Tim Keller and D A Carson on When They Experienced Revival

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Tim Keller and Don Carson have experienced revival firsthand. Watch them share their experiences in a brand-new roundtable video.

Carson: The reformed folk have some heritage of revival. It’s not quite the same as  charismatic sort and it’s not the same sort as the Finney sort, but there’s a heritage of it. What kind of experiences of revival have you known  personally, or glimpsed close up or from afar?

Keller: In my case, when I became a Christian, 1970, in a campus fellowship at a college in Central Pennsylvania, the campus fellowship went from about  5-10 people at the weekly meeting, to over 100 – 150 people in about a period of a year. When we went off to the central Pennsylvania Inter Varsity Conference which is basically the chapters of Central Pennsylvania, university campuses would send send a few people. Generally, most of them had 5-10 people. And 3-4 would come to the conference. I remember that the same year, Bucknell, which is where I went, the same year that chapter grew enormously; it happened all around Central Pennsylvania. This was before social media. There was no way to coordinate it. And we’re trying to figure out what happened. We also found out  in 1970, there was an awakening of sorts on college campuses of Christian colleges, like Asbury College. There was a renaissance of campus ministry in many many places. When I went to Gordon Cromwell, I took a course with Richard Lovelace ‘The History of Awakenings’ and I realized -and Richard is a reformed theologian, he favored Jonathan Edwards revival, that it’s a gift of God, it’s centered on the preaching of the Gospel, it’s something that we can be receptive of, but we just can’t create. It’s not just something that you can meet the conditions, push the right buttons… And I realized when I read that, that that’s what I had experienced. And so, I’ve actually been a proponent of that  chastened reformed understanding of revival, not one that puts all the emphasis on emotion, not one that puts all the emphasis on human nature, ever since.

Carson: 1970, I was unaware that that was the date for you, because 1970 means something to me. At that time I was pastor of a church in Western Canada. And in Saskatchewan, which is one of our prairie provinces  there were some Bible evangelistic meetings by a pair of preachers called the Sotero twins. And they started preaching and in this church, people started getting converted confessing their sins, returning things they had stolen to the stores. The crowds packed in, more people getting converted, the crime rate went down after a few weeks. It was one of these things that you read about in older stories. Gradually, it spread out across the country. By the time it reached Vancouver, which is where I was, it had more elements of phoniness and people were beginning to domesticate it. But there was no doubt, I was crossing the country a couple of times those days and there was no doubt, you touched down and saw some of those things going on . It was a singular movement of the Lord.

And at the same time that was going on, there were other things going on in English speaking circles in French Canada. In other words, it’s almost a scattered around North America thing in 1970.

Keller:  I’ve heard that, but actually I hadn’t heard as much until this minute. And it’s intriguing that similar things were happening in the States that same year. Some years ago, I talked to a leader in Jews for Jesus, who told me that almost all of the founding members of the Jews for Jesus converted in 1970. There was just a group of people who became Christians  out of Jewish background, who then decided ‘we need to reach out to our own folk’. And that goes along with the history of awakenings, they’re not humanly coordinated. But there are human connections sometime. Some people hear and they start to pray because they’ve heard of something happening in some other place and they come under conviction that we need to be asking God for His power. And so, there is a human connection. There’s no media campaign, there was no marketing campaign, there was no group of people that got together and said, „Now, you’re gonna do promotion, and you’re gonna do this, and we’re gonna have a conference.” It didn’t happen that way.

Carson: It didn’t happen, and when it did begin to happen, it killed it; that is to say, at least in Canada. A couple of the big expansions in the new area, some minister or other who had been powerfully affected by this and then he goes to  another area and just gives his testimony of what the Lord had done and it breaks out again. The danger came, then, when somebody else said, „Okay, we’d like you to fly to another place again and do it,” and it’s beginning to be domesticated. It’s being packaged. And then, you get some of the tears and all that, but it just begins to feel phony.

Keller: Interesting, because under Dr. Lovelace, we had to read Edwards. Edwards had some 4 major books on revival- one called ‘Thoughts on revival’, which is not as well known. But, one of the things he deals with is that there always seems to be, especially as time goes on, a layer of phoniness, a layer of false experience. You do have people that are attracted to … some people just want the attention. And there’s a fair number- I remember, one of the things that Edwards says often happens is certain people would be attracted and perhaps at first they would have a genuine experience, but because their experience was so spectacular, they were often promoted into positions of leadership too quickly and it actually did go to their head. They very often couldn’t give good theological leadership. It’s remarkably insightful  how revivals go bad. But his whole idea was that that doesn’t destroy the credibility of the actual revival. It’s almost inevitable that strange fire gets mixed in  with the good stuff.

Carson: It’s one of the things that the devil is certainly going to try to do. And the little bit that I have seen on what I have read on the Welsh revival makes me resolve that if the Lord in mercy ever puts me anywhere near one of those hints, my first priorities will be to have as little to do with media as possible. And second, to funnel as much of this energy as possible in good preaching and systematic teaching of the Word of God, rather than endless recounting of experience. Becauase then there’s the danger of chasing the experience, rather than the Lord and the Gospel. You start by preaching the Gospel, then you get the experience and then you start chasing the experience. And that becomes an idol. And then, pretty soon it gets detached from Scripture and God help us then.

Keller: I think Dr. Lovelace gave me this definition. He said, „There is a review of revival that defines it as the extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit. And I remember I was taught  that the reformed understanding of revival  is an intensification of the ordinary operations of the Holy Spirit. And the ordinary operations are: conviction of sin, conversion, the giving of assurance, sanctifying us and turning us into more holy men and women. And actually, this is the dynamic, because I actually did see it about 6 or 7 months when Redeemer started. Not the moment Redeemer started, but there was a period between ’90 and ’91 that savored of what I experienced  when I was in college. New Christians have a lot of non-Christian friends. All of their greatest friendships are the people that really open their hearts to non-Christians. So when a new Christian, a person really gets converted, it has an enormous impact on people who know them. Secondly, when a sleepy Christian who has been inconsistent, sort of wakes up, that is also part of revival. They grasp the Gospel in a new way, they get in a sense on the heart, Edwards would say, of what they’ve always believed  about who they are in Christ. When a sleepy Christian wakes up, they become more humble, because they’re more convicted of sin, and also more confident, because they’re less concerned about what people think about them. And that makes you a potent evangelist. Because if you’re humbler, you’re not arrogant and off putting. If you’re more courageous, then you’re more willing to open your mouth. And I remember that because I had a very small number of sleepy Christians that kind of woke up upon the preaching of the word,  in 1990, and a certain number of new believers that Redeemer grew to almost 1,000 people in about 2 years in the middle of Manhattan, at a time when people were leaving the people because there was a recession and there was a high crime. And I look back on that and I say, „How did that happen? There were revival dynamics. It’s just automatic  that when a sleepy Christian wakes up, he becomes a better evangelist. And a new Christian is a great evangelist. And it was remarkable for about a year, when I just saw lots of people become Christians. It was a revival.

Carson: And you can’t organize that  with a set of criteria, you meet the criteria and you turn it on.

Keller: It wasn’t a campaign .

Carson: It comes from God, it’s  a gracious gift. But the point is: God can do it again.

Keller: Yes, and I think the Gospel Coalition, that could be one of the main ways in which we help our churches see that this understanding of revival is definitely something that we should be seeking God for. Essentially, it starts with prayer, but it’s also sought by – I think, Dr. Lloyd-Jones used to say, „In the Bible, you  build an altar and you ask God to send down the fire. He’s not gonna send down the fire if you don’t build the altar. But if you build the altar, you have to wait for Him.” He would say, „You seek revival by building the altar. It’s up to God to what degree He’s going to empower it. But, i would say it’s the faithful preaching of the Gospel, it’s extraordinary prayer, it’s leaders who model a renewed life. They’re walking little models of renewal. Very often, it’s a few converts who are willing to open their mouths to other people. And sometimes the fire comes down in big ways, small ways. But, you create the altar. That’s how Lloyd-Jones would put it. But you have to ask God to send down the power.

Carson: And even when we’re building the altar, we confess that our very desire to do so stems from God who works in us both to will and to do good works for His good pleasure.

Keller: Usually, revivals start well and after a while it’s not for that, it’s for the power and the glitz. So, it’s difficult; it’s one of the reasons why revivals don’t seem to last. It’s because of our sin. But, we still should be asking for them and seeking them.

Carson: Amen!

Keller and Carson on When They Experienced Revival from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

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