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.
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.
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.” 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.”
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, 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.