There is more and more talk these days about revival coming to America, perhaps more talk now than at any time in the past half century. There are rumors of revival. From time to time we are told that revival has come to Toronto, or to Florida, or to Chicago.
There are books about revival. Bill Bright, the founder and president of Campus Crusade for Christ, has written one called The Coming Revival [Orlando, FL: New Life Publications, 1995]. And Dale Schlafer of Promise Keepers has written A Revival Primer to help get us ready for it when it does come [Denver, CO: Promise Keepers, 1997].
There are conferences about revival. Our own Presbyterian Church in America sponsors a “Convocation on Revival and Reformation.” Its purpose is to “encourage and prepare ministers to lead their churches toward Revival and Reformation.” As I say, there is plenty of talk about revival.
Before we can assess whether revival is actually coming or not, we need to know what it is. The term “revival” is biblical. It is one of the common prayers of the Psalms:
Revive us, and we will call on your name.
Restore us, O LORD God Almighty;
make your face shine upon us,
that we may be saved (Ps. 80:18-19).
Restore us again, O God our Savior,
and put away your displeasure toward us…
Will you not revive us again,
that your people may rejoice in you? (Ps. 85:4, 6).
Revival restores spiritual passion to God’s people. Stephen Olford describes it as “That strange and sovereign work of God in which he visits his own people, restoring, reanimating, and releasing them into the fullness of His blessings” [Heart Cry for Revival, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1969].
The primary cause of revival is the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in great power. Martyn Lloyd-Jones thus calls it “a visitation of the Holy Spirit” [Revival, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1987]. The result of that visitation is repentance for sin, which Dale Schlafer describes like this:
Suddenly, without warning, God is present, and the people are brought face to face with God’s holiness and their sin. It seems that God is dealing with them alone so that whatever the spiritual state of the person, saved or unsaved, a mighty work of transformation occurs. The unsaved are brought to salvation, and the saved are brought to further holiness [pp. 9-10].
This is the kind of revival which took place in Jerusalem when Ezra threw himself down in front of the temple and wept for the sins of God’s people (Ezra 10:1). As a result of his confession, all God’s people repented for their sins and renewed their covenant with God (vv. 2-3).
To summarize, revival is a sovereign visitation of God’s Holy Spirit which brings deep repentance for sin and a renewed passion for God to the church. It is not the same thing as reformation, although revival sometimes leads to reformation. Reformation is something God brings to an entire culture, whereas revival is something God brings primarily to his church. It is only later that genuine, biblical Christianity begins to reshape the culture.
With that definition in mind, it is obvious much that goes by the name “revival” these days is not revival in the biblical sense at all. Anything advertised as a “revival meeting” is not likely to be a revival at all. The Holy Spirit does not need a marketing department, and he usually shows up unannounced.
Nor is revival guaranteed by the presence of signs and wonders — holy laughter, people falling over, and all the rest of it. The Bible warns Christians that even the devil himself is capable of performing outward signs and wonders (2 Thess. 2:9). The only unmistakable sign of genuine revival is repentance for sin, followed by renewed commitment to biblical Christianity.
Consider the revival which took place on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). As soon as the Holy Spirit came on the early church in great power, the apostles began to preach the good news about Jesus Christ from the Scriptures (vv. 4, 14-39). Thus the first thing to expect when the Holy Spirit comes in power is a long, long sermon. If a church claims to have “revival” without the plain teaching of the Bible, the Holy Spirit is not involved. God’s Spirit does not want to call attention to himself, but to focus attention on God’s Son through God’s Word (cf. 1 Cor. 2).
There is one other potential danger in all the recent talk about revival, and that is the focus on the revival itself. People who have experienced genuine revival do not say that “revival” came. What they say is that God came. Since God himself is the reviver, there is no authentic revival without his living and powerful presence through the Holy Spirit. When God does come in power, what people talk about is not revival, but God himself.
There is a wonderful account of the last revival in the British Isles, which took place in the 1950’s on the Isle of Lewes. It comes from the man who preached during that revival, the Reverend Duncan Campbell. The title Campbell gave to his story is significant: “When God Stepped Down from Heaven.”
Since we do not know when God will step down from heaven, we cannot say whether revival is coming or not. Of course, the Holy Spirit is always present when God’s people worship in the name of Jesus Christ. He is here tonight. But we do not know when God will visit his people in the fullness of his power.
We can only say that we long for God to come in power. In the meantime, we commit ourselves to pray that he would come. Praying for revival is a subject I hope to say more about next Sunday night.
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