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What is true revival?

September 1997 | by Liam Cleary

Every true believer desires to proclaim the gospel to all and see evidences of a work of the Holy Spirit in bringing sinners to repentance and faith in Christ as Saviour and Lord.

This God has done in the past when there were undoubtedly periods of great blessing in revival. We see such an outpouring in the Acts of the Apostles, when many churches were planted and prospered amid persecution. On at least one occasion 3000 people were converted at one meeting (Acts 2:41). The same is true of the Reformation period, when God greatly blessed the witness and service of Luther, Calvin and many others. On a lesser scale, the USA saw revival under the preaching of such men as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and Asahel Nettleton. Similar outpourings of the Spirit have also been in evidence in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United Kingdom.

Jonathan Edwards
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Reproducing revival

These can rightly be called times of revival, but one of the problems today is that many people equate revival with extraordinary phenomena and give a lot of credence to great emotional experiences and testimonies of people who claim to have experienced them. However, similar phenomena are evident around the world in religions which do not even claim to be Christian. The author has been in areas where those who practise pagan religions fall into trances, drop to the ground, speak in tongues, perform ‘miracles’ with floods of tears and deep emotion as they call on their gods. Let us be careful how we look back through the mists of history, or interpret contemporary reports. We must go to Scripture to find out what true revival is.

A biblical revival

In the days of the young King Josiah, there was a revival of true religion in the nation of Israel (2 Chronicles 34 & 35). In spite of God’s rich mercies to his covenant people they frequently forsook his ways and followed the surrounding nations in their false worship. In the days of Josiah, God intervened, and brought them back to himself and the whole nation was transformed. How was this accomplished?

1. There was a rediscovery of God’s Word (2 Chronicles 34:14-18).

In the ruins of the abandoned temple workmen found ‘a book of the law of the Lord given by Moses’. Having brought it to the king, they listened as it was read. This was the beginning of the revival which transformed the nation.

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At the origin and at the centre of all true revival we should find the Word of God. Emotional experiences may be real, but they can be created by psychological manipulation. Where there is true revival, the Word of God, the Scriptures, are faithfully and clearly preached. This is the only revelation which God has given us for today. If we want to hear him speaking, it is to his Word that we should look.

Where personalities, preachers, singing groups or anything else other than God’s inspired word take the primary place, we can be sure that we are not seeing true revival.

2. There was a desire for truth (2 Chronicles 34:21).

Josiah wanted to know the truth and he sent messengers to ‘inquire of the Lord’.

Where God’s Spirit is at work, there is a desire for truth, not just phenomena or emotion. True revival will produce a sincere desire and hunger for God’s Word. When Christ prayed for his people, he said, ‘Sanctify them by your truth: your word is truth’ (John 17:17). Where there is a true work of grace believers will want to be fed. They will read Scripture for themselves, go where they are faithfully preached and taught, and meet with God’s people to study God’s Word and learn more about the one who has saved them by his grace.

3. There is evidence of true repentance (2 Chronicles 34:19).

When Josiah heard the words of the Law, we are told that ‘he tore his clothes’, an outward sign of heartfelt repentance.

True repentance is not just being sorry because of the consequences of our sins. The drunkard who ruins his family, the criminal who ends up in prison, the unmarried couple who find themselves with an unwanted child may regret the consequences of their actions, but this is not biblical repentance. This goes back, not simply to the act, but to the reason for the act: our sinful nature and the offence we have caused to a just and righteous God. David is clear on this point in his penitential prayer in Psalm 51. He had certainly wronged Uriah and Bathsheba, but it was against God that he had sinned, and he knew it: ‘Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight; that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge.’ (Psalm 51:4).

True repentance also involves a determination, by God’s grace, to forsake sin and take action to do so. There are many people who have had real emotional experiences in what have been classified as ‘revivals’, who manifest little or no change of life and heart. Speaking about true believers Paul says: ‘How shall we who are dead to sin live any longer therein?’ (Romans 6:2). It is impossible, and when people talk about revival this is what we look for — true repentance.

It has been reported that a Scottish minister visited Wales during the 1904 revival. Reflecting on that visit he said, ‘I spent two weeks watching, experiencing, drinking in, having my own heart searched, comparing my method with that of the Holy Ghost; and then I returned to my people in Edinburgh to tell what I had seen. In Wales I saw the people had learned to sing in a way that to me was new. I never heard such singing as theirs…’

If a change in method and singing are what we call revival, it certainly does not match up to the biblical norm of what happened in the days of Josiah. There was true repentance and clear evidence of changed hearts.

4. There is a rediscovery of the centrality of Christ (2 Chronicles 35:1-3).

It is true that Josiah lived many centuries before the birth of Christ, but the first thing he did after God revealed himself to him through the reading of the Law was to put Christ back into the centre of their worship: the temple.

a. The Ark was put back in the Holy of Holies. It should never have left there, but Josiah made sure that one of the first things he did was to put it back in its rightful place.

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In the Ark were objects which represented Christ. The tables of the Law: perfectly fulfilled by Christ on behalf of his elect; Aaron’s rod which budded: symbolizing the leadership, the good Shepherd whom his sheep will follow; manna: food which God had miraculously supplied to his people. Christ, we are told is our ‘bread of life’. On him alone we feed and are satisfied. Over and above it all was the blood-sprinkled mercy seat, where God met with his people. All this represents Christ.

When putting the Ark back in its rightful place in the temple, Josiah made it clear what this symbolized: ‘It shall no longer be a burden on your shoulders’ (2 Chronicles 35:3). Our salvation is in Christ. It is not a burden on our shoulders. We cast all our burdens on him, for he cares for us (1 Pet.5:7).

b. The Passover was restored (2 Chronicles 35:1). This is most certainly a picture of Christ. As the first-born in Israel were saved through the sprinkled blood of the sacrificed lamb, so sinners are saved through the redemptive work of the Son of God.

Superfluous phenomena

In true revival Christ is preached and people see him alone. They do not come away simply with impressions of good singing, rivers of tears, high emotions, evidences of inexplicable phenomena. What they see is their sinful condition in the sight of a holy and just God, and Christ as their only hope and Saviour. Phenomena and emotions are superfluous and dispensable: Christ is central.

If this is true (and it is), revival is God’s work and we do not need to run around the world looking for men who can bring revival to our church and town. We look to God alone in prayer for his sovereign and merciful dealings.

Working to produce results

We can be so fixed in our ideas of what we expect to see in revival that we can work to produce the results and effects we expect. There is a report of a meeting which took place after a Sunday service during the 1904/05 revival in Wales which illustrates the point. At 11.00p.m. all who wanted to leave had left. The doors were then closed and the speaker said: ‘We are not going to leave this meeting tonight until the Holy Spirit is poured out. I want each one of you to pray this short prayer, “O Lord, send the Spirit now, for Jesus”’ sake.’ Everybody prayed as requested, but the speaker was not satisfied that the Spirit had come and ordered the procedure to be repeated. He was still not satisfied and added, ‘We are not going to leave this meeting tonight until the Holy Spirit has descended. We will start again.’ Eventually one young woman broke down in tears, calling on the Lord. Others prayed, sighed or wept. The speaker was now satisfied and said: ‘That’s it, the Holy Spirit has come. Now we can go home from the meeting happy and rejoicing.’ The meeting finally ended around 2.00a.m.

This may not be typical of what happened during the Welsh revival, but it certainly does happen, even today. Imagine an eye-witness coming away with a report of how the Spirit had fallen on a meeting which lasted from 11.00p.m. until after 2.00a.m. the following morning. ‘People were broken. There was weeping, praying, sighing and calling on the Lord.’ It sounds good, but was it true revival? Not if we go by the biblical norm which we find in the revival which took place in Josiah’s day.

God-centred

True revival is God-centred, not man-centred. We cannot claim that there is true revival where the message is man-centred, which is the case in so much of the preaching we hear today. People are told that they should come to Christ if they have family problems, financial or professional problems, or if they need healing and uplifting. They are also told that God has done all he can to save all sinners, and that the rest is up to them. This is not the gospel. Salvation is of the Lord, from beginning to end. It is true that God can sovereignly use even those who do not preach the true gospel, but where there is a real work of grace and true revival Christ is at the centre and the sovereign God is glorified. As a result the churches will be blessed and God will be all the more glorified.

Let us beware that we are not ‘taken in’ by much of what is called revival today. Take heed to John’s warning: ‘Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world’ (1 John 4:1).