Books Evangelism The Free Church Theology

Reset or Revival? – AP

This weeks column in Australian Presbyterian looks at the current trend for ‘reset’ and, using Donald Macleod’s Therefore the Truth I Speak shows what the church needs most.  You can read the original here…

Everyone is talking about it – the UN, the politicians, the environmentalists, the media. Even the church wants in on the act. 2020 has been a pretty horrible year but, Hallelugnosis (praise the science)! Now we have a vaccine and soon everything will be back to normal. Or will it? Will there be a new normal? What about the subject on all the elite’s lips – Reset! How is the time to reset the planet, our countries, our companies, our churches and even ourselves.  That’s all we need to do.

Except reset won’t work. It would be like restarting a computer which has a bug in so deep that no amount of switching off and on is going to work. The world does not have a temporary glitch – it has a permanent problem, one which ultimately science cannot solve. It has ever been thus. Over 2000 years ago the Lord sent us The Way – and ever since then humanity has found that Christ is the deepest answer for our deepest problems. What we need is not a reset of society, but a revival of the Church.

“Can a congregation or denomination reach a point where it is so spiritually dead that there can be no hope of reviving it?

Donald Macleod has a fascinating new book out entitled Therefore the Truth I Speak – Scottish Theology 1500-1700. It doesn’t exactly sound like riveting reading but believe me it is. Indeed, if you want to buy your minister a present for Christmas this would really benefit both him and ultimately you. One chapter in particular has caused me to stop, think, repent and pray. It is entitled David Dickson and the Gleanings of Revival.. Macleod asks a pertinent question for today’s church: “Can a congregation or denomination reach a point where it is so spiritually dead that there can be no hope of reviving it?” Macleod goes on to show how revival is primarily the conversion and addition of new believers to the church. “In many a typical modern Scottish (Australian?) congregation even three sudden conversions would change the whole atmosphere. In any congregation anywhere, three hundred conversions would be an almost unimaginable spiritual tonic; and for any Christian pastor, there is no uplift comparable to the augmentation of large numbers of new born lambs.” When did any of us last see that?

I keep reading and hearing of new strategies, programmes, training and ‘reset’ within the church. But what we really need is new spiritual blood. What the society of the church needs is new spiritual immigrants – those who come with fresh ideas, new enthusiasm and the charismata that God has given to them. As Macleod says: “The truth is not so much that the revival of the existing membership produces the converts, but that the gift of new converts revives the existing membership. This is what we pray for when we pray for revival: fresh, young, spiritual life and love. And this is what drives all authentic Christian ministry: the desire of saving souls and leading hundreds, if not thousands, into the kingdom”. How authentic are we?

Revival is a sovereign work of the Spirit of God – not a campaign or strategy organised by a committee of the church, or one instigated by a particularly gifted individual. No man can start a revival. And no man can stop it. In speaking of where the 18th Century Scottish revivals took place Macleod points out that the Spirit moved where he pleases, not where we plan. That does not mean we should not plan, but it does mean we should make our plans in dependence, humility and weakness. “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Proverbs 19:21).

Macleod argues: “Anyone organising a modern evangelistic campaign would choose a university city, or a great cosmopolitan hub, but God chose hamlets. Ayr was not a great city, neither were Irvine, Stewarton, Nigg or Carloway, and neither was Northampton in New England.” I understand the significance and reasons behind focusing outreach and major efforts in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth – but we should not be surprised if God works first in Orange, Bendigo, Rockingham, Wyndham or Bundaberg!

“They believed these truths with all their hearts, and they preached them with all their might, and they yearned for an ever deeper understanding of them.

Although we cannot replicate or re-create the revivals of the past, we can learn from them. Those involved were all different, but they all had prayer, preaching and passion in common. John Welsh of Ayr was a man of deep prayer whose wife found him one night on his knees praying “Lord, wilt thou not give me Scotland?” John Knox cried out to God “Give me Scotland or I die”. Who is crying out “Lord, give me Australia or I die?” Macleod also points out something that makes much church leadership today nervous. “Along with these labours went a refusal to be bound by caution, convention, or by the argument, ‘We never did that before.”. He also points out that these men preached theology. “They believed these truths with all their hearts, and they preached them with all their might, and they yearned for an ever deeper understanding of them.” Is it not the case that our sermons are often well presented but ultimately shallow and somewhat superficial cliched lectures or pep talks?

None of us are fit for these things. In a most controversial but I think beneficial passage Macleod shows that ‘reset’ for people is not enough. New life is what is needed – even (especially?) in our churches. “Awakening means persuading thousands of Christians that they are not Christians at all. This is not simply a matter of theological illiteracy or Christians living in an open and impenitent defiance of the Christian ethic……it is something much more fundamental. Many in the churches have had no experience of the emotional and affective side of the Christian faith”. No bad conscience, no grief, shame or fear of sin. They think sin died with the Victorians or is something that other people do. As a result, they don’t experience the joy of burdens being lifted at Calvary. They know nothing of the ‘unspeakable joy, full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8). I sometimes wonder if we are so scared of the excesses of some of the charismatic movement that we have forgotten the emotional, affective side of Christianity. Is it wrong to want a ‘felt’ Christ?

This Christmas and New Year reflect on the words with which Macleod closes the chapter:

Their (our?) one great characteristic is complacency: complacency in the church itself; dead branches, lifeless members. What these need is not awakening, but resurrection (Ephesians 2:5). Surely, then, there is nothing we can do. No, but there is something we are commanded to do. We have to proclaim, even within the walls of our churches, ‘You must be born again,’ praying that God will use our human word, spoken with ‘poor, lisping, stammering tongues, as His very own word, and cause the dry, skeletal bones to live. (Ezekiel 37:3).”

Only then will we cry from the heart “Hallelujah”!

Have Yourself A Merry Cromwellian Christmas – AP


  1. I would offer revival yes but not as we know it. It’s not a romantic notion of what has happened in the past and a lamenting about this not happening in the present. And one “reset” enabling “new spiritual blood” may be a change in the church to be getting on board wiht how God is at work here and now and choosing to be involved with it rather than prescribing to God how he should be at work and naval gazing about personal inadequacy. Rather be standing up straight with shoulders back, unafraid and with dignity but also vulnerability (for if you love you are vulnerable) in facing the world and making important contributions to the world.

    “Can a congregation or denomination reach a point where it is so spiritually dead that there can be no hope of reviving it?” The branches grafter in are dependent on sustenance from the vine. Those branches that bear fruit are pruned so they produce more fruit. The branches that don’t produce fruit are cut off and thrown into the fire.

    Can there be no hope of “reviving” a congregation or denomination? What is not possible for man is possible for God. At the same time, its not a healthy assumption to make that this means he won’t cut off either or that judgement won’t come in the form of “OK have it your way”, him removing his presence, and therefore also his sustenance from either.

  2. I have been looking at the testimony of the late Arthur Williams (in the first 70 pages of ‘Out of the Depths’ by The Stauros Foundation). The group take Matthew 12:20 as their motto. Perhaps we sometimes get torn between the poles of love and judgement as evangelicals, when a different word-‘mercy’-might be a better focus if we want to see revival?

  3. “Awakening means persuading thousands of Christians that they are not Christians at all. ”

    What a statement! On Thursday evening, DV, I shall be preaching, in French, on the power that is inherent in the written Word of God. Because my French is not yet sufficiently fluent to be able to preach ‘ex tempore’, I must use a script!
    On Thursday, I plan to say: “Earlier this month, I was reminded that there are eight great spiritual revivals recorded in the pages of the Tanakh – the Old, or First, Testament – one each under Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Asa, Hezekiah, Josiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah. What is significant is that each revival was centred around the Word of God.
    There were, to be sure, other factors in these revivals, but the Word of God was always the foundation, and there can be no true and lasting revival without it. This is why it is so important in our day, when the need for revival is so desperate, that we first get back to a serious study of the Holy Scriptures, believing and obeying as best we can all that is written therein.”
    I am also in the process of transcribing sermon notes from many years ago, as the basis of my fourth book. It is based on the Letter of James and, I have a quotation from a copy of “The Minister’s Manual” – a monthly publication from the late seventies! The quotation ends: “There are critical weaknesses in the ways Christians learn how to live. Most Christians have not been taught to live a distinctly Christian way of life.” (Vol.3, No.9). I repeat – that was in the late seventies!
    Where do we find the teaching that is required? Your own question, David, is of paramount importance: “Is it not the case that our sermons are often well presented but ultimately shallow and somewhat superficial clichéd lectures or pep talks?”
    May the heavenly Father preserve us from scattering dry, hard, crumbs, when we have, in our hands, the Living Bread that speaks, supremely, of the One who could claim to be “the Bread of Life” (John 6:35).

      1. David has already provided the answer. I would have said: “The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” – which is, of course, the same thing!

      2. CB (and David), this isn’t a ‘gotcha’ question, but we are wondering what you mean by these ‘eight great spiritual revivals’ were ‘centred around the Word of God’?

      3. Thank you for clarifying the question. In the case of the OT revivals, I would claim that the Word of God was the Torah. The clearest example would be in II Kings 22.

        I would also add the Book of the prophet Jonah to the list of revivals. In that case, from the little that we are told, I would suggest that Jonah preached the Word of God, as it was given to him.

        Oh, and by the way, I was quoting someone else – they were not my own words (although I don’t disagree with them!).

        Hope that this helps.

    1. You probably accept a vaccine for measles, accept heart transplants, and other organ transplants and procedures such as dialysis. Once upon a time people died from problems with their teeth and yet, unless I read you incorrectly, you object to gene editing in the pursuit of eradicating potentially life threatening disease?
      May I ask why?

      1. It’s not about eradicating disease , at least for the Chinese. It is about the scientific improvement of their Ethnic / Genetic future.

    2. @ Alistair
      So you are okay with gene editing for the eradication of potentially life threatening disease, yes?

  4. I am OK with people spelling my name correctly.

    I did not, in any comment, express outright disapproval of gene editing , although I was originally a wee bit sceptical .

    My medical scientist son – in – law spent his Post Doc year at Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Medicine and he convinced me that GE is a worthwhile endeavour.

  5. On the theme ‘reset or revival?’ I don’t think this is a reasonable dualism. I am all for revival. Please, God, have mercy on us. I am all for more of us loving the Word. Please, God, come near to help us.
    But the talk of reset is more about a partial answer to our daily prayer ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. It is about a wider concern to have a more Godly society – that might in turn bring about prayers for Revival or might be brought about by God reviving us. I’d go for both and. As for the reset, I wrote a piece, as a former professor of Marketing, on this for the Jubilee Centre in Cambridge, concluding:
    “Rather than seeking a false, damaging, individual, independent, and imagistic existence, Christians in business should model a better ‘new normal’ for business. This means intentionally building interconnectedness, interdependence and integrity, that seek to honour and steward the resources, people, and natural world that God has made. Can we frame an approach to business that fits this story? Could that world better fit a story of a relational God wanting purposeful and intentioned business to help human flourishing? Intentionality needs to become the cornerstone of our business culture as we survive and thrive post-pandemic. The pandemic offers a possibility of a reset.”

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