Praying for Revival in our Churches
One of the incidental gems of living in Connecticut is that the birthplace of Jonathan Edwards is on one of my running routes. The presence of this historic landmark is a constant reminder that at one time the Holy Spirit worked repentance and faith through the preaching of God's word in an extraordinary way, and all of that in a place that now tops the charts as one of the "most post-Christian" areas.
That same running route also takes me past a graveyard - "God's Acre," as it's called. There rest the bodies of the men, women, and children who settled the area that is now South Windsor. Among them rests Rev. Timothy Edwards, the father of the more well-known Jonathan. As I run past the graves etched with inscriptions older than this nation, I wonder to myself a few things:
Did any of these, now dry bones, come alive through the preaching of what is now called "The Great Awakening?"
Also, if God caused these dead, who were once "dead in sins and trespasses," to come alive through the preaching of God's word so long ago, why not now? Why not again? Certainly the Spirit of God is not constrained by the gloom and doom forecast of polls and demographics. Why not pray for revival?
I have two purposes for this post:
1. I want to challenge my Lutheran brothers and sisters to recover and be open to the language of "revival, "renewal," and "awakening" in our churches, as well as earnestly pray that the Holy Spirit would grant such things when and where he wills.
2. I hope to invite those who are already using such language and praying for such things to consider how the legacy of men like Edwards and Whitefield can and ought to be tempered with the right and careful distinction between law and gospel, most notably found in the legacy of another theologian who was deeply concerned with genuine conversion - C.F.W. Walther.
A Word With Lots of Baggage
The word revival carries substantial baggage. And rightly so, given that much of what we call "revival" is not necessarily a genuine work of the Holy Spirit. "Revivals" old and new are often the work of people - a natural religious phenomenon explicable on the basis of psychology and sociology. In other words, what lies behind "revivals" is really just conjured hype: a crowd, a charismatic speaker, a liturgy that gradually leads people to religious ecstacy through the power of suggestion, and in more modern times the presence of praise and worship power ballads sung on repeat. If you've ever seen a sign advertising a "revival" next week or next month- the kind of thing you can put on your calendar - chances are you're dealing with a work of man rather than a work of the Spirit.
Even aside from obvious examples of what many would call "counterfeit revivals," even the Great Awakening had its own baggage. For example, Edwards himself notes in his Religious Affections that alongside the genuine work of repentance, faith, and good fruit that took place in New England, there was also much that was counterfeit. And, as will be discussed further below, the preaching of the Great Awakening often left poor souls looking inward for assurance of salvation.
But Still... a Word We Should Welcome
Nevertheless, despite the baggage that comes with the word "revival," and even though the history of such movements is marred with extremes and theological malpractice, I do think the word "revival" is a good one. In fact, I think there is a welcome place for it in our Lutheran vocabulary.
I began entertaining this idea as I listened to a lecture on revivials by the well-known Presbyterian Tim Keller. Keller does an excellent job of outlining the aforementioned baggage associated with the word, but he doesn't stop there. He goes on to demonstrate that genuine revival occurs when and where God pleases rather than when and where human beings decide to create it (which sounds a lot like article V of the Augsburg Confession!), and furthermore, that the Holy Spirit employs the ordinary means of grace to accomplish this work. In other words, when and where it pleases God, through the preaching of God's word and the administration of the sacraments, the Holy Spirit works in mighty ways.
What is the mighty effect of such a work of God? Certainly not dancing in aisles, rolling on the ground, or foaming at the mouth. Rather, Keller points out that true revival is often very quiet. People bow in repentance. The gospel of God's grace is adored with renewed fervor. People who were once nominal in their Christian faith are regenerated, and those who were once sleepy coverts are now awake and ready to do good works. If you ask me, all of this sounds very, very, Lutheran.
Revival and Our Lutheran Roots
In fact, while listening to Keller's lecture, I realized that this is exactly what we're asking for as we pray the Lord's prayer. Consider, for example, the Second Petition of the Lord's Prayer and its explanation from Luther's Small Catechism:
Thy Kingdom Come.
What does this mean?
The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without out prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may also come to us.
How does God's kingdom come?
God's kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.
With Keller's lecture in mind, notice the following:
1. God's kingdom comes to us when and where God wills, even apart from out prayers, but we pray that his kingdom would come to us. Hence, revival is not a human work, but it is a blessing we continually ask for from God.
2. God's kingdom comes when he gives us his Holy Spirit. What happens when we receive anew the Spirit? We believe his Word (namely, the gospel) and live holy lives. Isn't this what revival is about? A renewing work of deep repentance, faith, and the fruits that follow regeneration?
3. God's kingdom comes through the Spirit, but unlike conjured up counterfeit revivals, the Spirit is not alone. God gives us his Holy Spirit so that we believe his Word. The Spirit is working where the Word is present, and the Word is present where the Spirit is working.
So, there you have it. An argument for revival from one little piece of Luther's Small Catechism. However, as I read Luther's other writings and the writings of the Confessions, it seems clear to me that the Reformation itself was a preaching revival - a renewed call to repentance, a recovery and fresh appreciation of the gospel, and the good fruits that follow in the daily lives of God's people. Yes, we as Lutherans should pray for revival, we ought to continually breathe the prayer "Come Holy Spirit, " and in our weekly preparation for Sunday we should approach the pulpit the same way Caleb approached the promised land - with eager expectation (Numbers 13:30).
The Pitfalls of Spiritual Introspection
Looking backwards, especially from a Lutheran perspective, while Edwards was skilled in preaching the law and convicting his hearers of sin (one calls to mind "Sinner's in the Hands of an Angry God," for example), I'm not convinced that his preaching of the law always applied the preaching of the forgiveness of sins in equal measure. It's no wonder that many despaired of the grace of God under such preaching. When those once secure in sin come to an acute awareness of their great need, a critical moment ensues. Will the person place the weight of his sin upon Christ, or will the weight become a millstone around his neck?
While much good has come from the traditions of both the Puritans and Pietists, one turn they both took in the wrong direction - quite often in the context of a valid desire for true renewal and revival - was the turn inward as a source of assurance of salvation. How do you know you are elect? The answer: Take a good, hard look at your affections and the fruit of good works. Once again, from a Lutheran perspective, what follows is either pride of despair.
Compare, for example, the Puritan William Perkins with Calvin. John Calvin was in many way the spiritual grandfather of the Puritans, and yet, he approaches the question of assurance much differently. Perkins, on the one hand, urges the individual to seek her election in her own heart. Calvin, on the other hand, turns the search for election outward:
"We shall not find assurance of election in ourselves... Christ is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election."
Luther would say the same. The Reformation - arguably a revival itself - began, in large part, with Luther's own desperate search for assurance. Having burned out on trying to find grace within, the weary monk found grace securely anchored outside of himself in Christ offered in the means of grace. As I will argue below, revival is a must, but that revival must be directed toward a renewed focus on the objective certainty of Jesus Christ and his gospel rather than a perilous journey downward into the depths of inward reflection and uncertainty about the purity of one's own religious affections.
As Evangelicals grapple with the reality of a post-Christian nation and begin to shed the burdensome legacy of nominal Christianity, many are praying and preaching for revival. Many are also looking back to the example of Edwards and Whitefield for guidance and inspiration. Rather than try and conjure up a dog and pony show revival, a growing number of the Reformed and Evangelical believers are earnest to get back to the basics of faithful preaching and worship and all the fruits that come with such God ordained means.
However with such a renewed focus on revival, I suspect there is and will be a renewed focus inward. Pastors will preach for conversion (rightly so), but they will often paint a picture of the Christian life that is not true for all Christians at all times. Truly converted people will be left wondering, "Am I really saved?"
Law and Gospel to the Rescue
A renewed focus on true conversion within the American church, as well as the potential for this focus to create a desperate inward search for assurance of conversion, invites the voice of another American theologian - C.F.W. Walther. One gets the sense in Walther’s most well-known text -The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel - that he, much like Edwards, had a deep concern for true conversion. In fact, at times his writings sounds very pietistic, even speaking about the experience of the Spirit in ways that would cause some Lutherans discomfort. In other words, to use the language of one of Edwards’ more influential works, Walther had a deep concern for “religious affections.”
Like Edwards and Whitefield, Walther also placed a strong emphasis on preaching as the means by which the Spirit convicts of sin and grants genuine faith in Christ. Nevertheless, a key distinction exists between Walther and the preachers of the Great Awakening. Like these men, Walther could lay down the law from the pulpit with all the lightning and thunder of Mt. Sinai. What makes Walther different is that he placed the emphasis on the gospel, and urged his hearers to find assurance of salvation in the objective work of Christ through Word and Sacrament. In other words, Walther places the emphasis on Jesus as Savior rather than lawgiver and judge, and directs his hearers outward to Christ as he is clearly offered from pulpit, altar, and font rather than toward the work of Christ in us, which, though certainly present in all the regenerate, is often elusive and blurred by the remnants of sin that cling until the new age. This is not to say that Edwards and others do not make this move in their sermons. They do. However, at times the comfort of the gospel is a very qualified one.
Consider a few examples from Walther’s theses in Law and Gospel. I would argue that all of the theses in Law and Gospel are aimed toward true conversion, however, the following help curb some of the pastoral pitfalls that may come with a renewed concern for revival:
Thesis VII - The Word of God is not rightly divided when Law is preached to those in terror of sin or Gospel to those secure in sin.
Thesis IX: The Word of God is not rightly divided when sinners terrified by the Law are directed to their own piety.
Thesis XVI: The Word of God is not rightly divided when piety is offered as evidence of conversion.
Thesis XVII: The Word of God is not rightly divided when a description of faith is given that does not fit all believers at all times.
Thesis XXII: The Word of God is not rightly divided when a distinction is made between spiritual awakening and conversion.
Thesis XXV - The Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel does not predominate in teaching.
I would argue that while there is much good to glean from Edwards and the Great Awakening, we must also strive to offer the medicine of good pastoral care in the law and gospel distinction that is so clearly articulated in Walther's work. In fact, this is the goal of all preaching - the goal of all revival - that hearts once secure in sin would securely trust in Jesus and his merits alone.
A Word to Lutherans and Non-Lutherans
This post has been longer than normal, and we’ve covered a lot of ground, so in closing, here are a few points to glean:
1. Lutherans, let’s embrace words like revival, renewal, and awakening. These words don't need to carry all the negative baggage of glory theology. As we live in a post-Christian nation, and as the illusion of nominal Christianity dies a welcome death in America (and dare I say, our own churches), ought we not pray "come Holy Spirit" as we strive to preach the Word of God with excellence and urgency? And are we not in desperate need of such things in our Lutheran congregations? I fear that the LCMS has and continues to respond to our context by either flirting with out-of-the-box, seeker sensitive solutions, or by leaning toward Rome and speaking about preaching and the sacraments in a way that seems to me like ex opere operato. Instead, let's preach the Word in season and out of season, and let's pray that God would - as we pray in the Lord's Prayer - grant us his Holy Spirit.
2. If there’s any non-Lutherans reading this post, let me say the following. First, I appreciate Edwards deeply. I'm glad that many are recently following Edwards instead of Finney (that first Great Awakening was way better than the second!). However, with that said, I also commend to you Walther's The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. It's the best book you've probably never read, full of pastoral and homiletical gems. From the perspective of the Great Awakening, Walther was a latecomer on the American scene. He was a German immigrant to a country that had already laid down its spiritual roots, and so, he is less known than Edwards. Nevertheless, I believe his approach to genuine conversion through the preaching of law and gospel is one of the best kept secrets in the American church. And not only that, the book serves as an excellent resource for ecumenical dialogue.
*The idea for this post came from a recent lecture I heard by Dr. Rast of Concordia Theological Seminary at a recent pastor's conference for the Atlantic, New England, and New Jersey districts. He presented on the history of the American church, much of which covered the contribution of Edwards and Whitefield to our religious history as a nation. Thank you!
Pastor John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church - South Windsor, CT