It’s All About Eschatology (and History)

Collin Hansen has a stimulating post at the Gospel Coalition this morning (Pacific) lamenting the apparently declining desire for a “revival.” Collin’s post raises some very important questions.

Why would one begin to doubt the desire for revival, which I have described as the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience, in favor of the ordinary? Well, there’s a whole chapter (and more) about this in RRC but one reason is that there’s not much prima facie evidence in the NT that the apostolic church was much interested in “revival” (at least as that word came to be defined in the 18th and 19th centuries). There is a great deal of concern about mission, about piety (godliness), about righteousness with God, sanctification and the like. To be sure, the book of Acts describes some events associated with “revival” but there are obvious discontinuities with Pentecost too. There are other events in Acts in which advocates for “revival” seem much less interested, e.g., persecution and martyrdom.

For the sake of discussion, let’s accept the dubious analogy between Pentecost and modern (post 18th-century) “revival.” In the decades after Pentecost did the church pine for another Pentecost? Is the church commanded to pray for another Pentecost experience? No. Neither was the church commanded to pray for another incarnation of God the Son, another crucifixion, and another resurrection and ascension. The old covenant church didn’t have another exodus and the next flood won’t be with water. These are signal events in redemptive history. They are not to be repeated. The NT pattern is to live in light of redemption, in the grace of Christ, in communion with the visible church, making “due use of the ordinary means.”

Second, the history of the colonial (18th-century) and with the 19th-century revivals is not nearly as happy as many would like to think. This is the great problem with “golden-age” thinking: the golden-age was never as golden as it later came to be. I document some of the historical difficulties with the accepted popular story of the so-called First Great Awakening (1GA) and the proponents of the 1GA are quite happy to document the problems with the 2GA. The basic problem attaches to those who want “go back” to the 16th century. No thank you! At his death, Calvin was quite discouraged about the state of the Reformation. As Carl Trueman has reminded us, I think we should be happy to live in the age of penicillin. Have you seen the 16th-century picture of Olevianus in his early 30s? He looked ancient, nothing like the romantic 19th-century portraits. Hs face was grizzled and his beard was white. Why? Because life was hard and then you died. It wasn’t a glory age or a golden age. Those don’t exist in this world, before the consummation. They didn’t exist in the so-called 1GA and they certainly didn’t exist in the 2GA. Anyone for another “burned over” district? Parts of this country are still suffering from the damage done in the 2GA. We don’t want nor do we need another Charles Finney.

Collin writes as if the rediscovery of the ordinary is now the “status quo.” Really? A couple of articles and a chapter in a book don’t make the rediscovery of the ordinary the “status quo.” Collin’s essay is a good example of the QIRE. As I read Collin’s essay the first thought that came to mind is that the QIRE is really about eschatology. The QIRE is really what Luther and Calvin called “the theology of glory” (theologia gloriae). It’s about triumph in this world and the confusion of heaven and earth. This confusion is manifested in the longing to see Jesus seated on an earthly throne, in Jerusalem, for a 1000 years. It’s also manifested in the desire to return to Christendom.

This isn’t heaven, it’s not the new heavens and the new earth. Our glory is the cross. Jesus said of his cross, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” [John 12:32; ESV]. Our glory is the suffering Savior, who was raised, who is reigning now in glory, interceding for us, and who shall come again. We live between the ascension the return of Christ. That’s why 1 Peter 4 says that we shouldn’t be surprised when fiery trials happen. That’s the nature of existence between the advents. The Revelation was written to explain the inter-adventual theology of the cross, in wonderfully, colorful, symbolic language. The theology of the NT is the theology of the cross, not the theology of glory.

Paul says that this time, the in between time, is the time to “fill up what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings” (Col 1:24). That’s the great message of 1-2 Peter. It’s the message of Hebrews. They wanted to go back to the “glory age” and Hebrews kept pointing them away from the Temple, away from the visible manifestation of glory, to the heavenly priesthood of the God-Man Jesus. Our vocation is to announce the message of the King and his kingdom to the ends of the earth, to make use of his royal seals, and to pray his blessing on them. It belongs to the King to do with them as he will. Yes, the our sovereign Lord is free to pour out his Spirit in a unique and powerful way. Yes, we ought to pray that the Spirit would go ahead of and operate powerfully through the preaching of the law and the gospel but the results belong to him.

And he is working through them. Recently, two covenant children in our congregation made profession of faith. They will come to holy communion next Sabbath and they will receive the sign and seal of the covenant of grace. That’s a glorious thing. It may not be much as the world measures things, it may not stir us the way stories of “revival” stir us (but why shouldn’t it?). Nevertheless, it’s a quiet, powerful, victory in its own way. God is fulfilling his covenant promise to Abraham: “I will be your God and your children’s God.” It’s happening right before our eyes. Do we have eyes to see it?

The mission is being carried out, quietly, faithfully. The message is being announced among the Tiv in Nigeria, once more in Heidelberg (after centuries!), in Milan, Italy (for the first time in centuries), in Izmir, Turkey. The Spirit blows where he will. You don’t know where he comes from and you don’t know where he’s going. We should pray for his blessing on the due use of ordinary means. If he chooses to bless them in unusual ways, praise the Lord. If he choose to operate through them in less spectacular ways, praise the Lord. Our quest should be, must be, to be faithful, that Christ would be glorified, that his people would be encouraged.

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