Revivals of Religion

Revivals Of Religion, a phrase commonly used to indicate renewed interest in religious subjects, or a period of religious awakening. It comes from revive (Lat. revivo), to live again, and is often improperly applied to excitements which can hardly be called religious, because they do not apprehend, or propose to revive, the real, inner, spiritual life of the soul, which alone constitutes true religion. Setting out with erroneous views as to the work to be effected, such excitements necessarily fall short of its accomplishment.

These words are also used to denote the conversion of sinners as well as the quickening of believers. This arises from the fact that the two events are generally (not always) coincident. Sinners, who withstand God himself, may resist the Church in her best estate; and they are sometimes converted when the Church, as a body, is spiritually asleep. Yet such is the influence of spiritual life, and such the usual sanction given by the Holy Ghost to its loving endeavors to save men, that a real revival of the Church leads directly to the conversion of oth ers. Therefore "a revival is simply an increase of the best desires, affections, and exertions of persons who are already pious and benevolent, such an increase as, by the blessing of Heaven, awakens in the ungodly an anxiety for their salvation. When these evidences of increased engagedness in the cause of Christ are unequivocally manifested anywhere, it is too late for an impartial observer to doubt that a genuine revival of religion has there commenced." To understand this subject in its bearings upon the different classes to be benefited, it is necessary to have just conceptions of religion itself, the means of its attainment and revival, and the evidences by which it is distinguished. These points, with some others necessarily involved, are indicated by the following propositions.

1. That all men unrenewed by the grace of God are sinners. Paul represents them as dead in trespasses and in sins, walking according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, having their conversation in the lusts of the flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and as by nature children of wrath.

2. This being their condition-corrupt in heart and disobedient in practice — they need two important works effected in and for them; namely, the pardon of all their sins. exempting them from the penalty of the law, and the renewal of their souls in righteousness, conforming them to the moral image of God, and thus fitting them to do his will from the heart here, and enjoy the holiness of heaven hereafter.

3. That the atonement of Christ provided for just these results, as may be seen by the following announcements: "If we confesss our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1Jo 1:9). "But ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God" (1Co 6:11). And to show the absolute necessity of this double work, Jesus said to Nicodemus, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (Joh 3:3). Revivals which aim at anything short of this are not revivals of religion in the proper sense of that word. They may arouse the fears of men and improve their habits, but they do not save in the Gospel sense, nor will their results be satisfactory to the depraved and guilty sinner, or to any spiritual Church.

4. Another important fact to be remembered is, that this is the work of God. He only can forgive sins, or renew the heart. The object of a true revival is, therefore. not to absolve sinners, but to bring them to God; in other words, to persuade them to accept the terms of reconciliation, that he may save them. Pronouncing them converted on their avowing a "desire" or "purpose" to seek the Lord is unauthorized, and exceedingly dangerous. We should instruct and encourage them to wait in the way of duty till God shall do the work, when then will need no absolution from man. Many, it is to be feared, have been misled right at this point, to their eternal sorrow. They have been taught to believe that religion is all their own work, a mere change of opinion or position; that they are to convert themselves. It is sometimes called a growth; whereas it is first a new creation, a new life, and adoption into the family of God by his own sovereign act. Like all other acts, it must be done at some specific time — in a moment. One must be born again before he can grow. If backslidden, he must repent and be forgiven as at the first, and have the old "joy of salvation" restored unto him.

5. When this work is accomplished, it will be verified, first, by the Holy Spirit witnessing to the fact as it witnesses in conviction to the sinner's guilt, condemnation, and danger; and, secondly, by its fruits, "love, joy, peace, long suffering," etc., and aversion to former sins and associations. How does an awakened sinner know that he is a sinner? He feels that he is, and this is confirmed by the uniform conflict of his life and temper with the Word of God. How does a real convertknow that he is converted? Because he now feels the same assurance in his heart that he is a Christian which he felt before thathe was a sinner, and he knows that he is living a life of obedience, whereas, before, he lived in rebellion. He can say from the heart, with Paul, "Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,... and rejoice in the hope of the "glory of God" (Ro 5:1-2); and, with John, "We know that we have passed from death unto life because we love the brethren" (1Jo 3:14). Converts who stop short of a joyous experience of the love of God will go limping through life, if they do not utterly fall away.

6. The revival of this style of religion is best promoted by the inculcation of the fundamental truths of the Gospel, such as human depravity, natural and acquired; the sinfulness of men in rebellion against God, and in refusing to accept of offered mercy; the certainty of their loss of heaven, and the endurance of eternal punishment, if they do not repent; the amplitude of the atonement for every one who will deny himself, take aup his cross, and follow Christ, according to the light that is in and around him: the ability of sinners, by grace, to so repent and believe as to be saved; and the blessedness on earth and in heaven which God will bestow upon all who seek him with their whole heart.

As to the best manner of presenting these truths, there is room.for difference of opinion. Under ordinary circumstances, however, where the Word of God is freely circulated, their earnest, sympathetic, persuasive proclamation is more effective than any attempt to prove them. Many give infidelity too much credit, and spend their time and strength in defending to the understanding what they ought to preach to the heart. They controvert and argue where they should persuade and entreat. The people in the circumstances supposed generally believe the Gospel as really as their preachers, but neglect its claims from worldly considerations. These obstacles, need to be neutralized or removed. This can be more successfully done by showing their triviality in comparison with the tremendous interests at stake on the side of religion than by the explosion of heretical sentiments which their hearers would be glad to have true, but in which they have little confidence.

The most effective suggestion that we can make on this point is, perhaps, that the preacher aim to promote the revival of his Church and the conversion of sinners. Those who fail to do so seldom win souls to Christ. Revivals are not produced by such indifference. Says the immortal Richard Baxter to pastors: "If your heart is not set on the end of your labors, and if you do not long to see the conversion and edification of your hearers, and study and.preach in hope, you are not likely to see much success. It is a sign of a false, self-seeking heart when a person is contented to be still doing without seeing any fruit of his labor... He never had the right ends of a preacher in view who is indifferent whether he obtains them or not; who is not grieved when he misses them, and rejoices when he can see the desired issue." With this aim, and a proper understanding of human nature and the Gospel, one will not seriously err in the selection of subjects. Nor will he preach so much about the people as to them. Effective efforts have always been characterized by their directness. Said Nathan to David, "Thou art the "man;" and Joshua to Israel, "Choose you this day whom you will serve." When Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, "Let the house of Israel know assuredly that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ," his hearers were "pricked. in their hearts, and said, Men and brethren, what shall we do?" But revivals must not be left alone to preachers, or preaching. Every talent of the Church should be enlisted in all appropriate ways. Testimony as to personal experience is a powerful agency, and should be largely employed in private, and often in public. The same is true of lay instruction, exhortation; and persuasion. When these means fail, the object may be gained by a tract or book. The printed page has won grand fields inaccessible to living agencies, and where these have toiled in vain. Prayer is another powerful means of revivals, which often prevails where everything else fails. Their history glows with the wonders of its power. Singing Gospel truths in an impressive manner is often effective. It attracts and softens many who care little for preaching- or prayer. It has always been prominent in this work, but never more successful than at the present time.

7. Revivals are necessary from many considerations. First, because, as a matter of fact, most Christians do backslide more or less from their first love. The history of God's ancient people is little more than a consecutive account of their backslidings and recoveries. The apostolic age was clouded by similar defections, and followed by the "Dark Ages." The slumbers of that long night were unbroken until the revival trumpet of Luther was heard from Wittenberg calling for reform. Even the Puritans of New England declined. Says Mr. Tracy, in speaking of their condition at the commencement of the great revival under Edwards, Whitefield, and others, "Such had been the downward progress in New England that there were many in the churches, and even some in the ministry, who were yet lingering among the supposed preliminaries to conversion. The difference between the Church and the world was vanishing away, and yet never, perhaps, had the expectation of reaching heaven at last been more general or confident." That revival changed all this for the time, but in less than half a century there was another sad relapse. When the Wesleys and Whitefield awoke to the claims of religion in England, the new birth was a dead letter, and conversions were scarcely known; while drinking, gambling, cock-fighting, and every species of popular vice were patronized by the Church and many of the clergy.

In view of these facts, what would have become of religion but for revivals? Had Joshua, and David, and Josiah, and Ezra, and Luther, and Edwards, the Wesleys, Whitefield, and other revivalists, clung to established customs, and opposed innovations, as some did, and as others do now, the name of God would hardly have been preserved from oblivion.

The same tendency is observable in individuals and some churches now. They are in close fellowship with sin and the world, without God, and without any well-grounded hope.

Revivals are also necessary because there is no other cure for the evils to be remedied. Spiritual life can never spring out of the dead, worldly policy which eschews revivals: reason, common-sense, and history are all against it. We may fill the Church with man-made converts, who have been coaxed into a profession of religion without having the first elements of a Christian character; but that is not God's work, nor is it religious; it is rather an attempt to cover the wolf in sheep's clothing, to be stripped of his false pretence when it is too late to repent and be saved. Nearly all the religion of the ages is attributable to revivals. Every device to supersede their necessity has failed. It may be added with special emphasis that revivals are necessary to the triumph of moral reforms. Experience has taught many that they cannot reform without the grace of God. Such were their habits of licentiousness, profanity, intemperance, fraud, sinful amusements, etc., that all attempts at reform were fruitless until they came to God for salvation. Then they found deliverance, not from the habit only, but from all disposition to follow it. This is the only solid basis of reform, when bad appetites, passions, and habits are fully established. God only can save in these extreme cases.

8. Revival measures require great courage, zeal, and decision in their leaders to make them most effective. Because, first, they generally encounter opposition from without, and often from professors of religion. It may be silent, but still it is real and hurtful. Sometimes it takes the form of friendship, as in the case of Nehemiah and Sanballat, and suggests damaging complications, which require clear perception and invincible firmness. At others it is outspoken and threatening, which is less hurtful. But not unfrequently genuine but misguided friends of the work have to be restrained to prevent their hindering what they fain would help. To do this successfully often requires much decision and tact. But it must be done. A few weak and fanatical people have sometimes been allowed to neutralize the best efforts. But there seems to be little danger from that quarter at the present time. These measures suffer more from spiritual death than from overaction. And yet with some there is so much dread of excitement that they hardly dare to light the fires of revival for fear of an explosion. These circumstances call for courage to venture. But many who wish well to the cause have no faith in God or man. They cannot see how success isto be achieved, and therefore they hesitate to attempt it. Here is another call for courage. Many of the great revivals of the ages commenced with one man. He alone believed, and worked it up; but when it became manifest that God was with him, others rallied to his support. In the progress of the work this same unbelief, during every little reverse, is prompt to predict that it is going to stop. This calls for more faith in the leader, who will do well to review the book of Nehemiah. Then churches sometimes get weary, and want their evenings for rest, business, or recreation, and propose to suspend the meetings. A proper zeal will suggest some little modificatioh of measures, and strike for new achievements. Revivals have been successfully carried on for years under this policy; not so much by holding meetings every evening as by making every meeting, whether regular or extra, to advance the work.

Literature. — Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England [1740]; to which is prefixed A Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in Northampton, Mass. [1735] (N. Y.); Porter, Revivals of Religion, showing their Theory, Means, Obstructions, Importance, and Perversions, with the Duty of Christians in regard to them (N.Y. and Cincinnati, 1877); Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (Oberlin, 0.1868); Fish, Handbook of Revivals,for the Use of Winners of Souls (Boston, 1874). See North Brit. Rev. Nov. 1860; Mercersb. Rev. Jan. 1872. (J. P.)

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