Along with these misconceptions are several important issues that must be examined in any serious study of revival. The following are some of the most challenging issues related to revival. We will touch on them here but will address them more fully throughout the remainder of the book.
Does Revival Represent What Normal Christianity Should Be, or Is It Something Extraordinary?
For those who experience revival, the presence of God is almost overwhelming, the preaching is often dynamic, the testimonies of transformed lives are compelling, and the singing is transcendent. Having experienced this, it is difficult to go back to business as usual. The inevitable questions follow: is that what normal church and Christianity are supposed to be like all the time? Is anything less sub-Christian? To this Brian Edwards notes: “Revival is not normal any more than spiritual decline and backsliding are normal. These are opposite ends of the normal life of the church. Revival is supernormal and backsliding is subnormal.”18 Revival can be a spiritual mountaintop experience. However, such experiences are always designed to prepare us for life lived in the valley.
What Role Do People Play in Revival? Why Does God Work Mightily through Some People and Not Others?
To quote Brian Edwards, “God has almost always used particular men to lead His work. That is His method.”19 Any study of the kinds of people God used in revival reveals an extremely wide diversity. Some, such as George Whitefield, were among the most powerful preachers in church history. Others, such as William M’Culloch of Cambuslang, Scotland, possessed no unusual gifts. It has been said of him, “M’Culloch’s personal qualifications for his office were not such as to mark him out as a probable leader in a great revival movement. He seems to have been possessed of more than average scholarship, but for the pulpit he had virtually no gifts. His voice was thin and weak and his utterance slow.”20 Yet God worked powerfully through M’Culloch even as He used ministers with far greater pulpit skills.
We will examine more thoroughly the characteristics of numerous leaders of revival throughout this book, but we can conclude that those God used mightily to revive His people were people of fervent prayer who truly believed that with God all things are possible. They also were deeply burdened that the people around them desperately needed a fresh encounter with God. Those God chose to use to impact their generation were willing to pay whatever price was necessary to be effective instruments in God’s hands.
Evan Roberts, who saw 100,000 people in Wales come to faith in Christ in six months, was once sharing with a group of people about the mysteries of God. Suddenly a young woman exclaimed, “Mr. Roberts, how fortunate you are to know all these things! I wish I knew them also.” In response, Roberts solemnly asked, “Are you willing to pay the price?”21 That question resounds throughout the ages to all who desire their lives to be used powerfully by God.
What Role Does Prayer Play in Revival?
John Greenfield has noted, “Prayer always precedes Pentecost.”22 Perhaps the only common denominator you find when you study the facets related to revival is prayer. While at times a revival will be highlighted by dynamic preaching or emotional testimonies, you never need to peer back far to discover that in every great outpouring of God’s Spirit, people were praying. Prayer always precedes revival. It plays a prominent role during revival, and revival always leaves a praying people in its wake. However, prayer does not guarantee revival. Our fervent praying never holds God hostage to our requests. He remains sovereign and will visit His people afresh on His terms and in His timing. Today record numbers of ministries and prayer groups across North America are committed to praying for revival. Yet as of this writing, large scale, national revival has not occurred in North America as a result of this praying. As we will see, no revival has occurred without prayer, but praying for it does not guarantee it will come.
Why Do Revivals Come to an End?
For those who have participated in revival, it is a blessed and exhilarating experience. When you are in the midst of the outpouring of God’s Spirit, it seems as if heaven descends to earth and the angelic hosts join God’s people in worship. With church leaders humbled before God, ordinary believers confessing their sins and being reconciled with one another, unbelievers experiencing profound conversions, young adults feeling called into full-time Christian ministry, one would think the church would continue from that point onward to function in the environment of continuous revival. But that does not happen. In fact, Brian Edwards suggests that revival rarely outlasts one generation.23
There are many reasons why revivals do not linger. At times it is because a radical element gains a prominent role in the movement, and God withdraws His blessing. In some cases pride fills the hearts of those in leadership, and God no longer entrusts His mighty work into their hands. A broader answer to the question may be that God never intends for revival to be a permanent reality. Revival is restorative not normative. Revival brings people back into the intimate, consecrated walk with God they had previously forsaken. This comes through brokenness and repentance. A revival might last many weeks where people confess grievous sins night after night. But eventually God’s people have been purified and forgiven, and they must then move on to their calling of daily living for Him. Sometimes revival comes to a close because God has accomplished the work He set out to do.
Why Does God Bring Revival to Some Places and Not to Others?
This is another intriguing question. Canada, for instance, has never had a nationwide revival. Yet it has experienced regional revivals such as in the Maritimes under Henry Alline in the eighteenth century and in Saskatoon in 1972. J. Edwin Orr, the premier revival historian, observed that the Laymen’s Prayer Revival, a movement he referred to as “The Event of the Century,” actually began in Canada.24 However, although the 1857—58 awakening began in Canada, it never had the impact it did on the United States. Certainly geographic, demographic, religious, and cultural factors played a role. Anyone who knows Canada understands its religious landscape differs significantly from its southern neighbor. Yet revival is not restricted to culture. Great revivals have swept countries as diverse as Scotland, the Congo, China, and Indonesia. Why does revival come to one church and not another? Why does God use some people like John Wesley, Charles Finney, and Evan Roberts to bring revival and not others? This is an issue shrouded in mystery and ultimately only explained by God’s sovereign will.
Is Satan Active in Revivals, and If So, How Can He Still Function in the Midst of a Great Work of God?
It has always been enigmatic that people could be in the presence of a powerful outpouring of God’s Spirit and yet become an instrument of Satan. It seems inconceivable that Judas, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, could walk closely with Jesus for three years, watch Him perform astounding miracles, listen to His profound teaching, and receive His loving attention, yet choose to do the unthinkable and betray his Lord. But it is possible. Satan does some of his most devious and destructive work in the midst of the mighty acts of God.
During the revival that occurred in Northampton under Jonathan Edwards in 1735, many lives were gloriously transformed, and large numbers were converted. Then, on Sunday morning, June 1, 1735, Joseph Hawley II, a respected leader in Northampton society, a faithful member of the church, and Jonathan Edwards’s uncle, committed suicide by slitting his own throat.25 Hawley had struggled with depression, but this violent, hopeless act by a man who sat in the same services week after week as people experiencing revival shocked people. Even in the midst of glorious spiritual renewal, Satan was prowling like a roaring lion seeking whom he might devour. When God was accomplishing a great work, the forces of evil were desperately launching a counterattack.
Satan first seeks to destroy God’s work, and failing that, he duplicates it. As we will see, one of the enemy’s most cunning strategies is to introduce a counterfeit element into the stream of revival. Often this measure, when exposed and denounced by the media and the general public, is sufficient to discredit the legitimate aspects of revival as well. It seems strange that, despite the multitudinous prayers, the forceful worship services, and widespread public surrender to God’s will in times of revival, Satan is not held at bay. Rather, evil is present, even in the midst of revival. As preachers preach powerful sermons, some of them are tempted to believe they are great orators. As people publicly confess their sin, some revel in the attention they receive as they hold the microphone. Even as some lives are being genuinely transformed, others may falsify changes in their lives. While some are honestly sharing what God has said to them, Satan is leading others to make wild declarations and to fabricate dreams and visions. God has won the decisive battle against Satan and his hellish forces, but the war has not yet ended. Even as an army will fight more desperately when its back is against a wall, so the spiritual forces of wickedness battle most desperately when they see God’s kingdom advancing. Periods of revival are not times to let down your guard to the warfare continually waged in the spiritual realms.
Historically What Role Have Young People Played in Revival?
A fascinating issue related to revival is the involvement of young people. Many of the revival preachers, such as John Wesley, George Whitefield, Charles Finney, and Evan Roberts, were young men when God used them. Numerous great movements of God occurred on college campuses such as Yale, Howard Payne University, Wheaton College, and Asbury College.26 The revival under Jonathan Edwards in Northampton in 1735 began among young people.27 Written accounts of great revivals show that those first stirred by the revival fires were often youth and young adults. Surely this factor provides significant guidance to those who long to see revival come in their day. Rather than demeaning young people in the church or consigning them to the “youth building” while the adults have their revival meeting, churches would be wise to invest heavily in the spiritual nurturing of their young people. Churches that lose their young people and fill their pews on Sundays with gray hair will have a much more difficult time experiencing revival.
What Is the Role of Public Confession?
One of the most provocative aspects of revival is the practice of public confession. Sharing grievous sins in public not only arouses great emotions, but it can also lead to many forms of abuse. Confession can at times be more tantalizing than sanctifying. Immature people can enjoy the public attention they receive as they testify rather than being broken over what they are admitting. The need for public versus private confession is a point of debate. Is it not enough to go to God, against whom we have sinned, and confess our sins to Him (Ps. 51:4)? What is the need of telling everyone else in our church, many of whom previously thought highly of us? Is there something therapeutic or redemptive about God’s people publicly renouncing their sins? Some have argued that public confession tarnishes the church’s reputation in the community. Yet often through times of confession, such as at Asbury College, revival has burst forth in full bloom. J. Edwin Orr observed, “Confession of sins is a neglected doctrine. It only comes into its rightful place in times of revival.”28 Orr also gave this sage advice to those wondering if they should confess their sins publicly: “Let the circle of the sin committed be the circle of the confession made.”29When confessing sins publicly, believers are wise to limit details to the essential facts and to glory in God’s gracious act of pardon rather than in the shameful behavior
What about Sins of the Past?
Another controversial subject that recurs in times of revival concerns past sins. What effect do they have on the present? If a middle-aged woman had an abortion as an unmarried teenager, does that sin still need to be confessed publicly, decades later? During times of revival, people may conduct an exhaustive inventory of every sin they ever committed and seek to confess them in order to be set free. Yet where is the line? Does every unconfessed sin from our past weigh heavily on our soul? Is spiritual powerlessness today the result of unconfessed sin from days gone by? What about past sins we have forgotten? Do unremembered, unresolved sins stifle our spiritual life years later? When we experience spiritual defeat, should we immediately begin reviewing our distant past to determine if our present unpleasant circumstances are the result of a forgotten sin? How does the Holy Spirit alert us to those things He knows we must deal with in order to be set free?
How Do We Deal with Corporate Sins?
What is corporate sin? Consider a church that had a bitter split twenty years ago. Amid much acrimony, a splinter group angrily departed and formed its own church. For decades the two congregations have had no interaction with each other and have made no attempts to reconcile. Now a new generation of church leaders has arisen. They were only children when their parents divided. These second-generation church leaders are sensitive to the fact that God is not blessing their congregations. The questions are: should the present generation repent for sins committed by former members? Do later generations bear the guilt and consequences for their parents’ misdeeds?
Can churches or nations sin corporately; and, if so, how do they find cleansing and release from their sin? Why are some churches plagued by continual scandal and heinous sin while others are relatively free from it?
We know churches that were birthed in sin. The founding pastor was having an adulterous relationship while starting the church. Not surprisingly, an inordinate number of the church’s leaders also committed adultery and ultimately experienced divorce. Numerous new churches have been formed as a result of angry division in a former congregation. Does God bless such churches? If the way an organization begins plays a determinative role in its future, what does this suggest for the many congregations littered across the North American landscape that were birthed in bitterness and unforgiveness?
We know churches that endured repeated scandals among their ministers and church leaders. The founding pastor of the church was eventually fired for adultery, and five senior pastors later the church had to fire yet another senior pastor for immorality. Some churches, it seems, have had immorality, divisiveness, or lack of faith passed on in their DNA. If a church or a family appears to have inherited an ungodly heritage that continually repeats itself, how does it purge itself of its sin?
These are some of the issues we will probe during subsequent chapters. As we have already seen, revival is a complex subject. It is a divine work contingent on God’s sovereignty. As we gain a greater understanding of how God works in revival, we will be better prepared to be His instrument should He choose to revive His people today.
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.