christ in His all-sufficiency and willingness to save. Take the following excerpt from Whitefield's sermon on the "The Indwelling of the Spirit, the common privilege of all believers," based on John 7:37-39:

When Joseph was called out of the prison-house to Pharaoh's
court, we are told that he stayed some time to prepare himself;
but you may come with all your prison-clothes about you; come
poor and miserable and blind and naked, as you are, and God the
Father shall receive you with open arms, as was the returning
prodigal. He shall cover your nakedness with the best robe of
His dear Son's righteousness and seal you with the signet of His
Spirit and feed you with the fatted calf, even with the comforts
of the Holy Ghost. O! let me not go back to my Master and
say, 'Lord they will not believe my report.' Harden no longer
your hearts, but open them wide and let the King of glory enter
in; believe me, I am willing to go to prison or death for you;
but I am not willing to go to heaven without you. The love of
Jesus Christ constrains me to lift up my voice like a trumpet;
my heart is now full: out of the abundance of the love which I
have for your precious immortal souls, my mouth now speaks; and
I could now not only continue my discourse until midnight, but I
could speak until I could speak no more (Ibid.,
pp.15,16).

Such burning love for souls characterised all ministers of the Gospel whom the Lord used in revivals. These men really believed that people outside of Christ were lost and on the way to hell; therefore they did everything in their power to persuade men to flee to Christ. Yet they were also convinced that only the Holy Spirit could work faith in sinners' hearts. They preached both God's command to believe and repent and man's inability to perform these spiritual acts. If this seems a contradiction, it is one they were willing to live with, because they knew this is what the Bible teaches. Iain Murray comments,

These pastors knew nothing more demanding and exacting than
preaching for conviction and then dealing wisely with those in
that condition. Certainly, they taught the immediate
responsibility of every soul to repent and believe the gospel.
They pleaded with their hearers to do so without delay. But they
also considered it a part of faithful preaching not to hide from
men their sinful inability. True conversion is not made easier
if conviction of sin can somehow be bypassed, and they regarded
a recognition of the fact that sinners cannot convert from
enmity to holiness at their own decision as integral to
conviction. (Revival & Revivalism, p.213).

This was the approach taken by all Calvinistic preachers, whether Presbyterian, Congregational or Baptist. But things began to change when Charles Finney and others adopted a more Arminian style of preaching whereby sinners under conviction were exhorted to come forward and take the "anxious seat." By issuing such an "altar call," as this technique came to be known, it was believed that the process of sinners coming to faith could be speeded up considerably. The evangelist would pray with the inquirers who had come forward and have them answer questions such as "do you believe in Christ and trust Him for salvation." If the answer was yes, they were regarded as being in a state of grace. Finney did not believe revivals were miracles sent by God, but evangelistic campaigns which churches should promote. He was convinced that as long as the proper methods were used, success was almost guaranteed. According to him conversions are produced by moral persuasion.

At the heart of Finney's theology lay a different view of the nature of man, the extent of the fall and therefore a different view of conversion. He denied that man's nature was corrupt and that his will was governed by his depraved nature. Men, he said, are not governed by natures, either fallen or holy. Adam's nature, at his creation, was neither holy nor sinful. He simply decided to serve God by an act of his will. This ability to choose, man retained after the fall so that he can still decide to serve God or the Devil. Conversion takes place when a man is persuaded that serving God is in his own best interest. The preacher's task, therefore, is to produce good and logical arguments drawn from Scripture to convince the sinner to turn to God. The outward means, the outward motive, is truth, presented first by the preacher and then by the Holy Spirit. If the Word is properly presented to the mind, the sinner will see the wisdom of it, that it makes good sense to obey the call to repent and believe.

Implied here is that for conversion to take place, the sinner must make the right use of his will. Ultimately the decision lies in his hands. This explains why Finney was in favour of using techniques such as the anxious seat and the altar call. If conversion was the result of the sinner's own decision, and if the inducing of that decision was the responsibility of the preacher, be it with the help of the Holy Spirit, any method that would bring the sinner to confession of his sins and acceptance of the Gospel was legitimate, the end justifying the means. (Cf. Murray, Ibid., pp. 244-246).

This Pelagian approach to revival eventually replaced the Calvinistic-Puritan view and became the norm until this day. Sad to say, few people are aware of the difference between the authentic revivals under Whitefield, Edwards and others of the Reformed school, and their modern counterparts. The underlying theology is fundamentally different and therefore so is the preaching and so are the converts in many cases, I'm afraid. Just how great the difference was between the old and the new method of dealing with souls is illustrated by this citation from Murray,

These pastors [those in the tradition of Edwards] believed that
to persuade the convicted to engage in an external act as an aid
to conversion, if not as an act of conversion itself, was to
ignore the magnitude of the spiritual change that brings men
from death to life. Those whom God brings to salvation will
repent, believe, and confess Christ, but to issue instructions
that lead men to regard the change as a physical, observable
action, to be performed at a moment determined by the preacher,
can only mislead and multiply spurious religious experience.
Ibid., p.214).

The men of the Puritan Reformed school were willing to let the Holy Spirit work in His own time and way. To be sure, they preached, they counselled, they urged, warned and invited, but always with the full realization of the necessity of the application of the Holy Spirit Who works sovereignly and deals with the objects of God's mercy in ways with which man may never interfere. That is why they would not lay hands on anyone suddenly or consider a person a convert merely because he professed faith in Christ. They wanted to see fruits first. They looked for evidence of saving faith. Conversion was seen as involving a radical change of heart and life, which of course, it is. Therefore, unless there was some indication that such a change had taken place, they would not recognize it as the work of God.

In an age of easy-believism and quick decisions this cautious approach may strike one as quaint and outdated, but for those who know what the Bible says about conversion, namely that it marks a radical break with sin, the Puritan way of dealing with souls makes good sense. Therefore, as Murray says, "to claim as a work of the Holy Spirit anything that does not show itself first by purity of life is to undermine the real meaning of Christianity." (Ibid., p.216). He concludes with this observation:

What made the revivals of the early nineteenth century so
powerful in the conviction and silencing of unbelief was their
indisputable effects in changing men's habits, subduing their
selfishness and pride, and rendering visible the apostolic
assertion, 'if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old
things are passed away; behold, all things are become new' (2
Cor.5:17). (Ibid., pp.216, 217).

I stated that during revivals preachers experienced unusual power and that when there were no revivals they preached with what they considered ordinary power. I suspect, however, that what they thought of as ordinary or common we would consider exceptional and remarkable. What was the secret of their power? The answer is that they knew they were powerless in themselves and that their preaching would have no effect unless the Spirit of God opened the eyes, ears and hearts of sinners by His almighty power. They understood what Paul meant when he said "when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Cor.12:10). He did not rely on his ability, wisdom or anything of himself, but only on the Lord and on the power of His Spirit. He preached in demonstration of the Spirit and of power. The great orators in Corinth possessed great persuasive powers but their speeches made no lasting impact on their audience. If Paul had used human skills and techniques he might have gotten a wider and more receptive audience, but his hearers would have been left in their sins and without a Saviour. Because he relied entirely on the power of the Spirit, his preaching resulted in radically transformed lives.

So it was with preachers like Edwards and Whitefield. They presented the truth of God's Word as forcefully and faithfully and plainly as they could, leaving all to the Spirit to make that Word effective. They used no special techniques, no gimmicks, no manipulative methods of any kind.

May we yet see days of true revival in our generation, times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord. Then the results will be seen by all, inside as well as outside the church. Congregations will know that the Spirit of God rests on the minister and the minister will know that the Lord is using him because lives are transformed, sinners are converted and believers are growing in grace and in holiness, walking in the fear of God.

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