Last month we saw that revivals may differ from one another in many respects. Yet there are some characteristics that recur in all revivals, whatever their historical setting and whatever leaders are involved. We now consider four of these characteristics.
Australian historian Stuart Piggin defines revival thus: ‘Revival is a sovereign work of God the Father, consisting of a powerful intensification by Jesus of the Holy Spirit’s normal activity of testifying to the Saviour, accentuating the doctrines of grace, and convicting, converting, regenerating, sanctifying and empowering large numbers of people at the same time, and is therefore a community experience’.
In what follows we focus on three marks of genuine revival drawn from this definition and a fourth based on observations made by Jonathan Edwards. These marks are:
1. Revival is a work in which God takes the initiative and presences himself in power and glory.
2. In times of revival, according to Jonathan Edwards, the Spirit primarily uses the Word of God to impact people powerfully.
3. Revival is a powerful intensification by Jesus of the Holy Spirit’s normal activity of convicting, converting, regenerating, sanctifying and empowering.
4. Revival involves an intensification of the Holy Spirit’s normal activity of testifying to the Saviour – in other words, revival is Christ-centred.
Revival as a work of God
First of all, genuine revival is not something that can be created by ourselves. We may recognise the need of it, but we cannot make it happen. In Piggin’s words, ‘Revival is an outburst of God’s power; it is not a conglomerate of mere human energies’.
Revival must thus be distinguished from evangelism or biblical church-growth strategies. These are important in extending the kingdom of God but they are not revival. Western Evangelicals (especially in North America) need to recognise this, for we fall too easily into pragmatism – ‘if it’s broken we can fix it’.
Accordingly, we hanker after new strategies to bring about revival, but all to no avail.
Genuine revival, being God’s work, comes down from above. And when God so works, there is no mistaking it.
He speaks and there is life. He speaks and the earth and the heavens are shaken. Then is answered that great prayer in Isaiah 64:1-3:
‘Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!’
In the New Testament era – which was both a period of revival and a paradigm for revival – we glimpse this awesome presencing of God in a passage like 1 Corinthians 14:24-25: ‘But if all prophesy and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you’.
Consider the revival that took place in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1734 and 1735. At that time the fact that God is always present and human beings are completely known to him was brought home with inescapable force.
Thus Jonathan Edwards could write in his Faithful narrative: ‘in the spring and summer following,anno 1735, the town seemed to be full of the presence of God’. Edwards proceeded to detail some of the consequences of this awareness.
‘Several persons have had so great a sense of the glory of God, and excellency of Christ, that nature and life has seemed almost to sink under it; and in all probability, if God had showed them a little more of himself, it would have dissolved their frame’.
This awareness of God’s presence in revival deepens humility, kills innate pride, and renders the church more Christ-centred. In a word, in genuine revival the Lord focuses attention on himself.
The Word of God in revival
The New Testament era – when the longing of the Old Testament for the outpouring of the Spirit was realised – can be rightly seen as a time of revival. And during that era the Word of God was central to the Spirit’s work.
On the day of Pentecost, for instance, after Peter had proclaimed God’s Word, we read that his hearers were ‘cut to the heart’ – God’s Word humbled them and brought them under deep conviction.
Hebrews describes the way God lays bare the human heart: ‘For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account’.
The link between the sentences here needs to be noted. It is by his Word that God lays bare the hearts of men and women and children. Again, the apostle Paul asks the Thessalonian church to pray that ‘the word of the Lord may run swiftly’ and overcome all opposition.
In the latter days of the Puritan era in the seventeenth century, when spiritual lethargy was beginning to grip far too many Puritan congregations, a noted English Presbyterian, John Howe (1630-1705), preached a series of fifteen sermons in 1678 on Ezekiel 39:29.
Unless the Spirit is poured forth, Howe asserted, preaching, or the right form of church government, or even the power to do miracles, would be unable to heal the inner decay that was afflicting orthodox Puritan congregations.
‘We are dead, the Spirit of God is … retired in a very great degree … even from Christian assemblies’, Howe bluntly declared. But he pointed to another day ‘when the Spirit shall be poured forth plentifully’. Of that day he said:
‘I believe you will hear much other [i.e. very different] kind of sermons … than you are wont to do now-a-days; souls will surely be dealt withal at another kind of rate.
‘It is plain, too sadly plain, there is a great retraction of the Spirit of God even from us; we [do] not know how to speak living sense [i.e. felt reality] unto souls, how to get within you; our words die in our mouths, or drop and die between you and us.
‘We even faint, when we speak; long experienced unsuccessfulness makes us despond; we speak not as persons that hope to prevail … When such an effusion of the Spirit shall be as is here signified … [ministers] shall know how to speak to better purpose, with more compassion and sense, with more seriousness, with more authority and allurement, than we now find we can’.
This remarkable statement emphasises that in times of spiritual revival, the Word of God and its truths are ardently treasured and earnestly heeded.
And so it proved when revival came in the following century in the 1730s. Jonathan Edwards could say of the Northampton revival of 1734-1735 that while ‘God was so remarkably present amongst us by his Spirit, there was no book so delighted in as the Bible’.
He gives an example. A seventy-year-old woman converted during this awakening, ‘Reading in the New Testament concerning Christ’s sufferings for sinners, seemed to be astonished at what she read, as at a thing that was real and very wonderful, but quite new to her … she wondered within herself, that she had never heard of it before; but then immediately recollected herself, and thought she had often heard of it, and read it, but never till now saw it as a thing real’.
As J. I. Packer notes, in times of revival, the ‘sense of God’s presence imparts new authority to his truth. The message of Scripture which previously was making only a superficial impact, if that, now searches its hearers and readers to the depth of their being’.
A negative illustration of the vital necessity of the Word in revival can be found in the Welsh Revival of 1904-1905. There is no doubt that this revival had a profound impact upon Wales. It is estimated that around 100,000 were converted during a period that saw entire communities transformed almost overnight.
In a recent issue of Grace Magazine Philip Eveson notes, for example, that the managers of the numerous coal pits in Wales ‘reported increased coal output and swearing diminished so much that the old pit ponies were disorientated’.
Moreover, it attracted world-wide interest from places as far away as Canada, South Africa and India. Among the leaders used by God in this revival was Evan Roberts (1878-1951), who undoubtedly was a key catalyst in this work of the Spirit.
However, as the revival progressed, Roberts preached less and less, allowing his meetings to be taken up with singing and testimonies. While these things have their place they must not be allowed to usurp the primacy of preaching the Word.
From this vantage-point, more lasting good would have been achieved if Roberts had preached more and grounded the converts solidly in the Scriptures.