Genuine Revival and Signs of the Spirit According to Jonathan Edwards

The current revival at Asbury University, Kentucky, has caught the interest of Christians worldwide. However, some of my friends who have disappointing experiences in “revival meetings” organized by visiting “global prophets” have asked me how we know if a revival is genuinely a work of God.

I am certainly not an expert in matters pertaining to revivals. However, I can’t help but be impressed by how the Asbury revival seems different from many “revival meetings” which I have come across. Judging from the videos which I have seen, I am impressed that no one is seeking to dominate the stage to garner limelight attention, unlike “revival meetings” where a vociferous leader seeks to arouse the passion and prayers of the participants so as to “catch the fire” of the Holy Spirit. What I see are small groups of people quietly praying for one another in front as the congregation continuously sing both praises and meditative worship songs. Sometimes, someone would give a testimony on how his life is touched. I am also impressed that the leaders of the revival declined offers of news coverage by big news Networks. The Asbury revival does not seem to be humanly controlled, much less manipulated. I am personally impressed and touched by what I see. The Asbury revival is still at an early stage, but if it is a genuine work of God, many lives will be touched and transformed by the Holy Spirit. Time will tell.

However, the question from my friends regarding how we recognize a genuine revival remains. I can do no better than refer them to the writings of Jonathan Edwards. In this post, I shall give some excerpts taken from his book, The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741) which is based on his experience of revival at Northhampton, Massachusetts (1740-1742).

Jonathan Edwards on Rightly Discerning the Signs of Genuine Revival.

Edwards explains the reason for his work:
“But as the influences of the true Spirit abounded, so counterfeits did also abound: the devil was abundant in mimicking, both the ordinary and extraordinary influences of the Spirit of God, as is manifest by innumerable passages of the apostles’ writings. This made it very necessary that the church of Christ should be furnished with some certain rules, distinguishing and clear marks, by which she might proceed safely in judging of the true from the false without danger of being imposed upon.”

[Edwards begins with “negative signs” which are inconclusive in nature, that is, we cannot conclude from these negative evidence regarding whether they are from the Holy Spirit or not. Edwards than discusses the “positive signs” which are indeed sure and certain evidence of the Spirit’s work]

[The first section of the published work consists of negative signs – no certain conclusions about the genuineness of a revival could, one way or the other, be drawn from any of the following]

Section I
Negative Signs; or, What are no signs by which we are to judge of a work and especially, What are no evidences that a work is not from the Spirit of God.

Nothing can be certainly concluded from this, That a work is carried on in a way very unusual and extraordinary; provided the variety or difference be such, as may still be comprehended within the limits of scripture rules. 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. He has brought to pass new things, strange works; and has wrought in such a manner as to surprise both men and angels…The Holy Spirit is sovereign in his operation; and we know that he uses a great variety; and we cannot tell how great a variety he may use, within the compass of the rules he himself has fixed. We ought not to limit God where he has not limited himself.

1. Therefore it is not reasonable to determine that a work is not from God’s Holy Spirit because of the extraordinary degree in which the minds of persons are influenced.

2. A work is not to be judged of by any effects on the bodies of men; such as tears, trembling, groans, loud outcries, agonies of body, or the failing of bodily strength.

The influence persons are under, is not to be judged of one way or other, by such effects on the body; and the reason is, because the Scripture nowhere gives us any such rule. We cannot conclude that persons are under the influence of the true Spirit because we see such effects upon their bodies, because this is not given as a mark of the true Spirit; nor on the other hand, have we any reason to conclude, from any such outward appearances, that persons are not under the influence of the Spirit of God, because there is no rule of Scripture given us to judge of spirits by, that does either expressly or indirectly exclude such effects on the body, nor does reason exclude them.

3. It is no argument that an operation on the minds of people is not the work of the Spirit of God, that it occasions a great deal of noise about religion.
Such is human nature, that it is morally impossible there should be a great concern, strong affection, and a general engagedness of mind amongst a people, without causing a notable, visible, and open commotion and alteration amongst that people. Surely, it is no argument that the minds of persons are not under the influence of God’s Spirit, that they are very much moved: for indeed spiritual and eternal things are so great, and of such infinite concern.

4. It is no argument that an operation on the minds of a people, is not the work of the Spirit of God, that many who are the subjects of it, have great impressions made on their imaginations. That persons have many impressions on their imaginations, does not prove that they have nothing else…Such is our nature, that we cannot think of things invisible, without a degree of imagination… It is no argument that a work is not of the Spirit of God, that some who are the subjects of it have been in a kind of ecstasy, wherein they have been carried beyond themselves, and have had their minds transported into a train of strong and pleasing imaginations, and a kind of visions, as though they were rapt up even to heaven, and there saw glorious sights.

[However, while Edwards as a cessationist, does not equate such experiences with the gift of revelation, he maintains that these experiences are from God]

5. It is no sign that a work is not from the Spirit of God, that example is a great means of it. It is surely no argument that an effect is not from God, that means are used in producing it; for we know that it is God’s manner to make use of means in carrying on his work in the world, and it is no more an argument against the divinity of an effect, that this means is made use of, than if it was by any other means. It is agreeable to Scripture that persons should be influenced by one another’s good example. The Scripture directs us to set good examples to that end,

6. It is no sign that a work is not from the Spirit of God, that many, who seem to be the subjects of it, are guilty of great imprudences and irregularities in their conduct. We are to consider that the end for which God pours out his Spirit, is to make men holy, and not to make them politicians…That it should be thus may be well accounted for from the exceeding weakness of human nature, together with the remaining darkness and corruption of those that are yet the subjects of the saving influences of God’s Spirit, and have a real zeal for God.
[Edwards cites the example of the church at Corinth to prove his point]

7. Nor are many errors in judgment, and some delusions of Satan intermixed with the work, any argument that the work in general is not of the Spirit of God…
Yea, the same persons may be the subjects of much of the influences of the Spirit of God, and yet in some things be led away by the delusions of Satan…Many godly persons have undoubtedly in this and other ages, exposed themselves to woeful delusions, by an aptness to lay too much weight on impulses and impressions, as if they were immediate revelations from God, to signify something future, or to direct them where to go, and what to do.

[Edwards argues that the false miracles of Pharoah’s court magicians, Jannes and Jambres do not mean that the Spirit was not working miraculously through Moses]

8. If some, who were thought to be wrought upon, fall away into gross errors, or scandalous practices, it is no argument that the work in general is not the work of the Spirit of God. That there are some counterfeits, is no argument that nothing is true: such things are always expected in a time of reformation.

[The tragic example of Judas Iscariot does not nullify the genuine work of the Holy Spirit in the other apostles]

9. It is no argument that a work is not from the Spirit of God, that it seems to be promoted by ministers insisting very much on the terrors of God’s holy law, and that with a great deal of pathos and earnestness…If I am in danger of going to hell, I should be glad to know as much as possibly I can of the dreadfulness of it. If I am very prone to neglect due care to avoid it, he does me the best kindness, who does most to represent to me the truth of the case, that sets forth my misery and danger in the liveliest manner.

[Edwards gives the following examples based on 1 John 1; 4:1-6 to show positively what are “the sure, distinguishing Scripture evidences and marks of a work of the Spirit of God,” by which we may proceed in judging of any operation we find in ourselves, or see among a people “without danger of being misled.”]

Section II.
What are distinguishing scripture evidences of a work of the Spirit of God.

1. When the operation is such as to raise their esteem of that Jesus who was born of the Virgin, and was crucified without the gates of Jerusalem; and seems more to confirm and establish their minds in the truth of what the gospel declares to us of his being the Son of God, and the Saviour of men; is a sure sign that it is from the Spirit of God.

2. When the spirit that is at work operates against the interests of Satan’s kingdom, which lies in encouraging and establishing sin, and cherishing men’s worldly lusts; this is a sure sign that it is a true, and not a false spirit.

3. 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.

4. Another rule to judge of spirits may be drawn from those compellations given to the opposite spirits… we see that it operates as a spirit of truth, leading persons to truth, convincing them of those things that are true…; and confirms them in other things that are agreeable to some sound doctrine.

5. 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.

[Edwards argues that certain works of the Spirit cannot be counterfeited by Satan – conviction of sin which leads to repentance; strengthening one’s love for the Son of God and his Word; increasing one’s love and humility]

[Jonathan Edwards ends with a series of “practical inferences.”]

I. From what has been said, I will venture to draw this inference, viz. that the extraordinary influence that has lately appeared, causing an uncommon concern and engagedness of mind about the things of religion, is undoubtedly, in the general, from the Spirit of God.

The Spirit that is at work, takes off persons’ minds from the vanities of the world, and engages them in a deep concern about eternal happiness, and puts them upon earnestly seeking their salvation, and convinces them of the dreadfulness of sin, and of their own guilty and miserable state as they are by nature… Very many, in the midst of their extremity…feared every moment, that it would be executed upon them…They have been brought, as it were, to lie at God’s feet; and after great agonies, a little before light has arisen, they have been composed and quiet, in submission to a just and sovereign God; but their bodily strength much spent…

Some object against it as great confusion, when there is a number together in such circumstances making a noise; and say, God cannot be the author of it; because he is the God of order, not of confusion…But if God is pleased to convince the consciences of persons, so that they cannot avoid great outward manifestations, even to interrupting and breaking off those public means they were attending, I do not think this is confusion, or an unhappy interruption, any more than if a company should meet on the field to pray for rain, and should be broken off from their exercise by a plentiful shower.
[Edwards explains that the imprudences and inconsistent behaviors emerge when revival comes “after a long continued and almost universal deadness.”

II. Let us all be hence warned, by no means to oppose, or do any thing in the least to clog or hinder, the work; but, on the contrary, do our utmost to promote it. Now Christ is come down from heaven in a remarkable and wonderful work of his Spirit, it becomes all his professed disciples to acknowledge him, and give him honour.

[Edwards cautions those who choose to remain critical because of some accompanying confusion and irregularities – “if they wait to see a work of God without difficulties and stumbling-blocks, it will be like the fool’s waiting at the river side to have the water all run by. A work of God without stumbling-blocks is never to be expected. “It must need be that offences come.” There never yet was any great manifestation that God made of himself to the world, without many difficulties attending it.”]

III. To apply myself to those who are the friends of this work, who have been partakers of it, and are zealous to promote it. Let me earnestly exhort such to give diligent heed to themselves to avoid all errors and misconduct, and whatever may darken and obscure the work; and to give no occasion to those who stand ready to reproach it…

They therefore do greatly err who take it upon them positively to determine who are sincere, and who are not—to draw the dividing line between true saints and hypocrites, and to separate between sheep and goats, setting the one on the right hand and the other on the left –and to distinguish and gather out the tares from amongst the wheat

Humility and self-diffidence, and an entire dependence on our Lord Jesus Christ, will be our best defense. Let us therefore maintain the strictest watch against spiritual pride, or being lifted up with extraordinary experiences and comforts, and the high favours of heaven, that any of us may have received.

Source: Jonathan Edwards on Revival (Banner of Truth, 1984), pp. 75-148.

Recommended Books
Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Revival (IVP Academic, 2020).

Sam Storms, Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edward’s Religious Affections (Crossway, 2007).

Related Post: Distinguishing “Revival” from “Revivalism”; Discerning True from False Prophets.

One thought on “Genuine Revival and Signs of the Spirit According to Jonathan Edwards”

  1. A century after Edwards, America was again assessing revivals. This time equipped with Edwards’ guidance but dealing with a new cultural context. A great deal was written in aid of discernment. Some of it continues to be useful. For example:
    “The following is the testimony of the Rev. President Humphrey, of Amherst College, whose character as a tried friend of revivals is well known. ‘If you ask me, what means and measures have been most eminently blessed, in the revivals which have fallen under my own personal observation, in College and elsewhere, I answer, substantially the same as were mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds in the apostolic age; the same as were employed by Edwards, and Bellamy, and Brainerd, almost a century ago. Meetings for personal conversation, commonly called, inquiry meetings have been held weekly, or oftener, with great spiritual advantage, in all the revivals which have fallen under my notice. The duty of prayer, both secret and social, has been earnestly and daily urged upon Christians; but late meetings have generally been discouraged, as interfering with the religious order of families, and tending in a short time, to exhaust the physical and mental energies of God’s people, as well as to mingle strange fire with that which is kindled from the skies. When met for social prayer, neither ministers nor laymen have indulged themselves in loud and boisterous vociferations, in audible groans, or in smiting the hands together in token of their sincerity and earnestness. They have observed, that the most noisy waters are seldom deepest; and have laid more stress upon fervency of spirit, than upon strength of lungs, or muscular contortions. With us it has never been customary, whether in our larger or smaller religious circles, to pray for sinners who may happen to be present, by name, or to indulge in equivalent personalities. The general tendency of such a practice, it is thought, would be detrimental to the cause of piety, however different the effect might be in solitary instances. Females have kept silence in all our meetings, except such as were composed exclusively of their own sex. Calling anxious sinners into the aisles, to be addressed and prayed for, has not been practiced within the circle of my observation; nor have they been requested, before the great congregation, to come forward from any part of the house, and occupy seats vacated for that purpose; and wherever such measures have been adopted, within my knowledge, I believe the cause of revivals has lost more than it has gained by them. It is unsafe to argue from the present effect of any new system, that it is better than the old. It may accomplish more in a week, but not so much in a year. It may bring a greater number of persons into the visible kingdom of Christ, but not so many into his spiritual kingdom. For myself, every new revival of religion which I am permitted to witness, serves to confirm me in the opinion, that it is safest to walk in the “old paths,” and to employ those means and measures which long experience has sanctioned, and in the use of which the churches in this part of the land, have been so greatly enlarged and edified.’” – Samuel Miller 1833

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