Spiritual conversion and revival are the stuff of much Christian thought. Whether one is serving in vocational ministry or merely seeking the transcendent good of his or her neighbor, the desire for spiritual life seems to inevitably lead one to question the cause and nature of this kind of renewal. The aim of this essay is to focus on the biblical causes of conversion and revival, and to do so through the perspectives of two important characters of American Church history.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and Charles Finney (1793-1875) were not contemporaries of one another, but these two men represent two contrasting ministry paradigms of early American Christianity. Of course, America had not yet become a nation until after Edwards’ death, but the formation of religious thinking and practice was well under way before the Declaration of Independence was penned and signed.
Edwards and Finney, in many ways, also epitomize two revivals that took place during their respective ministries. The First Great Awakening, during which Jonathan Edwards was pastoring and preaching, occurred during the 1730s and 40s. The Second Great Awakening began in the 1790s, gained energy over time, and continued into the 1820s. In this second revival period in America, Finney was a major driving force behind the activities associated with spiritual renewal. While the historical details surrounding each revival are quite complex, containing some similarities and stark differences, these revivals represent the outworking of the emphases of each man – Edwards and Finney.
Let us consider each man’s understanding of conversion and revival, compare these with each other, and then look to the Scriptures to compare each with the biblical teaching. By measuring each against Scripture, we will not only discover which man had the more biblical perspective, but we shall also come to a clearer view of the biblical teaching on spiritual renewal as well.
Edwards wrote that God’s aim in arranging the “disposition of things in the affair of redemption” is chiefly “that man should not glory in himself, but alone in God…” Edwards, typical of Puritans, was most interested in God’s glory above all else. God alone is to be glorified and treasured in all things, and this includes the work and application of redemption. With this idea in mind, it may surprise some to learn that Edwards was quite content to enjoy the freedom that such a focus produced. Edwards did not believe that God was limited in the display of His glory in the salvation of sinners. He wrote,
“What the church has been used to, is not a rule by which we are to judge; because there may be new and extraordinary works of God, and he has heretofore evidently wrought in an extraordinary manner… We ought not to limit God where he has not limited himself.”
Truly, Edwards longed for the glory of God in the salvation of sinners, and he was ready to embrace both – however, God might put them in front of him. And yet, Edwards was tightly connected to the Scriptures in his expectations of God’s spiritual work. His willingness to freely embrace the Spirit of God did not mean a jettison of the Scriptures or any part of them.
Desirous of genuine spiritual renewal, Edwards listed several “distinguishing scripture evidences” that a revival was authentically of the Spirit of God, and not merely sensational or spuriously demonic. He found his evidence from the Scripture, of course, and his text was 1 John 4:1-6.
“1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
First, from verses two and three, Edwards said, “When the operation is such as to raise their esteem of Jesus… and seems more to confirm and establish their minds in the truth of what the gospel declares… it is a sure sign that it is from the Spirit of God.”
Next, from verses four and five, Edwards said that a work was reliably from God if it “operates against the interests of Satan’s kingdom, which lies in encouraging and establishing sin, and cherishing men’s worldly lusts.” Third, from verse six, Edwards noted, “The spirit that operates in such a manner, as to cause in men a greater regard to the Holy Scriptures, and establishes them more in their truth and divinity, is certainly the Spirit of God.”
Fourth, Edwards continued in the same verse, “Another rule to judge of spirits may be drawn from those compellations given to the opposite spirits, in the last words of the 6th verse, ‘The spirit of truth and the spirit of error.’” Fifth and finally, from all that follows from verse six to the end of the chapter, Edwards said, “If the spirit that is at work among a people operates as a spirit of love to God and man, it is a sure sign that it is the Spirit of God.”
From Edwards’ passage choice and from his derived evidence, it is clear that Edwards believed that conversion and revival are works of God’s Spirit. It is also clear that he believed conversion and revival were works preceding and evidenced by the subsequent results mentioned. Love for Christ, belief in the Gospel, resistance towards sin, thirst for the Scriptures, growing awareness and apprehension of truth, and love of God and others all flow from true spiritual renewal.
Finney wrote, “There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature. It consists entirely in the right exercise of the powers of nature. It is just that, and nothing else.” For Finney, spiritual renewal and religious revival centered on the purposes and activity of men. He did not seem to deny God’s glory in such matters, but Finney’s chief concern was that men would glorify God in and through their own efforts. He said, “When mankind become religious, they are not enabled to put forth exertions which they were unable before to put forth. They only exert the powers they had before in a different way, and use them for the glory of God.”
Like Edwards, Finney believed that conversion and revival were necessarily related to godly living. However, Finney seemed to consider spiritual renewal and the actions of godly living as much the same thing, rather than emphasizing spiritual renewal as the cause of such actions. Finney said, “A revival is nothing else than a new beginning of obedience to God.” Finney was not an innovator for thinking that men should obey God, nor was he irregular in his thinking that obedience to God would contribute towards spiritual growth and energy. Finney was unusual because of his pragmatic and naturalistic views of conversion and revival.
Finney also seemed to depart from the clear majority of Christian soteriological thinking when he purported a non-miraculous conversion of sinners. For Finney, conversion and revival needed no miraculous work of God’s Spirit, since these are simply a redirection of human activity and purpose. In fact, he supposed that any miraculous intervention from God would remove true virtue from the sinner. Finney said,
“Some persons speak of a change of heart as something miraculous — something in which the sinner is to be entirely passive, and for which he is to wait in the use of means, as he would wait for a surgical operation or an electric shock. We need nothing added to the constitution of our body or mind; nor is it true in experience, that those who have a new heart, have any constitutional alteration of their powers whatever. They are the same identical persons, so far as both body and mind are concerned, that they were before. The alteration lies in the manner in which they are disposed to use and do actually employ, their moral and physical powers. A constitutional change, either in body or mind, would destroy personal identity. A Christian, or one who has a new heart, would not be the same individual in regard to his powers of moral agency, that he was before — would not be the same agent, and under the same responsibilities.”
Finney did not think that sinners would simply revive themselves without effort, however, so he taught that there should be a strong demand placed upon them for change. In consideration of the pastoral responsibility towards sinful men, Finney wrote,
“The preacher should… engage the sinner’s whole attention, and then lay himself out to the utmost to bring him to yield upon the spot. He who deals with souls… should present that particular subject, in that connection and in that manner, that shall have the greatest natural tendency to subdue the rebel at once.”
Finney was very intent on preachers and pastors being capable of exposing the sinner’s own guilt. For Finney, the one “who deals with souls” must make the wisest use of all knowledge to gain an entry into the conscience of his hearer. The purpose of such an entry is to urge the sinner to reform his sinful ways and thereby enter a new path towards obedience to Christ.
From the writings of Charles Finney, it seems clear that he believed conversion and revival are works of man, and not God’s Spirit. He appears to have believed that these works were the natural and willful exercise of human efforts to reform body and mind. Love for Christ, the resistance of sin, the performance of religious duties, and love for God and others all define what revival is and looks like.
As is already becoming evident, Edwards and Finney had two different goals or destinations in mind regarding conversion and revival. One believed spiritual renewal was granted by the Spirit of God in the work of regeneration, and the other believed it was accomplished through the appropriate application of human efforts.
Edwards spoke of spiritual renewal in terms of God’s Spirit “convincing [sinners] of Christ, and leading them to him,” and confirming in “their minds the belief of the history of Christ as he appeared in the flesh—and that he is the Son of God,” who was “sent of God to save sinners.” Edwards believed that God’s Spirit alone could convince the sinner “that [Christ] is the only Savior, and that they stand in great need of him.” Furthermore, Edwards expected that God’s Spirit would “beget in [sinners] higher and more honorable thoughts of [Christ] than they used to have, and incline their affections more to him.” For Edwards, spiritual renewal (conversion and revival) centered on the regenerating work of God’s Spirit, whereby He brings spiritual life to a dead sinner, and all subsequent evidence proceeds from there.
Finney’s thoughts on conversion and revival, on the other hand, centered on the awakening of sinners to a committed effort towards personal and communal reform. Finney wrote, “[A] revival of religion in a community is the arousing, quickening, and reclaiming of the more or less backslidden church and the more or less general awakening of all classes, and [giving] attention to the claims of God.” For Finney, both broad revival in a community and individual revival in a person presented the same goal: a passionate recommitment to religious obedience. Therefore, the destination for Finney was different than that of Edwards. Edwards worked and prayed for spiritual life, which would result in obedience; while Finney worked for and expected obedience as the substance of spiritual life itself.
Because the destinations of these two men are not the same, so too their paths differ as well. Finney believed “the reformation and salvation of sinners” came in three “stages of conviction, repentance, and reformation.” By this he meant that the one who “deals with souls” would press in upon the sinner so as to bring conviction to his heart and guilt to his mind. Then the demands of repentance (turning from sin) and reformation (living obediently before God) would be laid upon the poor sinner, and his need for considerable personal efforts towards such things would surely be a heavy load. Finney’s view of conversion and revival put spiritual devotion under the category heading of duty – the sinner mends himself and becomes obedient because he must.
Edwards had a different view. He believed that spiritual devotion sprang from a heart of renewed affections. He said, “The Author of our nature has not only given us affections, but has made them very much the spring of actions.” Because regenerated persons are renewed in the whole man (will, affections, mind, etc.), Edwards believed “holy affections not only necessarily belong to true religion, but are a very great part of such religion.” Edwards’ view of conversion and revival put spiritual devotion under the category heading of delight – the sinner is mended by God’s Spirit and becomes obedient because he yearns.
Looking to the Scriptures
This subject (conversion and revival) deserves a much greater import of Scriptural analysis than we shall be able to do here. However, the clarity and synchronization of the Scriptures on this subject will provide us the opportunity to see quite easily which of the men considered above more closely aligns with the biblical teaching. Let us first introduce the matter by citing a few passages and establishing the harmonious teaching.
The Bible teaches that Christians “cannot keep on sinning, because [they have] been born of God” (1 John 3:9). Note the consequence is “cannot keep on sinning,” and the cause is “[they have] been born of God.” Elsewhere we read that the commands of God are “not burdensome” to the Christian since he or she has been given “the love of God,” and general obedience to His commands are the byproduct of such a change in the affections (1 Jn. 5:2-3). Furthermore, the Bible tells us that God’s great love is lavished upon sinners while they are still “dead in… trespasses;” and the result of God’s gracious gift (apart from any work) is that of “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that [those made alive in Christ] should walk in them” (Eph. 2:4-10).
The biblical teaching could not be clearer, but I will cite one more passage. The Scripture proclaims, “the goodness and loving kindness of God” initiates redemption for sinners, who are saved (i.e. converted and renewed) “not because of works done by [them] in righteousness, but according to [God’s] own mercy…” The application of that redemption is accomplished “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Based upon this magnificent reality, those who are renewed “may be careful to devote themselves to good works” (Titus 3:4–8).
Simply put, spiritual renewal (conversion and revival) occurs as a miraculous work of God’s Spirit, and sinners with renewed affections are set on a new trajectory of personal obedience out of a heart of love for their Redeemer.
Did Edwards or Finney have a more biblical understanding of the causes of conversion and revival?
Based on what has been discussed in this essay, Finney’s view places entirely too much weight on the sinner and personal reform. Edwards seems to have the much more biblical understanding of what causes spiritual renewal – both for the individual and the group. Edwards never wondered if there was a spirit at work in the revival he experienced (during the First Great Awakening); he only sought to understand if it was an authentic work of God’s Spirit or another.
Clearly, for Edwards, and (more importantly) according to Scripture, true spiritual renewal could only be brought about by the Spirit of God, and all else that evidenced religious affections would stem from His miraculous work.
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