Why revivals stop
Studies of revivals sometimes look at what causes revivals to stop. The usual answer given is that sins in the church like fanaticism, disunity and pride so grieve the Holy Spirit that he withdraws his gracious influences.
But that explanation has its limitations. If sin is the fundamental obstacle, although biblically relevant, there would never be any revival in the first place! And, by definition, awakenings begin with churches that are spiritually impoverished.
Moreover, even insightful theologians cannot plumb the mind of the Spirit as to exactly why a particular revival stopped. For ‘who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?’ (Romans 11:34).
But we can be sure that the God who starts revivals stops them as well.
Ecclesiastes 3 opens up a fresh angle on this question. Verse 1 tells us that ‘to everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven’; and verse 11 affirms that God ‘has made everything beautiful in its time’. There is something ‘beautiful’ even in the ending of a revival!
That may sound perverse, unless we have a large framework of thought to make sense of the conundrum. Maybe the eighteenth century, New England theologian, Jonathan Edwards, provides us with that framework?
In 1739, he preached a sermon in Northampton, Massachusetts, on which he subsequently based his treatise History of redemption. In this he surveyed the history of redemption from the fall of Adam to the end of the world and sought to demonstrate that allhistory is subservient to Christ’s work of redemption. In other words, every act of God in Christ has soteriological (saving) purposes.
Take, for example, the post-diluvial shortening of human life: ‘If men’s lives were still commonly about nine hundred years, how much less would be the inducement to regard the proffers of a future life; how much greater the temptation to rest in the things of this world, and to neglect any other life but this!’
Or, on angels being created before man: Hebrews 1:14 reveals that the angels’ function is to minister to the heirs of salvation. So God was preparing for man’s salvation, even before Adam fell. In this way Edwards builds his case.
As we apply Edwards’ thesis to the cessation of revivals, we can infer soteriological purposes even if we cannot easily discern what these purposes are.
But maybe there are clues within Scripture on that matter too. Consider briefly another of Edwards’ treatises – called (for short) A humble attempt. This argues, from the wording of several OT prophecies like Zechariah 8:20-22 and Isaiah 2:1-5, that there will be a universal revival or ‘golden age’ filling the whole earth before Christ returns.
‘It is certain, that many things, which are spoken [in the OT] concerning a glorious time of the church’s enlargement and prosperity in the latter days, have never yet been fulfilled. There has never yet been any propagation and prevalence of religion, in any wise, of that extent and universality which the prophecies represent’.
As we extend Edwards’ logic here, we see that all revivals, patterned as they are on Pentecost, are only anticipations of the universal outpouring of the Spirit yet to come. It is only when that ‘big one’ arrives that the earth shall truly be ‘filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea’ (Habakkuk 2:14).
Lesser revivals, if continued for long, would hinder the church’s desire and prayers for the revival par excellence. And, as God has chosen to work in redemption history in response to the prayers of his people, these revivals have end-points that excite more prayer for greater blessing. This is why revivals stop.
The only way we will know beyond all doubt that Jonathan Edwards was right about this golden age will be when it happens! But even if he was wrong, all blessing still lies in the hand of a sovereign God, who is willing for Christ’s sake to hear the prayers of his people (Isaiah 62:6-7; Luke 11:5-13).