Jonathan Edwards was one of the finest evangelists of all time. In what we know as the “First Great Awakening,” a great revival came to England and New England under his preaching along with that of George Whitefield and John Wesley. At this great time of religious awakening in Britain and America, thousands upon thousands made professions of faith in Christ. Yet, just around one hundred years later, these same locales across New England would be commonly known as “burned over districts;” places where religion had once burned hot… then died.
Indeed, Jonathan Edwards himself warned during this time:
“So it was in those great commotions that were among the multitude, occasioned by the preaching of Jesus Christ; of the many that were the called, but few were chosen; of the multitude that were roused and affected by his preaching, and at one time or other appeared mightily engaged, full of admiration of Christ, an elevated with joy, but few were true disciples, that stood the shock of the great trials that came afterwards, and endured to the end” (The Religious Affections, Kindle Edition, 54).
Even the great evangelist of our time, Billy Graham, warned about putting too much trust in the initial profession of faith saying that with much response comes the responsibility of great follow-up.
So what? Am I asserting that we should respond to great revivals of “religious affections” with mere cynicism and doubt? By no means! We ought to rejoice to see crowds enthused and throngs coming to make professions of faith in Jesus! But, we must also be prepared to deal with the aftermath. In a parallel story from Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8, Jesus, seeing the “great crowds” that were beginning to follow him, began to tell a parable. We all know the parable of the sower who came sowing seeds. Some of the seeds fell “along the path,” and some of the birds came a devoured them so that they did not even take root. Some of the seeds fell on “rocky ground,” where the seeds quickly “sprang up,” and then died for lack of soil and “moisture,” having not “taken root.” We see yet some other seed that fell among the thorns; these were quickly choked by the thorns and died. Without over analyzing or attempting to allegorize every detail of the parable, we can clearly see that sometimes the “seed” of the gospel is scattered, but doesn’t even fall onto soil. But we also see that in many cases, the same seed may fall onto types of soil that allow it to spring up quickly, yet for whatever reason, it quickly dies or is “choked” out.
The analogy is clear. In times of religious fervor or “awakening,” we, or a particular preacher may “scatter the seeds” of the gospel. This seed may fall into any variety of unhealthy or infertile soil. In these cases, professions of faith, “conversions,” and perhaps even baptisms may abound, yet the seed will not take root… and it will die soon thereafter.
But we can at last rejoice knowing that some of the scattered seed may fall onto good soil in which it will soon take root, grow, and blossom to produce much fruit of its own. So what’s the difference? Same seed, same sower, same weather… the difference is the soil. Let us understand this fully, we are not to judge the soil, wether it is worthy to receive the seed of the gospel. We are to liberally and indiscriminately sow the seed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, trusting the Spirit to do his work and rejoicing in the harvest. But we must rejoice with temperance, knowing that some who have been “called,” were not “chosen,” and will therefore not endure to the end when the trials of the world come against them.
We also see our responsibility in the cultivation of the seed do we not? Jesus sent his disciples out with a Great Commission saying, “Go therefore, making disciples of all nations.” But two participles follow that command that tell us how this is to be done; The first is “baptizing them.” We are first to make disciples by baptizing them in the Triune name, the initiation of their walk with Christ. Now, at this point, many churches are tempted to stop and consider their job done, resting on their laurels. But there is another, crucial step in the process. We are not only to baptize, but we are then to “teach them.” The job is never completed merely by recruiting professing disciples, the job isn’t even done upon baptizing them, in fact, it’s never fully completed until the new creation. But we can at least fulfill Christ’s command to its fullness by continuing past a profession of faith or even baptism by persevering in hard, rigorous, and faithful discipleship (Mt. 28.19-20).
So, in the wake of “revival,” are we, the local church, ready to take on the call that God has given us; not resting in the completion of the job by an evangelist (he has completed his task), but by stepping up and discipling those who have received the seed of the gospel? We know that some will not endure, and we lament their fall; but we also rejoice in those whom God has chosen, who will endure, and bear much fruit. And in all of our labors for the gospel, we must always remember that though an evangelist may “plant,” and we may “water,” and “reap,” it is God alone who gives the “growth” (1 Cor. 3.7).
“So, how did revival” go?” Some might ask. We’ll see. Give it a week, a month, a year… a lifetime. Obey God, trust his saving power, faithfully “cultivate,” and the leave the “growth” to him. He can handle it.