1John 4:1 “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
With the above verse, Jonathan Edwards began his lecture which was later published in book form as The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, or better known as simply The Distinguishing Marks. In that little book, Edwards, who took on an important role during the First Great Awakening, outlines the signs of how one may know whether a revival is genuine or not. With what has been happening at Asbury University recently and all of the digital ink being spilled and videos being produced about its biblical authenticity, I thought it would be a good idea to look at Edwards anew.
First Edwards notes the verse from which he gets his topic. Be cautious about believing something is divinely sanctioned by God. Christians, many times, will want to affirm those claiming God’s blessing. But by doing so we are in danger of being gullible. Satan and his allies are good imitators of just enough truth slyly mixed with poisonous error. But if you think from this opening that Edwards gives a blanket rejection of revival, you would be wrong. He is a spiritual realist. He also understands that real works of God can be mixed with human frailty and the false workings of Satan, as he admitted to have occurred during the First Great Awakening. Thus discerning whether a revival is true or false is important.
In the next section Edwards discusses the “indifferent signs” of revival. Indifferent means that these are the manifestations that may not be used to affirm or deny whether a revival is a work of God. These are:
– It is Carried on in an Unusual and Extraordinary Way. Just because it happens or proceeds in a way that has not happened before does not say whether it is legitimate or not. God is not bound to work in only certain or prescribed ways. So long as it does not contradict Scripture, it could be His work. However, Satan may be behind the unusual events. Thus, this is not a way in which we may discern its legitimacy.
– Involuntary Bodily Movement May Occur. Physical reactions to a person’s strong emotions (tears, trembling, verbal or emotional distress) do not show whether a work is from God or not. Just because someone is crying or raising their hands does not mean they are being led by the Spirit. Emotion, either generated by God’s presence or working (true) or merely by outward stimuli (false) can be intense, and thus cause bodily reactions.
– It Produces Much Talk About the Christian Faith. Well, there has been a great deal of talking about what has been occurring at Asbury and elsewhere. Jesus caused a great deal of religious conversation when He dwelled on the earth. But the Pharisees also created a great deal of talking before and after He came. The progress of Islam has also caused a great deal of discussion within and without the Muslim world. Drawing attention then is not an indicator of authenticity.
– Intense Religious Emotions Are Present. Emotions have already been somewhat discussed above. The previous point focused upon the effect intense emotions can have on the body. Here Edwards is pointing just to the presence of intense emotions. When Moses and Joshua came back from the first receiving of the Ten Commandments, the Israelites were dancing and singing. They had a great deal of emotion concerning their false god – the golden calf. When Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal, those false prophets cried and called out to their god (and even cut themselves!). They had a great deal of emotion. Emotion or feeling does not validate a spiritual experience. On the other hand, if you read the Psalms, you can see a great deal of emotion expressed toward the true God – not to mention in the books written by Nehemiah and Habakkuk, as well as the prayers of Daniel and Jeremiah.
– Example Is a Great Means. God can use other people’s examples as a means to work out His plan. However, one person’s example may not be interpreted rightly, or they themselves may be acting upon a false misinterpretation of God’s guidance. There are other, authoritative ways to act than by example. Scripture is the ultimate authority, but not everything in the Bible is to be mimicked either. There are many bad examples to be found there. We are to follow the teaching of Scripture. Its teaching interprets our circumstances.
– Subjects of It Are Guilty of Rash Acts and Unconventional Conduct. In a revival there are many new believers – babes in Christ. We cannot expect them to become sanctified in their actions immediately. A friend, who later went on to become a pastor, was asked to pray during a service soon after having become a Christian. He was saved out of a very rough gang background with virtually no biblical training, so when he prayed he used profanity because that was how he talked at that time. His language had not yet begun to be sanctified (Note: He was not asked to pray publicly at that church again.). If a person is truly Christ’s, like my friend, they will grow and learn as he did. However, while such unseemly actions should not be excused, it may or may not indicate the absence of God.
– Errors in Judgment and Delusions of Satan Intermix with the Work. Some Christians may be led away by some delusion of Satan. Whenever God is working, Satan will be hard at work too. As Edwards states, “grace dwells with so much corruption.” The remnants of sin still dwell in the believer. Again, this sin and error should not be excused, but it is not necessarily determinative as to whether the revival is a work of God.
– Some Fall Away into Gross Errors or Scandalous Practices. The key here is the word “some.” If the movement begins or is based in severe error, or if that error is the basis upon which the movement began then that would lead one to think that movement is not of God. However, as was stated above, Satan will be trying to mix his own works into the movement thereby attempting to invalidate it. If only a few of the people are affected by error, then it could still be a work of God.
A few years ago, a friend asked how I would respond if someone came to Christ through the ministry of a certain scandalous TV preacher. I responded with, “What luck!” The joke was that salvation is never by luck. God will work when and where it will most glorify Him and achieve His purposes. His saving a sinner is never an affirmation of the messenger, who is sinful himself. It is always an affirmation of God and His work. As Edwards observed, “Some counterfeits is not an argument that nothing is true.”
– Ministers Promote It by the Terrors of God’s Holy Law. This one might seem to be an odd sign to appear in the indifferent list. However, some might argue that attempting to scare someone into heaven creates false conversions, because the focus of the decision would be made from self-interest, not repentance for sinning against a holy God. And that may be true in some cases. However, Jesus spoke of hell more than He did of heaven, so He did not have an issue with warning people away from damnation. Thus, preaching the Moral Law, how all people (except Christ) have broken it, and the resulting punishment is not an indicator of whether something is the work of God or not.
If those are the ways in which one cannot know whether a work is from God, what are the biblical ways to know that a work IS from God? Edwards writes that there are five signs and he takes all five from 1 John 4:
– The Operation Exalts Jesus. “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.” (1 John 4:2-3)
The Spirit always points to Jesus Christ. The confession from the above verse is Jesus came as a man, and is the Messiah (“Christ”) to redeem God’s people from their sin (see also v14). Satan’s hatred for God’s plan of redemption does not allow him to make the confession above. Thus a true work of God will emphasize Jesus and His work.
– The Spirit Attacks Satan’s Interests.
“You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them.” (1 John 4:4-5)
Here John is comparing those who are in God’s kingdom versus those who are still in the world, meaning under the power of sin (1 John 2:15-16). Those who belong to God overcome the sinful world. Thus a true work of God will lead men away from the pursuit of sin and wake their consciences to sin’s various manifestations in their lives. Good fruit will be produced not just in their lives, but also in the larger community touched by the revival.
– The Spirit Exalts the Holy Scriptures.
“We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us.” (1 John 4:6a)
The Apostles (“We”) were God’s messengers. Their message is the books they wrote. John’s argument, that those who belong to God will listen to His messengers, is equally true for all of God’s messengers throughout Scripture. They were all inspired to give God’s message to His people (2Tm 3:16-17). There is similar language elsewhere. Jesus related that Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them.” And God spoke of His Son, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to Him!” (Luke 16.29 and Mark 9:7). Thus a true work of God will be based on and honors God’s Word.
– The Spirit Lifts Up Sound Doctrine.
“By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” (1 John 4:6b)
The Spirit opens believers eyes to that which is true and to that which is false. Some have complained that doctrine is unimportant and boring. But one cannot discern Satan’s lies without knowing the truth, and truth is expressed in doctrinal statements. Scripture is filled with doctrinal statements, but concepts, like the Trinity, must be reasoned and derived from Scripture. Therefore this is a rationale for confessional statements summarizing and explaining the Bible’s teaching. Thus a true work of God will support biblical truth and not Satan’s errors.
– The Spirit Promotes Love to God and Man.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)
Let’s biblically define love. Love is depicted as a decision, an act of the will. Love is not superficial sentimentalism, nor is it, at its core, a feeling as it is often depicted today. Feelings can come and go. God chose to love His people. We are commanded to love others. Feelings cannot be commanded, but a decision can be. Feelings can develop from the decision to love, but they are not the substance of love itself. And since love comes from God, only His people may truly exhibit it to others. This love to which John speaks of is an unselfish, humble, self-sacrificing love (see v10). Love does not promote one’s own self interest, but the interest of others (1 Cor 13:4-8). The counterfeit love of Satan springs from the emotions and looks to gain an advantage through self-interest. Thus a true work of God will encourage and develop a biblical love for God by His people, and a love for others.
One should note from Edwards’ signs that an important factor needs to be remembered – the aspect of time. There must normally be a passage of time before one may perceive whether a work is from God. Some of the signs may need more time than others. For instance, doctrinal fidelity might not need as much time if the movement is based on or quickly runs toward error. But the product of biblical love may need more time before it is recognized.
1Samuel 16:7b “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”
Some say what is occurring at Asbury is the work of God – a revival. Others claim it is the work of Satan, meant to deceive the church. Still others take a hopeful but cautious view. Admittedly, I have not been to see what is happening there in person; however I have viewed videos of some of the services, including the sermon which began the revival, as well as watching and reading eyewitness accounts and blog posts. Even so, there is surely a lot more to investigate concerning this event. But with what little I know, let’s now see if Edwards’ signs can be helpful.
1. Does the operation exalt Jesus?
Because of the assessment in #2 and #4 below, this point is difficult to ascertain. Certainly, the initial sermon given at the beginning of the movement rarely mentioned Jesus, and certainly did not emphasize (nor I remember even mentioned) His work on the Cross to save His people. There was no explicit call to repentance. However, the “revival” apparently started immediately after the sermon when a young man stood and verbally repented of his sin to those gathered there.
There have been very few sermons given since that first sermon. Reports indicate that the speaking is mostly limited to testimonials. The primary driver of this event is singing and prayer. There has been only one other mass revival where preaching was not the primary cause God used to awaken His people – the 1859 Prayer Revival. Under Edwardian indifferent signs, this unusual circumstance would not in itself be an indicator of a revival’s authenticity or lack thereof. This Edwardian sign, therefore, remains in the wait and see category.
2. Are Satan’s interests attacked?
Again, the initial sermon did not specifically mention repenting of sin, though from several reports there has been much public repenting. The problem becomes what sin(s) are they repenting of. There are reports, both pro and con, that there has been repentance of homophobia and transphobia. In other words, there is a current within the movement to affirm the sins of sexual and gender fluidity. Satan would be cheering that development. For the movement to be a work of God, affirmation of those sins must be withdrawn. If this affirmation is widespread, this Edwardian sign does not speak well of the current direction or basis of the movement. And because of #4 below, I think this appears to be a legitimate concern to have.
Whatever the current fruit may appear to be, the real test is time. Enduring fruit takes time to develop.
3. Is Scripture being exalted?
Nothing that I have seen would be definitive of whether Scripture is being exalted or not. There are indications that parts of Scripture are respected, but if there are serious doctrinal problems, then Scripture is ultimately ignored or rejected at those points. This Edwardian sign remains in the wait and see, though leaning toward the negative category, until #2 and #4 are decided.
4. Is sound doctrine being affirmed?
First, far be it of me to differ with Jonathan Edwards, so let me call this point an update of his indifferent signs. Specifically, those that deal with emotion. When Edwards wrote, Pentecostalism was still over 150 years into the future, and the Charismatic movement was over 200 years away. He could not have foreseen that certain emotional manifestations would be tied to specific theological movements as they are today. So while his points do still have relevance, we must acknowledge that certain emotional excesses are intimately intertwined with doctrine and therefore would fall under this sign, rather than under the indifferent signs. With that understanding we may proceed.
Asbury was founded as a Wesleyan-Holiness school, thus emotional expression in worship in that tradition is more accepted, and even expected, than in other theological traditions. So one should not be surprised to see emotional manifestations there as Edwards described. However, the difficulty comes when those types of manifestations which are many times associated with the Pentecostal/Charismatic churches are exhibited in sizable numbers. For instance, in more than one report or video, speaking in tongues is being practiced. Speaking in tongues is an error, as it is considered by all, but the most traditional Pentecostal, to be new revelation, which is contrary to exalting Scripture. If the Charismatic movement, with its many doctrinal faults, controls this work, then anyone would be biblically hard pressed to justify it as a work of God.
On the other hand, the apostle Paul commanded that everything in worship be done “properly and in an orderly manner” (1 Cor. 14.40). More than one witness to the Asbury services have noted that they were set up and conducted in a very orderly way. While I did hear speaking in tongues on one of the videos from Asbury, with people coming and going, it is quite possible that no emotional excess occurred during these witnesses’ time there; or if it was as crowded as it appeared to be, one could not hear those excesses with all of the other voices singing and praying. In those reports, the emotionalism seems to be more subdued.
Second, Arminianism is the soteriological basis for this revival. For Calvinists, of which I am one, that fact would create suspicion as to the event’s legitimacy. The reason for that conclusion is that Arminianism logically injects a work of man (the ability to accept or reject salvation) into God’s gracious work in salvation. Most Calvinists would agree that Arminians can certainly be strong believers, because most Arminians have not thought through the implications of bringing salvation under their own control. The error of Arminianism works against the legitimacy of the events at Asbury. However, God is not bound to work solely through Calvinists, as history has repeatedly shown.
Third, in fact, there is, as one eyewitness reported, a lack of doctrinal emphasis. As that person observed, the focus of the services was worship as a pursuit of an experience with God. That same observer has a positive view of the events as an actual revival, so her statements were not given as criticism. Worship, of course, is a good thing, but doctrine defines who, what, why and how one worships. And with many young people there and different denominations represented, there would appear to be a need for biblical teaching to be included. Experience can only carry one so far, and experience without knowledge (or worse, with erroneous knowledge) will make one either disillusioned or open to error as they search for further experience.
As I write this, several ministers are expected to have services today (Feb. 23rd) at Asbury. This event was scheduled months ago in hopes of bringing revival. Two of the primary ministers attending, that I am familiar with, have taught and currently hold doctrinal error. The church one of them founded has just been removed from the Southern Baptist Convention for an error which he birthed while he was still their pastor. So again, doctrinal faithfulness appears to be a possible Achilles Heel for Asbury.
Fourth, one of the battles in our current cultural war concerns LGBTQ (etc) and gender fluidity. If these beliefs gain a footing in the work at Asbury, or anywhere else it is exported to, the “revival” would show itself to have been false from the beginning, or completely ruined at that point. One pro-revival witness was praising the fact that he heard homophobia and transphobia being repented of. While someone else reported that a prayer request to pray for the acceptance of those positions was written on a white board at the auditorium, which was then erased, but later added back. The battle is real. If truth does not prevail, then it is the spirit of error, not of truth, which is at work at Asbury.
5. Is the love for God and man being promoted?
This point could be the strongest argument in favor of the work at Asbury being from God. The initial sermon emphasized the call to love one another. And the closest the speaker came to preaching repentance was in making the statement that we do not have the ability to love perfectly. That only through God may we love others as we ought. The sermon was full with admonitions to show love to each other. And if this repeated direction to love manifests itself in action outside of these meetings, then the resultant fruit could be a positive proof of #2. However, seeing this fruit grow will take time.
A side note to the “revival” at Asbury:
– There are ongoing attempts to export what is happening at Asbury to other schools. The Spirit goes where He wills. Authentic revival cannot be man made. Man cannot on his own manufacture a “revival” beyond superficial emotionalism. Thus God may send revival to some places and not to others. One cannot discern the legitimacy of the revival as a whole by observing one manifestation of it. For instance, let’s assume for a moment that the revival at Asbury is authentic. I have seen video from a Pentecostal school that I would have thought to be pure emotionalism, and yet they claim to have transported the Asbury revival to their own school. However, what was being manifested in each of those two schools appeared to be of a very different character.
Only God can see the heart of a man. We can but discern how He is working by viewing the outward circumstances and comparing them with His Word. I still have too many concerns to say that I think the Asbury “revival” is an authentic work of God. I am in a wait and see mode. There are too many ways this work might turn, for the better or for the worse. It is still far too early to observe any lasting fruit of it. I have repeatedly prayed for revival in our nation. We sorely need one. I know God can act and hope He does, if not now, then soon.
Postscript (Feb 24):
The Collegiate Day of Prayer was supposedly held last night on the Asbury campus. The ministers who were advertised to be there apparently were not. Other than that fact I have not seen any word as to who were there and what actually happened. However, one website advertising that event announced that the Collegiate Day of Prayer “marks the end of Asbury revival.” What? One cannot plan or tell when God is to stop working. One cannot start or stop a true revival according to a schedule. So what is going on? There have been reports that this “revival” at Asbury was a planned event in preparation the Collegiate Day of Prayer. I did not accept those reports as credible because there was no proof except by drawing unnecessary implications from one of the participant’s tweets. However, having seen this website, it appears that the revival was possibly a fake. The groups that were sponsoring this “day of prayer” were a collection of woke (read “marxist”) and pro-homosexual groups, thus these are not good signs. Again, time will tell whether this was man-made or heaven-sent, but until shown differently, wisdom would dictate strong skepticism toward what has occurred at Asbury.