The Spirit of Revival (Part 6)
After discussing these five positive signs, Edwards turns his attention to the application section of his treatise, following the normal structure of his sermons. In Section III he notes the practical inferences he draws from his study.
The first inference is that the recent extraordinary influences were from the Spirit of God. These influences are judged both by rules and by facts. He points to the facts that correspond to the rules of Scripture—namely, that the positive signs of true awakening he set forth earlier in his treatise are indeed widely evident. They are public and also not confined to remote areas. He cites his own eyewitness experience of the phenomena. He cites his personal awareness of multitudes who have been awakened. “Some have been in great distress from a foreboding of their sin and misery. Others have been overcome with a sweet sense of the greatness, wonderfulness, and excellency of divine things.” He points both to the sober signs of awakening as well as delusions and irregularities that attended them and calls for the promotion of the recent working of the Spirit of God. Regarding the aforementioned irregularities and delusions, he says, “If they wait to see a work of God without difficulties and stumbling blocks, it will be like a fool waiting at the riverside to have the water all run by. A work of God without stumbling blocks is never to be expected.”
To focus on the difficulties that attend genuine revival is to miss the manifold blessings that are poured out by it. It would have meant, for Edwards, missing the visitation of God to New England.
Finally, Edwards turns his attention not to the critics of the Great Awakening, but to its friends. He calls the friends of the work to self-diligence. He provides an exhortation to them to avoid the errors and misconduct that characteristically accompany revival. He warns of those who will oppose them and counsels them to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. He especially warns against the danger of pride, saying:
Pride is the worst viper in the heart. It is the first sin that ever entered into the universe. It lies lowest of all in the foundation of the whole building of sin. Of all lusts, it is the most secret, deceitful, and unsearchable in its ways of working. It is ready to mix with everything. Nothing is so hateful to God, contrary to the spirit of the Gospel, or of so dangerous consequence. There is no one sin that does so much to let the devil into the hearts of the saints and expose them to his delusions.
He cites the errors of those who suppose that in their imaginations and impressions they have received direct messages from heaven.
Claims to special divine revelations are not so much a sign of super-spirituality as they are of evangelical or pietistic megalomania. The days of prophets and apostles, genuine agents of revelation, are past. Such claims today are spurious and exceedingly dangerous. To cloak one’s desires, hunches, or opinions in such claims is to make use of a godless form of persuasion. What does one say to the person who claims, “The Lord told me to do this”? To use such devices is to place oneself above criticism by bathing one’s opinions in divine sanction.
The extraordinary gifts of the Apostolic Age are not required today. It is the ordinary influence of the grace of God that should capture our attention. Edwards says:
The greatest privilege of the prophets and apostles was not their being inspired and working miracles, but their eminent holiness… . The extraordinary gifts are worthless without the ordinary sanctifying influences.
Edwards declared that he neither expected nor desired the restoration of the miraculous gifts in the church. He said:
For my part, I had rather enjoy the sweet influences of the Spirit. I had rather show Christ’s spiritual divine beauty, infinite grace, and dying love. I had rather draw forth the holy exercises of faith, divine love, sweet complacence, and humble joy in God. I had rather experience all this for one quarter of an hour than to have prophetical visions and revelations the whole year.
Edwards gives great caution to those who are preoccupied with the extraordinary. The danger is that such a quest becomes a substitute for diligent learning of the things of God. Such learning requires discipline and labor. To function as teachers, preachers, and Christian leaders we must advance to maturity as Christians. In this enterprise there is no substitute for diligent instruction. The judgment of discernment, both for what comprises sound doctrine and sound behavior, comes from being diligent students of the Word of God. Edwards had little use for the ripping of the Spirit away from the Word. Again, the testimony of the saints and the axiom with which Edwards began his treatise is that of subjecting experience to the Scripture. In the Scripture we meet the wisdom of God, which is able to judge all things. He writes:
The longer I live, the less I wonder that God keeps it as his right to try the hearts of the children of men. Also I wonder less that God directs that this business should be let alone till harvest. I adore the wisdom of God! In His goodness to me and my fellow creatures, He has not committed this great business into our hands.
This practical warning is directed against those who make harsh and precipitous judgments against other Christians. We do not have the capacity to judge the souls of men. That is the prerogative of God. Though not eschewing the proper procedures for necessary church discipline or the need to speak out against error, Edwards is careful to guard the boundaries established by God. Our discernment is always limited. Even those who oppose a true work of God must be dealt with without raging anger. We are to exercise such rebuke with gentleness and prudence.
The work of the Holy Spirit is always a work among sinners. What is true for others is likewise true for ourselves. Though He leads us to holiness, it is a leading out of corruption. That corruption remains, at least in part, until our glorification at His hands. To demand from others what the Spirit Himself patiently endures is to exalt ourselves above God.
The practice of godliness is a practice that is to be informed by Scripture and tempered by the work of the Holy Spirit within us. If we have been awakened, that awakening should bring with it an acute awareness that in many respects we are still aslumber.
The church in our day can profit mightily from a close scrutiny of the insight provided for us by Edwards’s careful evaluation of the distinguishing marks of a true revival. He gives us a road map to follow lest we twist and turn into the detours of destruction.
My hope is that the republishing of this work by the Puritan divine will effect a rekindling of zeal for authentic revival and reformation in our day.
Excerpted from R.C. Sproul’s Introduction to The Spirit of Revival, edited by Archie Parrish.