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PASSION PLAYS DON'T PRODUCE REVIVALS

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

A sermon preached at the Fundamentalist Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles
Lord's Day Evening, March 14, 2004

"It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe" (I Corinthians 1:21).


Rabbi Daniel Lapin made this prediction about "The Passion of the Christ,"

The movie will one day be seen as a harbinger of America's third [actually fourth] great religious awakening (Los Angeles Daily News, February 22, 2004, Viewpoint, pp. 1, 4).

I hope that he is right, although I have my doubts. The word "harbinger" means "a forerunner, that which precedes and gives notice of the arrival of some…thing" (Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Collins World, 1975).

Mel Gibson's film is certainly a blockbuster. Millions will see it. But whether it is a forerunner to a fourth Great Awakening in America is questionable in my thinking. Like so many other fads (the hula hoop craze of the fifties, or the short burst of patriotism after 9/11), it may simply fade away without making any lasting impression on our culture.

I have conflicting thoughts about the film. On one hand, I am glad that many people are being made aware of the basic story of Christ's Crucifixion. On the other hand, I have serious doubts that this film, by itself, will lead many to a real experience of salvation.

Even though we long for another "great awakening," no true revival has ever before sprung from a passion play. The passion plays of the Middle Ages did not produce the Reformation revival. And passion plays were not connected to the first three awakenings in any way. If Gibson's film ignites a revival, it will be the first time that a passion play has done so. It has never happened before in the long history of Christianity.

The true forerunners of revival have always been an increased interest in intercessory prayer, and an increased intensification of preaching - particularly preaching on the vicarious atonement of Christ. No revival of any merit has been sent from God where these elements were not present in the churches: a renewed interest in intercessory prayer, and a renewed and vigorous emphasis in preaching on the substitutionary death of Christ on the Cross for our sins. Neither of these have been emphasized in my lifetime to any degree.

Unless many preachers fall to their knees in deep prayer for the unconverted, and rise up and preach strong sermons on justification through Christ alone, the film will have no more lasting impact on America than the "laughing 'revival,'" or the "Church Growth Movement."

Intercessory prayer and strong gospel preaching are largely lost to this generation. I predict that unless some pastors shut the doors of their prayer closets and pray as they have never prayed before, and unless they come out of their prayer closets with white-hot preaching - and deliver sermons "hot off the griddle" before the startled faces of their congregations, there will be no revival.

I think that passion plays like Gibson's portray enough of the Biblical suffering of Christ to arouse attention, especially in a secular, Godless society like ours. But how deep and lasting will this attention be? As Andy Warhol would have asked, "Will Christ have His fifteen minutes of fame?" Unless our prayers are heavy, and unless our pulpits flame anew with the message of salvation through Christ alone - this passion play will come - and go. The passion of Christ will have a few minutes of media fame, and then go the way of the hula hoop.

Several centuries ago, the great Puritan preacher and author Richard Baxter pointed out that

The first thing God uses to bring about conversion is hearing sermons in church.

"How shall they hear without a preacher?"
    (Romans 10:14).

God sent Paul to open men's eyes and convert them (Acts 26:17-18). God sent an angel to Cornelius, not to preach the gospel, but to direct him to a preacher, because God wanted to do things in the usual way, and have a preacher speak to the lost man (Acts 10:3-5). This is why Christ stopped Paul in a vision, and yet sent him to Ananias for instruction (Acts 9:6-10). It was by hearing Peter preach that the Jews were converted, and three thousand were added to the church all at once (Acts 2:37-41). It was God who opened the heart of Lydia, but why did He open it? He opened her heart to listen carefully to the things that were spoken by Paul, so she could be converted (Acts 16:14). God sent an earthquake to prepare the heart of the jailor, but He did not convert him without the preaching of Paul and Silas (Acts 16:32)… If you think you can read the Bible and be saved without going to hear the preacher, isn't this horrible pride in you - to think you are able to understand the Word of God as well without a preacher as with one? When Philip asked him whether he [the Eunuch] understood what he read, the wise eunuch said to him, "How can I, except some man should guide me?" (Acts 8:30-31), and yet you think you can read the Bible and be saved without a preacher!… Are you wiser than God, who sent His preachers? (Ephesians 4:11-16). If you say you don't need to hear the preacher, you must indeed think you are smarter than God, who sent the preacher to guide you (Richard Baxter, A Treatise on Conversion, A.D. 1657, edited and adapted to modern English by R. L. Hymers, Jr., in A Puritan Speaks to Our Dying Nation, Hearthstone, 2002, pp. 94-95).

Baxter's sermons were strongly evangelistic. They were not modern verse-by-verse Bible studies, given in soft tones. Baxter was actually arrested and locked in the Tower of London for eighteen months for hard preaching! He is greatly respected today as a true "forerunner" of the mighty revival that swept the English speaking world a few decades after his death.

History shows that passion plays do not produce revivals. Deep prayer and hard, uncompromising sermons, centered on the vicarious death of Christ, are the only things that have ever been true "harbingers" of real revival!

Without the preaching of a Baxter, a Bunyan, a Whitefield, a Wesley, or an Edwards, I think that Mel Gibson's film will be remembered only as a passing fad, shown to millions, as our nation moves steadily forward in its decline and fall! May God awaken the preachers in our land! May they preach Christ crucified until they sweat! May they shout the message of justification at the top of their lungs! May they rattle the pulpit and shake the people with the gospel of Christ!

"Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins" (Isaiah 58:1).

"Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me" (Ezekiel 3:17).

"Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters… come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price" (Isaiah 55:1).

Mel Gibson's movie gives the story of Christ's crucifixion, with some unfortunately Catholic scenes. But the basic narrative of Christ's suffering, death and resurrection has been presented to millions of Biblically illiterate people for the first time through this film. Now it is our task as preachers to take up the Bible and preach to them on their sins - which nailed Him to the Cross, to pacify the righteousness of an angry God! The film doesn't do that! Preachers must do it! They must preach on the propitiation of God's wrath through Christ's work on the Cross. They must tell the people that God's wrath fell on Christ, the substitute.

"Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he [God] hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin" 
      (Isaiah 53:10).

Nothing can take the place of strong preaching, followed by careful pastoral counselling. That's what the Puritans did. That's what ushered in the three Great Awakenings. That's what must happen again - or there will be no revival.

We have tried almost every conceivable gimmick, but none of them have produced real revival. Open a book on church history. Read about the three Great Awakenings. Go back to what they did. There will never again be another awakening unless we do what our Puritan forefathers did.

After strong evangelistic sermons, preachers must sit down and listen to sinners - listening to what the sinners who respond to their preaching think. This delicate work must not be delegated to others. The preacher himself must do it - by asking simple questions and then listening to the answers. This is what the Puritans did, and this is what we must do as well.

"It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe" (I Corinthians 1:21).

It is not the counselling after the sermon that leads to salvation. The sermon itself is the means God uses. The counselling only gives directions derived from the sermon. If the sermon has not prepared your heart you will not be converted at that time. And yet the counselling is critical. The absence of pastoral counselling of the lost is a deadly legacy from Finney's evil methods, which ruined the churches and destroyed the nation.

You have been thinking about Christ's death on the Cross. But why did He die there? He did not die merely to move your emotions. You may feel great sorrow over His suffering and death without being converted. Christ did not die merely to move you emotionally. Christ died to pay the penalty for your sins.

"The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:6).

You can know these facts for years without being saved. Then suddenly conviction of sin pierces your heart. Something that the pastor preaches reaches your soul. Many people say that it all becomes clear in a few moments. They heard it all before, but now it becomes vital to them for the first time. Their heart cries out, "What must I do to be saved?" The preacher says, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." The darkness that blinded their heart is suddenly swept away, and they see it all clearly. They find it so simple. They come to Jesus. And He cleanses their sins.

"Why didn't I see it before?" they ask. I can't really explain it in human terms. It is beyond human understanding. Who can logically explain Ephesians 2:8? I can give you the meaning of the words. I can give you the sense of the verse. But the reality of the experience is beyond human reason - at least, it is beyond my reason!

"It is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8).

Salvation in Christ is a gift. It cannot be earned. It cannot be learned. It cannot be memorized. It can only be received.

"It is the gift of God."

I can only give you human words. The Spirit of God must quicken the words I say. You have heard me tell you many times, "Come to Christ. Believe on Christ." Will you hear that call tonight?

"It is the gift of God."

Will you come to Jesus tonight?

"It is the gift of God."

"It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe" (I Corinthians 1:21).

Will you believe in Christ tonight? Christ died to pay for your sins. Christ is alive in Heaven. Come to Christ!

"It is the gift of God."

Come to Him! Believe in Him! Trust in Him!


(END OF SERMON)

Scripture Read Before the Sermon by Dr. Kreighton L. Chan: Ephesians 2:1-8.
Solo Sung Before the Sermon by Mr. Benjamin Kincaid Griffith:

"The Old-Fashioned Way" (by Civilla D. Martin, 1866-1948).

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