Revivalism and Reformed Piety

Today we speak with D. G. Hart, Glen Clary, and John Terpstra about the relationship between revivalism and Reformed piety. Looking at the history of revival and its influence on the Reformed church we explore how Reformed and Presbyterian churches have has their thinking about covenant nurture altered by the influence of revivals, specially those which were spurred on by the Tennents and Frelinghausen.

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Christ the Center focuses on Reformed Christian theology. In each episode a group of informed panelists discusses important issues in order to encourage critical thinking and a better understanding of Reformed doctrine with a view toward godly living. Browse more episodes from this program or subscribe to the podcast feed.

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Pascal Denault

4 years ago

Is there such a thing as unregenerate converts or are covenant children born regenerate?
It’s one thing to say that you don’t remember being converted to Christ; it’s quite another thing to say that you never were.


4 years ago

This discussion is dangerous and corrosive. Even knowing well the views of some of the men involved I was shocked at what I heard. That Mr. Hart could actually say, in relation to requiring conversion of those brought up in the church: “convert from what?” From death unto life! From the dominion of sin and of Satan to the kingdom of grace and Christ! I won’t deny that the idea that regeneration is a lifelong process has some Reformed pedigree, but that doesn’t make it right or helpful. Regeneration is an instantaneous act: the passing of death unto life, in an instant; the terminus point of the process of effectual calling. What is ongoing for the rest of the believer’s life is sanctification, which is something quite different. A human being grows older all his life, but there was an instantaneous moment in which he came into being; became alive. One is either deaf or alive: naturally and spiritually. This is clearly the majority view of the Reformed church.

And I would say to Mr. Cassidy that, actually, if a ministerial candidate said “There was never a time when I didn’t know Jesus Christ” you should be very concerned! If such a candidate said something of the substance of “from my perspective there was never a time when I didn’t believe in God” then that might make sense, as those brought up in the church are told from their infancy that there is a God and that to believe in Him is normal. But that doesn’t mean they truly believe in Him with faith, rather than a mere head knowledge and it certain;y doesn’t mean that they know Christ or are united to Him. To know Christ, savingly, requires three things: an intellectual knowledge of who He is as saviour of sinners; an assent to that knowledge, a believing it to be true and not merely an assertion; a trust in Christ that He will save me, personally and has saved me, personally- not merely that He saves sinners, but that He will save me. Consider the crossing of a river: one must know how to get across (the boat tethered to the bank); one must believe said boat will carry one over the river; and one must place his trust in the boat and actually get in it and cross over.

And I will also bring in Clary’s address on revival and communion from the conference because it’s referenced in the discussion and it is so egregious, so arrogant, so malicious it must be commented upon. For someone who criticises Frelinghuysen for attempting to read the hearts of his congregants (allegedly), Clary certainly has no compunction in reading Frelinghuysen’s heart and slandering and comdemning him. A cursory reading of Frelinghuysen’s sermons will show what care he had for his people’s souls; how careful he was in the duties apportioned to him; how desirous he was to honour God. His care for the eternal state of his people’s souls shines from the page and that was why he was so afraid that they would go into eternity with a lie in their right hand.

Yes it’s a real lark to read Frelinghuysen’s sermons- jumbled up I might add, taking paragraphs from here and there and putting them together for dramatic emphasis- in an hysterical pitch and mock a man who was clearly burdened by the fact that so many in his congregation were deluding themselves. Frelinghuysen came to that congregation: those sermons are from his early days in the ministry. He came to a congregation that was not in a good state, where, it would seem, many professors were unconverted, being mere formalists. He had to deal with that situation. It is pointless- and irresponsible- to address a congregation comprised mostly of adherents and formalists as if they are regenerated saints growing in grace.

And in reference to 1 Corinthians 11:28: that text has always been understood as a personal examination as to whether one was in Christ; whether one had true faith; searching within oneself for marks of grace. Right back to Calvin that has been the understanding of that text: “By this, as I understand, he means that each individual should descend into himself; and consider, first, whether, with inward confidence of heart, he leans on the salvation obtained by Christ, and with confession of the mouth, acknowledges it; and, secondly, whether with zeal for purity and holiness he aspires to imitate Christ…” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559 Edition, Book Fourth, Chapter 17:40, trd. Beveridge.)

And then, to finish it all off, they (in the discussion) choose the Dutch Reformed church as the pinnacle of Reformed piety. This is beyond irony. To choose the branch of the Reformed church which lays most stress on personal experience in relation to coming to the Lord’s Table; which is rife with hyper-calvinism; where there are congregation after congregation of hundreds, or even thousands, of “members” and adherents and yet only a tiny fraction will actually sit at the Table. there is much to admire about the Dutch churches, please don’t misunderstand me, but this is a real problem within their ranks.

Of course, anything to take a potshot at the Puritans. Who, apparently, pitched form against experience. That is, the same Puritans who wrote the forms we still use, namely the Westminster Standards? Strange they would consider their own production antithetical to true religion.

There is a tradition which maintains a robust adherence to the Westminster Standards; which to this day, in certain pockets, catechises its children and examines prosepctive communicants by the Standards; which maintains the true purity of worship (i.e. absent the man made hymns, musical instruments and complicated services of OPC and PCA churches) and which is also nurtures a deep, experiential piety. That is Scottish Presbyterianism and perhaps the men in this discussion should actually do a bit more research and discover for themselves that the arid desert in which they toil is not how it used to be.

This was was a mistake from start to finish. It was not “dying men speaking unto dying men” but dead men speaking unto dead.

Glen Clary

4 years ago

I’m afraid reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.

Jim Cassidy

4 years ago


Thank you, friend, for confirming our deepest worries and concerns about the great awakeners.

John Oliver

4 years ago

I just wanted to add a few comments about this episode, and would genuinely like to read a response. When I saw the title of the episode I was excited to listen to it. But when I actually did listen to it, I kept thinking the entire time, “But where does regeneration come into this discussion?” “Where does the concept of being born again come into it?” I’m very familiar with the debate between the two sides during the Great Awakening, but I didn’t really hear the place for genuine regeneration, passing from death to life in this discussion, and so was very disappointed. If I’m misunderstanding something, please help me. Thank you! I am very thankful for the work that you all do at Reformed Forum. This episode was just “off” for me. But again, I’m open to being shown why I’m not understanding it. I hope this question has come off with the graciousness I intended it to, and I would greatly appreciate a gracious response.


4 years ago

Mr. Cassidy,

Are we friends?

Glen Clary

4 years ago

Dear John,

That’s a good question. Thank you for your graciousness and charitable spirit in raising an important question about regeneration.

Reformed theology has always placed a high priority on the blessed work of the Holy Spirit in effectually applying Christ and all the benefits of the gospel to the elect. The Shorter Catechism emphasizes the role of the Spirit in the application of redemption when it addresses the subject of effectual calling.

I affirm (and I’m sure the other brothers who participated in the episode do as well) the absolute necessity of the inward work of the Holy Spirit, who brings us from death to life, renews our wills and works faith in our hearts and, thereby, unites us to Jesus Christ.

The point that we were emphasizing in the episode is that no mere man has the ability to examine someone’s heart to see if he is regenerate. We can only examine a person’s doctrine and life. We cannot examine his heart.

Hence, if a person gives a credible profession of faith by affirming the gospel (doctrine) and living a life that is in conformity to Christian morals (life), then he should be admitted into communing membership and should not be withheld from the Lord’s Table.

We should not go beyond the external fruits of faith and repentance and attempt to determine the genuineness of someone’s faith/repentance by an internal evaluation. That’s God’s exclusive prerogative.

I agree with Joel Beeke (see his intro to Frelinghuysen’s sermons) that Frelinghuysen was wrong for attempting to discern the condition of a person’s heart by examining something other than the external fruits of faith/repentance.

Here’s how Frelinghuysen addressed the members of his own church:
“Come here, you careless ones at ease in sin; you carnal and earthly-minded ones; you unchaste whoremongers and adulterers; you proud, haughty men and women; you seekers after pleasure; you drunkards, gamblers, disobedient and wicked rejecters of the Gospel; you hypocrites and dissemblers. How do you think the Lord will deal with you? … Be filled with terror, you impure swine, adulterers and whoremongers. Without true repentance, you will live with the impure devils. All who burn in their vile lusts will be cast into a fire that is hotter than that of Sodom and Gomorrah.”

It is one thing to address pagans with such words but another thing to address members in good standing of Christ’s church in this manner. If they were living an ungodly life, if they were professing a false gospel, then bring charges against them and start the process of church discipline. Give them due process.

The problem is, as Frelinghuysen recognizes in his sermons, is that many of the members of his church were living an irreproachable life (thus, he couldn’t charge them with an obvious offense), yet he believed they were unconverted because they could not give him a satisfactory account of their conversion experience.

Rather than exercising the judgment of charity and treating them as converted persons until proven otherwise. He judged them to be whoremongers, impure swine, hypocrites, etc. and vehemently rebuked them as such from the pulpit in an effort to convince them that they were not true believers.

As you may have noticed in this thread, another person who commented on the episode has called me, Cassidy and Hart “dead men.” This is the sort of thing that Frelinghuysen and Tennent did when their colleagues challenged their teachings and methods. Tennent’s “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry” is the most well known example of this.

I have many good friends (colleagues in the OPC) who are strong supporters of the New Side and of the first great awakening in general, but they recognize (unlike some) the weaknesses and errors of the revivalists. I also recognize the New Side’s strengths and valid criticisms of the Old Side.

I don’t think I agree with Charles Hodge that the reunion was a good thing, but I’m happy to be in a denomination that allows the Old Side and New Side to peacefully coexist. When brothers can charitably disagree and debate theological issues, that’s a beautiful thing and is beneficial for the spiritual health and well-being of the church.

When the Frelinghuysens and Tennents, however, excommunicate (without due process) ministers who disagree with them, the church suffers. Even Tennent admitted that he was wrong for doing this and publicly repented.

Likewise, when ministers excommunicate members of their church without due process, they are violating the 9th commandment and abusing the power of the keys. This is what I perceive to be the chief error in Frelinghuysen’s ministry.


Jim Cassidy

4 years ago

Well said, brother!!!

Jim Cassidy

4 years ago

Mr. Smith, I sure do hope so.

John, thank you for your kind and thoughtful question. Well stated!

Glen may wish to supplement, or otherwise correct me here, but I will take an initial shot at an answer of your question.

Regeneration was not really the topic of discussion in this episode. We were focused on how the idea of revival influenced the Reformed church’s practice and piety. The church’s piety was in many ways driven (by the revivalists) by a perceived need to bring about regeneration. And so measures were contrived to make that happen. Frelinghausen and others used the terrors of the law as a measure to drive people to doubt their faith in order to cause an existential angst about the well fare of their soul. This would, supposedly, bring about regeneration.

But this is not an older Reformed view of regeneration. Regeneration is not something we can bring about. It is not something we experience in a sudden, ecstatic experience. Regeneration is the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. It is a work which the Spirit does, often unbeknownst to the elect. Regeneration is not something you feel, or something that the pastor can detect by a thorough examination of your heart. To be sure, regeneration is something that bears visible fruit. It manifests itself in faith and a life of godliness. When a session examines a person for membership they are looking for a credible profession of faith. What is a credible profession of faith? It is being able to articulate at least the basics of the Christian faith (that I am sinner, that Christ alone is my redeemer, that he is God, the Trinity, etc.), plus a life that is in keeping with that profession. A life that bears fruit keeping with repentance.

The pretty good awakeners were not satisfied with people who merely had a credible profession of faith. They saw them as a cold and dead people (a la my friend above). So, rather than granting them the benefit of the doubt, giving them the judgment of charity that their profession of faith was sincere, they drove them to doubt. Experience, in particular the experience of doubt, was the height of Christian piety. The truly godly were those who were uncomfortable in their covenantal skin. They were never at peace or at rest with God, rather they were shaken all the time, nit-picking at their every sin, to show how they are resting on their laurels to drive them to regeneration, a sudden and unexpected conversion experience.

How do you think that make the believer who grew up in the church learning and believing the Catechism feel? Like a chump, to be sure. He didn’t get to have that great sudden – WOW! – experience. He may have been regenerate in his mother’s womb. He never doubted the faith, he never not believed. Its so ordinary. And as such, his Christian experience is subpar. He needed to “get saved!”

Regeneration is only one aspect of conversion. Conversion is a process, regeneration is an instant. Conversion has outward visible fruit to it. Regeneration is invisible and quiet. It brings about a tumultuous change to be sure. It unites a believer to Christ, and therefore transfers her from the Kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of light. It irrevocably changes the course of the sinner’s life for the rest of her life and into eternity. But regeneration is not the kind of thing you can time or date with an certainty. I was converted in college. But I don’t assume that the prayer I prayed to Christ that night was the moment of regeneration. I may have been regenerated before then, but I believed and repented of my sin and my life without Christ in a pointed way one night. Then I went on, reading my Bible, thinking on the things of God, etc. No one knew it at first, not even my roommate to lead me to the Lord. He didn’t know I believed and repented until a couple of weeks later. There was no drama. Just a prayer before bed as I was drifting off the sleep. Regeneration had to precede that time, but by how much time I do not know. I saw the fruit of regeneration, but I did not feel regeneration. It is an invisible and silent work of the Sovereign Lord.

John Oliver

4 years ago

Thanks, Glen & Jim! Both of your responses were very helpful! I understand now that your discussion was much more narrow than I was expecting. I was not raised in the reformed faith and so still have a bit of the standard “evangelical” flavor to me. I was greatly affected by Edwards’s Religious Affections and can’t help feeling that the reading of it might be a tool in the Lord’s hand to awakening many in the visible church. Also, not wanting to be uncharitable, but haven’t you known many through the years who are in good standing with the Church and don’t seem to be walking in any overt sin, but who nonetheless seem to be spiritually dead, in that they seem to have no desire after Christ at all; they’re just nice people? I suppose we should simply be charitable with them and treat them as a believer, but there is often a nagging sense that I ought to be concerned about their state. And again, I’m not talking about knowing the day you got saved, but just having a lively faith, which I understand is hard to define, but I still think there’s something there.
Thank you both again for taking the time to graciously respond to me!
Blessings to you both!

Glen Clary

4 years ago

Dear John,

I was raised in the Pentecostal church and used to be a Pentecostal pastor. At one time, I would have said of all non-Pentecostals and non-Charismatics that they are spiritually dead. Today, I’m thankful to numbered among those I once regarded as dead Christians. Lol.

More to the point you raise, having pastored in the OPC for more than 10 years, there have always been members in good standing of the churches I’ve served who seem to be spiritually lethargic and who have little zeal for theological studies or participation in church events … outside of attending Lord’s Day worship. I too have gone through seasons of spiritual lethargy on occasion in the 25 years that I’ve been a believer.

I don’t think that’s an altogether unusual thing for Christians to experience. But to say that a member of the church has “no desire after Christ at all” seems to be overly judgmental. How can you or I possibly know that? We’re talking about members who attend worship right? We’re NOT talking about someone who has renounced the faith or who has left the church right?

When I have members who lack zeal for spiritual things, I don’t want to assume that they are unregenerate. I think true believers can go through times like this in their life. Am I concerned for such people? Of course. Do I pray for such people? Of course. Do I encourage and exhort such people to spiritual zeal? Of course. That’s what I should do as their pastor.

But as their pastor, I don’t think I should assume they have not been regenerated or tell them (as Freylinghuysen did in no uncertain terms) that they have not been regenerated. Can’t true believers lack spiritual zeal? Of course they can. A lack of spiritual zeal is a matter of concern; it’s not a problem that should be ignored. But it is not necessarily an indication that one is unregenerate.

Rather, as their pastor or brother in Christ, I should lovingly spur them on to love and good works, and hope that they would do the same for me if I’m ever in a state of spiritual lethargy. Such people need to be encouraged, challenged and perhaps admonished. But they should not be judged as non-regenerate people unless they reject the gospel, repudiate the faith, leave the church, or have been tried by a court of Christ’s church and censured with excommunication.

Unless that happens, we absolutely must call all members of Christ’s church brothers and sisters in Christ. We have no right to exercise the keys of the kingdom on our own authority and, as an individual, excommunicate a member of the church. That can only be done by a church court, through due process.

Yours in Christ,

John Oliver

4 years ago

Thank you! Very helpful comments!


Jim Cassidy

4 years ago

John, I think Glen did a superb job answering. I only add this:

There are, in fact, members of the church who seem indifferent and lethargic. Sometimes its just their personality. Sometimes they just struggle with a melancholy spirit. To press them to feel an unusual experience of great joy and delight, or some such thing, can actually have the opposite effect which is desired, namely a crushed spirit. Ministers with an overly experiential edge must be very careful with how they demand their members feel.

The opposite persona can be equally alarming. That is a persona that seems to be zealous and also pumped up for the Lord, talking the talk and walking the walk. I assume that they are regenerate as well, but not because of their outward expressions of zeal. I have met enough hypocrites in my life who are just extroverted and in the end fall away, proving they were never believers to begin with. So, once again, we grant the judgment of charity given a credible profession of faith and we just pastor them the best we can, encouraging them all along the way. Sometimes the believer who seems the most lethargic ends up being your greatest asset in the church, once you pastor them with a steady and regular diet of the means of grace, loving them and praying for them. That, it seems to me, is pastoral ministry in a nutshell. And after all, Eph 4 says that God gave pastors, teachers, and evangelists….not revivalists (i.e., specialists in soliciting emotional responses).

Keep up the good work, John, and asking all the right questions!

PS – I have read the religious affections and believe that their is much good in there that the modern evangelical should hear!

Sean McDonald

4 years ago

The Westminster Standards teach that, “They that are called to labor in the ministry of the word, are to preach . . . zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation” (Larger Catechism, Q. 159). If you are not “aiming at . . . [the] conversion, edification, and salvation” of your hearers in your preaching, you are in violation of your ordination vows.

But more than that, when you stand before your congregation every Sabbath, you are standing before never-dying souls, who must spend a Christless eternity, if they are never regenerated by the Holy Ghost, and united to Christ by a true and living faith. Even if you only think of non-professing children and visitors (without considering the likelihood of having false professors), you still have an obligation before the Lord who has sent you into His harvest to preach Him as the great Saviour of sinners, and that he that cometh to Him, He will in no wise cast out. Any unfaithfulness in this matter will result in their blood being on your hands.

But with regard to church members’ external obedience to the law of God, how many members of the PCA and OPC would be guilty of (1) neglect of family worship; (2) neglect of baptism for their children; (3) neglect of Sabbath evening worship; (4) neglect of the midweek prayer meeting; or (5) engaging in worldly employments or recreations on the Sabbath day? any one of which would have be treated as a censurable offense even in 19th century Presbyterianism, and which are still treated as censurable offenses in stricter Scottish Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed churches. In other words, based upon the standards even of historic “non-revivalist” Presbyterians, there would be no reason to suppose that many communicant members in your churches should actually be communicant members, or (in your mind) treated as though they are converted.



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