Seeking to understand revival is like attempting to comprehend the Trinity. We cannot fathom the triune nature of God because He is divine and we are not. People display supreme human arrogance when they insist they will not accept the gospel claims until they understand the nature and work of God to their satisfaction. Such a demand is ludicrous. To understand God completely we would have to be gods ourselves. The only truths we can ascertain about the divine with any certainty are those facts God chooses to reveal to us. An unsanctified mind cannot comprehend divine realities even though they are clearly written on the pages of Scripture.
Likewise we can never fully grasp the magnitude of what happens in revival because it is fundamentally a divine work. God has graciously spoken of it in His Word, and we have numerous accounts of it throughout history. We are wise to examine what Scripture declares concerning revival. Also helpful, to say nothing of deeply inspirational, is to review carefully the great moments of revival throughout history. Nevertheless, many aspects of spiritual renewal cannot be fully apprehended by our finite minds, and diverse opinions abound concerning its origin and nature. In this chapter we will consider several definitions revival experts have proposed. We will also examine common misconceptions concerning revival.
To encapsulate the magnitude of revival in one succinct definition is impossible. People who have spent the greater part of their lives studying the workings of God have captured distinct aspects of revival that when, taken together, help us appreciate the multifaceted nature of God’s powerful activity among His people. Notice the variety of definitions for revival:
Revival is that strange and sovereign work of God in which He visits His own people—restoring, reanimating, and releasing them into the fullness of His blessing.1 (Stephen Olford)
Revival is God’s invasion into the lives of one or more of His people in order to awaken them spiritually for kingdom ministry.2 (Malcom McDow and Alvin Reid)
Revival is a time when heaven comes closer to earth.3 (Francois Carr)
Revival is a community saturated with God.4 (Duncan Campbell)
Revival is an extraordinary movement of the Holy Spirit producing extraordinary results.5 (Richard Owen Roberts)
Revival, above everything else, is the glorification of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is the restoration of him to the center of the life of the church.6 (Martin Lloyd Jones)
A true Holy Spirit revival is a remarkable increase in the spiritual life of a large number of God’s people, accompanied by an awesome awareness of the presence of God, intensity in prayer and praise, a deep conviction of sin with a passionate longing for holiness and unusual effectiveness in evangelism leading to the salvation of many unbelievers.7 (Brian Edwards)
Revival is a divine intervention in the normal course of spiritual things. It is God revealing Himself to man in awful holiness and irresistible power…It is man retiring into the background because God has taken the field.8 (Arthur Wallis)
Each definition by these respected authors brings helpful focus to the complex nature of revival. You will notice that because revival is such a powerful phenomenon, people inevitably move from defining revival to describing it. It is easier to describe what revival does than to define what revival is. Having acknowledged this, we submit here our own definition of revival:
Revival is a divinely initiated work in which God’s people pray, repent of their sin, and return to a holy, Spirit-filled, obedient, love relationship with God.
We will spend the remainder of this book delving into this definition, but at this stage let us highlight its main points:
First and foremost, revival is a work of God. Spiritually dormant Christians cannot resuscitate themselves. Those in a coma cannot push the button beside their hospital bed to alert the nurse’s station of their dire condition. They cannot give themselves medicine or go for a walk to get some fresh air. God is the Creator and Sustainer of life; only He can dispense it. Even when people begin to sense their need for revival and they start meeting with others to pray for it, they are simply responding to a divine initiative, convicting them of their sin and prompting them to return to God.
Second, the first thing God does with His people in revival is to take them to the place of repentance. There will be no revival where there is no repentance. Some writers on revival have spoken of a “repentance revival” as if this is one type out of many varieties of revival.9 However, such a view is untenable. Scripture clearly teaches that sin brings spiritual death (Rom. 6:23). The only remedy for sin is repentance (1 John 1:9-10). Just as the first words of John the Baptist and Jesus in their earthly ministries was “repent,” so the first place the Holy Spirit will always take people experiencing the spiritually deadening effects of sin is to the place of repentance (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:4-5).10
Third, revival involves returning to God. When God seems distant from us, it is never God who has departed from the relationship. God urged His people through the prophet Malachi: “Return to Me, and I will return to you” (Mal. 3:7). Likewise in the New Testament James declared, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8). Throughout the historic accounts of revival are repeated references to the nearness and palpable presence of God in the midst of people. Just as in the days of Malachi when God’s people asked, “In what way shall we return?” (Mal. 3:7), so God’s people are often unaware of how far they have departed from God until He leads them to return. In times of revival, God’s people suddenly become aware of how far they have strayed from God, and they return.
Fourth, true revival always leads to holiness. You cannot continue to practice sin and simultaneously experience spiritual renewal. In Isaiah 1, God rejected His people’s worship when they entered the place of worship with sin-filled lives (Isa. 1:1—20). When the prophet Isaiah experienced a fresh encounter with God, his immediate concern was his lack of holiness (Isa. 6:5). More than our worship or our service for Him, God desires holiness (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:15-16). While some people suggest there can be a revival of worship or prayer without repentance, we do not see this as possible or biblical. Only after God restores us to holiness are we free to pray, worship, and serve Him in the manner He deserves.
Fifth, when revival occurs, people are filled with the Holy Spirit. Preaching becomes powerful when anointed by the Spirit. Duncan Campbell declared that after he experienced personal revival, he would preach sermons he had delivered before, but now they were characterized by divine power. The congregation can sing the same songs, yet now they are invigorated by the Spirit, and the times of corporate worship are characterized by joy and the presence of God’s Spirit.
Sixth, revival stimulates an attitude of willing obedience to whatever God requires. Much of carnal Christianity comes not from ignorance of what God expects but from hearts unwilling to do what God has clearly commanded. Revival, because it draws people back to the Lord, inevitably produces an eagerness to do His bidding.
Most important, revival brings God’s people back into a love relationship with Him. Christianity is not a religion. It is a relationship. As God demonstrated so graphically through the prophet Hosea, to forsake God is to commit spiritual adultery. Rejecting God is not merely breaking a command or neglecting a precept. It is a blatant repudiation of the One who dearly loves you. When revival comes, people recognize their sin for what it is: a renunciation of God and a violation of the love relationship. That is why, in times of revival, people often declare that God’s salvation is too good for them considering the way they had coldly rejected the love of Jesus their Savior.11
Even as we submit our definition of revival for your consideration, we recognize that it falls short of fully encompassing all that is involved in spiritual renewal. Yet as we discuss and illustrate these emphases in the following pages, we encourage you to undertake a serious study of this critical subject. Much has been written and many insights have been offered that are worthy of close examination.
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.
We have just released a new Bible Study based on Henry Blackaby’s book amazing book, Fresh Encounter These lessons are available on Amazon, as well as a part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.