“Revivals of the Human Sort”
In the late nineteenth century, writes Iain Murray, preaching of the fear of God fell on hard times. It was thought that conversion should be made simple, so that greater results might be achieved. Christians were no longer described as “God fearing”; the emphasis now was on “happy.” Charles Spurgeon was among a minority who rejected the idea, insisting that the fear of God and conviction of sin must precede any genuine happiness. The happy Christian, he believed, was one who first learned a holy fear of God.
Spurgeon had no doubt that superficial evangelism was a major contributing cause for the absence of converts of this type. Far too many ‘results’ were impermanent:
We have had plenty of revivals of the human sort, and their results have been sadly disappointing. Under excitement nominal converts have been multiplied: but where are they after a little testing? I am sadly compelled to own, so far as I can observe, there has been much sown, and very little reaped that was worth reaping. Our hopes were a flattering dream; but the apparent result has vanished like a vision in the night. But where the Spirit of God is really at work the converts stand. [Charles Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 27:531. Read sermon online: The Pentecostal Wind and Fire.]
The Holy Ghost is come to convince of sin. It is absolutely necessary that men should be convinced of sin. The fashionable theology is – ‘Convince men of the goodness of God: show them the universal fatherhood and assure them of unlimited mercy. Win them by God’s love, but never mention his wrath against sin, or the need of an atonement, or the possibility of there being a place of punishment. Do not censure poor creatures for their failings. Do not judge and condemn. Do not search the heart or lead men to be low-spirited and sorrowful. Comfort and encourage, but never accuse and threaten. Yes, that is the way of man; but the way of the Spirit is very different. He comes on purpose to convince of sin, to make men feel that they are guilty, greatly guilty – so guilty that they are lost, ruined and undone. He comes to make sin appear sin, and to let us see its fearful consequences. He comes to wound so that no human balm can heal; to kill so that no earthly power can make us live. What is it that makes the beauty and excellence of human righteousness to wither as the green herb? Isaiah says it is ‘because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it’. There is a withering work of the Holy Spirit which we must experience, or we shall never know his quickening and restoring power. This withering is a most needed experience, and just now needs much to be insisted on. Today we have so many built up who were never pulled down; so many filled who were never emptied; so many exalted who were never humbled; that I the more earnestly remind you that the Holy Ghost must convince us of sin, or we cannot be saved.
This work is most necessary, because without it there is no leading men to receive the gospel of the grace of God. We cannot make any headway with certain people because they profess faith very readily, but they are not convinced of anything. ‘Oh, yes, we are sinners, no doubt, and Christ died for sinners’: that is the free-and-easy way with which they handle heavenly mysteries, as if they were the nonsense verses of a boy’s exercise, or the stories of Mother Goose. This is all mockery, and we are weary of it, but get near a real sinner, and you have found a man you can deal with: I mean the man who is a sinner, and no mistake, and mourns in his inmost soul that he is so. In such and man you will find one who will welcome the gospel, welcome grace, and welcome a Saviour. [Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 29:125–126. Read sermon online: The Holy Spirit’s Threefold Conviction of Men.]
There is an urgent need today for the recovery of the truth about conversion. A widespread controversy on this subject would be a healthy wind to blow away a thousand lesser things. A renewed fear of God would end much worldly thinking and silence a multitude of raucous services. There has been much talk of more evangelism, and many hopes of revival, but Sourgeon would teach us that the need is to go back to first things.
—Iain Murray, The Old Evangelicalism (Banner of Truth, 2005), 66–68.