By Arthur Wallis
A brief overview of Church History and how God has worked to 'revive' dead or obscured truths.
"Remember not the former things nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" (Isaiah 43:18,19)
In relation to this theme of revival and spiritual awakening, let us first survey the past, then view some of the significant trends of the present, and finally say a word about the prospects of the future.
If we are to understand what God is doing in these days - if we are to perceive His "new thing" for our day - we need to study the past. Not merely from history books, with their limited human viewpoint, but we must study history as we have light cast upon it by the Spirit through God's Holy Word.
Let us take a brief panoramic survey of the work of God's Spirit in the years that are past. As we scan the centuries, let us try to discover the principles on which God has been operating. What has He really been after during the years of the Church's history?
Obviously, this is a large subject which could occupy volumes, but here we wish simply to point out what has been the master strategy behind the successive quickenings of the Spirit that have blessed the Church in the past. In a word, we want to show that every wave of spiritual blessing has had in view not only the immediate renewal of spiritual life in that generation, but also the recovery of spiritual truth.
In all the great spiritual movements through the years, the Lord has been seeking to recover lost truth and bring His people back to original Apostolic Christianity. This reformation, or "recovery," aspect of God's moving through the centuries is unmistakable - and usually has been a balancing thrust in one or other of two directions. Since truth and experience are inseparable and must be in balance if either is to reach its divine objective, we see the Lord moving to emphasize either doctrine and principle, or purity and fullness of life and power.
But whatever may be the emphasis or particular truth or phase of experience involved, in the mind and purpose of God there has always been one objective in view. That objective is a Church - washed by the water of the Word of God - which shall fully experience and fully express Christ, not only in the earth, but in the whole universe. Let us go back and trace through history this principle in action:
THE EARLY CHURCH
In the New Testament we have a clear picture of the early Church. It wasn't a perfect Church because it was composed of human beings, and they are never perfect. However, the early Church was perfect in constitution, perfect in the revelation of God's mind, received through His holy apostles and prophets. They had complete light and thus had no need to progress into fuller revelation in the ensuing centuries.
Through the apostles, the early Church received in that first century a complete revelation of the mind of God. This revelation is, of course, contained in our New Testament. But also, as they walked in the light of this revelation, not only the revelation but they themselves became a model of God's intention.
But alas, they did not always walk in the light that they had received, and things often went wrong. However, when this happened, the situation was dealt with in a way directed by God, and that also constitutes a pattern for restoration. Thus, not only in doctrine and principle, but also in practice, we have been given a perfect guide in the pages of the New Testament.
As they years went by, the Church, which had been born in persecution, thrived in persecution. As with Israel of old, in bondage in Egypt, the more the Church was persecuted the more she flourished and multiplied. The blood of the martyrs was then, and ever has been, the seed of the Church.
THE FOURTH CENTURY
Finding that this persecution was hastening God's purpose, the devil changed his tactics. In the fourth century A.D. Constantine became the Roman Emperor. He officially embraced Christianity. Whether he was genuinely converted to Christ is unknown, but nevertheless, Christianity became the legalized and accepted religion of the Roman Empire.
Instead of suffering the persecution of the state, the Church now enjoyed the patronage of the state. She was taken off her guard. The people of God, who had been watchful, prayerful, and faithful in the time of opposition, were now lulled into a false sense of security.
Without doubt, imperial favor brought the world into the Church, and what Satan had failed to do by persecution he achieved by patronage. As Dr. Edwin Orr has said, "It is one thing for the ship to be in the sea, but a different matter when the sea gets into the ship!" It is one thing for the Church to be in the world, but when the world gets into the Church a spiritual decline sets in.
Thus the conversion of Constantine, with the changes that this brought about - the introduction of practices of pagan origin, the rise of an ecclesiastical hierarchy based on the world system rather than Scriptures, etc. - led to a swift decline. The Church descended into the "dark" Middle Ages, and the light of true Christianity was almost extinguished.
However, even through those dark centuries, as E. H. Broadbent shows in The Pilgrim Church, the light of testimony was kept burning here and there. A few men like Francis of Assisi, arose as mighty giants of light and revelation, but the refreshing glow of their lives did not change the basic structure of things. There was no widespread movement, no general turning of the tide; and century after century, for a whole millennium, the tide of spiritual life continued to recede.
THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY
A thousand years from the time of Constantine brings us to the birth of a man destined to be one of the first great instruments in turning the tide. He was an Englishman, and his true name was John Wycliffe. In the fourteenth century, England's only Bible was the Latin Vulgate. The common people, utterly ignorant of its contents, were living in abysmal spiritual darkness, until this brilliant Oxford scholar gave to England a version of God's Holy Word in the tongue of the common people.
This was God's first strategic move to bring back His Church to New Testament faith and practice. A return to Apostolic Christianity must of necessity be a return to the Word. Thus the foundation was laid. With Wycliffe there began that stirring of opposition to a Church that had become so lifeless. A great preacher as well as a great scholar, Wycliffe soon made his voice heard. His position and influence gave him the ear of the people as he began to question the unscriptural practices of the Church of that day. In the providence of God, a mighty wave of spiritual life began to roll in upon the shores of Christendom - the Recovery had begun!
Following Wycliffe, we have the spiritual movement known as the Lollards. They were the "poor priests" that Wycliffe sent out to take the simple message of the Gospel from place to place. They were humble itinerant preachers. And in the century following Wycliffe, so successful was this movement that at the height of its power fifty percent of the population of England were either Lollards or in sympathy with them - a remarkable movement of the Holy Spirit.
They preached the Word, which contained the message of life, and the hungry people received it. The Lollards were even more outspoken than Wycliffe. God was paving the way for the great movement that took place in the following century.
The sixteenth century saw the raising up of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other great leaders. Under these Reformation giants, the Church arose from its awful bondage, and set herself free from the ecclesiastical tyranny of centuries.
The glorious Reformation broke over Europe, bringing into clear light the great truth of justification by faith. People began to understand the genius of the Gospel of God's grace which had so long been obscured by a doctrine of salvation by works.
The work of reformation, however, was by no means complete. Although the reformed churches had abandoned much that was plainly contrary to Scripture, they still retained very much which was traditional - things that belonged more to the old order from which they had been delivered than to the New Testament Christianity toward which they were groping.
In the century following the Reformation, we have the great Puritan movement. God raised up expositors, men mighty in the scriptures. They utilized and expanded the light that had come through the reformation. The emphasis, of course, was on the importance of believers being well-grounded in the great doctrines of Scripture.
The hearts of God's people were expanding as God was giving them more truth, more light, and more understanding. More things that belonged to the past were put away, and earnest hearts began to grope forward again to a true position in the light of the teaching of God's Holy Word. Out of the Puritan Revival came two strategic Church movements which were significant developments in the move back to Apostolic Christianity.
The Congregational Movement was a reaction against interference in the affairs of the local Church from an ecclesiastical hierarchy. They had recovered the truth of the autonomy of each local church, its right to order its own affairs under the direct Headship of Christ. The Baptist Movement which was closely connected, also stood on this ground, while going a step further in emphasizing the truths involved in the believer's baptism by immersion.
THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
The force of the Puritan Movement was spent as the eighteenth century dawned, and things seemed to be going from bad to worse. Too much emphasis on doctrine had no doubt caused a neglect of the "life" factor, and death was once again setting in. Religion was at a dangerously low ebb. Those who were supposed to be spiritual leaders had become corrupt and licentious; the common people were immoral and blasphemous.
It was then that God raised up two great men. They were Anglican clergymen; one, John Wesley, the other, George Whitefield. They were the two instruments in His hands for the great evangelical awakening that saved England from the horrors of the French Revolution.
The emphasis of the Methodist Revival, as it sometimes has been called, was at least threefold:
First, a bold assertion of instantaneous salvation by faith, accompanied by the inner witness, or assurance of the Holy Spirit. This was followed, secondly, by a strong emphasis on the subjective side of Christian life - holiness of heart and life. God was bringing His people back to the doctrine of heart purity and sanctity of walk.
Thirdly, there was the recovery of the truth - startling to the people of those days - that it was not necessary for a man to be formally educated and "ordained" to preach the Word. Any man who knew the commission of heaven could go forth as God's ambassador.
The requirements of a "consecrated building" in which to preach was also exposed as a dead tradition - why not preach in the open air as the Master did?
Thus Whitefield, Wesley, and their followers, under the open canopy of heaven, preached to vast throngs, and multitudes were swept into the Kingdom. Another great step in the Recovery was consummated!
But by the turn of the century this wave also had spent itself, and again the spiritual tide had receded. The need of revival was great. Here and there in the early part of the century there were stirring outpourings of the Spirit in the United States, followed the next year by a similar outpouring in Ulster and in Wales almost simultaneously. The revival in Ulster spread quickly to Scotland and soon was making its impact felt in different parts of England. God had again come in gracious power.
This century witnessed a number of significant movements in the great purpose of God to bring His people back to Apostolic Christianity. One preceded the mid-century revival by a number of years, others were the products of it. How different these movements were, and yet each made its own contribution to the progress of spiritual recovery.
The first was the Brethren Movement commencing about 1830, emphasizing the sufficiency and not merely the infallibility of the Book. They recovered the truth that the Bible reveals all that we need to know for both our daily walk and the ordering of our Church affairs. They saw that the truth of the one Body of Christ, as composed of all true believers, was the antidote to sectarianism. They also recovered the practical implications of the truth of the priesthood of all believers. Here was a serious attempt to return fully to New Testament Christianity.
Unlike many of the other recovery movements, the Brethren, to a very large extent, embraced all that had previously been recovered, besides adding the deeply significant points listed above.
However, again there came to be too much emphasis on doctrine, and out of the great revival of 1858 and 1859 there came further sweeping waves of refreshing heavenly life. These could be viewed as a divine reaction to the Brethren tendency to overemphasize objective teaching, thus supplementing the objective truth of what we are positionally, with the subjective truth of what we should be experientially.
The 1859 Revival in England brought a great wave of evangelistic fervor and missionary enterprise. Believers broke through denominational barriers and demonstrated in home evangelism and missionary outreach the oneness of the body that the Brethren were teaching.
In the midst of this wave of evangelism, the Salvation Army was born. A child of Methodism, the Salvation Army re-emphasized Wesley's teaching on holiness and grasped what most of God's people had missed - the social implications of the Gospel. They had a concern for the underprivileged, the down-and-out, the underdog. With dauntless courage, heroic zeal, and challenging self-sacrifice, they preached the simple Gospel of God's grace and ministered to all who were in need.
Another wave of heavenly life focused on developing the great truths governing the personal victorious life, and especially the emphasis on the New Testament doctrine of the believer's union with Christ in His death and resurrection while the believer was still on this earth.
The Keswick Movement was no doubt the principal expression of this life-giving wave of blessing, as is expressed in the writings of Hannah Whitall Smith, Andrew Murray, Jesse Penn-Lewis, and a host of others.
The present century commenced with a gracious movement of God's Spirit in the principality of Wales - the great 1904 Revival. A similar occurrence at the Azusa Street Mission in Pasadena, California followed in 1906. Out of that revival came the world-wide Pentecostal movement with its special emphasis upon the fullness of the Holy Spirit as a distinct experience, and its affirmation that the supernatural "gifts" of the Holy Spirit bestowed at Pentecost have never been permanently withdrawn from the Church.
This movement we could view as another supplementary reaction to the great recovery principles of the Brethren Movement. It may be a surprise to some to know that the Pentecostals have the fastest expanding missionary movement in existence today.
As we see what God has done in past centuries, it becomes obvious that we should not think that any movement has recovered everything, or has consummated the process. The attitude of - "We have got it all" - has too often characterized the more enlightened of God's people. In fact the more light we have, the greater the danger of falling into this trap. This is spiritual pride and inevitably results in the halting of further spiritual progress.
We must see each movement as part of a divinely instituted spiritual process that must go on till the consummation of the age. What a long way we have to go! Yet, there are signs today that God is working. Let us notice two significant trends.
First, God is stirring hearts all over the world with vision and faith for true unity - even that spiritual unity of the one Body of Christ* - and, second, at the same time He is also moving in nearly every circle of Christian life creating a thirst for Himself, for revival, for the Holy Spirit.
Although still rather scattered and obviously in a formative stage, several amazing demonstrations of the strength of this movement are demanding the serious attention of the Christian world. Many firmly believe that it will not be too long before the eyes of millions of restless, thirsty Christians the world over will be opened to see the significance of what God is doing, and a sweeping revival of New Testament Christianity will burst upon us.
* The Movements towards unity. The False: There is a trend which one feels to be dangerous. It has come to be known as the Ecumenical Movement, a movement towards unity among the Churches. We are seeing a coming together of denominational leaders, the activity of the World Council of Churches, a movement towards union with Rome. The danger of this trend is that it is encouraging a unity which is based on compromise instead of conviction, a unity that is organisational instead of organic.