The third rail of American Christian division is talking about Holy Spirit revival of the kind that Asbury University experienced recently, and according to the school’s administration, ends today.
It’s been all over the news, and many evangelicals have weighed in on the events at Asbury, that started with a chapel service, and extended for weeks as thousands crowded the little Kentucky town. What to make of this thing, that went viral on TikTok, and drew so many to drive cross-country and wait for hours to get inside the chapel?
Some remain skeptically undecided, like the person who made this video:
Others offered gripping testimonies.
A local pastor who said he lived only 20 minutes from campus, echoed a concern I’ve heard from many people.
Let me apply this truth in the context of the Asbury revival. Any revival led by the Spirit of truth will began with the preaching of the gospel. There must be a focus on the truth about Jesus. But the spirit of error always seeks to distort or minimize Christ. Go back and listen to the sermon that was credited with starting the revival, there was no clear presentation of the gospel. No one speaking by the Spirit of God, will ever diminish Christ in any way.
This pastor goes on to say that the Spirit “moves in a sovereign way, but not in an unexplainable way.” Many share that view. The great revivalists of the 18th and 19th century preached some strong sermons, like Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The sermons were convicting to the heart, of sin, and caused sinners to race to the altar in acceptance of the saving power of God.
I have a few things to offer here. Without getting into theological thickets, in general, many of the skeptics are Calvinists, and many of those who raced to a small Kentucky town have an Arminian view of God’s saving power. Here’s a gross oversimplification for the uninitiated: The Calvinist tradition believes in “irresistible grace” offered to the elect (whom God chooses), while the holiness Arminian-Wesleyan tradition that Asbury embraces, is a more mercy-centered tradition that includes powerful emotional transformations.
So, to a holiness Arminian, charismatic Pentecostal believer, revival breaks out where it happens, as a result of prayer, holy living, and the words of James chapter 5:
13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
In this frame, the revival is completely explainable: People of faith prayed for revival, their righteous prayers were answered, and revival “manifested” itself in worship, confession of sin, prayer, healing, and power. This validates the history of Asbury University as a place of revival, a claim the school proudly makes on its website.
I have some personal experience in this area. I grew up a Jew in New England, the son of two Jewish parents, educated at an Orthodox shul, Bar-Mitzvahed at thirteen. As a teenager I wandered away from the faith, and by the time I was 34, statistically, I was a passenger to Hell, living in the Bible belt. I was highly resistant to preaching and offended by “Jews for Jesus” messianic movements.
I’m not going to give my whole testimony here, but I will say it took me months to find Christ, a little bit at a time, after a life-altering encounter with God in a vision changed me forever. After I accepted Jesus, I became a revival chaser. I was baptized in Pensacola at Brownsville Assembly of God during the heat of that revival, which lasted nearly five years. I would go to churches and places where I heard “the Spirit is moving.” I would visit different churches, and kneel at altars—I bet half the preachers in middle Georgia recorded my salvation. I would “church hop” if I believed the place I was attending wasn’t “holy” enough. This was me as an immature, judgmental Christian, but it was also me, working through a pure faith and filled with the love of God.
During my “revival chaser” years, I didn’t watch any television. I worshiped at home, threw away all my “secular” music (I still miss my Aerosmith albums), and incessantly steered all conversations back to “are you saved?” topics. Many of my friends found me insufferable, or at least weird. It’s ok to be weird, but it’s not really Gospel friendly to be insufferable, or obnoxious. But also during those years, I learned a lot of Bible, and I made a foundation for my faith that has lasted to this day.
Then came a reckoning, and I backslid for several years. When I re-emerged, I was more mature, and understanding of what it means to live for God, and what the meaning of revival really is.
Many of the thousands attracted to Asbury are like me in the year 2000. They are chasing a feeling, a high, the presence of a spirit of worship, the openness of prayer and confession. Some of them never grew past the immature “church hopper” who feels as if their spiritual gift is gracing churches with their presence, instead of diligent service.
But many of those immature revival chasers have a purity of faith and humility lacking in the ministry, which acts to protect its own power, friends, and careers. If they are attracted to Asbury, there’s likely something going on there in the hearts of the worshippers, something that can’t be replicated with a three-point sermon and a doxology.
Along with the chasers, the curious come. And along with the curious, the skeptics come. And along with the skeptics, and opponents of the faith come. And among those, someone will hear the Gospel, pure and clear, from the snotty nose and tearful eyes of a transformed sinner. And some of those who have “ears to hear” will pick up a Bible, and confess their need for a savior, and their heart will open to Christ and His eternal love.
Some will turn from the faith—many of the chasers I knew and ran with are no longer what I would call Christians. Some have completely walked away. But that’s not a condemnation of revival as a thing, it’s simply a recognition that not all ground takes the seeds, and not all the seeds scattered are good seed. There’s a lot of seed scattered at a revival like Asbury. I can’t say it’s all good seed, but I can say that a heart of worship, a spirit of humility, a posture of prayer, and a soul of confession will lead to Christ more often than not, and will find ears to hear better than the most well-researched, theologically perfect sermon.
It’s very possible that Asbury University is guilty of emotionalism. It’s possible that they are not as focused on the Gospel as other churches. It’s possible that there’s some element of “manufactured” revival. But to a sinner who finds Christ, can I just say, “who cares?”
Take the revival for what it is. Messy. Chaotic. Crowded. When Jesus preached, that’s also how it was (read the Bible, you’ll see).
As one of my Facebook friends posted: “God has moved upon the hearts of this generation for Him and it’s so beautiful. There’s so much noise but at the heart of it all it’s simple brokeness before Jesus and encountering His tender love and mercy. Thank you Lord! Now let’s stop being analysts and start loving the one in front of us.”
Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.
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