Below are summaries from RBC faculty sessions given at the 2018 Ligonier Conference, Awakening. Dr. Stephen Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College, chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and a Ligonier teaching fellow. Dr. Derek Thomas is a visiting professor at Reformation Bible College and a Ligonier teaching fellow.
“The Power of God’ Word: Awakening through God’s Word”
When considering the need for an awakening in our modern ecclesiological context, it is imperative to consider what is actually capable of producing such a change. During his message at the 2018 Ligonier National Conference, Dr. Stephen Nichols asserts that the impetus for such a change must stem from, and only from, the Scriptures. If we are to be awakened to God, to the knowledge of God and to the prescriptive need to worship, obey, and submit ourselves before God, we must first and foremost submit ourselves under the Scriptures. Only God’s Word is enough to, through the Holy Spirit, drive someone to a state of awakening.
We see in Isaiah 55:8-9 that our thoughts are not God’s thoughts and our ways are not His ways. If we are to be awakened to God, it must come by something higher than our own human reasoning as God Himself is above human comprehension. Dr. Nichols noted that we are an infinite distance from God. This distance is also not just epistemological, but also corresponds on an ethical and moral level. We are infinitely far away from God in every single way. That is why the bridge which awakens our spirit to God can only be built upon the foundation of God’s Word to us.
Isaiah 55:10-13 is a key text which comes alongside this claim. Within this selection of verses, Isaiah sharply focuses on creation language. In verse 11 Isaiah uses natural elements as a metaphor. Just as the rain and snow comes down from the heavens to water the earth by which it produces life, God’s word comes forth from His mouth and brings to pass that which God purposes. Furthermore, God’s Word does not just come forth to bring about God’s purposes some of the time, but all of the time. Dr. Nichols explained that we must always proclaim God’s Word because it always accomplishes God’s purposes. God’s word never fails.
Dr. Nichols continued that when we trust in God’s word, we are trusting in God Himself. In a like manner, when we doubt His word, we doubt God Himself. In all manners of life, we must return to the Scriptures as it’s the only means by which we can receive spiritual awakening and spiritual sustenance. God’s Word is the truth which rips us from falsehood, and the light which illuminates our path.
Martin Luther stated in clear certainty that, “Everything is produced by the word.” The Word of God is source to every good thing. Every thing which we can identify in our lives as being good or true or godly stems first and foremost from the exhortation and revitalization found of and in the Word of God, respectively. So, in the vein of our need for spiritual awakening as well as spiritual sustaining, we would do well to follow what John Calvin so succinctly penned: “We must therefore return to the word,” for the word is good and the word is life. It will accomplish what God purposes.
“Born of the Spirit: Awakening through God’s Spirit”
What does it mean to be awakened, especially in the sense of being awakened from darkness and into life and light? During day 2 of Ligonier Ministries’ 2018 National Conference on Awakening, Dr. Derek Thomas addressed this very question by drawing an important distinction between general and specific awakening, noting the absolute necessity of new birth, and displaying the extraordinary nature of this new birth.
Teaching from John 3, Dr. Thomas exposited the story of the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisee named Nicodemus as a picture of the broader question at play. As Dr. Thomas stated, Nicodemus represents one who is living in the darkness of spiritual misunderstanding. He absolutely loved the Torah (the Law), seeing obedience and devotion to the precepts contained within as the only way back to fellowship with God. Dr. Thomas noted that Jesus’ words must have been a shock to the learned Pharisee. He was trying to earn his way into the Kingdom of God, and Jesus informed him that entrance into that Kingdom only comes through a new, second birth. In this, one can see the beginnings of the work of awakening.
This work of awakening, according to Dr. Thomas, highlights the absolute necessity of a new birth. Jesus told Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV, emphasis added). There is only one way to enter the Kingdom of God, and that way is new birth. This new birth is not grasped because of intelligence—being born a second time defies the intellect—and emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit.
Drawing his session to a close, Dr. Thomas showed the extraordinary nature of this new birth. It is not a cooperation between God and man. Rather, it is a work “born of the Spirit” (3:5 ESV) in which God is completely sovereign. Dr. Thomas noted, “You are not in control of your salvation,” a hard teaching illustrated, by Jesus, with the example of a powerful wind which “blows where it wishes” (3:8 ESV). According to Jesus, we can do nothing to merit salvation. Dr. Thomas added, “all you can do is cry for mercy.” Just like the first birth, crying out and gasping for breath represents evidence of this new, second birth. And the mercy we cry out for comes to us in the Savior. Dr. Thomas concluded, “God must break through and come down, in sovereign and efficacious power, to bring mediation.”
Summaries by Reformation Bible College students Mark Triplett, Jr. and Nate King.