The GOSPEL TRUTH
REVIVALS OF RELIGION.
WILLIAM B. SPRAGUE, D. D.
PASTOR OF THE SECOND PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN ALBANY, N.Y.
NATURE OF A REVIVAL.
Isaiah xlv. 8.
"Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness; let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together."
The final and complete triumph of the church was a theme at which the mind of this prophet was always ready to kindle. So infinitely superior did he regard it to any thing that respects merely the present world, that when his predictions relate immediately to temporal mercies, they often look farther to spiritual blessings; and sometimes we find him apparently forgetting himself for a moment, and passing abruptly, and almost imperceptibly, from some national deliverance to the salvation of the gospel. In the verses immediately preceding our text, there is a manifest reference to the deliverance of the Jews from their captivity in Babylon; but in the text itself there is a sudden transition to a subject of far higher import, even the blessings of Christ's salvation; and this latter subject continues to engross the prophet's mind to the close of the chapter. -- "Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness; let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together."
There was some partial fulfilment of this prediction in the revival of true piety which attended the return of the Jews from Babylon; though it is evidently to be considered as referring principally to the more extensive prevalence of religion under the gospel dispensation. It may be regarded, in a general sense, as denoting the abundant grace by which the gospel would be attended, casting into the shade all previous measures of divine influence which had been enjoyed by the church; or it may be considered, more particularly, as referring to special occasions, on which the agency of the Spirit would be signally manifest. In this latter sense, it may be applied to the wonderful effusions of the Holy Ghost which attended the preaching of Peter on the day of Pentecost; and to what, in these latter days, we are accustomed to denominate revivals of religion. It is in its application to revivals that I purpose to consider it at the present time.
I here commence a series of Discourses, in which it will be my object to present before you, in its various bearings, the subject of Revivals of Religion. The reasons which have determined me to this course, and the grounds on which I beg leave to commend this subject to your special attention, are the following: --
1. It is a subject in which the church, especially in this country, is, at this moment, more deeply and practically interested than almost any other. You cannot look back upon the history of our American church, and compare the past with the present, without perceiving that within the last half century a wonderful change has taken place in the order of God's providence towards it. It is true, indeed, that through the ministry of Whitfield and others, there was a revival of considerable extent in this country, a little before the middle of the last century; but owing to various causes, which I shall not now stop to specify, the fruits of it were, in no small degree, blasted; and from that period till near the beginning of the present century, the church was only enlarged by very gradual additions. But at the period last mentioned, a different state of things seemed to commence, in the more copious and sudden effusions of the Holy Spirit; and now it has come to pass in these days in which we live, that far the greater number of those who are turned from darkness to light, so far as we can judge, experience this change during revivals of religion. It is for revivals that the church is continually praying; and to them that she is looking for accessions both to her numbers and her strength. The praise of revivals is upon her lips, and upon the lips of her sons and daughters, who come crowding to her solemn feasts. Such being the fact, no one can doubt that this is a subject which she ought well to understand -- which all should understand who care for Zion's prosperity.
2. This is a subject in which the church is not only deeply interested at the present time, but is likely to be more and more interested for a long time to come. The cause of revivals has hitherto been gradually and yet constantly gaining ground. The last year has been in this respect unparalleled in the annals of the church; and there is much in prophecy to warrant the conviction that, as the millennial day draws near, these effusions of the Holy Spirit will be yet more frequent and powerful. Every thing decides that this is to be a practical subject, not with the present generation only, but with many generations to come. It is desirable, therefore, that we should form correct views of it, not merely for our own sake, but for the sake of those who come after us; for our views no doubt will, to a great extent, be propagated to future generations.
3. The views which we form on this subject, and the course we adopt in respect to it, must determine, in a great measure, the actual effect of revivals upon the interests of the church. This is a matter in relation to which God is pleased to leave much to human instrumentality. It is possible that his people may co-operate with him in carrying forward a revival, by such means that there may be many sound and scriptural conversions, and that his cause may thereby be greatly advanced; and it is possible that, by the neglect of duty, or by the adoption of mistaken and unscriptural measures, they may grieve away the Holy Spirit, or confirm multitudes in fatal self-deception. It is not to be questioned that what commonly passes under the name of a revival of religion is an engine of prodigious power in the church. God intends it only for good; nevertheless it is capable of being perverted to evil. As so much, then, in respect to the influence of revivals is dependent on the human agency that is employed in them, and as our conduct on this subject will take its complexion from our views, you perceive that it is a matter of great moment that our views should be correct.
4. Every member of the church, whatever may be his standing in society, has a part to act in relation to this subject, and therefore ought to be enlightened concerning it. In days that have gone by, this may have been thought a matter almost exclusively for ministers and other officers of the church; while private Christians may have imagined, that out of their closets they had little to do in relation to it, but to look on and behold the wonderful work of God. But happily this mistake has, to a great extent, been corrected; and it seems now to be almost universally admitted, that this is a field in which even the obscurest Christian may find a place to labour. In a community in which there prevails a spirit of deep religious anxiety, and many are just forming the purpose to set their faces toward heaven, and many others are beginning to hope that they have yielded themselves to God, there must needs be much occasion for private counsel and instruction; and the persons most likely to be applied to are often those with whom the individuals concerned happen to be most intimately associated. Every one, therefore, ought to be competent to give at least some general directions. One right direction, in certain circumstances, may be the means of saving the soul. One wrong direction, in similar circumstances, of ruining it forever. If all Christians, then, are so deeply and practically interested in this subject, there is good reason why it should be brought before you as a distinct theme for contemplation and instruction.
Having now stated some reasons for bringing this subject before you at this time, I proceed to the main design of the discourse, which is to exhibit the NATURE of a revival of religion. And that we may do this intelligently, it will be necessary previously to answer the question, in a single word, What is the nature of religion?
Religion consists in a conformity of heart and life to the will of God. It consists in a principle of obedience implanted in the soul, and in the operation of that principle in the conduct. Religion is substantially the same in all worlds; though the religion of a sinner is modified, in some respects, by his peculiar character and condition. In common with the religion of the angels, it consists in love to God -- to his law, to his government, to his service; but in distinction from that, it consists in repentance of sin; faith in the merits of a crucified Saviour; resignation under trials; opposition to spiritual enemies. Moreover, religion in the angels is an inherent principle; it begins with their existence: but in the human heart it is something superinduced by the operation of the Spirit of God. Wherever there exists a cordial belief of God's truth, and submission of the will to his authority, and the graces of the heart shine forth in the virtues of the life, there is true religion: whether it be in the palace or the cottage; whether it appear in a single individual, or be diffused over a whole community.
Now if such be the nature of religion, you will readily perceive in what consists a revival of religion. It is a revival of scriptural knowledge, of vital piety, of practical obedience. The term revival of religion has sometimes been objected to, on the ground that a revival of any thing supposes its previous existence; whereas in the renovation of sinners, there is a principle implanted which is entirely new. But though the fact implied in this objection is admitted, the objection itself has no force; because the term is intended to be implied in a general sense, to denote the improved religious state of a congregation, or of some other community. And it is moreover applicable, in a strict sense, to the condition of Christians, who, at such a season, are in a greater or less degree revived; and whose increased zeal is usually rendered instrumental of the conversion of sinners. Wherever, then, you see religion rising up from a state of comparative depression to a tone of increased vigour and strength, wherever you see professing Christians becoming more faithful to their obligations, and behold the strength of the church increased by fresh accessions of piety from the world, there is a state of things which you need not hesitate to denominate a revival of religion.
Such a state of things may be advantageously represented under several distinct particulars.
1. The first step usually is an increase of zeal and devotedness on the part of God's people. They wake up to a sense of neglected obligations, and resolve to return to the faithful discharge of duty. They betake themselves with increased earnestness to the throne of grace; confessing their delinquencies with deep humility, and supplicating the aids of God's Spirit to enable them to execute their pious resolutions, and to discharge faithfully the various duties which devolve upon them. There, too, they importunately ask for the descent of the Holy Ghost on those around them; on the church with which they are connected; on their friends who are living at a distance from God; on all who are out of the ark of safety. Their conversation becomes proportionally more spiritual and edifying. They endeavour to stir up one another's minds by putting each other in remembrance of their covenant vows, and impressing each other with their individual and mutual responsibilities. When they meet in the common intercourse of life, their conversation shows that the world is with them but a subordinate matter; and that their controlling desire is, that God may be glorified in the salvation of sinners. They find it no difficult matter to be faithful in pressing the obligations of religion upon those who are indifferent to it in warning them of their danger, and in beseeching them, with the earnestness of Christian affection, to be reconciled to God. It is a case of no uncommon occurrence at such a season, that a professor of religion, under a deep sense of his wanderings, comes to regard his own Christian character with the utmost distrust, and sometimes wanders many days in darkness, before the joys of salvation are restored to his soul. There are indeed some professors who sleep through such a scene, and probably some who join with the wicked, so far as they dare, in opposing it; but many at least are awake, are humble, are active, and come up to the help of the Lord with renewed zeal and strength.
2. Another prominent feature in the state of things which I am describing, is the alarm and conviction of those who have hitherto been careless. Sometimes the change in this respect is very gradual: and for a considerable time nothing more can be said, than that there is a more listening ear and a more serious aspect than usual under the preaching of the word; and this increased attention is gradually matured into deep solemnity and pungent conviction. In other cases, the reigning lethargy is suddenly broken up, as if there had come a thunderbolt from eternity; and multitudes are heard simultaneously inquiring what they shall do to be saved. The young man, and the old man, and the middle-aged man -- the exemplary and orthodox moralist, the haughty pharisee, the downright infidel, the profane scoffer, the dissipated sensualist -- may sometimes all be seen collected with the same spirit in their hearts -- a spirit of deep anxiety; and the same question upon their lips -- how they shall escape the threatening woes of perdition? In some cases, the conviction which is felt prompts to silence; and you are left to learn it from downcast looks, or, as the case may be, from half-stifled sobs. In other cases, there is no effort at concealment; and the deep anguish of the heart comes out in expressions of the most painful solicitude. Those who once would have disdained any thing which should indicate the least concern for their salvation, hesitate not to ask and to receive instruction even from the most obscure Christian, or to place themselves in circumstances which are a virtual acknowledgment to all that they feel their danger, and desire to escape from it. All the shame which they once felt on this subject they have given to the winds; and their commanding desire now is, that they may find that peace which passeth understanding, that hope which is full of immortality.
There are others who are partially awakened, whose attention is in some measure excited, but not enough to prompt to any decided and vigorous effort. They look on and see what is passing; and acknowledge God's agency in it; and at times manifest some feeling in respect to their own condition, and express a wish that they may have more. They attend regularly not only upon the ordinary, but upon some of the extraordinary means of grace, and treat the whole subject not only with great respect, but with decided seriousness; but after all do not advance to the decisive point of repentance, or even of true conviction of sin. In this state they often remain for a considerable time, until they return to their accustomed carelessness, or, by some new impulse from on high, they are carried forward, and become the subjects of a genuine conversion; or else they are taken away, in the midst of their half-formed resolutions, to a world where they will learn, to their eternal cost, that it was most dangerous to trifle with the Spirit of God.
There are still others, belonging to the same general class of awakened sinners, who struggle against their convictions, whose consciences proclaim to them that their all is in jeopardy, but who try to discredit the testimony. These persons sometimes rush, with unaccustomed avidity, into the haunts of business or the haunts of pleasure. They throw themselves into vain company, or engage in reading idle or infidel books; and in some instances even venture to deny what is passing within them, and to jeer at what is passing around them. Wherever you hear scoffing, and witness violent opposition in a revival of religion, it is scarcely possible that you should mistake, if you should put down those by whom it is exhibited on the list of awakened sinners. The true account of it is, that there is a war between the conscience and the passions. Conscience is awake and doing its office, and the heart is in rebellion against its dictates.
3. It also belongs essentially to a revival of religion, that there are those, from time to time, who are indulging a hope that they are reconciled to God, and are born of the Spirit. In some cases the change , of feeling is exceedingly gradual, insomuch that the individual, though he is sensible of having experienced a change within a given period, is yet utterly unable to refer it to any particular time. Sometimes the soul suddenly emerges from darkness into light, and perceives a mighty change in its exercises, almost in the twinkling of an eye. Sometimes there is a state of mind which is only peaceful; sometimes it mounts up to joy and ecstasy. In some cases there is from the beginning much self-distrust; in others much, too much, confidence. But, with a great variety of experience, there are many who are brought, or who believe themselves brought, into the kingdom of Christ. They give reason to hope they have taken the new song upon their lips. Children sing their young hosannas to the Lamb that was slain. The aged tell with gratitude of what God has done for them while on the margin of the grave. Saints on earth rejoice, and, in proportion as the work is genuine, so also do saints and angels in heaven. The church receives a fresh, and often a rich, accession both to her numbers and her strength; an accession which, in some cases, raises her from the dust, and causes her to look forth in health and beauty.
Such are the more prominent features of what we commonly call a revival of religion. But revivals, like every thing else that is good, have their counterfeits; and not unfrequently there is a spurious admixture in those which, on the whole, must be considered genuine. It becomes, therefore, a matter of great importance that we discriminate accurately between the precious and the vile; that we do not mistake a gust of animal passion for the awakening or converting operations of God's Holy Spirit. We will inquire briefly what are not, and what are, the indications of a general revival.
1. It is no certain indication of a genuine revival that there is great excitement. It is admitted, indeed, that great excitement may attend a true revival; but it is not the necessary accompaniment of one, and it may exist where the work is wholly spurious. It may be an excitement produced not by the power of divine truth, but by artificial stimulus applied to the imagination and the passions, for the very purpose of producing commotion both within and without. Instances have occurred in which Jehovah, who has declared himself a God of order, has been professedly worshipped in scenes of utter confusion; and impiety has been substituted for prayer, and the wildest reveries of fanaticism have been dealt out, instead of the sober and awful truths of God's word. Here is the highest excitement; but it surely does not prove that the scene in which it exists is a genuine revival. It does not stamp confusion, and irreverence, and impiety, with the seal of God's Spirit. On the other hand, there may be a true revival where all is calm and noiseless; and multitudes of hearts may be broken in contrition and yielded up to God, which have never been agitated by any violent, much less convulsive emotions, nor even breathed forth a single sob, unless in the silence of the closet, and into the ear of mercy.
2. It is no certain evidence of a genuine revival, that great numbers profess to be converted. We are too much inclined, if 1 mistake not, to estimate the character of a revival by the number of professed converts; whereas there is scarcely a more uncertain test than this. For who does not know that doctrines may be preached, or measures adopted, or standards of religious character set up, which shall lead multitudes, especially of the uninstructed, to misapprehend the nature of conversion, and to imagine themselves subjects of it, while they are yet in their sins? We admit that there may be genuine revivals, of great extent, in which multitudes may be almost simultaneously made the subjects of God's grace; but we confidently maintain, that the mere fact that many profess to be converted does not prove a revival genuine. For suppose that every one of these individuals, or far the larger part of them, should finally fall away, this surely, we should say, would prove the work spurious. If, then, their having originally professed to be Christians proved it genuine, the same work is proved to be both genuine and spurious. Does the fact that an individual imagines himself to be converted convey any certain evidence of his conversion? But if this is not true of an individual, it certainly cannot be true of any number of individuals; for if one may be self-deceived, so may many. It follows that the genuineness of a revival is to be judged of, in a great measure, independently of the number of its professed subjects.
3. Nor yet, thirdly, is the existence of an extensive and violent opposition any evidence that a revival is genuine. There are those who will have it, that God's Spirit cannot be poured out upon a community, but that all who are unrenewed, if their hearts are not at once broken in godly sorrow, will be excited to wrath and railing. Now I admit fully that the carnal mind is enmity against God; and I am willing to admit, moreover, that in most cases, perhaps in all, in which revivals of any considerable extent exist, there are some who act out this enmity in the way of direct opposition; some who revile God's people and ministers, and who ridicule even the operations of his Holy Spirit. But in an orderly and well-instructed community, I hesitate not to say, that we are not to look for any such general exhibition as this. Facts prove that there are multitudes who pass through a revival, without becoming personally interested in it, who still never utter a word against it, and who say, and doubtless say honestly, that they feel no sensible hostility towards it. They have indeed a heart at enmity with God; but that enmity may operate in some different way, or it may be, to a certain extent, controlled and neutralized by constitutional qualities or habits of education; and they may never feel a disposition to rail at God's work, on the one hand, and may he as little inclined to yield themselves to his service, on the other. While I admit, therefore, that the natural enmity of the heart does sometimes assume the form of direct opposition against revivals, where there is nothing censurable in the manner in which they are conducted, I am constrained to believe that the opposition which is often complained of, or rather gloried in, is opposition to harsh expressions, which are fitted to irritate, but not to enlighten, to convince, or in any way to profit. And then how natural is it that the odium should be transferred, or rather extended, from the severe language and questionable measures, to the revival with which they are connected; and so it comes to pass, that a violent prejudice really grows up in the mind against the whole subject of revivals, which originated in the imprudent and mistaken zeal of some of their friends. There are those, I know, who court opposition on these occasions, and who seem to think that nothing can be done to purpose until the voice of railing is heard from without. Such persons are sure to find the opposition they seek; and in encountering it, instead of suffering for righteousness' sake, they are buffeted for their own faults. I repeat, then, a genuine work of God's grace may be extensively opposed; but the existence of such opposition does not evince it to be genuine.
What then are some of the indications of a genuine revival of religion?
1. The fact that any thing which claims to be a revival has been effected by scriptural means, is an evidence in favour of its genuineness.
God has given us his word not only as a rule of faith, but of practice; and in the same proportion that we adhere to it, we have a right to expect his blessing; in the same proportion that we depart from it, we have reason to expect his frown. His own institutions he will honour; and the institutions of men, so far as they are conformed to the spirit of his word, he will also honour: but whenever the latter are put in place of the former, or exalted above them, or assume a shape which God's word does not warrant, we cannot suppose that he can regard them with favour; and even if, for a time, there should seem to be a blessing, there is reason to believe that the event will show, that in that apparent blessing were bound up the elements of a curse.
Now apply this to the subject of revivals. Suppose there were to be a powerful excitement on the subject of religion, produced by means which are at war with the spirit of the gospel -- suppose doctrines were to be preached which the gospel does not recognise, and doctrines omitted which the gospel regards fundamental -- suppose that for the simple, and honest, and faithful use of the sword of the Spirit, there should be substituted a mass of machinery, designed to produce its effect on the animal passions -- suppose the substance of religion, instead of being made to consist in repentance, and faith, and holiness, should consist of falling, and groaning, and shouting, -- we should say, unhesitatingly, that that could not be a genuine work of divine grace; or if there were some pure wheat, there must be a vast amount of chaff and stubble. It may be safe to admit, even in the wildest scenes, the possibility of some genuine conversions; because there may be some truth preached, and some believing prayer offered, which God may regard and honour, notwithstanding all the error and delusion with which it may be mingled. But, in general, it is perfectly fair to conclude, that when men become dissatisfied with plain Bible truth, and simple Bible measures, and undertake to substitute doctrines or devices of their own, any excitement which may be produced, however extensive, however powerful, is of an exceedingly dubious character. If the effect partake of the same character with the cause, it must be of the earth, earthy.
On the other hand, where there is an attention to religion excited by the plain and faithful preaching of God's truth, in all its length and breadth, and by the use of those simple and honest means which God's word either directly prescribes or fairly sanctions, we cannot reasonably doubt that here is a genuine work of the Holy Spirit. The means used may be in some respects feeble; that is, there may be the entire absence of an eloquent and powerful ministry; nevertheless, if God's truth is dispensed fairly, and fully, and with godly sincerity, and other corresponding means used in a corresponding manner, the effect which is produced may reasonably be attributed to the operation of divine grace; and it is a fact, which does great honour to the sovereignty of God, that the humblest instrumentality, when well directed, has often been honoured by a multitude of conversions, which a course of holy living has proved sound and genuine.
If, then, we have a right to say that God honours his own word and his own institutions, the means employed in producing and carrying forward a revival furnish a good criterion by which to determine its character. It may not always be easy accurately to apply this rule in given cases, because there is often a strange mixture of good and bad; but, without deciding how far any particular revival is genuine or spurious, we may safely decide that it is so in the same proportion that it is sustained by scriptural or unscriptural instrumentality.
2. A genuine revival is characterized by a due proportion of reflection and feeling.
I will not undertake to decide what amount of scriptural knowledge is necessary to conversion in any given case, or to question the fact that men under certain circumstances may be renewed where their knowledge is very limited; nevertheless it is certain that religious reflection precedes religious feeling in the order of nature. Before men can feel remorse, much more contrition, for their sins, they must have held strongly to their minds the fact that they are sinners. They must have reflected upon what it is to be a sinner; on the character of God, not only as a Father, but a Lawgiver; on the reasonableness of their obligations to Him, and on the guilt of violating those obligations. Before they can exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, they must have reflected on the character of Christ, on the fulness of his atonement, and on the freeness and sincerity of the gospel offer. The Holy Spirit employs the truth not only in the work of sanctification, but even in the work of conversion; and the truth can never find its way to the heart except through the understanding. If, then, the great truths of God's word are steadily held up before the mind as subjects of reflection, and if the feeling which is manifested by sinners, whether of anxiety and distress, or of peace and joy, be the effect of such reflection, there is good reason to believe that God's Spirit is really at work, and that that which claims to be a revival is really one. But if, in such a scene, the mind be kept in a great degree passive, if there be a great deal of feeling with very little thought -- burning heat with only dim and doubtful light -- if the sensibilities of the soul be wrought into a storm, none can tell how or why, -- then rely on it, it is not a work which God owns; or if there are some true conversions, far the greater number may be expected to prove spurious. -- But,
3. That on which we are principally to rely as evidence of the genuineness of a revival, is its substantial and abiding fruit. Precisely the same rule is to be applied to a revival as to individual cases of hopeful conversion. Those who have been most conversant with the subject of religious experience, do not rely chiefly for evidence of piety on the pungency of one's convictions, or the transports by which they may be succeeded, or the professions which may be made of devotedness to Christ; for they have learned that all this is equivocal, and that delusion and self-deception are consistent with the most promising appearances which are ever exhibited. While, therefore, they may hope favourably from what they see at the beginning, before they form a decisive opinion they wait to see whether the individual can endure temptation; whether he is faithful in the discharge of all duty; whether he is a good soldier of Jesus Christ. And if they see the fruits of holiness abounding in the life, whether the appearance at the beginning were more or less favourable, they infer with confidence that a principle of holiness has been implanted in the heart. In the same manner are we to test the character of revivals. If an excitement on the subject of religion (no matter how great it may have been) passes away, and leaves behind little or no substantial or enduring good -- if most of those who profess to have been converted return speedily or gradually to the world, living a careless life, and exhibiting an unedifying example -- or if they manifest a spirit of pride, and uncharitableness, and a disposition to condemn all who do not exactly come to their standard, -- then rely on it, though that maybe called a revival of religion, it has little more than the name. But if, after the excitement has gone by, the fruits of holiness remain, and become more and more mature, if those who have been professedly converted hold on a course of humble, self-denied, devoted obedience, exemplifying the spirit of Christ, as well as professing his name, then you may take knowledge of them that they have come out of a true revival of religion. Religion acted out in the life is the best evidence that religion has its dwelling in the heart. Let the virtues and graces of the Christian adorn the lives of those who have professed to be converted during a revival, and you need ask for no better evidence that there has been the agency of the Spirit of God.
Such, as it seems to me, are the characteristics of a genuine revival of religion. I shall not stop here to prove that such a state of things has every thing in it to interest the best feelings of the Christian. If you have ever felt the power of God's grace, and especially if your hearts are now awake to the interests of his kingdom and the salvation of your fellowmen, it cannot be a matter of indifference with you whether or not God's work is to be revived in the midst of us. Let me entreat you, then, as this subject is for several successive weeks to occupy your attention, to be fellow-helpers together, in humble dependence on God's grace, to procure for ourselves those rich blessings on which your meditations will turn. While we are endeavouring to form correct views of this important subject, may we get our hearts thoroughly imbued with its spirit; and be able to point, with devout joy, to what is passing in the midst of us as an example of a genuine, scriptural revival of religion.
Return to Lectures on Revival Index Page