In part 1 we looked briefly at what John 3 says in distinction from the way it is often applied relative to our personal regeneration (awakening from spiritual death to spiritual life). In particular, we noted Jesus’ emphasis on the secret and mysterious nature of the Spirit’s working. In v. 8 our Lord says, “…you do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Too often we have made that verse say, “We do know whence it comes and whither it goes and here the indicators…”. This is a temptation to be avoided. The Spirit is sovereign and mysterious. He operates through his ordained means, namely the preaching of the holy gospel to awaken his elect, in his own good time, from death to life and he uses the holy sacraments to signify and to seal his promises to those to whom he has given new life and true faith. On this see Heidelberg Catechism 65. According to Scripture as understood and confessed by the Reformed churches, there is no need to juxtapose the Spirit with the means he has ordained. It is the Spirit, not the means, operating sovereignly but the Spirit does use the means. On this see the 3/4 head of doctrine in the Canons of Dort (1619).
Another way to try to de-mystify the work of the Spirit is to try to identify his work with a particular great event. In American religious history scholars speak of the “First Great Awakening” in the 18th century and the “Second Great Awakening” in the 19th century. For a brief account and analysis of these events relative to the Reformed confession see Recovering the Reformed Confession.
In light of these episodes (and others like them, e.g., the nineteenth-century Reveil movements in Europe) evangelical and Reformed Christians have often assumed an identity between the work of the Spirit about which our Lord Jesus spoke in John 3 and the revival movements in the 18th and 19th centuries. Further, it is not uncommon to assume that anyone who criticizes the various revival movements is implicitly denying the necessity of being sovereignly regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Let me be perfectly clear: our Lord Jesus said, “You must be born again/from above.” It is not possible for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God without being regenerated by the Holy Spirit. It is contrary to basic Christian doctrine to deny the necessity of regeneration. It is contrary to the Word of God to deny the necessity of regeneration. It is contrary to the Reformed confession. In Canons of Dort 3/4 12–13 we confess:
12. And this is that regeneration so highly extolled in Scripture, that renewal, new creation, resurrection from the dead, making alive, which God works in us without our aid. But this is in no way effected merely by the external preaching of the gospel, by moral suasion, or such a mode of operation that, after God has performed His part, it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not, to be converted or to continue unconverted; but it is evidently a supernatural work, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable; not inferior in efficacy to creation or the resurrection from the dead, as the Scripture inspired by the Author of this work declares; so that all in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe. Whereupon the will thus renewed is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence becomes itself active. Wherefore also man himself is rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received.
13.Believers in this life cannot fully comprehend the manner of this operation. Nevertheless, they are satisfied to know and experience that by this grace of God they are enabled to believe with the heart and to love their Savior.
Of course the Synod said much more succinctly and powerfully what this essay is trying to say. It is God who regenerates. We must be regenerated. That regeneration is by sovereign, unconditional work of the Spirit. We know that it is, after the fact, but we do not know and cannot know precisely when it was. We confess: “we cannot fully comprehend the manner of this operation.” We ought to be satisfied to know that God has done it and that we now believe.
Nevertheless, the habit of associating the work of the Spirit with great social, religious, and even psychological events is deeply ingrained in the the American psyche. For those in the tradition of the Second Great Awakening associated with Charles G. Finney (1792–1875) et al. it is a given, a datum that those who “walked the sawdust trail” or responded to the “altar call” are believers. The walk to the so-called “anxious bench” is the first act of a Christian. For not a few with experience in this tradition, not to have walked the aisle may be a source of nagging doubt.
For those with roots in or who identify with the First Great Awakening, associated with the ministry of Jonathan Edwards (1703–58) and George Whitefield (1770–70), on the Reformed side), there is a conviction that, in contrast to Finney, regeneration is sovereignly wrought by the Spirit but it is accompanied by certain experiences. Edwards wrote at length on these experiences and how to evaluate them properly. In contrast, rather than look to those, I have argued we ought to look for the evidence of the Spirit’s work in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–26).
The influence of the First Great Awakening and the paradigm it established is very strong among predestinarians of various ecclesiologies (Baptist, congregationalist, Presbyterian) and traditions. For some the association of the work of the Spirit with the sorts of experiences described in the First Great Awakening is so strong that to criticize the paradigm or the event is to reject the work of the Spirit itself. Of course, this move is not new. Both Whitefield and Edwards (among others) denounced as unregenerate even the orthodox Reformed and Presbyterians (e.g., the Old Side Presbyterians) who criticized the movement.
Again, in John 3, our Lord Jesus did not prescribe particular experiences nor large-scale social-religious events or movements. He prescribed new birth by the Holy Spirit. We have added the concomitant experiences and events. When we do this, in our own way, we are seeking to make a bit more reasonable and understandable the mysterious, sovereign, unconditional work of the Spirit. We may rightly criticize those traditions that so identify baptism with the gospel or the work of the Spirit so as to think that all baptized persons are (ex opere) regenerated but do not those who so identify the work of the Spirit with certain spiritual experiences do virtually the same thing or at least something like it?
Here is a plea to reconsider John 3 in its own context, on its own terms, and to let the power of those words shape us again. Let us think critically about our favorite events and experiences in the light of God’s Word. Let also think and speak a bit more charitably about those who, in light of John 3, do not see the First or Second Great Awakenings in the same way as those who see them as mighty works of God.
True revival is the sovereign work of the Spirit to wake the dead to new life, the granting of true faith and through it mystical union with Christ. It may or may not be accompanied by the sorts of phenomena associated with the Great Awakenings. That it is we may reasonably doubt.