Is the Asbury Revival Real? That’s Not the Most Important Question To Ask About It
To those who are enjoying the great work of God at Asbury University and beyond: I am praying for you with joy. I have only seen events from a distance, yet I am delighted to see God at work among you. What you are experiencing is truly remarkable. I thank God for what He is doing, and I pray His work in you will go deep and continue long.
It is remarkable, and yet it is not unprecedented. Now is a good time to learn from history. Revivals have come to many places, often beginning as yours has begun, with much prayer and worship. The question arises each time, “Is it real?” is important, but there’s another one I would consider even more important: Will we do all we know to do, humanly speaking, to ensure that it is real?
Conversely, since no human could force reality onto a work of God, Will we do all we can, humanly speaking, to ensure that whatever happens, it does not turn false?
That question applies to everyone with an interest or a stake in this revival, whether watching it on livestream, talking about it on Facebook or in church small groups, preaching on it on Sunday — or writing columns on Christian websites about it. Above all, though, the question is for those on the ground at Asbury, especially for leaders there. Will you do all you can do, humanly speaking, to ensure that this revival is real?
None of us can answer that without knowing what that would entail.
Of Course It’s Real — But All of It?
I expect some will be unhappy I’ve even raised the question. “Of course it’s real! Can’t you see what God is doing?” Of course I believe God is doing something real at Asbury. I am not so foolish, however, to pin hopes on its being purely and completely a work of the Spirit of God. Given our nature as humans and the realities of spiritual battle, falsehood and contamination are certain to come nipping at the edges.
If this is indeed a work of the Spirit of God, it must also be a work of the Word of God.
The challenge is to keep it there at the outer boundary, rather than pouring into its core. Prayer, worship, and community provide a large part of that protection, but not enough. If this is indeed a work of the Spirit of God, it must also be a work of the Word of God. For this revival to be real now and remain real later, you who are there at the heart of it must demonstrate commitment to God’s Word at least as powerfully as you do to songs and words of worship.
The Word of God
The Scriptures make the connection between Spirit and Word undeniable. Two texts from the letters of Paul seem especially fitting to this circumstance:
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph. 5:18-20)
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col. 3:16-17)
The parallelism is unmistakable. The life that Paul describes in both passages looks very much like the revival you are experiencing. In the one passage it follows upon being filled with the Spirit. In the other it follows upon letting the word of Christ dwell in us richly. It isn’t either / or. Both are crucial.
This is why I urge you not to let this be a “revival of the Spirit” without being a revival of the Word. The spirit in that kind of religious experience cannot be the Spirit of God.
The Danger of “Revival” Without the Word
History agrees with Scripture there. Revivalism swept New York state in the 19th century with such fervency, the region acquired the infamous name, “the burned-over district.” The label merely hints at how unproductive “revival fire” turned out to be in those days. Religious fervor rose to great peaks, no question about that, but what religion? More un-Christian and anti-Christian cults were birthed out of that “burned-over district” than perhaps any other time or place in church history. (See Mormonism.)
The problem lay in the movement’s core theology , which was fine in many ways but not nearly enough ways. Where it wasn’t actually wrong, it was still weak enough to sail a freighter full of heresy through it.
My friend Alisa Childers rightly points out at least three ways this revival could go off the rails. I share her sense of caution. For me it is based less in what I may or may not have observed this week, and more in what I know to be universally true about human nature and spiritual conflict. It is absolutely certain that people will come sneaking in to co-opt this revival, to inject false teaching and to promote false goals, just as she has warned. Likewise there is real danger of the revival’s degrading into a spectacle fueled by social media pressure.
You do not want that happening. You do not want to miss the whole joy of which Christ speaks, the joy of abiding in His words so you can truly be His disciples, know the truth, and be set free through His truth (John 8:31-32).
Nor would you want to miss the friendship with Christ that comes not from singing songs of love, but by doing what He commands (John 15:14). You would not want to fall short in teaching all the world to observe what He has commanded, while also enjoying His presence with you everywhere to the end of time (Matthew 28:20).
The Particular Danger for Us in This Age
This plea that I bring you may be more crucial for revival in this age than any other. You and I and all believers must learn the Word of God well, and we must place ourselves under its authority. That means fully surrendering the throne each of us is prone to erect in our own lives — especially in this day.
Every culture has its characteristic errors. Ours takes autonomous individual authority to extremes never seen before. “My truth,” we call it. If it is “your truth” it is not God’s truth, and if it is not God’s truth it is not true at all.
Beyond that, we have collectively become averse to learning from our best teachers, especially those who are no longer alive. We need teachers. Individual, autonomous Bible study (so popular in this individual, autonomous age) is study that perversely rejects the Bible! If it were sufficient to ready and study the Scripture on our own, it would not tell us so often to teach and to learn from one another.
Learn From the Best
And most of our best teachers are those who have done the hard work of learning and explaining long ahead of our time, centuries ahead of us, even. So hold tight to their best teachings. Cling to the Creeds of the faith, for the Creeds are our teachers us well.
Good things too easily go wrong. You must fight the fight to prevent that happening.
Do not be bound to the spirit of this age, eager as it is to cast off the lessons of wisdom in our history. Do not let yourself be conned by the foolishness that says humanity’s growth in science and technology translates to a corresponding growth in wisdom. The two are unrelated. (Is there a poet among us like Sophocles or Shakespeare? And they weren’t even teachers of Christianity!) So seek the wisdom of your forebears in Christ. And above all remain committed to historic Christian teaching and doctrine.
Let This Revival Be Really Real!
This then is my plea and my prayer for you. Take the warning seriously. Take God’s Word seriously! Do all you can to ensure that this be a movement of God’s truth, centered in God’s Word, attentive to the best teachings of the people of God.
You who are there on the ground at Asbury have a glorious opportunity and a noble responsibility. Good things too easily go wrong. You can fight the fight to prevent that happening. You must fight to prevent it.
Your best and surest course is to make doubly sure that the experience you now enjoy is grounded in knowledge of the Word of God, submission to its truth, and obedience to its commands and instructions. Live in the light of His Word. Let that light, and that light alone, fill your heart. And may that light shine out from Asbury to brighten the entire world. Will you commit to that?
I am praying for you.
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.