Written by Dr. Bob Smart, adjunct faculty Urbana Theological Seminary
Preceding the Great Awakening was a general cry or plea for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. When that generation’s prayer appeared to be answered, many questioned why there was a mixture of fanaticism accompanying such a mighty effusion of the Spirit of God. Since the central question of the Great Awakening was not a question of vitality but of legitimacy, Edwards sought to discern a true work of the Spirit and to defend it as such. This is why Edwards’s sermon Distinguishing Marks of a True Work of the Spirit of God at Yale’s commencement, given at the height of the revival, had such a great impact.
One of the benefits of reading and studying Edwards’s apologetic of the Great Awakening as a genuine work of the Spirit is all that one can learn and appropriate to one’s own Christian experience and Gospel ministry. Here are three “take-a-ways” from my own study.
First, every true revival and outpouring of the Spirit is a sovereign work of God. Just as Jesus said to Nicodemus, “the Spirit blows wherever He wills” (John 3:8). The proponents and opposers of the revival had no control over when, how long, or where the Spirit would manifest God’s power and love for people. The work began inWalesin 1739, then in New England in 1740-1741, and came intensely inScotlandin 1742-43. Such a short period of time, but great was the impact for generations after.
Second, nothing shows more the impotency of man without the Spirit’s effects than a revival. After the 1734-35 revivals inNorthampton, Edwards could do nothing to re-awaken his community again. Suddenly, in 1740, the “dead bones” rose to life. After 1744, Edwards and the friends of the Awakening could not obtain the same spiritual fervor in their ministries.
Thirdly, every true work of the Spirit is a mixed work. Satan always mixes up the good with the bad. Edwards taught that the Devil held back the saints as long as he possibly could from revival. When the Spirit was poured out, the Devil would push the saints too far into fanaticism. Edwards, therefore, would not defend the radical proponents of the Great Awakening. In fact, he said that “the friends of revival are often its’ worst enemies.” We should not expect an ideal revival because there never has been one, nor will there ever be one. Revivals quicken the Kingdom’s advance, but are complicated with new problems and challenges as well.
Every leader ought to study the great periods of revival and missionary advance in order to learn to discern more about the nature of the Person and work of the Holy Spirit. Edwards offers the student plenty of material for such an endeavor.