The GOSPEL TRUTH
REVIVALS OF RELIGION.
WILLIAM B. SPRAGUE, D. D.
PASTOR OF THE SECOND PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN ALBANY, N.Y.
DIVINE AGENCY IN REVIVALS.
Habakkuk III, 2.
"O Lord, revive thy work.''
There are few, if any, who acknowledge the existence of a God, but will be ready to admit that he has some kind of agency in the government of the world. What the precise nature or extent of this agency is, however, it were rash even to attempt to determine. Part of it is direct, but much the greater part of it, at least so far as we are concerned, is mediate; and it is not easy for us accurately to draw the line between the one and the other. Besides, he has created a vast multitude of agents, and moral agents; but though he has given them the power of action, he has not made them independent beings; though they act with perfect freedom, yet he acts in them and by them. Is not every man in this respect a mystery to himself? Who will venture to determine, in reference to his own conduct, precisely the measure of influence that is exerted upon him by that Almighty Agent, in whom are all the springs, not only of physical, but intellectual and moral being?
As it is admitted by all, except the downright atheist, that God has some kind of agency in the government of the world, while yet there is much in respect to the nature and extent of that agency which we cannot understand, so also it is admitted by all Christians, that he exerts an influence in the sanctification of men, though they do not pretend exactly to define the character of that influence. On the same general principle, those who believe in revivals of religion, believe that God is the grand Agent in producing them; though they are well aware, that here, as in other departments of his agency, he "moves in a mysterious way;" and that this is no field for a roving fancy or rash speculation. Something however may be known on this subject from God's word; and on a matter of such deep and awful concern, while we are to take heed that we keep fairly within our own province, it surely becomes us to gather up, with devout attention, even the most obscure of the divine intimations. I design therefore, in this discourse, to bring this subject before you; and, keeping an eye on the law and the testimony, in connection with the unequivocal dictates of experience, reverently to inquire respecting the agency of God, in revivals of religion. The passage which I have read to you, taken from the prayer of Habakkuk, may be a fit introduction to this subject: for, though the petition is made up of five words -- "O Lord, revive thy work" -- it recognises the fact of God's agency in a revival, in two different ways: -- it declares that the work is God's -- and it is the direct expression of a desire that he would revive it.
This agency may be advantageously considered under two distinct heads: --
I. The agency of Providence,
II. The agency of the Spirit
I. Of Providence. -- It is one of the most simple deductions from the perfections of God, that he orders all things according to the counsel of his own will; in other words, that he has a plan which includes all events, which extends even to the numbering of hairs and the falling of sparrows. Of course, nothing ever occurs to an individual but is designed to answer some purpose in the chain of events; and it is reasonable to consider the less important events as ordered in reference to the more important, -- the one sustaining to the other the relation of means to an end: though it must be acknowledged, that if particular events are viewed in relation to the whole system of Providence, our views are too limited to enable us to judge of their comparative importance. Now it will readily be acknowledged, that no event ever occurs in the life of an individual so important to him as his conversion; the change of his character -- from being a subject of pollution to a subject of holiness; and of his destiny -- from being an heir of misery to an heir of glory. It is reasonable therefore to suppose, that many events in his life, which, taken by themselves, may seem of little moment, may nevertheless be designed by Providence to lead to this wonderful change. And if I mistake not, every Christian, especially every one whose first experience has been strongly marked, will find, on review, that he was led to the fountain of atoning blood by a path which he knew not; that God was working by circumstances of which, at the time, he himself made no account, to prepare him to come out of darkness into marvellous light. Perhaps his serious impressions originated in what seemed an accidental conversation with some friend -- a conversation which he did not court, and which would have been avoided, if he had happened to walk on the opposite side of the street; or perhaps he was brought to reflection by some discourse, which he had gone to listen to from mere curiosity; or possibly some circumstance may have occurred, where he would least have looked for it, in connection with his amusements or his excesses, which God has overruled as a means of stopping him in his career of guilt. I doubt not that there are those among you, Christian friends, who may, at this moment, be going back in your thoughts to some event which, at the time, you scarcely noticed, as having marked the era of your first setting your face towards heaven; and now that you can look at that event in some of its more remote influences, you are ready, in devout thanksgiving to the providence of God, to connect with it all the joy that you have in believing in Jesus, and in the hope of hereafter seeing him as he is.
Now, if it is right to consider God as ordering the events of his providence with reference to the conversion of a single individual, it is certainly safe to form the same conclusion in respect to the conversion of many individuals; in other words, in regard to a revival of religion. There may be obstacles to be removed which seem to lie beyond all human power; but these God not unfrequently puts aside, by an agency so silent and simple, that men do not even observe it: while in other cases, though more rarely, he accomplishes the same end by some signal dispensation, which almost bears the aspect of a miracle; waking up even the careless mind to the reflection, "What hath God wrought!" Sometimes, by the death of an individual, there is an organized and efficient opposition to the gospel put down; and sometimes, by an individual changing his residence, there is a large accession of religious influence to some community; and the means of grace are multiplied, and a revival of religion succeeds. There may be some alarming dispensation of providence to arouse many simultaneously to reflection; or some one, whose influence is extensively felt, may become the subject of renewing grace, and may be a kind of central point, from which good influences shall extend in every direction. It is fully believed, that, in all ordinary cases in which a revival takes place, it would be no difficult thing to mark a distinct providential agency preparatory to it; and especially where the cause of religion has greatly languished, and the means of religion are but partially enjoyed, this agency is sometimes so manifest, as to constitute of itself a distinct and solemn call to sinners to awake out of sleep. -- But,
II. There is also an agency of the Spirit. -- This we proceed now to contemplate.
Of those general facts in relation to this subject, which are clearly matter of revelation and experience, we may mention the following; --
1. The fact that the Spirit actually does operate in the whole work of man's sanctification. -- Hear the Spirit's own testimony on this subject: -- "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and the renewing of the Holy Ghost." ''But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God; even to them that believe on his name. Which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." "God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation, through the sanctification of the Holy Ghost." "A new heart also will I give you, and a new Spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh."
But beside many passages of Scripture, of which those now recited are a specimen, in which the doctrine of the Spirit's agency is clearly taught, there are many facts recorded in the Bible, by which the same truth is abundantly confirmed. How will you account for it, for instance, that the preaching of the Son of God produced so little effect, and the preaching of his apostles so much? How was it that multitudes were aroused, and pricked to the heart, and actually converted, under the preaching of Peter, who had sat with indifference, or rather been excited to opposition, under the preaching of Him who spake --as never man spake? Whence was it that the jailor, who had doubtless often heard the apostle before the night of his conversion, remained indifferent till that time; and then evinced so much anxiety and alarm, and finally a disposition to own Jesus as his Saviour and his Master, and to walk in his steps? And, in general, whence was it that such marvellous success attended the ministry of the apostles; that by preaching a doctrine which enlisted against it the strongest prejudices and worst passions of the heart, they undermined the thrones of Paganism, and caused tens of thousands to gather around the standard of the cross? Here is a problem that has always been too hard for the jeering infidel to solve, and which most infidels have manifested but little disposition to encounter. There is no solution of it, except in the fact, that God works in the hearts of men by his Spirit, and that he dispenses it in the sovereignty of his wisdom.
2. Another fact in relation to this subject, of which we have the fullest evidence, is, that the Spirit, in performing his work upon the hearts of men, has respect to the laws of their moral nature. -- God has made man what he is -- a voluntary, accountable agent. He has given him the power not only of distinguishing, but of choosing between good and evil, has constituted him in such a manner that he is susceptible of the influence of motives; and every one must perceive that this involves responsibility. Inasmuch, then, as this constitution of our nature is derived from God, it were to be expected, that whatever influence he should exert upon the mind would be consistent with it; in other words, that he should not contradict his own works. It would do little honour to infinite wisdom, to suppose that he should have formed man with such a nature, that he could not have access to it, without violating the laws which he had himself established.
But the conclusion to which we should arrive on this subject from the very perfections of God, is abundantly corroborated by the testimony of his word. Says Joshua to the people of Israel, "Choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served, that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." And again, our Saviour says, "Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her." Indeed, what are all the exhortations, and promises, and threatenings, of the Bible, but a mass of evidence, that God operates upon the hearts of men as moral agents; that he takes for granted that they are to be active in the work of their sanctification, notwithstanding he is himself the efficient cause of it? Admit that men are operated upon as mere machines, and then read any part of the Bible, and see what meaning you can find in it.
And I may add, that the experience of Christians on this subject is in exact correspondence with the teachings of God's word. Let the Christian, who is just entering heaven, give himself to the work of reviewing his own experience -- let him look back to the hour when he first trembled under a conviction of his guilt -- or to the time when he first felt the preciousness of the Saviour's love -- or to his subsequent conflicts with corruption and temptation -- or to any or every part of his progress in holiness, -- and, while he will acknowledge, with gratitude and delight, that the Spirit has been active in it all, and deserves all the glory, he will be completely satisfied that there has never been the least interruption of his moral agency. He will find that he has been working out his salvation with fear and trembling, while God has wrought within him both to will and to do.
3. Another fact on this subject, which is ascertained to us by the best evidence, is, that the Spirit operates by means of the truth, -- It is partly in reference to this, that He is called "the Spirit of truth;" and so also men are said to be "sanctified by the truth," -- not by the truth independently of the Spirit, but by the Spirit operating by means of the truth. Sometimes the agent alone is mentioned, and sometimes the instrument; but where one is spoken of, the other is always implied.
In the work which the Holy Spirit performs upon the heart, he makes use of every part of the great system of truth which God has revealed. But particular truths are adapted to accomplish particular ends: some are especially fitted to alarm the conscience; others to bring peace and joy into the soul; others to quicken and encourage to a course of vigorous activity and Christian self-denial: and the Spirit, in different parts of his work, uses these various truths discriminatingly, according to the particular end he may design to accomplish. When we say, however, that God's truth is adapted to the work of man's sanctification, we must beware of the idea, that the efficacy resides ultimately in the instrument: it is the great agent who produces the effect; and the truth, wielded by any other power than his, would never sanctify a single heart, even though it might be preached to every creature. It is indeed a well-adapted -- a divinely-adapted instrument; but it is an instrument still; and it is only through God that it is mighty to the pulling down of strong-holds.
We will contemplate, for a moment, the work of the Holy Spirit in some of its distinct parts: in conviction of sin -- conversion to God -- and subsequent progress in the divine life.
1. The Spirit is active in convincing men of sin. Our Saviour distinctly recognised this among the great purposes for which the Spirit was to be sent into the world. "And when he is come," said he, "he will reprove the world of sin." This office he performed in the case of the three thousand who were pricked in the heart on the day of Pentecost, and said unto Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" A similar effect was produced in the case of the jailor, who, at midnight, called for a light, and sprang into the prison, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" And the same thing substantially occurs in the case of every awakened sinner. And the agent to whom this work is, in every instance, to be ultimately referred, is the Holy Spirit. This is always the first step to the effectual application of the benefits of Christ's death; though there are multitudes who experience this, and perish notwithstanding.
That faculty, or principle of the soul, which is especially the subject of the Spirit's operation in conviction of sin, is the conscience. It is this which recognises the difference between right and wrong, and passes a sentence of approbation or disapprobation on our own actions. This, therefore, is the appropriate principle to be brought into exercise in the work of conviction; and to this the Spirit always addresses Itself. Hence conviction is uniformly attended by remorse, and not unfrequently so pungent, as to amount to agony. Hence, too, convinced sinners are said to be "pricked in the heart;" an expression which denotes the most excruciating anguish.
The kind of truth which the Spirit uses in accomplishing this work, is primarily the law of God, "By the law," says the apostle, "is the knowledge of sin." God's law is nothing else than a transcript of his moral character; requiring all his creatures to be holy, according to their measure, as he is holy. It is the eternal standard of right; and every departure from it is sin -- the abominable thing which God hateth. But if men are practically ignorant of this standard, they will, of course, be in the same degree ignorant of their sins; and it is only in proportion as the law is brought home to them in its high and awful bearings, that they can have any conviction of sin. And the more they view the law in its amazing extent, as reaching to the thoughts, affections, purposes -- as taking cognizance of the whole inner man, and during every period of their existence -- the more they view it in connection with the awful attributes of Jehovah, especially his omnipotence, his omniscience, his holiness and his truth, -- so much the more black and dreadful appears the guilt of sin; so much the more numerous and appalling their own personal transgressions. I say, then, that the law is the great instrument which the Spirit of God wields in producing conviction of sin. Let that never be brought in contact with the conscience, and the sinner would go slumbering to his grave. If we might suppose the case that it should be kept out of view in the next world, the hell which the Bible describes could not exist.
There are indeed other parts of divine truth, besides the law, which the Spirit uses in the work of conviction; but they are subordinate to this. For instance, the great doctrine of Christ crucified for the sins of men, has often a powerful influence in convincing men of sin, -- for herein the honours of the law are maintained; and the argument which the Spirit uses with the sinner's conscience is, that if sin be such a tremendous evil as to demand for its expiation the death of the Son of God, then repentance of sin must be an immediate and imperative duty. And I doubt not that many a sinner, while he has yet been blind to the glories of redemption, has derived his deepest conviction of shi from the views which he has taken of this doctrine; and the question has forced itself upon his conscience, with fearful urgency, "If these things be done in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry?"
The same is true of various other parts of divine truth: the Spirit, in his gracious sovereignty, uses them to convince men of sin; and sometimes even those truths which might seem to us least adapted to that end; but the influence which they exert is indirect, and uniformly terminates in bringing God's law to bear upon the conscience.
2. There is also an agency of the Spirit in the work of conversion -- in the turning of the soul from sin to holiness. -- This is what is referred to by our Saviour, when he says, "Except a man be born of the Spirit he cannot see the kingdom of God." The work which the Spirit here performs, is the renovation of man's moral nature; changing an enemy of God into a friend of God: and if we have a right to compare the different kinds of influence which he exerts upon the children of men with each other, perhaps it is a reasonable conclusion, that more of his omnipotence is exerted here than in any other part of his work. What is done in conviction is only a preparation for this; what is done in sanctification is but a continuation of it. As the act of conversion may be considered in some respects the most decisive in its bearing upon man's destiny, so we may suppose, that it brings him more closely into communion with the almighty energies of God's Spirit than any other.
The Spirit, in his converting influences, instead of bringing the truth to bear directly upon the conscience, addresses it to the will and the affections. The will, or the faculty by which we determine our actions, has naturally a wrong direction; and in regeneration it is set right: the affections are naturally placed upon forbidden objects; and in regeneration they are recalled to objects which are worthy of them. Or, to avoid all appearance of philosophical distinctions, the soul that has hitherto loved and chosen sin, experiences a change, in consequence of which it will hereafter love and choose holiness. Hence, the Scripture speaks of it as a change of heart, by which we mean, in common language, a change of disposition. Man in his natural state is said to possess "a heart of stone;" in his renewed state, "a heart of flesh," or "a new heart." As this, then, is the part of his nature in which the change primarily takes place, to this we must suppose the agency of the Spirit, in performing the change, is especially directed.
And as the work of conversion is performed on a different department of man's nature from that of conviction, so also it is accomplished through the instrumentality of a different part of the system of divine truth. It is not only of the incorruptible seed of the word of God that men are born to newness of life, but it is by the gospel, in distinction from the law, that this work is effected. It was the law that made the jailor tremble; it was the gospel that brought peace and gladness to his soul. It was the law that caused the three thousand to be pricked in the heart; it was the gospel -- Christ crucified -- that melted them into contrition, and transformed them into disciples. And you see the reason of it -- the law speaks terror, and nothing else: it points to a most eventful trial; and anticipates the eternal wrath of God. The gospel proclaims good news. It tells the sinner that his case, though deplorable, is not desperate: and hope encourages exertion. It holds up the glorious truth, that, through the merits of Christ's atoning blood, there is eternal life; and the sinner, through the agency of the Holy Ghost, seizes hold of this truth, as of life from the dead; and in view of it, he melts down, in humble submission, at the foot of the cross. I do not mean that the gospel, in its more particular, and even less important doctrines, may not sometimes be directly instrumental of producing this change; though certain it is, that wherever it takes place, it is the gospel, in distinction from the law, that accomplishes it. As it is not a common thing, to say the least, for men lo know, with absolute assurance, the precise period of their conversion, so they cannot ordinarily determine what particular part of divine truth was then directly before the mind; but if it were possible to ascertain, they would doubtless always find that it had a more or less intimate connection with the cross of Christ.
3. There is, moreover, an agency of the Spirit in the whole progress of the soul in holiness. -- Says the apostle to the Thessalonians, "We are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren, beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit, and belief of the truth." The regenerating act leaves the soul far from a state of perfect holiness. The general current of its desires and purposes is changed; but, notwithstanding this change, the Christian finds a law in his members warring against the law of his mind, and bringing him into captivity to the law of sin. Hence there is much to be done subsequently to his regeneration, to prepare him for heaven; and in every part of this work the Spirit has a more or less direct agency. Sometimes he is to be reclaimed from a course of backsliding; sometimes to be fortified against the influence of temptation; sometimes to be stimulated to great and arduous enterprises; now there is to be enkindled a spirit of elevated devotion, and now a spirit of stirring activity; but in all this, and in all which belongs to the work of sanctification, a divine influence is to be exerted. All the various powers of the soul -- the conscience -- the will -- the affections -- the whole spiritual man -- are to be brought into exercise, according to the particular end which the Spirit may design to accomplish. And so also every part of revealed truth -- the law and the gospel, and each particular doctrine of the gospel, are used by this divine Agent in carrying forward his work. And thus the whole man becomes more and more pure, until he reaches at last the fulness of the stature of a perfect person in Christ.
I have thus given you what I suppose to be a scriptural view of the agency of the Spirit, in respect to a single individual, who finally reaches heaven. Now, what I have here described in respect to a single case, takes place in a revival of religion in many cases. Many sinners are the subjects of conviction and conversion; and God's people are advanced in the spiritual life. Nevertheless, there are some points of view in which the divine agency in a revival deserves to be more particularly contemplated.
In every revival we are distinctly to recognise the sovereignty of God. As this is displayed in the influence by which a single soul is converted, it certainly is not less manifest in those copious showers of influence by which hundreds are converted. He who causes it to rain on one city, and not on another, directs the motion of those clouds in the spiritual world, from which descend the blessings of reviving and quickening grace. "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit." And so, too, is every revival of religion.
There is one grand principle of our nature, which the Holy Spirit makes great use of in a revival, that is not brought into exercise in a single conversion, and which perhaps, more than any thing else, distinguishes the character of his agency in the two cases -- I mean the principle of sympathy. The operation of this principle is familiar to us all in the common intercourse of life. You all know what it is to have a fellow-feeling; to be affected by the affection of another, with feelings correspondent with those you witness in him. Who, for instance, has not been made to feel joyful, merely by coming in contact with those whose countenances have worn the aspect, and whose conversation has breathed the spirit, of joy? And who has not felt his heart melting with sorrow, and even his eyes suffused with tears, merely from being cast into a scene in which there were bleeding hearts and streaming eyes? Now this principle, with which we are all so perfectly familiar in common life, is brought into exercise with great effect in a revival of religion. A brother, for instance, sees a sister, or a husband a wife, or a parent a child, weeping under a sense of sin; and inquiring, it may be with agony, in respect to her salvation. That brother, or husband, or parent, must be destitute of all natural sensibility, not to be moved by such a spectacle. But the first exercise of the soul in such a case will not be repentance -- it will not be conviction; but it will be simply a fellow-feeling for a beloved friend in distress. Now it is acknowledged, that there is no natural affinity between this state of mind and religion; nevertheless, the former constitutes a happy preparation for the latter, and often the first step towards it. For how natural for the sinner to inquire, at such a moment, whether there be any adequate cause for this distress; and how probably will the answer to this inquiry bring up the solemnities of eternity before the mind, and set the conscience at work; and then the dream of thoughtlessness is interrupted, and the cord which binds the soul to the world is loosed; and, having advanced so far, there is reason to hope that he will hold on his way, till he comes into the marvellous liberty of a child of God. The same principle is often brought into exercise in the worshipping assembly. Let there be that deep and awful solemnity pervading a congregation that is induced by the special presence of the Spirit of God -- let there be many countenances, and many eyes, that shall betray a deep, though silent anxiety, -- and believe me, every anxious countenance, every fixed eye, will preach; and it will utter a mysterious language, that will not improbably waken up the sensibilities of the careless sinner; and this will naturally serve to open his ear to God's truth: and thus conviction may take the place of sympathy, and in the train of that may soon follow the clean heart and the right spirit. I know, brethren, that this is a true description of the manner in which many a sinner has passed from thoughtlessness to alarm, from darkness to light. And I doubt not that the same principle is often brought into exercise in advancing the believer's sanctification; especially in rousing him from spiritual sloth, and in stirring him up to a higher tone both of feeling and of action.
Let no one dream that there is any thing in this which casts suspicion on the reality, or derogates from the dignity, of a revival in religion. I repeat, mere sympathy is not religion; though no doubt it is sometimes mistaken for it. It has no one of all the ingredients of religion; and may exist, and does exist, in connection with rank hatred and bitter opposition to the gospel. Nevertheless, it is an original principle of human nature, which, when operating on other subjects than that of religion, is considered amiable and even noble: and wherefore is it, that, in respect to this, it degenerates into a pitiable weakness? It is manifestly adapted to bring men to a sense of religion; and why should not the Holy Ghost use it for the accomplishment of that end?
There is yet another influence which the Spirit renders subservient to sustaining a revival of religion -- I mean that of example. There is no department of human action in which this influence is not powerfully realized; and there is as little mystery in respect to the manner in which it operates in a revival as any where else. Here are individuals becoming impressed with religious truth, and inquiring what they shall do to be saved, and actually believing on the Lord Jesus Christ that they may be saved. How natural that this fact should speak to the consciences of others, nor merely through sympathy, but through the understanding, and thus put them upon a course which will terminate in genuine conversion! Besides, every one knows that one of the most formidable obstacles to entering on a religious life, is a false shame -- a dread of being singular; but in a revival the current of example is in favour of religion; and the anxious sinner has nothing to fear from the shafts of ridicule being pointed at him; or if they are pointed at him, they fall powerless at his feet. It is not uncommon on these occasions for men of great worldly influence and distinction to come out from the world, and openly proclaim themselves on the Lord's side: and every such event, almost of course, makes an impression upon many minds; and others in the same walks of life, who have been accustomed perhaps to regard religion as a matter chiefly for the lower classes, are waked up to serious reflection; and begin to conclude, that it is at least worth while to inquire, whether that which receives the sanction of the intelligent, and the learned, and those who are best qualified to judge, may not be a serious reality. And this may lead to examination; and examination, to conviction; and conviction, to an actual renovation of heart. The history of revivals records many facts, like the cases which I have here supposed; and I should hazard little if I were to say, that there are probably individuals before me, whose hearts are full of Christian joy and hope, who refer their first religious impressions to the influence of example, in the midst of some revival of religion. I hardly need add, that there is no natural connection between such an influence and true piety; nevertheless, the Holy Spirit renders the one subservient to the production and the advancement of the other.
Moreover, the Spirit of God operates, during a revival, to bring into exercise a far more vigorous and efficient human instrumentality, than on ordinary occasions. He impresses ministers more deeply with their responsibility, causing them to bring home the truth to the consciences of their hearers with unwonted earnestness. He renders Christians more circumspect, more active, more earnest in prayer, more ready to warn the sinner of his wicked way, more desirous of abounding in all respects in the work of the Lord. In short, he causes the whole system of means to be wielded with a greatly increased energy. The truth of God bursts forth upon the conscience of the sinner on every side; and the reason is, that God is making his ministers and his people feel their responsibility, by impressing them more deeply with their obligations to Christ, and by carrying them forward to the solemnities of the judgment-day.
With two inferences we shall conclude the discourse.
1. We may see, in view of our subject, that it is possible to attribute to the Spirit too little agency, and too much, in revivals of religion.
There are those, on the one hand, who attribute too little to this almighty Agent. They do this by the manner in which they speak of revivals -- as if they were produced altogether by man; and if the Spirit is mentioned at all, it is in a way that would indicate that we had little to do with it. They do this by the measures which they adopt in carrying forward revivals; substituting human inventions for divinely-appointed means; and urging the doctrine of moral agency, not in connection with that of a divine influence, but in a great degree to the exclusion of it. -- On the other hand, there are those who attribute too much to the agency of the Spirit. They do this who speak of revivals, as if God only was at work in them, and man a mere passive recipient of impressions. They do this, who do not exert themselves to the utmost to co-operate with God, on the ground that a revival is a mere matter of sovereignty, and that God is able to carry forward his own work independently of means. They do this, also, who speak of every thing that may happen to be connected with a revival as the immediate effect of divine influence; who set down to the account of the Holy Spirit peculiar tones of voice, and expressions of countenance, and violent gestures, which are supposed to indicate deep and strong feeling: and any thing that is harsh, or boisterous, or in any respect irregular, even though it may seem to be associated with the greatest imaginable fervour. These things, no doubt may all exist in connection with a true revival; but they are the work of men, not the work of God.
The two evils of which I have spoken may possibly co-exist in respect to the same persons; that is, the same individuals may attribute too much to the Spirit in some respects, and too little in others. His agency in carrying forward the great work may practically be recognised but little; and yet he may be familiarly spoken of as being present in particular scenes, and as prompting to particular actions, which he could not fail to disown. Brethren, we honour the Holy Spirit most when we give him precisely the place which he claims -- when we recognise him as the efficient Author of conviction, conversion, and sanctification: but he is offended when we undertake to palm upon him what we ought to take with shame to ourselves.
2. Our subject teaches us, that if we would labour successfully in the cause of revivals, we must labour with a spirit of dependence on God.
This is the spirit that is most likely to bring success to our labours, because it is most likely to render us active and faithful. He who depends upon his own strength has but a feeble motive to exertion; for his strength is but weakness: and when viewed in relation to the object to be accomplished -- the conversion of the soul -- it is the weakness of an infant. But he who depends on God has the most powerful motive for action that can be presented; for he realizes that the almighty and everlasting arm is round about him in his work; and this is the only pledge of success that he needs. With this encouragement he is prepared to labour vigorously and perseveringly; to labour in the face of appalling obstacles; to labour even in the darkest times: for he knows, that God's grace is sufficient to render the feeblest of his efforts mighty to the pulling down of strong-holds.
Besides, it is a spirit of dependence that honours God. In it there is a practical acknowledgment of our own weakness, and of his greatness and goodness, of his ability and readiness to help. In the exercise of it, man sinks down before the throne as nothing, and, with the confidence of a child, lifts up his heart to God as all in all. And them that honour him, in the exercise of this spirit, he will honour by sending down, in answer to their prayers, the blessings of his grace. And on this subject I appeal with confidence to facts. Wherever God's people have been truly humbled before him, and have been brought deeply to feel their own impotence, and have been willing to be used as mere instruments, and to let him have all the glory, there you will find that a rich blessing has usually been bestowed; and on the other hand, where they have had little sense of their need of divine influence, and have addressed themselves to their work with a spirit of self-confidence, however diligently they may have laboured, they have ordinarily been compelled to witness barrenness and lethargy in the train of their efforts; or, if there has been the appearance of a revival, there is much reason to apprehend that there is in it little of the presence or power of God.
What then, Christians, is the great practical inference which you ought to deduce in respect to yourselves? It is, that in all your labours for the revival of God's work in the midst of you, or for the promotion of the general cause of revivals, you should feel more deeply that the Lord Jehovah is your strength. Every effort that you make in the spirit of self-confidence is an insult to the Holy Ghost. Go forth, then, leaning upon the Almighty arm. Go and do your duty, to each other and to the world; go and instruct the ignorant, and guide the inquiring, and put forth every effort you can to bring souls to Jesus; but remember after all, and remember for your rich encouragement, the doctrine of sovereign grace. Yes, even in the moments when you feel the weakest, and when your work seems the greatest, and when obstacles the most appalling rise up in your path, and when your heart is driven from every other source of hope, even then, remember the doctrine of sovereign grace, and hold on your way, labouring, yet rejoicing.
Return to Lectures on Revival Index Page