On February 6, 1925, a 25-year-old member of the Royal College of Physicians delivered a controversial lecture titled “The Tragedy of Modern Wales.” Bankers, educators, and the “great abomination” of preacher-politicians all came under censure—as did silk stockings, the wireless radio, and people who bathed daily. Fundamentally, however, the “tragedy” of modern Wales was the church’s increasing ineptitude and decreasing vitality. The doctor, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, lamented the churches’ spiritual insignificance and the current preaching’s spiritual weakness. His diagnosis of Christ’s body in Wales was that it was on life-support and needed reviving.
That diagnosis never changed. For the next 55 years, Lloyd-Jones would expand his diagnosis to include Christ’s body in the entire English-speaking world. Whether he was speaking as a physician or a pastor, the need for revival dominated his ministerial life.
Weekly in his church’s prayer meetings and regularly in his sermons, he’d call his congregation and the church at large to seek the Lord and seek revival. He regularly said things like, “If I have any understanding of the times, if I have any understanding of the biblical teaching concerning the nature of the church, and the work of the Holy Spirit, I do not hesitate to assert that the only hope for the church at the present time lies in revival.”
This was the one supreme need for the church in the 20th century.
Lloyd-Jones never wrote a systematic exposition of revival. The most sustained articulation of his theology of revival can be found in the 24 sermons he preached in 1959 to mark the centennial anniversary of the great transatlantic revival of 1859. In this series, he fully unpacks and explores themes that he’d mention hundreds of times. But the single best place to start with his theology of revival is a sermon from Ephesians 4:4–6, preached on June 9, 1957.
Whether he was speaking as a physician or a pastor, the need for revival dominated Lloyd-Jones’s ministerial life.
In this sermon, he distinguishes between the normal operations of the Holy Spirit, which he preached about the previous week, and the extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit. He defines revival as the Spirit working in extraordinary measure. It’s a repetition, to some degree, of what happened at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fell in a powerful way on numerous people simultaneously.
According to Lloyd-Jones, revival serves two purposes: “Those on the inside of the church are raised up to a new level of experience and understanding . . . and those on the outside are converted and drawn in.” Both elements are significant. For those in the church, there’s a new level of understanding of doctrinal truths and a powerful experience of the Lord’s manifest presence. For those outside, there’s a powerful evangelistic encounter with the living Lord.
Lloyd-Jones believed revival is an extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit because it’s marked by this mysterious manifestation of God’s presence. This isn’t something we can manufacture or market. Revival is the special and sovereign falling of the Holy Spirit’s fire; our job is simply to seek him. Like Elijah at Mount Carmel, we can build an altar, but only God can send the fire.
How, though, do we build an altar? How do we seek God’s special, manifest presence?
Even though Lloyd-Jones believed Pentecost is the paradigm, in his series on revival he uses Exodus 33 as the key text to illustrate what revival is and how we should seek it. He preached eight sermons on Exodus 33, laying out four essential stages for those who desire revival.
Stage 1: Realizing the Need, Confronting the Sin (Ex. 32:30–33:3)
Moses had to come face to face with the true spiritual condition of the people. He takes responsibility for their spiritual state and collective sin, and he stands in the gap and preaches truth—even if they don’t react favorably. This is exactly what Lloyd-Jones sought to do in the first seven sermons of his revival series.
He began with a sermon on Mark 9:28–29, since he believed the disciples’ failure to heal the demon-possessed boy illustrates the present failure of the church. They don’t realize this kind can only come out through prayer and fasting. The demon is in too deep. Methods and strategies that brought ministerial success in previous generations will not meet the need of the present case.
Stage 2: Mourning the Sin (Ex. 33:4)
The second stage is when the people begin to mourn God’s absence. Once they realize their situation—once they’re confronted with their sin and threatened by God’s absence—they mourn. They will not settle for the promised land without God. They’re awakened to the seriousness of their sin and become convinced all his blessings are useless without his presence. For what good would outward prosperity and affluence be without God? “If you don’t go with us, we don’t go from here,” becomes their cry.
We can build an altar, but only God can send the fire.
The key questions at this stage are “Do we know God? Is he with us? Will God go with us into the land? If he is not really among us, then no matter how lavish the land of milk and honey is, we don’t want it. We don’t want God’s gifts without God’s presence.”
Throughout the series, Lloyd-Jones calls on people to mourn the current state of the church, which is marked by “defective orthodoxy” and, worse, “dead orthodoxy.”
Stage 3: Urgent Prayer and Intercession (Ex. 33:7–17)
That leads to the third stage of revival, which is a season of extraordinary prayer and intercession. Lloyd-Jones breaks down this stage into three steps.
Step one (v. 7) is to set up a “tent of meeting,” a place outside the regular camp to seek God’s face. He saw this as a place of prayer, normally established by only one or two individuals—outside the camp, outside the regular life and rhythm of the church—where they seek God’s presence on behalf of the people. Lloyd-Jones believed that God would often bless those efforts with early indications of his favor. There’s a renewed spiritual warmth, freedom, expectation, and tenderness marking the ordinary means of grace. There’s a new note of urgency in the preaching and agony in the praying. But that was only step one.
Step two would be when more and more people return to the tent of meeting—and begin to plead for more grace and more of God’s presence. They’ve tasted it, but now they want more. What specifically do they want more of? Moses points the way (v. 13).
First, he wants more personal assurance. He’s not content with the knowledge that he’s accepted by God and has found favor in his sight. He wants more. He wants a personal and direct manifestation of God’s love for him. Lloyd-Jones saw this as a common aspect of all revivals; there’s a hunger for deeper knowledge of the personal love of God.
Second, there’s a desire for more power. All the intercessors who are seeking God’s presence are deeply aware of their weakness and powerlessness in the face of the Enemy before them. In real revivals, there’s an intense awareness that apart from Jesus, we can do nothing—and a deep desire not to be apart from him.
Third, he prays for a special authentication of the church’s mission (v. 16). The deep motive for seeking revival is the glory of God displayed in the splendor of the church. And they cry out to God to make the church who she was meant to be: separate, unique, holy, glorious, powerful, and beautiful. She was meant to display the glory of God and embody the gospel so the nations marvel. She is not. She’s weak, battered, broken, and ineffectual. And so they cry out.
The final step of “altar building” is urgent intercession. Moses’s prayers are a model: he’s bold and specific, “arguing” with God and pleading his own promises to him.
Stage 4: Show Me Your Glory: When the Fire Falls (Ex. 33:18–23)
But stage three isn’t the final stage of revival. In fact, you don’t have revival until the fire falls. Moses’s cry “Show me your glory” is the cry of all seeking revival. And the gift of God in response is the gift of what all true revivals are. Moses is only given a partial view, a brief glimpse of God’s glory. But that’s enough, and that’s revival.
Lloyd-Jones saw this as a common aspect of all revivals; there’s a hunger for deeper knowledge of the personal love of God.
Lloyd-Jones believed all true revivals are a repetition of Pentecost, where God pours out his Spirit on his people. But in many ways, Pentecost is a repetition of Sinai. Revival manifests the glorious presence of the living God, but for the many instead of the one. And when it happens to the many, it significantly affects the church and the world. The first sign the fire has fallen is that the church becomes conscious of a presence and a power in her midst. Sometimes this is marked by unique, physical phenomena, but not always. What’s always present is an awareness of a glorious presence, a sense of power and glory.
There’s not only an indescribable sense of God’s manifold presence but also a renewed confidence in God’s truth. The great biblical doctrines of the gospel become explosively real. And though the apostles were shaken and shattered, discouraged and dejected following the crucifixion, after Pentecost they became filled with assurance and confidence, boldly declaring the wonderful works of God. The church becomes filled with great joy, celebration, and thanksgiving.
How do you describe such an experience? Lloyd-Jones tried to describe it to the more than 2,000 in attendance:
What does this mean? Well, we can describe it like this. It is a consciousness of the presence of God, the Holy Spirit, literally, in the midst of the people. Probably most of us who are here have never known that, but that is exactly what is meant by a visitation of God’s Spirit. It is, above all and beyond, the highest experience in the normal life and working of the church. Suddenly, those present in the meeting become aware that someone has come among them; they’re aware of the glory; they are aware of a presence. They cannot define it; they cannot describe it, they cannot put it into words, they just know that they have never known anything like this before. Sometimes they describe it as “days of heaven on earth.” They really feel that they are in heaven. . . . They have forgotten time; they are beyond that; time has no longer any meaning for them. . . . They are in a spiritual realm. God has come down among them and has filled the place and the people with a sense of his glorious presence.
That is revival. A brief glimpse of glory. And how does the world respond? In all the ways it responded at Pentecost. Some mock; some are curious; some cry out for repentance. But there are significant, long-lasting transformations. Churches are built up, people are attracted, the “public houses” are emptied, and worlds are turned upside down.