It seems as if a lot of people are heading to Asbury. I have not been to Asbury. At this point, I do not anticipate going to Asbury.
Why are they going to Asbury? It is because, in the last few days, something has taken place in the chapel of Asbury University. If the reports are anything to go by, a regular chapel service on a Wednesday morning has become a sort of rolling worship service. Revival, we are told, is happening at Asbury. Many people are heading to Asbury. A couple of friends asked me, “Should I go to Asbury?”
I think they may have holy FOMO. FOMO, as you may know, is the fear of missing out. It is a fundamentally stressful state of being, involving a sort of constant apprehension—usually fuelled in these days by a stream of online information and a flood of social media—that someone, somewhere, is enjoying something that you want or need, some event or experience that will make your life fundamentally better. It is understandable that genuine Christians, those who have longed for and prayed for the reviving of Christ’s church, should hear of events in a place like Asbury and suffer a little holy FOMO. Notice the qualifying adjective! They are not seeking to be slaves to spectacle or entranced by mere experience, but they are eager for the Lord’s favour. If that favour is being poured out, they have a genuine appetite to be a part of things. It may still be FOMO, but I think we understand it. After all, if the Lord were genuinely reviving his people in a place, say, a hundred miles away, if there were a preacher whose ministry seemed to be attended by showers of heavenly blessing and he were speaking down the road, would you or I not have an appetite to be there, eagerly anticipating God’s mercies toward us?
With regard to Asbury, typical responses seem to involve a lot of naiveté and a lot of cynicism. I have known good men who have refused to condemn, or even to critique, sub-scriptural religious charlatanism because they knew of similar periods or events which produced some good (the 1904-05 revival in Wales is a historical case in point—I know men who, because good things came out of it, were willing to entertain anything which involved something similar to its excesses and weaknesses, just in case; similarly, it should be said, I know some who condemned everything for the opposite reason). For some people, if it is lively and Christian (at least, kind of) and prominent, then surely it is a good thing, and who are we to criticise? Others are inherently negative. They hear of men of bad reputation heading that way and sneer, “Ah, the vultures are gathering!” They look at the theological pedigree of a place or person and assume that the Lord should not, could not, and would not work among such unworthy people (the working assumption of our own worthiness is, of course, woven into that). Perhaps, then, they are bitter that something may have happened elsewhere that has not happened here, to me. Some are quickly dismissive of what they consider to be an inherently empty religious spectacle. That cynicism can be dressed up in clothes that look like garments wisdom might wear: “Let’s just wait and see, shall we?” (The difference between wisdom and cynicism there might lie in the tone—cynicism has already made its mind up that this is a bubble soon to pop.)
So, when friends ask me, “Do you think it is genuine? Do you think I should go?” I have to be careful how I answer. I was recently involved in the production of a documentary called Revival: The Work of God, for Reformation Heritage Books. There were several early drafts of the script for that documentary, offering two different approaches to the material. The one which prevailed for the documentary focused on the histories, the stories of God’s dealings, drawing out lessons along the way. The other approach used the historical details to adorn and illuminate a series of lessons about the theology of revival, the setting of revival, the nature of revival, the agent of revival, the instruments of revival, the effects of revival, the dangers of revival, the pursuit of revival, and the history of revival. All of those issues are addressed in the documentary as it now stands, but the categories themselves are helpful in asking what is taking place in Asbury, and how we ought to respond to it.
Part of the problem is that I am not in Asbury, and do not expect to be there. Whatever is taking place in Asbury is being communicated and filtered by way of media that are not necessarily going to communicate accurately what is taking place, for good or ill, for better or for worse. We see snippets and snapshots, some of which seem to suggest that this phenomenon is taking place entirely apart from any preaching and teaching, and that the revival seems to consist solely in an extended concert (which, in today’s Christianity, is often considered to be synonymous with ‘worship’). Others contain suggestions, if not testimonies, of people repenting of sin and drawing near to God. I have neither the energy nor the opportunity to filter through all these reports, trying to discern and determine what is valid and valuable and what is not.
So what do I say? How should I respond, to them and in my own heart?
Well, I have studied in small measure the history of revival, and know some of the dangers of revivalism. I have been present when some men have preached and I was persuaded that there was an unusual sense of heavenly reality, making my soul humble and hungry. I have also seen some excesses and uglinesses which fill me with grief, and which are no more manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power than a twitching corpse is evidence of real life.
I know that the Lord is sovereign. I know that he works in mercy and in grace. I therefore do not think that we have any right to tell the Lord where and when and whom he must must bless. I cannot restrict the Holy Spirit’s operations, but I can know how he operates. If charlatans or naysayers arrive where God is at work, I know that they might quench the Spirit of God, but I also know that the Lord might be pleased to convince, convict and convert his elect. I know that the devil often sets a kind of religious wildfire alongside or near a genuine work of God in order to dilute or discredit the power of the gospel. I know that the Lord uses weak and foolish instruments to accomplish his purposes, so I do not expect every man whom the Lord uses to be the finished article, either as to doctrine or practice. I know that the primary means he uses to stir and sustain life in his saints and to bring life to the lost is the preaching of the Word of God, and so I wonder how much preaching and teaching is involved here. I am fascinated by Spurgeon’s concern that the genuine revival in Northern Ireland in the 1850s occurred without the obvious instrumentality of the Word of God, to which he attributed some of its weaknesses and its lack of longevity. I know that the work of the Spirit involves a profound and humbling sense of the presence of a holy God, a deep and accurate conviction of sin, a genuine and striking newness of life, a committed pursuit of true godliness, and a sincere appetite for and delight in the worship of God, and I anticipate that these will be the present and lasting fruits of any genuine spiritual renewal. I know that sometimes, in desperation for something to happen, we are ready to excuse, overlook and romanticise something that is deeply flawed or even not genuine. I know that, because we have been disappointed in the past, we are ready to dismiss or deride anything and everything, having already concluded that it cannot or will not happen in our day or our place.
If someone were to say, “Of course this is real revival! To question this is to question God himself!” then I would say, “We are not to deny or to limit God, but we are to test the spirits (1Jn 4:1), and those are not the same thing.” If someone were to say, “Of course this is not real revival! How could it be, given where and when and how and among whom it is happening!” then I would say, “And who does deserve God’s blessing, and which of us ever responds to it with a perfect blend of light and heat? Salvation is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy (Rom 9:16).”
Should we be hopeful? Why not? The Reformed have no monopoly on God’s grace. Should we be careful? Of course, for a tree is known by its fruits. The mere fact of long meetings for praise, or even prayer, or even preaching, do not a revival make! Are Christians being humbled and stirred before God, are unbelievers repenting and believing and manifesting transformed lives? The great theologian of revival, Jonathan Edwards, makes clear that it can take time to distinguish between a passing religious excitement and a genuine work of grace. The work will not suffer for righteous caution, but an excess of excitement and a mere appetite for experience may prove dangerous, as might a sneering suspicion and ungrounded negativity.
I am wary of chasing the fire and turning events like these into some kind of spectacle. I would be grieved at the thought of the Lord drawing near and not taking an opportunity to draw near to him. So I do not need to live in the stressful state of FOMO, even a holy FOMO. I need not become slave to spectacle or entranced by mere experience. I need to be more eager for the Lord’s glory than for the Lord’s blessing, ready to rejoice if he is pleased to magnify his name, even if he does not magnify it where I might have prayed or hoped. I need to be more earnest in pleading for the Lord’s favour toward me and those whom I serve.
So I will not be going to Asbury because I do not need to go to Asbury. I have a place to be and a work to do and a God to serve. While God is often pleased to limit his operations to particular moments and periods, places and people, and while I long to know his blessing where I am, I do not need to be a Spirit-chaser in the wrong sense. I know that the Lord is not limited in what he can do and where. I know what he has promised, I know what I desire, and I know what he is both willing and able to do. And so, it will be better simply to serve as God has commanded, and to pray, “Lord, work here too!”
Those who want to look at these issues in more depth might try the following volumes:
The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards (see Banner edition here)
Revival and Revivalism by Iain H. Murray
Pentecostal Outpourings: Revival and the Reformed Tradition by Robert D. Smart, Michael A. G. Haykin & Ian H. Clary (eds.)
Revival: A People Saturated with God, Brian Edwards
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