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Longing for revival

Events at Asbury University offer reasons for hope that the Holy Spirit is at work

Students sing in Hughes Auditorium at Asbury University. The Asbury Collegian/Photo by Samuel Reed

Longing for revival

Last Wednesday, reports began of a chapel service at a Christian college in Kentucky that has continued, chapel filled, as of this writing. At the conclusion of a regularly scheduled Asbury University chapel service, many students remained in their seats, with others coming to join, resulting in hours of worship, prayer, and reports of revival.

By the end of the week, social media was abuzz with scenes of the worship taking place in Hughes Auditorium on the Asbury campus. Many expressed hope that such an unusual outpouring of the Spirit would spread. Others voiced criticism or raised questions as to whether this multi-day experience of worship and prayer constitutes genuine revival.

Evangelical ears naturally perk up at the mention of revival because revivals are nothing new to our history. Unusual outpourings of God’s Spirit in Britain and her American colonies during the 1730s and 1740s marked the beginning of the evangelical movement. The first sign of revival in what would be known as the Great Awakening appeared in the Northampton, Mass., congregation pastored by Jonathan Edwards. Sensing the need to combat false teaching, the 31-year-old Edwards preached on justification by faith alone in November 1734.

In a letter to Boston pastor Benjamin Colman, Edwards testified that “concern about the great things of religion began ... to prevail abundantly in the town, till in a very little time it became universal throughout the town.” He continued, “the Spirit of God went on in his saving influences, to the appearance of all human reason and charity, in a truly wonderful and astonishing manner.” Many objected to the reports coming out of Northampton. Still, others, witnessing the heightened spiritual state of Edwards’ congregation, became “wounded spirits” who returned home burdened to see a remarkable work of the Spirit in their own communities.

By March 1735, numerous other churches in the Connecticut River Valley were experiencing a revival. Pastors on both sides of the Atlantic requested an account, leading Edwards to expand his letter into A Faithful Narrative, which vaulted him into prominence as the leading theologian of revival. The Spirit was moving in other places as well. By late 1735, Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland had experienced dramatic conversions in Wales and begun preaching to great effect.

We would do well to heed Edward’s warning that just because an experience is “extraordinary” does not mean the work is genuine.

Fires were being stoked in neighboring England as well. George Whitefield experienced conversion in 1735 and, within two years, was preaching powerful messages of the new birth around London and Bristol. Charles and John Wesley experienced conversion in 1738 and soon joined Whitefield in the widespread preaching of evangelistic sermons. With the key leaders in place, the evangelical revivals would grow throughout the 1740s, leading to the conversion of many thousands of souls, increased zeal among believers, and, inevitably, a mix of unity and division.

Skepticism and criticism came quickly. Finally, in 1741, Edwards publicly addressed the controversy surrounding the revivals. What started as a Yale commencement address on 1 John 4:1, “test the spirits,” developed into a published treatise under the title The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God.

Edwards began by admitting several “negative signs” that failed to prove whether a spiritual experience was a legitimate work of the Holy Spirit. We would do well to heed Edwards’s warning that just because an experience is “extraordinary” does not mean the work is genuine. And in the world of social media, his third inconclusive sign, that an event “occasions a great ado, and a great deal of noise about religion,” stands as an important reminder. But for Edwards, Scripture offered positive signs that could help determine the veracity of a revival. And though he conceded the presence of counterfeits in what had been experienced, he remained confident that he had witnessed an unusual outpouring of God’s Spirit.

As has been argued, the Great Awakening fostered a “longing for revival” that would characterize evangelicalism—even up to today. This longing would occasionally be satisfied through the dramatic occurrences of the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century, as well as smaller-scale awakenings such as the Prayer Revival of 1857–58 and even a previous revival at Asbury in the 1970s. This longing for revival helps explain the social media buzz and why I heard of evangelical churches around the country discussing and praying for Asbury in their Sunday services. While some voice their skepticism, few disagree with the words of Martyn Lloyd-Jones that we stand in “need, the urgent need, of a revival in the Church of God at the present time.”

So how are we to think of the reports coming out of Asbury, named for Francis Asbury, Methodism’s great American bishop and evangelist, and of revival more generally? For starters, we brush aside skepticism that God can and does occasionally work through a special outpouring of his Spirit. Not every account of revival constitutes true revival, but our history is replete with examples of genuine extraordinary occurrences. Like Edwards, we test the spirits while avoiding quenching the Spirit. We look for evidence of Christ being exalted as we undergird our discernment with hope. Time will tell of the veracity and impact of what is occurring at Asbury right now, but as we watch, let’s pray for the Holy Spirit to bring revival to our churches, our land, and our hearts.

Dustin Bruce

Dustin Bruce serves as dean and assistant professor of Christian theology and church history at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  He resides with his family in Louisville, Ky.

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