Revivalism versus Confessionalism
Today the evangelical world is dominated by revivalism, whereas the original evangelical churches which sprang from the Protestant Reformation were confessional, not revivalistic.
In this article I will attempt to explain some of the differences between revivalist Christianity and confessional Christianity, and I will plead for evangelical believers to abandon the new measures of revivalism for the old paths of confessionalism.I want to make several things clear from the outset, lest the Christian reader misunderstand what I am trying to say. First of all, let the reader be assured that I am not opposed to “revival” in the positive sense of seeing increasing numbers of lost souls come to personal saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor am I against “revival” in the positive sense of believers being renewed in their personal devotion to Christ, their hunger to know God’s Word, and their desire to live holy lives before a watching world. Secondly, let the reader understand that I am not opposed to legitimate expressions of emotion in Christian worship or the Christian life. Nor am I against ascribing a proper place to the believer’s personal religious experience, as long as subjective religious experience is kept subordinate to the objective standard of Holy Scripture (the primary authority, the only infallible rule for faith and practice) and of the church’s creeds and confessions (which are secondary authorities, derived from and dependent upon the primary authority of Scripture).
What, then, are the differences between revivalist Christianity and confessional Christianity? I will attempt to summarize the major differences in the following points:
(1) Revivalist Christianity is parachurch in its orientation, whereas confessional Christianity is “churchly” in its orientation.
In revivalism, the Holy Spirit’s major work is viewed as taking place outside of the bounds of the local church and its ordinary Word-and-Sacrament ministry. Christians in the tradition of revivalism do not necessarily deny a place for involvement in the church, but revivalism as a movement tends to view the church as secondary in importance. The greatest work of God is viewed as taking place through parachurch “ministries” and those connected to such ministries (for example, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Campus Crusade for Christ, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the Navigators, etc.). By contrast, historic confessional Christianity has a high view of the church, and views the visible organized church as the main sphere of the Holy Spirit’s work in this present age. In fact, consistent confessionalists would argue that Christ has entrusted the gospel Word and Symbols (i.e., sacraments) to the visible organized church, not to parachurch “ministries” (some of which have been started by self-appointed, charismatic leaders who have little if any accountability to any particular church body). (By the way, confessionalism does not deny the legitimacy of voluntary Christian organizations which exist to carry out worthy Christian goals, such as feeding the hungry, addressing matters of Christian concern in society, supporting persecuted believers, etc. But from a confessional viewpoint Christ has not given voluntary Christian organizations or parachurch ministries the right or authority to carry out the official Word-and-Sacrament ministry. That official ministry has been given to the visible organized church alone.)
(2) Revivalist Christianity is subjective and emotional in its orientation, whereas confessional Christianity is objective and intellectual.
This does not mean that all Christians within revivalist traditions are anti-intellectual and hyper-emotional, nor does it mean that Christians within confessional traditions are devoid of emotion in their practice of piety. Rather, what this means is that revivalism lays great stress on producing a powerful subjective and emotional response to Christ, whereas confessionalism tends to stress doctrines, creeds, and intellectual knowledge of the Faith.
(3) Revivalist Christianity is a-historical and innovative (in the sense of always looking for new methods of outreach, worship, church life, etc.), whereas confessional Christianity is rooted in history and is inherently “conservative” (in the sense of seeking to “conserve” and pass on to future generations the heritage of the orthodox-biblical Faith).
The revivalist movement within Christianity is still the “new kid on the block” when it comes to the history of the church, and revivalism places very little emphasis on the importance of knowing church history or of conforming its practices to the historic practices of the church. On the other hand, confessionalism places great emphasis on the historic creeds, confessions, liturgies, and practices of the historic church. Confessional Christians tend to shun innovation, and they are aware of the fact that they stand on the shoulders of giants in the faith (theologians, biblical scholars and saints of the past whom God raised up for the instruction and guidance of His church).
(4) Revivalist Christianity is anti-liturgical (in the sense of stressing spontaneity and informality in worship), whereas confessional Christianity is liturgical in its orientation (in the sense of stressing the importance of reverence and order in the formal worship services of the church).
Every church has a “liturgy,” in the sense of an order of worship. To say that confessional Christianity is “liturgical” does not necessarily mean that all historic confessional churches use a scripted liturgy or prayer-book approach to worship (though obviously some do, such as historic confessional Anglican churches). But what it does mean is that confessional churches place emphasis on the importance of having a well-thought-out structure and order for the corporate worship services of the church. Thus, confessional churches tend to be more “formal” and structured than their revivalist counterparts (which tend to be more “informal” and less structured).
(5) Revivalist Christianity tends to be anti-sacramental, whereas confessional Christianity is sacramental to the core.
Of course, most churches within the revivalist tradition continue to practice Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. However, they tend to view the sacraments not as genuine means of grace, but simply as mere memorials and symbols, outward testimonies to the believer’s personal subjective faith in Christ. For Christians within the revivalist tradition, baptism means “I have decided to follow Jesus.” For them, the Lord’s Supper means “I am remembering that Christ died for my sins.” By contrast, confessional Christianity views the sacraments not primarily as a testimony to my personal faith in Christ (in the case of Baptism) or my remembering of what Christ did for me on the cross (in the case of the Lord’s Supper), but as Divine testimonies of what God has done for us in Christ. For the well-catechized confessional Christian, Baptism primarily means “As my body has been washed with water in Baptism, so God has washed my soul clean of sin through the blood and Spirit of Christ.” Again, for the well-catechized confessional Christian, the Lord’s Supper primarily means, “By God’s grace I participate in all of the saving benefits of my Savior’s broken Body and shed Blood – i.e., His atonement; and thus I am enabled to grow in my union and communion with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!” This is why most historic confessional churches baptize infants and then catechize those baptized children, with the goal of having those children of the church grow in their faith to the point where they can publicly affirm their baptismal covenant (in “confirmation” or public profession of faith) and thus take their place as responsible communing members of the church. (“Communing” means “able to take communion.”) By contrast, most revivalist churches don’t baptize their youth until they are older, and the goal of the church’s “youth ministry” is not so much to catechize the youth with the goal of having them participate responsibly in Holy Communion, but to seek to manufacture a crisis conversion experience in their young people, culminating in having their young people respond to an “altar call” and reciting a “sinner’s prayer” wherein they “ask Jesus into their heart.”
A word of caution must be mentioned here: While confessional Christianity is indeed “sacramental” (in the sense of viewing the sacraments as genuine means of grace whereby the faith of true believers is strengthened and confirmed, and not as mere “ordinances” or “testimonies”), consistent confessional Christianity is not “sacerdotal.” Sacerdotalism is a heresy that regards the sacraments as automatically and almost-magically conveying saving grace to all who receive them, as long as they are performed correctly by a duly authorized and ordained priest or minister. In sacerdotalism salvation is doled out by a human priesthood, and is automatically received simply by participation in the outward form and ceremony. Sacerdotalism ends up turning the outward signs and seals of God’s saving grace (the Sacraments) into the reality of God’s grace itself (i.e., it confuses the sign for the reality); and in doing so it ends up turning the Sacraments into idols (such idolatry being evident, for example, in the Roman Catholic Church, where the elements of the Eucharist are worshipped as if they were the literal Body and Blood, soul and Divinity of Christ). Most confessional Protestant churches recognize that the sacraments are effectual means of grace only by the blessing of Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of those who by faith receive them. Where the blessing of Christ is absent and faith is lacking, the sacraments are not received as means of grace, but as signs of God’s judgment upon those who dare to abuse His gospel sacraments (see 1 Cor. 11:29-30). The sacraments only benefit those who respond to them and receive them with hearts of faith in Christ alone. The sacraments point away from themselves to Christ and His saving work; and thus to trust in the sacraments for salvation (instead of the Christ to whom the sacraments point) is to misunderstand the very purpose of the sacraments (which is to direct our faith to Christ alone, not to the signs and seals themselves), and to adopt a sacerdotal mindset which turns the sacraments into idols.
(6) In revivalist Christianity, “ministries” are often run like a business (with the pastor viewed as or functioning as the church’s CEO); whereas in confessional Christianity the ministry of the church is pastoral and shepherding in its emphasis.
Revivalism tends to produce celebrity pastors and Christian leaders who, like Hollywood celebrities, perform on a stage and are usually known only from a distance. But in historic confessional forms of Christianity, the pastor is not primarily a church administrator (like a “CEO”), and certainly not a church celebrity; rather, the pastor is primarily viewed as a shepherd, serving under Jesus Christ the Chief Shepherd of His sheep. Just as an earthly shepherd is expected to know his sheep by name and to care for their individual needs, in confessional Christianity the pastor is expected to know the “sheep” entrusted to his care. As such, in historic confessionalism the pastor is expected not only to preach and lead public worship and administer the sacraments, but also to visit the members in the home, to assist in catechizing the covenant youth of the church, to counsel the distressed and the wayward, to evangelize the lost, to pray for all the members of the church and their individual needs, to practice hospitality, and in general to be accessible and available to the congregants under his charge and to strangers from the faith who inquire about the gospel.
(7) Revivalist Christianity stresses crisis conversion and “decisionalism” (i.e., making a “decision for Christ”); whereas historic confessional Christianity stresses the covenant nurture of baptized youth and gradual discipleship within the context of the ordinary Word-and-Sacrament ministry of the visible-organized church.
This does not mean that confessional Christianity is anti-conversionist. Nor do confessional Christians deny that some of God’s people are brought to saving faith in Christ (i.e., converted) in dramatic ways, or in the context of a crisis experience. Certainly those who come to faith in Christ from outside of the Christian religion (for example, Jews, Muslims, or atheists who are converted to Christ) will usually have such a “crisis conversion.” But confessional Christianity does not question the validity of one’s profession of faith in Christ merely on the basis of an absence of a dramatic testimony. Revivalist Christianity tends to stress the need for Christians to have a dramatic “testimony” of their personal faith, where there is a clear line of distinction between a time “before” they came to Christ and a time “after” they were converted. In revivalism, if you cannot remember the exact date and time when you first made a “decision for Christ,” then it is likely that the genuineness of your Christian faith will be questioned. However, confessional Christianity recognizes that many who are raised in the church cannot remember a precise time when they first came to trust in Christ. This is especially true of baptized youth in the church who are raised in godly homes and taught from their youngest years to repent of their sins and trust in Jesus Christ alone for their salvation. While some covenant youth do not come to a personal faith until later in life, the confessional ideal for a covenant home is that of a baptized child not knowing a time when he/she did not trust in, love, or follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Revivalism poses the danger of causing Christian children to doubt the genuineness of their faith simply because they haven’t experienced a dramatic crisis conversion experience. But, as I believe the evangelical Anglican theologian J.I. Packer once put it, the important thing is not “Can I remember the first time when I repented of my sins and believed in Christ as my Savior?” The important thing is “Am I now repentant for my sins and am I now trusting personally in Christ as my Lord and Savior?” In other words, the important thing is not conversion (in the sense of being able to remember when you were first converted to Christ or in the sense of having a crisis conversion experience); the important thing is “convertedness” (i.e., living a converted life, a life that manifests personal faith and repentance).
(8) Revivalist Christianity places great emphasis on that which is spectacular, extraordinary and unusual, whereas confessional Christianity places emphasis on the ordinary Word-and-Sacrament ministry of the church.
Again, this is not to say that confessionalism denies that God sometimes chooses to work in unusual and extraordinary ways. But confessional Christianity does not focus on the unusual and extraordinary, but rather upon the ordinary ways that God chooses to work (i.e., through the ordinary Word-and-Sacrament ministry of the church). But revivalism tends to lay great stress on allegedly extraordinary and spectacular workings of God or of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the reasons why revivalism appeals so much to American Christians, since we Americans love that which is “fresh,” that which is new, that which is spectacular and unusual. But the danger here in revivalism is that it is prone to hype, prone to exaggeration, prone to hyper-“enthusiasm.” Just as Christians in the revivalist tradition are pressured to have a crisis conversion experience, so too they can experience a subtle pressure to “pad their testimony” by exaggerating and over-dramatizing their personal testimony. In a worst case scenario it can actually lead professing Christians into dishonestly creating a persona that is not true to fact (for example, inventing or exaggerating the seriousness of past sins so as to make one’s testimony more dramatic in its effect). It is my opinion that this is where revivalism is most dangerous. It tends to promote a kind of hype that is phony to the core, but which appeals to immature Christians and emotionally-oriented “stony ground hearers” (see Mark 4:1-20, especially vv. 5, 16-17). But confessionalism, when practiced faithfully and consistently, promotes a stable, mature, and ever-growing faith in Christ, in the fellowship of His Body, the church.
Revivalism in its various manifestations is the majority report in American evangelicalism today. While there are many sincere Christians to be found within the revivalist tradition, and while revivalism has produced some good fruit, it is my contention that on the whole revivalism has done much more harm than good to the world Christian movement. In my opinion, it has produced myriads of false converts and filled the churches with hyper-emotional stony ground hearers and immature, stagnant believers. “But we can’t go back!” to the old paths of historic confessionalism, someone might say. To which I respond: Why not? The people of God have lost their way the past few centuries in a quagmire of historically-rootless revivalism. It is time for God’s people to return to the steady, mature, churchly “faith of our fathers” – a faith that is revealed in the Bible, a faith which grew in the soil of the early church fathers and the ancient ecumencial creeds, and which has come to mature expression in the theology of the Protestant Reformation and in the historic confessions of the Protestant churches. Let the people of God return to the “old paths” – the paths of historic, biblically-confessional Christianity!
Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice by R. Scott Clark (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing; Copyright 2008 by R. Scott Clark)
The Lost Soul of American Protestantism by D.G. Hart (Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.; Copyright 2002)
In the Face of God: The Dangers & Delights of Spiritual Intimacy by Michael Horton (Dallas, London, Vancouver, Melbourne: Word Publishing; Copyright 1996)