This entry is part 2 of 21 in the series: Revival
- The Biblical idea of revival
- Divine and human agency in revival
- Examples of revival
- Conditions prior to revival
- Experience of God in revival
- Repentance and revival
- Prayer and revival
- The Word of God and revival
- Preaching and revival
- Results of revival
- Physical and emotional phenomena of revival
- The miraculous element in revival (I)
- The miraculous element in revival (II)
- Demonic activity in revival
- Problems associated with revival
- Evaluating Revivals
- Pentecostalism, baptism in the Spirit and revival
- Prospects for Revival
- ‘Lord, I have heard of your fame’ – stories of revival
- ‘Renew them in our day’ – prospects for revival
The view of revival which has been assumed in the first part was one which emphasises the Divine agency in revival. Revival, it has been assumed, is first and foremost the work of God. This does not mean that we are passive; that we have nothing to do except wait for God to act. No – all that Scripture commands that we ought to do – repent, pray, believe, hope, and work – we should do, with all our might. But as with the regeneration of an individual soul, so with the revival of the church: the power to accomplish it is God’s.
There is here a delicate but vital balance. This is no trivial matter – correct views on this aspect of our subject are vitally important. If we minimise divine agency in revival, then we rob God of the glory due to him, and run the risk of manufacturing a work which is something other than a true revival. If, on the other hand, we speak too little of human agency in revival, we are encouraging people to neglect their urgent responsibilities in seeking and promoting it.
It will be the task of this section to explore these issues, first, by examining one tradition which tends to minimise the divine agency in revival, and second, by suggesting a more balanced view which gives primacy to God’s part but which also places due stress on human activities and responsibilities.
The Finneyan Tradition
We have hinted already at the confusion which can result from failing to distinguish between ‘revival’ and ‘revivalism’. This confusion is very largely due to the radical change in understanding proposed by Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875):-
Indeed, Finney launched a radical and sustained attack on the whole theological structure of Reformed Protestantism in general, on the doctrines of sin, regeneration, and sanctification in particular, and on the ministers who held such views. He proposed and adopted a series of ‘new measures’ in the conduct of evangelistic campaigns (which he referred to as ‘revivals’), and began the modern phenomenon of mass evangelism.
(R.E. Davies, I will pour out my Spirit, 245.)
The thrust of Finney’s approach was to give particular emphasis to human agency in revival. In fact, Finney and his followers have often so emphasised man’s part in revival as to allow us to think that renewal is largely or entirely within our control. We have only to fulfil certain preconditions, it is argued, and revival will follow inevitably. Finney famously stated that:-
revival is the result of the right use of the appropriate means. The means which God has enjoined for the production of a revival, doubtless have a natural tendency to produce a revival otherwise God would not have enjoined them. But means will not produce a revival we all know without the blessing of God. It is impossible for us to say that there is not as direct an influence or agency from God to produce a crop of grain as there is to produce a revival. What are the laws of nature according to which it is supposed that grain yields a crop? They are nothing but the constituted manner of the operations of God. In the Bible, the Word of God is compared to seed, and preaching is compared to sowing the seed, and the results to the springing up and growth of the crop. A revival is as naturally a result of the use of the appropriate means as a crop is of the use of its appropriate means.
(Finney, Revivals of religion, 5.)
Many other preachers and writers have echoed this sentiment. For example, Samuel Chadwick, a Methodist leader of a few generations ago, wrote that
the Church can have revival when it will. Men greatly err if they are thinking to wait for God. God is waiting for men…It is of the utmost importance that we plainly understand where the responsibility rests…Some have been inclined to deny that bringing about a revival is within the range of human possibility. They regard a revival as an altogether mysterious and unaccountable consequence of divine intervention, apart altogether from anything that man can do…Such ideas are fraught with gravest peril to the Church and need to be finally shattered…A revival…is not an inexplicable enigma. It is the sure result of certain divinely ordered processes followed carefully by man. It will no more come without the proper preparation than the harvest will come without ploughing and sowing.
(in Egerton, Flame of God, 87.)
Put at its most blatant, the view we are describing says:-
In the Word of God there are numerous fundamental principles which must be observed if revival is to be granted. We can have revival when we want if we fulfil the divine conditions outlined. The responsibility rests with the Church – God is patiently waiting!
(Egerton, Flame of God, 19.)
A recent sympathetic biographer of Finney has pointed out the famous revivalist’s lasting influence upon evangelistic methods. Speaking of Finney’s so-called ‘new measures’, he states that
with these he popularised, developed and legitimised the entire modern approach to contemporary evangelism…The use and popularising of prayer meetings for revivals, the call to public response to receive Christ, the personalising of the message of salvation, the counselling of inquirers, the protracted, structured and organised meeting, using any kind of building or hall in which to preach the Gospel, and many other revolutionary methodologies – these are his greatest contributions. Of course, the “new measures” are no longer “new” today: they are accepted as standard procedures. They became part of the programmes of evangelists like D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham and a host of others.
(Drummond, Charles Grandison Finney, 22f; 259.)
Although some of the ‘measures’ mentioned above may in themselves be unobjectionable, the whole enterprise was destined to place an exaggerated emphasis upon human means of persuasion, and upon human ability to respond to those means. J. Edwin Orr agrees that Finney’s influence has been immense, but adds that
unfortunately, besides inspiring countless local pastors and evangelists to seek revival, Finney’s theory brought about a school of brash evangelists who fancied that they could produce revival anywhere with means selected by themselves at times decided by themselves. True, the use of means by motivated men of God was usually productive, but such use of means by worldly operators soon produced promotional evangelism, manipulated and sensationalised, commercialised and exploited.
(Orr, Light of the nations, 60.)
This same reliance on human intervention can be seen in action in the ‘Million Souls Movement’ in Korea in the early years of the present century. This was an intensive effort on the part of the Korean churches to win new converts. In 1909, the General Council of Evangelical Missions, meeting in Seoul, decided upon a million converts. The Council adopted Finney’s principle that ‘revival is nothing more that the right use of the appropriate means’. The services of well-known evangelists such Chapman and Alexander were secured to launch the great crusade. All that was humanly possible was done in order to win the million souls. But the total number of converts recorded was not 1 million, but 15,805 – obviously, a not insignificant number, but nothing like the multitude hoped for. ‘It seemed,’ says Edwin Orr, ‘that the Holy Spirit would not surrender his prerogatives for a Pentecost to anyone.’ (Evangelical awakenings in Eastern Asia, 32.)
The Finneyan approach to evangelism is reflected in the work of many modern preachers of the gospel, including Billy Graham. One feature in particular, the practice at the close of a sermon of inviting those who wish to receive Christ to come to the front, has been criticised (by Murray, The Invitation System) as being without sufficient warrant from Scripture, from our understanding of human nature, or from its alleged ‘effectiveness’.
Critique of the Finneyan Approach
We have seen that the Finneyan understanding of spiritual awakening has continued to influence deeply the thoughts and actions of many evangelicals. D.M. Lloyd-Jones has noted that
the influence of Finney’s teaching upon the outlook of the Church has been quite extraordinary. People now, instead of thinking instinctively about turning to God and praying for revival when they see that the church is languishing, decide rather to call a committee, to organize and evangelistic campaign, and work out and plan an advertising programme to ‘launch’ it, as they say. The whole outlook and mentality has entirely altered.
(Lloyd-Jones, in How shall they hear?, 41.)
It is not surprising, then, to find that this approach has seemed to many thoughtful Christians to fall considerably short of a biblically balanced view of revival. Arthur Wallis, for example, sees clearly the need to ascribe the glory of revival to God:-
While acknowledging that Scripture gives some place to man’s responsibility in the matter of a spiritual outpouring, it would surely be erroneous to suggest that the blessing inevitably follows when God’s people fulfil certain conditions. That would be taking the initiative out of God’s hands and placing it in the hands of men. It would mean that man could release the power of revival as and when he chose…History shows that revival does not come in such a mechanical way. When, in trying to explain it, we have taken all the known factors into account we are still left with the element of mystery.
(Arthur Wallis, Rain from heaven, 38.)
The young C.H. Spurgeon had been quick to recognise the limitations of the kind of evangelistic activity which a mechanistic view of revival tends to produce. He said:-
I have not the slightest atom of faith in any professional revivalism; I have never seen any real good come of it. This I have seen – while the revivalist has been holding special services, the people have been stirred and warmed, and many have professed to be converted; but, alas! in far too many cases, a blast and a blight have been left on the churches for years afterwards, an injury has been done them from which they seemed never to recover. A got-up revival is a sort of spiritual intoxication, producing a kind of arousing of men and women, and yet really leaving them flatter and duller than they were before.
(Spurgeon (1858), quoted in One steadfast high intent (Puritan & Reformed Studies Conference, 1966), 14.)
Another 18th-century caution on this view of revival says:-
When we hear of, or read directions “how to produce or promote a revival,” and “how to conduct a revival,” we are apt to feel as if there was of necessity something profane, if not positively impious, in such language. It seems as if man were presuming to attempt, by his own devices and arrangements, to originate and guide the operations of the Holy Spirit, or entirely to supercede them.’
(in The revival of religion, xvii.)
J.I. Packer pinpoints the chief problems of this teaching as it arose in the experience and thought of C.G. Finney:-
Charles Finney, who for a decade after his conversion was used by God in a continuous revival ministry, came to think, evidently generalising from that experience, that self-examination and earnest prayer on a congregation’s part would always secure a divine visitation and fresh outpouring of the Spirit immediately. But the experience of many who have sought to implement this formula, and indeed the different and disappointing experience of Finney himself in later years, shows that this is not so. In no situation can revival be infallibly predicted or precipitated; there are no natural laws of renewal for man the manager to discover and exploit.
(Packer, God in our midst, 39f.)
Packer suggests elsewhere that this view of revival is rooted in a fundamentally defective theology:-
Finney’s Arminian-Pelagian theology allowed him to reconceive Edward’s morphology of revival as illustrating what he took to be the law of revival, namely that the church’s praying, repenting, and seeking God guarantees an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in revival blessing; just as, under God’s kindly providence, the farmer’s sowing and caring for his field guarantees a crop. The thought that revival is God’s immediate will whenever his servants pay the price in passionate prayer and penitence has been potent in popular evangelical piety since Finney’s day, though the finding has not been commensurate with the seeking.
(Packer, New Dictionary of Theology, 588.)
D.M. Lloyd-Jones has also spoken of the Pelagian tendency in Finney’s theology:-
John Wesley was an Arminian, but he believed in original sin and also that a man could do nothing about his salvation apart from grace. But he also believed that this grace was available to all, and that it was left to man himself to decide whether to take advantage of it or not. Finney was not an Arminian; he was a Pelagian. He did not believe in original sin, and he believed that the natural man, bya process of reason, was able to grasp the truth and to put it into operation…He taught that you could have a ‘revival’ whenever you liked. That is his teaching concerning revivals which has been copied and adopted by so many. You only have to do certain things and you will have a revival. That is Pelagianism, pure and simple.
(Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans: their origins and successors, 314f.)
The difference, then, between a God-centred and a man-centred view of revival is profound. One writer suggests that:-
the difference between Edwards and Finney is essentially the difference between the medieval and the modern temper. One saw God as the centre of the universe, the other saw man. One believed that revivals were “prayed down” and other that they were “worked up”.
(W.G. McLoughlin, Modern revivalism, 11.)
We do not need to accept McLoughlin’s definition of the difference between Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney (the medieval versus the modern temper) in order to agree with his evaluation of the gulf between them in their understanding of the nature of revival. And this same writer recognises that more than token acknowledgements of divine agency in revival would be required in order to rescue the Finneyan approach from serious imbalance:-
He [Finney] did his best to leave God some part in the production of revivals by saying, “But means will not produce a revival, we all know, without the blessing of God.” However, this brief acknowledgement of the supernatural element in revivals was buried beneath such a mass of scientific certitude in the other direction that it was forgotten.
(McCloughlin, Modern revivalism, 85.)
And McLoughlin, although himself not entirely in tune with the biblical dimensions of revival, surely puts his finger on the defectiveness of what he calls ‘professional revivalism’:-
All too often the professional revivalist turned heart religion into anti-intellectualism, humility into self-righteousness, emotion into irrationality, and piety into religiosity or hypocritical posturing. He even made the process of conversion as ritualistic as the formalities of the lukewarm religion he attacked. His revival machinery was better calculated to grind out impressive statistics that to arouse pietistic ardor. Organization and publicity produced an artificial enthusiasm, costly to generate but more costly not to. The revivalist was caught in a treadmill whose exhausting speed he set himself. The churches which periodically endorsed him and put themselves in his more efficient hands suffered his fate, and emerged from each round of feverish activity exhausted. The temporary boost to church morale was generally followed by apathy and backsliding instead of by increased zeal and dedication.
(McCloughlin, Modern revivalism, 529.)
Neglect of the divine agency in revival can only serve to minimise the good, and maximise the evil, in a movement of religious awakening:-
Revivalism will continue to play a part in American life as long as Christianity remains a living religion…But it is unlikely that professional mass evangelism will help to keep Christianity alive or that any professional revivalist will ever play a major role in a future great awakening. There is a fundamental anomaly inherent in the professionalization of the revival spirit. Revivals are not articles for manufacture and retail. As pietists have asserted since the beginning of Christendom, the virtues of religion cannot be organized. But its vices can.
(McCloughlin, Modern revivalism, 530.)
Towards a God-centred Understanding of Revival
It would seem that the truest concept of revival, and the safest, would be that which gives due emphasis to the human means which God has ordained, but which is at pains to recognise the sovereign activity of God. In some revivals, the human means are more apparent, in others, less so. But they are always secondary to the sovereign will of God.
Walter Kaiser notes the apparent absence of human means in the revival under Josiah (2 Chron 34):-
It is true, of course, that some of the Old Testament revivals stressed the means that God was pleased to use to hasten revival. Care must be taken not to place too much emphasis on that word means, however, for it signifies little more than that God holds humanity responsible for such things as prayer and repentance…Now among the revivals that seem to lack secondary causes or human means that stress the individual’s reception of the sovereign ministry of the Spirit of God, there is the revival under King Josiah. Prior to this revival there were no services at the sanctuary. Furthermore, the Bible had been lost, and hence little instruction could have been expected from that source. Was someone praying somewhere? Had someone memorized the Word of God, and was he teaching it to children, among whom was to be found the young Josiah? It is impossible to decide for certain among these alternatives. But is it not possible then to make the point that there is only one ultimate source for all true revivals, and that is God Himself? Yes, it is, for just as we should not be frightened by the preparatory means that God has ordained to achieve revival, including His Word, prayer, repentance, seeking His face, turning from our wicked ways, and humbling ourselves, so we should not be shy in affirming the sovereignty of God in this whole work either.
(Kaiser, Quest for renewal, 111ff.)
We must take care then, that we do not give too little attention to the agency of the Holy Spirit, and so rob of the glory due to him:-
There are those…who attribute too little to this Almighty Agent. They do this by the manner in which they speak of revivals – as if they were produced altogether by man; and if the Spirit is mentioned at all, it is in a way that would indicate that he had little to do with it. They do this by the measures which they adopt in carrying forward revivals; substituting human inventions for divinely appointed means; and urging the doctrine of moral agency not in connection with that of a divine influence, but in a great degree to the exclusion of it.
(Sprague, Lectures on revivals, 111.)
It is God, and he alone, who is able to return his people to a state of vitality and power.
In revival the supernatural element is uppermost…Revival by definition, is a supernatural phenomenon.
(E. Roberts, Revival and its fruit, 13.)
The Anglican scholar, Philip Hughes, asserted that:-
revivals have never been the result of zealous Christian organisation; nor does Holy Scripture in any place lead us to expect that they ever will be. That planning, organisation, and orderliness are necessary and normal functions of the Christian Church, is beyond dispute; and these functions ought not to be neglected where it is desired to maintain the Christian body in a healthy condition. But revivals are extraordinary dispensations sent by God from above on such occasions as as he sees fit.
(Hughes, Revive us again, 11.)
Due emphasis upon the divine agency in revival leads to a number of important corollaries:-
Corollary #1 – revival is not the same as activity
First, revival must be distinguished from mere human enthusiasm and activity:-
The implicit equating of renewal with enthusiasm and activity is inadequate in two ways. First, it gives an idea of renewal which is far too inclusive: horizontally, so to speak, it embraces too much, For in biblical thought and experience, renewal is linked with divine visitation, purging judgement, and restoration through repentance, and no amount of hustle and bustle qualifies as renewal where these notes are absent. Second, this equation gives an idea of renewal which is far too superficial: vertically, so to speak, it does not include enough. It views renewal in terms of externals only, and takes no account of the inward exercise of heart in encounter with God in which true renewal as Scripture depicts it always begins. But hustle and bustle do not constitute renewal apart from this inward dimension.
(Packer, God in our midst, 12f.)
Corollary #2 – revival is not the same as evangelism
Second, revival must be distinguished from evangelism:-
It is important that we distinguish revival from evangelism. In evangelism man takes the initiative, though it be with the prompting of the Holy Spirit. In revival the initiative is solely God’s. In the one the organisation is human. With the other it is divine. A deep work in the hearts of Christians is implicit in revival but not necessarily in evangelism. Evangelism there must be – it is part of the continuous programme of the church – but revival is a thing of special times and seasons. Revival may of course break out in the midst of evangelism. In that case certain features will appear that are peculiar to revival, and certain features will disappear that are characteristic of evangelism. While revival tarries evangelism must go on, but let us keep the distinction clear.’
(Wallis, Rain from heaven, 14.)
In a similar vein, Edwin Orr has written:-
There has been endless confusion caused by the American use of the word ‘revival’ to describe an organised campaign of evangelism as well as a great outpouring of the Spirit of God upon the churches. The term ‘revival’ for evangelical awakening has been used in the English-speaking countries outside North America to describe a renewed interest in religion after indifference or decline. In the United States, the word still carries this meaning, but more often it is understood to mean a series of evangelistic meetings. It seems to be appropriate to point out that Dwight Lyman Moody was an evangelist, and that his organised campaigns of evangelism were not necessarily ‘revivals’ in the historic sense of the word, and that his calling cannot therefore be described as a revivalist, if such a word is also used to describe the ministry of men who have been privileged to stir the churches to revival. In modern times, Wesley and Whitefield were both revivalists and evangelists, as was Finney, But Evan Roberts of Wales was a revivalist, and Gipsy Smith an evangelist. It often happens that there are elements of revival in an evangelistic campaign, and effects of evangelism in a revival movement. Evangelism is what dedicated men do for God, but revival is what God does to earnest men to bring them to a fuller dedication.’
(Orr, The light of the nations, 193f.)
Underlining the divine spontaneity of revival, J.S. Stewart has written:-
It is a movement that cannot be arranged as in a series of special meetings. The true spirit of revival eludes the grasp of the organiser and the advertiser. It cannot be created by machinery nor promoted by printer’s ink. The two symbols of Pentecost were wind and fire. Both of these speak to us of the mystical supernatural sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in revival. One cannot organize a cyclone or predict the course of a prairie fire.
(Stewart, Opened windows, 21.)
Corollary #3 – human responsibility not to be neglected
Thirdly, while acknowledging the primacy of God’s agency in revival, we must not neglect or deny our human responsibilities. Sprague warns against those
who speak of revivals, as if God only was at work in them, and man a mere passive recipient of impressions. They do this who do not exert themselves to the utmost to co-operate with God, on the ground that a revival is amere matter of sovereignty, and that God is able to carry forward his own work independently of means. They do this also who speak of every thing that may happen to be connected with a revival as the immediate effect of divine influence; -who set down to the account of the Holy Spirit peculiar tones of voice, and expressions of countenance, and violent gestures, which are supposed to indicate deep and strong feeling; and any thing that is harsh, or boisterous, or in any respect irregular, even though it may seem to be associated with the greatest imaginable fervour. There things no doubt may all exist in connection with a true revival; but they are the work of man – not the work of God.
(Sprague, Lectures on revivals, 111f.)
And one of our responsibilities is to earnestly seek revival
There are cases indeed in which God is pleased to glorify his sovereignty, by marvellously pouring down his Spirit for the awakening and conversion of sinners, where there is no special effort on the part of his people to obtain such a blessing; but it is the common order of his providence to lead them earnestly to desire, and diligently to seek, the blessing, before he bestows it. But if, instead of seeking these special effusions of divine grace, they have an unreasonable dread of the excitement by which such a scene may be attended; if the apprehensions that God may be dishonoured by irreverence and confusion, should lead them unintelligently to check the genuine aspirations of pious zeal, there is certainly little reason to expect in such circumstances a revival of religion.
(Sprague, Lectures on revival, 64.)
When due place has been given to divine agency in revival, we are then in a position to assert the proper place of human effort:-
A revival of religion is an unusually successful dispensation of religious ordinances, the effect of a copious effusion of the influences of Divine grace; but in other respects it comes under the same rules with the more ordinary dispensation, where the effects of the word of grace are less obvious and prominent. In both it is obvious that human agency is employed, and wisdom and zeal and activity are not less called for in the one than in the other, or rather a greater degree of prudence, of wise consultation, and or untiring watchfulness and activity, are to be called forth in the period of awakening that in ordinary times.
(Burns, in The revival of religion, 332.)
Striking the right balance
The crucial balance between the divine and human agency in revival is clearly stated by Richard Owen Roberts:-
There is much that people can do, and all that we can do we should do -with all our might. Men can and must evangelise; it is part of the Great Commission. Men can and must train Christian workers of we are to honour our Lord’s command. We can teach new converts the way of Christ and baptize them…We can pray; this burden is placed upon every believer. We must concern ourselves with the social needs of the world…Everything God has told us to do we ought to do, but having done it all, we must still wait upon him to do what he alone can do. Revival comes from God. The sovereign Lord of the universe must revive us again or we will never known what true revival is. If God does not act, our churches will forever remain unrevived.
(Roberts, Revival, 22.)