Edwards begins by following the via negationis or "the way of negation." That is, before he proceeds to affirm positively what are the true marks of revival, he first spends time in Section I observing what are not (or at least not necessarily) signs of the work of the Spirit of God. Then he quickly moves in Section II to the positive signs that are evidences of a true work of the Spirit of God. His presentation of the positive signs flows from his exposition of the text of 1 John 4.
Edwards gives attention to one of the most controversial aspects that attended the awakening in New England, the matter of the bodily effects wrought by the Spirit of God upon those under His influence. Here Edwards is careful to note that a true work of God cannot be judged by the bodily or emotional reactions of those who receive this work.
The Bible does not provide a uniform formula for the proper physical or emotional reactions to the presence of the Holy Spirit. The presence of tears, convulsions, jerking, laughter, etc. are no measure of the Spirit's presence. When we canvass the Scripture to see how the saints reacted to the outpouring of the Spirit, we see no prescribed form of bodily behavior. Habakkuk had a quivering lip and a trembling belly. Others fell to the ground as though dead. Some wept, some sang, some were reduced to stunned silence. In light of the diversity of human personalities and indeed the very nature of man, the presence or absence of these responses is no true test of the authenticity of the Spirit's work. However, I hasten to add that though a wide variety of emotional responses may be detected in Scripture by those who encounter the living God, there is at least one emotion that may safely be excluded from the list--namely, boredom. It is hardly possible for a creature made in the image of God to be awakened or revived by the Spirit of God and be bored in the process.
The presence of "much noise about the Christian faith" is viewed by Edwards as no argument against true revival. When the Spirit of God moves, not only are waters stirred up, but people are as well. Such stirring is a common indication of the controversy that attends the bold proclamation of the Gospel. Just as the apostolic preaching of the first century stirred up mighty opposition against it, so in any generation the resistance to the Gospel will be made manifest. The kingdom of Christ is in direct conflict with the kingdom of Satan and the kingdoms of this world. The Christian faith is a disturbance of the peace. But the peace it disturbs is a carnal peace, a peace that is wrongfully "at ease in Zion" (Amos 6:1, NKJV). Though Christ is the Prince of Peace and gives His peace as a legacy to His people ("My peace I give you," John 14:27), it must not be forgotten that Christ did not come to bring a carnal peace; rather, His coming provokes a crisis in the midst of the world.
The more at peace the Church is with the world, the more worldly the Church becomes. It may be said that in one sense the worst thing that ever happened to the Church was the Edict of Constantine in the fourth century, by which Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire. For the first time in history the Church had something to lose. It was now acceptable, and its new status inclined it to compromise in order to preserve public acceptability. This is the curse of mainline churches that quench the Spirit in order to protect their own social acceptability.
The stirring up of imaginations and emotions is also no argument against authentic awakening. We need look no further than to human nature to account for zealous excesses of behavior, especially among infant Christians. Under the powerful influence of the Spirit people can easily become carried away with zeal and emotion. Edwards says:
They may have soul-ravishing views of the beauty and love of Christ. And they might have their normal strength overpowered. Therefore, it is not at all strange that with so many affected in this manner, there should be some people of a particular makeup who would have their imaginations thus affected.
We think of Jeremiah, who under the influence of the Spirit of God cried out, "O LORD, you deceived me, and I was deceived. You overpowered me and prevailed."1 Here the prophet exhibits an extraordinary grasp of the obvious. Never was an inspired redundancy so evident. If one is deceived by God, it is plain that he is deceived. When the Almighty overwhelms a person, it takes no acute deduction of logic to realize that they are indeed overwhelmed.
Arguments proved often from example rather than from careful reasonings during a strong visitation of the Spirit of God are likewise no arguments against such visitations. Great impressions of religious affection are often expressed in actions rather than words. Edwards remarks: "In some cases, the language of action is much more clear and convincing than words."
This is consistent with the injunction of James that we must show our faith by our works. The impact of example or modeling was clear in the Apostolic Age as well as during the Reformation. The Scripture calls attention to the example set by the Old Testament saints in Hebrews 11.
Edwards then notes that those exposed to the operation of the Spirit may be guilty of rash acts and unconventional conduct. The Spirit tends to overthrow human conventions. Edwards declares, "The end for which God pours out His Spirit is to make men holy, and not to make them politicians." This is consistent with the biblical call to not conform to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of the mind.
Even rash acts that are contrary to the Word of God do not disprove the presence of revival. In the New Testament, the Corinthian congregation, where abuses attended the awaking of the people of God, is a case in point. The Spirit who works sanctification in the believer does not do it all at once. There is dross with the gold, tares with the wheat.
The new convert may easily be puffed up and exhibit an overconfidence with his or her boldness. Though such zeal may be mixed with corruption, at least it is not the lukewarmness that Edwards calls vile. The zeal of the new convert can lead to an immature spirit of censure and/or to legalistic practices, which though contrary to the Word of God are common in the midst of a true work of God.
The true work of God may be intermixed with errors in judgment and delusions of Satan. The true miracles of God are often countered by the false or counterfeit miracles of Satan, such as were seen in the days of Moses when he encountered the magicians of Pharaoh's court. As Edwards indicates, "The kingdom of God and the kingdom of the devil remain for a while together in the same heart."
The errors or practices that attend true revival may be gross and scandalous, but such things may be expected in any time of reformation. Heresies abounded in the early church. The practice of Nicholas the deacon produced the heretical sect bearing his name, the Nicolaitans. From the Gnostics of the early church to the extremists of the Reformation, the pattern is similar. Edwards said of the extremists of the sixteenth century, "It was as if the reformation had been the sun to give heat and warmth to those worms and serpents to crawl out of the ground."
That ministers may terrorize people by insisting on the reality of hell and the dreadful judgment of the holy law of God is also no argument against the work of the Spirit. Edwards is known for his own "scare theology" and has been branded as a sadist for his fire-and-brimstone preaching. But a true sadist, if he believed in hell, would take delight in persuading people there is no hell. That Edwards truly believed in the biblical doctrine of hell is without question. He was concerned that because people lacked a sense of dread of hell, they did not take due care to avoid it. It is as reasonable for preachers to warn against hell as it would be for a sentinel to warn of an approaching army or a weatherman an approaching tornado. Indeed, for a minister to warn of impending disaster in a cold manner, with no emotion or sense of urgency, would be a contradiction. Edwards strongly advocated the preaching of the Gospel but insisted that it was also necessary to preach the law. Without a knowledge of the law, the good news of the Gospel is perceived as no real news. The bad news of the law is what reveals the good news of the Gospel. Edwards says, "Some say it is unreasonable to frighten people into heaven. But I think it is reasonable to try to frighten people away from hell."
Excerpted from R.C. Sproul's Introduction to The Spirit of Revival, edited by Archie Parrish.