The Spirit of Revival

By Ryan Dawson

A spiritual revival descended upon Asbury University in Wilmore Kentucky last month.  The revival was sparked by students spontaneously staying in Hughes Auditorium following a regularly scheduled chapel service on February 8. Following the gathering, Asbury President Kevin Brown sent out a brief two-sentence email: “There's worship happening in Hughes. You're welcome to join.”  This revival has been marked by worship and prayer, confession & repentance, and the preaching of God’s Word, leading students and others to make commitments to Christ.  Since the initial chapel the revival meetings have moved off campus and tens of thousands of people have visited the small town of Wilmore, seeking God.  

As Christians we long to see the Spirit moving in power, where people come to faith in great numbers, so it warms our heart to hear of revival and renewal taking place.  Experiences like this have happened throughout history and it is helpful to evaluate current revivals against the backdrop of history.  
Jonathan Edwards was a puritan pastor who was present for the Northhampton, Massachusetts revival in the 1700’s, and he wrote an influential book titled The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God.   Richard Owen Roberts, said of Edwards’ Distinguising Marks that it was “one of the most important volumes on revival ever published and should be carefully read by every person deeply interested in revival.” 

Revivals come in many different forms.  R.C. Sproul suggests that “revival” is a renewal of the spiritual life under the power of the Holy Spirit, where vast number of souls are converted, in such a way that it impacts other geographical areas or future generations.2   Rick Richardson suggests that revival involves experiencing the power of God and awakening to His presence, where one becomes aware of His presence and intimacy, resulting in the confession and cleansing of sin, and the subsequent awareness and commitment to God’s mission.   We see these very things happening in Asbury and they happened in Northampton 300 years ago.  

Taken from his Account of the Revival of Religion in Northampton, Edwards describes revival in the following manner:

"The minds of the people in general appeared more engaged in religion, showing a greater forwardness to make religion the subject of their conversation, and to meet frequently for religious purposes, and to embrace all opportunities to hear the word preached…there appeared an awakening and deep concern…[of those] that looked upon themselves in a Christless state; and there were some hopeful appearances of conversion, and some were greatly revived…and there was a great attention in the town…and the revival of religion continued to increase.  [People] were greatly affected with a sense of the greatness and glory of divine things, and the infinite importance of the things of eternity, that they were not able to conceal it – the affection of their minds overcoming their strength, and having a very visible effect upon their bodies."4 

At its essence, revival is a new or fresh work of God, beyond the ordinary, that spreads in depth and scope.  Revivals start small but they grow in scope.  In the early 1730’s Edward’s noticed that his congregation was becoming more sensitive to sin and there was a willingness to listen to religious counsel.5  Edwards soon began to preach on a subject dear to his heart – justification by faith, which was the central doctrine of the Reformation and God began to stir the people.  Edwards writes:  

"There were then some things said publicly…concerning justification by faith alone…It proved a word spoken in season here; and was most evidently attended with a very remarkable blessing of heaven to the souls of the people in this town…And then it was, the latter part of December [of 1734], that the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in, and wonderfully to work amongst us; and there were, very suddenly, one after another, five or six persons, who were to all appearance savingly converted, and some of them wrought upon in a very remarkable manner."6  

Soon the town of 1200 was overcome by the power of God as 300 people made professions of faith within the first six months of the revival breaking out.7   By March and April of 1735 approximately 30 people a week were coming to faith in Christ and the impact was dramatic.8   Recounting the experience Edwards writes: “This work of God, as it was carried on, and the number of true saints multiplied, soon made a glorious alteration in the town:  so that…the town seemed to be full of the presence of God.”9   Nor was the revival limited to just the town of Northampton, for it spread to thirty-two other towns throughout the Connecticut Valley.10 

Edwards was initially reluctant to publish an account of this revival, but he soon changed his mind and recorded his observations in what he titled A Narrative of Surprising Conversions.  This document would first be published in 1737 in London England, and then in Boston, under the title A Faithful Narrative, and it would have a profound impact on the world, inspiring others to pray and prepare for revival.11  

John Wesley and George Whitefield both read Edwards account of the Northampton revival and they were encouraged to trust God for the same work of the Spirit in England and throughout the Colonies.12   By 1740 the Holy Spirit was aflame, and revival broke out all over New England, across the American Colonies and throughout Europe, in what is now called The Great Awakening.  In New England alone, where the population was around 250,000, estimates of those converted during The Great Awakening range between 25,000 to 50,000 people.13   This move of God would continue dramatically for two years until 1742 but traces of the revival can be seen up until 1770.14 

Northampton would also experience The Great Awakening and Edwards’ church was front and center for this outpouring of God’s Spirit.  In the middle of the winter of 1740 Edwards wrote a letter of invitation to the English evangelist George Whitefield asking him to come and preach in the Northampton congregation.  Whitefield accepted the invitation and arrived in September of that same year and began a “breathtaking round of itinerant preaching.”15  The results were overwhelming.  In Northampton and Boston, the fires of revival burned white hot after the three-month preaching tour of Whitefield, and the move of God swept the heartland of Puritan theology for the next two years, yielding a harvest of between 30,000 and 40,000 new church members.16 

William Cooper, a contemporary of Jonathan Edwards, who was a minister in Boston, gave his perspective on the Northampton revival:  

"The dispensation of grace we are now under is certainly such as neither we nor our fathers have seen; and in some circumstances so wonderful, that I believe there has not been the like since the extraordinary pouring out of the Spirit immediately after our Lord’s ascension…A number of preachers have appeared among us, to whom God has given such a large measure of His Spirit…The points on which their preaching mainly turns are those important ones of man’s guilt, corruption, and impotence; supernatural regeneration by the Spirit of God, and free justification by faith in the righteousness of Christ; and the marks of new birth."17  

Cooper would go on to describe how the revival was impacting people throughout the region:

"The work is extraordinary in its extent. It is present in varying degrees in the several provinces that cover hundreds of miles on this continent…It is also extraordinary in numbers with thousands under spiritual conviction like never before…The work also has been remarkable in variety impacting all ages…People of all ranks and degrees have been under the Spirit’s influence – some of the great and rich; but more of the low and poor…Some of the most rude and disorderly are becoming regular in their behavior and sober in all things…Some of the greatest sinners now appear to be real saints…[and] by these accounts the work is the same in all places…Taverns and meetings that have always proved unfriendly to serious godliness are much less frequented.  Many have simplified their dress and apparel to make them look more like the followers of the humble Jesus…The doctrines of grace are espoused and relished."18 

In addition to the salvific and sanctifying effects of the revival, people were dramatically overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit. “People…were overcome with a sense of the greatness and glory of divine things, and with admiration, love, joy, and praise, and compassion to others that looked upon themselves as in a state of nature.  It was a frequent thing to see a house full of outcries, faintings, convulsions, and such like, both with distress and also admiration and joy…and their bodies so overcome, that they could not go home, but were obliged to stay all night where they were.”19  

It was this extraordinary experiential aspect of the revival that gave most Christian leaders cause for concern, for with these experiences came the potential for abuse.   In 1741, Edwards penned The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, to provide some wise counsel.  

Distinguising Marks is Edwards’ exposition of 1 John 4, where the Apostle John outlines some guidelines for discerning the work of the Holy Spirit.   Edwards provides five positive marks or Biblical signs that prove a revival is true:  He states that a revival is authentic…

1) When the operation is such as to raise their esteem for Jesus.  
2) When the spirit that is at work operates against the interests of Satan’s Kingdom, which lies in encouraging and establishing sin.
3) When the spirit operates in such a manner as to cause in men a greater regard to the Holy Scriptures.  
4)  When we see a spirit of truth leading [people] to the truth.  
5) When the spirit among people operates as a spirit of love [towards] God and man.20  

These distinguishing marks continue to provide a helpful framework in which to evaluate all that we see taking place at Asbury and in other locations across the world.  

If revival is ultimately to be judged by its effect on the “glory of God, which was the unifying center for all of Edwards theology”21 , the revivals in Northampton in 1734-35 and 1740-42 would be heralded as some of the most significant in all of history, for they helped establish and sustain a lasting work of God in the Great Awakening impacting thousands for Christ, that changed the face of Christianity in the West for centuries to come.22  

In addition to scope, these revivals showed strength in that they were rooted in Biblical understanding.   Edwards was ardent to ensure God’s Word was the rule for evaluating experience as he believed Scripture was the “principal means of carrying on God’s work”23 , and we would do well to ascribe to this same approach today.  While Scripture was the plumb line for Edwards, he also believed that spiritual awakenings should be weighed by both facts and rules – facts meaning well documented observation and rules referring to the Bible.24      By reading Edwards detailed accounts on the revivals, we see the care he took in relaying his observations.  It is also apparent that Edwards maintained a balanced and Christ-centric perspective when observing awakenings in that he did not overemphasize or chase after extraordinary manifestations of the Holy Spirit.  

The revivals in Northampton had many strengths but they were not without their weaknesses.  This should not be surprising as Edwards says: “a work of God without stumbling blocks is never to be expected"25,  and J.I. Packer noted “revival is always a disfigured work of God, and the more powerful the revival, the more scandalizing disfigurements we may see.”26  Edwards took a balanced approach supporting the revival as the work of God but cautioning against abuse and excessive disorder.  In 1746 Edwards published his consummate work on revival, The Religious Affections, to help establish timeless guidelines for evaluating revivals.  
As the Church we are encouraged to see a move of God at Asbury University that appears to be authentic.  By using what we have learned from Jonathan Edwards we can navigate the exciting reality of the work of the Spirit in our day.  While we long to see a similar move of God in our city, we cannot produce revival – we can only prepare for it.  How do we prepare for revival?  We pray and seek God with heartfelt passion, humility, and repentance.  2 Chronicles 7:14 (NLT) “Then if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.”  As we allow the Lord to first renew our hearts, we will then see God transform our church and the city, for His glory and for our joy.  

So, we say…come Holy Spirit – come!  

Roberts, Richard Owen. Revival. Page 150. Wheaton IL: Roberts Publishers.
Sproul, R.C and Archie Parrish 2008. The Spirit of Revival: Discovering the Wisdom of
          Jonathan Edwards
. Page 17-18. Wheaton IL: Crossway Books.
 3 Richardson, Rick 2008. Evangelism and the Gospel: Historical and Theological Perspectives. Lecture
          delivered at Wheaton College. Nov. 27-Dec. 1.
Edwards, Jonathan 1994. An Account of the Revival of Religion in Northampton 1740-1742. Page 149.
          Carlisle PA: The Banner of Truth Trust.
Goen, C. C., ed. 1972. The Great Awakening: The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol.4. Page 147-149.      
          New Haven: Yale University Press.
Goen 1972, 148-149.
Goen 1972, 157-158.  
8 Edwards, Jonathan 1994. A Narrative of Surprising Conversions. Page 14. Carlisle PA: The Banner of
          Truth Trust.
9 Edwards Narrative 1994, 14.  
10 Haykin, Michael A.G. 2005. Jonathan Edwards: The Holy Spirit in Revival. Page 16. Webster NY:
           Evangelical Press.
11 Sweeney, Douglas A. 2005. The American Evangelical Story. Page 46. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker
12 Sweeney 2005, 46.  
13 Haykin 2005, 17.  
14 Sproul 2008, 14.
15 Haykin 2005, 82.  
16 Murray, Iain 1987. Jonathan Edwards – A New Biography. Page 175-176. Edinburgh: The Banner of
            Truth Trust.
17 Edwards, Jonathan 1994. The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. Page 77-79.
            Carlisle PA: The Banner of Truth Trust.
18 Sproul  2008, 45-50.
19 Edwards, Account 1994, 150-151.
20 Edwards, Marks 1994, 109-115.
21 Noll, Mark A. 1994. The Sandal of the Evangelical Mind. Page 77. Grand Rapids, MI: William B.
            Eerdmans Publishing Co.
22 Sweeney, Douglas A. 2005. The American Evangelical Story. Page 44-46. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker
23 Goen, 1972, 238.
24 Edwards Marks 1974, 121.
25 Goen 1972, 273.
26 Packer, J.I. 1990. A Quest for Godliness. The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. Page 318. Wheaton
           IL: Crossway Books.