For want of counting the cost, too many of those who come forward professing faith in revival meetings go back to the world in time and bring disgrace on Christ. They begin with a sadly mistaken notion of what true Christianity is, imagining it consists in nothing more than a so–called ‘coming to Christ’, and having strong inward feelings of joy and confidence. Thus when they find that there is warfare as well as peace, a cross as well as a crown, their ‘Christianity’ is discarded and they return to their old ways.
Now I should be very sorry indeed if what I am saying about evangelical revivals should be misunderstood. For true revivals, no one could be more deeply thankful than me. Wherever they may take place, and by whatever agents they may be effected, I desire blessing from God for them with all my heart. Whoever may be the preacher, if “Christ is announced”, then “in this I rejoice” (Phil. 1: 18). If precious souls are saved, I also rejoice, whatever the denominational background by which the Word of life has been ministered. Nonetheless, it is a melancholy fact that if you have good, then evil is not far away. Thus I have no hesitation in saying that one consequence of the modern revival movement has been the rise of a theological system which I feel obliged to call defective and damaging.
The leading feature of many of these revival meetings is an extravagant and disproportionate magnifying of three points in evangelism—namely, instantaneous conversion, the invitation of unconverted sinners to come to Christ, and the possession of inward joy and peace as a test of conversion.
Instantaneous conversion, no doubt, ought to be pressed on people, but to lead them into thinking that there is no other sort of conversion is wrong. Too often the work of the Holy Spirit in converting sinners is narrowed and confined to one way only. Not all true converts are like Saul of Tarsus or the Philippian jailer, and converted instantaneously. It is manifestly unscriptural to say that unless persons are suddenly and powerfully converted to God they are not really converted at all. Nicodemus, for example, went through a very long process (see John 3: 1–21; 7: 50–52; 19: 39, 40).
The duty of coming to Christ at once, ‘just as we are,’ certainly should be pressed on all hearers. It is the very cornerstone of gospel preaching—the Lord’s coming is near, and life here is fragile. But the hearers must also be told to repent as well as to believe—be told why they need to come to Christ, and what they are to come for. Sinners are often not sufficiently instructed about the holiness and righteousness of God, the depth of their sinfulness, and the real guilt of sin. To be incessantly telling a sinner to ‘come to Christ’ is of little use, unless you tell him why he needs to come, and show him fully his sins. Certainly some are very effective in swelling the numbers of ‘converts’ but one wonders what proportion of those who have ‘come’ have come for the right reasons. In Jerusalem, in the Lord’s day, “many believed on his name”, but it also says that the Lord “did not trust himself to them” (John 2: 23, 24, my emphasis). Solemn word.
No doubt the availability of true peace and comfort in Christ should be proclaimed to men. But surely enquiring souls should be taught that the possession of inward joy and exaltation is not essential to justification, and that there may be true faith and true peace without such very triumphant feelings and thoughts? Joy alone is no certain evidence of a sovereign work of grace (see Matt. 13: 20). To insist on all believers ‘rejoicing’ as soon as they believe is most unsafe. Some, I am quite sure, will rejoice without believing, while others will believe who cannot at once rejoice.
The mischief done by the theological system I refer to is, I am persuaded, very great. On the one hand, many humble–minded Christians are totally discouraged and daunted. They fancy they have no reality because they cannot reach up to the high frames and feelings which are pressed on their attention. On the other side, unconverted people are deluded into thinking they are converted because under the pressure of emotional excitement they are led to profess themselves Christians. Let those who claim to have found immediate sensible peace be plainly warned to try themselves well, and to remember that feeling is not faith, and that it is only where there is an abiding in God’s Word that Christ can say of any that “ye are truly my disciples” (John 8: 31). Faith is proven by “patient continuance in good works” and a seeking after “glory and honour and incorruptibility” (Rom. 2: 7).
When great crowds are suddenly brought under the power of religious impressions, unhealthy excitement is almost sure to follow. In such situations, it is easy to be carried along on a tide of emotion—but the same tide can quickly turn. It is sobering to think that the crowds who cried out “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Matt. 21: 9), only a few days later demanded “Let him be crucified” (Matt. 27: 22). Certainly multitudes in the past have been converted all at once (see Acts 2: 41 etc.), and many are still being converted that way, but the test is not only whether such are “pricked in heart” (v37), but also that they persevere in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, the breaking of bread and prayers (see v42). What is needed is a solid work in the soul—whether through individual work or crowd work—a fixation on numbers alone is sure to end in disaster.
There are two passages of Scripture which I should like to have frequently and fully expounded in the present day by all who preach the Gospel, and especially by those who have anything to do with revivals. One passage is the parable of the sower (Matt. 13: 1-23). That parable is not repeated in three gospels without good reason. The other passage is our Lord’s teaching about ‘counting the cost’, and the words which He spoke to the great crowds going with Him. It is very noteworthy that He did not on that occasion say anything to flatter these volunteers or encourage them to follow Him. No, He saw what their case needed. He told them to sit down and “count the cost” (Luke 14: 28). I am not sure that many modern preachers would have taken this course, but while the converts may be fewer, we can have much more confidence in the soundness of the conversions.