IMAGINE what would happen if John Wesley’s heart-warming experience on May 24, 1738 is reproduced thousands of times among us.
Most of us would say that we would have a revival or great awakening or renewal. This is because following this experience, Wesley began a long ministry of revival in Britain which later spread to America. Methodism became a renewal movement which John Wesley hoped would strengthen and renew the Church of England.
To reflect on this and seek greater understanding, let us look again at Wesley’s own description of his experience:
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
In these much-quoted words, we discover two essentials or foundations for revival. This is also captured in Wesley’s understanding of the Methodist movement as one called by God to spread “scriptural holiness”. In that phrase we have the dual foundations of revival – Scripture and holiness.
Notice in Wesley’s description of his Aldersgate experience that he was listening to Luther’s preface to Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Revival is connected to the discovery and rediscovery of Scripture. It is no surprise that Wesley gathered a group of preachers to proclaim the Gospel. They were essentially called to a ministry of the Word. Wesley, who recruited, appointed and supervised them, expected them to share his great regard for the Bible when he described himself as homo unius libri (a man of one book – the Bible). We cannot escape noticing the centrality of Scripture in the Wesleyan revival.
The early Methodists were not the only ones with this experience. When the Jewish exiles returned to the Promised Land from their Babylonian captivity, God sent Ezra, the man of God, to encourage them. Ezra brought before the people the Word of God and read from it and explained it. A great change came upon the people that day (Neh. 8). Again, notice the centrality of Scripture.
The other foundation for revival is a focus on holiness. Wesley defined salvation as being saved “from the law of sin and death”. For long he was an earnest seeker of holiness and he had now found a deep experience of the freedom that comes from the Holy Spirit. He now had a deep and profound assurance that his sins were forgiven by God through Christ and that in Christ he had been given victory over sin. Holiness was to be an essential part of his life. Wesley saw this holiness to be seen in both the personal as well as social spheres of life. If you recognise that sin has to do with both doing the wrong thing as well as not doing the right thing, then you can appreciate why holiness has to do with both personal piety (being good) as well as social involvement (doing good).
Wesley’s experience echoes the biblical Ezra’s. The people in Ezra’s days responded with weeping and tears as they realised their sinfulness and repented with much humility. A God-led revival will always produce repentance and humility in the people’s hearts as they seek to be holy.
Scripture and holiness are therefore the hallmarks of true revival. We must remember this, for revival can come in many forms. The 18th century saw several revivals (or awakenings) in Britain, America and Europe.
Richard Steele has noted that there were at least four different models of revival. Firstly the spiritual awakening that took place in the New England area in America, centred around the ministry of Jonathan Edwards, was characterised by a revival in a local community spearheaded by the local pastor. The second model had to do with the ministry of George Whitefield, an early associate of Wesley. Whitefield preached to the masses in a period characterised by the beginning of increasing commerce, social anonymity and rootlessness, and the birth of the private self. Revival here took place over a large area and addressed private individuals in large crowds. The third model is associated with Count Zinzendorf, leader of the Moravian Brethren in Saxony, Europe. The focus here was on renewal taking place through dynamic small groups. Steel’s attributes the fourth (hybrid) model to Wesley, who followed an eclectic approach.
If Steele is right, then there are different shapes and forms of revival. How then do we know true revival from false ones? Wesley offers some answers when he describes five characteristics: There will be new discernment (judgment about the self and knowledge about holiness), direction (purpose) in life, desire (holy passions and inclinations), dealings (relationships with others), and deeds (actions springing from love of God and neighbour).
It is still helpful to return to where we began. The two key characteristics of true revival are a return to Scripture and the evidence of personal and social holiness. Revival is often mistakenly thought of as finding something new. It is in fact the result of rediscovering something old. The ancient ways of God are rediscovered with the freshness of immediate experience.
Another misunderstanding of revival is manifested when revival becomes an end in itself. In that case, it is revivalism more than a revival. Revivalism is the need for constant novelty, an insatiable restlessness that people try to feed by superficial stirrings of the soul. That is not true revival. True revival is not like the surface waves and ripples on the face of the water. It is more like the powerful deep currents and produces lasting transformation of the soul that brings forth humility, holiness and love.
We who follow Christ can pray to God to revive us (Ps. 80:18), and show that we mean it by rediscovering Scripture and holiness. Then God can put His wounded hands deep in our frozen souls and bring new life in us, among us, and through us.