That’s what I’d like for this year to be for Southern Baptists: A Jonathan Edwards moment. A moment in which the Holy Spirit moved to do something remarkable among God’s people. A moment in which the direction of the country was changed. A moment in which believers who trusted but little, hoped sparingly, and thought God powerless learned otherwise. Jonathan Edwards hoped for such a day and saw it.
His yearning for it is best expressed, perhaps, in his work An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth. Everyone loved long titles back in that day, and most moderns will simply abbreviate the titles to something handier. In this case, most will simply refer to Edwards’s “Humble Attempt.” But I think that it might be worthwhile for us to consider all of the elements of the long title.
But first, before I engage in one of my lengthy analytical lists, I want to cut to the chase and invite all of you who are senior pastors (even if you don’t like that title…I don’t) to click here and join me for a prayer meeting of this sort among Southern Baptists.
“An Humble Attempt…” Calling people together for prayer is a difficult task. It ought not to be this way among Christians, but we all know that it is, and most of us have to identify ourselves as the culprits. We’re busy. We’re pursuing different priorities. We—those of us serving as pastors—are more accustomed to doing the calling than to being the one called. But although the task is challenging and the logistical and personal obstacles are many, offering no guarantee of success, the attempt to bring people together in prayer is an attempt worth making.
And we ought to make the attempt humbly. We ought to make it knowing that the fact that we are praying is more evidence of what we need than of what we have. We ought to send it forth knowing that we, ourselves, individually, have prayed too little and therefore have been too little to face the days before us.
“…to Promote Explicit Agreement…” Frankly, I’m a little sick of hearing (and of writing) about our matters of disagreement. I’ve benefitted from hearing other points of view throughout my life, and I wouldn’t pronounce any ban upon the exploration of differences. It’s not the practice I’m against; it’s the proportion. I think the problem is not that we speak of our differences, but that we speak SO MUCH of them. And that’s true not because there are no differences in the great big world out there that are so severe as to be worthy of time and even of harsh words, but because, in general, among Southern Baptists, the severe differences have been adjudicated already. We have a good statement of faith in the BF&M 2000. Do you agree with me about its contents? We have taken a necessary and important stand upon the inerrancy of God’s Word as a convention. Do you agree with me about that? What’s left are differences that are so much less important than our points of agreement.
Of which points of agreement am I speaking? Edwards was referring to those who could explicitly agree that the churches were in dire need of revival and of determination to do more to advance the Kingdom. Our needs are as profound as theirs were. We need for God to move powerfully among His people. We are not like some denominations that cannot agree about the content of the gospel or about the need to carry it to the world. We are not like some denominations that cannot agree about the nature of the Bible and whether we even ought to try to obey it. We are not like those denominations that cannot seem to clarify in their own principles and practices how mankind ought to respond to the gospel. We Southern Baptists agree upon those truths, and they are supremely important and timely!
“…and Visible Union of God’s People…” Edwards’s pamphlet took the form of an exegetical treatment of Zechariah 8:20-22. Edwards believed that it was important for people from multiple cities and towns to come together in a visible display of their unity in prayer. It is union in terms of jointly coordinated effort. We can each pray for revival separately; there is something different and greater about doing it together. This is not squishy ecumenism of the modern variety; it is rock-ribbed determination to focus our efforts upon something that we all recognize that we all need.
“…in Extraordinary Prayer…” Edwards means by “extraordinary” not so much an evaluation of quality as an acknowledgement of exceptionality. We can all pray regularly and individually for God to move. You, if you are a mighty prayer warrior, possibly would experience a more “extraordinary” prayer (in comparison to the prayer experience of other people) alone in your prayer closet every day than would we all experience in a common meeting. And yet, that is the “ordinary” experience for you. There is something EXTRA-ordinary (outside your quotidian experience) about a one-time gathering for prayer to meet an exceptional circumstance.
Edwards found in Zechariah a template for just that—for a gathering of God’s people for a kind of prayer that went beyond the daily devotions of God’s individual children. Edwards believed that this special kind of prayer was important and powerful. I think he was right.
“…for the Revival of Religion…” Religion gets a bad rap these days, and unwarrantedly so. The word “religion” does not have a negative connotation in scripture. It strikes me as humorous and ironic that the word “religion”—generally lampooned and beleaguered these days—appears in the New Testament as a translation of a word that can equally be translated by the word “worship”—generally lauded and championed these days.
What Edwards meant by “the revival of religion”—what I mean by it—is the outward practice that reveals one’s inward heart. I’m talking about things like attendance at corporate worship, a regular practices of personal prayer and Bible study, financial stewardship including sacrificial giving, abstinence from sin, repentance and brokenness over personal sin, etc. It seems to me that a greater part of the malady that affects us today is not that we have outward “religious” rituals without the inward reality to vitalize them, but that we suffer from deplorable inward spiritual weakness evidenced in a disinterest in the natural outward results of inward revival.
After an encounter with the Holy Spirit, people will attend corporate worship more, not less.
After an encounter with the Holy Spirit, people will pray more, not less.
After an encounter with the Holy Spirit, people will run to the Bible with more hunger, not less.
After an encounter with the Holy Spirit, people will give more, not less.
After an encounter with the Holy Spirit, people will resist temptation more, not less.
After an encounter with the Holy Spirit, people will have greater, not lesser, sensitivity to the reproving voice of God.
It is indeed a “revival of religion” that we need. Not a mere invocation of ritual, but the kind of inward change that shows up in outward ritual.
“…and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth.” We run the play in order to move the ball down the field. We seek a fresh move of the Holy Spirit not because it will make our worship services more entertaining nor because it will fill our coffers nor because it will land our pictures on the cover of “Facts & Trends.” None of these are objectives worthy of God’s interest. We seek a fresh move of the Holy Spirit because people all around us and all around the world are dying and going to Hell daily. We know that the enemy makes much of our weakness. It is horrible objectively that people die without Christ. It is far more horrible subjectively when people near me die without Christ after having been disgusted and put off by my worldliness and weakness.
What we seek is that Christ would advance His own kingdom by means of us.
I’ve been, at a few times in the past, a bit of a curmudgeon. When we were debating the GCR, my position was, “Fine. OK. But I really don’t think this will help us much.” When we were debating the name change, my position was, “Fine. OK. But I really don’t think this will help us much.” I’ve had a tendency to be jaded…even to push back a bit.
But I’m telling you, THIS is it. Gathering to pray. Seeking revival. Submitting before the Lord. Humbly seeking together the life-giving power of God to be at work amidst us—this could help us SO MUCH. This digs down below our organizational structure or our marketing portfolio to our spiritual lives. I’m so thankful for leaders in our convention who considered it important to call us all to prayer.
You only get so much time away from the office. You only get so much money for travel. You have to make choices. I know that’s true. But I’m asking you, as your friend and brother, to consider coming to Texas September 30 and October 1 for no other reason than to bow before God in common agreement to seek Him and beg of Him to move among us.
I leave you with the words of Edwards himself, hoping that you will hear in them not only the voice of an eighteenth-century fellow-pastor, but also the voice of the Holy Spirit:
We are, unfortunately, too little inclined to pray because of our laziness and immaturity, or because of the distraction of our own worldly, private affairs. We have prayed at times, but without special seasons for prayer, we are, likely, to neglect it either partially or totally. But when we set aside certain times for prayer, resolving to fulfill this commission unless extraordinarily hindered, we are less likely to neglect it.