I was talking to a friend this past week about what I've been studying in regards to revival and it became difficult to describe or even define what a revival is. There are a lot of misconceptions as to what revival is because of the misuse of the word to describe all kinds of strange religious behavior.
Our Catechism that we are using in Sunday School right now answers the question: What is a revival or spiritual awakening?
"Answer: A revival or spiritual awakening is an extra-ordinary work of the Spirit of God upon the people of God in bringing them to renewed spiritual life and also resulting in the spiritual awakening of the unconverted."
As I have been reading multiple books on the subject, let me try to describe what revival is by these commonly used terms:
1. An Outpouring of the Holy Spirit - This terminology comes directly from Scripture, first in the book of Joel and then quoted by Peter at Pentecost: Acts 2:17 And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh.
In some sense, Pentecost was not a revival because the church was not in a state of decline, it was brand new. But in another sense, Pentecost was the prototype of all subsequent revivals because it was the supernatural empowering of a small and weak church that resulted in an explosion and blossoming of Christianity in a very short period of time. I once held that the church was born on Pentecost but after reading John 20:22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost. At this point, I personally think the church was given birth when the Spirit indwelled the disciples after the resurrection, but Pentecost was a great empowering of the church that had some unique "one time only" phenomenon, but similar outpourings of the Spirit would continue to happen to different parts of God's church and in different times, and places. This outpouring resulted in powerful preaching, great boldness, massive amounts of conversions, persecution and a wide spread God-consciousness among all the people, even the unconverted. This is unusual working of God that cannot be considered normative in the life of the church.
2. A Divine Visitation - We know that God is omnipresent and that anytime believers are gathered for worship, the indwelling Holy Spirit is there among them. But a revival is a special presence of God that heightens the awareness of God's people that there is a presence among them that is both glorious and fearful. The Christians of old called these revivals "divine visitations" of God when He would literally come down in a way that manifested great power that could not be ignored or discounted. A description of this kind of visitation is found in this wonderful prayer of Isaiah:
Isaiah 64:1-5 Oh, that You would rend the heavens! That You would come down! That the mountains might shake at Your presence -- 2 As fire burns brushwood, As fire causes water to boil -- To make Your name known to Your adversaries, That the nations may tremble at Your presence! 3 When You did awesome things for which we did not look, You came down, The mountains shook at Your presence. 4 For since the beginning of the world Men have not heard nor perceived by the ear, Nor has the eye seen any God besides You, Who acts for the one who waits for Him. 5 You meet him who rejoices and does righteousness, Who remembers You in Your ways. You are indeed angry, for we have sinned -- In these ways we continue; And we need to be saved.
Notice what is different when God visits His people: metaphorically, the mountains shake, there are wildfires and boiling water! How is this power manifested? The adversaries of God are made aware of God's presence and they stop mocking, and start trembling! In general, awesome things that we cannot even expect, happen for those who wait for God, rejoice in His righteousness and remember His ways for their salvation. All the books on revival contain story after story of incredible things that God did among His people and all these stories hearken back to the days of revival when Jesus was on earth so that John would say: John 21:25 And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
3. Times of Refreshing - Here is another Biblical term that comes from Acts 3:19-20 Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, 20 "and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before.
The word for "times" means appointed and predetermined seasons. Revivals are appointed times of spiritual floods upon a dry land that spring up an abundance of new life. They are preceded by God's people repenting of sin and seeking after God and then at the appointed time, God sends the presence of Jesus Christ in a powerful way that refreshes God's thirsty people. These times of refreshing are determined by a sovereign God and they cannot be planned, manipulated, coerced or worked up. They can only be prayed down.
4. God's People being Saturated with God - This is a description first given by Duncan Campbell in the 1950's when describing the Lewis Revival in Scotland. If the Holy Spirit's outpouring can be compared to water upon a dry place, then revival can certainly be described as a saturation. God's people are thoroughly preoccupied with thoughts of God, the worship of God, the teaching of God's Word and there is little time or concern for anything else, not even food or sleep! It is not uncommon to hear about church services that last all night and dismiss at daybreak. There is an atmosphere of God's presence that it is so electrifying that it cannot be explained even by those who experience it.
5. A Head-on Collision with God's Presence - When God comes down in revival, he makes an impression on His people who experience it that is never erased. Years after the revival has past, those who were there are forever changed and carry the flame of that revival in their hearts all the way to their graves.
6. Days of Heaven upon Earth - Another way to describe revival is to look at the descriptions of worship in heaven and imagine it happening on earth. Whole cities are affected by revival so that crime literally stops, drunkards are fearful to go to the taverns, and there is an unmistakable moral change in society during that time because it is a foretaste of the kingdom rule of God when Jesus will reign upon the earth with a rod of iron. The fellowship of Christians is sweeter than anything that they have ever experienced before. Different denominations gather together in unity and share each other's pulpits, and work together without a partisan spirit.
7. When God takes Control - Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that when God sends revival, He accomplishes more in five minutes than the church has accomplished in fifty years! Missionaries who experienced revivals in Africa and Indonesia said that it was like being a spectator, just watching God gather people, save people, make people repent, restore and reconcile what had been wrong without hardly any of their own effort to encourage it. Charles Spurgeon called it a "divine disorder" because God disrupts all of our schedules, plans and traditions and literally gathers people for worship without announcements and advertisements. Songs are chosen and sermons are preached almost extemporaneously yet with perfect order and beauty.
When we try to attribute many of the regular workings of the church to revival, we really diminish what true revival is. Just because several people get saved, doesn't mean revival is happening. Just because people are gathering to pray doesn't mean revival is happening, just because people are repenting of sin and being reconciled with others, doesn't mean revival is happening, but when revival happens, all these things will most certainly happen. Revival is when God takes what should already be going on in the life of the church and He multiplies it miraculously and suddenly! Sermons that once seemed to have little effect on the hearers become powerful demonstrations of the Spirit speaking to the hearts of His people. The usual work of evangelism becomes so effective that souls are being saved as commonly as silver was found upon the ground in the days of Solomon!
Let me ask you something, Christian...doesn't your heart long for God to show Himself mighty in such a way? I am not trying to discourage the every day routine of the Christian life, because God does most of His work through the routine. But it has been 155 years since this kind of revival has been seen by the Christian Church in our country. Are we going to be content with what we have been able to do in 155 years through our programs, conferences, church planting and evangelism efforts? Look at the condition of our country from 1857 until today...how are we doing? How much more is God's name dishonored today compared to back then? Do you really think that things are just as well or as bad as they were back then? They are probably as bad as they were before the Great Awakening in the 1730's. Don't you see that there is a famine in the land and that the ground in the evangelical/fundamentalist church is dry and parched? I hope you will be encouraged to seek out what God has done in the past and learn to long for it today and then start praying for revival to happen again! The church began in a blaze of glory, perhaps before Christ returns, we will go out in a blaze of glory as well!