God’s Spirit or Human Hysteria? My Time Among the Charismatics



I’ve been a Southern Baptist all my life, and my Pentecostal/charismatic friends in high school good-naturedly referred to my congregation as “the frozen chosen.” I never fully understood what they meant by that phrase until I attended, at the invitation of a friend, a charismatic revival service.

At First Baptist Church, we sang from the hymnal and quietly listened to the preached Word. The closest thing to disorder was an occasional “amen” or “preach it, brother” during the sermon.

It’s a vast understatement, then, to say the charismatic experience was brand new for me.

On the first night, I heard numerous messages in tongues. I witnessed seemingly uncontrollable laughter (“Holy Ghost laughter,” they called it), fainting spells, intense weeping and wailing, prophecies ranging from predictions of deliverance from headaches and cancer to forecasts of God’s wrath on select American cities. I watched a man and woman run laps around the sanctuary. In the corner, a younger man bounced up and down, convulsing as if he’d grabbed hold of a live electrical wire. In a pew behind me, a woman was engaged in what appeared to be jumping jacks, arms windmilling vigorously as she praised the Lord.

At one point, an older woman asked if I’d like to have hands laid on me to have my needs met. Despite significant neediness, I nervously declined.

After a couple of these meetings, my friend—a continuationist—sought my impressions. I expressed deep discomfort with what I’d seen, but admitted I wasn’t certain whether such manifestations represented a genuine work of the Spirit. I was skeptical but didn’t want to dismiss all I’d seen as purely carnal for fear of opposing a work of God.

He posed another excellent question: “If we aren’t really speaking in tongues, and if the Holy Spirit isn’t causing people to faint and act that way, what are we doing, then?” I told him I wasn’t sure, and today, though I remain a fairly convinced cessationist, I still wonder what’s behind such profound agitations of the body and emotions.

This was the mid-1990s, when similar things were seen among Pentecostal/charismatic groups in places like Toronto and Pensacola. Many behaviors were being credited to the Holy Spirit, from miraculous healing to “holy laughter” to “surfing in the Spirit”—even to claims of gold dust and angel feathers falling from the sky.

Such controversial manifestations are occurring today in venues like Bethel Church in Redding, California, and in various other charismatic churches and organizations across the globe.

Test the Spirits

While some of these manifestations clearly seem beyond the pale of Scripture, their persistence among evangelicals continues to raise the questions my friend posed more than two decades ago: What’s behind these behaviors? Are they products of a genuine outpouring of God’s Spirit, or do they simply arise from unbridled emotion or the power of suggestion? Are they Satanic counterfeits, as some have suggested?

Scripture demands we test the spirits to discern if they originate with God (1 John 4:1). The Israelites’ greatest threat wasn’t from the pagan culture outside their camp, but from false prophets within—many of whom drew larger crowds and were better known than genuine prophets.

On the surface, the golden calf incident had all the trappings of genuine revival with its large, noisy, even celebratory crowd (Exod. 32). But it was the opposite of a life-giving, Spirit-led worship service.

Edwards’s ‘Distinguishing Marks’

We are by no means the first to wrestle with these questions. Every revival since Pentecost seems to have been a mix of gold and dross, wheat and chaff—sometimes requiring deep biblical and theological reflection to tell the difference.

Such was the case in the 1730s and 40s during the famous revivals in America and England known as the First Great Awakening. The preaching of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), George Whitefield (1714–1770), and many others resulted in a profound outpouring of the Spirit, with thousands converted on both sides of the Atlantic.

While many were clearly under the influence of the Holy Spirit, Edwards and others admitted there were distortions and problems during the revivals. This included radical emotional and physical manifestations similar to those described above. Some church leaders criticized the revivals for such excesses, dismissing them as “extraordinary enthusiasms.” Others rejected it outright as a work of Satan.

Edwards responded with his pen, writing and publishing The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741), an assessment of the revival in light of 1 John 4. He surveyed what he called “neutral signs”—things that neither affirm nor deny a genuine work of the Spirit.

Edwards’s Distinguishing Marks offers sage wisdom in helping us sort wheat from chaff in questions like those posed by my friend and many others throughout history.

Neutral Signs

In Section I of Distinguishing Marks, Edwards riffs on things that are not necessarily marks of a work of God’s Spirit. Such things include:

  • Bodily effects. Emotional or physical responses such as fainting or shouting aren’t necessarily validating signs that the Spirit is moving. Convulsing, jerking, laughing and many other things were present in the First Great Awakening; Edwards warned, however, that these can be attributed to residual factors such as personality type or a tendency toward radical behavior under emotional duress, but not necessarily the Spirit. The Bible doesn’t offer a precise formula for how the body or emotions act under the influence of the Spirit.
  • Wrought-up emotions. A “soul-ravishing view” of the beauty and love of Christ might overwhelm a person, Edwards said, and work up their emotions. He warned against canonizing emotional responses, though, since persons of a different emotional makeup might not respond so radically and yet might truly be under the Spirit’s influence.
  • Immediate personal revelation. Among contemporary charismatics this is often phrased, “Brother, God gave me a word for you.” Sometimes that word will be Scripture. But Edwards pointed out that Satan knows the Bible and can readily quote and twist it, just as he did in tempting Jesus. Therefore, mental promptings—even those involving Scripture—cannot always be trusted.

Revivals have always been plagued by errors in judgment from leaders and participants alike, Edwards warned, and have suffered from the delusions of Satan. Great care and discernment are always the order of the day.

Positive Signs

So what does constitute a work of the Spirit? Edwards identified five lines of evidence that accompany a genuine outpouring.

1. A deep and aiding love for the person and work of Christ.

When the Spirit of God operates profoundly in a human being, he or she emerges with great affections for the gospel of Jesus. Christ is the chief object of a believer’s delight. Moreover, the Spirit does not shine a light on himself, but on Christ.

2. A desire to kill sin and break the bonds of worldliness.

The Holy Spirit creates in regenerate Christians a hatred for sin and accompanying desire for holiness. Their esteem of worldly pleasures—even good things—decreases by comparison.

3. A deep love for and desire to feast on God’s Word.

Since Scripture is the Word of God given to lead sinners to Christ and along the path of holiness, Edwards pointed out that Satan would never beget such a desire in people. “The Devil has ever shown a mortal spite and hatred towards that holy book the Bible,” Edwards wrote. “He knows it to be that light by which the kingdom of darkness is overthrown.”

4. An unshakable conviction of sound doctrine.

The Spirit will never lead a believer to embrace a doctrine not taught in Scripture. Where he is truly at work, the Spirit convinces men of the holiness of God, the reality of eternity, and the certainty of a day of reckoning. These convictions become a bedrock foundation for those whose blind spiritual eyes have been opened.

5. An increased love for God and man.

A genuine work of the Spirit will instill in Christians a humility leading them to renounce expressions of self-love. Love for God will necessarily lead to love for neighbor. As Edwards wrote, “It is love that arises from apprehension of the wonderful riches of the free grace and sovereignty of God’s love to us in Jesus Christ; being attended with a sense of our own unworthiness, as in ourselves the enemies and haters of God and Christ, and with the renunciation of all our own excellency and righteousness.”

Wisdom for Today

Some charismatics have claimed Edwards as the theologian who supports a bombastic expression of continuationism. Yet in his sermons on 1 Corinthians 13, published posthumously as Charity and Its Fruits, Edwards argues in favor of the cessation of sign gifts. Still, I think there’s much wisdom from his insights on revival for cessationists and continuationists alike.

How might Edwards advise us to approach today’s claims of revival? We can’t know, but given the thrust of his revival writings, I can imagine him offering four lines of counsel.

First, we must beware of accepting everything as from the Lord. Weigh spiritual experiences carefully on the scales of God’s Word. If it doesn’t balance, dismiss it as spurious.

Second, not all spirits are holy. As R. C. Sproul writes, the Spirit of holiness is also the Spirit of truth, whose operation is validated by the truth of Scripture he inspired and illumines. If it doesn’t push you toward a deeper love of Scripture and more passionate love for Jesus, then it’s probably counterfeit.

Third, we should be skeptical of any movement that draws attention away from the local church and its preaching ministry. Modern-day revival movements tend to focus on the individuals who lead them and the parachurch venues in which they occur. Wittingly or unwittingly, such experiences de-emphasize the ordinary means of grace—especially biblical preaching—found within the local church.

Finally, such movements often foster what I call a “lightning-bolt spirituality.” Adherents are encouraged to seek sanctification through intense emotional encounters at certain venues as dispensed by certain teachers—you’re struck by a spiritual lightning bolt and become instantly more sanctified. This response runs contrary to the Bible’s portrait of progressive sanctification through God’s ordinary means of grace, which develops slowly over a lifetime. As to cults of personality, Edwards pointed converts away from himself toward Jesus, away from the revival meetings toward the local church. A genuine work of the Spirit today will do the same. As Jesus said of prophets, whether false or true, you will know them by their fruits (Matt. 7:16).

So how might I answer my friend’s question today? I remain skeptical about those things I saw two decades ago, and I agree with Edwards that a close encounter with the Spirit of God ought to result in a radically changed life—both in the frozen chosen and in the on-fire charismatic.

Jeff Robinson

Jeff Robinson (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a senior editor for The Gospel Coalition. He also pastors a church plant in Louisville, Kentucky, and serves as senior research and teaching associate for the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies and adjunct professor of church history at Southern Seminary. Prior to entering ministry, he spent nearly 20 years as a newspaper journalist in Georgia, North Carolina, and Kentucky, covering various beats from politics to Major League Baseball and SEC football. He is co-author with Michael Haykin of the book To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Mission Vision and Legacy. Jeff and his wife, Lisa, have four children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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