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Revival at Asbury—and Then What?

Updated: Mar 3, 2023

As the revival of repentance, confession, prayer, and worship continues at Asbury University, Kentucky, some historical and theological perspective suggests that all of this enthusiasm and energy means—well, nothing in particular. Not necessarily. But maybe it will...

Jonathan Edwards, the great eighteenth-century New England theologian and philosopher, was also arguably the first great American psychologist of religion. As Edwards surveyed the outbreak of revival in his own congregation and beyond, he wrote several studies of what was happening, culminating in his classic Treatise on the Religious Affections. And what Edwards concluded is that an awful lot of what he was witnessing could well be attributed to the Holy Spirit, but equally plausibly could be crowd dynamics and individual hysteria.

The enduring proof of the enduring value of such excitement, Edwards argued, would be enduring change in the quality of discipleship. Would these people demonstrably love God more? Would they hunger more for God’s Word? Would they quest after holiness? Would they serve each other better?

Edwards was unimpressed by the voltage of mere enthuasiam coursing through people’s nervous systems, prompting people to shout and cry and make all sorts of claims. He recognized that spectacular outbreaks of religious fervour mean literally nothing without producing the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Indeed, Edwards was himself fired from his pastorate not many months after awakening had inflamed his congregation precisely for insisting that holiness of life match profession of devotion.

The most vivid of charismatic manifestations and the most heroic of spiritual feats, the Apostle Paul averred, are just so much noise without evident practical care for each other in sustained relationships of mutual service (I Cor. 13). And our Lord himself cautioned that a tree is known by its fruits (Matt. 7:16-20)—and not, we might say, by how impressive it may look when shaken by a passing wind.

Still. Still. I thought of revival today in the life of a single individual—my grandfather—many years ago.

An alcoholic binge drinker, forty-year-old Grandpa and a buddy drunkenly piled their car into a tree in their little Ontario town and then staggered home of a Saturday night. The next morning, Grandma bundled the kids off to church while her morose and abashed husband sat in the living room, nursing his hangover.

Grandpa recalled Scripture verses he had memorized as a child and repented of his sin, giving his life to Jesus. Instantly, he was cured of his alcoholism and did not drink again until his death at 96. Two weeks later, he stopped a two-pack-a-day habit of smoking unfiltered cigarettes.

Those of us who have wrestled with addiction know how astonishing is this testimony. But here’s what even the Holy Spirit apparently couldn’t correct in Grandpa all at once: his bad temper.

No, it took several decades of caring for his beloved wife as her multiple sclerosis worsened to soften and reshape this man’s soul. By the time she died, he was a different, sanctified person.

So was Grandpa’s conversion experience—his personal revival—a sham at 40 because he didn’t immediately bear the full fruit of repentance? Or did this experience, to which he always pointed as his day of rebirth, begin him indeed on a path that would take decades to complete?

I thought of Grandpa on a recent Sunday when hearing a much younger man’s testimony of wrestling with drug addiction. He, too, hit rock bottom and surrendered to the Lord in a powerful moment of healing.

But he, too, continued to struggle. He underwent a 60-day treatment, and yet relapsed. Several months after that, a friend introduced him to a more extensive regimen. Now, he said, he was in month eleven of a year-long process of rehabilitation, and perhaps this time all would be well. Some things just take a long time.

What, then, about Asbury? College revivals have a long history in America, reaching back through Wheaton College’s history to Timothy Dwight’s leadership at Yale and beyond. Some disappear as pan flashes. Few seem to result in any large-scale change—at that institution (Yale hasn’t exactly remained evangelical) or in the surrounding community.

Most revivals, in fact, just come and go—some so frequently and with so little effect that parts of New York State were called "the burned-over district" by the mid-nineteenth century, so many religious fires had come and gone with such paltry results.

Revivals that last are those that put the fire in fireplaces—lasting groups and other institutions that can keep feeding and directing all that power. Pietist small groups and Methodist class meetings are important examples of such mobilization, institutions that keep all this excitement from merely burning away in the air.

Universities such as Asbury, alas, are almost guaranteed not to show much for such a revival. When it breaks out, professors feel obliged not to hold classes. After a fairly short while, of course, then they feel obliged to hold them again.

The primary mission of the Christian university is not, after all, to foster revival, but to educate. And what can really change in the structure and quality of university life once the fervour is directed, as it has to, to the daily undertaking of lectures, labs, and libraries? Even Yale under Dwight didn't take long to succumb to the forces of liberalization and secularization otherwise sweeping across American colleges.

Still. Still. Some college revivals do issue in a new surge of missionaries and pastors and others serious about extending the gospel in costly ways. Some college revivals do deeply mark at least some participants for life. Some college revivals do bear lasting fruit—

—which reminds me of the Gospel reading in our church the morning that young man testified to his convoluted path to sanctification: the parable of the Sower, and the very different results on those four very different soils.

Let’s celebrate Asbury’s revival, therefore, as what it is—an opportunity, a special moment for very basic confrontation with God, oneself, and one’s neighbours. And let’s pray that, as mixed as the results surely will be, enough seed falls on enough good soil to make all this disruptive excitement worthwhile.

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