As we look at the critical subject of revival, we must consider some key issues and address some common misunderstandings if we are to understand what Scripture teaches about revival. We will identify some of these here, but we will take the remainder of the book to address them in greater detail.
Revival Can Be Produced through Human Efforts
This misunderstanding is a subset of the age-old debate within Christendom between Calvinism and Arminianism. John Calvin upheld the absolute sovereignty of God in effecting people’s salvation as well as in convicting them of sin. According to Calvin, nothing good could occur in Christians’ lives apart from the Spirit’s regenerating and sanctifying work. Jacob Arminius, on the other hand, believed people could partake in the process of salvation through specific actions. Such steps as believing and confessing sin appeared to him clear evidence that people participated in their own salvation.
This debate has carried over into our understanding of revival. While clearly God is the One who brings life, He also expects His people to meet His prerequisites for revival. Second Chronicles 7:14 declares that if God’s people “humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” This verse clearly identifies actions God’s people must take for revival to come.
The great revivals in history began with people who had a keen sense of God’s sovereignty. Jonathan Edwards noted the most spiritual fruit he witnessed in revival resulted from preaching on “God’s absolute sovereignty.”12 Charles Finney is the revivalist best known for introducing “new measures” that he believed could be used to produce results in revival meetings. We will look at this approach in later chapters. However, Finney also strongly believed in prayer and would enlist prayer warriors such as Father Nash to precede him to cities in order to intercede for the city before Finney arrived to preach. Those who experienced revival clearly understood that despite people’s participation it was ultimately a divine work.
Revival Is for Unbelievers to Be Converted
Those familiar with contemporary revival meetings recognize the primary emphasis in most of them is evangelism. When you mention you just attended a series of revival meetings, the most typical response is, “How many people were saved?” Not, “How many were revived?” Revive comes from the Latin word re, meaning “again,” and vivier meaning “live.” For this discussion the key part of this word is re. To live again requires that you have lived previously. Revival does not create life. It resuscitates it. Consequently, revival is for those who previously experienced life but whose spiritual life has grown barren and anemic because of sin.
What confuses some people seeking to understand revival is that conversions always accompany periods of revival. People are saved during times of spiritual renewal. When God moves powerfully among His people, the natural consequence is that revived Christians impact the lives of unbelievers around them. Conversions are a repercussion of revival, not a core aspect of it. Jesus declared that His people were to be salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16). When salt is functioning as it should, the meat it touches is preserved. When a light shines as it is designed, darkness is dispelled. There is no need to scurry about a room trying to rid it of darkness; one must simply turn on a light. In revival, salt is made salty again, and lights are made to shine brightly once more. Once this occurs, the surrounding environment is immediately impacted.
The problem today is that churches are striving to win their world to Christ without having first been revived themselves. The result is spiritually comatose church members going door-to-door asking unbelievers if they would like to have what they have—spiritual anemia! Such an invitation is patently unappealing. It explains the high dropout rate in the church today. Newborn spiritual babes are being placed into churches filled with spiritually lethargic people. It is a recipe for disillusionment.
Revival Can Occur without Repentance
We have touched on this misconception earlier. The confusion surrounding the need for repentance in revival stems in part from too broad a use of the word revival. For some a revival is anything a Christian does that is reenergized. So a “prayer revival” is when Christians become motivated to begin attending the weekly prayer meeting or to commit to personal prayer several times during the week. While this could be a consequence of revival, a renewed interest in and commitment to prayer is not in itself revival. This could merely be the result of a prayer conference your church recently held where a motivational speaker convinced you your life would be better if you were a person of prayer.
Likewise, many are speaking today of a “worship revival.” That is, people are enjoying attending worship services to a degree they had not been previously. While invigorated worship certainly results from revival, a renewed interest in worship is not identical to revival. When young people declare they have begun to enjoy worship services, it could mean their church worship leader recently introduced drums and electric guitars to the worship team. Or perhaps a new preacher has come who delivers livelier sermons. There can be many reasons for a renewed enjoyment of worship services, but they are not necessarily evidence of spiritual renewal.
People can experience a revival in anything from classic car styles to retro clothes, music, and movies. Yet true biblical revival deals specifically with one’s relationship to God. Only one thing ultimately quenches our relationship with Him, and that is sin. Sins of idolatry, commission, and omission are lethal to spiritual vitality. Sin has only one remedy, and that is repentance. Without repentance there is no revival.
Revival Always Involves a Deep Demonstration of Emotion
One of the distinguishing characteristics of revival as well as one of the greatest points of criticism has centered on its emotional responses. When Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” those listening in the audience fainted and cried out in terror. Over the history of revivals, people have cried out, wailed, fallen to the ground, fainted, shrieked, moaned, and laughed. Charles Finney noted in one service, “The Spirit of God came upon them with such power that it was like opening a battery upon them.”13 In a meeting attended by many skeptical college students, Jonathan Goforth noted that the Holy Spirit suddenly “swept like an avalanche through the university students.”14 Goforth, who witnessed a great revival in China, observed: “If the Almighty Spirit moves in sovereign power on the hearts and consciences of men the outcomes must be above the normal. … [Might] as well expect a hurricane, an earthquake, or a flood to leave nothing abnormal in its course, as to expect a true Revival that is not accompanied by events quite out of the ordinary experience.”15 One could legitimately enquire how a personal encounter with Almighty God could not affect someone’s emotions. When Isaiah came face-to-face with God enthroned, he cried out, “Woe is me” (Isa. 6:5). When the beloved disciple encountered the risen Christ on the isle of Patmos, he fell to the ground as a dead man (Rev. 1:17). If we are not experiencing a deep emotional response when we encounter our Creator and Judge, we may need to ask why not.
Nevertheless, to assume revivals are nothing more than mass emotionalism is a misconception. Many revivals have been orderly and free of excessive affectations. During the Asbury revival in 1970, college students testified and worshipped for 185 straight hours, but the services were orderly, and students politely waited their turn to testify. Charles Spurgeon experienced almost continuous revival in his church, and yet services were peaceable and focused on the preached Word. Deeply stirred emotions are a possible result of revival, but they do not constitute revival itself.
There Is Only One Kind of Revival
In essence, this is true. However, genuine revival is conducted in two major ways. One is leader directed and Word centered. The other is laity led and testimony driven. A classic example of the former is the First Great Awakening. This moving of God was led primarily by pastors, including Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennant, and Theodore Frelinghuysen along with the itinerant preacher George Whitefield. The services were focused on preaching and teaching of Scripture. The pastors and preachers controlled the order of the service, and the focal point was their exposition and application of Scripture.
The latter type of revival, laity driven and testimony centered, was exemplified by the Laymen’s Prayer Revival of 1957-58 and the Asbury Revival of 1970. In these cases no prominent pastors dominated the movement with their preaching. Rather, laypeople took an active role, praying and testifying. In some ways this form of revival can spread more rapidly because its advance does not depend on a Whitefield or Edwards to do the preaching. In the Asbury Revival the president of the school was out of the country when revival came. When teams of revived Asbury College students traveled across the country testifying to what had happened, more than 130 college campuses soon felt the impact. It has been said that “revival comes through prayer, but testimony spreads the flame.”16
We would make two general observations about laity-led, testimony-driven revivals. First, they tend to be more prone to abuse. While a man such as Jonathan Edwards witnessed dramatic occurrences during periods of revival, he discouraged excessive forms of emotionalism. If people acted or spoke inappropriately, they were silenced. Further, pastor-led, Word-centered revivals tend to be more rooted in Scripture, which is much more reliable than people’s feelings and testimonies. Testimony-driven revivals can be as genuine as Word-driven revivals, but they invite people unschooled in theology or who are easily misled by their emotions to affect the spirit of the entire meeting. Some have argued that the great revival under Evan Roberts in Wales was harmed because he did not place preaching at the center and he was not always discerning in screening who was allowed to testify in the meetings.17 Some of the testimonies became deeply emotional and at times suggested things that were unbiblical. A second observation is that Word-centered revivals tend to last longer than testimony-driven movements. This may be because they are generally more firmly grounded in Scripture and led by church leaders.
Revivals Are Merely an Attempt to Take a Shortcut from Hard Work and Evangelism
Some critics have charged that all the time spent praying for revival could be better spent by church members doing door-to-door evangelism. While a heartfelt desire for revival never negates our responsibility to make disciples of all nations, to accuse advocates of revival of being lazy is to demonstrate a gross ignorance of what revival entails. Jonathan Edwards believed church history was cyclical, highlighted by great spiritual harvests in which God revived His church and brought large numbers of converts into His kingdom in short periods of time. This did not cancel Edwards’s sense of responsibility for nurturing his flock, as he was famous for spending an average of thirteen hours every day in his study preparing to preach and teach those God placed in his care. Edwards recognized that in only a few months God could accomplish more than he could in years of laborious ministry.
Those who view a longing for revival as a desire to avoid hard work do not understand what happens in revival. During such times vast numbers of people, previously unchurched, are born again. In Wales 100,000 people were added to the churches in six months. During the Laymen’s Prayer Revival estimates of conversions range as high as one million people in one year. Clearly when God chooses to move in the midst of His people, He can accomplish more in one month than normal church programming can achieve over a decade. When Christians witness what happens in revival, they have an overriding passion to see it happen again and again.
Those who led in revival were anything but lazy. Preachers might preach nightly for seven straight weeks. Worship services would regularly go until late at night with afterglow meetings lasting until the early morning hours. The swarms of people seeking counsel, the attacks from critics, and their own earnest desire to know what God wanted them to do next produced enormous pressure on those responsible for leading revival. Evan Roberts, who was still a young man when revival came to Wales in 1904, was so spent after six months that he retired to a private home in England and never returned to revival ministry.
Blackaby, Henry T., Claude V. King, Richard Blackaby, and Anne Graham Lotz. 2009. Fresh Encounter: God’s Plan for Your Spiritual Awakening Revised. Nashville, TN: B&H Books.