Imagine walking into one of those marquee tents so famously found in the circus. Upon entering you are greeted with an extraordinary sight. The man at the front, holding a Bible and excitedly quoting Scripture, is running from one end of the stage to the other. The front row of people is falling backwards as the animated preacher waves his hands over them. Others in the gathering are roaring like lions or bleating like sheep. Another group in the back are laughing hysterically. Still others seem to be speaking in another language. As the service goes on the preacher invites anyone who wants to receive Jesus as their Lord and Saviour to come forward. Out of the three hundred people gathered, fifty are led in prayer and baptized. As the pandemonium subsides, the preacher concludes the service with a prayer thanking God for the revival that has occurred during their time together.
What I have described have been examples of what some people consider to be a revival. In the Toronto Blessing people were overcome with holy laughter and made animal noises. You often see on TV the ‘slaying in the Spirit’. When we pray for and hope for revival is that what we are hoping for? What is a revival biblically and historically? What were the causes of revivals? What would it look like in our day and age?
What is revival?
First of all, we need to get a Biblical definition of what a revival is. Much of the modern church believes that the animal sounds, the holy laughter, the speaking in tongues, and being “slain in the spirit,” are all evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence. They are correct in understanding that revival must manifest the working of the Holy Spirit. However, nowhere in Scripture do we see that the Holy Spirit will show His presence in these ways in this day and age.
If we get back to what the word “revival” means, we see the primary way that the Holy Spirit shows His presence. In a non-religious and non-historical use of the word, “revival” has to do with bringing back to life. This brings us to John 3. In this passage, Nicodemus is told that you must be born again to enter the kingdom of God. The idea that you need to be born again points to conversion, but also to new life. Jesus says that which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Flesh, in the Gospel of John, has to do with our sinful state that is in opposition to God and produces death. Jesus is teaching that the Holy Spirit must bring about new life. Our flesh can only produce that which is opposed to God, but only the Holy Spirit can bring about true life in devotion to God. Upon conversion, we know that the Holy Spirit has been present and there has been a revival in that individual.
I know that when we talk about revival we are not merely discussing an individual coming to faith here or there. However, I think it is helpful to distinguish what I consider to be a true revival in contrast to the variety of events that are called revivals. With this in mind, the very first revival under the new covenant is recorded in Acts 2. There, three thousand souls were added to the church (Acts 2:41). In very short order, the church went from about one hundred and twenty (1:15) to about five thousand (4:4). Here we see the Spirit bringing true revival through conversion, new life, and regeneration.
Now some of you might point out that speaking in tongues, in this case, was also evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence. I do not have space for all the details but note the two wonderful things happening here. Some of the events are repeatable, such as the conversions to Christ. Others are not repeatable. For example, never again do you see tongues of fire fall upon people. Also, speaking in tongues was one of hearing not of speaking. Everyone heard in their language. The disciples were not speaking in some foreign ecstatic language. The tongues in this particular case served to help people understand and hear the word of the Lord and be saved!
Other revivals in history also have been linked and shared the same pattern of mass conversions as evidence of the Spirit’s manifestation. One of the most well-known revivals in history, occurring both in America and England, was called the Great Awakening. During the Great Awakening, some have suggested that there were between 20,000 to 50,000 members added to the New England Churches in America.1 Other historians record that George Whitfield preached to “crowds of up to 8,000 people nearly every day for over a month.”2
However, throughout history, these great revivals also evidenced themselves in another way. Not only were there new converts, but also a greater devotion and zeal by those who were already a part of the church. Therefore, I would conclude along with Sinclair Ferguson that a revival is “when professing believers are aroused and non-Christians are brought into the kingdom in large numbers, each with an individual sense of sin and need, but in the context of a widespread sense of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.”3
God’s great means for revival:
Now that we know what a revival is let’s consider how these revivals occurred. Because when we read about these revivals, we are so often asking ourselves the question why did this happen? Why doesn’t it happen in our day? What were the causes that brought revival? Maybe we can imitate them and bring about a revival for our own country. Charles Spurgeon, a man who has been heralded as one of the great revivalists, preached to his congregation of about six thousand a sermon titled “Preparation For Revival.”4 In this sermon from Amos 3:3, Spurgeon points out that to have the Lord with us, “we must be agreed as to the means to be used in revival.” The means are the instruments that God ordinarily uses to achieve His purpose.
One of the means Spurgeon mentions is the Holy Spirit as the agent that brings about revival. Revival doesn’t come about by any ability of man. People aren’t converted because of how persuasive we are, or our ability to work the crowd up into a fervour. Instead, revival is the work of the Holy Spirit. Consider the words of Jesus to Nicodemus again. After telling Nicodemus he must be born again, Jesus says:
“The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (Joh 3:5-8 NASB)
Doesn’t this speak to our utter helplessness in controlling God? I don’t bring this up to discourage you, or to then absolve us of the blame for the lack of revival in our society. I bring it up to point out the second means that God uses which is prayer.
Spurgeon recounts speaking with a minister whose denomination and church had not grown over the past year. Despite having the most wealth, ministers who have never been so well educated, and the most beautiful chapels to worship in, they were unable to bring in new members. Spurgeon asked him, “What are you doing?” The pastor’s answer: “It has driven us to our knees.” Prayer is a great means for revival because it turns to God who can bring revival and be pleased to answer that prayer.
Even the disciples, who had been promised the Holy Spirit, were preparing for revival by praying. Fergusson views Pentecost as the inaugural revival of the New Testament epoch.5 As you can see in Acts 1, one of the key things that the disciples are doing between the time of the ascension and the day of Pentecost is gathering together in prayer.6 The disciples were very likely following the command of Jesus to ask God for the Holy Spirit.7 They were promised it and yet they prayed for it knowing that God uses the means of prayer.
Spurgeon also points out that the primary means that God uses is the preaching of Christ. Again, if you think about the central message of Peter’s first sermon at Pentecost, Peter proclaims to the people that what they see and hear is the fulfilment of God’s word through the ascended Lord Jesus Christ, whom they had crucified. At the very heart of Peter’s message and those first sermons was the call to repent and believe in the name of Jesus Christ, for “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”8
God,then, has three primary means to bring about revival: the agency of His Holy Spirit, the preaching of the word of God, and the prayers of His people. Therefore, we need to trust God’s means for change in people’s hearts and lives. We should not turn to man’s wealth or charisma to bring about revival.
What would revival look like today?
Having now looked at what a revival is and the means that God uses to bring about revival, let’s now consider what revival looks like. What are the fruit and outcomes of revival?
Let me encourage you to take a moment and imagine what revival might look like in New Zealand. This was the question I was asked to consider as I wrote this article. Perhaps I lack a strong imagination, but I found this a really difficult task. Of course, most of us will imagine our church buildings full. My reaction to this is good but why not bigger, why not imagine that we need to do tent meetings, as we don’t have enough room in our churches. However, it seemed that was the extent of what I could imagine for a revival.
I asked someone else what they thought revival could look like in New Zealand. This person had pointed out that they had read somewhere that in towns after George Whitfield had preached and the people had experienced the Great Awakening, a person could leave a bar of gold on his front porch and it would remain there all day. Put another way, not only did the church grow but society as a whole became less sinful.
Yet, when I look at the first revival and the effect of the Holy Spirit’s powerful presence, it didn’t lift society to a higher standard but brought about the persecution of the church. Society hated the message of Christ and the growth that the church was experiencing. However, I think we can see certain things that are outcomes of a revival.
Jesus tells his disciples that when the Spirit comes,“He will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement.”9 In Acts 2, we see a close relationship between Jesus’ promise concerning the Holy Spirit and the fulfilment of that promise. Following Peter’s sermon, Luke records that those who heard his sermon were “pierced to the heart.”One of the lesser-known revivals, sometimes called the Red River Revival, experienced this very thing. There was such a deep conviction of sin that many would collapse in sorrow. Some have even commented that this is where the term “slain in the Spirit” originated.10 It wasn’t some mystical knocking people over, but heavy grief over sin that caused the person to collapse. If New Zealand were to experience revival today, then I think people would be confronted with their sin and convicted. Those who believe will repent, but for those who do not believe, it will more likely lead to anger or hatred. Much like the religious rulers who were unwilling to confess their sins, and zealously persecuted the early Church. Listen to these words of Paul:
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things? For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God. (2 Cor 2:14-17)
Ferguson describes it this way,“We might say that revival is the unstopping of the pent up energies of the Spirit of God breaking down the dams which have been erected against his convicting and converting ministry in whole communities of individuals, as happened at Pentecost and in the ‘awakenings’ which have followed.”11 Revivals, then, evidence themselves in society by church growth and members being added to the church.
However, one of the things that Spurgeon points out in his sermon is that the church itself must be aroused to have a love for the lost. They must be agreed with God who says, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” declares the Lord GOD. “Therefore, repent and live.”12
Do we share the tears of Jesus who wept over those who had rejected him? Do we share in the grief of God that men perish without knowing him because he does “not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance”?13
Finally, the description in Acts 2:42 ought to show us that revival brings about a church that is devoted. And they are united by that devotion. True revivals lead to churches being full, not believers who only pray a sinner’s prayer and never commit to their fellow believers. God gathers us out of the world and into the church. The outworking of the Holy Spirit being poured out bore the fruit of unity, so much so that there were no needs in the congregation. There was fellowship with one another.
This fellowship was particularly around the teachings of the Apostles. They were devoted to sitting at the apostles’ feet to learn all that Jesus did and taught. Revival would mean a renewed zeal and love for God’s Word. So many so-called revivals today revolve around heightened emotions. The Scriptures point out that a true revival drives us to the Word, to the church and fellowship, and to prayer.
Again Acts 2:42 stresses that the first mass conversion by the power of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost drove them to prayer. Not only was the revival founded on prayer, but it also led to prayer. A mark of a true revival then leads to prayer. If your imagination of revival in New Zealand doesn’t include the church with one voice praying to God, then it isn’t a true revival.
Revivals are not without controversy. They “seem to have mixed consequences and even be mixed in character, being open to destructive influences of spiritual pride and wrong-headedness, as in Corinth.”14 If we look at the Bible’s understanding of revival, we can discern the good from the bad. We can seek His face to bring about a real revival in our society and country and throughout the world.
1 Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (Garden City, N.Y: Image Books, 1975), 287.
2 Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992), 91.
3 Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 90.
4 You can find and download this sermon for free at https://www.chapellibrary.org/book/revi/revival–three-revival-sermons-spurgeoncharlesh
5 Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 90.
6 Acts 1:14;
7 Luke 11:9-13
8 Acts 4:12
9 John 16:8
11 Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 90.
12 Ezekiel 18:32
13 2 Peter 3:9
14 Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 90.
Mr Aaron Warner is the minister of the Palmerston North Reformed Church.
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