FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Last week, we learned that the baptism numbers reported by the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention suffered another slight decline from 2007 to 2008. Total membership, too, suffered another even slighter decline.
In comparison with the alarm raised by these numbers, the use of the words “slight” and “slighter” may seem something of a misnomer. However, an accurate description of the decline should not be interpreted as an excuse, for the numbers indicate that in our local churches we really have a problem. Any decline in baptism or membership is a sign that perhaps we are not what we ought to be as instruments of God for converting the world. As a result of these declines, one leading denominational figure asked a pertinent question, “What is the needed change and do you have hope that change is coming?”
“Change,” of course, can be understood, from a value perspective, in different ways. Change could be a transition for the better, that is, towards God’s will — the New Testament refers to this positively as “repentance toward God” (Acts 20:21). Or, “change” could be a transition for the worse, that is, away from God’s will — in the Old Testament, God refers to this negatively as when people “turn from following me” (1 Kings 9:6). A third alternative is to utilize the language of “change” as a mere mantra to cover some hidden agenda. For instance, many Americans, jaded by experience, are apt to consider a politician’s call for change as deceptive and self-serving. Admittedly, there is a need for a true change, but Scripture alone provides the unchanging means to it.
With that positive call for “change” or “repentance” in mind, what would constitute a positive change on our part that may prompt God to bless the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention in manifestly great ways once again? By the way, let us assume that every one of those 342,198 baptisms in 2008 represent real blessings from God upon those born-again persons primarily, and secondarily upon their churches, their families and their friends. When but one sinner repents and believes, the angels in heaven throw a party because they recognize God has glorified Himself in another life (Luke 15:7, 10).
With such appropriate celebrations in mind, still we should ask, “How might we see even more believers baptized?” Our desire should be for even more souls to repent and believe in the divine-human person of the Lord Jesus and in His substitutionary work upon the cross and His resurrection. The focus in recent decades in our convention has been upon pragmatic solutions to such problems. There is truth in pragmatism, but pragmatism must always be firmly grounded in Scripture to be truly effective. So then, what method should we adopt to see a revival of God’s blessing upon Southern Baptists? What biblical method might there be to foster true revival in our churches?
THE BIBLICAL METHOD FOR REVIVAL
Well, Scripture provides some answers that are quite clear. For instance, let us examine the tried and true “locus classicus” for many a church revival in years past: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
Now, some crack Bible scholar might object that this passage is technically for Israel and not the church, which is certainly true in the literal sense. However, a similar restriction in application would deny Christianity use of the Old Testament as its own Scripture. Recognizing the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, I argue that the church is certainly able to see itself in this promise. After all, the New Testament also promises Christians that God intends to bless the humble (James 4:10), those who pray (Luke 21:36), who seek His presence (Acts 3:19), and turn away from sin (Acts 2:38).
Scripture, then, affirms this fourfold methodology for bringing about revival: self-humbling, prayer, seeking God’s face and turning away from sin. Now, I can offer no social survey to verify this method works to the satisfaction of men. Yet this method is advocated within the Word of God itself, so the believer must take it on faith that this is a divinely ordained method to seeing God bless our churches mightily once again. Let us consider the method in its four parts.
Self-humbling implies that the minister and the people of our churches must evaluate themselves honestly. Exactly who are we? Are we the giants about which we read in Scripture? Where is the Moses who can lead his people into what human logic would consider a long and fruitless journey into a dead-end wilderness, but faith sees beyond into the Promised Land? Where is the David who has encountered God in the difficulty of his own failures and yet trusts that God redeems those who will cry out in true repentance (Psalm 51)? Where is the follower of Jesus who understands that glory comes through self-renunciation on behalf of the other, and who is therefore more than ready to bear the cross? After all, the cross is the Christ ordained methodology of true discipleship, and discipleship focuses on the soul as it takes its eyes off of the world (Mark 8:34-37). Revival begins with biblical evaluation and humility of self.
The concept of prayer teaches us that the minister and the people of our churches must not look to their own power to bring revival. “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” is the method that the Lord gave to the people of Israel. And he gave it to them at their weakest point after returning from the Exile to the Promised Land (Zechariah 4:6). In a true revival, the leaders and the people of God will start their work in weakness, yet faith, and they will finish their work with shouts that it was grace from the beginning and grace to the very end that brought about the great work.
There is no room for human glory in a true revival; indeed, from a human perspective, true revival occurs in “the day of small things” (Zechariah 4:10). As the remnant that returned from exile discovered, it was only in their weakness that they were able to complete a great work of God. This is why they could finish the capstone work with shouts of “Grace, grace to it” (Zechariah 4:7). Ultimately, it is not a humanly devised method that wins men to God; it is divine grace working through a willing (though weak) people that wins men and women and children to faith. Our access to God’s sovereign grace on behalf of others begins and ends with humble prayer.
3. Seek God’s Face.
Exactly what does it mean to seek God’s face? The answer lies in the biblical references to God’s face. “The face of God” is another way of speaking of the powerful disposition of God toward a creature. When Jacob saw God “face to face,” he walked away a changed man and considered himself blessed, in spite of the crippling blow he received from God (Genesis 32:30). True spiritual blessing is accompanied by a palpable change, sometimes even physical, always profoundly spiritual, in a person. Perhaps the memory of Jacob’s crippling blessing prompted Moses to turn away from God’s face at first (Exodus 3:6). People typically want God’s blessing; we just do not want the painful and humbling transformation that comes with it. But one cannot have God’s presence without enduring His discerning holiness, too.
Solomon in his wisdom understood, moreover, that the face of God must be visible if salvation is to be possessed (2 Chronicles 6:42). When we want God to bless other men, men who in turn wish a blessing from God, then we must seek His face. If the churches will seek God’s face and if sinners will turn to God, He is faithful to bring a blessing (1 Kings 13:6). Perhaps what is holding back revival today is that many of us Christians refuse to surrender to God’s method because we don’t really want to see His face.
Recently, standing under a tree, I myself saw the face of God in a fellow Christian, who reflected back to me the difficulty of my calling with regard to the things of God. The encounter changed me profoundly in ways that blessed me even as I felt the man within me crippled (again) by the reminder of both my great task and my utter weakness. I thank God for letting me see His face in my friend. I pray that we Southern Baptists will seek His face and embrace the change He demands within our own souls, change that we may fear, change that we may not understand before it happens, but change that will benefit and cripple both us and the people whom God seeks to be His own.
4. Repentance from wickedness.
Positive change is not only about turning towards God through faith in the Gospel of the grace of Jesus Christ. Positive change is also about turning away from cultural wickedness. Moreover, true repentance is impossible unless God gives it (John 16:8-10), even as true repentance must likewise be the personal exercise of the human being (Matthew 4:16, Acts 17:30).
Why is it important to repent from wickedness? First, those who do not truly repent of sin have cast a shadow of doubt upon their salvation. Second, those who do not repent of wickedness stifle the working of the Spirit of God in their lives. Third, those who continue to live in sin even while they claim the Gospel of Jesus Christ bring disrepute to the church and cast aspersions upon their Lord’s character.
On the one hand, faith without repentance is the experiential basis of the ethical heresy of Antinomianism. On the other hand, faith with repentance is the definition of true Christian conversion. I am reminded of Jesus’ haunting words, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). One cannot claim “Jesus is Lord” but then ignore the claims of His Lordship. Jesus is Lord of our lives and Lord of our churches. To deny Him sovereignty over one’s own life is to deny He is Lord. To deny Him sovereignty over His churches is to deny He is Lord. The fourth part of the biblical method of revival is repentance from wickedness, whether that sin is personal or congregational. Biblically and historically, spiritual revival is always accompanied by moral transformation.
The question of my first friend, the denominational leader, is a good one. “What is the needed change and do you have hope that change is coming?” On the basis of Scripture, I would argue that the needed change for Southern Baptists is very personal. This change will involve self-humiliation, prayer, seeking God’s face, and repenting of wickedness. This came home to me personally and profoundly recently. I saw first-hand the need for a change in our patterns, a fundamental re-orientation of our priorities back to personal evangelism.
I also gained hope that God can revive Southern Baptists like me. Why? First, because God’s sovereign and very personal movement humbled me. Second, I have been called back to consistent prayer. Third, I have seen God’s face reflected in the eternal fate of lost and precious human beings. Repeatedly and intentionally speaking directly with lost souls, rather than teaching other Christians theology and bearing only haphazard witness to the lost, has reminded me of the Christian’s most important task on earth. It has also reminded me of our need for His grace to desire and accomplish it. And fourth, I am convicted that we need to turn away from the wickedness of a failing culture and embrace a revival of biblical methodology.
Several days ago, I joined my middle son and some 20 students alongside a seminary president as we went into the highways and byways of the Cross Timbers Association in West Texas. We went there to call men, women and children. Taking them to the Bible, we asked them to repent of their wickedness and believe in the free Gospel of Jesus Christ, a free Gospel that can change anyone. I was reminded that true revival does not occur at the denominational level alone. True revival occurs at the local and personal level, when we obey Christ and seek to make disciples, one-by-one, and then rejoice as the church baptizes them. I was reminded that the only way to recover personal evangelism is through a biblical revival.
Malcolm Yarnell is associate professor of systematic theology and director of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.