The Asbury Revival, True or False?

In recent days, I have had several people contact me about the Asbury Revival which is happening presently at Asbury University in Asbury, Kentucky. Time will tell if this is a true revival or just a work of the human flesh. Either way, there will certainly be some people who come to faith as a result of what is happening and for that we will rejoice. Yet, not all that glitters is gold. One of the things that concerns me is that Rick Warren and Francis Chan and other like-minded ministers have already gone to Asbury or they are on their way there to try to fan those flames into a revival that reaches other college campuses also. It makes me wonder if and when Andy Stanley and his entourage of LGBTQ supporters will make it there also.  

I have written often about the need for revival in our country and I still do. I have also tried to distinguish between true revival and false revival. As a youth, I was a member of two different United Methodist Church congregations in which the gospel was never preached by the pastors. Yet, the general concept of a revival was supported in both congregations. At Trinity United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, NC, we had annual so-called revival meetings which were more experiential in nature. There were calls for decisions and emphases on lay renewal. One thing that has always stood out to me about those meetings is the person who was the “star” of them for three straight years. Each year, he would renew his commitment and tell the congregation how his life was now turned around and renewed. Then, the congregation would not see him again until the next year when the Lay Renewal meetings were taking place once again. Then, he got another fifteen minutes of fame. Meanwhile, I attended every service every week but never heard the gospel even once. 

The second congregation was Wesley United Methodist Church in Jackson, Mississippi where I was a member from 1968 to 1971. It was during that time that I came to Christ through God’s sovereign grace—and my conversion had nothing to do with the ministry of the church which was ultraliberal. I suppose I quickly stood out for some reason and I was asked to preach to the youth at the ‘Youth Led Renewal Week’ for the church. That event was held at Roosevelt State Park in July of 1970 near Morton, MS and it was my first opportunity to preach (or, as stodgy Presbyterians would say, ‘to exhort,’ since I was not ordained). The following Sunday I led the worship service at the church while the youth all had a part. Other than the sermon I preached at the state park, there was nothing of the gospel that was in anything that was done. It was an effort by a liberal congregation to work up more commitment on the part of the members. That congregation had members who spoke glowing of what they had learned from the psychic, Edgar Cayce. Other members equated Christianity with the various other religions of the world—no better, no worse. 

In my articles, I have tried to distinguish between the God-centered revival known as the Great Awakening and the man-centered revival known as the Second Great Awakening. Not all that was done in the Great Awakening was pure and holy and not all the ministers during the Second Great Awakening were wrong. For instance, Asahel Nettleton and Daniel Baker both preached reformed doctrines during the Second Great Awakening and avoided both the ‘new measures’ and ‘the anxious bench.’ Some of the worst parts of the Second Great Awakening were the result of Presbyterian ministers—the New School Presbyterians who tried to ‘soften’ the doctrines of the Bible to make their message more comfortable for sinners. Thus, I am not hopeful at this point that the Asbury Revival will prove to be a God-centered revival. The theology behind the Asbury Revival is man-centered with a strong emphasis on the ‘second blessing’ and it is Wesleyan Perfectionism to the core. The history of the church shows that all true, long-lasting revivals have their basis in theology that is true to the Scriptures and emphasizes God’s sovereign grace. Therefore, true Calvinism is not anti-revivalistic or un-evangelistic, but just the opposite.      

True revival is always a work of God’s grace. It was so in the Scripture. It was no accident that Hilkiah the priest (and Jeremiah’s father) found the Book of the Law in the Temple which had been neglected for many years while Judah had descended further and further into idolatry under the reign of Manasseh. Yet, the Lord prevented Manasseh’s son, Josiah, from following in his father’s footsteps with that wonderful discovery of the Word in his reign. Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, the scribe, who read it to Josiah, the king. Josiah had begun seeking the Lord in the eighth year of his reign at the age of 16 (he became king at the age of 8). As Shaphan read those words of the Book of the Law of Moses to him, Josiah tore his clothes and commanded Hilkiah to seek the Lord for those in Israel and Judah concerning the wrath of God recorded in the Book. God then raised up that weeping prophet, Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, to pray for the people and to preach to them the need of repentance. Jeremiah 17:9 is one of the most famous of all verses and what does it say? “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it.” That verse teaches the total depravity of man which necessitates the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit to transform the heart, per Ezekiel 36:26—“I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and give you a heart of flesh.” Hilkiah, Shaphan, and others did what Josiah commanded them to do with the result that there was a spiritual revival in Judah during those days. It began with repentance, where all true revivals must begin. 

True revivals have sometimes been co-opted in part or in great measure by those who want to subvert the gospel. There was a revival in Samaria during Jesus’ life as a result of His witness to the woman at the well that He was the Messiah. The woman straightway went into the city to tell the men and they came to Jesus to see for themselves. Then, the flames of that revival were stoked even more by Philip when he went there after Christ rose from the dead. But a man named Simon Magus saw the wondrous outpouring of the Holy Spirit and wanted to buy the power to bestow the Spirit on others. He was condemned by Peter and told that his heart was not right with God. We must not overlook the essential point in that passage. Simon wanted to control the revival—that is man-centered. True revival is God-centered. 

True revival is also, and above all else, a rediscovery of the Word of God. The Protestant Reformation was such a rediscovery. Before the reformation, the Catholic Church was completely dominated by ceremonialism. Then, Luther found a copy of a book in the library of the University of Wittenberg. He had heard of this book many times and even read sentences drawn from it, but he had never actually read it. What was this book? It was the Bible. In the Bible, Luther read those words, ‘the just shall by faith’ and he could not rest until he arrived at their meaning. That was a search for the ages which turned upside down all of western civilization. Protestant Christianity since that day has been defined by the doctrine of justification by faith alone because It is taught so clearly in Romans and Galatians. True revivals have staying power because they are based on the unchanging Word of God—not the changing nature of man’s emotional experiences. 

The Great Awakening was also a revival which was based on the rediscovery of the Word. When Whitefield began preaching, his message soon startled a nation, as Arnold Dallimore wrote. Whitefield’s most popular sermon was on the new birth, but his most theological discourse was on justification by faith. Like the Reformers, Whitefield was simply rediscovering a message that had fallen into disuse among the clergy. Yet, that message is the one message which is, as it has been called, ‘the article of a standing or falling church.’ Christianity was in a death spiral both in Great Britain and in the American colonies when Whitefield burst onto the scene and preached as few have ever preached, either before or since. There was the rediscovery of a doctrine, but, more than that, there was the rediscovery of the Word of God which occasioned the Great Awakening. That is always the case. That is also why the effects of the Great Awakening lasted for almost 300 years in America. Revival is always, as it was during Josiah’s reign, a rediscovery and a trembling at the words of Scripture. Unless a revival is marked by that it simply will not last. 

Now, I do not know what or how many people will be converted as a result of whatever is happening in Asbury, Kentucky. I just know this. The revival that America and the world needs must be based on a rediscovery of God’s Word and a rediscovery of sovereign grace in salvation. Many years ago, there was a non-reformed movement in Pensacola, FL called the Brownsville Revival. It flamed out like all movements of the flesh do. Yet, the world still needs reviving and we must dedicate ourselves to praying for true revival.         

Resources on Revivals: 

Here are some resources for your further study on revivals which I culled from my library this morning:

1. William B. Sprague, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (London: The. Banner of Truth Trust, 1959)

2. Ebenezer Porter, Letters on Revival (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004)  

3. Richard Owen Roberts, Revival (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1982)

4. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Revival (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1987)

5. Henry C. Fish, Handbook of Revivals (Counted Faithful, 2018)

6. Benjamin R. Lacy, Jr., Revivals in the Midst of the Years (Hopewell, Virginia: Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, Inc., 1968)

7. Iain H. Murray, Revival & Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858 (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994)

8. Jonathan Edwards, The Great Awakening (New Haven, CT and London, England: Yale University Press, 1972

9. Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976)

10. Arthur Fawcett, The Cambuslang Revival (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1971)

11. Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008)

12. Effion Evans, Revival Comes to Wales (London: Evangelical Press, 1979)

13. Horatius Bonar, True Revivals and the Men God Uses (London: Evangelical Press, n.d.)

14. J. Edwin Orr, The Second Great Awakening (London and Edinburgh: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 2018)

15. Thomas Phillips, The Welsh Revival: Its Origin and Development (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1989)

16. Iain H. Murray, Pentecost—Today? (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2017)

17. J. F. Thornbury, God Sent Revival (London: Evangelical Press, 1977)

18. Bennet Tyler and Andrew Bonar, The Life and Labours of Asahel Nettleton (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975)

19. Various biographies of George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, Daniel Baker, and others. 

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL       Please send any donations to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540 

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