You may have heard of the modern “word of faith” movement. It might be the fastest growing segment of professing Christianity today. According to those of this movement, the faith possessed by Christians can and should operate like a force or power. If you have legitimate faith, according to them, then you have the potential for and should expect to have power as well. In the word of faith movement, this power or force of faith exerts itself to obtain things that you want—prosperity, position, or health. If you just believe, your faith can operate through your words with God to get anything that you want; that’s what God wants to do, and Christians should expect it. So you could change the world, especially your own world, by means of this faith, to create a healing, cause a salvation, bring about a good relationship, or to change an economic situation.
Like the Pentecostal or Charismatic “word of faith” gets these blessings and changes individual realities, the faith of revivalists obtains spiritual results by means of personal faith. I believe that both of these distortions of scriptural faith come from the same influence upon American evangelicalism, that of Charles Finney in the mid nineteenth century. The perversion of revivalism is actually an earlier error, more in line with that of Finney himself. “Word of faith” was a later development as an outcome of the revivalistic thinking.
Both revivalism and “word of faith” have a similar emphasis on the ability of man to cause his own spiritual effects by the right use of means. Both believe that faith can solve every important problem and create their own desired results. In both cases, the results make it inappropriate to question the means—the end justifies the means.
Finney believed that the faith of a Christian could and should produce a revival. In modern revivalism, a person reveals his faith by paying a price to get the power that comes from believing. If he really has faith, then he will persevere to get the power from that faith by lining himself up with enough moral guidelines to reach some threshold that initiates the spiritual blessing that God wants to give, dependent on his faith. The faith that merits revival also reveals itself in really, really wanting it, manifesting itself in praying long and hard to get it.
How does the faith of revivalism and the “word of faith” movement veer off a scriptural understanding of faith? The faith of the Bible is not a power that someone possesses to control something in his future. The faith of God’s Word accepts the reality that the Bible promises it. And we can see that future is not normally one of success and great results and health and prosperity. Faith is not an instrument that people use to acquire the future on earth that they want, but a God-given means by which men will accept the future that God has already promised them. Faith trusts God with its future.
Jesus didn’t send out the twelve with promise that they could see tremendous results if they only had faith. He sent them all over Galilee and said that they should shake the dust off their feet outside of the town or city that didn’t believe what they said. At times, many believed—that is true. But that is not some kind of paradigm that believers should take as an expectation for their future.
Genuine faith itself is the substance, not the results of that faith. What is promised for that faith? As you look through Hebrews 11 you see it to be a lot of suffering, difficulty, and rejection. You see that in Abel, who was murdered, in Noah, who was mocked and jeered before he was vindicated much later by a worldwide flood, in Abraham, who never did possess the land to which he set out on his long journey, in Moses, who gave up the Egyptian court, and then those who were tortured and saw asunder to reward their faith. They went ahead and went through their characteristically difficult times because of faith. Faith had no connection to worldly success or earthly results. They did what they did because they had placed their futures in the hands of the God they trusted. Their faith was in what God would make of their lives.
The attraction of revivalism is that it guarantees the results an individual of faith would want to receive. The allure is not its historic or biblical theology. Revivalists utilize proof texts out of context and then mainly stories of former revivals that have occurred since the inception of revivalism. They brag about special moments in the past that have come because of power from God they received by faith. No one should depend on these experiences as hope for the future. We can’t and neither are we supposed to trust anecdotal material as a basis for Christian living or decision making.
In its own way, revivalism corrupts faith as much as the word of faith movement. It redefines and misrepresents scriptural faith. Revivalism doesn’t really trust in God. Trusting in God accepts the results that God gives and is content with the outcomes from obedience to the Bible. True faith doesn’t judge based upon assembly size, reaction to a post-preaching invitation, or numbers of professions of faith. Faith brings its own built-in rewards—the indwelling Holy Spirit, the pleasure of God, forgiveness of sin, joy, peace, and contentment. These are rewards of faith in the midst of a sin-loving and God-hating world, where God promises that all they who live godly will suffer persecution.
Deviating from a biblical understanding of faith is obviously going to have an effect on the nature of the gospel. Revivalism has harmed the gospel in this way. Revivalism diverted the focus of the gospel from God and the Bible to the short-term results of believing. Scripture concentrates on God’s nature and His promises. Small alterations are enough to ruin faith and then those changes become bigger through the years, enough for damning deceptions and a broad road leading to destruction.
No one wants to be seen as faithless, and yet he knows he will if his faith doesn’t produce the required result to be seen as faithful. Men know this, so they produce the result that will merit the correct evaluation from men. They give credit in the end to the faith that they possess, but the real praise should go to the methods that they used to produce their results. They say it is faith, but it really is a unique mix of various technology, motivation, propaganda, techniques, and enthusiasm. It takes the form of various styles of music, lighting, comforts, conveniences, advertising, programs, promotions, and compromises. In many cases, the result given credit to faith isn’t a genuine result. It hasn’t been produced by the power of God because of its mixture with the man-made method or strategy.
The manifestations of the perversions of revivalism are all over evangelicalism and fundamentalism, including in the churches or organizations or people who are critical of revivalism. Non-revivalist preachers and their fans also judge their success by how big they are, calling that the “blessing of God on their ministries.” And other non-revivalist preachers crowd around those men and their churches looking for what it is the “successful pastors” have in order to imitate their methods. The sad result is that the One upon whom true faith rests doesn’t get the credit He deserves for the genuine blessing that He has produced that has nothing to do with the trappings of buildings, bucks, or books published. Many of these well-known churches are as guilty of leaning on methodological manipulation as any staunch supporter of Finney.
May we return to scriptural faith. May we seek to judge based upon biblical criteria. May we correct our belief and practice according to the Word of God.