I am on the eve of finishing my study of the four great awakenings of America, and I am struck how one theme seems so prevalent in every awakening. But as I am not charismatic, I find myself hesitating to mention what I found. However, I am becoming convinced, that if we wish to see another awakening of God, that we will see this one theme repeated yet again. In every awakening, there was present an effort to seek a blessed experience with the Holy Spirit.
Before I talk frankly about what might dismay those of us who are not charismatic, let’s examine some of the common traits of this blessed experience. In every awakening this experience was something which aroused controversy. Jonathan Edwards had to defend much of the revival in his church for years afterwards, and several of the books that he has written deal with these defenses. He would take those who came forward, pray with them, and wait, often for hours, sometimes for all night until what can be described as the blessing and peace of the Holy Spirit would come over those making decisions. His own wife become one who experienced this blessing. Charles Finney taught about a second experience where one’s life became Spirit-filled. This was true during the Second Great Awakening, and by the time of the Third Great Awakening it had been named frequently as the “baptism of the Holy Spirit”. Even D.L. Moody, upon hearing about this, sought the blessing for himself. During our latest awakening, the Fourth Great Awakening, the record is clear. Many waited on the Lord, not so much calling this the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” but rather seeking a deep and meaningful experience with God. I just read an account this morning on a youth pastor from Sacramento who held a prayer meeting where most of those who prayed were overcome completely by the Spirit.
In discussing how we might follow God, I cannot in good conscience pass by that which is so obvious: there is a greater life to be had in walking with the Spirit. My own church just finished a series on the theme of Romans 12:1&2, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” If we are to follow God, we definitely want to present our bodies to God, that we might be transformed into a Spirit filled life, where we might regard God’s will in all that we say and do. That means, whatever else it means, that we are to look and pray for a deeper walk with God. Do we expect God to answer? Yes, again and again. These answers mean that we can and ought to experience many renewed visitations of the Holy Spirit.
Thus our lives should be filled with all sorts of second, third, and fourth experiences. We ought to be diligently seeking to present ourselves to God, that the Spirit might take us and help us to live a life filled with his blessing. In no way does that mean that we will escape problems; we are in the world, and will face wars, disease, persecutions, and death, but as Paul reminds us to do we need to count all of that as naught as we look to what glorious things God has bestowed upon us.
But back to the awakenings. As far as I can tell, the waiting on the Spirit’s blessing done in the First Great Awakening by Jonathan Edwards was the most scriptural. That is, by the measurement of the Bible, this seeking of a visible answer to prayer, one in which the Holy Spirit might flood the soul and overwhelm the penitent with joy and tears. As the awakenings progressed into the Second and especially the Third, the emphasis became something called “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” Properly speaking, this does not measure up to Biblical standards. “For by one Spirit were we all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13). The Bible makes it clear that all believers are baptized into the body at the point of belief—it is not a subsequent experience to be sought for, but rather something every believer is given by the grace of God.
Having pointed out the Scripture, and that many were simply wrong in seeking a “second-only” experience with the Holy Spirit, what can be said for these beliefs in the awakenings? I would point out that the doctrine is errant, but not all that far from the true ideal. We should be seeking more from God all the time—do we not want to walk closer to God each day? But they who believed in this doctrine began also believe that once you experienced this baptism, you would begin to live a “perfected life”. That is also errant, departing far from the struggle that Paul describes in Romans seven. Nevertheless, there is more than a germ of truth in the idea of a Spirit-filled walk. As we begin to walk with God, we do indeed begin to leave our sinful practices behind, and we do indeed press onward toward the high calling of Christ Jesus. We do become better, but to the mature Christian who is looking inward at his own life sees the inward pull of his life ever there, and he even becomes more mindful of its pull as he is walking with God. Thus Paul could honestly describe himself as the “chief of sinners” because he could see the constant pull of his inward life. He knew that he was not nearly what he ought to be—far from perfection—and yet one of the greatest of apostles at the same time.
That is sort of our problem in following God. We are to take on the Holy Spirit because that is indeed the only way that we have to possibly follow God. Anything else is doomed to failure, for we cannot walk in our flesh and ever please God. But as we grow and mature in Christ, hopefully having many experiences with the blessings of the Holy Spirit, we are at the same time ever more cognate of the fact that our hearts are so far from what they should be. We ought not to make the mistake of our forefathers here, coming to think of ourselves more highly than we ought, but we ought, as the Bible says, to always consider others better than ourselves. We are called to serve, but serve in all humility, knowing that if it were not for God’s deepest grace, we would lose ourselves totally.
It is a puzzle to me that we who have been saved can forget so quickly what we were saved from, but this even goes deeper than that. If God had not graciously given us his own Spirit, even after we are saved we would be nothing but despicable. Despicable me. Despicable you. But our thanks be to God, who graciously pours his Spirit out without measure, that we may find the power to live and walk with him. Without him in us our pride and arrogance would well up, and no one would see Jesus living in us. But thanks be to God! He has poured out his Spirit, and called us to live with the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law (Galatians 5:22). The hymn says it all, “If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be the servant of all.” Our Lord, the greatest of all, gave us the example in humbling himself and washing the feet of the disciples. Let us humble ourselves in following him, and get busy by washing one another’s feet. But as we do it, hadn’t we ought to be seeking the Spirit?