William Buell Sprague’s 1832 book* Lectures on Revivals of Religion seeks to both promote the cause of genuine revival in churches and to guard against “a spurious excitement” (p. xiii). When understood rightly, true revival of religion is a great blessing to the church and advances the cause of Christ in both the conversion of souls and in a heightened spiritual awareness and renewal in Christians toward the things of true gospel religion. When abused, revival is a detriment to the church leading some in a false assurance as well as degenerating the purity of Christ’s church.
Dr. Sprague’s third lecture deals with common obstacles to revival. The first hindrance to true revival is a misunderstanding of the nature of true revival. When men think they can conjure up revival with fanaticism, or by diminishing truth, it hinders the work of true revival. Secondly, worldliness in the church is an obstacle to revival. Sprague notes, “while this spirit of worldliness mocks in a great degree the efforts of the faithful, it exerts a direct and most powerful influence upon those who are glad to find apologies to quiet themselves in sin” (p. 68).
A third obstacle to scriptural revivals is the lack of personal prayer. A fourth obstacle of revival is lack of seriousness about the purity of the church. These sins of prayerlessness and unholiness left unchecked hinder a true work of grace. Fifthly, an absence of sincere brotherly love is an impediment to revival. A lack of love results in a lack of unity within and among churches. Finally, the minimization of or denial of truth is a great obstacle to revival. When the gospel is distorted or parts of it are curtailed, or when it is not brought to bear upon the individual in a direct manner, true revival of the soul and the church is hindered.
At first glance, one might disagree with Sprague’s obstacles in the name of divine sovereignty. That is, God can bring revival when He wants to without the aid of man. In response, Sprague carefully defends the use of “human instrumentality…and much of what God does is done through his people; and if they remain with their arms folded, it were unreasonable to expect that God’s work should be revived” (p. 71). This biblical reality ought to encourage pastors to do all within our power to remove every human obstacle to revival in our churches.
In his fourth lecture, Sprague moves from the human responsibility side of revival to divine agency in revivals. He cities Habakkuk 3:2, “O Lord revive thy work.” Revival, first and foremost, is God’s work and God’s doing. God is working through human history in His divine providence bringing about His perfect plan and fulfilling all His purposes. In His providence, God is pleased to bring about seasons of revival. In events small and great the Lord can have many or few reflect upon their eternal state or be brought into contact with certain core truths of the gospel. The point is, God is ordering events, moments, and people in such a way so as to bring about periods of revival.
Besides God’s providential workings to produce revival, “there is also an agency of the Spirit” working to bring about biblical revival (p. 94). The Holy Spirit works through means of the truth to convict men of sin, bring about the new birth, and to preserve the saints and cause them to walk in holiness. The necessity of the Holy Spirit is dismissed by some who think revivals can be “produced altogether by man” (p. 111). Others dismiss the use of means and adopt a spirit of complacency, using sovereignty as an excuse for laziness. The reality and blessedness of the Holy Spirit’s working ought to cause God’s people to work in a spirit of dependence on Him.
This lecture should be both encouraging and challenging. The encouragement is that the Holy Spirit is pleased to work in and through weak and fallible men in order to bring about His great work of revival. The challenge is that gospel ministers must actually labor in a spirit of tangible dependence on Him in all things. It is one thing to understand these truths, it is another to apply them to the heart and seek to work in a joyful spirit of dependence in prayer, evangelism, preaching, and discipleship. Furthermore, the flesh must be fought since revival is not ultimately about the preacher’s abilities but the Spirit’s power. And it is not ultimately about the pastor’s accolades, but Christ’s glory.
Sprague’s fifth lecture addresses the general means of producing and promoting revivals. Sprague lays out 6 God appointed means of revival that are to be characterized by seriousness, order, simplicity, honesty, and affection. If God’s people long to see true revival, they must trust the Holy Spirit to work through the means instituted in the Bible.
The first means of revival is faithful preaching. “God honors the preaching of the gospel in the conversion of men more than all other means” (p. 129). Revival is the Holy Spirit working through the truth and the truth is dispensed through the preaching of God’s Word. This preaching is to have a special focus on the “great doctrines of the gospel” (p. 130). They must be heralded in such a way that they are “practical” so that they are “urged as a rebuke to impenitence on the one hand, and an encouragement to exertion and a foundation of hope on the other” (p. 131).
Individual and corporate prayer is another God ordained means to revival. Without prayer, all other means “would be utterly in vain” (p. 138). A third means to revival is gospel conversations. This especially falls upon pastors, but is a duty shared by all Christians, to talk to and encourage one another in the faith and to watch over one another in love. A fourth means of revival is “Sabbath School” which consists of formal times of instruction outside of preaching, particularly for children and youth who have impressionable minds. Likewise, a fifth means of revival is parental duty in which parents must instruct their children in the truth and watch over their proper reception of it. Finally, a focus on awakened sinners is productive to revival. This is setting aside specific time to counsel those who seem to have serious interest in religion.
This lecture helpfully reminds pastors that God pleasedly works through His revealed means in order to bring about His work. When a pastor trusts these divinely instituted means, he is trusting God to do the work. Perhaps some of Sprague’s means could have been more broadly categorized under something like “word ministry,” but they are still divinely sanctioned events for God to work through human agency to bring about His good purposes. To work outside of these divine sanctions is to trust human ingenuity.
True revival of religion is a great blessing to the church that is needed in almost every age. William Sprague’s lectures instruct us on how to understand and seek revival rightly even while guarding against certain pitfalls. Those who love revivals “will labor diligently for the promotion of their purity” (p. 258).
*Page numbers in this post are from the 1959 Banner of Truth edition.
Allen S. Nelson IV is an M.Div student at GBTS and Pastor of Perryville Second Baptist Church in Perryville, AR. He and his wife Stephanie married in 2006 and have 5 children. He is the author of From Death to Life: How Salvation Works and Before the Throne: Reflections on God’s Holiness. Besides curating Grace Abounding he also writes regularly at ThingsAbove.Us. You can follow him on twitter: @cuatronelson.
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