Section navigation

Normative Church Life

Author
Category Articles
Date February 23, 2010

These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer (Acts 1:14).

David Brainerd was born in April, 1718 in Haddam, Connecticut and was converted just prior to enrolling at Yale in September, 1739. He was deeply and profoundly affected by the preaching of George Whitefield at Yale in the fall of 1741 at the height of a remarkable visitation of the Holy Spirit in New England. Later that fall Whitefield would join Jonathan Edwards at his church in Northampton, Massachusetts where there was a steady stream of conversions. Brainerd was dismissed from Yale due to harsh things he said about a tutor, saying off-handedly that he had no more grace than a chair. He sought to be reinstated but to no avail. He began his missionary work among the Indians of the Kaunaumeek tribe, who resided halfway between Stockbridge, Massachusetts and Albany, New York in November, 1742 and saw little fruit from his efforts. At this juncture, Brainerd’s circumstances – extreme physical deprivation of hunger, illness, and isolation, coupled with a deep conviction of his own sin and unworthiness – drove him to prayer. He spent long hours in the woods, in isolation, pouring out his heart to God in prayer, confessing his sin, delighting in the glory of Christ and the grace of the gospel, beseeching God for the salvation of the poor, heathen Indians.

He travelled in the spring of 1744 to the forks of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and again saw little openness to the gospel among these pagan and primitive people. Many had been hardened by white men who called themselves Christians but who lived godless, debauched lives. However in the summer of 1745 at Crossweeksung in New Jersey, Brainerd began to find the Indian tribe there melted by his and William Tennent’s preaching. They found quiet weeping and sobbing, a profound awareness of their sin, and what they believed to be an earnest desire to be saved. Brainerd, through his interpreter, went from house to house, daily preaching Jesus; and he continued also daily with public meetings where he proclaimed the simple message of the cross, calling them to flee to Jesus to be saved. Indians from as far as forty miles were coming to the meetings, falling under conviction of their sin, and calling on Christ to be saved. Brainerd never mentions how many he thinks were converted but by noting his references to how many attended various meetings, it seems safe to say that several hundred were wonderfully born again during August, 1745. These conversions continued unabated into the next year.1

Later Brainerd writes in his diary of the societal impact conversion had on the Indians of Crossweeksung. He says,

The effects of this work have likewise been very remarkable. I doubt not that many of these people have gained more doctrinal knowledge of divine truths since I first visited them in June last, than could have been instilled into their minds by the most diligent use of proper and instructive means for whole years together, without such a divine influence . . . Their pagan notions and idolatrous practices seem to be entirely abandoned in these parts . . . They seem generally divorced from drunkenness, their darling vice, the ‘sin that easily besets them,’ so that I do not know more than two or three, who have been my steady hearers, that have drank to excess since I first visited them . . . As their sorrows under convictions have been great and pressing, so many of them have since appeared to ‘rejoice with joy unspeakable, and full of glory,’ and yet I never saw anything ecstatic or flighty in their joy . . . some of them have been surprised at themselves, and have with concern observed to me, that ‘when their hearts have been glad,’ which is a phrase they commonly make use of to express spiritual joy, ‘they could not help crying for all.’2

Is the Book of Acts a mere aberration or is it to be the benchmark, the gold standard, as it were, of Christianity? What should characterize the church in our day, in any time of history? James Boice says that the church today rarely understands the far reaching impact of the early church, how they had taken the gospel to the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire, if not further, within two hundred years of Pentecost.3 Acts is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy where the promised Holy Spirit was to come upon the covenant community and empowers her to fulfil the Great Commission of our Lord.4 I suggest the Acts of the Apostles is normative for the church in any age. I am not speaking of tongues and miracles. These are not the focus of Luke’s writing. The unmistakable theme is the expansion of the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8).

So, what characterized the church in Acts and what ought to characterize us today? What would revival look like in our day? There seem to be at least ten marks of revival present in Acts, and there is an order to them. One cannot miss these marks in the ministry of David Brainerd, as noted briefly above. First, in the Acts of the Apostles, there is clear evidence of mighty prayer. The one hundred and twenty were gathered together in the upper room for ten days of prayer, after Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:12-14). For what were they praying? No doubt they were praising God for the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus. Surely they were giving thanks to God for opening their eyes to see the truth as it is in Jesus. Can there be little doubt that they were also confessing sin, being reconciled to one another. No doubt they each had sin to confess in denying Jesus and losing track of his demands on their lives. And certainly they were asking for the promised Spirit to come upon them in order to empower them for his Great Commission. Mighty prayer, as seen in the prayers of Ezra (Ezra 9:5ff ), Nehemiah (Neh.1:4ff, 9:5ff), and Daniel (Dan. 9:4ff) is always characterized by an intolerable burden for the glory of God to dwell in the land (Psa. 85:9), for Jesus to be a light to the nations (Isa. 49:6), for God’s face to shine on his people (Psa. 67:1), for multitudes to taste of Christ’s fullness (John 1:16). Mighty prayer induces an indomitable hunger for Christ, getting to the place where we can say with the Psalmist, ‘Whom have I in heaven but thee? And besides thee, I desire nothing on earth (Psa. 73:25).

Mighty prayer, however, always leads to mighty preaching – what we may also call revival preaching. This is clearly present in the books of Acts. The preaching of Peter, Stephen, Paul, and the rest of the Apostles is fuelled by the mighty prayer which brought the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In revival preaching the preacher clearly comprehends his God-given authority and he proclaims Christ crucified to his hearers, giving the sense that God is the judge and jury, that all must stand before his awesome judgment seat and give account of their lives. It preaches for a verdict, calling people to act upon the word just preached. He combines law and gospel, using the former to bring conviction of sin, and the latter to bring healing, redemption, and holiness. David Brainerd reports that the revival preaching at Crossweeksung evoked weeping and deep concern, not so much from the terrors of the Law but from the sweetness and goodness of God in salvation through Christ.5

Mighty prayer and mighty preaching always give way to mighty conversions. Every major revival witnesses millions of conversions in a one to two hundred year period. This happened in the Roman Empire in the first two hundred years of the New Testament church. It happened in Europe in the sixteenth century under Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, et al. It happened in the seventeenth century Puritan awakening in England and the American Colonies. It happened in America, England, Scotland, and Wales in the eighteenth century Great Awakening. It happened throughout the ever expanding American continent in the nineteenth century, as well as in England and Northern Ireland. It continues to happen in East Africa through the East African revival which began in the early 1950’s. It is happening today in China, South America, and in many Muslim nations like Iran, Iraq, and Algeria.

Mighty prayer, mighty preaching, and mighty conversions always give way to mighty assemblies. In Acts 4:31 we are told that the church gathered together and prayed and was filled with the Holy Spirit. Consequently the place where they were gathered was shaken and they spoke the word of God with boldness. Peter told the Sanhedrin when they forbade him to speak any longer in the name of Christ that he could not stop speaking what he had seen and heard (Acts 4:20). A mighty assembly is the gathering of God’s covenant people on the Lord’s Day when a heart-felt sense of the Spirit’s presence falls upon the congregation like the Shekinah of Old Testament times (Exod. 40:38). A mighty assembly always results in Psalm 2 worship, ‘Worship the Lord with reverence, and rejoice with trembling (Psa. 2:11). A sense of awe overcomes the people of God.

Brainerd, in reporting on the mighty movement of God among the Indians at Creekweeksung, writes, ‘Divine truth fell with weight and power upon the audience, and seemed to reach the hearts of many . . . the word seemed to be accompanied by divine influence, and made powerful impressions upon the assembly in general.’6 Throughout church history mighty assemblies have resulted in the unbeliever’s curiosity being aroused, leading him to public assemblies, often ending in his conversion.7

And mighty assemblies lead to mighty holiness. Paul commends the Thessalonians for their faith, stating how they had turned from idols to serve the true and living God (1 Thess. 1:9); and he also commends the Macedonians, saying that they had given out of their poverty to the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, (2 Cor. 8:2). Neither a church nor its community is experiencing true revival if the level of morality and holiness is not raised. Simply put – Christians are to be different from the world, and holiness is that difference.

Mighty holiness leads to mighty grass roots evangelism. In Acts 8:1ff we read that the people were disbursed from Jerusalem due to persecution, that they continued going about evangelizing (the actual Greek word in Acts 8:4 is evangelize). Evangelism is not left to pastors and missionaries when revival is in the air. The whole church engages in her God-given responsibility – to make disciples of all the nations. Brainerd had little response among the Indians at the forks of the Delaware River, but after those at Crossweeksung were converted, he took them to the Delaware River and they bore witness to God’s mighty work among them, moving the formerly hard-hearted and scoffing Indians to listen and embrace Christ.8 The church is the base of operations for evangelistic outreach. She is to engage in it. Anything less is an incomplete picture of gospel holiness. Personal evangelism is a mark of one’s personal holiness.

Mighty holiness leads to mighty generosity or compassion. Believers in Macedonia and Achaia were giving out of their poverty to those in Jerusalem. Barnabas gave his property to the Lord’s work (Acts 4:36-37), and the people held all things in common, meeting the practical needs of all the brethren in Jerusalem (Acts 4:32-34). For the Macedonians to give out of their poverty is like a village of Teso Christians in Uganda giving from their meagre resources to ease the pain of the Haitians after the January, 2010 earthquake.

And mighty compassion always leads, sooner or later, to mighty societal impact. Do we not see that in Ephesus in Acts 19 when a riot breaks out at the hands of the silversmiths who are angry because the populace no longer buys their silver trinkets related to the worship of Diana, because they have turned from their idols to serve the living God! The eighteenth century Great Awakening prevented the bloodshed of the French Revolution from coming to America. The second Great Awakening in nineteenth century America resulted in the abolition of slavery. The 1904 Welsh revival resulted in Barbershop Quartet music. That’s because the police had nothing to do (crime had all but ended), so they offered to spend their time by singing in churches.

And mighty societal impact results in mighty leadership. God brings forth pastors, teachers, evangelists, elders, and deacons when revival comes to a church and community. Leaders are necessary to propel a congregation out into the world to evangelize, speak the truth in love, and to serve the needy both within and without the congregation. Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders in every city (Titus 1:5), and Paul was constantly including men on his missionary tours, preparing them for leadership roles in the work of Christ’s church (Acts 13:13; 15:36, 40; 18:1-3; 19:9; 20:1-6, 17; 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus).

And finally, mighty leadership always results in mighty combat. The devil is a roaring lion, seeking to devour whomever he may (1 Pet. 5:8). When the gospel begins to attack the societal and cultural depravity prevalent in any culture, then the forces of evil do not take it sitting down. They rise up and bring an onslaught of persecution, lies, and division upon the church. Revival heightens this spiritual conflict. The devil is in the details of ministry. How many times have we all seen a ministry threatened because someone did not follow through with the details, that some make faulty assumptions, that expectations were not realized, and all manner of distrust arose.

Oh, how we ought to long for revival in our nation and world! The Acts of the Apostles is normative. This is the benchmark for the church. Anything less is failure. Merely ‘being faithful’ is not enough. These ten marks ought to be readily apparent and growing in intensity in our ministries. If they are not, then we are woefully inadequate. May God cause us to weep over our impotence, driving us to repentance and the pursuit of Biblical holiness! The church in the western world is languishing in unbelief, carnality, and worldliness. We have become milquetoast. May God stir us up to spend and be spent for the sake of the gospel, not only to save our western world, but more importantly, to show the world the glory of our great Christ, the Saviour of sinners, the Lord of all the nations!

Notes

  1. See ‘The Life and Diary of David Brainerd’, and ‘Mr Brainerd’s Journal’ in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 2 (Banner of Truth, 1974), pages 316ff.
  2. Ibid., pages 400-401.
  3. Boice, J. M., Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Baker, 1997), page 22.
  4. See Joel 2:28-29, Ezra 9:8-9 (a little reviving), Luke 24:49, John 14:16-17, 16:5-11, Acts 1:8.
  5. Edwards, op. cit., pages 402, 408.
  6. Ibid., page 402.
  7. The Welsh revival beginning in 1735 is a good case in point. On more than one occasion Howell Harris’ life was threatened by evil doers, who in the end attended the meetings and were soundly converted. See The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales (Banner of Truth, 2008). Harris’ ministry is covered in Volume 1 of the 2-volume set.
  8. Edwards, op. cit., page 407.

Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.

www.christcpc.org

Latest Articles

What Can We Learn from John Knox? November 24, 2022

If it were to be asked what is the recurring theme in Knox’s words and writings the answer is perhaps a surprising one. Sometimes he could be severe, and sometimes extreme. Given the days and the harshness of the persecution he witnessed, it would be understandable if these elements had preponderated in his ministry. But […]

Reformed, But Ever Reforming October 31, 2022

It is rather audacious to claim that we are reformed. It can also be misleading when we call ourselves Reformed Churches. For this might imply that we believe that our denominations are truly reformed; or, even worse, that at some point in the past we were or became reformed and that the task of reform […]