5 Truths for Real Revival

Revival Truths

For the last few weeks, I’ve been tinkering away on a paper comparing Jonathan Edwards and Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s defenses of revival. I won’t bore you with the academics of establishing a link between the two men; you’ll just have to trust me on this: no one (outside of Thomas Chalmers) had such discernible influence on M’Cheyne as Edwards.

A Spark and The Sun

On March 20, 1832, M’Cheyne wrote in his diary, “Read part of the life of Jonathan Edwards. How feeble does my spark of Christianity appear beside such a sun! But even his was a borrowed light, and the same source is still open to enlighten me.” This first recorded encounter with the Northampton pastor was powerful enough to cause M’Cheyne to purchase Edwards’ works three months later and begin to read them in earnest. Andrew Bonar, his closest friend, and biographer, remarks, “It was [during his first pastoral charge] . . . that [M’Cheyne] began to study so closely the works of Jonathan Edwards—reckoning them a mine to be wrought, and if wrought, sure to repay the toil.”

M’Cheyne’s toil was repaid in full. I think we can see that in how similar the 1838–1840 revival at St. Peter’s Dundee (described in Evidences on Revival) was to the 1734–1735 awakening in Edwards’ Northampton church (famously defending in A Narrative of the Surprising Work of God). One simple way to trace this is how each man used revival history in his congregation.

In the Faithful Narrative of a Surprising Work of God, Edwards tells his readers, “There is no one thing that I know of which God has made such a means of promoting his work amongst us, as the news of others’ conversion.” M’Cheyne too stoked the fire of awakening by recounting God’s great act in revivals of old during weekday services. I thus ask, “How then might Edwards and M’Cheyne encourage awakening in our own time? How might we pursue similar experiences of revival?” I believe to note and pursue five key commonalities each man emphasized.

5 Truths for Real Revival

Revival is the work of God’s sovereign spirit. Each pastor k he could not manufacture an awakening. There were no “new measures” to be discovered. Instead, a rediscovery of dependence upon God’s Spirit was needed, to see Him move in extraordinary power. Today, particularly in the Western church, temptations to pragmatism lurk in every place. Many ordinary pastors lead stagnated congregations. The bones are dry. But God’s Spirit is no less powerful today than he was in 1734–1735 and 1839–1840. Edwards and M’Cheyne challenge us to be patiently urgent in waiting for the Spirit’s breath to whistle forth a rattling sound through our age’s dry bones.

Revival depends on earnest prayer. Edwards and M’Cheyne each recount how the awakenings came after prolonged periods of prayer. Increased devotion to and delight in prayer became one of the clearest fruits of the Spirit’s work in revival. Pastors today will know an awakening has come—or is on the way—when the weekly prayer meeting is full. Another marker will be when multiple prayer meetings take over the church’s ordinary corporate life. Prayer calls upon the Spirit to begin blowing and keep blowing. M’Cheyne’s convicting conclusion at the end of Evidences on Revival is that only pastors “given to secret prayer” will experience an authentic awakening.

Revival comes through preaching Christ. Preaching is the chariot that brings down Christ to a church’s soul. A heralded Christ is what ignited the revival fires at Northampton and Dundee. Haykin reminds, “The deeply held pneumatological conviction in Edwards (and M’Cheyne’s) Reformed heritage [is] that the Spirit is a Christ-centred and Christ-exalting Spirit.” “Nothing but preaching the pure gospel of the grace of God,” M’Cheyne said, can bring about awakening. Let us then continue to preach Christ—crucified, risen, and ascended—believing it is only when He is lifted up continuously in our sermons that He will draw all men to Himself.

Revival increases the weight of God’s glory. A striking feature of both accounts is how revival brought reverence to the respective congregations. Instances of extreme ecstasy happened, but awful solemnity swallowed them whole. Edwards, with relentless attention, shows how fear and solemnity plowed through sinful hearts to plant salvation’s seed. “There seems to be far more of a solemn awe upon the minds of men than formerly . . . There is far more solemnity in the house of God,” M’Cheyne recounts. Our modern age exalts exuberant authenticity, which surely has a place in Christ’s church. Edwards and M’Cheyne remind us, however, that God also deserves our trembling, reverent worship. When the Spirit falls, He does so with heaviness. God’s glory bears eternal, incomprehensible weight. In awakenings, souls feel its force and respond with reverence.

Revival includes the children. While Edwards and M’Cheyne do tell us how the awakenings touched people from all walks of life, they nevertheless single out one special group: children. God used the youth in each church to raise a cup of gladness and shout a song of praise. Our Savior rebuked those who prevented the children from coming to Him. Let not His rebuke fall on us. In our preaching and pastoring, let us bend the knee and speak with tender hearts. Require not an unreasonable degree of theological or moral assent from your covenant children—they too may find Christ’s blessing.

Imitate Their Faith

In Philippians 3:17 Paul exhorts, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Jonathan Edwards and Robert Murray M’Cheyne are heroes to whom we should look. M’Cheyne thought Edwards to be a mighty sun in history’s spiritual galaxy. May we, like M’Cheyne, find the star of our life reflecting such absorbing trust in the Spirit who blows wherever He wills.



A Sermon for the Ages


Every once in a while, it seems, you read something and know you’ll never forget it. That happened to me this week.

Yesterday, I finished a doctoral seminar on Jonathan Edwards at The Institution. One of the required readings was Edwards’ sermon entitled, “The Excellency of Christ.” Dr. Nettles (who led the seminar) said this sermon “is the best thing written in the English language.” “Hyperbole!” you cry. “Possibly,” I reply. But I’m prepared to join Dr. Nettles’ cause. For outside of Holy Scripture, I’ve never read anything so soul-stunning and holy-affections-generating as this message. Here is Edwards’ heart for Christ written in ink. Here is doctrinal preaching at its finest. Here is biblical meditation at its zenith. Here is a fearfully deep reach into the unsearchable riches of our Savior.

Consider this paragraph taken from Edwards’ encouragement “to accept of Jesus, and close with him as your Savior”:

And here is not only infinite strength and infinite worthiness, but infinite condescension, and love and mercy, as great as power and dignity. If you are a poor, distressed sinner, whose heart is ready to sink for fear that God never will have mercy on you, you need not be afraid to go to Christ, for fear that he is either unable or unwilling to help you. Here is a strong foundation, and an inexhaustible treasure, to answer the necessities of your poor soul, and here is infinite grace and gentleness to invite and embolden a poor, unworthy, fearful soul to come to it. If Christ accepts of you, you need not fear but that you will be safe, for he is a strong Lion for your defense. And if you come, you need not fear but that you shall be accepted; for he is like a Lamb to all that come to him, and receives then with infinite grace and tenderness. It is true he has awful majesty, he is the great God, and infinitely high above you; but there is this to encourage and embolden the poor sinner, that Christ is man as well as God; he is a creature, as well as the Creator, and he is the most humble and lowly in heart of any creature in heaven or earth. This may well make the poor unworthy creature bold in coming to him. You need not hesitate one moment; but may run to him, and cast yourself upon him. You will certainly be graciously and meekly received by him. Though he is a lion, he will only be a lion to your enemies, but he will be a lamb to you. It could not have been conceived, had it not been so in the person of Christ, that there could have been so much in any Savior, that is inviting and tending to encourage sinners to trust in him. Whatever your circumstances are, you need not be afraid to come to such a Savior as this. Be you never so wicked a creature, here is worthiness enough; be you never so poor, and mean, and ignorant a creature, there is no danger of being despised, for though he be so much greater than you, he is also immensely more humble than you. Any one of you that is a father or mother, will not despise one of your own children that comes to you in distress: much less danger is there of Christ’s despising you, if you in your heart come to him.

Read the whole sermon here and let me know what you think.

Edwards on the Word and Prayer

Jonathan Edwards on The Means of Grace

On Wednesday I offered three biblical images or illustrations the venerable Jonathan Edwards employed to illustrate the nature of the means of grace. A necessary question that comes next is, “How did Edwards actually teach and apply the biblical truth on individual means of grace?”

Let’s use those two central means, the Word and prayer, as case studies.1


Edwards said, “The chief means of grace is the Word of God: that standing revelation of the mind and will of God that he gives the world, and it is as it were the sum of all means.” In the Word we are given the mind and will of God for us, so that our minds and wills might be fashioned and shaped after his image. Cooperation with the Spirit conforms our soul to the Word of God, bearing fruit keeping in repentance and have our hearts beat in rhythm with his.

The Word of God, as a means of grace, holds Christ before us, but not in a way that is efficacious. Without the Spirit’s illumination, what we see is just a good man. Edwards says, “The notion that there is a Christ, and that Christ is holy and gracious, is conveyed to the mind by the Word of God: but the sense of the excellency of Christ by reason of that holiness and grace, is nevertheless immediately the work of the Holy Spirit.” This is important for our us because reading the Word is often the easiest way to seem spiritual while living out of the flesh. Reading Scripture can come from a desire to sound theologically intelligent, curry God’s favor, or rid ourselves of guilt from low performance. To truly know God and his Word is to read the Bible with a humble frame, yearning for the Spirit’s work.

Because the Word is God’s primary vehicle to reveal His glory in Jesus Christ, it must thus be the primary means. To understand how to lead our families, pray, fast, and meditate we have to know God’s word. Strobel says, “Hearing and reading the Word of God is the bedrock upon which we faithfully practice the means of grace, because hearing and reading the Word are ground in Christ.” It is in the word that all the other means are understood.

Edwards calls the Word of God the “chief” and “soul” of the means of grace. As we hear and read God’s word we are invited to bask in the glory, beauty, and goodness of God.


If the Word of God orients the other means, prayer gives them life. Diligent use of the means never divorces on of these means from the other, because they are meant to go hand in hand. “Conversation between God and mankind in the world is maintained by God’s word on his part, and prayer on ours,” Edwards writes. “By the former he speaks to us and expresses his mind to us; by the latter we speak to him and express our minds to him.”

As with all means, faith is necessary for prayer to effectively communicate God’s grace to our soul. Edwards reminds us, “That which is necessary in prayer is necessary in faith; for prayer is the only particular exercise and expression of our faith before God.” Historian Michael Haykin has said, “The church as only one posture: prayer.” We are to read God’s word prayerfully, sing prayerfully, hear prayerfully, fellowship prayerfully, and pray even in our prayers (James 5:17).

Like Bible reading, prayer can be practiced in the flesh, but it probably is the least used means of grace to try and better ourselves. Edwards notes that many people leave off praying in secret because they can do so without anyone noticing. As we all know, prayer is difficult and comes with little obvious natural reward. Even though prayer seems clearly focused on God, it is often focused on anything and everything but God. To help us to faithfulness in prayer we must aim to pray from our hearts. Prayer from the heart is the prayer of faith, and anything else is empty talking. Edwards knows this to be true, for he says, “The true spirit of prayer is not other than God’s own Spirit dwelling in the hearts of the saints. And as this spirit comes from God, so doth it naturally tend to God in holy breathings and pantings. It naturally leads to God, to converse with him by prayer.”

Edwards taught that prayer brings us before God and sets our minds and hearts upon him. The prayer of faith is a means of grace because it leads us before God as he really is, creating the space to be with him as we really are. Ultimately, the prayer of faith longs for God and God alone. Without it, Edwards suggests, the Christian life is vain and lacks meaning.

  1. What follows is adapted from Formed for the Glory of God by Kyle Strobel, pp. 85-92.

Jonathan Edwards on the Means of Grace

Jonathan Edwards on The Means of Grace

One of the best books I read in 2013 was Kyle Strobel’s Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards.

Chapter 4, “Spiritual Disciplines as Means of Grace,” contains a very helpful discussion on the nature of the means.1 When Edwards speaks of the means often used three different biblical images to illustrate his emphases.


One of his more common illustrations is taken from John 5 and the story of Jesus healing a man at the pool called Bethesda. If you remember the story, a disable man constantly remains by the pool because angels stir the water. The thought at the time was the first person in the pool after an angelic stirring would be healed from his infirmity. The disabled man tells Jesus he has no one to lower him into the pool, so he never is first in the water. Edwards focused on the reality of this pool as a God-given gift of healing. Strobel says, “It’s important to note that there was nothing about the pool itself that was healing. But God had established this way as the way of healing, and therefore people were called to enter the pool with faith that God would heal.” The means of grace God gives to the church are not effectual in and of themselves. God has, in his mercy, given us established means to come to him that we may receive his grace, even though our coming does not bind God and force Him to be gracious. Our task is to simply come with faith.

A second illustration Edwards turned to was in John 2 when Jesus turned the water into wine. Our role in the Christian life is to “fill the water pots,” and Christ’s role is to turn our water into wine. The means of grace are ways to fill us with water, water that God can turn into wine. The means of grace Edwards uses with this illustration is preaching: “They can be abundant in preaching the word, which, as it comes only from them, is but water, a dead letter, a sapless, tasteless, spiritless thing; but this is what Christ will bless for the supply [of] his church with wine.”

A third image looks to the story of Elijah and his challenge to the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. Elijah built an altar and put wood on it with an offering. He then prayed to God and God descended with fire to consume the offering. In light of the precious illustrations, the correlation of Elijah’s altar building encounter with the means should be clear. Our actions do not create grace; our actions cannot even create holiness, any more than Elijah’s building of an altar could create fire. We use the means out of faithfulness to God, trusting that he will descend with the fire.

These three illustrations narrate two specific realities Edwards hoped to convey . . .


First, we are called to specific actions – “means” – to receive grace. These actions are powerless in themselves to change the heart or make one holy. If they could the Christian life would inevitably become a self-help project. Instead, we are called to enact them and put our faith in God to do with them what He will.

Second, if God chooses, he will endow the means we do in faith with his grace. God does this by His will and sovereign grace alone. Strobel writes, “Our call, in other words, is not to grow ourselves, but to present ourselves to God through the means He has provided. Means of grace are spiritual postures to receive God’s grace.” We would be wrong to assume that these practices are easy; in actuality they require hard work. Many of them, as we know from experience, are deeply trying. They are designed to put us in a spiritual frame that runs contrary to our fleshly dependence and worldly fascination. But they do not, and cannot, grow you. What they ordinarily do is open your soul to receive the grace that alone can transform and beautify.

  1. Everything that follows is adapted from Formed for the Glory of God, 75-77.

3 Endeavors for 2014

2014 Endeavors

Few men of old have impacted my life so profoundly as Jonathan Edwards. It all began in the spring of 2007.

On a whim I purchased George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life from a nearby Christian bookstore. As strange as it may seem for those who know me well, and in light of yesterday’s post, Marsden’s biography was the first “Christian” book longer than 200 pages I had ever read.

It took me quite a while to finish the book, the pace was caterpillar-ish when contrasted to how I read seven years later, but I have never been the same since. Apart from Scripture no other book as effected me in a myriad of significant ways like this one.

It was the gateway into deeper study of Edwards.

It was the gateway into loving the Puritans.

It was the gateway into a near obsession with history.

And it was the gateway into a disciplined pursuit of holiness.

This last one is what struck me most about Edwards, his staggering, soul-consuming pursuit of holiness, and thus happiness, in God. I doubt anything encapsulates his passion for godliness like those famous Resolutions. After reading them I had a strange bifurcation of the soul. One part of my heart fell into utter despair, “What a miserably lazy worm I am!” But the other part, and honestly the major part, raced with excitement, “Yes! Amen! Now, that’s a life spent pursuing God.” And so it was that I pulled out my laptop and tapped away my own list of desires for The Fight. I called them “Endeavors.”

Some day I might publish those original ones, but for now you should know that as every year begins I have a couple new, often time-capped, Endeavors that find their way onto the list. Here are the three Endeavors I have for 2014:


First, I endeavor to memorize 1 Timothy. Few things stir my soul to consistently dwell in doxological deeps like Bible memory. In 2011 I memorized Ephesians and Colossians and have spent the last two years trying to make sure I retain them. I think I am now ready to move on to the next book and it was always going to be 1 Timothy. Paul’s letter to his “true child in the faith” has long been a go-to resource for pastoral ministry and I want to write it on my heart.

Second, I endeavor to read the collected works of George Swinnock and the magnum opus of Isaac Ambrose. This is a good example of what I mean by a “time-capped” Endeavor. In the past couple of years I have chosen a few older and longer works to meditatively nibble on throughout the year. This year its the five-volume collection from Swinnock and Ambrose’s Looking Unto Jesus. 8 pages per day in the former and 2 in the latter will have ’em likely done sometime in November.

Third, I endeavor to personally evangelize at least one person a month. Some may say, and be right to say, that this hope is porous. It’s too small. Or, “You don’t do that already?!?” I usually find it best to put the peanut gallery on mute, especially in areas like this. Simply put, I want to become a better personal evangelist. My calling demands it and my God deserves it. I am praying that the Spirit would empower me unto faithfulness and fruitfulness in evangelism. Maybe one day I might be like the venerable Mack Stiles who says it’s rare for a couple days to pass without at least one evangelistic conversation.

So, in the year of our Lord 2014, these are my Edwardsian endeavors. Anyone want to join me on the journey?