It is quite clear from Christian history that ‘revival’ is the major means that God has used to advance the cause of the gospel throughout the world. Not only are local churches revitalised but the work of the gospel takes a quantum leap forwards. Ministries and mission agencies abound with fresh crops of zealous enthusiasts. Masses experience powerful conversions that stand the tests of time. Philanthropic organisations emerge wherever the church is renewed. The world becomes a better place.
Douglas Shields wrote in 1905 ‘There is a theory that all social and moral advance may be traced to religious revivals (The World Today). If these comments are true then seeking continuous ‘revival’ should be the major aim of every Christian, in every church and in every age. Revival should be at the top of our prayer lists and preaching programmes. It is how God works.
But many remain unconvinced. They view ‘revivals’ with some suspicion, relegating them to the sphere of fanaticism, emotionalism and extremism. They confuse authentic, divinely-inspired revivals with the more humanly induced ‘revivalism,’ a product of unbalanced delusion or extravagant emotionalism. For them ‘revival’ creates unnecessary divisions and errors and is not compatible with a healthy and mature 21st century Christianity. It is nothing more than a temporary religious excitement amongst certain groups of people who have been manipulated and deceived.
What does the Bible say about revival?
Evangelicals should turn to the Scriptures for instruction in all matters faith and life. The Bible provides sufficient material to help believers discern what is to be embraced and what is to be avoided. But there is a slight problem here because the word ‘revival,’ strictly speaking, is entirely absent from its pages. Nevertheless, this should not deter us because (1) the word ‘revive’ does occur in several places, (2) the examples of what Christians call ‘revival’ are found everywhere in both the Old Testament and the New, and (3) ‘revival’ is has become the word commonly used to describe the sum total of those various events, experiences and results which occur when God intensifies His saving activities in the world of men and women.
‘Revival’ has become a useful term to encapsulate a kaleidoscope of spiritual encounters and divine expressions, simply and effectively. Jonathan Edwards, arguably the church’s greatest theologian of revival, preferred the term ‘awakening.’ Others have employed various Biblical expressions to epitomise ‘revival’ like ‘outpourings of the Spirit,’ ‘seasons of refreshing from the presence of the Lord,’ visitations from God,’ ‘days of Gods power’ and so on.
Though the word ‘revival’ is not found in Scripture, what it represents and describes, is undeniably Biblical and therefore needs to be received, not rejected.
Arthur Wallis in his book entitled, ‘In the day of Thy Power’ wrote: ‘The meaning of any word is determined by its usage. For a definition of revival we must therefore appeal to the people of God of bygone years, who have used the word with consistency of meaning down the centuries, until it began to be used in a lesser and more limited sense in modem times. Numerous writings on the subject that have been preserved to us will confirm that revival is divine intervention in the normal course of spiritual things. It is God revealing Himself to man in awful holiness and irresistible power. It is such a manifest working of God that human personalities are overshadowed, and human programmes abandoned. It is man retiring into the background because God has taken the field. It is the Lord making bare His holy arm, and working in extraordinary power on saint and sinner.’
Of course, Wallis was absolutely correct, but in reality we find two distinct expressions of God ‘revealing Himself to man in awful holiness and irresistible power’ in the Bible. One is mainly (but not exclusively) in the Old Testament and the other is mainly (but not exclusively) in New Testament.
Old Testament revival
There are around fifteen specific revivals in the Old Testament and in each of them we see a similar cycle of revival. These cycles are most clearly seen in the six successive revivals in the book of Judges. Each begins with sin, which marks the beginning of spiritual declension. This is inevitably followed by a period of suffering, which drives God’s people to the third phase of supplication. It is then that salvation comes, with all its attendant blessings.
The most popular revival passage in the Old Testament is 2 Chron 7:14 which gives clear directions to those who have already experienced the consequences of their sin. ‘If my people, who are called by my name, will 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.”
This verse contains four elements that occur in all Old Testament revivals: Humility, prayer, seeking God, repentance.
Wilbur Smith notes nine characteristics of Old Testament revivals:
It will be noted that these revivals are experienced by God’s covenant people, Israel. Generally, there were no ‘conversion revivals’ (except in the case of Jonah). Rather the emphasis is on the people of God having their spiritual life restored, getting right with God by confession, repentance and returning to God’s word and ways.
Many take this as the Biblical norm for revivals and consequently emphasise sin, repentance, the need for forgiveness and the maintenance of holiness in their preaching and teaching.
New Testament revival
Revival in the New Testament appears to have a different emphasis. The Spirit is outpoured, the Gospel is preached, conviction and conversions follow. A new era has begun, the Spirit promised in the Old Testament is now active and available. All flesh – anyone, male or female, young or old, Jew or Gentile – can be refreshed and renewed by the Spirit, which is made available by repentance and faith in Christ’s saving work. Whole communities turn to the Lord and great cities become populated with new believers.
Far from being wayward Jews whose hearts are far from God, the recipients of salvation who received the consequent infilling of the Spirit, are either sincere Jews, serious Gentile God-fearers or others who were completely oblivious to any spiritual realities before they were impacted by an invasion of the Spirit’s power.
Understanding Biblical revival
How are we to view these two types of revival? They are both expressions of ‘God coming down.’ They both reveal the Holy Spirit working in people’s lives to bring renewal and salvation. They each contain principles which are applicable to all but are applied differently according to the time and circumstances of the recipients.
In historical revivals both types of revival can be observed. Backslidden Christians and churches have needed to be confronted with their laxity and waywardness. How can God work through a church which indifferent towards the lost, or preoccupied with materialism or sin, or unbelief? Old Testament principles of revival have to be recognised and applied so that believer’s are ‘revived’ to their intended spiritual life and responsibilities. The seven churches of Revelation are a good example of this.
Again, there are those believers who are trying hard and doing all the right things but are quite deficient regarding fruitfulness and effectiveness. This groups needs to encounter God again, to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to have their Christian lives energised and empowered. They need to be revived.
These two aspects of revival are often found in various definitions of revival:
‘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 of 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. Revival is remarkable, large, effective and, above all, it is something that God brings about.’ - Brian Edwards
“You cannot revive something that has never had life, so revival, by definition, is first of all an enlivening and quickening and awakening of lethargic, sleeping church members. Suddenly the power of the Spirit comes upon them … they are humbled, they are convicted of sin … then as a result of their quickening and enlivening, they begin to pray. New power comes into the preaching of the ministers, and the result of this is large numbers are converted. So the two main characteristics of revival are, first, this extraordinary enlivening of the members of the church, and, second, the conversion of masses of people who have been outside in indifference and in sin.” - D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
Edwin Orr has overcome the tendency to confusion by describing God’s activity in the church as ‘revival’ and the consequent ingathering of souls as the ‘awakening’ of the lost.
In conclusion and summary: The Bible presents the multi-facetted principles of revival in both the Old and the New Testaments. Revival or ‘visitation’ has different expressions. To one group it may require deep conviction and repentance, eliciting godly sorrow and tears. To another it may mean receiving fresh power from God which results in a godly lifestyle and an effective witness. Often both of these expressions are seen in historical revivals.