Praying for revival
by Stan K. Evers
Why are we not experiencing revival in the 21st century? The question was prompted in my mind when I was preparing a lecture on John Berridge, a friend of the 18th century evangelists George Whitefield and John Wesley.
By revival, I mean an extraordinary sense of God’s presence among his people that compels unbelievers to seek Christ. Berridge felt God’s presence in an unusual way in the small Bedfordshire village of Everton. So why are so few of our churches seeing revival now? Let me suggest three answers.
Firstly, God is sovereign – he chooses when to pour out his Holy Spirit in revival and when to withhold this blessing. We cannot manufacture revival by human effort or contrivance.
Secondly, God’s usual method of building his church is to save souls through the faithful labours of his people in times that are ‘ordinary’ and ‘unexceptional’. However, there are times when God the Holy Spirit comes in mighty power on the preaching of his Word and saves hundreds within a short period.
Thirdly, perhaps we are not seeing revival because we do not expect it. Do we long for the felt presence of God among us? Do we expect anything to happen when we meet for worship? Is our unbelief hindering God coming in power among us?
A description of revival
With these things in view my thoughts turned to 2 Chronicles 7 (all subsequent references to 2 Chronicles are given as numbers only). Verse 14 reads, ‘If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land’.
We have to take care with this verse because at first sight it seems out of place – injecting a jarring note into the joy expressed in the preceding verses at the dedication of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. Preachers have delivered sermons from these words without any reference to this context.
We need to understand that the opening verses of chapter 7 are a description of revival, exemplified by Solomon’s humble prayer (chapter 6) and the fire of God descending on the burnt offering (7:1, 3). Verse 14 can then be taken to mean, ‘You see what happens when my people really do humble themselves and pray and seek my face …? I hear them from heaven. I forgive their sins and heal their land!’
Praying for a sovereign work
Furthermore, we read in 7:1-3 that ‘the glory of the Lord filled the temple’. God’s temple is now his church (Ephesians 2:19-22). Do we long for God to come and reveal his glory through us?
If so, we should pray with Isaiah, ‘Oh that you would rend the heavens! That you would come down! That the mountains might shake at your presence. As fire burns brushwood, as fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, that the nations may tremble’ (Isaiah 64:1-2).
But is there any point in praying for revival? Won’t it just come if God so chooses – or not, as the case may be? What difference can prayer make to a sovereign work of God? The book of Acts helps our thinking here.
The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost had been promised and the disciples had been told to wait for this empowering to be bestowed in a sovereign manner (Acts 1:8). So, was there nothing for them to do except twiddle their thumbs and hang around till something happened?
Not at all! They united in persistent prayer until the Holy Spirit came like fire (Acts 1:14; 2:1-4). Obviously, their prayer did not make Pentecost happen. That was foreordained. But their prayer did express a fervent desire and readiness for the outpouring of the Spirit.
What happens when God comes down? There is awe – the people ‘bowed down their faces as they worshipped and praised the Lord’. The focus of their worship was God and his mercy – ‘For he is good, for his mercy endures for ever’ (7:3). Revival always debases men and exalts God.
The worshippers then offered further sacrifices (vv. 4-9). Offering ourselves as living sacrifices is fundamental biblical discipleship (Romans 12:1-2). Too often today there is a lack of such commitment to Christ and to his church.
Revival brings renewed consecration to God. It brings fresh zeal and a new appetite for spiritual things. New fervour brings joy (v.10). A reading of the Acts of the Apostles reveals that joy, even in persecution, was a hallmark of the early church following the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Sin hinders revival
After the joyful worship and exuberant praise (7:1-10) the mood changes to serious warning and the need to pray for God’s presence. God accepts Solomon’s worship and service (v.12) and then talks about withholding the rain and commanding the locusts to devour the land (v.13).
The message of verse 13 is that sin among God’s people brings punishment. God reiterates this point in verses 17, 19-20 and 22. Sadly, the time would come when Solomon and the nation would forget these warnings and the promise of verse 14. Their disobedience led to a divided kingdom and their eventual removal from the land of promise (though, of course, a remnant returned to rebuild the temple following its destruction by Nebuchad-nezzar).
A prayer for revival
Returning to verse 14, we find four things to help us pray for revival.
First, we are to remember our relationship with God: ‘My people, who are called by my name’. God has chosen and redeemed us so that we might serve him in a wicked world by our lives and by our lips. Revival begins with God’s people; it is the reviving of life that already exists.
Second, we are to humble ourselves – ‘If my people … will humble themselves’. This involves realising our helplessness and inability to reach the lost despite all our evangelistic efforts.
Third, we are to pray and seek God’s face: ‘If my people … pray and seek my face’. We must earnestly seek God, as Jacob wrestled with the angel (Genesis 32:22-31). Is this how you – and your church – prays?
Fourth, we are to repent – ‘If my people … turn from their wicked ways’. Without repentance, prayer is an empty sham. Isaiah tells us how to repent – ‘Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near, let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon’ (Isaiah 55:6-7).
How does God respond to this kind of praying? In two ways. Firstly, he says, ‘I will hear and will forgive their sin’. God delights to hear and forgive because he is a God of mercy.
Secondly, he says, ‘I will … heal their land’. For the Jews this meant rain and a good harvest. For us it means that God’s blessing will both enrich the church and flow from it to the community.
It is easy to relate stories of revival from the past, such as the Evangelical Awakening of the 18th century and the 1859 revival in the 19th century, but what about today? Do we have an example of revival from the 21st century? Yes, we do.
In February 2007 Evangelical Times carried a front-page article on Berean Baptist Church in Grand Blanc, Michigan. The features of revival seen in 2 Chronicles 7 are evident in this remarkable work of God’s Spirit.
Over the last six years God has saved hundreds who are eager to hear biblical preaching and to read Reformed books. The members show love and joy, besides a concern to reach unconverted friends and neighbours. John Blanchard said he had seldom known such hunger for the Word during nearly half a century of ministry.
There have been none of the phenomena often associated with revival, such as people disturbing the services or all-night prayer meetings. So is this church experiencing a genuine revival?
The February article replies, ‘If by “revival” we mean the manifestation of the power of God in regenerating many hundreds of sinners and grounding them firmly in the faith of Christ – where previously no such harvest had been reaped – then this is revival’.
This work of God’s Spirit has been dubbed ‘a quiet revival’ but is nevertheless a true revival according to the criteria of 2 Chronicles 7. The result of revival, past and present, is that God is glorified and Christ exalted.