Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Puritans and Revival

What do you think when you hear the word revival? Some believe it to be dramatic manifestations of God’s Spirit, while others see it has God’s sovereign act to bring people to repentance. This theme has been a continued theme since our nation’s inception. The theme of revival can be attributed in great part to the Puritans. This quest for revival began when the Puritans were still in England, eventually bringing this emphasis to America in the beginning of the seventeenth century. Men such as John Winthrop would lead a group of Puritans to America from England. However, before setting sail to America, Puritans attempted to reform the Church of England, but failed. They sought greater purity of doctrine and worship, thinking that the Anglican Church, because they embraced many Catholic ideas, had become corrupt. This reform was met with much resistance from the Church of England, which included intense persecution. Consequently, Puritanism was shaped, in many ways, by those trials and tribulations that they faced at the hands of the mother country. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and these experiences caused the Puritans to seek reformation by seeking personal revival.

Hungry for Revival

They became hungry for revival. They wanted so much to see God revive the Church of England and reform it. If you have ever been in a church that is in unfaithful to its witness and were desperate to see God move, you probably understand the Puritan mindset. To them, reform and revival were synonymous. While in England and later in America, one of the Puritan motivations for reform was to create an ideal society, a sort of Christian Utopia. They wanted to create a society that glorified God by becoming the model Christian culture. To aid in this reform endeavor the hearts of the people had to be changed. This meant that their hearts needed to be made right, and the way to do this was for God to bring personal revival. However, as several decades passed trying to bring about reform in England, the Puritans realized their dream to bring about such reform would never happen so they decided to set sail for the New World and pursue those goals there.

The Puritan story, then, is a revival story, as J. I. Packer points out, striving for a “spiritually renewed nation”, a theme that is still prevalent in America today. Revival as he sees it is “a work of God by his Spirit through his word bringing the spiritually dead to living faith in Christ and renewing the inner life of Christians who have grown slack and sleepy.” Revival thenceforth brings a dramatic change in the lives of God’s people as well as the places they live. This was the Puritan vision. Their understanding of revival was much different from the contemporary talk of revival that permeates today’s church where hyper emotionalism rules the day with little change expected in the heart. The Puritans viewed revival as a heightened awareness of sin leading to truly repentant hearts; it is where a joy fills the believer’s soul, and a deep, permeating love for God becomes evident to all. This theme was reflected in a great part of their writings.

John Owen

In every great move of God there are key people who emerge to define the movement. When we think of the time period where early church fathers were center stage, people like Augustine come to mind. When we ponder the Church during the middle-ages men like St. Anselm and Thomas Aquinas are usually at the top of the list. Similarly, when we think of the Puritans, John Owen, the famed church leader and theologian during the Puritan era, should always be in the conversation, particularly when speaking about revival, as he delivered volumes of sermons and writings that pertained to this topic.

The way God shaped him in a story in itself. This deep sense of personal connection to God was birthed out of tragedy, enduring the hardship of having eleven children with only one of them surviving beyond adolescence. The one daughter who did survive would die later in Owen’s home after she endured a failed marriage and moved back to live with her father. Such experiences would have crushed the spirit of lesser men, leaving them embittered and detached. Owen, however, didn’t succumb to such temptations but overcame them with divine assistance. Such experiences shaped him into a powerful man of God who wielded much influence.

His writings reflect a call to revival. One example of this call is his focus on the wickedness of the human heart and man’s continual need for repentance. Issues such as this are dealt with in such works as Sin & Temptation: The Challenge to Personal Godliness and my personal favorite, The Mortification of Sin. Other revival subjects that were reflected in his writing are a call to intimacy with God in his book Communion with God. This work reflects the kind of person that Owen was, a man exhibiting a good balance of intellectual rigor, devotional piety, and a pastor’s heart, a rare combination of strengths. The power of the gospel is yet another theme that is reflected in his writing, particularly in the works entitled The Death of Death in the Death of Christ and The Divine Power of the Gospel. These works are only a sampling of the many works written by the Puritan divines.