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Revival – 2 – What is true revival?

What is true revival?

Ask twenty Christian lay men and women under the age of fifty and you will likely get twenty different answers, and most of them will be incorrect. The same may said of many in the clergy. Very simply put, revival means to bring the church back to life. Noah Webster’s dictionary of 1828 lists four definitions that are helpful when applied to revival in the biblical sense.

1. Return, recall or recovery to life from death or apparent death; as the revival of a drowned person.
2. Return or recall to activity from a state of languor; as the revival of spirits.
3. Return, recall or recovery from a state of neglect, oblivion, obscurity or depression; as the revival of the letters or learning.
4. Renewed and more active attention to religion; an awakening of men to their spiritual concerns.[1]

Here we see that revival is actually being defined as the opposites of death or apparent spiritual death, languor, neglect, oblivion, obscurity, and depression. Put another way in a spiritual or religious context, revival is spiritual life instead of death, vigor instead of languor, attention instead of neglect, awareness instead of oblivion, prominence instead of obscurity, and joy instead of depression. But, a return to spiritual life in these areas is the result or outcome of true revival, but the terms do not define the true meaning or essence of revival.

The difficulty in defining true revival is that much of the modern evangelical church has never experienced or has forgotten what true revival is and how it occurs. As a consequence, many in the church attempt to artificially stimulate the opposites of spiritual decline which results in a form of godliness that does not rely on the true source of revival—the Holy Spirit. In other words, the church is using the world’s methods to achieve an imitation of revival while remaining oblivious to the true source, nature, and purpose of revival. Jim Cymbala called this “icing, but no cake.”

The exaltation of church growth formulas or denominational names over the power of the Holy Spirit is deeply distressing, and we are no better than the Babylonians making sacrifices to the tools of our trade.

Here is the critical question: What if the things sold to us as solutions over the past two decades—“we’ve got the answer” conferences, leadership books, high-profile pastors with big personalities, and new models of doing church—are really the problem and not the answer?

First, many of the techniques are not found in Scripture. We don’t need more technicians; we simply need more of God.

It is likely that we are seeing a fulfillment of those perilous times that Paul told Timothy about when men would have a form of godliness, but deny the power.

That’s why our churches are so often powerless and Christianity is in decline. God’s answers for us have been replaced by human intelligence, leaving us as dim lights in an increasingly dark world.

The only answer to a lukewarm church or struggling Christian is the same as ever—the fire of the Holy Spirit![2] [emphasis in original]

What happens when the Holy Spirit brings revival?

The Holy Spirit is the source of true revival. But how does true revival occur? Dr. J. Edwin Orr said, “The key factor in revival is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit results in the revival of the church.”[3] Revival is an amazing, unusual, and extraordinary visitation of the Spirit within the church, and these special visitations of God have been provided by His divine providence over the course of the history of His church. But it is also important to understand that individual Christians, apart from a group or church setting, may experience the blessings of revival from an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.[4]

What happens when the there is a visitation of the Spirit in the church or an individual’s life? For an answer we look to the words of Dr. Martyn-Lloyd Jones from his book Revival. Lloyd-Jones was describing the extraordinary happenings that occurred in a revival held by the great eighteenth century evangelist George Whitefield.

God came down. Oh yes, they had been enjoying the presence and blessing of God before, but not like this, something wonderful had happened. God was in the very midst, God came down. That is exactly what happens during revival.

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 all above and beyond the highest experiences in the normal life and working of the Church. Suddenly those present in the meeting become aware that someone has come amongst them, they are aware of a glory, they are aware of a presence. They can not define it, they can not describe it, they can not 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, nor any real existence, they are in a spiritual realm. God has come down amongst them and has filled the place and the people with a sense of his glorious presence.

And, always, of course,…it is also a manifestation of the power of God, not only the glory and the radiance of God’s presence, but especially his power…[5]

We can now define true revival as a sovereign act of God which brings life back to the body of Christ through an extraordinary visitation of the Spirit of God among His people. Simply put, it is God in the midst of His people. More specifically, revival can be said to produce an awakening of the evangelical religion. Sometimes the word “revival” is also “…used to explain the amazing results of an outpouring of the Spirit of God, a visitation of the Holy Spirit, when Christians are revived, sinners are saved, and communities are changed and become God-fearing.”[6]

But revivals invariably bring controversy. Opposition comes from both inside the church and the enemies of Christ outside the church. Satan and his minions will always attempt to infiltrate revivals and hinder the moving of the Holy Spirit. Physical phenomena inevitably occur during revivals when the Holy Spirit touches someone with His convicting power or they experience some other supernatural manifestation of the power of God. Opportunists and exhibitionists (some may be foolish Christians) will be used by Satan in an attempt to imitate the genuine through excesses and deceptions that bring unbelief or reproach to the work of the Holy Spirit. This occurs in all revivals, but the Christian must focus on the glory of God and not the counterfeit excesses and unbiblical practices.[7]

The purposes of God’s special visitations

Lloyd-Jones listed four reasons why God sends revival. First, God sends revival and blessings upon the church for the glory of God. He does this so that all people of the earth may know the hand of the Lord is mighty. His miraculous blessings attract the attention of the saint and sinner alike. We see this in the Old Testament when Joshua and the Israelites crossed the Jordan on dry ground. The Israelites alone represented God, and all other nations were pagan. He did this miracle in order that those unbelievers on the outside who scoff and deride God’s kingdom and His people may be astonished, apprehended, and chastened.[8]

A second reason for revival is that His people will fear the Lord their God forever. When the season of revival has run its course, people have been wonderfully reminded that the living God in all of His power and glory dwells among them. But over time these special visitations of God tend to be forgotten by many in the body of Christ. They begin to see the church as nothing more than an institution or organization. Such a view leads Christians toward an attitude of casualness in their relationship with Him and with casualness comes loss of the fear of the Lord and with loss of fear comes disobedience. This disobedience stems from less reliance on God and greater self-reliance through scholarship and learning, organizing skills, and activities and busy-ness.[9] The loss of fear of the Lord is a particularly distinguishing trait of the modern American church. In other words, they have lost their consciousness of God who dwells among them. When God is no longer feared, the church also loses its reverence for His majesty, power, and holiness. With loss of fear of the Lord, His nature becomes merely utilitarian tool, a part of the furniture of the church that is summoned into service as needed.

The third reason for revival is that when Christians dwell in the full power and presence of God, they are no longer fearful of men. Revival takes the fear of men away from God’s children. They no longer fear the giants in the land when they realize that the living God resides amongst them. Lloyd-Jones described the church’s fear of man in a 1959 sermon, also recorded in his book Revival.

The church is so afraid. She is afraid of organized sin, and her argument is, “We must be doing something because look at the world. It is attracting the young people, it gives them a happy pleasant Saturday night, entertains them, teaches them how to sing and do this and that. Well now we must do the same thing…” The church is so afraid they are going to lose their young people they feel they must do the same. Oh, what a tragedy, what a departure from God’s way…So we trim and modify our gospel, because we are afraid of learning and of knowledge and of science…

There is no need to be afraid of any of these powers…There is nothing new about all of this. The Christian Church has always had to fight the world and the flesh and the devil. And the church has often quaked and feared, but never when there has been revival, because then they know that the living God is among them…[10]

Fifty-eight years after Lloyd-Jones preached this message, we still see the same fear of man gripping the church, but we have substituted today’s seeker for yesterday’s youth of six decades ago. The church now says, “We must be doing something because look at the world. It is attracting the seekers, it gives them a happy pleasant Saturday night, entertains them, teaches them how to sing and do this and that. Well now we must do the same thing…” To avoid offense, the seeker-friendly church offers an ever changing array of attractions and activities for seekers to sample until they find something they like. This is done in lieu of a forthright presentation of the uncompromised Word of the living God and reliance on the convicting power of the Holy Spirit in reaching the lost and dying seeker-sinners in the church’s midst.

The fourth reason for revival is that it delivers us from our enemies. And in every revival that has ever been, deliverance always means praise, adoration, worship, and thanksgiving to God, and an enjoyment of God’s riches by His people.[11]

Revivals in the Old and New Testaments

As described in Chapter 1, the pattern of sin and falling away from God followed by repentance, revival, and restoration of His people is a recurrent theme in the history of God’s dealings with the Israelites in the Old Testament. This pattern is illustrated in Psalm 80 as the author pleads with God to once again revive and restore His chosen people.

Return to us, O God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself. Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire; at your rebuke your people perish. Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself. Then we will not turn away from you; 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. [Psalm 80:14-19. NIV] [emphasis added]

Revival historian Mathew Backholer points out in his book Revival Fires and Awakenings that both the Old and New Testament do not use the term “revival” to describe a spiritual renewal. However, a special visitation of the Holy Spirit that leads to a spiritual renewal can clearly be defined as a revival through “inspired inference” in the light of numerous instances of rebellion, decline, and renewal clearly presented by the events and lives of many individuals and groups in the Bible.”[12]

In the Old Testament, the occurrence of revival was shown by God’s glory coming down such as when King Solomon dedicated the temple (1 Kings 8:10-11 and 2 Chronicles 5:13-14). Old Testament revivals were characterized by mass repentance under God’s conviction and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Backholer listed eight examples of revivals in the Old Testament, all recorded in the books of Genesis, Kings I and 2, and 2 Chronicles. These revivals were generally led by various leaders, prophets, or kings under the influence and direction of the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament the Holy Spirit fell en masse on His people beginning at the Day of Pentecost. Backholer recorded twenty examples of New Testament revivals.[13]

Awakening and Revivals in Church History

One of the great failings of the church during the last one hundred years is its tendency to view the swelling tides of moral and cultural decline in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as something quite new and unique in the history of the church. But as mentioned above, this view occurs because of the church’s fear of organized sin which has led the church to believe that it must develop new techniques and methods, soften the gospel’s message, make certain accommodations for the sinner, and employ modern business practices to meet the world’s challenge on its own terms. But in the words of Martyn Lloyd Jones, “…the man who experiments in the midst of crisis is a fool.”[14]

As a result of this misguided thinking, these modern churchmen ignore the rich history of the church’s past which they believe has nothing to teach them in the modern age. Worse yet, they even ignore the basic teachings of the Bible in their quest to redefine the church and employ the latest and greatest solutions to win the lost. This is self-reliance spoken of above and is the mother of disobedience.

As previously noted, the church is in desperate need of revival, and the nation is in desperate need of a general spiritual awakening which can only come through a revived church. Given the importance of the church’s history of revivals and awakenings during the last three hundred years, that history will be surveyed in the next several chapters.

In American history we can count four revivals that rise to the level of awakenings that spread over many parts of the nation and to other parts of the World. Here we must briefly clarify the difference between a revival and an awakening. Revivals tend to be localized events (church, village, town, or city). An awakening affects a much larger area (district, county, or country), can last for years or decades, and significantly affects the moral standards of a society. Some awakenings continued to be known as revivals such as the Businessmen’s Revival of 1857-58 and the Welsh Revival of 1904-1905, but they still are considered to be broad awakenings.[15]

Although the focus will be on the history of recorded revivals and awakenings, there are many thousands of other revivals and lesser awakenings that have come, run their course, and wonderfully infused life into the affected churches and their congregations for years afterward. The vast majority of these revivals may have been forgotten and have never been recorded in the history books of men, but their eternal consequences have been faithfully written in the annals of heaven.

Larry G. Johnson

Sources:

[1] Noah Webster, “revival,” Noah Webster, American Dictionary of the English Language 1828, Facsimile Edition, (San Francisco, California: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1967, 1995 by Rosalie J. Slater).
[2] Jim Cymbala, Storm-Hearing Jesus for the Times We Live In, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014), pp. 26-28, 79.
[3] Mathew Backholer, Revival Fires and Awakenings-Thirty Six Visitations of the Holy Spirit, (ByFaith Media, 2009, 2012), p. 15.
[4] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Revival, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1987), p. 213.
[5] Ibid., p. 306.
[6] Backholer, Revival Fires and Awakenings, p 11.
[7] Ibid., pp. 9, 13.
[8] Lloyd-Jones, Revival, p. 119.
[9] Ibid., p. 122.
[10] Ibid., pp. 126-127.
[11] Ibid., p. 128.
[12] Backholer, Revival Fires and Awakenings, p. 19.
[13] Ibid., pp. 20-24.
[14] Lloyd-Jones, Revival, p. 24.
[15] Backholer, Revival First and Awakenings, p. 7.

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