We have been discussing the subject of revival and have examined a Scriptural passage (Jer. 29:11-13) that contains a promise for revival. But what does one look like in real life? What happens in a revival?
One historical example of a revival is the one that broke out in Northampton, MA during the winter of 1734-1735 under the ministry of Jonathan Edwards. The town had experienced revivals before, but by 1730 there had arisen a new generation of young people who were as mischievous and spiritually careless as any generation before it. Edwards worked to bring things under control, and to a large extent there was an improvement. Then the sudden deaths of two young people in the spring of 1734 had a sobering effect on the entire community.
That fall Edwards proposed having the young people meet in small groups on Sunday evenings for their spiritual edification. The practice was soon taken up by the adults as well. In other words, the people were starting to seek after God, just as we have seen in the Book of Jeremiah.
It just so happened that at about that time a controversy arose over Arminianism, and Edwards was led to preach a series of sermons on the subject of justification by faith (Edwards was a staunch Calvinist). It was a clear and forceful presentation of the gospel, and people began to respond. The spiritual life of the community was deepened, conversions resulted, and the revival spread to neighboring towns.
What is significant about all of this is that people did not just add their names to the membership roll of the church. There was a genuine interest in spiritual things. “The only thing in their view was to get the kingdom of heaven, and everyone appeared to be pressing into it,” Edwards wrote (Works, 1:348). The town was filled with joy; the public worship became alive. “Our public assemblies were then beautiful: the congregation was alive to God’s service, everyone earnestly intent on the public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth . . .” Some were weeping in sorrow, while others wept for joy.
At the outset Edwards had preached a sermon entitled “A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be both a Scriptural and Rational Doctrine.” The title says it all. The sermon explains the dynamic of a genuine spiritual experience. Edwards tells us that the spiritual light consists of “a true sense of the divine and superlative excellency of the things of religion; a real sense of the excellency of God and Jesus Christ, and of the work of redemption, and the ways and works of God revealed in the gospel” (Works, 2.14). He goes on to explain: the spiritually enlightened person “does not merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart.” He points out that “there is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness.” It is one thing to know about honey; it is another thing actually to have tasted it, and appreciate its taste. And so it is with spiritual things. “There is not only a rational belief that God is holy, and that holiness is a good thing, but there is a sense of the loveliness of God’s holiness.”
Edwards points out that this spiritual light is supernatural – it is something that is imparted to us by the Holy Spirit. “. . .this light is immediately given by God, and not obtained by natural means.” “The Holy Spirit operates in the minds of the godly, by uniting himself to them, and living in them, exerting his own nature in the exercise of their faculties” (p. 13). Edwards is careful to emphasize that “This spiritual light is not the suggesting of any new truths or propositions not contained in the word of God.” It “only gives a due apprehension of those things that are taught in the word of God” (p. 13).
And what are the effects of this spiritual enlightenment? “This knowledge will wean from the world, and raise the inclination to heavenly things. It will turn the heart to God as the fountain of good, and to choose him for the only portion” (p. 17).
This spiritual light also leads to a holy life. “It shows God as worthy to be obeyed and served. It draws forth the heart in a sincere love to God, which is the only principle of a true, gracious, and universal obedience; and it convinces of the reality of those glorious rewards that God has promised to them that obey him.”
And that is exactly what happened shortly afterwards at Northampton. May it happen to us as well!
Note: All quotes of Jonathan Edwards are taken from the 1974 Banner of Truth edition of his Works.