A Preview of Edwards's Distinguishing Marks
Edwards bases his assessment of revival, in the first instance, on an application of the exhortation of 1 John 4:1: "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world."
This text functioned as the normative benchmark for Edwards. Ironically, the biblical mandate here is a call to unbelief. Certainly this call to unbelief does not summon us to the faithlessness of the ungodly; it is not a repudiation of true biblical faith. Rather, it is a red alert against the beguiling force of credulity, a readiness to believe on the basis of insufficient evidence. As Augustine had done centuries before, Edwards noted a difference between faith and credulity. Credulity is faith without substance, an easy-believism that lacks critical judgment and consequently discernment.
Any claim to spiritual power is to be tested to see if the claim is validated by the work of God. This rests on the axiom that not all spirits are holy. The Holy Spirit is also the Spirit of Truth whose operation is validated by the truth of Scripture that He Himself inspired and illuminates.
The testing of the spirits is made necessary by the presence of false prophets, who are both alluring and numerous. The Israelites' greatest threat in Old Testament times was never the warring nations that surrounded them and often invaded their borders from the outside. It was always the threat of the false prophets within their own gates. The false prophets of Israel had their own "revivals." Their congregations tended to be much larger than the true prophets' because their message and their religion had strong popular appeal. They preached a message that tickled the ears of those who had "itchy ears" but did not have ears to hear the Word of God.
The "worship" offered by false prophets was the worship of idolatry in which the creature was exalted above the Creator. Such worship was popular with the people but repugnant to God. We see a glimpse of this in Exodus 32:
And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, "There is a noise of war in the camp." But he said: "It is not the noise of the shout of victory, nor the noise of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing I hear." So it was, as soon as he came near the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing.
--vv. 17-19, NKJV
The noise that Joshua heard was not the noise of battle. It was the noise of joyful religious celebration. The event in view was one of the best-attended religious gatherings recorded in the Old Testament. It was the noise of jubilant worship coupled with unbridled religious zeal. But the object of the worship and the focal point of the zeal was not God but a golden calf. This was not reformation but deformation; it was not the experience of revival or new spiritual life but the expression of spiritual death. Moses reported this to God, saying, "Oh, these people have committed a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold!" (v. 31, NKJV). The response of God to this event, which was "a great sin" rather than a great awakening, was that "the LORD plagued the people because of what they did with the calf which Aaron made" (v. 35).
Edwards warns that the influence, operations, and gifts of the Holy Spirit are aped and mimicked by Satan. That is why it is necessary to provide marks that can help us distinguish between the true Spirit of God and false spirits. Without such distinguishing marks the church is vulnerable to delusions and their dire consequences.
Excerpted from R.C. Sproul's Introduction to The Spirit of Revival, edited by Archie Parrish.