RECOVERING THE SPIRIT
By Will Graham
Exactly one hundred years ago in September 1912, the Sunderland-based Christian magazine Confidence was in full flow. It had just published its fifty-fourth issue after having begun under the great spiritual awakening that occurred in North-East England during the infant years of the twentieth century (September 1907 to be exact). Multitudes came from the four corners of the earth to experience a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit that would transform many nations with the power of the Gospel.
As I re-read these stunning editions which are brim-full of first-hand testimonies, missionary reports, Bible studies, sermons and exhortations to holiness, I can’t help but feel inspired by the holy freshness and godly enthusiasm which filter through every page. The heat of revival fire sparks forth from each article. There can be no doubt that the men and women caught up in that renewing work of God lived in close intimacy with the Lord of glory. Christ was prominent in all of their thoughts and writing. It seems as if God and the prosperity of His Gospel in the world were their sole reasons for living.
Perhaps the chief observation I have been able to make upon my reading of the primitive editions of Confidence is the constant emphasis placed upon the Holy Spirit as the key orchestrator of the whole revival movement. He is mentioned continuously and joyfully. Everyone involved with the magazine is almost at pains to declare that this work of the Spirit of the Lord has brought such great liberty and rejoicing to everyone involved in the Sunderland revival (and beyond). He regenerates! He sanctifies! He gives gifts unto men! He baptizes us with power from on high! He fills us to overflowing with joy unspeakable and full of glory!
Alexander Boddy, both the editor of Confidence and the pastor of Vicar of All Saint’s Church (where the revival kicked off) wrote in his monthly article a century ago that forty days after the resurrection, Jesus, “sent the Third Person of the Godhead. ‘The promise of the Father,’ on the Day of Pentecost, was poured out on the waiting disciples. Their Lord had breathed into them the resurrection life on the evening of the day of His resurrection, the spirit of regeneration, new life. On the Day of Pentecost came the Third Person of the Trinity, to give power to witness for this Christ, to reveal and glorify Christ […] The Holy Ghost teaches that this is the wonderful gift God is waiting to bestow upon everyone who believes in Jesus for the remission of sin.”
Boddy’s words pinpoint his theological rationale regarding the Sunderland revival. The revival occurred because the Holy Spirit filled men and women with celestial authority in order for them to give witness to Jesus Christ and the excellence of His Gospel. The same Holy Spirit who descended upon the one hundred and twenty in the Upper Room also came upon God’s people in North-East England. And the results were frankly astonishing! God stepped down; and His disciples stepped out in obedience to the Great Commission. The fire of the Spirit inflamed the hearts of multitudes to proclaim God’s greatness until they dropped. Eternity had caught a grasp of their soul. The Pentecostal flame blazed onwards and upwards across the nations through God-inspired tongues and bodies.
Bringing these historical episodes to mind is a stimulating experience. They show us that God is anything but dull and boring. Ninety years after the wonderful outpouring of the Spirit in Sunderland, I too came to know the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Recently converted in December 2002 and hungry for God, I couldn’t get enough of the Lord. I read my Bible from cover to cover time and time again. Whole days were spent immersed in Scripture. I would have done anything to find someone able to teach me more about the Lord. I looked for any excuse to pray to Him, to sing to Him, to learn about Him or to speak about Him. He became everything.
It was during a Bible camp in the summer of 2003 that God filled me with the Spirit in the terms that Boddy used. Back then, however, I didn’t know anything whatsoever about the baptism of the Spirit (not to mention Boddy and the Sunderland revival). I was praising God with all of my heart in the second meeting I had attended that particular evening and I felt as if there was a hand on my belly. All of a sudden, I fell to the floor and a mighty rushing power moved up from my stomach. It flowed out of my mouth and manifested itself in a diversity of tongues that I had never known. Even though I was something of a fervent linguist at the time, I didn’t recognize any of the languages in which I was speaking; but to be honest, I wasn’t concerned about identifying them. Something had overcome me that left me for hours on the floor and the mention of it today still makes me shake under holy conviction. God stepped down. He filled me with the Spirit just as He did with those primitive disciples.
I didn’t fully realize what I had received until a few months later when I encountered Smith Wigglesworth’s biography (an international preacher/ healer also closely associated with the moving of God at Sunderland). My experience lined up with what he had got from God and it filled my soul with joy. I understood that I was not alone. Later on, Wigglesworth’s sermons also helped me to see that what God had done with me squared up perfectly with the New Testament. That too brought much respite and breathing space to my heart.
I can only describe my experience with the Holy Spirit as a Copernican Revolution. Two colossal changes occurred in my life. Firstly, I no longer ‘thought’ God was there. I knew He was. God became realer than life itself. I knew for certain that God was Lord. From the day I was baptized in the Spirit until today, I have never once doubted the continual presence of God with me. Secondly, the Spirit birthed in my soul an untameable passion to preach His Word. I joined ranks with Christ’s witnesses. I found myself preaching to hares and horses in the field; to fellow shoppers in the supermarket; and even to myself in the bathroom mirror. The Gospel message consumed every fibre within me.
God’s dealings with me have led me to conclude that we cannot do anything of eternal use without the power of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit who lifted Christ up from the dead and formed the primitive church is also at work today. Perhaps one of the great lies propagated from Christian pulpits today is that what God did all those years ago must remain buried in the past. Such sentiments tend to be based on one of two arguments. The first idea is a theological one. It says that the baptism in the Spirit means regeneration. Nevertheless, this idea finds its roots in a rather faulty reading of 1 Corinthians 12:13 in which Paul speaks about being baptized into the body of Christ. The passage in question speaks of the new birth; but not of Holy Ghost baptism. We cannot confuse terms. Luke, for example, uses the expression 'baptized in the Spirit' three times in his double-volume Gospel and Acts. And when Luke speaks of the Holy Spirit baptism, it is always synonymous with prophetic praise and proclamation (not regeneration). In Luke’s account, the Spirit-led tongue swells up with ecstatic joy. We must distinguish carefully between the new birth and the subsequent baptism of the Holy Spirit.
The second objection to the Spirit’s working today is a historical one. In essence this argument opines that once the biblical canon was closed, God’s Spirit stopped working in miraculous manners. But that is a spurious stance. Just pick up a copy of some of the early Christian literature written shortly after canonical days i.e. works by Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, the Didache, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Cyprian etc. You’ll soon find that the Spirit was just as alive and active in their days as those of the apostles. The problem began when the hierarchical institutionalism of the church crushed the prophetic workings of the Spirit, and so every spiritual awakening that followed was condemned as heresy and ‘not of God.’ Throughout the centuries, then, the reviving power of God was always hidden away in separatist groups, kept apart from the mainstream of socially accepted Christendom. Things wouldn’t change until the twentieth century thanks to moves of God like those in Sunderland.
One pressing need one hundred years after the revival at Sunderland and the two thousand years after the revival at Jerusalem is the gift of the Spirit. We need power from on high. We need men and women covered with the mantle of divine authority. So we need to check our spirituality level. How are we standing with God? Before wrapping up, let me ask you some questions: have you received the fullness of the Spirit? Do you know what it is to be endued with God’s formidable strength? Are you willing to prevail with God in prayer and not let go until He blesses you? If you are, then you’re in a good place. Seek God. Seek earnestly. He’ll come again. He always does. He always has.