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Revival in the Church, Do We Need It?/Is It Biblical?

Revival in the Church,
Do We Need It?/Is It Biblical?

Far from being experts on revival, it nevertheless seems rather strange to us that modern-day revivalists proclaim that "God is going to be bringing a great revival in these last days, characterized by a new and powerful working of the Holy Spirit." Yet the Bible says that God's plan for the last days is the Great Apostasy, characterized by all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs, and wonders (2 Thes. 2:3, 6-10). Is God really bringing revival, or is what we see happening now that which will culminate in the greatest delusion of all time (vs. 11)? We believe the latter, and what is commonly called "revival" today, is not at all different from the revivals of yesteryear -- a religious carnival show steeped in mysticism and rampant emotionalism.

The question that must ultimately be answered with respect to revival is this: "Is it proper (i.e., is it Biblical), to pray for and seek revival in the Church?" Is revival wrong? Is revival contrary to the Scriptures?

Although Scripture uses the word "revive" in the Old Testament, this term must be understood in the context of Israel's theocracy and before the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. "Revival," therefore, had an entirely different connotation then. Revival has also been confused with various so-called "reformation movements" in the Church, but this is also a serious historical and theological mistake.

In the revival movement of today, the common practice has been for "spiritually lethargic" churches to call in a revival preacher to instill new life into the congregation, and solicit from members of the church new commitments to Jesus. Besides the fact that this "decisional" type of preaching is unbiblical, our greatest quarrel is with the experiential/emotional/mystical/fanatical approach that most modern-day revivals take.

Believers struggle to be free from the presence of sin. Some suffer defeat after defeat in their growth in sanctification. Yet the born-again Apostle Paul said, "Wretched man that I am, who will set me free from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:24). Still looking for a quick fix, however, many naively opt for such things as "revival" meetings. Throughout history, "revivals" have mixed Scriptural words and concepts with mystical experiences. These mystical experiences pretend to be direct encounters with God. In light of Jesus' discourse with Thomas Didymus (Jn. 20:24-29), any relationship between such revival meetings and true Christianity is purely conjectural.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, an ardent proponent of revival himself, defined revival as "an experience in the life of the church when the Holy Spirit does an unusual work." (Emphasis added.) This "unusual" work of the Spirit, claim the revivalists, manifests itself in a profound and even unnerving and frighteningly disturbing conviction of sin, so that those brought under this conviction are so completely under the control of forces beyond their power that they cry out and groan and shout. They may even be given the privilege of seeing visions and receiving revelations from angels or even from Jesus Christ Himself!

Those who encourage such things are, in effect, advocating a return to Roman Catholic mysticism. Revival is characterized by mysticism, and it was carried directly into Protestant thinking through the revivals of John Wesley in 18th century England. Wesley was steeped deeply in the writings of Roman Catholic medieval mystics, claimed to have read them avidly, and was instrumental in publishing a great number of these Roman Catholic works. This false mysticism stayed with Wesley all his life, and is present today in revivalism.

The emphasis on visions and dreams, special extra-Biblical revelations, and the guidance of the Spirit through these revelations all belong to the tradition of mysticism. No wonder there is such a striking resemblance between revivalism and the modern charismatic movement! Yet, mysticism is contrary to the Scriptures -- it is a theology of emotions, a theology of feeling, with little regard for doctrine. Although this cannot be said of all revivalists (e.g., Jonathan Edwards), in general, revivalism is at best disinterested in and careless of doctrine, and at worst, is an enemy of the truth.

For example, consider the life of Charles Grandison Finney, the early-19th century revivalist in the Northeastern part of the United States, and a kindred spirit of John Wesley. (Finney doctrinalized Wesley's "second experience" teaching.) Finney's introduction of new methods for getting converts and the orchestrating of emotion and excitement in huge revival gatherings was clearly based on his heretical understanding of being born-again (12/25/95, Christian News, p. 7). Finney writes that he repudiated all the fundamental doctrines of the faith, including the vicarious nature of the atonement of Jesus Christ, in the interests of preaching revival:
"These doctrines I could not receive. I could not receive his [my teacher's] views on the subject of atonement, regeneration, faith, repentance, the slavery of the will, or any of their kindred doctrines" (The Memoirs of Charles Finney, p. 48).
Revivalism, then, is clearly the friend of pragmatism; i.e., using whatever method works in getting men to "make decisions for Christ," or in getting them to "weep and wail before God as evidence of a renewed commitment to godly living," regardless of the Bible's condemnation of any such method. Finney again, writing in 1834, declared that revival is "a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means. " In other words, Finney's purpose was solely to convince the human will and produce decisions and commitments (12/25/95, Christian News, p. 7). (See note at end of this report.)

This pragmatic approach appears to be grounded in the revivalist's faulty view of conversion; i.e., the revivalists were, for the most part, like Finney, Arminians, preaching that salvation was dependent upon the individual, and that the preacher must prepare the individual's heart by preaching the law so as to put him in a spiritual frame of mind either to "accept" Christ or "reject" Him. The "decision" was solely up to the individual.

Revivalists typically hold to the false doctrine that salvation rests in man's hands, and that a "decision" can be encouraged if only some kind of "unusual" and/or "extraordinary" experience can be generated. In the end, the intensity of the "experience" becomes the revivalist's test, not only for the genuineness of the conversion, but for the personal assurance of salvation as well.

Even Jonathan Edwards, whose revivals seemed to bring forth an unprecedented number of genuinely new converts and/or recommitted believers, recognized (albeit after the fact) that any infiltration of the mysticism/emotionalism/fanaticism common to revivals, would be detrimental to the working of the Spirit, not a prerequisite for, nor evidence of, His working. In early-1744, shortly after the most "successful" revivals ever held, Edwards commented that the state of religion "in New England is, on many accounts, very melancholy. There is a vast alteration within two years. ... There had been from the beginning a great mixture ... of false experiences and false religion with true ... and many were led away into sad delusions. ... [When an] affection arises from the imagination, and is built upon it, as its foundation, instead of a spiritual illumination or discovery, then is the affection, however elevated, worthless and vain." (Emphasis added.)

So even under the watchful eye and guidance of a man like Jonathan Edwards, a man totally dedicated to the sound preaching of the sovereignty of God in salvation, there were many spurious conversions and much false religion, which at the time were regarded as genuine. Only later did Edwards fully recognize that the culprit was the emotionalism and false experiences, at the time thought to be the genuine fruit of sound doctrinal preaching, and thereby, not to be discouraged. If it was difficult then, it must be more so now, to detect the causes of the spurious excitement -- the loud outcries, faintings, and bodily agitations -- which then so extensively prevailed.

Do we need revival? No! We need transformation. And this transformation cannot be achieved by "weeping and wailing" before God (as the revivalists would have us do), brought on by some "unusual" outpouring of the Spirit. The transformation that the Bible talks about is the continual sanctification through the Word and the power of the Spirit (Rom. 12:1,2; Phil. 1:6; 2:12,13; 3:20,21). Transformation is the product of our prayers for the courage and the grace of the Holy Spirit; standing fast with the Word in battle; not wavering, not compromising, not being overcome with fear, but steadfast in the cause of the truth -- TRUTH! -- a word foreign to most of the revival movement, both past and present.

The warning given about the "great" revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries equally applies today:
All this is a formidable array of evils. ... There was too little discrimination between true and false religious feeling. There was too much encouragement given to outcries, faintings, and bodily agitations as probable evidence of the presence and power of God. There was, in many, too much reliance on impulses, visions, and the pretended power of discerning spirits. There was a great deal of censoriousness, and of sinful disregard of ecclesiastical order. The disastrous effects of these evils, the rapid spread of false religion, the dishonour and decline of true piety, the prevalence of erroneous doctrines, the division of congregations, the alienation of Christians, and the long period of subsequent deadness in the church, stand up as a solemn warning to Christians, and especially to Christian ministers in all times to come (The Trinity Review, July/August 1991).

Note on Finney's Theology: Charles Finney's "new measures" in revivalism left an indelible stamp upon Evangelicalism. Evangelism crusades, revival meetings, the altar call, the anxious seat or mourner's bench, the invitation, the "decision" to "accept" Christ, the "prayer of faith," the use of excitement and emotion to facilitate "decisions" for Christ, and the attempt to promote the moral reformation of the culture, can all be attributed to the "new measures" introduced by Finney in the 1830s. Some of his methods, such as the altar call or invitation, are now practically a Protestant "sacrament." Many of the modern movements such as Church Growth, Promise Keepers, and the so-called Religious Right find their roots in Finney. Evangelicals cannot escape his influence.

The problem with Finney's influence on modern-day evangelicalism is that Finney's methods produce "results." He initiated what was called the "Second Great Awakening." Great revivals were reported in towns and cities throughout the country. Lives were reportedly changed. Moral reformations reportedly occurred. But since Finney did not preach the total corruption of the human nature and rejected the truth of justification by grace through faith alone, the basis for his "results" could not have been the Holy Spirit. Finney's results were exactly as Finney defined them -- a human dynamic. ("Assessing the Promise Keepers," 12/25/95, Christian News, pp. 1, 7-8.) 
While those involved in the Great Awakening were slow to use the word "revival" until after the fact, it was in Finney's time that preachers were taught that they could lead, hold, or conduct a revival. This view of revival comes from Finney's belief that "a revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the use of the constituted means as much so as any other effect produced by the application of means" (Revivals of Religion, p. 5). This stands in stark contrast to the Biblical definition of revival as a gracious act of God. His mistaken view of revival was just one example of the faulty theology of Charles Finney that affected his practice and the practice of those who follow his example today.
Charles Finney was converted at a time when Calvinism was the predominant theological view of the day and heretical "hyper-Calvinism," the belief that the gospel invitation was for the elect only, was espoused as well. Finney found these ideas offensive and rejected them as illogical. His reaction was to develop a theology that went beyond Arminianism and approached the heresy first spread in the 5th Century by Pelagius. Finney's theology can be found in his Autobiography (also entitled Memoirs), Systematic Theology, and Revivals of Religion. Along with these books by Finney, B.B. Warfield's Perfectionism contains an excellent critique of Finney's theology. 
Finney began his journey away from orthodoxy by rejecting the doctrine of the depravity of man's nature. He declared, "the sinner has all the faculties and natural abilities requisite to render perfect obedience to God." All he needs "is to be induced to use these powers and attributes as he ought" (Systematic Theology, pp. 282-300). He continued his backward trek by dismissing as "theological fiction" the doctrine of imputation. Specifically, he rejected the doctrine of the imputation of Adam's sin to mankind, the imputation of the believer's sin to Christ, and the imputation of Christ's righteousness to believers (An Autobiography, pp. 56-59). This is in contradiction to the Biblical teaching of the doctrine of imputation found in Romans chapters 3 through 5. From his denial of the imputation of Adam's sin to his posterity, Finney logically concluded that man does not have a sinful nature and a natural disposition to sin, but is born morally "neutral." -- "If man's nature is not ruined by Adam's fall," Finney reasoned, "then man is able to fulfill the will of God by himself because 'there is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature.'" (Revivals of Religion, p. 4). Finney stressed human ability to repent, create new hearts, and to perfect one's own  nature and society as well. 
With the major premise of man's neutrality in spiritual matters and innate ability to do the will of God, Finney's revival and evangelistic efforts were marked by efforts to "persuade" people to accept God's offer of salvation. Finney would say, "If men will not yield to persuasion, they must be lost" (Warfield, Perfectionism, p. 176). The effect of such beliefs on Finney's methods was obvious. His book, Revivals of Religion, is pure evangelical pragmatism; that is, "if it works, it must be good." He believed that "the success of any measure designed to promote a revival of religion, demonstrates its wisdom. ... When the blessing evidently follows the introduction of the measure itself, the proof is unanswerable, that the measure is wise" (Revivals of Religion, p. 211). 
Finney's error in the matter of anthropology, denying the sinful nature of man, led to other deviations from fundamental doctrine, including an erroneous view of justification by faith alone. His doctrine was that justification is not permanent, it is not a Divine declaration, but merely a pardon, and is achieved by man working together with God (Systematic Theology, pp. 383-391). This view of justification led to his view of sanctification. 'Finney claimed that complete obedience to God's law was possible on the grounds (means) of man’s natural ability (Systematic Theology, p. 407). All of this logically led to a post-millennial eschatology, which advocated that Christians should invest their time and energy in establishing the millennial kingdom of God on earth by winning converts and being involved in social reform. 
The evangelistic efforts of Charles Finney caused his home area of western New York to become known as "the burned-over district" because of the hardness the people developed to spiritual things. Warfield cites close friends of Finney who lamented over the rapid retreat of converts back into their sinful ways. One close friend and co-worker of Finney's, Asa Mahan, said that everyone concerned with the revivals were "left like dead coals that could not be reignited" (Warfield, Perfectionism, pp. 26-27). Even Finney would say, "The great body of them [the converts] are a disgrace to religion" (Warfield, Perfectionism, pp. 26-27). Critics would say that his measures promoted superficial professors of religion. A famous contemporary, Charles Spurgeon, would say, "Possibly much of the flimsy piety of our present day arises from the ease with which men attain to peace and joy in these evangelistic days" (Spurgeon, Autobiography, Vol. 1, p. 54). Finney believed that the cause of this lack of permanent results was his failure to teach them perfectionism and to instill in them the "how" of Christian living and the fear of falling away. He would leave his evangelistic efforts to start Oberlin College, where he could concentrate on this aspect of his doctrine. (Source: Spring 1998, The Projector.)  [Return to Text]

Quotes from the Past:

"A very great portion of modern revivalism has been more a curse than a blessing, because it has led thousands to a kind of peace before they have known their misery; restoring the prodigal to the Father's house, and never making him say, 'Father, I have sinned.' How can he be healed who is not sick, or he be satisfied with the bread of life who is not hungry? The old-fashioned sense of sin is despised. ... Every thing in this age is shallow. ... The consequence is that men leap into religion, and then leap out again. Unhumbled they came to the church, unhumbled they remained in it, and unhumbled they go from it" (C.H. Spurgeon, 1882).

"American Protestantism is characterized by a peculiar evil which I may describe by the term 'spurious revivalism.' The common mischief resulting from all its forms is the over-hasty reception into the communion of the churches of multitudes of persons whom time proves to have experienced no spiritual change. In most cases, these mischievous accessions are brought about by sensational human expedients. It is an unpopular thing for a minister of the gospel to bear this witness. But it is true. And my regard for that account which I must soon render at a more awful bar than that of arrogant public opinion demands its utterance" (R.L. Dabney, 1892).

*Unless otherwise indicated, the content of this report has been paraphrased or excerpted directly from three 1991 issues of The Trinity Review -- May/June, July/August, and September/October -- "Ought the Church to Pray for Revival?" and "The Great Revival of Religion, 1740-1745" (Pts. 1 & 2). Those interested in further study should pursue Iain Murray's Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750-1858 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994).


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