While many are enamored with the ministers’ feats of faith and the Spirit’s manifestations in spiritual awakening, very few consider the doctrine behind such movements. Without question, prayer has had its vital role in genuine outpourings of the Holy Spirit. But one should not be careless in his or her study of the subject in overlooking the preaching, and particularly, the theology of that preaching, that God used.
Years ago, while travelling with Dick Sipley and Bill McLeod to a Canadian Revival Fellowship retreat outside of Winnipeg, Manitoba, I asked these two seasoned gospel ministers what kind of preaching God is pleased to use in revival. Without hesitation, brother Sipley enthusiastically said, “Christ and Him crucified!” For the minutes that followed both men exchanged thoughts with one another, agreeing that gospel preaching was always at the heart of awakenings. As a young man that day, their biblical insight, illustrations from revivals in church history and zeal for another outpouring of the Spirit stoked my passion for genuine revival.
Since that hour, I have found their words to be resoundingly true. Almost without exception, every outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the history of Christ’s church was preceded and nurtured by preaching on the person and work of Jesus Christ.
A survey of the preaching that took place following the advent of the Spirit in Acts 2 reveals an unwavering proclamation of the merits of the Son of God. While the event was a fulfillment of both Joel and Jesus’ prophesies predicting the coming of the Spirit, the occasion could also serve to provide an example of church age revival. In considering this spiritual awakening, it is very important that one not overlook the nature of the preaching that followed and sustained the work. In that apostolic hour the message was characteristically Christ. For example, on the day of Pentacost, Peter’s preaching validates Christ’s identity (Acts 2:22-23), His passion (v. 23), His resurrection (v. 24), His victory over death (v. 24), His ascension to the right hand of His Father (v. 33), and His authority as Lord (v.36).
In Acts 3, Peter addresses a crowd who has gathered out of wonder from witnessing a lame man being healed. He declares the gospel of Christ Jesus. This simple public proclamation of the resurrected Christ incites a religious coalition from the temple, constrained to seek out Peter and John, who are charged with preaching the resurrection of Christ. Ironically, the very thing that is so disturbing to these antagonists and forces them to take the disciples captive overnight, is the very thing that Peter preaches the next morning following their release, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Interestingly, the overarching theology that was preached throughout the book of Acts and the New Testament was Christ and Him crucified. Likewise, when one studies the awakenings that took place in the church age, he does not have to read the accounts of these divine moments long to discover that the preeminent message of the pulpits was the gospel.
For example, in the Protestant Reformation under Martin Luther, the premier message proclaimed was justification by faith. While the Reformation marked spiritual emancipation for countless numbers of men and women who had been held captive by the tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church, the movement possessed most of the earmarks of a genuine spiritual awakening. Among them, were the conversion of an innumerable multitude, a restoration of the biblical view of women and marriage, and the beginning of the abolition of slavery in Western Europe and around the world.
In 1740, the preaching of the Great Awakening in America and England was characterized by gospel themes. Messages on Christ and Him crucified were at the heart of this divine work. Men such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and the Wesleys boldly declared redemptive themes in their sermons.
Consideration of only a few of Whitefield’s sermon titles reveals an obvious emphasis on gospel doctrine. Such messages include Christ the Only Rest for the Weary and Heavy Laden, The Folly of Departing from Christ for the Pleasures and Profits of Life, Marks of a True Christian, What Think You of Christ, the Eternity of Hell’s Torments, and the Almost Christian.
The Second Great Awakening was also a hotbed for gospel centered preaching as men like Ashael Nettleton witnessed an outbreak of spiritual power in almost every place he went. Nettleton’s highly theological, and searching discourses were accompanied with mighty outpourings of the Spirit. It has been estimated that over 30,000 souls were brought into the kingdom under his preaching.
In the revival of 1859 in Northern Ireland, gospel preaching left such a indelible mark on the hearts of those who listened, that for years following the visitation, people could still remember the message of the cross. One minister who lived into the twentieth century recalling the outstanding theme of the preaching in that revival said, “It was for the atonement the people gave thanks.”
In that same year, Charles Spurgeon, who experienced the affects of that heavenly tide in his church in London, unveiled faithfully in his own pulpit the glories of the cross. He began on the first Lord’s Day of that year speaking on Perfection in Faith, which referred to how Christ as the one offering reconciles sinners to God. Other gospel messages that he delivered that year included Free Grace, The Shameful Sufferer, The Way to God, The Necessity of the Spirit’s Work, Holy Violence, The Wounds of Jesus, Justice Satisfied, An Earnest Invitation, The Meek and Lowly One, Christ Triumphant, The Blood of the Covenant, Come and Welcome, An Antidote for Many Ills and Man’s Ruin and God’s Remedy.
While not every message Spurgeon preached in 1859 was exclusively on the atonement, the underlying theme of each sermon was redeeming love.
Now I can imagine there are those reading this article that may be thinking, “But isn’t the gospel message foundational to those who have already been saved? Shouldn’t we get beyond the gospel and direct our revival preaching to be more focused on dealing with sin and self?” My response would be a resounding, “Yes, and no!” I believe that we should expound the truth that deals more directly with sin, but not to the neglect of Jesus and His atoning work. It is important that we understand the good news that saves also sanctifies.
It is very sad that the gospel has been preached in many evangelical pulpits today as good news to the lost, but not good news to the saved. Most believers and Christian ministers believe the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to those who believe, but not the power of God unto salvation from self and its spiritual ills.
Milton Vincent, in his book The Gospel Primer, says, “Rehearsing gospel truths each day has become a pleasurable discipline by which I enjoy God’s love and maintain fresh contact with His provision and power for daily living.”
Our church fathers knew that a view of Christ and His work was the greatest remedy for experiencing victory over sin and self. They believed the gospel power that delivered from sin’s penalty was also able to conquer self’s propensities.
Consider the Apostle Paul’s prescription for dealing with temptation and self. When confronting moral impurity in the church at Corinth, he points the reader to the infinite price that Christ paid (I Corinthians 6:20). When he addresses the need of forgiveness in Ephesus, he reminds the believer of how God has forgiven them for Christ’s sake. In admonishing the Corinthians to follow the example of giving by the Macedonians, he draws their attention to the gospel when he says that Christ became poor that they might be made rich (II Corinthians 8:9). Interestingly, Paul seemed to speak to every matter by bringing the gospel into focus. Even when it came to the domestic duty of husbands loving their wives, he points to Christ giving Himself (Ephesians 5:25).
Once again, Milton Vincent underscores the benefit of gospel influence when he says, “Over the course of time, preaching the gospel to myself every day has made more of a difference in my life than any other discipline than I have ever practiced. I find myself sinning less, but just as importantly, I find myself recovering my footing more quickly after sinning, due to the immediate comfort found in the gospel. I have also found that when I am absorbed in the gospel, everything else I am supposed to be toward God and others seems to flow out of me more naturally and passionately”.
For those who are thinking that they have a sufficient grasp of the gospel and there is more to conquering sin than just having an basic understanding of its message, there are a few things you need to know. First of all, the gospel encompasses far more than “for God so loved the world …”. There is much gospel truth to be explored and internalized this side of heaven. As Paul Washer has put it, “When we get to heaven we will know a lot; but we will be chasing down an understanding of the gospel for all eternity.” You see, there is so much more in those words “for God so loved the world”. In plumbing the depths of Calvary one embarks on an adventure that no one can exhaust this side of eternity. It is in exploring the infinite worth of the Savior and what He has endured and secured on His cross that we encounter greater enablement of the power of the Holy Spirit, and motivation to overcome sin.
Gospel preaching is as vital for daily living as it is in spiritual awakening. Let us believe God for another awakening where Christ and His atoning work are at the center. But while we expect such a work, let us preach it to ourselves daily as we ponder the unsearchable riches of its depths.