This entry is part 5 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
Although revival has often, and very accurately, been defined in terms of the renewal of the spiritual life of believers, and the accession of large numbers into the kingdom of God, an even more basic and fundamental understanding of revival could be given in terms of the way in which God is experienced at these times. Quite simply, in revival ‘God comes’.
Now this experience of God’s presence is heightened in revival, but is not peculiar to it. It is absolutely central to the spiritual life and its growth, whether in days of revival or at other times. Of this growth in the knowledge of God, Calvin says:-
When first even the least drop of faith is instilled in our minds, we begin to contemplate God’s face, peaceful and calm and gracious toward us. We see him afar off, but so clearly as to know we are not at all deceived. Then, the more we advance as we ought continually to advance, with steady progress, as it were, the nearer and thus surer sight of him we obtain; and by the very continuance he is made even more familiar to us. (Calvin, Institutes, I, 565.)
The experience of the presence of God is then a leading characteristic of true spirituality. And if we search the literature of revivals, we shall find this same experience energising the lives not only of individuals (as in the examples just given) but also of communities. I.H. Murray has remarked that:-
An essential element in every true revival is the presence of a strong consciousness of the nearness of God…Of course, it is true that all our lives are spent in God’s sight. But it is not always that the reality of this truth is brought home to men. Jacob, on his solitary journey between Beersheba and Haran, meets with God in such a manner that he is forced to cry out, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place’. And we go on to read that, ‘He was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’ (Gen 28:16f). This same sudden fear strikes Simon Peter beside Galilee when, with the disciples’ nets breaking from the miraculous draft of fish, he is aware of the divine glory of Christ (Lk 5:9f). In the Acts of the Apostles the evidence of the presence of the Spirit of God repeatedly produces the same effect upon multitudes. We read that at Pentecost, ‘Fear came upon every soul’, and later, ‘Fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified’ (Acts 2:43; 5:11; 19:17). (Murray, Necessary ingredients for biblical revival II, in The Banner of Truth, 185 (Feb 1979), 1.)
SOME BIBLICAL EXAMPLES
It will be worthwhile to look at a few of the relevant biblical passages. Here is what the prophet Azaiah said to King Asa:-
2 Chron 15:1ff The Spirit of God came upon Azariah son of Oded. He went out to meet Asa and said to him, “Listen to me, Asa and all Judah and Benjamin: The Lord is with you when you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you.”
Kaiser has commented on this passage:-
Once again God used a prophet to stir up the hearts and consciences of the people and king. This time he sent Azariah, who spoke as the ‘Spirit of God came upon [him]’ (v1)…Every other ambition, feeling, longing, and urge has to be set aside in favor of searching for the living God if we have any hopes of being found by Him.
The presence of God was not to be regarded lightly. Even though the king had just returned flushed with unbelievably great success on the battle field, he must not be any more presumptuous than we ought to be when the goodness of God deals with us more gently than we have a right to expect.
The text urges us to come into a deeper knowledge and fellowship with the living God…Is it not time that we sought Him out with a new sense of hunger and thirst for righteousness? Oh, to know the joy, quietness, confidence, nourishment, and power of the abiding presence of the living God.
Kaiser, Quest for renewal, 83.
Isaiah himself had an extraordinary experience of the presence of God:-
Isa 6:1ff In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted; and the train of his robe filled the temple…the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
And the same prophet pleaded with the Lord for further manifestations of his presence:-
Isa 64:1 Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil……
In the prophecy of Jeremiah, we find God himself pleading with the wayward people:-
Jer 29:10ff “I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity…”
Habakkuk’s prayer vividly pictures the ‘coming’ of the Lord:-
Hab 3:3f God came…his glory covered the heavens, and his praise filled the earth. His splendour was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden.
Arthur Wallis comments on the passage just quoted:-
Only two words, but they touch the heart of the matter – ‘God came’. Taking the inspired prophet as our guide, we may say that revival is a visitation of God and the characteristic features are ‘His glory’, ‘His praise’, ‘His hand’ (symbolic of the Holy Spirit), ‘His power’.
Wallis, Rain from heaven, 15.
Zechariah, too, prophesies concerning a day when the Lord will ‘dwell in the midst’ of his people:-
Zech 2:10f “Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares the Lord. “Many nations will be joined with the Lord in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you will know that the Lord Almight has sent me to you.”
Writing of the larger outpouring of God’s Spirit to which the Old Testament prophets point, one author has said:-
God promises one day to pour out his Spirit in a way that was never before known (Eze 39:29). There is in this vision an extravagance, a munificence that inevitably brings to mind the Lord’s promise of springs of living water given to the woman at the well (Jn 4:10,14; and see Isa 44:3). This abundance has to do with extent first of all. It is to be for all people, not just a few (Joel 2:28-29). In Eichrodt’s explanation the Spirit will be the ‘medium through which God’s presence in the midst of his people becomes a reality and in which all the divine gifts and powers which work within the people are combined’.
Dyrness, Themes in Old Testament Theology, 207.
The presence of God is represented in the New Testament (especially Acts) as being ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’, as on the day of Pentecost:-
Acts 2:4 All of them were all filled with the Holy Spirit.
A similar thought occurs a little later:-
Acts 10:44 The Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.
Time and again in Scripture turning-points in the lives of men of God were marked by extraordinary manifestations of the divine presence:-
Time after time we can identify the experience of God that changed their life: Abraham at Mamre (Gen 15), Jacob at Luz (Gen 28), Moses in the Midian desert (Ex 3), Joshua outside Jericho (Josh 5), Gideon under the oak in Ophrah (Jud 6), Samuel in the tabernacle ( I Sam 3), Isaiah in the temple (Isa 6), and so we could continue.
Edwards, Revival!, 56.
SOME EXAMPLES FROM CHRISTIAN HISTORY
We are not surprised then to find in the literature of the great renewal movements, many examples of this experience of the presence of God. We give just a selection:-
Jonathan Edwards recalls an experience of the puritan, John Flavel:-
As the person was travelling alone, with his thoughts closely fixed on the great and astonishing things of another world, his thoughts swelled higher and higher, like the water in Ezekiel’s vision, till at last they became an overflowing flood. Such was the intenseness of his mind, such the ravishing tastes of heavenly joys, and such his full assurance of his interest therein, that he utterly lost all sight and sense of this world, and the concernments thereof; and for some hours knew not where he was, nor what he was about…He continued to the end of his journey, which was thirty miles; and all this while he was scarcely sensible: and says, he had several trances of considerable continuance. The same blessed frame was preserved all that night, and, in a lower degree, great part of the next day…The joy of the Lord overflowed him, and he seemed to be an inhabitant of another world. And he used for many years after to call that day one of the days of heaven; and professed that he understood more of the life of heaven by it, than by all the books he ever read, or discourses he ever entertained about it.
Edwards, Works, I, 370.
Note the following brief description of the last days of the Puritan John Howe:-
As his end approached, his joy evidently increased. Having no fear of death, he viewed his approaching end with serenity and peace. So delightful was his conversation, that he seemed to breathe the atmosphere of heaven before he quitted the regions of sense.
in Gillies, Historical collections, 155.
J.S. Stewart relates the following story concerning the great Moravian scholar and man of God, J.A. Bengel:-
[He] was a teacher in the seminary in Denkendorf, Germany, in the eighteenth century. The seminary students used to wonder at the great intellectuality and great humility and Christ-likeness which blended their beauty in him. One night, one of them, eager to learn the secret of his holy life, slipped up into his apartment while the professor was out lecturing in the city, and hid himself behind the heavy curtains in the deep recess of the old-fashioned window. Quite a while he waited, until he grew weary and thought of how weary his teacher must be with his long hours of work in the classroom and the city. At length he heard the step in the hall, and waited breathlessly to learn the coveted secret. The man came in, changed his shoes for slippers and, sitting down at the study table, opened the old well-thumbed German Bible and began reading leisurely page after page. A half-hour he read, three-quarters of an hour, an hour and more. Then leaning his head down on his hands for a few minutes in silence he said in the simplest, most familiar way, ‘Well, Lord Jesus, we are on the same old terms. Good night.’
Stewart, Opened windows, 59f.
An early spiritual experience of Howell Harris is not dissimilar:-
June 18th, 1735, being in secret prayer, I felt suddenly my heart melting within me like wax before the fire, with love to God my Saviour. I felt not only love and peace, but longing to be dissolved, and to be with Christ. Then was a cry in my inmost soul, which I was totally unacquainted with before. Abba, Father! I could not help from calling God, ” my Father”; I knew that I was His child, and that He loved me and heard me. My soul being filled and satiated, I cried, “‘Tis enough, I am satisfied. Give me strength, and I will follow Thee through fire and water.’ I could say I was happy indeed! There was in me a well of water, springing up to everlasting life, (John 4:14). The love of God was shed abroad in my heart by the Holy Ghost, (Rom 5:5).
Harris, His Own Story, 16.
The key to understanding the spiritual influence of a man like Jonathan Edwards is to be found, not simply in his superlative intellectual gifts, but much more in his profound experience of God. The following early account indicates the reality and strength of this experience:-
I began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by him. An inward, sweet sense of these things, at times, came into my heart; and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them. And my mind was greatly engaged to spend my times in reading and meditating on Christ, on the beauty and excellence of his person, and the lovely way of salvation by free grace in him…The sense I have of divine things, would often of a sudden kindle up, as it were, a sweet burning in my heart, and ardour of soul, that I know not how to express.
Edwards, Works, I, xiii.
Jonathan Edwards’ public effectiveness was very much due to the ardour and consistency of his personal spiritual life:-
The character of his piety, from its very early commencement, bears the stamp of unusual depth, fervour, clearness, and governing power…To some readers a portion of this language may appear to indicate an excited imagination, and a state of feeling bordering on enthusiasm…The truth is, he entered more heartily and thoroughly into the character of the great objects of pious emotion than most Christians do, and no wonder that he spoke a corresponding language.
Samuel Miller, in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, 45.
Edwards made a detailed study of the spiritual experiences of those who were being influenced by the revival. He writes extensively in one place of an individual well known to himself – his own wife. Her experience included:-
A very frequent dwelling for some considerable time together, in views of the glory of the divine perfections and Christ’s excellencies; so that the soul has been as it were overwhelmed, and swallowed up with light and love, a sweet solace, and a rest and joy of the soul altogether unspeakable…The soul dwelt on high, was lost in God, and seemed almost to leave the body.
Edwards, Works, 376.
An example from the Welsh revival of 1859 shows that the experience of the presence of God in revival can seem overwhelming:-
In South Wales, in August, 1859, an early morning prayer meeting held in the open air was attended by 18,000 people. At the close, Thomas John, of Cilgerran, was walking in a field, lost in reverie:- ‘A friend stopped him, and siad, “What a glorious sight that was, when the thousands were engaged in silent prayer…Did you ever see anything like that, Mk John?” He answered solemnly, “I didn’t see one of them: I saw no one but God. I am going home,” he said suddenly. “How terrible is this place! It is too terrible for me. My flesh is too weak to bear this weight of glory.”‘
Evans, Revival comes to Wales, 90.
David Morgan was one of the leading figures in the same Welsh revival. He, too knew of experiences which defied description:-
On the last day [of 1858] he had to travel from a preaching engagement over a lonely mountain upland in the direction of his home: ‘He was on this mountain for hours; whether in the body or whether out of the body, he hardly knew. Beyond a doubt he went through experiences unspeakable and full of glory…On this strange night on the hill he grasped and clung to the furze-bushes, because he seemed to feel some mystical forces lifting him, as it were, body and soul from the earth. We cannot but think that One whose Name is Wonderful came out of the darkness to meet him…When he let go the Divine Sojourner, and awoke to his terrestrial surroundings, his puzzled beast was standing by him. Giving it the reign, he arrived hime with a countenance so strange, and garments so spoiled, that his people hardly recognised him. When questioned, he replied, “I have been wrestling for the blessing, and I have received it.”‘
Evans, Two Welsh revivalists, 40f.
We can only guess at the depth and frequency of such experiences, for, like Paul (2 Cor 12), the recipients would speak little about them:-
Ever mindful of the sovereignty of God’s Spirit in giving or witholding gifts or power, he spoke of these elevated experiences only with discretion and reserve. While they occasionally accompanied seasons of striving in prayer, the experiences themselves spontaneous, unsought and unexpected, neither stereotyped nor predicatable, glorious in character and copiously profuse in measure. The sense of God’s presence at such times replaced awareness of time and space.
Evans, Two Welsh revivalists, 41.
AWARENESS OF GOD AS THE TEST OF SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE
Such vivid awareness of God is, perhaps, rare outside of revival. And yet we must remember that revival is only quantitatively, not qualitatively, different from ordinary Christian experience. An awareness of the presence of God is therefore the test and touchstone of all spiritual experience, whether in the individual or the church:-
The apprehension of God’s presence is the ultimate core of genuine Christian experience, and the touchstone of its authenticity is the believer’s vision of the character of God…It is significant that during the Great Awakening a sense of the infinite excellence of the divine nature was common among those undergoing conversion. In our own time so many forms of Christianity have become man-centred that this experience is seldom generated by our preaching…One of the most hopeful signs of the Charismatic renewal movement has been its…insistence on the experience of God’s presence in a context of worship and prayer. But unless the God who is worshiped is the awesome, holy, sovereign Lord of Scripture, even this approach cannot continue to serve as a catalyst for spiritual life.
Lovelace, Dynamics of spiritual life, 85f.
J.S. Stewart, too, asserts that this experience is the great test of genuineness in revival:-
The acid test of all true revivals is the powerful presence of the majestic Christ known and felt in all his beauty and glory. Thus thousands of saints are drawn together for no other reason than that he is in the midst.
Stewart, Opened windows, 20.
Implied in all of this is the notion that revival is ‘a visitation of God’. This is helpfully explained by Arthur Wallis:-
What do we mean by ‘a visitation of God?’ And how is this idea to be reconciled with the omnipresence of God? Certainly God is everywhere, but it is still true that he is in some places in a way that he is not everywhere. He is in the hearts of those who love him in a way that he is not in the hearts of those who hate him. In his heavenly habitation he ‘dwells in unapproachable light’ in a way that he could not dwell among even his greatest saints on earth. So when we speak of God visiting his people, we mean that he comes to them in a manifestation of his power and glory that is far beyond anything they normally experience.
Wallis, Rain from heaven, 15.
Another biblical expression for this experience and the response of loving obedience to which it leads is ‘the fear of the Lord’:-
Awareness of God’s holiness and the depth of our sin is the precondition of personal renewal. The experience of God’s people under the Old Covenant is simply schooling in this knowledge. The mighty acts of God combined with exposure to his law are designed to produce a humble awareness of human sin and divine goodness. The spiritual goal of the Old Testament is therefore called ‘the fear of the Lord.’
Lovelace, Renewal as a way of life, 20f.
We do well to ponder what it means to catch a vision of the true God:-
Encountering the biblical God can be a deeply unsettling experience. The holiness of God is, as Rudolph Otto says, ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’ – a tremendous and fascinating mystery. ‘Hence that horror and amazement with which the Scripture always represents the saints to have been impressed and disturbed, on every discovery of the presence of God.’ [Calvin] He may be comfortably known and worshiped at a distance. But a more direct vision of his glory produces holy fear, an awe not so much of his power as of his purity.
Lovelace, Renewal as a way of life, 20.
Such a sense of the presence of the Almighty God is a supreme characteristic of revival experience:-
[God] makes known his inescapable presence as the Holy One, mighty and majestic, confronting his own people both to humble and to exalt, and reaching out into the wider world in mercy and in judgment. Other biblical ways of saying this are that God ‘awakes’, ‘arises’, ‘visits’, and ‘draws near’…God’s coming forces folk to realize, like Isaiah in the temple, the intimacy of the supernatural and the closeness, majesty, and knowlingness (that is, the heart-searching omniscience) of the living Lord.
Packer, Keep in step with the Spirit, 244f.
Edward Payson once spoke of the sense of the presence of God which can be felt by a whole assembly of people in a revival:-
No scene, on this side of the bar of God, can be more awefully, overpoweringly solemn, than the scene which such an assembly exhibits. Then the Father of spirits is present to the spirits he has made; present to each of them, and speaking to each. Each one feels that the eye of God is upon him, that the voice of God is speaking to him. Each one, though surrounded by numbers, mourns solitary and apart. The powers of the world to come are felt. Eternity, with all tis crushing realities, opens to view, and descends upon the mind.
in Murray, Necessary ingredients for biblical revival II, 2.
But if, when ‘God comes’ in revival, our first thoughts will be of our sinfulness and unworthiness, after confession and cleansing we shall be led through to unspeakable joy. The mighty Puritan theologian John Owen speaks of this as follows:-
When he so sheds abroad the love of God in our hearts, and so fills them with gladness by an immediate act and operation (as he caused John Baptist to leap for joy in the womb upon the approach of the mother of Jesus), – then doth the soul, even from hence, raise itself to a consideration of the love of God, whence joy and rejoicing doth also flow. Of this joy there is no account to be given, but that the Spirit worketh it when and how he will. He secretly infuseth and distils it into the soul, prevailing against all fears and sorrows, filling it with gladness, exultations; and sometimes with unspeakable raptures of mind.
Owen, Works, II, 253.
And C.H. Spurgeon spoke of this joy as follows:-
Joy in the Lord is the ripest fruit of grace, all revivals and renewals lead up to it. By our possession of it we may estimate our spiritual condition, it is a sure gauge of inward prosperity. A genuine revival without joy in the Lord is as impossible as spring without flowers, or daydawn without light.
Spurgeon, The treasury of David, IV, 86.
This joy is ultimately the highest – or rather, the only – real happiness that we can experience:-
The enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams, but God is the ocean.
Edwards, Works, II, 244.
And surely, for the believer to experience truly the presence of God is to learn to love God. And this love for God overflows in love for others:-
The goal of authentic spirituality is a life which escapes from the closed circle of spiritual self-indulgence, or even self-improvement, to become absorbed in the love of God and other persons. For the essence of spiritual renewal is ‘the love of God…poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit’ (Rom 5:5 NASB)…The substance of real spirituality is love. It is not our love but God’s that moves into our consciousness, warmly affirming that he values and care for us with infinite concern. But his love also sweeps us away from self-pre-occupation into a delight in his unlimited beauty and transcendent glory. It moves us to obey him and leads us to cherish the gifts and graces of others. Paul tells us that love is a far more reliable measure of spirituality than our gifts or works or theological acuity, and that it is one of the few things that last forever (1 Cor 13:8,13). And Jesus says that the highest fulfilment of the will of God in our lives is to love God with hearts and soul and mind and strength, and to care for others as we care for ourselves (Mt 12:30f).
Lovelace, Renewal as a way of life, 18.