The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God by Jonathan Edwards is one of the great classics of revival literature. A key figure of the Great Awakening, Edwards wrote this important discourse in 1741 just after the revival had reached its peak. In 2000 R.C. Sproul wrote an Introduction to a version of this classic work that had been edited and modernized by Archie Parrish. This Introduction effectively compares Edwards’s nineteenth century to our society and explains the importance of Edwards' treatise.
Revival and Reformation
Post tenebras lux ... “After darkness, light.” So read the motto of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The titanic theological struggle of that era was a fight to bring the Gospel into the full light of day after years of being consigned to obscurity to the point of eclipse beneath the umbra of the sacerdotal supplanting of it by Rome.
With the rescue of the Gospel from darkness and distortion, a revival was evoked that transcended any revival of faith witnessed either by previous or subsequent periods of Christian history. The Reformation was not merely a Great Awakening; it was the Greatest Awakening to the true Gospel since the Apostolic Age. It was an awakening that demonstrated the power of God unto salvation.
It is noteworthy that this period in history is commonly referred to as the Reformation and not the Revival. What is the difference between revival and reformation? As the etymologies of the words suggest, revival describes a renewal of spiritual life, while reformation describes a renewal of the forms and structures of society and culture. It is not possible to have true reformation without first having true revival. The renewal of spiritual life under the power of the Holy Spirit is a necessary condition for reformation but not a sufficient condition for it. Therefore, though it is not possible to have reformation without revival, it is possible to have revival without reformation. Why is that the case? There are at least two reasons. The first is that revival brings with it the conversion of souls to Christ, who are at the moment of conversion spiritual babes. Infants have little impact on the shaping of cultural institutions. It is when vast numbers of converted people approach maturity in their faith and sanctification that the structures of the world are seriously challenged and changed. If vast numbers of people are converted but remain infantile in their spiritual growth, little impact is made by them on society as a whole. Their faith tends to remain privatized and contained within the confines of the arena of mere religion.
The second reason concerns the scope and intensity of the revival. If the revival is limited in scope and intensity, its impact tends to be restricted to a small geographical area and also tends to be short-lived. Yet it may have rivulets of abiding influence into future generations. Such a rivulet is the work of Jonathan Edwards presented and discussed in this book. The Great Awakening that occurred in New England in the mid-eighteenth century has left an indelible mark on America, though that mark has faded dramatically over time. No one would today confuse New England with a mecca of vibrant gospel faith. Nor is there any danger of the works of Jonathan Edwards pushing any contemporary authors off the New York Times’s list of best sellers.
Nevertheless, the influence of Edwards as well as that of the magisterial reformers Luther and Calvin continue to this day. Their words are still in print, and there is a cadre of Christians who devour their writings. The things of which those men of God wrote maintain a vital relevance down to our own day.
William Cooper’s original preface to Edwards’s The Distinguishing Marks describes the state of the church prior to the Great Awakening. It could just as well serve as a commentary for our own times.
Excerpted from R.C. Sproul's Introduction to The Spirit of Revival, edited by Archie Parrish.