This column was featured in the February/ March 2023 edition of The Record
by Rev. Ben Fiddian
In December I attended the funeral of an Associated Presbyterian minister called Alex Murray, who died recently at the age of 97. We had met only once, shortly after I moved to Sutherland. He was a fascinating man with many interesting stories. One in particular struck me. Alex had served in the RAF during World War II. When I was young everybody’s grandparents had lived through the war. The generation which fought those battles has mostly gone now. Apart from Rev Murray, it is many years since I spoke with anyone who could tell such stories from personal experience. We might read them in books or online but they are passing rapidly from living memory.
I experienced similar emotions whilst watching the first ever televised meeting of the King’s Privy Council on 10th September 2022, shortly before the ceremony proclaiming our new monarch. One of the talking-heads made this remarkable statement: ‘The last time this happened the Prime Minister was Winston Churchill and most of the people in the room would have known Queen Victoria.’ Like a series of stepping stones, each generational ‘jump’ moves us back in time – from King Charles, to Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, Queen Victoria. How far back does living memory take you?
What about the remarkable saving works of God in our history? How long are they remembered? A parish minister serving in the Hebrides during the 1980s, recalls a godly, elderly lady in his congregation who had lived through no less than four genuine revivals. Growing up in Wales, I knew ministers who had experienced unusual spiritual blessing locally and missionaries who had experienced revival in places like Indonesia. The kind of widespread revival that shook the whole nation was a generation further back – their grandparents had lived through it, mine had not.
Some older readers of The Record will relate to being influenced by Christians who experienced revival. They may even have tasted the ‘aftermath’ of revival themselves. What a tremendous privilege! For many young people in Scotland today, even the memory of their ancestors’ nominal church-attendance has disappeared into the mists of time. Of the children growing up in Christian homes and gospel-believing churches today, how many will have any contact with the living memory of these widespread works of God?
There are several reasons why these revivals should not be archived in the recesses of our collective religious memory. Firstly, as it passes from living memory, history can be distorted and re-written. We see this in secular history, for example, in the scourge of Holocaust denial in judging men and women of the past by today’s socio-political standards, and ‘cancelling’ of those deemed to fall short. The same is happening with the history of the Holy Spirit’s mighty works. Recently I came across a book that presented an extremely charismatic and mystical understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work using an entirely fictional novel, full of made-up, fantasy miracles. There are various movies that take a similar approach. Far from encouraging the work of the Holy Spirit, the existence of supernatural religious fiction only proves that we are not in a time of revival. Make-believe miracles are only interesting to people who have never experienced real miracles.
Through the prophets and apostles, the Holy Spirit wrote His own book. It is a work of truth not fiction. He energises it with life and dynamic power. In times of true revival people are drawn to this Sacred Book. They read it in their homes and come to church to hear it explained. As they do, they encounter the authentic power of the Holy Spirit as He wields Scriptures like a sword, piercing human hearts with sin-convicting precision, performing the miracle of regeneration, drawing people to put their faith in the Christ of Calvary, and transforming lives for eternity.
Churches and ministers must work together in gospel partnership to ensure that the Word is preached ‘in season and out of season’.
Of course, these are things which the Holy Spirit is doing right now! Even when the church is at its lowest ebb the Holy Spirit adds His blessing to the ordinary means of grace: preaching, prayer, sacraments, Christian fellowship. The smallest things God does are really big things! This means an attitude of ‘sit back and wait for revival’ can never be right. Churches and ministers must work together in gospel partnership to ensure that the Word is preached ‘in season and out of season’. What happens in true revival? The Holy Spirit takes these same means of grace and turns the dial up to 10, causing them to have greater effect in the lives of believers and unbelievers alike.
This points to a second reason for keeping the reality of revival in our memories. If you have only seen the beach at low tide, you might believe things were always like that – you might struggle to imagine the beach at high tide. It is important to know that greater things are possible. As well as saying ‘thank you!’ one of the ways we can show appreciation for what the Holy Spirit is doing now is by asking for more – just as you show your appreciation of the cook by asking for another helping or a bigger portion. Sinclair Ferguson explains that the basic meaning of the Hebrew word for Spirit, ruach, is ‘the expulsion of wind or breath, the idea of air in motion.’ ‘Spirit’ expresses, in its most fundamental form… power, energy, and life.’ This divine ‘breath of life’ was breathed into the church at Pentecost and has never been withdrawn. Ferguson argues that though ‘Pentecost is not repeated… a theology of the Spirit which did not give rise to prayer for his coming in power would not be a theology of ruach!’ In other words, whenever the church honours the ordinary means of grace the wind of the Spirit is present as a gentle heavenly draught of blessing; as we give thanks for this, we should ask Him to blow through these same means of grace like a mighty storm.
whenever the church honours the ordinary means of grace the wind of the Spirit is present as a gentle heavenly draught of blessing; as we give thanks for this, we should ask Him to blow through these same means of grace like a mighty storm.
Thirdly, remembering revival puts our own context in perspective. God revived HIs church in the past. Why was that needed? Because things have been at a low ebb before! In 1650, the Commission of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland produced a report entitled ‘Causes of the Lord’s Wrath Against Scotland’. Translated into modern language and with the addition of a few references to Netflix and social media, it could easily pass as a description of Scotland in 2023. South of the border in England and Wales, the early 1700’s were marked by widespread spiritual and moral darkness. Then, as now, societies ‘were formed with the express purpose of making the people a pagan nation’ (See chapter 1 in The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales: Volume 1, Banner of Truth, 2008). The stories of how God turned these situations upside down is exciting reading!
The history of humanity has never been a steady march towards ‘progress’, as some would have us believe. Sin abounds wherever there are people, for the simple reason that people are sinful. Apart from the uplifting interventions of God’s redeeming grace, the constant tendency of a sin-fallen world must be towards death and decay. Our hope is not rooted in these ups and downs but on the once-for-all work of Christ at Calvary and the unrepeatable-outpouring but continuous-effusions of the Holy Spirit who is Sovereign to save few or many according to the electing grace of God. We keep preaching Christ in the power of the Spirit, rejoicing in what He does and praying for more.