This entry is part 1 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
Many books have been written on the subject of revival. Most of these are historical and biographical studies. Few attempt to discuss the biblical and theological aspects. Some years ago, I attempted to distil from my reading and from my study of Scripture some account of the theology of revival. What follows is the first instalment.
Among the many changes which we experience or observe, three different patterns may be discerned. There are, first, sporadic changes, during which events occur in an apparently random way. Next, there are cyclical changes, which are characterised by alternating ebb and flow. Last, linear changes, in which there is a progression from one state or condition to another. These three patterns of change are apparent in the physical world. In astronomy, for example, sporadic changes would be represented by isolated individual occurrences such as supernova; cyclical changes by the orbits of planets; and linear changes by the overall motion of matter in the known cosmos, which is said to be moving away from some original centre at a very considerable velocity. The three patterns of change are also apparent in living organisms. We are subject to occasional and unpredicted changes in health (due perhaps to accident or infection); we also experience cyclical changes due to seasonal and hormonal factors; and we exhibit linear changes as a result of the developmental process leading from conception to birth, then to maturity and finally to decline and death.
These same three kinds of change may also be observed in the spiritual life, whether of the individual or of a wider community. We are subject to unexpected ‘ups and downs’ of an apparently sporadic nature; we experience more definite changes both of declension and renewal; and we progress towards a goal, namely, eternal life.
The three kinds of changes just mentioned are not necessarily independent and unrelated. If we knew more about the ‘sporadic’ changes we might discern a larger pattern in them. And if we looked more carefully at the cyclical changes, we might see a general progression towards the long-term goal.
The purpose of the present work is to focus on the cyclical changes to which the Christian church is subject. For it is a frequently observed fact, that the spiritual health of a district, or a country, or even of the world, tends to follow a cyclical pattern, with periods of declension alternating with times of revival. As it is with individual believers, so it is also with the collective Church: in both there occur
‘seasons of growth and decay, of progress and declension, each bearing a resemblance to the course of nature with its spring and winter, seedtime and harvest.’ (Buchanan, The Holy Spirit, 231.)
This alternating pattern is certainly evident in Scripture. Much of the history of God’s people in the Old Testament is a record of the waxing and waning of true faith. According to Richard Lovelace, author of a pioneering work on the theology of spiritual renewal,
‘under the Old Covenant the cyclical pattern of apostasy and spiritual renewal is one of the most obvious characteristics of the people of God. The faith of the masses and their leaders perpetually waxed and waned, while the vitality of the godly remnant ran through biblical history like a burning fuse, periodically igniting the surrounding mass in brief periods of reformation.’ (Dynamics of spiritual life, 61.)
A typical example of this pattern of decline and renewal can be found in The Book of Judges. Time and again the appearance of a new generation leads to a decline in spirituality. This in turn ushers in a period of national affliction, which is succeeded by widespread repentance, agonised prayer, the raising up of new leadership and, finally, to spiritual revival. Five periods of revival can be identified in the Book of Judges. The circumstances are the same on each occasion: the people forsake the Lord and serve the gods of other nations. They then come into bondage to those foreign nations. Then, after years of oppression and servitude they repent and cry out to God. Each time he hears them and delivers them. (Baker, The revivals of the Bible, 18.)
In subsequent Old Testament history, a similar pattern may be discerned, with long periods of apostasy relieved by revivals under such men as Samuel, Asa, Elijah, Hezekiah, Josiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah.
A similar cyclical pattern can be detected in the New Testament, although not so obviously, perhaps because of the relatively short time-span covered. Still, we may note the Pentecostal outpouring itself as a glorious example of a revival (although it was also more than a revival, being part and parcel of the redemptive activity of the Saviour). Then, after the first flush of Pentecostal grace and power we observe that the spiritual vitality of the church and the effectiveness of its outreach were assisted by corresponding impulses from the Holy Spirit. Spiritual awakenings occurred in Samaria, Caesarea, Antioch, and Europe (Acts 8; 10f; 16;). Then again, the later pages of the New Testament bear sad witness to spiritual declension in Ephesus, Laodicea, Sardis, Philippi and Corinth.
The entire history of the Christian Church since New Testament times demonstrates the same cyclical changes, with the church’s innate tendency towards spiritual decline being periodically reversed by the Holy Spirit’s supernatural renewing activity.
2. The Biblical Concept
It might be objected that ‘revival’ is hardly a biblical idea at all. In a sense, this is true: the word itself (together with related words such as ‘revive’) occurs just eight times in the Old Testament and not at all in the New (NIV). In a number of these instances the reference is to physical, rather than spiritual quickening (e.g. Judges 15:19). This leaves just a few in which the word is used of a more generalised invigoration of the people of God. One of these occurs in Psalm 85:-
‘Restore us again, O God our Saviour, and put away your displeasure toward us. Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger through all generations? Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?’ (Psa 85:4-6)
Commenting these verses, J.I. Packer writes:-
‘These verses, which can be matched from many passages in the psalms and the prophets, beg for a quickening visitation to the community (‘restore, or revive us again’) which will have a twofold experiential significance. First, this reviving will be experienced as the ending of God’s wrath, the termination of the impotence, frustration, and barrenness which have been the tokens of divine displeasure for unfaithfulness. Second, this reviving will be experienced as the exulting of God’s people: joy will replace the distress which knowledge of God’s displeasure has made the faithful feel.’ (God in our midst, 22.)
But the Biblical idea of revival goes far beyond the usage of the word itself. Just as we find the doctrine of the Holy Trinity taught in Scripture even though the term is not present (and even though the concept itself is not taught systematically), so the idea of revival occurs repeatedly in different guises. For example, one of the most famous biblical references to revival runs as follows:-
‘If my people, who are called by my name, humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.’ (2 Chron 7:14)
One commentator underscores the abiding significance of this passage:-
‘This great verse…expresses as does no other in Scripture God’s requirement for national blessing, whether in Solomon’s land, in Ezra’s or in our own. Those who believe must forsake their sins, turn from the life that is centred in self, and yield to God’s word and will. Then, and only then, will heaven send revival.’ (Barton Payne, in Wycliffe Bible Commentary, 397.)
Another key Old Testament passage is found in the prophecy of Habakkuk. The third chapter of that prophecy consists of a prayer describing the revelation of God coming in majesty to bring judgement upon the nations and salvation to his people. In the course of this the prophet prays…
‘LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.’ (Hab 3:2)
…and this is immediately followed by the pregnant statement, ‘God came.’
Apart from such “classic” passages, there is a wealth of other material expressing the biblical idea of revival. There are predictions, examples, prayers and precepts relating to it. There are recurring references to the wonderful blessings of the gospel day, as in Isa 35:1; 66:8; and Song 2:12. Then again there is mention of the manifestation of God’s presence among his people with vivid reality and irresistible power, as in Isa 64:1. Many psalms reflect a godly desire for God’s visitation, as Psa 74; 80; 85.
More specifically, revival is sometimes pictured in Scripture as an awakening. In revival, believers are awakened to the divine revelation, and to the things of eternity. The conscience is awakened, and so is a sense of the presence of God himself. This kind of stirring seems to be referred to by Paul, when he writes, ‘The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber.’ (Rom 13:11)
Revivals are sometimes described in Scripture as times of refreshing. The phrase itself occurs in Acts 3:19, and the idea can be found in Isa 35:1f; Eze 34:26; Psa 72:6; Hos 6:3. Related to this idea is that of an outpouring, as in Isa 44:3 – “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground.” This implies the need for revival (“thirsty land”) and also teaches clearly the divine agency in revival (“I will pour”). This expression also teaches the life-giving necessity of the gift of revival, the liberality of its distribution, and the benefits that it produces by way of growth and fruitfulness. A similar sentiment is found in See also Mal 3:10.
Revival is occasionally spoken of as a rending of the heavens. This dramatic phrase conveys the idea of God’s powerful intervention in a time of revival. So Isa 64:1 – ‘Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down.’ This verse emphasises the uselessness of human effort to produce revival; what is needed is a manifestation of divine power, as pictured by an opening of the heavens.
Closely related to this is the idea of a divine visitation. One way of expressing God’s gracious intervention is to say that “he has visited…his people” (Lk 1:68, NASV etc.). The other side of this is that revival is a return to God by his people (Hos 6:1).
A further biblical picture of revival is that of fire. It was, of course a prophecy of John the Baptist concerning Jesus that he would baptise ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire’, and this prediction was fulfilled (but not exhausted) on the day of Pentecost, when tongues ‘as of fire’ rested on the believers present.
More – much more – might be said about the context and implications of this biblical material on revival. But perhaps enough has been said for the moment to indicate that those who can teach should teach it, and that those who can pray should pray for it.
Although the concept of revival is rooted deeply in biblical teaching, the word itself, as consistently applied to this concept, is fairly recent. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term revival to denote ‘a general reawakening of or in religion in a community or some part thereof’ was first used by Cotton Mather, who wrote in 1702 of ‘a notable revival of religion’ in Leicester under the ministry of the 17th-century preacher Francis Higginson.
Over the years, various attempts have been made to define revival. According to one 19th-century Scottish theologian, revival:-
‘properly consists in these two things:- a general impartation of new life, and vigour, and power, to those who are already of the number of God’s people; and a remarkable awakening and conversion of souls who have hitherto been careless and unbelieving: in other words, it consists in new spiritual life imparted to the dead, and in new spiritual health imparted to the living.’ (Buchanan, The Holy Spirit, 227.)
According to the wise and sensible W.B. Sprague:-
‘wherever…you see religion rising up from a state of comparative depression to a tone of increased vigor and strength; wherever you see professing Christians becoming more faithful to their obligations, and behold the strength of the church increased by fresh accessions of piety from the world; there is a state of things which you need not hesitate to denominate a revival of religion.’ (Lectures on revivals, 7f.)
Edwin Orr, the great modern chronicler of revivals, often referred to them as ‘Evangelical Awakenings’. He wrote:-
‘an Evangelical awakening is a movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church of Christ bringing about a revival of New Testament Christianity…The main effect is always the repetition of the phenomena of the Acts of the Apostles…An Evangelical Awakening may be said to effect the revitalizing of the lives of nominal Christians, and of bringing outsiders into vital touch with the divine dynamic causing every such Awakening – the Spirit of God.’ (The light of the nations, 265.)
A leading contemporary evangelical thinker defines revival as:-
‘God’s quickening visitation of his people, touching their hearts and deepening his work of grace in their lives.’ (Packer, in New Dictionary of Theology, 588.)
Packer expands on this definition by stating that:-
‘in revival God is said to arise and come to his people, in the sense of making his holy presence felt among them (Psa 80; Isa 64; Zech 2:10; cf. Hab 3; 1 Cor 14:24f), so that his reality becomes inescapable, and the infinite ugliness, guilt, ill-desert and pollution of sin are clearly seen (Acts 2:37; cf. 5:1-11). The gospel of redeeming love and free forgiveness through the cross is valued as the best news ever, and the exercises and gestures of repentance whereby believers distance themselves from their sins (confession to God and others, restitution, public renunciation of vices) become vigorous and violent (Mt 3:5-10, 11:12; Acts 19:18f; 2 Cor 7:9-11; Jas 5:16). God works fast through the gospel (cf. 2 Thess 3:1) in saving, sanctifying, and stabilizing, and there is an evangelistic overflow to those around (Zech 8:23; Acts 2:47), despite human and Satanic opposition (Acts 4; Eph 6:10-13).’ (J.I. Packer, New Dictionary of Theology, 588.)
4. The Need for Revival
The fact that a revival presupposes a previously unhealthy state of spirituality leads us to regret that should ever be a need for revival:-
‘It is sad that there should be any need for a revival of religion – that religion should not always and universally be so warm and flourishing as to require no revival.’ (The revival of religion, 188.)
In permitting this cyclical pattern of decline and renewal, it would seem that God is condescending to deal with us in a way made necessary by our own sinful insensitivity to divine influences. It has been noted that we do not recognise a uniform pressure as pressure at all; that it is the unusual that arrests our attention. Hence, God shows his love for us as much by withdrawing his gracious influences for a while as by bringing them to bear with unaccustomed force at another time. (Aitken, Revival work, The Banner of Truth, 177 (June 1978), 23.)
Revival, then, is not the ‘ideal’ state of the church; the ideal would be what J.I. Packer calls ‘revivedness’ – a condition of continual spiritual well-being. But, as we know, there seems to be a constant tendency to spiritual degeneration, and hence the importance of revival. Had God’s kingdom advanced consistently down the centuries, special visitation of the Holy Spirit would have been unnecessary. But such consistent progression has never been the case. J.S. Stewart asserts that revival:-
‘is not God’s standard for the Church but is the process through which the Church is restored to its former splendour and glory…The normal condition of the Church is not revival but rather the state resulting from revival.’ (Stewart, Opened windows, 37, 55.)
It can also be argued that, just as a continuous deluge would not make for a healthy crop, the drama and excitement of revival would scarcely be healthy for the church if continued unabated over an extended period. With the 18th-century Cambuslang revival in mind, it has been written that:-
‘one of the most common objections to such seasons is that they are temporary. And so they ought to be. A soul asleep in sin has to be awakened, so as to think of its condition, and be led to Christ; but being awakened, it has only to be kept awake, not to be awakened anew in the same way as before. A church is different in this, that, for the sake of awakening sinners, it has itself to be from time to time awakened; but it would not do, even for a church, to be always in the condition of Cambuslang in 1742 and 1743.’ (D.McFarlan, in Wood, Baptised with fire, 158.)
But this is not, of course, to wish for a return from revival to the previous condition of declension, but to advocate a progression on from revival to a state of settled ‘revivedness’.
But there is a further reason why we must reluctantly accept that alternating declension and revival is virtually inevitable: it is that the spiritual health of the Christian community is determined by two opposing forces: those of God and those of Satan. We know that God in Christ has already secured the final victory; but we know also that the Devil is still a formidable enemy. But opposing forces do not ordinarily cancel each other out or neutralise each other. As in a tug-of-war, so it is in the spiritual life – first one gains the upper hand, and then the other. Hence the alternating periods of spiritual failure and success.
5. Why Study Revival?
It should already be apparent that revival is of immense intrinsic importance because of the part it plays in God’s scheme of redemption. There are however a number of other reasons why Christians should study revival:-
We should study this subject, firstly, because revivals have played a central role in the historical development of the Christian church. Many of the greatest advances in the success of the gospel have been during times of revival. Jonathan Edwards made a bold assertion regarding the centrality of revival in the life of the Christian church:-
‘From the fall of man to our day, the work of redemption has mainly been carried on by remarkable communications of the Spirit of God. Though there be a more constant influence of God’s Spirit always in some degree attending his ordinances, yet the way in which the greatest things have been done towards carrying on this work, always have been done by remarkable effusions, at special seasons of mercy.’ (Edwards, Works, I, 539.)
Those who, like Edwards, had seen and experienced revival at first hand had no doubt as to its power and influence. A minister who had witnessed a series of revivals during the Second Great Awakening testified:-
‘I owe too much of what I hope for as a Christian, and what I have been blessed with as a minister of the Gospel, not to think most highly of the eminent importance of this spirit [of genuine revivals]…Whatever I possess of religion began in a revival. The most precious, stedfast and vigorous fruits of my ministry have been the fruits of revivals. I believe that the spirit of revivals…was the simple spirit of the religion of Apostolic times, and will be, more and more, the characteristic of these times, as the day of the Lord draws near.’ (In Sprague, Lectures on revivals, App. 98.)
The second reason for studying revival is in order to be able to correct current misunderstandings and misrepresentations. Revivals have been subject to misunderstanding from within, and neglect and misrepresentation from without, the Christian church. Even in evangelical circles, serious attempts to articulate a biblical theology of revival have been very scarce (Jonathan Edwards in a previous generation and Richard Lovelace in our own are two notable exceptions). J.F. Thornbury complains:-
‘Today, secular writers give more attention to the great awakenings than do evangelical historians, though they are understandably critical. They always seek to explain the heroes of these movements…from a social and psychological perspective. The testimonies and experiences of the subjects of these great revivals are drawn out and examined as coldly and critically as a scientist looking at a dead spider under a microscope. In a large measure, American Christians do not know there were such experiences, and what they do read about they cannot understand.’ (Thornbury, God sent revival, 228.)
Thirdly, we should study revival so that we can learn to seek the same blessing for ourselves. Jonathan Edwards claims:
‘It has been found by experience, that the tidings of remarkable effects by the power and grace of God in any place, tend greatly to awaken and engage the minds of persons in other places.’ (Edwards, Works, I, 429f.)
There have been a number of instances when learning about a previous revival has prompted the prayer, ‘Lord, do it again!’ So it was in 1839, when W.C. Burns, who was later to become a pioneer missionary in China, told a congregation in Kilsyth about the revival which took place in that place a century before. Their hunger for God was so great that the telling of the story produced the same conviction of sin as before, and many souls were converted. (Orr, The light of the nations, 62.)
Likewise, tidings of a revival in another part of the world has often lead to the prayer, ‘Lord, do it here!’. A man named Humphrey Jones had emigrated to the United States, and had witnessed the revival there (1858). He returned to his native Wales full of revival fire, and became one of the first human agents to be involved in the great revival which swept the Principality at that time.
A fourth reason for studying revival is to help us learn how to recognise a true revival and how to distinguish between truth and falsehood, good and evil, in religious excitements.
‘Study the subject thoroughly, (says a Scottish minister of the last century) by the teaching of God’s word, and the recorded experience of God’s servants, till you are able to distinguish between the real and the counterfeit, and then act according to your better knowledge in promoting the true and checking the delusive.’ (The revival of religion, xi.)
A fifth reason for studying revival is this will enable us to learn what means God employs to awaken the church. It is noteworthy that although God has sometimes used people with outstanding natural abilities in his revival work (men like Edwards and Wesley), he has often chosen folk of quite ordinary capabilities: he has set their hearts on fire, filled them with his Spirit, and then ‘confounded the wise’ by mightily blessing their faithful ministry.
Then, sixthly, we should study revival because we will then understand how best to prepare for revival. When we clearly understand God’s sovereignty in sending revival blessing, and our own responsibility in seeking it, then we shall be better able to prepare for revival in a way which does not grieve the Spirit or cause a stumblingblock to others.
In the seventh place, it is most striking and heart-warming to realise that revival is actually an anticipation of heaven. J.I. Packer refers to this forward-looking, or ‘eschatological’ dimension:
‘Revival is an eschatological reality, in the sense that it is a general experiential deepening of that life in the Spirit which is the foretaste and first instalment of heaven itself…To describe situations of renewal, as Protestants using the word ‘revival’ are prone to do, as heaven on earth is not devotional hyperbole;…that is exactly what the renewal of the Christian people is.’ (Packer, God in our midst, 16f.)
6. Concluding Thoughts
I.H Murray reminds us very helpfully that, however dramatic and unfamiliar a revival may seem, it does not consist in a different kind of Christianity, but a heightening or intensifying of ‘ordinary’ faith and experience:-
In every true revival evidence of the Holy Spirit’s normal work will be present…The difference between the more ordinary condition of the church and the condition of revival is a difference of degree and not of kind. Religious experience in revivals is not of a different nature from the spiritual experience of other days. What happens in revivals is only a heightening of normal CHristianity. In revivals convictions may be deeper, and feelings more intense, but the saving and sanctifying operations of the Spirit of God are of the same nature when there is no revival. (The Necessary Ingredients of a Biblical Revival, I, 25.
But if a revival is just a hightened version of ‘ordinary’ Christianity, then we should take care not to despise the Holy Spirit’s work of conversion and sanctification either in revival or in less dramatic circumstances:-
We have no sympathy with those who, overlooking the steady progress of the great work of conversion under a stated ministry, make no account of the multitudes who are added, one by one, to the Church of the living God, merely because their conversion has not been attended with the outward manifestations of a great religious revival…But as little have we any sympathy with those who rejecting all revivals as unscriptural delusions, profess to look exclusively to the gradual progress of divine truth, and the slow advance individual conversions under a stated ministry. (Buchanan, The Holy Spirit, 230)
And this should serve to stimulate our hope for revival all the more:-
The work of revival must begin, and must go on. People speak of it as a thing which may or may not be, which though they distantly wish for they can yet do without. Why, what do people mean? If we can do without conversion; if we can do without Christ; if we can do without regeneration; if our children can d owthout these, if our friends and neighbours can do without them, then may we do without revival. But if conversion is necessary; if regeneration is necessary; if salvation is necessary, then is a revival necessary. (cited in Wood, Baptised with Fire, 28)
It is God’s part, and our own, in producing revival which will must examine next.