God in his goodness gives us the ordinary means of grace through his Word and sacraments to reveal who he is, what he has done, and what he plans to do. But God sometimes gives us extraordinary measures of his Spirit and thickly palpable works of grace. That is, we enjoy special and distinct times of a fresh pouring out of his Spirit to bring the dead to life and the languishing to vitality. These extraordinary times should not be the sine qua non of the Christian faith. We must remember to be content with the Lord’s ordinary means of grace and to be faithful in the small things. But neither should we disdain or look with suspicion upon the supernatural works of God. After all, the author of earth, air, fire, and water also gives us the incarnation and resurrection and provides healing for the lepers and food for the 5,000.
Can you imagine that the Lord, out of love for his bride, the church, has been moving in people’s hearts in extraordinary ways in our day to re-awaken them to his gospel? I know we’re not seeing whole cities being converted as in the day of Jonathan Edwards. But what if I told you that this zeal for the gospel that the Spirit has been pouring over the Christian community is something like the seed of revival? Right now there is a lot of passion for bringing the evangel back to the center of our thought and life, echoing the conclusion of Don Carson’s book Showing the Spirit: “the church must hunger for personal and corporate submission to the lordship of Christ. We must desire to know more of God’s presence in our lives, and pray for a display of unleashed, reforming, revivifying power among us, dreading all steps that aim to domesticate God.”
Let me offer a personal example of this movement. When I quit law school to become a stay-at-home-mom I swung far and hard from an egalitarian worldview to a patriarchal model that was heavily obligation-driven and light on the gospel (that would be called over-correction). I sought order, feared grace, and looked down on the gospel because I thought it elementary. I wanted to move on from the “basics.” I devoured books that told me what to do to become a godly wife and mother, how to homeschool classically, how to submit to my husband, how to keep my kids away from the world and the world in the church, etc. etc. ad nauseam. (Just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with reading these types of books, per se, as long as in our minds these types of “help” books do not crowd out the Holy Spirit or Scripture.) I acknowledged that we enter the kingdom through Christ alone by faith alone, but at some level, out of fear of losing God’s favor, I embraced the idea that we stayed in by our good works. And so I threw myself into all sorts of “good works,” which in retrospect I see as fearing the unbridled work of God’s grace in our lives. I was intent on becoming a “godly” mother-wife-homemaker: protecting my children from learning anything from anyone except what they learned in the home, protecting myself from learning anything except what I learned from my husband, even protecting my family from mono- and diglycerides and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil by grinding my own wheat berries for homemade wheat bread. . . . I could fill pages with my list. This went on for quite a few years.
A friend of mine in a similar situation began using the term “gospel amnesia” to describe that state. I resonated with that description, and have used in my writings since. Elsewhere I have defined gospel amnesia as the condition where Christians get so caught up in the doing that they forget to be believing; they forget the gospel. That is, gospel amnesia comes about when a believer is zealous for obedient actions while the gospel is assumed and marginalized, even in favor of good things.
A couple years ago, the Lord shook me out of my gospel amnesia. We had elevated all these life prescriptions to such a degree that we were not capable of being good neighbors to fellow believers. I struggled mightily with anger and bitterness. This came to a climax in the summer of 2010. Our family was suffering deeply from a year’s worth of one hardship after another, some of them of our own making, some of them handed to us in the providence of God. My anger turned to rage, my bitterness became poison to everything and everyone around me. Early in the fall, in my Scripture reading I came to 1 John 2:9-11:
Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
I was undone. At that moment I stood at the edge of the black hole of my wretchedness. I knew that if I chose the way of anger, hate, and rage I would be swallowed up by these sins that had dominated me for most of my life. I could feel the Holy Spirit beside me. It was clear, there was no reconciliation between the darkness of my sin and the presence of Christ. I ached for Jesus, but I loved my sins. Human words fail here, but the Holy Spirit within me chose Christ, and he loosed the shackles and broke the bondage to the sins of anger, bitterness, hate, and rage.
Looking back now I see that the work by the Spirit started in the spring of 2009 while I was reading The Prodigal God by Tim Keller. However, I fought it. I loved my idols. I was way more excited about all sorts of things I had raised to the level of salvific importance.
The Holy Spirit has been palpable to me since that day. His work has come in waves. This was the extraordinary work of God in the heart and spirit of an ordinary sinner. I merited none of it. This spiritual renewal did not come to me because I was more pious than others, or because I was somehow more worthy in God’s economy. There is no me in this! It was completely and purely the supernatural work of God based solely on his immeasurable grace. I am not an anomaly either, as the Lord is doing mighty works of grace in the lives of many ordinary men and women (see the story of Ian and Larissa).
Following the Reformation, much of the church has shifted to focus on the internal and subjective appropriation of salvation at the expense of the external, objective truths of Jesus Christ—-who he is, the life he lived, his death, resurrection, and ascension. Whereas Calvin and Luther and other Reformers put their emphasis on Christ, our contemporary evangelical movement often emphasizes the internal progress of self-help books. Tullian Tchividjian in “Where To Look When You’re In Trouble” quotes Donald Bloesch: “Among the Evangelicals, it is not the justification of the ungodly (which formed the basic motif in the Reformation) but the sanctification of the righteous that is given the most attention.” Proper attention to the forensic is crucial if we want to see revival/reformation in our day. We magnify the person and work of Christ. He is the only Savior, he is the only Mover of man’s heart, he is the only Justifier.
Focusing on the work of Christ should grow into declaring the work of Christ. Let’s remember the words of Jesus to the healed demon-possessed man in Luke 8:39: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” This verse, along with sections of Psalm 40, 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, and others like it should drive all of us to “declare how much God has done for [us],” always with the goal of inflaming love for Jesus.
When God in his grace took the scales off my eyes to show me the joy and the glory of the gospel, my spirit revived; when my spirit revived, I found a greater love and a desire for Jesus. The greater love and desire for Jesus (all by grace and the working of the Holy Spirit, of course) then fed into a greater desire to stay centered on the gospel; staying centered on the gospel (in spite of trials and weaknesses) moved me further into spiritual renewal and a grabbing hold of what Christ did on the cross. That in turn led to a passion for speaking and writing about the gospel and being moved deeply into it.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, instead of being afraid of spiritual excesses, or viewing with cynicism or suspicion the extraordinary works of God’s grace, let us keep our eyes open expectantly and plead the promise that the Lord “will pour out [his] Spirit on all flesh.”