Reflections on Revival
Pss. 80:14,18-19; 85:4-7; 119:25,37,149; Isa. 63:15-64:12.
When I was growing up, the word Revival meant one thing: going to church on weeknights and listening to a man "Yell!" his sermons. All of us have probably faced the struggle of overcoming caricatures of revival. I had to face the fact that no matter what my experience had been early in life, it was wrong of me to equate revival with an evangelistic campaign. There is nothing wrong with evangelistic campaigns, or with attending church on a weeknight, or with loud preaching. But none of this is revival. You can't schedule revival. Revival cannot be predicted, but neither can it be precluded. There simply are no natural laws that guarantee revival.
What, then, is revival? Someone has defined revival as "a copious effusion of the influence of divine grace," i.e., a bountiful outpouring of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, or as J. I. Packer has put it, "a work of God by his Spirit through his word bringing the spiritually dead to living faith in Christ and renewing the inner life of Christians who have grown slack and sleepy" (36). Or again, says Packer,
"Revival is God stirring the hearts of his people, visiting them . . . coming to dwell with them . . . returning to them . . . pouring out his Spirit on them . . . to quicken their consciences, show them their sins, and exalt his mercy . . . before their eyes" (256).
See Ps. 36:7-8.
There are three things to keep in mind regarding true revival:
1. True revival is a sovereign work of God (Zech. 4:6). In other words, revival is always a miracle. Revival is not "in our pocket." We can neither command revival nor predict it.
2. True revival is a surprising work of God. This is because revival is a gracious work of God. No one deserves revival. One may never expect what one does not deserve.
2. True revival is a sudden work of God. It frequently comes without preparation or planning. Revival is like the sudden spring thunderstorm that bursts from the sky when only moments before the sun shown brightly.
But if revival is a sovereign, surprising and sudden work of God, does that mean we are to do nothing? No. There are three things that we are to do.
First, as with salvation and healing, both of which are sovereign works of God, we are to pray for revival. There is nothing inconsistent with praying for that which is a sovereign and surprising work of God, for even prayer is God's gift to us! A. W. Tozer reminds us that when we feel stirred to seek after Christ, "God is always previous!"
Read carefully Ps. 85:4-7 ("wilt thou not thyself revive us again, that thy people may rejoice in thee?"); Ps. 80:14,18-19; Ps. 119:25; 119:37; 119:149; Hab. 3:2; Acts 4:29-31.
Be forewarned: prayer for revival can be costly. It may cost you your comfort and convenience. Our tendency is to pray for revival, because we think that is the pious thing to do, only later to say, after revival has come: "Oh my! This isn't at all what I had in mind!"
We say we want revival . . . but on our terms. Sadly, we pray:
"Come Holy Spirit . . . but only if you promise in advance to do things the way we have always done them in our church."
"Come Holy Spirit . . . but only if I have some sort of prior guarantee that when you show up you won't embarrass me."
"Come Holy Spirit . . . but only if your work of revival is one that I can still control, one that preserves intact the traditions with which I am comfortable."
"Come Holy Spirit . . . but only if your work of revival is neat and tidy and dignified and understandable and above all else socially acceptable."
"Come Holy Spirit . . . but only if you plan to change others; only if you make them to be like me; only if you convict their hearts so they will live and dress and talk like I do."
"Come Holy Spirit . . . but only if you let us preserve our distinctives and retain our differences from others whom we find offensive."
We would do well to remember the wise words of J. I. Packer:
"Renewal in all its aspects is not a theme for dilettante debate, but for humble, penitent, prayerful, faith-full exploration before the Lord, with a willingness to change and be changed, and if necessary to be the first to be changed, if that is what the truth proves to require. To absorb ideas about renewal ordinarily costs nothing, but to enter into renewal could cost us everything we have, and we shall be very guilty if, having come to understand renewal, we then decline it. We need to be clear about that. John Calvin once declared that it would be better for a preacher to break his neck while mounting the pulpit if he did not himself intend to be the first to follow God. In the same way, it would be better for us not to touch the study of renewal at all if we are not ourselves ready to be the first to be renewed" (6-7).
Second, although we cannot revive ourselves, we must be diligent to remove any obstacles we have previously placed in God's way. Here are several of those obstacles:
1. Clericalism, which J. I. Packer describes as "a sort of conspiracy between leaders and those led: the one party (it does not matter which) says, 'all spiritual ministry should be left to the leader,' and the other party says, 'yes, that's right'" (41). The fact is, pastors and church leaders are often loudest and most zealous in their cry for revival and among the most critical when it comes.
It is crucial to remember that revival is never a one-man-show.
2. Formalism, which refers to a style of worship that quenches the Spirit of revival. Many churches, says Packer, "seem to view worship in a way that can only be called formalistic, for their interest is limited to performing set routines with suitable correctness, and there is no apparent desire on anyone's part actually to meet God" (42).
3. Complacency, or spiritual smugness, is the enemy of revival. Here I have in mind a "things-are-OK-as-they-are" mentality that settles for so much less than what God wants to give. Cf. Rev. 3:14-22. When we ask why revival has not come, perhaps the answer is "because we are content to live without it" (L. Ravenhill).
4. Traditionalism, which Packer defines this way: "There is a subtle tenacity abroad that remains wedded to the way things were done a hundred years ago. It thinks that it renders God service by being 'faithful' (that is the word used) to these outmoded fashions; it never faces the possibility that they might need amending today if ever we are to communicate effectively with each other and with those outside our circles" (253).
The point is: Don't let your grooves become graves!
"The Holy Spirit is not a sentimentalist as too many of us are; he is a change agent, and he comes to change human structures as well as human hearts. Change for its own sake is mere fidgeting, but change that gets rid of obstacles to God's fullest blessing is both a necessity and a mercy" (253-54).
We must all ask the question of ourselves: How much change am I willing to accept in order to reach the point where the Spirit is no longer quenched?
5. Yet another obstacle is what John Piper calls the verbalized institutionalization of caution. He means those long and impassioned warnings about excess that effectively scare people into a spirit-quenching rigidity, reluctance, and close-mindedness.
Third, we are also responsible, in God's power and by means of his grace, to cultivate those qualities of character, those spiritual virtues, that please him.
In particular, consider the responsibility placed upon us in 2 Chron. 7:11-14 . . .
a. Humility - one of the greatest obstacles to revival is pride (Ps. 138:6; Isa. 57:15; 66:1-2; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5-6).
Humility entails an openness to do whatever God says, to follow him wherever he leads, regardless of the social, personal, physical, or financial cost.
b. Prayer - Jonathan Edwards put it this way: "When God is about to bestow some great blessing on his church, it is often his manner, in the first place, so to order things in his providence as to shew his church their great need of it, and to bring 'em into distress for want of it, and so put 'em upon crying earnestly to him for it" (Yale, Vol. 4, p. 517).
See Isa. 62:6-7; Jer. 33:1-9; Zech. 8:20-23.
How do we know when we've prayed enough? It is reported that on several occasions during the Welsh revival that people could be heard crying out: "No more, Lord Jesus, lest I die." The point is this: You want revival when you pray for more of Christ. You are in revival when you've got so much of Him that you're forced to say, "stop, no more!"
c. Seek God's face - by which is meant a hunger and thirst for God. During the revivals under Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18:6 and under Josiah in 2 Kings 23:25 it is said that they "cleaved" unto God (cf. Gen. 2:24; Dt. 11:22; 30:20).
What we seek in revival is God himself! See Pss. 24:6; 63:1-2,8; 69:32; 73:25.
d. Repentance - See 1 Sam. 7:1-4; 1 Thess. 1:9.
We now need to look at the characteristics of biblical revival. It will also be helpful to keep in mind past revivals in the experience of the church. However, we must never decide in advance that all future revivals must be the same as those that have occurred in the past. Why? Packer gives three reasons:
First, "spiritual movements are partly shaped by preexisting needs, which in their turn reflect all sorts of non-recurring cultural and economic factors" (25). In other words, given the variations in time and culture, revival in China in the 20th century may be far different from revival in America in the 18th century.
Second, "the spiritual experiences of Christians are determined in part by temperament, by atmosphere, and by pressure groups, all of which are variables" (25).
Third, "God the Lord appears to delight in variety and never quite repeats himself" (25).
10 Characteristics of Revival:
1. God draws near. God comes down.
Isa. 64:1-2. "It is with this searching, scorching manifestation of God's presence that renewal begins, and by its continuance that renewal is sustained" (Packer, 26).
During the Welsh revival one pastor said: "If one were asked to describe in a word the outstanding feature of those days, one would unhesitatingly reply that it was a universal, inescapable sense of the presence of God. . . . . the Lord had come down! A sense of the Lord's presence was everywhere. It pervaded, nay it created the spiritual atmosphere."
2. Sin is sensed.
Sensitivity to sin is intensified. Conviction strikes deep. Cf. Isa. 6:1ff.
Conscience is tenderized; calloused hearts are broken; fresh wounds are opened. Things that once were tolerated or ignored suddenly become intolerable. Complacency is shattered. All of which produces heart-felt repentance.
3. God's Word is embraced.
People fall in love with the Bible and experience a sudden passionate responsiveness to the Scriptures. See 1 Thess. 1:5; 2:13; Neh. 8; 2 Chron. 17:9.
4. The Church becomes the Church.
There is a sudden "liveliness in community" (Packer, p. 32). There is a renewed sense of love, unity, generosity, self-sacrifice, and a desire for corporate gatherings. See Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37.
5. Evangelistic zeal is intensified. Love for the lost deepens.
The commitment of the church to missions is always increased during times of revival. It is estimated that @ 50,000 were saved in New England during the Great Awakening and an additional 300,000 throughout the 13 colonies. David Bryant explains:
"When God awakens us to Himself He awakens us to the whole earth. As He shows us Christ, He also shows us His worldwide purpose in Christ, the world full of possibilities for fulfilling that purpose through Christ and a world full of people without Christ who are currently beyond the reach of the gospel" (Concerts of Prayer, pp. 88-89).
6. Social justice is pursued.
Micah 6:8 becomes real. There is renewed concern for the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the homeless, the hungry. The truth of Luke 4:16-21 grips the church.
7. Routine things occur rapidly.
In times of revival there is an acceleration of spiritual growth and of individual maturity. Two words characterize everything that happens during revival: intensification and acceleration.
See The Great Awakening (Yale, Vol. 4), p. 159.
8. God is enjoyed.
See Psalm 85:6; 16:11.
9. Worship is revitalized.
See 2 Chron. 29:25-30. Says Edwards:
"Many express earnest longings of soul to praise God; but at the same time complain that they can't praise him as they would do, and they want to have others help them in praising him: they want to have everyone praise God, and are ready to call upon everything to praise him" (184).
10. Shining faces!
Not an artificial image or pretense to make others think all is well when it isn't; not a naive, flippant refusal to face the harshness of reality, but a pure, unadulterated joy that builds from within and bubbles over onto others. See 1 Pt. 1:8.
Why do people resist and fear revival? John White writes:
"From a safe distance of several hundred years or several thousand miles, revival clearly looks invigorating. What could be more glorious than a mighty work of God in our midst, renewing thousands and converting tens of thousands. But when we actually look at a revival (either through close historical study or firsthand investigation) we find something not nearly so clear as we imagined. There is sin and infighting and doctrinal error. And if we find ourselves in the midst of revival, rather than being invigorated, we may be filled with skepticism, disgust, anger or even fear" (When the Spirit comes with Power, pp. 34-35).
Why do so many people respond to revival with skepticism, disgust and fear? There are several reasons:
1. Revival is always messy.
Inconsistencies and irregularities and inconveniences are always present in revival. "A work of God without stumbling blocks," wrote Edwards, "is never to be expected."
Consider the church in Corinth, which experienced first-hand the revival of the first century. Packer explains:
"The Corinthian disorders were due to uncontrolled overflow of Holy Spirit life. Many churches today are orderly simply because they are asleep, and with some one fears that it is the sleep of death. It is no great thing to have order in a cemetery. The real and deplorable carnality and immaturity of the Corinthian Christians, which Paul censures so strongly elsewhere in the letter, must not blind us to the fact that they were enjoying the ministry of the Holy Spirit in a way in which we today are not" (249).
2. The Spirit-quenching fear of guilt by association.
In particular I mean the tendency to shut ourselves off from the work of the Spirit for fear of being linked too closely with people who we believe are an embarrassment to the cause of Christ.
3. Revival always disturbs the religious establishment.
4. People grow angry when they are afraid, and they are afraid of whatever they don't understand.
5. "All things must be done decently and in order."
In true revival, explains John White, "chaos and darkness flee, but they create a ruckus as they leave" (44). He continues:
"Understandably we prefer peace. And for us peace has to do with structure and tranquility. Both are good, but our desire for them has led us to confuse order with quietness and predictable schedules, and to believe we have the former when we have achieved the latter" (44).
6. "Whenever the kingdom advances, the front line is perceived as scum" (John White, 46).
7. The fear of excessive emotion.
8. Satan keeps pace!
Whatever and whenever God blesses, Satan curses. What God creates, Satan counterfeits.