If you have been around me very long, you have heard me emphasize that the crying need, the absolutely desperate need of the hour, is reformation. You have also been aware that for years I have also longed for revival. Recently I was asked what the difference actually is, if any, between revival and reformation. This is an important question worthy of your precious time to think it through.
Though many are blinded to the current dilemma, the fact is that a sound and lively truth-basis has been ejected from the premises of modern evangelicalism. Evangelicalism has been dispossessed of truth to such an extent that it is becoming frightening. In its place experience and mysticism are house-sitting the church or, if not these, then church growth pragmatism or an unhealthy preoccupation with the psychological. But the necessary doctrines of the holiness of God and His just wrath, justification by faith alone, the transforming nature of regeneration, the sovereignty of God over all of creation and in salvation itself, the nature and extent of grace in justification and in sanctification—doctrines upon which the earlier revivals thrived—have been considered unimportant and useful only for wizened old theologs holed up in ivory towers who do not relate to the church’s future.
Many are unaware that Jonathan Edwards was preaching a series on justification by faith alone when revival came to New England, or that the many of the Scottish revivals, for instance, were precipitated by the preaching of series on regeneration, or that the highly doctrinal book of Romans has an illustrative history as a tool of great revival of the kind I am speaking. Sound doctrine was at the core of revival. But sadly, to large numbers of evangelicals, it doesn’t seem to make any difference what we believe, only that we are feeling something or enjoying any number of the other substitutes for biblical Christianity.
On such a foundation, does it make sense to revive the experience of believers alone? To revive a church’s experience alone when it has a mushy and insufficient doctrinal foundation is only to magnify our problems, to give credence to error, and to expand what got us into trouble in the first place.
Because of this dilemma, let me make an easily misunderstood statement: Revival, as we commonly understand it, would be ill spent on such doctrinally deficient churches as we find today. This may seem a strange comment to make since I, like many of you, have actually hoped for and preached for revival. But my conviction has to do with the usual, one-sided understanding of revival prevalent in most circles. As A. W. Tozer said, “A revival of the kind of Christianity which we have had in America the last fifty year would be the greatest tragedy of this century, a tragedy which would take the church a hundred years to get over.”
Merely bringing to vibrancy or bringing to life the experience of the believer alone may be extremely useful for dead orthodoxy—orthodox or correct belief without life. But we do not, on the main, have dead orthodoxy today. We have live heterodoxy. Hetero means “other” or “different.” Heterodoxy is divergent or even heretical belief. Reformation is that word we use to speak to the recovery of the correct doctrines and their vigorous application to all of life.
We should not want a revival of experience alone without true reformation. And so the term revival is not adequate for our day unless we add the qualifiers “reformational” or “word-driven.” It is not wrong to desire revival if we mean a revival that is a resurgence of correct believing along with the enlivening of our experience with God which comes out of (not apart from) that sound doctrine. This means that I believe the most long-lasting change would not come by only having merely warm, or even powerful, dramatic experiences with God. No, what is needed is for some of the major organizations and churches, for instance, to reshape their view of the gospel to conform to the Bible.
I pick this issue of the nature of the gospel, from among many choices, because the “gospel” which is being preached is resulting in such massive fallout (sometimes as high as 90% or more in certain campaigns) that failure to re-think doctrinally the nature of the gospel is one of the great anomalies of our day. But, unfortunately, if you gather the leaders of many of the religious organizations together today, they would make a very definite point of not discussing what they believe. Their aim, in terms of revival today, is to see more experience, or more expansive growth. I do not mean that anyone is malicious in this oversight, but somehow the importance of reformation is just not sinking in.
This incognizance explains why the theologians almost never invite the parachurch leaders to their meetings, and the leaders, who are planning and writing the future of evangelicalism, almost never get the theologians to speak to them about the message they are promulgating. There are exceptions which could be noted, but, in the main, we are really failing to help each other by going our own way.
Now, to clarify, I am not saying that experience with God is not useful or desirable. Remember that I said dead orthodoxy needs experience with God. And if that is a description of you, then you know just what you need. I don’t doubt the extreme value of renewed experience with God. What I am saying is that experience is the servant or handmaiden of the truth, and first things should be first.
If you shoot past truth to get to experience, then you will have at best something very limited and immediate only, something which, in the final case, will produce a greater heteropraxis (wrong living). Heterodoxy always leads to heteropraxis. God has already instructed us as to how transformation of behavior is to take place. It is through the truth, not by mere experience. “Sanctify them by Your truth; Your Word is truth.” Jn. 17:17.
Perhaps it will help to illustrate through the recent and rather short-term season of public confession which affected many of our schools and churches. Sadly, in the midst of this wonderful and blessed activity, there was the distinct desire, perhaps in more cases than we would like to admit, to suspend preaching or teaching of the Word in favor of on-going experience. Now I believe God brought the conviction we saw, and I believe that it is possible for a group to experience times of confession within biblical sanctions, but a major mark of the recent work was the stark absence of the centrality of preaching.
During this period of public confession, it seemed to be a matter of excitement in the testimony of people that there was no preaching at all. It was as if preaching was unnecessary, that truth explained would actually get in the way of the work of the Spirit. Compare this to the early church in the New Testament during their inaugural revival. These people would hang on to Paul’s teaching through whole nights if possible!
Again, I am quite happy to believe that God was involved in much of what happened, and we should all be thankful for that, but it is possible, unwittingly, to fail to obey God in our handling of this great blessing of conviction and Divine presence. You will find nothing like such minimizing of preaching, for instance, in the Great Awakening or other earlier revivals before the mid-1800’s. And even if we could point to a work of God here and there with a reduced emphasis on the preaching of the Word, our present dilemma would still demonstrate the need for such a reforming work of God. It is not just great experience over a few days or even weeks that will rectify our situation, but a complete re-orientation to truth and a return to thinking and doctrine.
Experience-driven revival is more like a flash flood than a mighty river. Heightened experience certainly leaves its mark, some of which may be good wherever it meets orthodoxy, but a reformational revival is a life-giving river which has continuing positive effects. When reformation takes place, the conviction is not just over our behavioral sinfulness but over wrong doctrine (or simply apathy toward pursuing truth itself) as well. As Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor and author, Dr. Don Whitney, said to me, “We must repent of our doctrine as well as our lives.” (Copyright Jim Elliff 4/97; revised 3/21)