by Jim Elliff; 9MARKS MINISTRIES; 06.14.2022

In the early 1700s, between 75 and 80 percent of American people attended church meetings regularly. Yet huge numbers among them were unconverted. It was among these people that Awakening doctrines had their greatest effects. In other words, wherever people gathered, within or outside the colonial church buildings, the principle leaders were addressing church members who needed Christ.

What truth, among the many emphasized, had the greatest influence on unconverted church members in The Great Awakening? And who are the unconverted church members in our context who may also need this truth?

THE GREAT AWAKENING’S EMPHASIS ON REGENERATION

When George Whitefield was asked why he so often preached, “Ye must be born again,” he replied, “Because ye must be born again!”

Regeneration, or the new birth, was the prevalent issue of the Great Awakening of the 1740s. As Joseph Tracey said:

This doctrine of the “new birth,” as an ascertainable change, was not generally prevalent in any communion when the revival commenced; it was urged as of fundamental importance, by the leading promoters of the revival; it took strong hold of those whom the revival affected; it naturally led to such questions as the revival brought up and caused to be discussed; its perversions naturally grew into, or associated with, such errors as the revival promoted; it was adapted to provoke such opposition, and in such quarters, as the revival provoked; and its caricatures would furnish such pictures of the revival, as oppressors drew. This was evidently the right key; for it fitted all the wards of the complicated lock.[1]

This doctrine has repeatedly been at the heart of awakenings.

By “regeneration,” we mean the giving of life to dead souls as a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. Berkhof says it is “that act of God by which the principle of the new life is implanted in man, and the governing disposition of the soul is made holy … and the first holy exercise of this new disposition is secured.”[2] The Lord lived and died for his own, and as King, gifts our dead souls with new life resulting in sight, belief, repentance, and holiness.

J.C. Ryle said in so many words that the awakening preachers of that time believed in an indivisible union between authentic faith and holiness. He writes, “They never allowed for a moment that any church membership or religious profession was the least proof of a man being a Christian if he lived an ungodly life.”[3]

The attention to this truth, fed by their earlier Puritan theology, brought great conviction and massive numbers of conversions when preached and taught with the unction of the Spirit in times of revival. Where it did not bring conviction, it brought anger. Whitefield, who himself was written against in over 240 tracts of various types,[4] said that when you heard middle colonies’ preacher Gilbert Tennent (and his brothers) you were either converted or enraged. According to Gillies’ quoting of Prince in Historical Collections of Accounts of Revival, Tennent is said to have preached in this way:

Such were the convictions wrought in many hundreds in this town by Mr. Tennent’s searching ministry; and such was the case of those many scores of several other congregations as well as mine, who came to me and others for direction under them. And indeed, by all their converse I found, it was not so much the terror as the searching nature of his ministry that was the principal means of their conviction. It was not merely, nor so much, his laying open the terrors of the law and wrath of God, or damnation of hell (for this they could pretty well bear, as long as they hoped these belonged not to them, or they could easily avoid them), as his laying open their many vain and secret shifts and refuges, counterfeit resemblance’s of grace, delusive and damning hopes, their utter impotence, and impending danger of destruction; whereby they found all their hopes and refuges of lies to fail them, and themselves exposed to eternal ruin, unable to help themselves, and in a lost condition. This searching preaching was both the suitable and principal means of their conviction.[5]

Hundreds came in those days after Gilbert Tennent preached on his early ministry tour, more than most of the local pastors had seen in the entirety of their ministries.

THE UNREGENERATE CHURCH MEMBERS IN NEED OF AWAKENING

As in the period prior to the Great Awakening, unregenerate church members abound in our day. Who are the unregenerate church members in need of awakening? We must begin answering the above question by saying that those church members who profess to know Christ yet do not come to the assembly at all, or who come only occasionally, are on the main unregenerate. If you believe I am too acute by categorizing most non-attending members as unregenerate and think that coming to church is not specifically given in Scripture as a mark of the Christian, consider what failure to attend indicates. It tells us that the professed believer does not love the brethren, need the teaching of the Bible, relish the corporate worship of God, or acknowledge submission to God-ordained leadership. In general, the one who does not come says that the environment of believers is not his preferred environment. Perhaps because he is more satisfied with the world.

To illustrate our problem, in 2018, one beloved historic Southern Baptist Church whose name most Baptists would recognize claimed 30,000 members and an average of 6,801 attending. It was noted as the top church in baptisms among the SBC for 2018) at 682 persons.

If there are approximately 300 non-member children and 100 guests (a conservative guess) attending each week, the number would be something like 6,401 actual members attending on average weekly. That means approximately 21.3 percent of the church attends every week. Even if my numbers are off by a lot, the point remains the same. Churches that are smaller have less of a disparity in the SBC, usually somewhere between 35 and 40 percent attend on a given Sunday in those. This is alarming. And the problem exists in most denominations.

One of the distressing tangents to this problem is that many who are promoting revival in our day, and are the most outspoken, are the very ones most responsible for this disparity between the actually converted and the numbers on the rolls. If revival will come, I fully suspect that many leaders whose ministries are yielding the greatest numbers of unregenerate professors of faith will need to repent of this careless, blatant disregard for souls.

Often there are the finest of intentions. But that doesn’t excuse the startling lack of perception of the problem. Next month they will have yet another campaign to bring people in, 70 percent of which (or more) will eventually show the signs of being unconverted.

Who are the unregenerate church members who need to be awakened? They are not only those who do not come, but those who do not know Christ (i.e. enjoy intimacy with him) even if they do attend, because knowing Christ is the heart of eternal life (Jn. 17:3; Heb. 8:11). This was also the case in the colonial period when so many attended as a matter of principle and habit.

The unregenerate are also those who have no fruit of holiness or consistently bear bad fruit. (Mt. 7:21–23; Heb. 12:14; 1 Cor. 6:9–11). They are those who are not repentant (Acts 17:30; Jn. 2:23–25) and those who do not have persevering faith (Lk. 8:13; 1 Pet. 1:3-9). I have written elsewhere of these issues and will not belabor them now. But I will note this: our churches are filled with people who do not have the evidences of spiritual life, yet sincerely believe they are right with God.

AN APPEAL

My intent in this short article is to alert you in an introductory way how the doctrine of regeneration was used in arguably the most important and powerful of the historical awakenings, and to remind you that there are similarly many deceived church members all around us who need to be confronted with the same truth.

Pastor, you need to labor hard to know this doctrine well. Prepare yourself and those you lead by serious study on the subject. Like a physician prepares by deep consideration of the anatomy, give yourself to intense preparation related to this doctrine. Search for yourself through Scripture to see clearly the way the biblical characters and writers taught how life from God enters the dead soul and radically transforms the person. Though it has not been the purpose of this short article to explore the array of older and newer theological expressions of the doctrine, they are readily available. Make yourself a student of this powerful truth. Also, read the history of the First Great Awakening for yourself to see how God has used this doctrine.

By helping confused and often deceived church members explore whether or not they have been made alive, you will find this doctrine to be the most helpful. Leaders who neglect this doctrine will perpetuate the increase of unregenerate church members in our churches.

Having been in many churches as an itinerant Bible teacher, I have consistently found that the churches that seem to be the strongest often have many members who have worked through earlier deceptions about their conversion to arrive at a solid assurance with God. The probing was occasioned by learning that spiritual life in the individual produces noticeable change. The exploration into whether or not they actually have spiritual life altered everything.

This has been my experience as a pastor as well. How often I have heard the best of members say that when they learned of what the life of God in the soul of the believer exhibits, they discovered that they had never been given that life. Or, conversely, they discovered that they do have such life in them, thus giving them new assurance and boldness.

*****

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted and revised from “Revival and the Unregenerate Church Member,” by Jim Elliff, originally published in Reformation and Revival Journal.

[1] Joseph Tracey, The Great Awakening (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, reprint 1976), ix.

[2] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939, 1988), 469.

[3] J. C. Ryle, Christian Leaders of the 18th Century (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, reprint 1978), 28.

[4] Bob Roberts, International Awakening Ministries, from an unpublished paper.

[5] John Gillies, Historical Collections of Accounts of Revival, as quoted from Prince (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, reprint 1981), xii.

By Jim Elliff