There are only a few things that go on my weekly prayer list. One of them is revival. I believe God has moved in the past to ignite great awakenings. I believe he can do it again. And I believe Christians would do well to preach and pray for a Christ-centered, God-glorifying, gospel-loving, Spirit-given revival in our own day.

Of course, this begs the question: what is true revival. I’ll come to a definition in a moment, and take tomorrow’s post to say more about the shape of biblical renewal and reformation, but let me start by dispelling a few false notions about revival.

First, revival is not revivalism. Obviously, when you add the “ism” is sounds scary, but I think there is an important distinction to uphold. By revivalism, I mean a man-timed, man-made, man-determined event.  In the early nineteenth century, a profound shift took place.  Whereas before revivals were seen as sovereign works of God that one prayed and fasted for but could not plan, beginning in the 1800s revivals became programmed productions.  You would put up a tent and announce a revival next Thursday.  If you put a new song here, a choir number there, a certain style of preaching, an anxious bench for sinners under conviction, you could be assured of a response.  That is man-made revivalism, not true revival.

Second, revival is not individualism.  By that I mean that a revival is a corporate event.  It is a wonderful thing when God changes a single heart, especially in the midst of many dry bones, but that is not what we are talking about.  When God sends revival, it sweeps through an entire church, or churches, or community, and touches a diversity of people (e.g., young, old, rich, poor, educated, uneducated).  It is not just an individual transformation, as wonderful as that is.

Third, revival is not emotionalism.  To be sure, true revival may have great emotion.  But emotion in itself does not indicate a genuine work of the Spirit. You can raise hands, or stand stiff, weep hysterically, or have a great calm, fall down on the floor, jump up and down, shout Amen, pray loud prayers or soft prayers, feel very spiritual or feel very little.  These are what Jonathan Edwards called “non-signs.”  They don’t say anything one way or the other.  If you lift up your hands when singing a praise song, it may mean that you are enraptured with the love of God, or may mean you have an expressive personality and the music provides a power release.  If you sing a hymn with solemnity and gravity, it may be that you are singing out of profound awe and reverence, or it may mean that your religion is mere formalism and you are actually bored out of your gourd.  True revival is marked by more than the presence or absence of tremendous emotion.

Fourth, revival is not idealism.  Revival does not mean that heaven arrives on earth.  It does not usher in a spiritual utopia.  It does not solve all the church’s problems.  In fact, revival, with all their blessings, usually brings new problems.  There is often controversy. There can be pride and jealousy. There may be suspicion. And besides these works of the flesh, Satan often stirs up counterfeit revivals.  He sows seeds of confusion and deception.  So as much as we ought to long for revival, we should not expect it to be the cure-all for life’s problems, let alone a substitute for decades of quiet, faithful obedience and growth.

So what is true revival?  Here’s my definition: True revival is a sovereign, swift, extraordinary work of God whereby he saves sinners and breathes new life into his people.

  • True revival is a sovereign (dependent on God’s timing, God’s doing, granted according to God’s pleasure)
  • swift (conversions, growth, and change happen relatively quickly)
  • extraordinary (uncommon, surprising)
  • work of God (not ours)
  • whereby he saves sinners (regeneration leading to faith and repentance)
  • and breathes new life into his people (with renewed affections, commitment, and obedience).

One of the best examples of true revival in the Bible is the story of Josiah in 2 Kings 22-23. The story is not a blueprint to duplicate in every respect, especially because Josiah is king over a theocracy. But the story is instructive in so far as it gives us a picture of a sovereign, swift, extraordinary work of God.

We will see what that picture looks like tomorrow.