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What is Revival? The Three Rs of Transformation

Sawdust on the floor. Benches once neatly arrayed, now pushed hastily aside, tracing a chaotic maze through the crowd of people swaying and dancing under the high-peaked tent. Light streaming from the tent’s door into the warm summer evening where more people wait for a small taste of what’s happening within. Taut ropes quivering as thousands of feet stomp to the music.

Revival has come to town.

At least, it looks like a revival. Sawdust? Check. Big crowd? Check. Dancing and singing? Check. All we need now is some preaching, confessing, and maybe a little fainting. Then we’ll be all set.

After all, that’s what a revival is. Right?

Our Revival Roots

Evangelicalism has always had a deep concern for the transformation of individual Christians and the Church itself. Drawing on currents already present in pietism and among the Puritans, early evangelicals like Jonathan Edwards, the Wesley brothers, and George Whitefield feared for a Christianity that seemed to have lost its vitality. People were just going through the motions. They attended church, took communion, and read their Bibles. But, there was no life. No change. No transformation. People, churches, and entire communities went on about their business, everyday lives untouched by the Gospel.

And, that can’t be. Jesus promised that his people would be filled with the Spirit, ambassadors of the Gospel, harbingers of his Kingdom. We are supposed to be God’s image bearers in the world, manifesting his glory everywhere. We’re supposed to be different.

Something was wrong.

So, these early evangelicals prayed, preached, worked, and hoped for something more. Real change. Their desire was that God would come and transform his people so that they would live in the world as he intended. They sought revival.

And, evangelicals pursued revival into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well. The First Great Awakening gave way to the Second, Third, and even Fourth Great Awakenings, every generation praying for God’s empowering presence to renew his people for more vital living and more faithful ministry in the world. This emphasis on “renewal through revival” is part of the DNA of evangelicalism.

Two Key Questions

But, despite this general agreement, evangelicalism has struggled to understand exactly what this means. And, we’ve had a particularly difficult time answering two fundamental questions.

Is revival lasting or temporary? Some evangelicals focus on the fact that we live in a broken world. And, in this fallen existence, we will always encounter times of sustained, spiritual dryness. The best we can hope is that God will occasionally pour out his spirit onto our dry ground, allowing the plants to sprout and the flowers to bloom for a time, before the dry heat of the desert returns.

But, other evangelicals see revival as more lasting. For them, the promise of real change isn’t fleeting. Rather than seeing revival as a sudden rainstorm, they picture it as a spring continually flowing up from the ground to sustain new life in an otherwise barren land.

Is revival “miraculous” or “natural”? A related question has to do with the source of true revival. Now, we have to be a little careful here because all evangelicals agree that true revival is “miraculous” in the sense that ultimately it comes from God. No one argues that revival is something we simply produce on our own.

But, evangelicals do disagree on exactly how to understand the relationship between the divine and the human in producing revival. For many evangelicals, revival is a miracle along the same lines as bringing someone back from the dead. The dead person doesn’t contribute much to the process. So, renewing them to life must be a gift from the outside. Others can pray, pleading with God to offer the gift. But, in the end, renewal is a miraculous gift.

Others agree that revival is a gift, but they prefer a different analogy. For them, revival is more like a plant growing in your garden. The fact that the plant exists and grows at all is a gift from God. But, to make the plant grow, the gardener needs to work hard: cultivating, planting, weeding, feeding, and watering. And, under normal circumstances, God will not withhold the miraculous gift of life when his people carry out these tasks faithfully.

Different answers to these two questions will give you very different pictures of revival. Is revival temporary and “supernatural,” like the raising of Lazarus? Or, is revival sustained and “natural,” like a farmer growing crops? And, of course, we could also combine the options and argue for something that is sustained and supernatural (like the New England Patriots) or temporary and natural (like any plant I’ve ever tried to grow).

The Three Rs

I think that a lot of the confusion comes from the fact that we’re using one term, revival, to describe at least three different things. So, it may help if we make some important distinctions.

Renewal. Nothing is more pathetic than a child’s toy when the batteries are running low: it slows down; the already annoying music turns into a mind-numbing warble; and the lights flicker erratically like a firefly with a mental disorder. I think we all feel like that at times. We run down spiritually, emotionally, physically, and even missionally, needing to be reminded and renewed so we can be reengaged in what the Gospel is all about. We sometimes need to have the “joy of your salvation” restored (Ps. 51:12) so God can continue the process of renewing us in his image (2 Cor. 4:16). Praise God for rechargeable batteries.

Renewal refers to the revitalization of God’s people for faithful life and ministry. And, in this way, it’s distinct from rebirth, which is a word that we should reserve for the beginning of one’s Christian journey. But, renewal shares one common characteristic with rebirth: it’s a gift. A battery does not recharge itself, and life does not arise on its own. Renewal, as the overall process of revitalizing God’s people, always comes as a gift of God’s grace.

Reformation. Even though renewal is always a gift, God’s people have long recognized the importance of working faithfully to address our imperfections and weaknesses. That’s reformation: the ongoing practice of bringing every aspect of life and ministry into greater conformity with the Gospel. And, whether it’s Paul calling for reform in the Corinthian church, the early church working toward reform in a series worldwide councils, the medieval church with its many reform movements, or the Protestant Reformation itself, reform efforts have always been with us. Because, of course, reformation didn’t end in the sixteenth century. It continues today as God’s people labor to address their flawed attempts at faithfulness.

Does this mean that reformation stands at odds with renewal? By no means. The Gospel of grace entails neither quietism nor passivism. We are called to action. Reformation by itself cannot produce renewal any more than going to church alone can produce sanctification. But, they are both expressions of Christian faithfulness that God uses in the process of growing and renewing his people.

Revival. If “reformation” is the active and ongoing process by which God’s people seek to live faithfully in light of the Gospel, then we can reserve the term revival for those more special occasions in which God uniquely empowers a particular group of people for Gospel-centered living.

I’ve experienced revival in my own life: on the shore of a lake at summer camp, in a sanctuary filled with God’s people singing his praises, on a sofa praying with friends. Special times of experiencing the powerful presence of God in ways that renewed and re-energized me as one seeking to follow God obediently and live out the Gospel faithfully.

And, I’ve seen the same dynamic at work in entire churches. Whether we’re talking about a Great Awakening that sweeps across an entire country, or a special work of God in a particular congregation, revival renews God’s people for carrying out God’s purposes.

Grounded in the Gospel

So, returning to the two questions I asked above. Are we talking about something that is lasting or temporary, supernatural or natural? Yes, we are. Renewal is all of the above.

And, what holds it all together is the Gospel. Overemphasize reformation and we’ll approach the church and the Christian life as a task that must be accomplished, a goal we can achieve if we just work hard enough. Down that road lie pride, frustration, and eventually exhaustion.

Overemphasize revival and we’ll approach the Christian life as something that can only be truly lived during times of heightened excitement, passion, and felt empowerment, something that must be continually stirred up and sought after. And, down that road lie pride, frustration, and eventually exhaustion.

Two different roads. Same tragic end.

The Gospel rejects both approaches because it recognizes that true renewal is always a gift of God, but it is one that involves his empowering Spirit and our faithful response. In the end, sustained transformation, both personal and corporate, involves our renewal through both reformation and revival.

[This is an article I’ve written for the next issue of Western Seminary’s magazine, focusing on revival in the life of God’s people. This article is supposed to set the stage for the others by talking about what “revival” is and how it relates to the Gospel. I still have time to make some final edits before I send it in, so let me know if you have any feedback.]

A prayer for Sunday (Heinrich Bullinger)

[Yesterday marked the anniversary of the death of Heinrich Bullinger, famous Swiss reformer who led the church in Zurich after Zwingli’s death. So, I wanted to commemorate that with a prayer from Bullinger. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find one in English, though here’s one in German. So, I’m actually cheating a bit this morning. Rather than posting ia prayer, here’s an excerpt from the Second Helvetic Confession and on the Gospel in the Old Testament].

And although the teaching of the Gospel, compared with the teaching of the Pharisees concerning the law, seemed to be a new doctrine when first preached by Christ (which Jeremiah also prophesied concerning the New Teatament), yet actually it not only was and still is an old doctrine (even if today it is called new by the Papists when compared with the teaching now received among them), but is the most ancient of all in the world. For God predestinated from eternity to save the world through Christ, and he has disclosed to the world through the Gospel this his predestination and eternal counsel (II Tim. 2:9 f.). Hence it is evident that the religion and teaching of the Gospel among all who ever were, are and will be, is the most ancient of all. Wherefore we assert that all who say that the religion and teaching of the Gospel is a faith which has recently arisen, being scarcely thirty years old, err disgracefully and speak shamefully of the eternal counsel of God. To them applies the saying of Isaiah the prophet: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isa. 5:20).

Mapping the spread of the printing press (1450-1500)

Here’s an interesting graphic showing the spread of the printing press right before the Reformation. It’s amazing to see how rapidly the printing press spread in late-medieval Europe and how it set the stage to distribute the writings of the Reformers as quickly as possible.

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click to embiggen

HT 22 Words

Getting the Reformation Wrong

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of James R. Payton’s Getting the Reformation Wrong (IVP, 2010).

★★★★☆

James Payton Jr. has done an outstanding job identifying and correcting a number of common mistakes that people make when talking about the Reformation. I have to admit that my review of this book is biased by the fact that Payton routinely provides support for a number of things that I argue in my church history class. So, if he agrees with me, he must be right! Even without that, though, Payton has put together a very clear and readable book that should be helpful to anyone wanting to get a better handle on the Reformation.

Summary

The structure of the book is pretty easy to follow. Each of the twelve chapters identifies some mistake that people commonly make in understanding the Reformation and Payton’s suggestion for a better approach. Along the way, Payton argues that we need a much better understanding of: (1) the relationship between the Reformation and medieval calls for reform; (2) the influence of the Renaissance on the Reformation; (3) the progressive nature of Luther’s theological “breakthrough”; (4) the conflict and disagreement that took place among the various reformers; (5) the real meaning of sola fide; (6) the real meaning of sola scriptura; (7) the role of the Anabaptists; (8) contemporaneous Catholic reform movements; (9) the transition to Protestant Scholasticism; (10) whether the Reformation was a “success”; (11) whether the Reformation is a “norm” for today.

Strengths

Without a doubt, the greatest strengths of the book are in its clarity and readability. I wouldn’t hesitate to require a book like this in a seminary or even an undergraduate context.

And, as indicated above, I wholeheartedly agree with the corrections that Payton offers. He does a great job identifying a number of common mistakes that people make that are really out of joint with the scholarly consensus on the Reformation. There is certainly room for debate on many issues relative to the Reformation. But Payton focuses on those areas with widespread consensus in the scholarly community and significant misunderstanding at the popular level.

Weaknesses

The one real drawback to the book is that it does require the reader to have some knowledge of the Reformation. Of course, that’s pretty much required by the book’s title. It’s hard to get the Reformation wrong unless you know something about the Reformation in the first place. So, this isn’t the right book to begin your understanding of the Reformation, though it would make an excellent companion to a more generalized introduction to Reformation history and thought.

There were also a few places where I would not necessarily agree with Patyon’s understanding of certain aspects of the Reformation. For example, although “justification by faith” was unquestionably a fundamental doctrine for Luther, I would not necessarily agree that Luther used it like a scholastic theologian who identifies “basic postulate” and then rearticulates “all teaching to comport with that postulate” (p. 94). That seems to be over-reading Luther’s use of that doctrine and runs the risk of downplaying other doctrines that were also fundamentally important.

A similar example of oversimplification was Payton’s statement that Luther focused primarily “on the individual and his or her needs” while Zwingli and other reformers were more concerned about the “community” (p. 101). Although Payton doesn’t present this as an either/or, it still seems like an unfortunate way of characterizing Reformational thought since all of the Reformers had a strong emphasis on both. The fact that they expressed those interests differently, which they clearly did, does not mean that we should see any of them as neglecting or downplaying either.

Conclusion

Nonetheless, these are relatively small quibbles on particular points of interpretation that do little to impact the value of the work as a whole. Getting the Reformation Wrong is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to understand the Reformation better. If you don’t really know anything about the Reformation, don’t worry. At least you haven’t misunderstood anything yet. But, if you do know a few things about the Reformation, then this might be the perfect book for you to read and make sure you haven’t gotten something wrong.

The latest issue of ATI looks outstanding – check it out

If you’re not following the American Theology Inquiry journal (ATI), you really should. It’s a free online journal that just seems to be getting better with each issue. The latest issue of the journal just came out and it looks great. I’ll definitely be digging into some of these as soon as I get the chance.

Here are the articles in this issue:

  • “Reassessing the Relation of Reformation and Orthodoxy: A Methodological Rejoinder”, Richard A. Mueller
  • Discovering the Sacred in Secular Art: An Aesthetic Modality that ‘Speaks of God'”,  Christopher Evan Longhurst
  • A Match Made in Munich: The Origin of Grenz’s Trinitarian Theology,” Jason S. Sexton
  • “The Best Man Is Only a Man: Reflections on Some Enchantments and Disenchantments of the Grail,” Charles M. Natoli
  • “There Is No Sex in the Church,” Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov
  • “The Parable of the Budding Fig Tree,” J. Lyle Story

T.S. Eliot on the decay and restoration of the Church

And the Church must be forever building, and always decaying,
…..and always being restored.
For every ill deed in the past we suffer the consequence:
For sloth, for avarice, gluttony, neglect of the Word of God,
For pride, for lechery, treachery, for every act of sin.
And of all that was done that was good, you have the inheritance.
For good and ill deeds belong to a man alone, when he stands
…..alone on the other side of death,
But here upon earth you have the reward of the good and ill that
…..was done by those who have gone before you.
And all that is ill you may repair if you walk together in humble
…..repentance, expiating the sins of your fathers;
And all that was good you must fight to keep with hearts as
…..devoted as those of your fathers who fought to gain it.
The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying
…..within and attacked from without;
For this is the law of life; and you must remember that while
…..there is time of prosperity
The people will neglect the Temple, and in time of adversity
…..they will decry it.

~T. S. Eliot, “Choruses from ‘The Rock'” (1934)

Luther’s great discovery – the sweetness of God’s justice

Today is Martin Luther’s 527th birthday (Nov 10, 1483). I don’t keep that many candles in my office, so I thought I’d recognize his birthday by posting his description of how he came to discover the true meaning of “the righteousness of God” in Romans. As he tells the story toward the end of his life, this was the pivotal turning point in his understanding of the Gospel and the grace of God.

I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God,” which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.

But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?” This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.

I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise. Afterward I read Augustine’s “On the Spirit and the Letter,” in which I found what I had not dared hope for. I discovered that he too interpreted “the justice of God” in a similar way, namely, as that with which God clothes us when he justifies us. Although Augustine had said it imperfectly and did not explain in detail how God imputes justice to us, still it pleased me that he taught the justice of God by which we are justified.

From the Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works (1545).

Book giveaway – The Theology of Martin Luther

As I mentioned after last month’s book giveaway, a generous individual has decided that he would also like to share the wealth (i.e. give away a book that he accidentally bought two copies of). So, this month we’re giving away a new copy of Paul Althaus’ The Theology of Martin Luther. Although this book was published in English in 1966, I think this is still one of the best books around for understanding Luther’s theology. So, if you’re interested in engaging Luther’s thought more closely, this would be a great place to start.

As with our previous giveaway, the rules are simple. If you’d like a chance to win the book, you need to do at least one of the following. Each different way that you enter the contest will increase your chances of winning. (Assuming that I don’t just decide to give the book to the person whose name has the same numerical value of the guinea pig I had when I was a kid.)

  • Blog about the giveaway and link to this post
  • Link to the post from Twitter and let me know in the comments
  • Link to the post from Facebook and let me know in the comments
  • Comment on this post and indicate that you want the book
  • Come up with a list of 95 Theses that you’d really like to debate with someone. Write your theses on an old-looking piece of paper and making a video of you nailing your theses to the front door of some church (not your own). Bonus points if you can get the pastor to come out and yell at you.

Flotsam and jetsam (6/8)